January 25, 2009
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus using a word we have heard countless times, but maybe haven’t really thought about too often. That word is “repent.” I think in our contemporary Christian society, we have found this word hijacked by some of the fundamentalists in our churches. Repent is often seen as a shaming word. We seem to hear it only in the context of “repenting” of our sins. Certainly that’s a correct usage of the word. When we turn from our sins—from all the wrongdoings we’ve done in life—we are repenting.
But I think it’s a good thing to examine the word a bit closer and see it in a context all of its own. The Greek word we find in this Gospel is μετανοειτε (metanoiein), which means to change our mind. But the word Jesus probably used was the Hebrew word, Shubh, which Reginald Fuller translates as “to turn around 180 degrees, to reorient one’s whole attitude toward Yahweh in the face of the God’s coming kingdom.”
When we approach this word with this definition, all of a sudden it takes on a whole new meaning and attitude. What is Jesus telling us to do? Jesus is telling us we must turn round and face God. We must adjust our thinking away from all the worldly things we find ourselves swallowed up within and focus our vision on God. Or, rather, we should adjust our thinking, our vision, of the world, within the context of God. However you want to look at it, is about seeing anew. It is about changing the way we think and see and do things.
As you can imagine, this kind of command isn’t a popular one. We don’t like change of this sort. We are a complacent lot for the most part. We enjoy our predicable, daily lives. I am the most guilty of this. I find a certain comfort in my daily schedule. I get up, I get ready for work, I pray Morning Prayer, I take my vitamins, I go to work. I have my lunch, I work some more, I come home, I pray Evening Prayer, I watch TV, I go to bed. It’s not very exciting. But it is comfortable. And it’s easy. So when things come along that disrupt that schedule, I find myself slightly resentful. I find myself grumbling under my breath, or wishing quietly that I was doing my usual schedule. In those complacent moments, I don’t find myself thinking too deeply about God…or anything else for that matter.
This of course brings up probably our biggest point. For the most part, we don’t think. We don’t have rational, concentrated thoughts about our faith or the world. We are usually thinking about what is before us. We are thinking about what we are going to do next, what we are going to eat or drink for lunch or supper. We think about what our children are doing or not doing or about what our spouses are doing or not doing, or about the work at hand. We are thinking about what needs to be thought about at that moment. In that crush of thoughts, thoughts of God don’t come up so easily.
What Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel is, when he tells us to repent, is, essentially, this: He is telling us to mindful. Be mindful of God. Be mindful of the good news. Be aware.
As some of you know, I have had a deep interest in Zen Buddhism since my early 20s. For me, Zen is more than just a religion. It is a philosophy—it is a perception, a way of seeing things. In Zen Buddhism, the basic thinking is that one should be aware of this one present moment. This moment that we are living in, right now, is all we know for certain. The problem with it is that as soon as we recognize as such, it has escaped us and is gone. We can’t capture this one moment. We can’t pin it down. We can’t claim it and wish it would stay, frozen in time. Because as soon as we even begin to think that way, we find it has escape us. We are simply hoping after a swift and elusive ghost. In Zen Buddhism, one practices Zen very simply. One just sits. The sitting is called zazen. One sits, very straight, usually in what is called the full (of half) lotus position, which involves folding the legs in particular way. One centers one body, usually by finding the spiritual center, which is called masa, located in the general vicinity of the navel. One then just clears one’s mind.
You can usually count your breaths to center yourself. As one breathes, one counts.
Inhale, exhale, one.
Inhale, exhale, Two.
Inhale, exhale, three.
And so on until one reaches ten. Then one starts all over again. Now as you can imagine, as one follows this kind of meditation, distracting thoughts are going to come in. Most Zen Masters instruct their disciples not to worry about those distracting thoughts. Of course they’ll come. But the key is not to attach one’s self to them. Let them come and let them go. Let them flow throughout your sitting like clouds. Above all, the master will instruct the student that one should be mindful of that one moment one is living in. One should simply be aware of it. One should live it fully while one has it. And then let it go and live the next moment fully and completely.
