Sunday, December 28, 2008

1 Christmas

Dec. 28, 2008

John 1.1-18

“In the beginning…”

These are the first words of today’s Gospel reading. And they are appropriate ones if ever there were any. This reading from John is really in effect an echoing of the creation story at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. Both begin the same way, with the same words—in the beginning—and both tell of God’s working in our midst. In effect, they’re the same story, told from two very different perspectives.

In Genesis, we hear the story of God creating the earth and eventually the creation of humankind. In John, we hear the story of how God existed at all times and that with God, there existed God’s Word.

Now we’ve heard this passage from John so many times that it’s become quite familiar. It is just as familiar, in many ways, as the creation stories in Genesis or the story of Noah’s ark or any of those familiar stories we know so well from scripture. But the difference between those stories and what we heard this morning is that they were stories in a very real sense. They were basic narratives that are easy to relate to and easy to re-tell over and over again. What we hear at the beginning of John’s Gospel is different because it is, in fact, a hymn. Or at least, a portion of a hymn. It is a hymn explaining the Word and what the Word is and does. The hymn was, like the rest of the New Testament, originally written in Greek.

In Greek, the word for “Word” is “Logos.”

That word—Logos—means more than just a sound that comes out of our mouths. It means knowledge. We still use the word in this way. We find it such words at zoology—which means, roughly, “words concerning animals” or more correctly “knowledge concerning animals”
—psychology—words or knowledge concerning the mind
—biology—words and knowledge concerning life

and so on.

So, what we’re encountering in this Hymn is more than just a word. It is knowledge. But even knowledge doesn’t quite convey what this hymn is trying to say. I think the more correct word would be Wisdom. The Word—the Logos—of God is the Wisdom of God.

Another way to translate the word “logos” is to say “essence.” It is the very essence of what it conveys. In that sense, the “Word” of God brings us the very essence of God. In the Logos of God, we find God.

What is John talking about here? John is talking about Christ, of course. Christ is the Logos—the Word of God, the knowledge of God, the sense of God. When we hear his words, we are not hearing the words of some brilliant prophet. We are hearing the words of God—words that contain the knowledge and essence of that God. Did you ever wonder why, in some copies of the King James version of the Bible, the words of Jesus were in red? This is why. They were in red so that we pay special attention to what he was saying. What came from his mouth, in a sense, came from the mouth of God on high.

See how this is different than those other stories from scripture. It’s kind of heady stuff we’re dealing with here. It’s not easy to grasp what’s being talked about and it’s not easy to explain to others. However, this concept of the Word—or Logos—of God is really the heart of all Christian theology.

Now that sounds wonderful—at least to me. I’m a priest and I like theology. I like systematic thinking about God and Christ. I like examining words in Greek and exploring the full range of their meanings. It’s what I do. But for the rest of us, this passage is a difficult one to wrap our minds around.

“The Word was with God and the Word was God.”

Those are hard theological concepts—concepts that the Church as a whole has struggled with from almost the very beginning.

In the ancient Church, people fought hard to interpret what this meant exactly. Some felt that the Word—Christ—was similar to God, but was not equal to God. Certainly they did not feel that Christ was God. Others truly believed that Christ the Word—the personified Wisdom of God—was God, plain and simple. Just as our words are part of us, just as what we know is a part of us, so is the Word and knowledge of God a part of God.

A lot of dirty deeds were done over this simple passage of scripture. People were banished, people were tortured, some were even killed. But no matter what we might believe about Christ’s co-equality with God, this scripture does do a lot in helping us understand who and what Christ is.

Let’s take a look at what God is doing in this scripture. God isn’t simply sitting on some throne in some far-off heavenly realm. God is not sitting back and letting creation work itself out. What this passage shows us, more than anything, is that God is busy. God is at work in our lives—in the world around us. God is moving. God is doing something. More than anything what this scripture is telling us is that God is reaching out to us. And not just one or two times in our history. God has always been reaching out to us. From the first day of humankind to this moment, God is reaching out to us. God is calling out to us. He is talking with us and communicating with us.

This Word of God that we hear is Christ and Christ, as we learn in this passage, had always existed. Even before Christ came to us in the person of Jesus, Christ always was. And Christ always will be. God, in Christ, is moving toward us, even in moments when it seems like God is distance and non-existent.

There’s an excellent book I read a few years ago called the Disappearance of God. In it, the author explained that when we look at the Bible as a whole, we find God slowly disappearing from creation. As the Old Testament progresses, God seems to be pulling back further and further from our lives. God no longer speaks to his prophets as he did to Adam or Abraham or Moses. There were fewer and fewer visions of pillars of fire. There were fewer instance in which God worked miracles in the lives of his people. God no longer went out before the armies of the Israelites and fought their battles for them. By the time we get to the New Testament, God seems to be gradually fading away from the lives of humans.

But then we come across the Gospel of St. John. Here, in a sense, God’s presence is renewed. God comes forward and becomes present among us in a way we could never possibly imagine. God appears to us in the Gospels not cloaked behind pillars of fire or thunderstorms or wind. Instead, God appears before us, as one of us. God’s word, God’s wisdom, became flesh just as we are flesh. God’s voice was no longer a booming voice from the sky, demanding sacrifices. God instead spoke to us as one of us. And this voice is a familiar one. We cannot only understand it, we can embrace it and make it a part of our lives. And even after Christ dies and rises again from the tomb and ascends to heaven, the Word, in a very real sense, remains among us.

It continues on in the first followers, who wrote it down. It continues on in what Jesus still says to us today. It continues on in the Spirit of God that dwells within us and that speaks in us in our lives.

The Word is among us. It is spoken every time we carry out what Christ calls us to do. The Word is spoken when we reach out to those in need.

Whenever we are motivated by the misery around us—when we pray for those who need our prayers, when we reach out to those who need us in any small way we can—that is the Word speaking. And more than that—that is the Word at work in the world.

So let the Word and Knowledge of God be in you and speak through you. Be open to that wonderful reality in your lives. Let your voice be the voice of the Word and Wisdom of God. Let your lives be a loud and proud proclamation of that Word in the world around you.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

St John the Divine

December 27, 2008

John 21.19b-24

I had never really considered St. John much before reading Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s recent book, Encountering the Mystery. In it, Bartholomew devotes a section titled “Saint John the Divine: Source of Theology.” After reading it, my devotion to St. John has increased greatly.

Patriarch Bartholomew writes in this section: “…the hermeneutical tradition of the Church considers the moment when St. John reclined upon the breast of our Lord Jesus Christ during the Last Supper as the starting point of the theological journey. It is from this event that the gift of theology is derived and drawn, as if from a life-giving spring and source.”

This one simple action—this beautiful act of love and affection—is, as Patriarch Bartholomew maintains, the beginning of all theology, of all deep and meaningful spiritual longing.

