Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday


The Holy Trinity is serious business,
so you don’t hear a lot of jokes about the Trinity,
but, maybe because I’m in the business,
I have actually heard one.
A bishop is at a parish for Confirmation
and decides that in his homily
he will quiz the teenagers
he is supposed to be confirming.
So he asks them,
“who can tell me what the Trinity is?”
They all look at their shoes,
in that way that teenagers do.
So he calls on one young man
who mumbles a reply,
in that way that teenagers do.
The bishop says,
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.”
The boy sighs,
in that way that teenagers do,
and replies, only slightly louder,
“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
The bishop, wanting the boy to speak up
so everyone can hear him,
says, “I’m sorry, I still didn’t understand.”
And the boy, rolling his eyes,
in that way that teenagers do,
says loudly and clearly,
“You’re not supposed to understand it.
It’s a mystery.”

Maybe not the best joke,
but it makes a point
about how many Christians approach the Trinity.
It is a doctrine that we are taught to repeat
but cannot possibly be expected to understand.
And this is true, in a sense,
because the doctrine of the Trinity says something about God,
and God is the ultimate mystery of existence,
which our finite minds cannot comprehend.
At the same time,
our Scripture readings for this feast of the Holy Trinity
do give us some insight
into why the Church came to profess belief
in a God who, while one,
is also three distinct persons who are equally God.

In our first reading, from Deuteronomy,
we hear rehearsed the fundamental tenant
of the faith of ancient Israel:
“that the LORD is God in the heavens above
and on earth below,
and that there is no other.”
God is one, utterly unique;
God has no competitor gods,
no rival deities;
God possesses the fullness of divine power
and God commands unwavering loyalty from God’s people.
But then, in our Gospel,
the risen Jesus tells his disciples,
“All power in heaven and on earth
has been given to me.”
The power that the book of Deuteronomy tells us
belongs to God alone,
Jesus says has been given to him
by the God he calls “Father”;
what the tradition of Israel says
can only be true of God,
Jesus claims as true of himself.
And finally, in the letter to the Romans,
Paul speaks of the “Spirit of God”
who has the power to make us co-heir with Christ,
so that we too cry out to God as our “Abba,” our father.

So the Scriptures,
while teaching that God is one,
also claim for Jesus and the Spirit
things that can only be true of God.
Not three gods, but one God
eternally existing in three persons,
who are united in a perfect and eternal dance of love,
each fully sharing in what it means to be God.
This is what that rather strange word “consubstantial,”
which we find in the Creed,
is trying to get at.
Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just as much God
as the Father is:
they are not demigods or messenger boys;
to say that the Son and Spirit
are “consubstantial” with the Father
is to say something
about the incredible intimacy of God with us:
the coming of Christ into our world
is the promised coming of God,
not the arrival of some emissary
dispatched by God from above;
the presence of the Spirit in our lives
is the presence of God,
not the presence of some go-between
linking us to a distant deity.
The mystery of the Trinity
is the mystery of eternal love,
eternal joy,
into which we have been invited
through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote:
“Do you want to know what goes on
in the heart of the Trinity?
I will tell you.
In the heart of the Trinity
the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father
and gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.”
Leaving aside some finer points of theology,
Eckhart presents us
with a picture of the Trinity, of God,
as an eternal act of shared joy,
shared love,
shared hilarity,
ecstatically overflowing into the world
in our creation and redemption.

This is who our God is:
truly a mystery,
but not a mysterious force operating at a distance
nor an inscrutably stern heavenly lawmaker,
but something like the mystery of happiness
that arises from mutual love,
the mystery of an infectious act of eternal laughter
that draws us in and makes us laugh along
until cleansing tears of joy run down our faces.
So perhaps we should tell more—and funnier—
jokes about the Trinity.
Or maybe we should live our faith
in the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit
with such joy,
with such passion,
with such infectious hilarity
that those around us
cannot help but join in that laughter
and feel a bit more faith,
a bit more hope,
a bit more love.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Easter 6


Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

Though we have moved, thank God,
out of the top story slot on the cable news programs,
with their endlessly repeated video loops
of the burning CVS at Penn and North,
our city continues to struggle to understand
the events of the past few weeks.