A very popular image in Zen Buddhism is that of a fish. A fish is seen as something that never sleeps. It is always awake. As such is held up as symbol of a truly enlightened person. It is a symbol of the goal of what one does in Zen. Like a fish, one should always be awake and aware.
What we find here is a very simple lesson in how to live fully and completely. Essentially, this is what Jesus is telling us as well. Repent. Wake up. Turn around and see. God is here. He is saying to us, Stop living foggy, complacent lives. Repent. He is saying, Quit being drones, mindlessly going about your duties. Wake up and think. Open your eyes and see. God has come among you. God is here, speaking to you words of joy and gladness. Listen. Hear what God is saying. Look. See God walking in your midst. And when we see God, when we hear God speaking to us through Jesus, we find that we too want to do what those disciples in our Gospel reading for today did. We want o follow after him. We want to be followers of Jesus.
Being followers of Jesus means that we are awake and we see. So truly follow Jesus in your life. You don’t need to do it in a flamboyant fashion. You can truly follow Jesus by being spiritually awake. You can follow Jesus by allowing yourself to spiritually see. And when we hear and see, when we become, in a sense, fish—awake, aware, not sleep spiritually—then we can become truly effective fishers.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
January 25, 2009
Sunday, January 18, 2009
1 Samuel 3.1-20; John 1.43-51
In my life, I know for certain that I have been called twice. Not yet three or four times, like the prophet Samuel. But twice. And, like Samuel, I was just a boy the first time I was called.
The first time was in late May, 1983. I was thirteen years old. I was Lutheran. And I was walking in, of all places, a cemetery. Some of you have heard this story before, but it’s one that is so much a part of who I am and where I’ve come from that I will probably tell the story again and again until my dying day. That day I didn’t hear a voice, like Samuel. No one called my name. And I don’t think I ever audibly said, “Here I am!” But the fact was, that day, I knew God wanted me to be a priest. Of course I didn’t know what kind of priest. The only priests I knew of at that age were Roman Catholic priest, so naturally, I thought I was called to be a Roman Catholic priest.
Now, let me say this to you before we go any further: I give my poor parents a lot of credit. They indulged me through many things in my life. But I think this one was one of the hardest for them. Good Lutherans that they are, it must’ve been hard to have their youngest son announce one day that he wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. But they were troopers. They helped as much as they could.
And as time went on, I realized that maybe this wasn’t quite what I was supposed to do. The priesthood felt right. I knew in my core—in my bones—that I was meant to be a priest. But Roman Catholicism didn’t quite gel with me. I tried to do what I could to be a good Roman Catholic. I loved the Eucharist. I loved the Mass. I loved Our Lady and the saints. But there were other things I just couldn’t “get.” Confession and the Pope and the fact that women couldn’t be ordained priests and a wide variety of other issues eventually became wedges that I simply could not maneuver around and before I knew it, I was in my late teens and I no longer wanted to be a Catholic priest anymore. The calling, I realize now, was still there. But I didn’t know, at that time, that being Catholic wasn’t the exclusive territory of Rome. Only later, when I discovered the Episcopal Church (here at St. Stephen’s) and even later something called Anglo Catholicism did I find myself finally comfortable with Catholicism once again.
Which leads me to the second time I was called. This month it will be ten years since I was called a second time to become a priest. In late January, 1999, after years of fighting it, and denying it and pretending it wasn’t so, I finally gave into that nagging, persistent, sometimes frustrating call to be a priest. I remember it as though it were yesterday. It came upon me suddenly and with the force of a hurricane. Or a blizzard.
I was, at the time, finishing graduate school and was looking ahead to my life beyond school. I had applied for a couple of teaching positions. My third book of poems, which was actually my Master’s thesis, was about to be published. The future was looking particularly bright. I was legitimately excited about it. I had sent out my Vita to several universities, and two expressed great interest in me.
And then it happened. Again, no one called my name. No grand and glorious Voice called me from heaven. It simply was there as a possibility before me and, like that! my whole life changed. But unlike 1983, I really did say, at least deeply in my heart, “Here I am.”