Ever since I read this passage from Encountering the Mystery, I have found myself returning again and again to the Gospel of St. John—a Gospel I admit I have struggled with over the years. But now, after reading the Patriarch’s book, I have come away with a new appreciation for this Gospel, about which Bartholomew writes: “It is no wonder that the Gospel of John is the central evangelical text of the Orthodox Church.” He goes on to highlight the Gospel’s “emphasis on light and resurrection together with its theological eloquence and poetic expressiveness.” I have also found myself returning again and again to that passage in today’s reading from St. John’s Gospel:

“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper…”

The beauty of this action of St. John’s is that it is an action we ourselves should be imitating. St Bonaventure said, “There [in that moment] our Lord fed [St. John] on the mysteries of his Divine wisdom, abundantly, uniquely, wholesomely, profitably.” We, like St. John, should also be fed abundantly, uniquely, wholesomely, and profitably. We should find our consolation, our joy, our absolutely gladness in that place, reclining alongside Jesus. And more than just reclining. We too should find ourselves in that place of complete trust. We too should lay our heads—full of our sorrows, our troubles, our pains, our angers—we should lay our muddled heads against the breast of Jesus that contains his sacred and love-filled Heart.

There, in that place so near to the source of his love and affection, we should find our shelter, our refreshment, the place we have longed to be spiritually and actually.

St. John truly is the model saint. Like him, we too should strive to be the one Jesus loves. That love should be the only goal in our lives.

Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Stephen

December 26, 2008

Acts 6. 8-7:2a, 51c-60

It is a pleasure to be able to celebrate the feast of St. Stephen at St. Stephen’s Church. It’s important, I think for churches to celebrate their patronal feasts. In the Orthodox and Roman traditions of the Church, the patron saint of a church is viewed as more than just namesake. They are seen as special guardians of that congregation. And so, it is especially wonderful to celebrate a saint like St. Stephen, who is our guardian and who is, no doubt,, present among us, with that whole communion of saints.

St. Stephen, of course, was the proto-martyr of the Church—the first one to die for his open proclamation of Christ. St. Stephen was also the first one to pray to Jesus outside of the Gospels. He also is considered the first deacon in the church. St. Stephen was the first to do many things. So, appropriately, is this church, that has been the first to do many things, named after St. Stephen.

As you might know, I teach theology at the University of Mary’s Fargo campus. I have so many students come to me who have been hurt by the Church. I have many students who are frustrated with the Church. And more often than not, their relationship with God has suffered for it. More often than not, I am amazed and surprised to find that many of these people have never differentiated their thoughts between religion and spirituality. When I explain the difference—that difference between religion and the Church—a human-run organization—and spirituality—that relationship between you and God—I see a transformation come over people. For many of them, they gave up on God when they gave up on religion. Hopefully, they are able, at some point, to see that just because they gave up on religion, it does not mean they have to give up on God.

When I talk about spirituality I am talking about the “true religion” that we prayed for last Sunday in our collect. So what this true religion? Well, I can tell what true religion is not. True religion is not what is going on the Church right now. There is so much anger and frustration in the Episcopal Church right now. Much of that anger is justified. But, people are condemning each other, bashing each other and demeaning each other in the name of the Church as we speak. People—because of their differences—are not acting like they love each other.

On the other hand, I see the Episcopal Church as making a real solid effort at true religion. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here in the Church. One aspect of this church that I have always loved is the belief—and the fact— that there is room here for everyone in this church—no matter who they are. I love the fact that churches like St. Stephen’s continue to be primes examples of the Church in our midst by following the Via Media—the middle ground.

In many ways, St. Stephen’s is a microcosm of the ideal aspects of the larger Church. St. Stephen’s has always been the place that finds room for the liberals in the Church I love. Here too though there is room as well for the conservatives in the Church. And, of course, there is certainly plenty of room in this place for the moderates.

Anglo-Catholics such as myself, as well as broad church and evangelical Episcopalians have been welcomed here as well, not to mention those who might not be certain what they believe about God or Jesus. And, of course, there has been room here for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered people.

For me, St. Stephen’s personifies in many ways, that sense of true religion. The Church should be like a dinner to which everyone is invited. And St. Stephen’s has always been the place that knows this one blunt fact: The only thing there is no room for in true religion is for those who cannot love each other.

St. Stephen’s is a place very much like a family. We don’t always choose the people God has brought into our lives, but we always—ALWAYS—have to love them.

So what is true religion? True religion begins and ends with love. We must love one another as God loves us. True religion begins with the realization that, first and foremost, God loves each and every one of us. When we can look at that person who drives us crazy and see in that person, someone God loves wholly and completely, then our relationship with that person changes. We too are compelled to love that person as well. Love is the beginning and end of true religion.

Certainly, St. Stephen’s has always been a place of love. Love has never been a stranger here. Love has been offered not only on this altar, but among the pews and in the undercroft and in the entryway and in the parking lot. Love has went out from here into all the world. We who are gathered here have been touched in one way or the other by the love that has emanated from these people. We are the fortunate ones—the ones who have been transformed and changed by this love. We are the lucky ones who have—through our experiences at St. Stephen’s—been able to get a glimpse of true religion.

But our job now is not to cherish it and hold it close to our hearts. Our job now is to turn around and to share this love with others. Our job is take this love and reflect it for every one to see.
So, in a very real sense, we, at St. Stephen’s, are doing what that first St. Stephen did. We have set the standard. We have journeyed out at time into uncharted territory. And most importantly, we have, by our love, by our compassion, been a reflection of what the Church—capital C—is capable of.

May God—that source of all love, that author and giver of all good things—continue to bless us with love and goodness. May we flourish and grow. And may we continue to venture bravely forward in all that we continue to do here among us and throughout the world.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2008

Luke 2.1-20

Most of us, throughout our lives, find ourselves clinging to life’s little pleasures. Occasionally, something fills us with such joy and happiness, that we find ourselves savoring that moment, clinging to it, hoping it will never end. They don’t happen often. We can’t make those moments happen by own concentrated will. Even more often, we don’t ask for them. They just happen when they’re meant to happen and sometimes they come upon us as a wonderful surprise.

Now, having said this, I’m going to admit something to you that will come as no surprise I’m sure. I really am a church geek. I love being in church. I always have. And the best times to be in church were always Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

One of life’s pleasures for me has always been Christmas Eve. And more specifically a Christmas Eve Mass. Some of my most pleasant memories are of this night and the liturgies I’ve attended on this night. Another of life’s small pleasures is Christmas morning. I especially enjoy going to church on Christmas morning. The world seems to pristine, so new. And one of my greatest pleasures as a priest, is to celebrate the Eucharist with you on this evening that is, in its purest sense, holy. And tomorrow morning I am looking forward to going to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and con-celebrating the Eucharist with Pastor Mark and the people of St. Mark’s.

I also understand the tendency we all have of getting caught up in society’s celebration of Christmas. It’s easy to find ourselves getting a bit hypnotized by the glitz and glamour we see about us. I admit I enjoy some of those sparkly Christmas displays. I occasionally enjoy a good Christmas commercial on TV. In fact, the other day, I was watching a show of classic commercials and one came on that instantly put me back into my childhood Christmases. I’m sure you’ll remember it too. It begins with the Ink Spots are singing “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” Two very attractive people are in a very modern (by 1980s standards), sparsely decorated office overlooking the Transamerica Building in San Francisco. The man introduces himself as “Charles,” the woman as “Catherine.” Charles ask Catherine: “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” “No,” Catherine says. “What is it?” The shadow of a Leer jet flies across the Transamerica building. Then announcer then comes on and says: “Share the fantasy. Chanel no. 5”

For some reason, that commercial was synonymous with Christmas for me as a child. Yet it had nothing at all to do with Christmas. There wasn’t a Christmas tree in sight. Nothing about it spoke of Christmas. And yet, for me, it WAS Christmas. And I remember the joy I felt the first time I bought my mother a bottle of Chanel No. 5. So, yes, I understand how easy it is to fall to the temptations of what the world tells us is Christmas.