Part of this is the struggle of how to describe
what happened on April 27, a week ago this past Monday.
Was it looting?
A riot?
An uprising?
I suspect that it was in some measure
all three of these at once.
But most of all it was a sign,
a symptom of an underlying disease in our society,
a disease of violence and injustice,
of racism and despair,
a disease that manifests itself
in the poorest parts of our city
but for which we all bear responsibility.

If a sacrament is, as St. Augustine said,
an outward and visible sign
of an inward and invisible grace,
then the violence of April 27
was something like an anti-sacrament:
an outward and visible sign
of a pervasive violence and injustice
that is invisible to many of us,
but which too many
of our brothers and sisters in this city
live with on a daily basis.
It was not simply a sign of the personal moral failures
of those who damaged property or looted businesses,
but of our collective moral failure as a society
to make good on our talk of justice and equality.
I think for many of us these past few weeks
have been a time of soul-searching,
a time in which we have been forced by events
to ask ourselves
how could we have ignored for so long
the truths about our city now made manifest to us.
We have been forced by events to ask ourselves
what we can do
and from where we can draw our hope
as we seek a city that is more peaceful
because it is more just.

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl,
recounts a story from his experience
in a Nazi death camp:
“One evening,
when we were already resting
on the floor of our hut,
dead tired, soup bowls in hand,
a fellow prisoner rushed in
and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds
and see the wonderful sunset.
Standing outside we saw sinister clouds
glowing in the west
and the whole sky alive with clouds
of ever-changing shapes and colors,
from steel blue to blood red.
The desolate grey mud huts
provided a sharp contrast,
while the puddles on the muddy ground
reflected the glowing sky.
Then, after minutes of moving silence,
one prisoner said to another,
‘How beautiful the world could be...’”

It seems to me that when we gather
to celebrate the sacraments
it is like the beauty of the sunset
reflecting in the puddles
of that desolate, grey death camp.
God’s grace, at work in the sacraments,
is a thing of great beauty
shining in a world of sin and injustice.
It is the grace that, in our first reading,
welcomed the gentile Cornelius and his household
into the family of God,
the God who, as St. Peter exclaims,
“shows no partiality.”
It is the grace that takes us
from being slaves to sin
and makes us into friends of Christ
and of each other in Christ.
It is the grace of the God
whom we can only know through love,
the God who is love.
And when we baptize,
when we break bread,
when we anoint,
when we absolve,
that beauty shines upon us,
transforming death into life
drawing us along with Jesus
in his passing over
from the tomb of death
to the life of glory.

But while the sacraments
make real and present to us
the beauty of God’s grace,
they should also make us ever more aware
of the graceless violence and hideous injustice
suffered in the hidden corners of our city,
our nation,
our world.
It shouldn’t take the anti-sacrament of a riot
to make us face up to the injustice
suffered by our brothers and sisters,
not when we baptize in order to free from bondage,
not when we gather each week to remember
the legally-sanctioned injustice
of the death of Jesus.
The sacraments should not simply console us
with the beauty of God’s grace.
They should awaken within us a holy impatience,
a holy sense of outrage,
an awareness of how beautiful the world could be
but is not—not yet—
for those confined within places of death.

Christ calls us his friends
and calls us to be friends with one another.
The God who shows no partiality
calls us to cross the barriers
of race and ethnicity, class and culture.
The past few week have shown us how difficult
that seemingly simple command is.
What would it mean if we took this vision
of how beautiful the world could be
and lived it outside these walls?
It’s hard for me to imagine, honestly.
In the past few weeks
my eyes have been transfixed
by the ugliness of injustice.
But here at this altar we catch a glimpse
of the beauty that could be,
when the friendship of all God’s people
will be present not in sacramental signs
but in the reality of the kingdom
of the God who is love.
May our celebration today fill us
with the grace of holy impatience
for the coming of that kingdom.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Easter 2



Readings: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31

We hear in our second reading today,
from the First Letter of John,
that anyone who truly has faith
that Jesus is God’s Son
not only believes, but also loves.
And he or she loves not only God the Father,
but also the child who is begotten by God.
And the child begotten by God is not only Jesus,
who is, as the Creed says,
“born of the Father before all ages,”
but also includes all those
who have been reborn in Christ
and become children of God.