Often in our lives, we have those moments. They’re brackets in our lives. Or joints. Our life was going along one way and then BAM! something happens and our lives are following a completely direction than we intended. That’s what happened to me in 1983 and that’s what happened again in 1999.
There were moments in the years that followed in which I found myself questioning my decision. I will admit, there were moments when I was envious of those who followed the path I was planning before that second calling when I completed graduate school. While they gained tenure, published, cultivated their writing careers, kept up on with the latest trends in that insular world of poetry, I sort started all over again. I was paid very little as I worked in one thankless minor church job after another. I had one set back after another. I was diagnosed with cancer. I went to seminary. I studied theology at three different schools. There were feasts, there were fast, there were famines.
But at no point, even in those moments when I reached what I felt were spiritual and personal “rock bottom” moments, did I ever doubt that calling in my life. I was truly able to say to God in those dark, cold moments, “Here I am. Do with me what you must. I am trusting you to get me through.” I preserved. I kept on keeping on, as the old saying went. And I kept on looking.
In today’s Gospel, we find Philip saying to Nathaniel, “Come and see.” And we find Jesus telling Nathaniel,” “You will see greater things than these.” For all those low points in my life, there were just as many and more high points. There were miracles, the recovery from illness, the saints—true, living saints—that I have met and walked beside,
I too have seen great things. And although I have not seen heaven literally opened or angels literally “ascending and descending,” I have seen the veil between this world and heaven lifted at times. And I have seen angels ascending and descending in the guise of fellow travelers along the way. Like Nathaniel, who would have a series of low points in his own life (legend says he would die a particularly horrible martyrs death of being flayed alive, forced to walk, skinless in the desert, before being headed), through it all, he kept looking. And in looking, he saw. This is what it means to be a disciple. Despite the setbacks, the illnesses, despite the people who are out to trip you up, there are also the rewards—the high points that are better than any other high points.
Now, I am telling you the story of my priesthood, here. But for all of us, it’s the same when we talk about being Christians. Being a Christian means being a disciple of Christ. And being a disciple is a difficult thing at times. No one, when we became Christians, promised us sparkling, light-filled moments and rose gardens every step of the way. Actually, when we became Christians, we became Christians—all of us—in the shadow of the Cross. We became Christians marked with the Cross. And as a result, we have faced our lives as disciples of Christ squarely and honestly. This is no cult we belong to, that promises us that if we do this and that we will be freed from pain and suffering. As disciples, we know that, Yes, bad things are going to happen to us. There will be illness, there will be setbacks, there will be many, many people out there who want to trip us up and who want us to fail.
Being a disciples means being able, in those dark moments, to look and to see. When surrounded by darkness, we can see light. When stuck in the mire and muck of this life, we can still look up and see those angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man, the One we have chosen to follow.
As I look back over these past ten years, I realize they have been the most productive and fruitful ten years of my life. More than anything, as I look back over these last years, I find God weaving in and out of my life. As I look back, I find God, speaking to me, much as God spoke to Samuel in today’s Old Testament reading. God, whether I was listening or not, was calling me again and again by name.
God is calling each of us by our name. God is calling to us again and again. Our answer is a simple one. It simply involves, getting up, looking and seeing, and saying to God,
“Here I am.”
Here I am.
And when do that, we will find that, like Samuel, God is with us. And God will not allow one of our words to fall to the ground.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
(Dec. 3, 1909 - Jan. 12, 2009)
Jan. 17, 2009
Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral
I am happy to be here this morning to commemorate the long and wonderful life of Lola Cooke and to commend this wonderful woman to God. I got to know Lola over the last few years. When I was a priest here at Gethsemane Cathedral, I brought her Holy Communion on a few occasions at Rosewood. And in those moments, we had some very meaningful times. I will always cherish those moments when we shared Holy Communion with each other. I will cherish those memories because, with Lola, I was able to see that she had a deep and meaningful faith life. And much of that faith was found in something as basic and beautiful as Holy Communion.