But what I think happens to most of us who enjoy those light and airy aspects of Christmas is that we often get so caught up in them, we start finding ourselves led astray into a kind of frivolousness about Christmas. We find ourselves led off into a place where Christmas becomes fluffy and saccharine and cartoonish. Christmas becomes a kind of billboard. The other day I was looking through a wonderful book called Atomic Kitchen. It was book of ads and billboards from the 1950s and early 1960s, advertising kitchen appliances. The ads from this time, as some of you might remember, portrayed a pristine world. It was a world in which the perfect family lived in the perfect home, with perfect meals being prepared in color-coordinated appliances. It was a world without troubles, without fear, without despair, or uncertainty. It was a world that, ultimately, did not reflect its time accurately. Rather, it reflected some impossible ideal that no one could attain.

That, I think, is what we experience in the secular understanding of Christmas time. The glitz and the glamour of the consumer-driven Christmas can be visually stunning. It can capture our imagination with its blinking lights and its bright wrapping, or, as in the case of the Chanel No. 5 commercial, it can do it without any bright lights and wrapping. But ultimately it promises something that it can’t deliver. It promises a joy and a happiness it really doesn’t have. It has gloss. It has glitter. It has a soft, fuzzy glow. But it doesn’t have real joy.

The Christmas we celebrate here tonight, in this church, is a Christmas of real joy. But it is a joy of great seriousness as well. It is a joy that humbles us and quiets us. It is a joy filled with a Light that makes all the glittery, splashy images around us pale in comparison. The Christmas we celebrate here is not a frivolous one. It is not a light, airy Christmas. Yes, it has a baby. Yes, it has angels and a bright shining star. But these are not bubblegum images. A birth of a baby in that time and in that place was a scary and uncertain event. Angels were not chubby little cherubs rolling about in mad abandon in some cloud-filled other-place. They were terrifying creatures—messengers of a God of Might and Wonder. And stars were often seen as omens—as something that could either bring great hope or great terror to the world.

The event we celebrate tonight is THE event in which God breaks through to us. And whenever God beaks through, it is not some gentle nudge. It is an event that jars us, provokes us and changes us. For people sitting in deep darkness, that glaring Light that breaks through into their lives is not the most pleasant thing in the world. It is blinding and painful. And what it exposes is sobering.

That is what Jesus does to us. That is what we are commemorating tonight. We are commemorating a “break through” from God—an experience with God that leaves us different people than we were before that encounter. What we experience is a Christmas that promises us something tangible. It promises us, and delivers, a real joy. The joy we feel tonight, the joy we feel at this Child’s birth, as the appearance of these angels, of that bright star, of that Light that breaks through into the darkness of our lives, is a joy that promises us something.

It is a teaser of what awaits us. It is a glimpse into the life we will have one day. It is a perfect joy that promises a perfect life. But just because it is a joyful event, does not mean that it isn’t a serious event. What we celebrate is serious. It is an event that causes us to rise up in a joyful happiness, while, at the same time, driving us to our knees in adoration. It is an event that should cause us not just to return home to our brightly wrapped presents, but it should also send us out into the world to make it, in some small way, a reflection of this life-changing joy that has come into our lives.

Throughout Advent I have been reading Advent of the Heart by Alfred Delp, a young German Jesuit priest who was killed by the Nazis on February 2, 1945. This is one of those books that has moved me to my very soul. All through Advent I found myself reading it again and again. My copy of the book is almost falling apart, I’ve read it that much. In the book, there is wonderful Advent play Delp wrote for children about ten years before his death. It ended with a monologue that captures perfectly a Christian understand of what Christmas truly is.

Delp wrote at the end of his play: “That is Christmas—that a hand from above reached into our lives and touches our hearts. That is Christmas, not the other things. My friends, believe it, we have to suffer a lot and hang on. Only then is it Christmas.

“Christmas is a not a sweet fairytale for little children—for happy nurseries…Christmas is serious—so serious—that [people] gladly—die for it. —Tell everyone—many things have to change—first—here—inside…

“Christmas means that God—touches us, —that [God]—grasps our hands—and lays them—on—[God’s]—heart. —That God comes—to us—and sets us free. —Tell everyone—the other isn’t Christmas, —only this—is—Christmas, —that—God—is—with—us.”

Tonight, is one of those moments in which true joy and gladness have come upon us. Cling to this moment. Savor it. Hold it close. Pray that it will not end. And let this joy you feel tonight be the strength that holds you up when you need to be held.

Tonight, God has touched us. God has grasped our hands. Our hands have been laid on God’s heart. This feeling we are feeling right now is the true joy that descends upon us when we realize God has come to us in our collective darkness as a Light that will never darken.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

O Emmanuel

Isaiah 7:14

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

We go through our lives walking, side-by-side, with those we love and cherish. We go, though, not seeing their faces, not seeing at all. Together, side-by-side, we stumble forward, blindly grasping at each other.

Until he finds us! He! The One who comes to us as one one us. He comes to us with a Face like our face, with skin like our skin and blood like our blood. He comes and we realize how truly we had never seen before.

When he comes to us, we see as we have never seen before. We see him as we long to see him. And, in seeing him, we see ourselves and each other, even as we race, side-by-side, toward him in that gorious, light-filled moment which will never end.

Monday, December 22, 2008

O Rex Gentium

Isaiah 9.5

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

How we bristle at authority. How we rebel. How we fight the powers that be and hunker down into our own independence. In our rebellion, we have hardend our hearts. We have allowed ourselves to freeze up from within. We have allowed the stifling coldness of our hearts to harden us through to our very core.

Jesus, the King, the Ruler of us all, comes not as a despot or tyrant. He comes knowing us better than we know us. He comes, breaking the frost of our rebellion not with a weapon or his royal staff, but with his cross and with the warmth of his Presnece and the gentleness of his embrace.

St. Thomas

December 22, 2008 (transferred)
The Chapel of the Resurrection
Gethsemane Cathedral, Fargo

John 20.24-29

I am fascinated by the stories of the Apostles. What I enjoy probably more are the stories of what happened to them after the Gospels. Some of these stories are so magical, so legendary, I just shake my head at times.

St. Thomas’ story is similar. Of course, we all know the story of Thomas, how he doubted the resurrected Jesus until he was able to place his fingers in the wounds of Jesus. But I really enjoy the stories of what happened to Thomas after the Resurrection.

The story goes that in those days when the apostles spread across the world—Sts. Peter and Paul went off to Greece and Rome, St. John went to Asia Minor and eventually to Cyprus, St. Mark went to Egypt—St. Thomas went even farther east, it is believed. He went to India. There’s a wonderful story in a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathea that when the Virgin Mary was dying, all the apostles expect Thomas were miraculous transported to Jerusalem to be with her in her last moments on this earth. Thomas, however, was granted the greatest gift of all. He transported from India to her tomb and was the only apostle to witness her assumption to heaven. There’s is a beautiful icon of this event, with the Virgin ascending to heaven supported by an angel, and Thomas beneath. They are joined by what appears to be a red ribbon. This ribbon was thee Virgin’s girdle. In a strange reversal of the Gospel story, the other apostles refuse to believe Thomas’ story of the Virgin’s assumption until they saw her girdle.