St. Augustine, in a sermon on this passage,
says that one who truly believes loves not just Jesus
but all those who are members of his body.
Augustine speaks of loving “the whole Christ”—
Jesus the head,
but also we who are his body,
his limbs, his hands and feet.
Indeed, Augustine says that
the whole Christ includes also
those who are not yet visibly
members of Christ’s body
but who are destined by God
to one day be united with him.
Claiming to love Jesus the head,
Augustine says,
while not loving our brothers and sisters
who make up Christ’s body
is like kissing someone on their lips
while stepping on their toes (Homily 10 on 1 John).
We only have true faith
if we love the whole Christ,
both the head and the members.

Then John says something
that may at first surprise and puzzle us:
“the victory that conquers the world
is our faith.”
This statement might conjure for us
troubling images
of crusaders or conquistadors
who bear the cross in one hand
and a sword in the other,
spreading Christianity around the world by force.

Perhaps it goes without saying
that I think this misunderstands
what John’s letter means
when it speaks of victory
and conquest over the world.
“The world” that faith conquers
doesn’t mean the globe,
and the world-conquest spoken of
is not a matter of seizing territory.
Rather, “the world” is John’s coded language
for all of those powers
of hatred and greed and self-seeking
that are opposed to the light and love of God
revealed in Jesus Christ.
Faith’s victory over the world
is the triumph of self-sacrificing love
over our sinful human tendency
to pursue only our own good.

Faith conquers the world
not by occupying territory
but by occupying hearts.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus,
eating his final meal with his disciples,
knowing that he is going to face death
for those he loves,
says to them,
“Have courage;
I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
If we believe that he has conquered
through his love,
if we believe that his cross is more powerful
than any sword,
if we believe that death had
no power to hold him,
then his Spirit has taken hold of our hearts.
In our love for the whole Christ
we say “no” to the forces
of hatred and self-interest
that would seek to convince us
that self-sacrificial love
is a loser’s game.
In our love for the whole Christ
we proclaim that true victory
belongs to those who love
to the point of laying down their lives.

We catch a glimpse of this victory
in the Book of Acts’ depiction
of the earliest Christian community.
Living in the immediate afterglow of the resurrection
and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost,
“there was no needy person among them”
because all their resources were pooled together
“and they were distributed to each according to need.”
There was no needy person among them
because self-giving love
was victorious over self-interest.
Through this faith suffused with love
for the whole Christ,
the first Christians
conquered the world.

This image of the earliest Church
may sound suspiciously socialist to some,
but it has inspired Christians
from St. Benedict to St. Francis to Dorothy Day.
And it should inspire and challenge us today.
At the very least,
it should prompt us to ask
how our own life together as a parish
might more clearly manifest
the faith that conquers the world,
might more clearly show
our love for the whole Christ,
head and members.

Maybe it begins with something as simple
as remembering each other in prayer on a daily basis,
or volunteering to teach in our faith formation program,
or even coming to our parish open house next Saturday.
These are small things,
but by God’s grace
they are the seeds of self-giving love,
the love-infused faith that we must have
if we are to be a life-filled
and life-giving Christian community,
a community in which
the risen Christ is present
saying to us
and saying through us,
“Have courage;
I have conquered the world”—
“Do not be unbelieving,
but believe.”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Holy Thursday


Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-5

It is often said that John’s Gospel is the one
that presents most clearly Jesus’ divine glory.
After all, John begins his Gospel
by speaking of Jesus as the Word
who is in the beginning with God and who is God.
In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks at great length
about his relationship as Son
to the one he calls “Father,”
whose glory he shares and reveals.
And even as John begins his account
of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples
he tells us that Jesus was,
“fully aware that the Father
had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God
and was returning to God.”
As his hour drew near, Jesus knew
that God the Father was his origin and his destiny
and, as the eternal Son of the Father,
God had put everything in his power.
Surely, this was greatness and power and glory
such as the world had never seen.