When we think of Holy Communion, we think of basic elements. We think bread and we think of wine. For us Episcopalians, through these basic elements, we are able to find a conduit. Our belief, as Episcopalians, is that Jesus is truly and fully present in the Bread and the Wine following Consecration in the Eucharistic Prayer. And when we eat this Bread and drink this Wine, we are receiving Jesus in them. Or as the 1929 Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism tells us, we receive the “Body and Blood of Christ, which are spiritually taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.”
This certainly was what Lola believed. For Lola, this service we are about to celebrate together was a conduit. It was a gateway for her in which God came to her. And for Episcopalians like Lola, the liturgy we find in our Prayer Book was very important.
I am very happy that we are celebrating this service according to the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer. This was THE Prayer Book for Episcopalians from 1928 to 1979. This was the Prayer Book Lola cherished and held dear. And in this Book, she found meaning and she found God.
We, this morning, have varied a bit from the strict Prayer Book Burial Service. In “the day,” this service was about as short and basic as a service could get. I recently read a biography of the poet Edward Arlington Robinson. When Robinson died in April 1935, his funeral was held at St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Church on East Sixteenth Street in New York City. The service was 15 minutes long. There was no music. And there was no eulogy. In fact, there was never a eulogy at an Episcopal Burial Service before 1979. In fact, one could attend a funeral service in an Episcopal Church in those days and never hear the deceased person’s name mentioned once in the whole service.
Today, we have strayed a bit from that rule. We do hear Lola’s name in this service. We are praying for her by name today. You are getting a homily. But for the most, this is the service that Lola would’ve wanted for herself. And, in a few moments, we will be celebrating Holy Communion with each other, just as she did when I visited her at Rosewood.
We too will soon be partaking of these basic elements of Bread and Wine and, in them, we too will be receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus, just as Lola did in her life. What we find in this service of Holy Communion is more than just a quaint liturgy from by-gone years. In this liturgy, in this celebration of Jesus’ Presence with us, we are able to glimpse what awaits us all. In this celebration, we are able to catch a glimpse of that place in which Lola now lives and dwells. In this service, we will hear in a few moments those wonderful words,
“…with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify [God’s] glorious Name…”
In this service, we find the veil between this world and the world in which Lola now lives lifted for a moment. We find angels in our midst. And we find ourselves worshipping God along with that “company of heaven”—that company of which Lola is now a part.
You can see now why Episcopalians take their liturgy very seriously. And you can understand now why the Episcopal service was so important to Lola. For us Christians, this service is a reflection of the hope and longing we have for a life that continues on after our bodies have died. We might not find specific answers to our questions of what awaits us. What awaits us, according to this liturgy, is very much a mystery. But it is a certain mystery—it is a place truly exists beyond our deepest longing and hopes. And it is a place in which we continue to grow. In this service we will pray that Lola “may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in [God’s] heavenly kingdom.”
So, on this day in which we remember and commemorate this long and vital life, we do so with a knowledge that what Lola hoped in and longed for, she has gained. And we can also hope, as she did, to be a part of that company of heaven. Lola knew this faith in her own life and we too can cling to it in a time like this. It is in a moment like this that I am thankful for that time I had with Lola—for that time of Holy Communion with her.
So this morning and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith—that, with Christ, Lola is complete and whole and beautiful at this moment. Today, she has, in he words of the Prayer Book she cherished so deeply, “run with patience the race that [was] set before [her]” and she has received “the crown of glory with fadeth not away.” And let us be glad that one day we too will be sharing with her in that unending joy.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Genesis 1.1-5; Mark 1.4-1
It is probably the natural element we most take for granted. And yet it is one of our most vital. We depend upon water. It nourishes us. It cleans us. It delights us. Even now, look around: we are surrounded by water—frozen, thick and dirty water.
Each day, as I walk my “very long trek” to the church from the Rectory through the small canyon of snow, I can’t help but be reminded of the parting of the Red Sea.
In our privileged society, we take for granted the fact that our water is clean. In other parts of the world, water isn’t so clean. In other parts of the world, water sometimes is a source of illness. In some parts of the world they have little idea of the luxury of something like cold water—or even ice for that matter.