One of the modern results of Thomas’ time in India is, of course, the Mar Thoma Church. The Mar Thomas Church claims to have been founded by Thomas. It defines it self in this way: it is "Apostolic in origin Universal in nature, Biblical in faith, Evangelical in principle, Ecumenical in outlook, Oriental in worship, Democratic in function, and Episcopal in character.”

Coming out of the Jacobite Church of Malabar (Malankara Church), the Mar Thoma Church was reformed from several theological disputes in the 18th and 19th century by reforms from the Anglican Church. As a result, the Anglican Church has been in full communion with the Mar Thomas Church since 1929. And the Episcopal Church has been in full communion with the Mar Thomas Church since 1979.

The Mar Thomas Church is unique among churches because of its blending of Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Reformed or Protestant) traditions. A recent article from the Office of Ecumenical Relations in the Episcopal church states: “The Mar Thoma Church refers to the Apostle Thomas as its founder and has been historically situated mainly on the southwestern coast of India in what today is the State of Kerala. Presently, the Mar Thoma Church has about one million members, and the number of its members and parishes in North America has been growing. The church combines ancient tradition and the Eastern Syriac language of worship with renewal, as witnessed in the Reformation or Purification movement of the mid-19th century.”

So, the spirit and the fruits of St. Thomas continue to grow and flourish in the Church. And this is the message for us on this feast of St. Thomas. In fact the message of all the apostles to us is a great one. The message of apostles like doubting Thomas is that, like them, we are human too. We will fail and stumble and fall on our Christian journey, just as they did. Like Thomas, we will doubt. Like him, we will be obstinate. We will demand proof at times and without proof, we will question and we will doubt. But, like them, we will also succeed, despite the set-backs. Because, as they no doubt realized, it was not about them at all. It was about what Christ was doing through them that mattered. Christ managed to work through and to succeed through them despite their human failings.

And the same is true of us as well. Despite our human failings, despite our obstinate natures and our doubting ways, Christ still managed to use us. Despite us, the Light of Christ still manages to shine through us. So, as it showed through St. Thomas, let the Light of Christ also show through you. Do not let your doubts, your failings, your trip-ups along the way be shades to that Light. Rather let that Light burn away your failings. And allow yourself to disappear into and become one with that Light.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

O Oriens

Isaiah 9.1

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

In that unending night of despair, we imagine the morning will never dawn. In that long, cold, star-less night, when even the moon has fled to some far recess, we can’t even begin to imagine what the sun was like at noon the day before or how joyful the dawn felt.

But Jesus, the Morning Star, appears to us, at first, as a pinprick of Light. There, in the darkest part the night—in that seemingly fathomless void—a spark shines. And when it does not flicker out and die—when, in fact, is grows more bold, more powerful, more brilliant, we find ourselves rising. We are lifted toward it, without thinking. We move instinctively toward that Light that grows in the darkness of a night that we, only a moment before, thought would never end. And as we do, we find joy growing stronger and stronger by each excited heartbeat within us.

IV Advent

Dec. 21, 2008

Luke 1.26-38

Well, here we are. The last Sunday of Advent. The big Day—Christmas—is now almost agonizingly close. On the surface level, we hopefully, are as prepared as we can be. Presents are hopefully bought (I still have a few to buy). Cards have been sent. Menus have been prepared.

But spiritually, where are we? This time of Advent was a time for us to prepare ourselves spiritually for this glorious event. Has it been worthwhile? Are we prepared spiritually for this day?

The truly honest answer to that question can only be another question: are we ever truly prepared? Or maybe even more honest would be the question: what exactly are we preparing ourselves for? The answer to the first question finds its answer in the second question. What are we preparing ourselves for? What do we believe about this day that is about to dawn upon us? Do we believe it is just another holiday full of trinkets and caroling? Or do we believe that this Day is an awesome Day—a Day in which, truly God draws near to us. Probably the most meaningful way to examine our beliefs of this day is to examine what we believe about that auspicious doctrine Christians believe in called the Incarnation.

Now before you begin to groan inwardly (or outwardly) about another one of those big , overwhelming Church words, bear with me. Usually, whenever I teach a religion class, I begin with the Incarnation. And when I bring it up, I always get a collective blank look. The Incarnation immediately illicits a reaction similar to what most of us react to when we hear about algebra or calculus. It seems beyond us. The Incarnation does seem like a strange, difficult thing for us to wrap our minds around. But I then usually break the word down.


Let’s start out with some simple Latin. Carne means? Meat, or flesh. Think carnivore. Meat eater. Carnival, the celebration before Ash Wednesday, means “farewell to the flesh.” It means, giving up meat for Lent, but it also reminds us that we all must say farewell to our own flesh one day. So carne means flesh. Incarnation means, In the flesh. And when we apply it to theology, it means that God has come to us in the flesh.

That is what we are hearing about in today’s Gospel reading with the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and that is what we are celebrating this coming week in the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel reading, we are looking back roughly nine months from now. We are looking back to that moment when the Divine took flesh, when God became human at Mary’s “yes” to the Angel.

Incarnation—God made flesh—is at the heart of what we as Christians believe. It is the defining belief among us. It is what makes us different than our Jewish brothers and sisters. Yes, we believe in the same God. But we believe that this same God has taken on human flesh and come among us. It is what makes us different than our Muslim brothers and sisters. Again, we believe in the same God. Yes, they revere Jesus as a great prophet and Mary as a truly holy servant of God, but they cannot quite accept the fact that God has become flesh in the person of Jesus.

We, as Christians, do believe this. We profess it every week in our Creed. We celebrate it in our scripture reading. And we partake of this belief in a very tangible way at the altar when we share Holy Communion with each other. Everything we do as Christians proclaims the fact we believe that, in Jesus, God has come among us.

The fact is, most of us probably haven’t given the Incarnation a whole lot of thought. Even the early Christians struggled with this belief and defined it in various ways. For us, though, as Episcopalians, we do believe in this remarkable fact. And we celebrate it at every opportunity we can.

Certainly every Sunday we celebrate it—here at the altar. Our Eucharist is a remembrance of the fact that, yes, he did have a human body. He had a body like our bodies and blood like our blood. But he was also more than us. He also encompassed everything we longed for and hoped in. He was—and is—God.

When we look at the history of the relationship between God and humanity, it has been a difficult one at best. As we’ve seen in scripture, over and over again, whether it was in the Garden of Eden, with the Israelites wandering the Wilderness, through years of exile and repatriation, God seemingly is always trying to break through to us , and we have been consistently resisting it. But in Jesus, we find the ultimate breaking through.

God speaking through oracles and prophets, through pillars of cloud by day and pillars of fire by night, through burning bushes, donkeys, and even pagan kings, just didn’t work. Finally, God took on human flesh and dwelled among us as one of us, speaking to us as one of us. And although many of us are still resisting it, those of us who recognize it and see it, realize that God has truly broken through to us.

There is a wonderful tradition of prayer in the Christian Church that I have always loved. It is called “the Angelus” Traditionally, the so-called “Angelus bell” would ring three times a day, usually once in morning, once at noon and once in evening. People would stop at the sound of the bell and would pray the Angelus. No doubt you’ve sent the very famous painting called “The Angelus” by Jean-Francois Millet of the farmers pausing in the midst of their field work to bow their heads in prayer.

The Angelus consists of three Hail Mary’s—the prayer based, yet again, on our Gospel reading from today—interspersed with vesicles from our Gospel reading today. It begins with:
V. The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary.R. And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.R. Be it unto me according to your Word.
V. And the Word was made flesh.R. And dwelt among us.
Then it ends with a wonderful collect that summarizes the Incarnation for us:
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel to the Virgin Mary, so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Angelus is, in a sense, a theological microcosm of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is certainly mystery. It is beyond our understanding and our rational thought that God could come and become flesh.

But at the same time, for those of us who have faith in God, we can just easily ask the question: why not? Why couldn’t God do just this? Why couldn’t God come among us and dwell with us as one of us. Certainly this is the reality we face Wednesday night and Thursday. For those of us who have been preparing ourselves spiritually for this day, this is what we are forced to examine and face. Our faith might not be quite at that point hat we believe all of it. But what our faith does tell us is that, whatever happens on that day, it is God breaking through to us in some wonderful and mysterious way. And all we have to do is not be stubborn or close-minded and cold-hearted. Rather, all we have to do is be open to that breaking through to us.

The Word was made flesh. And dwelt among us. Our response to that word should be the words of Mary when this incredible mystery descended upon her.

Let it be with me according to your word.

God has broken through to us. Let us meet God at that point of breakthrough rejoicing. And let us come away from that breaking through to us with God’s word being proclaimed in our own voice.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Clavis David

Isaiah 22:22

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Darkness is our prison. It is the jail we scape to in our fear, in our anxiety, in our frustration. In that dark place, we find temporary relief. We find ourselves holding onto our blemishes, our warts, out imperfections. We clutch them close in the dank lightless place we call shelter. And in that place, we convince ourselves that our inperfections don’t exist.

Jesus, the Key, opens the door to our prison. We find, as we grope toward the door way, we do so reluctantly. Our prison has become the closest place to home we know. It has become as familiar to us as our own bodies.

Jesus, the Key, destroys that prison as soon as we exit it. He tears open the doors, pulling it from its hinges. He dismantled the walls, the floors, every last stone. The doorway through which we walked into the Light is truly the gateway to compelte and glorious freedom, And in that place of freedom, we discover that what we once were ashamed of, has, in this Light been made perfect and beautiful.

Friday, December 19, 2008

O Radix Jesse

Isaiah 11.1, 10

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

“Plants are the center and source of life,” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomoew wrote. “Plants are the wisest of teachers, the best models. Their roots dig deep, while their reach is high.”

We, too, are rooted deeply into our humanity. We are who we are through our roots. Still, rooted as we are to our humanity and this earth beneath us, we also reach high. We also strain, in our rootedness, toward the Goal of our existence.

Jesus, rooted in humanity and still encompassing everything from above, nourishes us from both below and above. We, unworthy of it, find ourselves fulfilled by this life-giving Presence we longed for, but didn’t ask for; hoped in, but couldn’t find the words to speak with our own lips.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

O Adonai

Isaiah 11:4-5; 33:22

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Fire burned and did not consume the bush. From that fire, Adonai spoke to Moses and called him by his name. In that place where bush, fire and Adonai met, even the ground beneath Moses became too holy for his feet.

In Jesus, our humanity, fire and Adonai once again meet. From that confluence, Adonai still calls to us by name and speaks to to us with a voice more familiar than our own. And when we turn toward this calling, we know without being told that the very ground of our lives has become more sacred than we have ever even imagined.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

O Sapientia

Isaiah 11:2-3; 28:29

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

We live in an intellectual half-light. Not a complete darkness, but a perptual dusk of sorts. We have a vague awarenss. For the most part, however, wisdom eludes us. We have moments of brilliant clarity. We have precious moments in which everything falls perfectly into place. Thosee moments are, sadly, for the most part, few and far between.

In Jesus, our Wisdom, we find wisdom with no elusiveness. In Jesus our Wisdom is the sun-like wisdom that burns away the dusk, the midnight and the pre-dawn of our ignorance. Jesus, our Wisdom, truly comes to us where are are—in the half-light of our intellegence—and teaches us. He teaches us by not only the Word that comes from his mouth, but by the example of his Presence among us.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

III Advent

December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Canticle 3; 1 Thes. 5.16-24

Today is Gaudete Sunday. This is probably my favorite Sunday in one of my favorite liturgical seasons. Traditionally, on Gaudete Sunday, we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath. This pink candle is a sign to us that the shift has happened. Now there are more candles lit than are unlit. The light has won out and the darkness is not an eternal darkens.

Gaudete means “rejoice” and we should do just that on this Sunday. We should rejoice in the light that is winning out. We should rejoice in the fact that darkness has no lasting power over us.
This Sunday sets a tone different than the one we’ve had so-far in Advent. We find that word—rejoice—throughout our scriptural readings today. It is the theme of the day. It is the emotion that permeates everything we hear in the Liturgy of the Word on this Sunday.

In our reading from the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah, we hear

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God;
In our Epistle, we find even Paul rejoicing. “Rejoice always,” he writes to the church at Thessalonika .

And in our canticle, we find that beautiful song of joy, the Magnificat—Mary’s rapturous song of rejoicing.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

This emotion of joy is something we oftentimes take for granted. Let’s face it, joy doesn’t happen often enough in our lives. It is a rare occurrence for the most part. And maybe it should be. It is certainly not something we want to take for granted. When joy comes to us, we want to let it flow through us. We want it to guide us and overwhelm us. But we often don’t think about how essential joy is to us.

Joy is essential to all of us as Christians. It is one of those marks that make us who we are as Christians. If we look closely at the lives of the saints, they are the ones who show us the way forward. And they are the ones who are marked with joy. They are the ones who have let joy come upon them and transform them. They are the ones who, even in sometimes overwhelming and frightening times, when overcome by darkness and despair, have still let joy come to them and be present in them.

You often hear me commend The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. In Lesser Feasts and Fasts, we commemorate our saints in the Episcopal Church—those people who have shown themselves to us as examples of positive Christian living. What a lot of people who enjoy Lesser Feasts and Fasts don’t realize is that there are actual criteria for people to be included in the calendar of saints in the Episcopal Church and thus, to be included in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. These guidelines are actually included in the very back of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. For a person to be considered as a “saint” in the Episcopal Church, they must have a heroic faith, love, goodness of life, service to other for Christ’s sake, devotion, Recognition by the faithful and historical perspective. They also must have “joyousness”

The guidelines go on to say: “As faith is incomplete without love, so does love involve ‘rejoicing in the Spirit’—whether in the midst of extraordinary trials, or in the midst of the ordinary rounds of daily life. A Christian may not fail in the works of love, but still lack the joy of it—thereby falling short of true Christian sanctity. Such joy, however, is as much a discipline of life as an emotion. It need not lie on the surface of a person’s life, but may run deeply and be discerned by others only gradually.” (p. 487 Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006)

I love that definition of joy. I want to repeat two parts of this definition:

First, “Such joy… is as much a discipline of life as an emotion.” Joy is a discipline It is a discipline that we must cultivate. And sometimes, cultivating joy in the midst of overwhelming sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression can seems overwhelming and impossible. That’s why it is a discipline. When things like sorrow or pain or loneliness or depression descend upon—and they descend upon us all—we need to cling to joy. We need to search deep within us for that joy that we have as Christians. That joy comes when we put our pains into perspective. That joy comes when we recognize that these dark moments that happen in our lives are not eternal. They will not last forever.