As we’ve known here in this part of the country over the years, water can also be a destructive force when it comes to the matter of floods. Water, as vital as it is, can also destroy. It can destroy property, hopes, dreams and even lives.
For us, as Christians, water truly is the source of our spiritual lives. Throughout Scripture, we find ourselves nourished by and reminded of the importance of water. The authors of our scriptures, coming as they did from such an arid place as the Middle East, no doubt appreciated water in ways we don’t. Certainly, we find the image of water returning again and again in scripture.
In our reading from Genesis this morning, we find that beautiful verse: “…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
Each time Scripture references water, it does so as a source of life, as a source of renewal, as a source of God’s saving grace—even in the instance of Noah’s flood. Even in the early Church, water took on such importance. One of my favorite sayings regarding Baptiss was written by the early Church Father, Tertullian. Tertullian wrote: “Happy is our sacrament of water…We, like little fish, after the example of our great ichtus, Jesus Christ, are born in water.”
In today’s Gospel reading, we find probably the most profound expression of how important water is to us as Christians. We find that first great example being set. We find our great ichtus—our great fish—Jesus—setting the example. As Jesus comes out of those waters, as the Spirit, like a dove, descends upon him, he hears the words: “You are…my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Here the standard is set. Here the breakthrough has happened. From now on, this is essentially what was spoken to each of us at our own baptisms:
“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
For most of us, we have no doubt taken for granted our baptisms, much as we have taken for granted water itself. We have viewed baptism as no more than a christening service for babies—a kind of dedication ceremony. Baptism is, obviously, much, much more than that. Baptism is THE defining moment in our lives as Christians. Whether we remember the event or not, it was the moment when our lives changed. It was the moment we became new. It was, truly, our second birth.
You will hear me say this again and again, but I always encourage people to celebrate the anniversary of their baptism much as they would celebrate any other important anniversary in their lives. I encourage people to find out the date of their baptism. Or, I encourage them to let me help them find out. My baptism date is February 8. I actually framed a copy of my baptismal certificate and have hung it on my wall, along with those other certificates of meaning for me—my certificates of ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, my masters degrees, my oblation certificate from when I became an Oblate of St. Benedict. In fact, my baptismal certificate is probably more meaningful in many ways that any of them because without my baptism I wouldn’t have most of those other certificates. I also celebrate the anniversary of my baptism, as well as the baptism anniversaries of my loved ones. And whenever I baptize anyone, I write down the date in my own personal ordo of dates and pray for them on the anniversary.
So, why the importance of this one single event? Well, the bond that is made at baptism is one that truly can never be broken. A few years ago, a good friend of mine, a priest, lost his son. The son had fallen away from the Church. The priest friend of mine was distraught over his son’s death and was dismayed over the son’s lack of faith. As we talked about it, I reminded him of that bond that was made at his son’s baptism and that was made at all of our baptisms.
In our current Prayer Book this bond is probably best defined. After the Baptism, when the priest traces a cross on the newly baptized person’s forehead, she or he says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” This is essential to our belief of what happens at baptism. In baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own.
It is a bond that can never be broken. We can try to break it as we please. We can struggle under that bond. We can squirm and resist it. We can try to escape it. But the simple fact is this: we can’t.
For ever is for ever.
When I reminded my priest friend of this bond, not only he was consoled by it, but so was I. No matter how much we may turn our backs on Christ, Christ never turns his back on us. No matter how much we try to turn away from Christ, to deny Christ, to pick Christ apart and make Christ something other than who he is, Christ never turns his back on us. Christ never denies us.
What Baptism shows us, more than anything else, is that we always belong to Christ. It is shows us that Christ will never deny us or turn away from us. It shows us that, no matter what we might do, we will always be Christ’s.
In this way, Baptism is truly the great equalizer. In those waters, we are all bathed—no matter who we are and what we are. We all emerge from those waters on the same ground—as equals. And, as equals, we are not expected to just sit around, hugging ourselves and basking in the glow of the confidence that we are Christ’s own possession. As equals, made equal in the waters of baptism, we are then compelled to go out into the world and treat each others as equals. We are called to go out into the world and make a difference in it. Our baptism doesn’t set us apart as special people. It forces us out into the world to be a part of the world and, by doing so, to transform the world.