That, I think, is where we sometimes fail. When we are in the midst of those negative emotions in our lives, we often feel as though they will never end. We often feel as though we will always be lonely, we always be sad, we will always mourn.

But as Christians, we can’t allow ourselves to be boxed in in such a way. As Christians, we are forced, again and again, to look at the larger picture. We are forced to see that joy is always there, just beyond our grasp, awaiting us. Joy is there when we realize that in the midst of our darkness, there is always light just beyond our reach.

Second, “[Joy] need not lie on the surface of a person’s life, but may run deeply and be discerned by others only gradually.”

Abbot Philip Lawrence, OSB, the Abbot of Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, shares a wonderful reflection of a young Vietnamese monk who recently died at the monastery at age 38. Abbot Philip writes, “My memories of [Brother John Dat] in the week before I left for Italy are all memories of joy and gladness. Brother John…seemed to have in that week some inner experience of happiness and it just sort of shone out of him. For an abbot to have a monk die is like losing a son in many ways. For the community it is like losing a brother. Such losses bring us always before the face of God. Such losses ask our hearts: Do you believe in the resurrection of Christ? If Christ has risen from the dead, then our brother has risen with him now. And Christ has risen and our brother will rise with Him and we can rejoice even when our hearts are sad at his sudden loss.”

That image of Brother John’s joy and gladness as being an inner experience that shined out of him is exactly the kind of true joy that is being commended to us in the guidelines for saints in The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Joy doesn’t mean walking around smiling all the time. It doesn’t mean that we have force ourselves to be happy at all times in the face of every bad thing. If we do that, we become nothing more than a programmed robot or a trained puppy. True joy comes bubbling up from within us. It comes from a deep place and it permeates our whole being, no matter what else is going on in our lives or in the world around us.

In the Magnificat, our canticle for today, we find Mary singing this glorious song. Those words: “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” sums up in such beautiful language this kind of joy that runs deep. It is a joy that comes from deep within our very essence—from that place of our true selves. And it is a joy that allows us to say with humble confidence (and not arrogance): let life throw at us what it will. Even in the face of everything terrible or sad, I will rejoice.

Advent is, essentially, a penitential season. It is a season in which we acknowledge, honestly, that we have failed. It is a time for us to recognize that we are slugging through the muck of our lives—a muck we are, at least in part, responsible for. But Advent is also a time for us to be able to rejoice even in the midst of that muck. It is a time for us realize that we will not be in that muck for ever. The muck doesn’t win out. The joy we carry deep within us wins out.

So, as we gather together this morning, and as we leave here this morning, let us remember the joy we feel at seeing this pink candle lit. We have made it this far. The tide has shifted. The light is winning out. The dawn is about to break upon our long dark night.

As you ponder this, as you meditate on this, as you take this with you in your hearts, pay special attention to the emotion this causes within you. Embrace that welling up of joy from deep within. And let it proclaim on your lips the words you, along the prophet Isaiah, long to say:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God;

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"In Heaven, it is alwaies Autumne"

“In heaven, it is alwaies Autumne,” John Donne preached in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral on the evening of December 25, 1624. If so, I came to realize, then in hell it is always winter. Coming as I do from North Dakota, I know a few things about winter. Although there is, if one looks long and hard, a special kind of winter beauty, for the most part I have always found winter in North Dakota to be a season of little beauty—a land frozen and barren.

In the autumn of 2002—the autumn of my cancer year—the earth seemed to close up once again. The trees shed their leaves. Frost covered the ground in the mornings and slowly the temperatures dropped bit by bit as the days went by. As winter began to descend upon the land, I did something that few people my age ever do.

I bought my own gravestone.

Actually, the stone itself had already been bought. My parents purchased their stone—a graceful cut of standing black granite—about four years before and had it set up in the beautiful tree-rimmed cemetery behind their church, Maple Sheyenne Lutheran, set into the flat, black-soiled fields near Harwood, North Dakota. Their names and birth dates were engraved on the front of the stone, along with Brancusi’s “Symbol of Joyce” (although made for James Joyce, my mother, whose name is Joyce, claimed it for herself) and a Native American arrowhead (my father’s hobby). The back of the stone, however, was bare. Only a pale vein of lighter colored granite swam through the dark bare panel.

One bitterly cold Sunday shortly after my diagnosis, I drove out to the cemetery and trudged through the snow to take took a good long look at the stone and the ground around it. It was strange how cancer put it all in perspective—death and dying, burial and cemeteries. Something lethal, after all, had come upon me like a dark shadow. No longer was death something to worry about later, when I was older. It had drawn close—too close for comfort. As it did, the possibility of it taking me sooner than later loomed before me. To say that a realization of this sort was sobering was an understatement.

The thought of my disposition was certainly something I had considered before. Any clergy person who has buried or helped bury parishioners and loved ones certainly entertains thoughts of their own funeral and burial at some point in their career. If my funereal experiences taught me anything, it was that for some reason, cremation somehow made the process easier to bear, at least from my perspective. Open caskets, with the deceased laid out, powdered and embalmed, within bronze Cadillac-like caskets seemed a bit much for my personal tastes. It all seemed unreal in some way, as though it were all a pretense to deceive us into believing that death wasn’t quite what it really was. The over-all feeling of the modern American funeral seemed to perpetuate a false reality that death was an extension of our living. Comfortable in life, we (or our loved ones) should be as comfortable in death, put away inside watertight caskets with plush, cushioned interiors, set into a spectacular reinforced steel vault in the ground.

I was drawn instead to how concise and disposable everything became following cremation—the dry gravel of cremated remains; the small, box-shaped urn, covered by a white pall; the neatly dug hole in the cemetery. The cleanliness and orderliness of it all seemed, quite simply, right.

However, for reasons I could never adequately articulate, the thought of having my ashes scattered never appealed to me. During the one instance in which I had participated in the scattering of someone’s ashes, I found the process more troubling for the family than comforting. There was a cold finality as the last whiffs of a dust that had once been their mother drifted off and settled on the surface of a muddy creek bed. Months later one of the daughters came to me and expressed her regret that they didn’t keep at least some of the ashes to bury. “I realize now,” she said, “that I need a place.”

As I stood in Maple Sheyenne Cemetery near Harwood, North Dakota that cold March afternoon, I realized I needed a place as well. And this was it. This was the place of my roots. The little Lutheran church was the first place I came to know God as a child and it was in this cemetery in my teens that I first realized that death wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—but rather a natural part of one’s life. If there was ever a place my ashes belonged, it was here. As I brushed the snow away from the frozen ground at base of the stone, I felt as though this was one of the surest decisions I had ever made in my life.