So, in those waters of baptism, something incredible happened for us. We went into those waters one person, and emerged from those waters as something else completely. It was an incredible moment in our lives, just as it was in the life of Jesus, who led the way and showed us that Baptism was an incredible outpouring of God’s love and light into our lives.
So, with this knowledge of how important it is, take the time to meditate and think about your own baptism and the implications it has in your life. Find out the date of your baptism and celebrate it. When you enter this church, and when you leave it, pay attention to the baptismal font in the narthex and the blessed water in it. Touch that water, bless yourselves with it, and when you do, remember you do so as a reminder of that wonderful event in your life which marked you forever as Christ’s very own. And as you do, listen for those words—those beautiful, lulling words—
“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Very few of us, I think, would do it. Very few of us would follow a star. We certainly wouldn’t follow a star with some vague notion of a king being born. It probably wouldn’t mean much to us, prophecy or not. It would take great faith and great bravery to load up everything, including valuable like gold and spices into that time of highjacking and robbery and just head off into the unknown. But these mean did just that. These “wise” men did something that most of us now days would think was actually naïve and dangerous.
Originally, of course, the word used was “astrologers,” which does add an interesting dimension to what’s occurring here. Astrologers certainly would make sense. Astrologers certainly would have been aware of this star that appeared and they would have been able to see in that star a unique sign—a powerful enough of a sign that they packed up and went searching for it.
And it certainly seems like it was a great distance. They probably came from Persia, which is now modern-day Iran. And they would’ve come in a caravan of others.
These Magi are mysterious characters, for sure. We popularly see them as the three wise men, but if you notice in our Gospel reading for tonight, it doesn’t say anything about there being three of them. There might have been four or five of them for all we know.
Certainly, it might seem strange that I am talking about the Christ child and the Magi. It’s the beginning of January, after all. Christmas happened almost two weeks ago. Most of us have put away our Christmas decorations. Trees came down quickly in the first few days after Christmas, the rest in the days immediately after New Years. Since we’ve been hearing about Christmas for months, we are maybe a little happy to see the Christmas season go away for another by this time. We’re ready to put those trappings aside and move on. The fact is: the Christmas season, for the Church, began on Christmas Eve and ended only last night, on the eve of this feast of Epiphany.
So, what is the Epiphany really? Well, the word itself—Epiphany—means “manifestation” or “appearing.” In this context, it means the manifestation of Christ among us. God, in Christ, has appeared to us. And in the story that we hear tonight, it is the appearing of God not only to the Jews, but to the non-Jews, as well, to the Gentiles, which we find represented in the Magi—those mysterious men from the East.
Epiphany is the manifestation of God in our midst. Epiphany is a moment of realization. In this feast we realize that God is truly among us—all of us, no matter our race or our understanding of this event. Epiphany is the realization that God is among us in the person of this little child, Jesus.
Over the last month or so, we, as the Church, have gone through a variety of emotions. Advent was a time of expectation. We were waiting expectantly for God to come to us. Christmas was the time of awe. God was among us and there was something good and wonderful about this fact.
Epiphany, however, gets the rap for being sort of anti-climactic. It is the time in which we settle down into the reality of what has come upon us. We realize what has happened and we accept it. A bit of the awe is still there. A bit of wonder still lingers.
In this evening’s Gospel, the wise men are overcome with joy when they see the star stop over Bethlehem. But, for the most part, despite the joy they felt, we are now moving ahead. There are no more angels singing on high for us. The miraculous star has begun to fade by this point. The wise men have presented their gifts and are now returning to home to Persia. It is a time in which we feel contentment. We feel comfortable in what has happened.