After all, it seemed appropriate that, since I was called to be a priest in a cemetery, my mortal remains would end up in one. Cemeteries are, after all, symbols, if nothing else, of the Resurrection. In my part of the U.S.—North Dakota—most cemeteries are ringed with evergreens. There, in the middle of treeless stretches of wheat fields, islands of evergreens seems to rise here and there. The choice of evergreens was more than just aesthetic. The evergreen was a symbol of everlasting life in the midst of death.

After making my decision, the process of planning my final disposition was fairly simple. Having the stone inscribed was easy. The husband of my good friend, Ann, owned the monument company in town. In fact his family had owned the company for over a hundred years. But before I could even go to him, I first had to decide what I wanted inscribed.
The given, of course, was that I wanted to be identified as:


I began there, writing it out on a piece of paper. Next I needed a symbol similar to the ones my parents chose for themselves. I realized the only symbol I could use—the only symbol that made any sense to me in my life at that time and throughout my spiritual journey so far—was the cross. I needed a cross for my stone. But not just any cross. At first, I thought of a bronze one that could be attached to the face of the stone. But as I thought about it even longer and as I searched the Internet for crosses, I finally came upon a beautiful Celtic cross, the Greek letters for the Holy Name—I H S—set in its crook, jumped out at me. A similar cross hung for years above my bed and to have this particular cross at the head of my grave only seemed appropriate after sleeping under it for so long during my life. Only later, some time after the stone had been set into place, did I realize how unique it was to see that Celtic cross and that very English name—PARSLEY—among all those Swedish surnames in that Lutheran cemetery.

The epitaph was a harder choice. I always believed that a poet should, after all, have an epitaph for oneself in mind. I didn’t, however, and this was my dead-end. What kind of epitaph would, in a few carefully chosen words, sum up in some way my life? Throughout the year—through that spring and summer of recovery—the epitaph evaded me. Then, in the fall it came to me as gently as the first falling snow. While on a trip I took to Minot, North Dakota a few weeks before, I wrote a poem on my way there— “Dusk.” In the midst of that poem, the epitaph appeared quietly but surely. There, at the very end of the poem, was the perfect summation not only of who I was, but of what I hoped in and for. The stanza truly summed up the strange, nagging hope that has always obsessed and marked me in one way or the other for the better part of my life.

Look how the dusk—
full of clouds and gloom—
has dissolved into
multitudes of stars!

When the inscription was finally inscribed on the back of the stone in early November, my mother and I drove over to the cemetery. As we approached the stone, I felt a strange pang within my stomach. There it was—my name, engraved in white into the granite. There was my birth date. And there was my identity: Priest •Poet. Finally, there was the stanza I wrote—my epitaph. The only thing missing was a date for my death.
As I stood there, I could very easily imagine that this was where my final remains would come to rest. If ever there was ever a good place to lie, it was that place. It was a good place to leave behind what remained of me.

Later, I wrote the poem “Ash—the Loam” about the buying of my gravestone. It was an easy, effortless kind of poem and because it was, it was a rarity as well.

It will happen—whether creeping
up, lethal and ugly, through my body or
in some merciful instant I can neither plan for

nor even, at this moment, imagine. When it does,
do this for me if you will—bury my ashes here
in the cool shadow of the black granite stone

my father and I set into place just
a few autumns ago. Bury them here—
where the black loam, broken

by the neighbor’s pole digger, will
yawn open for the urn and take it
into its silent embrace. I can’t imagine

anything better for myself—
not the fine-ground bones
released into some unrelenting

gust, nor sealed up in a sterile
marble vault in the cathedral. This will
do. This appeals to me. When I

think beyond that last exhausted breath
I can easily imagine
whatever’s left still here, even

in that inconceivable future, set here
by those I loved and will probably
still love in some way I can only

just barely comprehend now. The Book
of Common Prayer
committal, its precise,
centuries old formula, will please me

if I am able to be pleased and able too
to observe it from some place near
and yet not so near. How often I stood

on the lip of someone else’s grave
and thought of my own far-off (or so
I thought) burial. It is not fear or apprehension

I feel when I think of it but
completeness. Ash—the loam—
the prayers so familiar I could

pray them for myself before sleep—
yes, this is what I want. Bury my ashes
and leave them in this place I have come to

love with an affection only one
who loves the earth in just this wonderfully
perfect way can ever fully understand.

“In heaven, it is alwaies Autumne,” John Donne preached one Christmas four hundred years ago. And I think he was right. In my mind, it is always autumn-like in that little churchyard—a beautiful deep golden season. And conversely, whatever awaits me beyond that cemetery I can’t help but believe is similar. In my mind I imagine it as an almost perfectly inconceivable golden autumn that never ends.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Conception of the B.V.M.

December 8, 2008

Luke. 1. 26

In the Anglo-Catholic tradition, today is the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it is the Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M. For me personally—it’s my birthday.

I have always considered myself fortunate to celebrate my birthday on such a beautiful feast day of Our Lady. As I look back over my spiritual life—all the way back to when I was thirteen and first called to the Priesthood on the Feast of Visitation of the B.V.M.—I realize that Mary has been present with me every step of the way. There she was at every turn, at every trip-up, at every long stretch. Her presence in my life was, in my spiritual eye, always a purely blue, purely gentle and warm and maternal presence there on the fringes.

Throughout the hard times, throughout the set-backs and the spiritual stumblings, I more often than not sought refuge in that presence and took great consolation in it. And I also found great consolation in the fact that one did not have to be a Roman Catholic to have such a deep and abiding devotion to her.

As for the particulars of this feast—this feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary—I have always been ambivalent. I have tried to avoid getting into discussions about whether she was conceived without sin or not, whether she remained a virgin or not. Ultimately, talk of that sort seems so trashy and uncouth. But I have recently cherished something Beverly Donofrio (author of Riding in the Car with Boys) wrote in her wonderful memoir, Looking For Mary: Or, the Blessed Mother and Me. Donofrio writes:

Yes. The Church needed Mary to be a virgin…Her womb may have been a walled garden, but it was graced with fertile soil where something new and unexpected could grow; her abiding virginity was a sign that even the impossible is possible with God.

That’s what makes this feast day so wonderful for me. Maybe she wasn’t conceived without sin. Maybe she didn’t remain a virgin. Maybe even there was no virgin birth. But, I always love the “what if.” These issues of Mary’s virginity are chock-full of “what ifs.” What if she was all of those things? If she was—as she would be the first and quickest to remind us—it wasn’t Mary who did it. If she was all of those things, it was God who did it. It was God who made these wonderful things happen in her. And if God did it, then truly “the impossible is possible with God.” Isn’t that what we all believe anyway? Isn’t that what we all cling to and hope in? Isn’t that what makes our faith in God true faith?

Of course, one of my deepest devotions is to Our Lady of Walsingham. Whenever I look at her image, I do so with a joy and knowledge that this wonderful presence of Mary is a gentle and beautiful reminder that, truly, the impossible is possible with God.

There is a beautiful litany included in the Manual pilgrims to the shrine at Walsingham use. In that Litany, there is a beautiful prayer I return to again and again. I return to it again on this beautiful Feast day of Our Lady’s Conception—and my birthday.