But, in a few weeks, this is all going to change again. We will soon face the harsh reality of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Now, I know it’s hard even to think about such things as we labor through the deep freeze and heavy snows that have descended upon us lately. But it is there—just around the corner. The time of Christmas feasting will be over. The joys and beauty of Christmas will be replaced by ashes and sackcloth and, ultimately, by the Cross.
But that’s all in the future. Christmas is still kind of lingering in our thoughts tonight and, in this moment, we have this warm reality. God has appeared to us, as one of us. When we look upon the face of the child Jesus, we see ourselves. But we see more. We see God as well.
In this Child the divine and the mortal have come together. And for this moment—before the denial of our bodies in Lent, before the betrayal and torture of Holy Week, before the bloody and violent murder of Good Friday, we have in our midst, this Child. We have God appearing to us in the most innocent and most beautiful form of humanity possible.
I have always liked the tradition in the Roman Catholic Church of their devotion of the Infant Jesus. I have always been fond to borrowing the devotion myself. I have always had a special devotion to the Infant of Prague, which was a statue of the Infant Jesus, dressed in ornate royal robes.
My family on my Dad’s side has some Roman Catholic Bohemian lineage amongst them. And for them, devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague was very important. And because of this Bohemian heritage and devotion, I have had a very special devotion myself to Jesus as he is represented in the statue that is now venerated in the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague.
To imagine and picture Jesus as a Child is very meaningful to me and to many others. And it is one that I’m sad to say has not crossed over into other non-Roman Catholic denominations very often.
But it is the Child Jesus we delight in now. It is the Christ Child we find ourselves worshipping at this time. And in the Christ Child we find ourselves amazed at the many ways God chooses to be manifested in our midst. For now, we are able to look at this Child and see God in our midst. With Lent coming upon us soon, we will find God manifested in other ways—in fasting, in penitence, in turning our eyes toward the Cross.
For now, we are the Magi. We are the one who, seeking Christ, have found him. We are the ones who, despite everything our rational minds have told us, have decided to follow that star of faith we have seen. We, like them, have stepped out into the unknown and have searched for what we have longed for. We are the ones who have traveled the long journeys of all our lives to come to this moment—to this time and place—and, here, we find Christ in our midst. We have followed stars and other strange signs, hoping to find some deeper meaning to our lives. We have trekked through the wastelands of our life, searching for Christ.
But our Epiphany is the realization that Christ has appeared to us where we are—here in our own midst. And this is what we can take away with us tonight—on this feast of the Epiphany. This is the consolation we can take with us as we head through these short, cold, snow-filled days toward Lent.
No matter where we are—no matter who we are—Christ is here with us. Christ is with us in all that we do and every place we look. So, look for him. See him in your midst—here in your life. And whenever you recognize him—that is your unending feast day of Epiphany.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…’”
It’s a wonderfully dramatic moment in the Gospel. Imagine how strange it must’ve seemed to simple working-class guy like Joseph. Already he has to deal with his fiancée becoming pregnant, dreams of divine beings who tell him what to do, a child (which is not his) being born under incredible circumstances. And now, this. This threat of violence. Obviously, the child’s life is in danger. Obviously, Joseph is fearful. Obviously, the future seems bleak.
Imagine how difficult it must have been. Imagine how exotic and strange Egypt must’ve seemed to a man like Joseph who lived his entire lives in Palestine. Of course, there is some reputable evidence that in Egypt there was a vital and vibrant Jewish community that Joseph must’ve been aware of and no doubt this is where Joseph and his family settled. Still, it must’ve been a difficult and devastating move for this young family.
What we also see happening is a kind of reverse Exodus. The Jews had left Egypt in grand and glorious style, led by Moses through the Red Sea and into the Wilderness. Now, we find Jesus, with his family, returning to Egypt, to the place from which the Jewish Nation fled.
All of this we not see so clearly on our first hearing of this Gospel reading. And that’s what I really enjoy about the Flight into Egypt. It seems like a random religious story on the surface, but once one starts digging into and meditating upon it, we discover layer upon layer of rich religious ground.
A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Jesus in Egypt by Paul Perry. It was an interesting book if for no other reason than that it helped me to take into account that, although we only get these few verses about Jesus and his parents being in Egypt, the fact is that Jesus spent a good part of his childhood in Egypt.