“O Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of life,
as you overshadowed Mary that she might be the Mother of Jesus our Savior
so work silently in my heart,
to form within me the fullness of his redeemed and redeeming humanity.
Give me his loving heart,
to burn with love for God and love for my neighbour;
give me a share of his joy and sorrow.
his weakness and his strength,
his labour for the world’s salvation.
May Mary, blessed among women,
Mother of our Saviour,
pray for me,
that Christ may be formed in me,
that I may live in union of heart and will
with Jesus Christ, her Son, our Lord and Saviour.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

II Advent

December 7, 2008

Psalm 85. 1-2, 8-13

The writer on one of my favorite blogs—Joe Versus the Volcano—shares the following insight this past week:

“I remember,” he writes, “an Anglo-Catholic priest (who was more Catholic in his theology than most Catholic priests I’ve come across), saying that the Second Coming happens every time the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar and we receive Him in holy communion.”

I touched on this thinking a bit last week, but it’s always good to think about it again. No matter where your Eucharistic theology might lie—whether you believe wholeheartedly in the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist or that what we do is merely symbolic of his Body and Blood—the fact does remain that something very important happens here, at this altar every Sunday as we gather. We experience, in a very unique and wonderful way, the Presence of Christ when we gather together at this altar and share these common and very simple and vital gifts of bread and wine. No matter what you believe about how Jesus is present to us at this moment, he is present. He does come to us here and we do feel him present—in the bread, in the wine, in the presence of those who gather with us and who kneel beside us at the rail.

Now, I make no secret of my belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I truly believe that Jesus is present in a unique and beautiful way in the bread and the wine we share with each other. I also believe that Jesus is uniquely present even in the reserved sacrament we place here in the aumbry.

There is a reason we keep the sanctuary light lit before the aumbry. It reminds us that Jesus is present here in a special way. I love driving past St. Stephen’s at night and seeing the deep red glow of the sanctuary light shining through the windows. It is a very visible and meaningful reminder to me that Jesus is present here in a very real way. During Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when the Eucharist is removed from the aumbry and that sanctuary light is extinguished, it too reminds us of Jesus’ presence among us and the absence of that presence when we commemorate that time he spent in the tomb.

At the same time, having professed my belief in the Real Presence, I just as quick to say that I am not a stickler as to the particulars of how Jesus comes among us in the Eucharist. I just read a wonderful new book by the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, called Encountering the Mystery. In this book, Patriarch Bartholomew talks about how important mystery is to the Orthodox understanding of God. He writes:

“The sacraments are the Church’s way of restoring the intimacy between God and the world…They are gifts from God, given in order to appropriate wholeness through transformation. Orthodox Christians in fact prefer to speak ‘mystery’ rather than ‘sacrament’… In this respect, every aspect of divine life is sacramental. Mystery is that sacred space or moment when humanity and creation encounter the transcendent God.”
(Encountering the Mystery p. 86-87)

And that is how we should approach the Eucharist as well. Each Sunday, we gather here and witness a mystery. We, together, participate in something that we might not understand and we might not fully appreciate. But it is, as we all realize, important and wonderful and beautiful.
In what we do here at the altar, we experience Jesus. We see Jesus, we feel Jesus, we taste Jesus. As the contemporary Italian saint, St. Gaetano Catanoso (1897-1963) said, "If we wish to adore the real Face of Jesus, we can find it in the divine Eucharist, where with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Face of Our Lord is hidden under the white veil of the Host".
So, in a very real way, the anxious waiting we are doing during this season of Advent is like the anxious waiting we should do when coming to this altar. It all about anticipation. It is all about our deepest hopes and desires being realized. And they are realized—in Christ. Because they are realized in Christ, we find them realized whenever we encounter Christ.

As I said last week, the Advent of Christ’s coming happens again and again in our lives. Whenever we meet Christ—in the hedges and the highways, as Bishop Frank Weston once proclaimed to us, in the naked and sweated—we find Jesus coming among us yet again. Or, as Patriarch Bartholomew writes in Encountering the Mystery:

“[The Eucharist] challenges individuals and communities to work for a just society, where basic food and water are plentiful for all and where everyone has enough.”

Whenever we meet Christ in the Eucharist, we emerge transformed. We are not the same people were before Communion. We are a people challenged to then go out and share this Communion with others in whatever way we can.

What we are longing for in this season is not something vague and distant. It is not something so mysterious that we can’t fathom it. Rather, what we long for is, truly, fulfillment. It is the fulfillment of all that seems to be missing in us. It is the fulfillment of our anxieties and our frustrations and our depressions and our hopelessness.

In a very real way, the words of our psalm today give voice to what we are unable to say in our hope. When we hear those words,

Truly, [your] salvation is very near to those who fear [you], *
that [your] glory may dwell in our land.

To fear God doesn’t mean to live in fear. It simply means an awesome respect and wonder for God. And for those of us who have such a respect for God we will find God’s glory in our midst. In the Eucharist, in this bread and wine, in this tabernacle, in this unique and real Presence we experience here, we find truly that God’s glory is not out there somewhere—in some distant heaven. Rather, God in Jesus, has come to us and remains among us in a very real and tangible way. In this Eucharist, God’s glory truly does dwell in our land and we are fortunate to be able to partake in it. In God’s Presence among us, we realize, if we truly open ourselves to this experience, that our frustrations, our depressions, all of our spiritual and psychological pains have been healed and our longings have been realized. We don’t need to look anywhere else than right here. And, in that moment of realization, only poetry can truly express what we feel.

In this psalm, we find that lovely verse:

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. In that phrase we are able to find joy bubbling up from one’s lips and it being captured in words. In that meeting of righteousness—of what we know is true and right—and peace—that sense of quietness and confidence within us—we know God is present.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

Before we celebrate the Eucharist together, during the offertory, after the gifts of bread and wine have been brought to the altar, you will see me praying quietly to myself as I touch the bread and the wine. The prayers I pray here are not secret or private. They are just prayers of offering. When I hold the bread, I pray,

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.

And when I hold the wine, I pray,

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, the fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.

In the Eucharist, in these gifts of the earth—this bread which the earth has given and this fruit of the vine—in them, Truth—Jesus himself being the Way, the Truth and the Life—springs forth. The very world in which inhabit—and not just this physical earth, but the our spiritual world, the world of our very essence and existence—will proclaim the truth of God’s Presence among us.

The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.

The truth we have realized is that our fulfillment is only in God. Only in God will we find our anxieties quieted, our hopes realized. At the altar, when we share this bread and wine with one another, we know what true spiritual increase means.

Righteousness shall go before [the LORD], *
and peace shall be a pathway for [God’s] feet.

It’s all right here—in this beautiful poem. What we do here at the altar is important. It is vital to our understanding of ourselves as Christians. It is a wonderful and glorious mystery that we shouldn’t try to pin down and analyze too deeply. We should rather accept it and delight in it and let us fill us and fulfill us.

In these days of Advent, as we prepare to remember Jesus’ first coming among us, our time at the altar should take on special meaning and precedence for us. We should give true and deep thanks for the opportunity to have Jesus come to us in such a unique and wonderful way. And as we come to the altar, with our joy bubbling up from within us, with our anxieties and fears and depressions allayed by the healing balm of this bread and wine, of the healing Presence of our God, we too are able to proclaim with honesty and truth,

You have been gracious to your land, O LORD, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.

3 Pentecost

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