Perry, with the help of Coptic and other Orthodox Christians in Egypt, is able to even trace out the traditional route the Holy Family took as they traveled through Egypt. Although much of it is apocryphal, it is nonetheless fascinating to hear about the stories of places it was believed Jesus lived, places where the Holy Family paused on their journey, places the Coptic Christians believe are holy because of Jesus’ presence among them.
There are places one can actually visit in Egypt and find a fuller explanation of our scripture reading this morning. Places like Assiut. In the city of Assuit, there is a church named after St. Mark that is believed to be the place where the angel appeared to Joseph and told him that Herod had died and he could return to Palestine.
There is a placed called Sakha, where one can view a stone on which they believe the footprint of the child Jesus—made as the Holy Family passed through the area—can be seen.
Or Matariya, where, surprisingly, the Koran says that the Holy Family was hidden from Herod’s pursuing soldiers by spider webs.
As legendary as these stories are, I found the whole book intriguing because it opened for me a whole uncharted section of the Scriptures that I had never even considered before.
After reading Perry’s book, I find myself delighted every time we come upon this Gospel reading. It helps me to put into perspective what these poor people endured as they headed into Egypt.
Certainly, as we head into the great unknown of this new year, we find ourselves feeling somewhat like the Holy Family no doubt did as they made their way into Egypt. We know that we go forward, like them, led by God. God is calling us forward, calling us into our future, calling us to venture into the unknown, but we are also being called to do so with absolute trust in God’s mercy.
In this story, we find examples abounding. Joseph is an example to us of that wholehearted trust in God’s mercy. He heeds the voice of the angel and does what is commanded of him, no matter how frightening and uncertain these moves must have been. He does what God leads him to do and by doing so he saves this child—this child he knows isn’t his, this child who has come to him in such mysterious and amazing circumstances.
Mary too is a wonderful example. She seems, at first glance, to be kind of a peripheral character in the story. No more poetry is coming from her mouth as it did when she sang the Magnificat to God when the angel announced to her that she would be bearing the child Jesus. There are no words at all from her in this story. But what we do find is that she is living out, by her very life, the “yes” she made that angel when it was announced to her that she would bear this Child that she now holds close to her.
Mary is an example to us that, occasionally, when forces beyond our understanding begin to work, all we must do at times is simply and quietly heed God’s command. There are times for poetry and there are times when poetry just isn’t needed. When the Child was formed in her womb, how could she not sing out with beautiful poetry? Now, fleeing a despotic, puppet king who cowardly kills masses of children, she goes into her uncertain future doing the only thing she can do in that moment—she goes holding Jesus close to her.
We too should do the same as we enter into this long winter season after Christmas. As we are seeing from our weather recently, it is not going to be a pleasant balmy winter for us. There will be more bitter cold, more snow, more icy streets and roads before us before the thaw comes to us.
In our own lives, in this time of uncertain finances, in this time in which our political climate is about to change drastically (and, hopefully, improve greatly), in this time in which we step forward tentatively into the uncertain din of the future, we can do so like Mary. We can do so, holding Christ close to us, against our beating, anxious hearts. Like her, we have choices. We can go into that future, kicking and screaming, our heels dug in. Or we can go quietly and with dignity, holding our greatest hope and joy to us as we are led forward in our own personal Egypts.
The future lies ahead of us. We know that is not an easy future. It is not a future without pain and hardships and much more work to do, more miles to cover and long days and equally long nights lying before us.
But that same future contains, also, joy and fulfillment and loved ones. That future contains laughter. That future that contains the rest of this long, cold winter, also contains the spring thaw and a glorious summer.
So, like Joseph, heed the calling to rise up and go wherever God leads. Like Mary, be led into that future with quiet dignity. And like them, go with Christ. Go, with Christ held close to you. And as long as he is there with you, there is no need for fear, or despair, or anxiety. With Christ held to you, the future is more glorious than you can, in this cold, snow-filled moment, even begin to understand or appreciate.