But John’s Jesus is also a strikingly human figure.
He is someone who celebrates at a wedding reception
and weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
He is someone whose spirit is “troubled”
when he predicts his own death
and when he predicts Judas’ betrayal.
He is not just strikingly human,
but he makes himself into
a particular kind of human being:
he takes up the position of the lowliest,
the most menial of human beings:
At the last supper, before his farewell discourse
at which he would reveal his intimacy
with God the Father,
“he rose from supper
and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist…
and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”
Jesus the master becomes a servant to his disciples.

St. Augustine saw in these actions
not simply an act of service
but an enacted parable of the meaning
of Jesus’s whole existence:
Jesus removes his outer garment
to symbolized his emptying himself of his divine glory,
and ties the towel around his waist
to symbolize his taking
the form of a servant (Tractate 55.7).
At the last supper the exalted Word of God,
in whose hands the Father has placed divine power,
uses those hands to wash his follower’s feet,
the most humble of tasks.

This humility that Jesus shows at the Last Supper
is a foreshadowing of the humility
to the point of humiliation
that he will show on the cross.
But for John, the humiliation of the cross
is paradoxically Jesus’ supreme glorification—
it is the point at which supreme divine power
is revealed in the weakness of a love
that is willing to die for the truth.

The 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote,
“We do not show greatness by being at one extreme,
but rather by touching both at once
and filling all the space in between” (Pascal, Pensées 560).
John’s Gospel is a gospel of extremes.
Jesus is the exalted, all-powerful, all-knowing God made flesh
and he is the servant who performs the most lowly of tasks.
Touching at the same time the highest divine glory
and the deepest human humility,
Jesus fills all the space in between,
revealing his glory in his supreme act of humility.
You do not understand the true greatness of Jesus Christ
until you know both his glory and his humility.

But knowing this, we are freed
to be honest with ourselves about ourselves—
that is to say, to be both humble and glorious ourselves.
When we discover the glorious humility of God
we no longer have to try to convince ourselves
either that we are too good to wash the feet of others,
or that our feet are too dirty to let others wash.
To quote Pascal again:
“Jesus Christ is a God whom we approach without pride,
and before whom we humble ourselves
without despair” (Pascal, Pensées 245).
Because Christ reveals to us a God
who stoops to wash our feet,
filling all the space in between humility and glory,
as we share tonight in his act of humility,
freed from both pride and despair
we can touch his glory,
the glory that is revealed
in these days of cross and resurrection,
the glory that we share in mystery even now,
the glory with which we too
will one day shine in God’s kingdom.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday



Readings: Mark 11:1-10; Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

On Ash Wednesday, as Lent began,
many of us received a cross of ashes on our foreheads
with the words, “remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
We began our Lent marked with the sign of Jesus’s cross
and a reminder that, however long our life might be,
death is a reality from which none of us escapes.
Now, as Lent is ending, we return to the cross
and the story of how even Jesus, the incarnate Son of God,
entered into the mystery of death.

And what has happened in our lives
between Ash Wednesday and now?
Some of us, perhaps many of us,
have prayed and fasted and given alms.
Others of us have done other things:
remodeled our kitchens, lost loved ones,
been sick or hospitalized, attended funerals,
watched the third season of House of Cards on Netflix,
started or ended relationships, gone on trips,
gone to work, shoveled snow,
attended school or church or the symphony…
all of the stuff of life that doesn’t stop happening
just because it is Lent,
just because we have been marked
with a reminder of the reality of death,
just because we are supposed to be preparing
by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving
to celebrate Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.

Whether we have experienced Lent
as a time of intense preparation for Easter
or simply as five weeks of ordinary life,
or as—what is most likely—something in between,
the love revealed in the cross of Jesus
has still embraced our lives,
even if we have let it slip from our minds
as we celebrated and grieved and worked and rested.
Now we stand at the threshold of Holy Week
and the invitation is renewed to let our lives be marked
by the mystery of divine love
revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
If you have fasted and prayed and given alms this Lent,
then let the liturgies
of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil
crown your noble efforts
with the priceless gift of God’s grace.
If you have let the everyday concerns of life
sweep you along,
forgetting that you are dust,
barely noticing that it was Lent,
much less praying or fasting or giving alms,
then even more let the grace of these celebrations
sweep you up into the mystery of God’s love.

We have the holiest days of the year ahead of us,
and God is inviting all of us,
whether we have kept Lent well or badly,
to embrace these days and let them embrace us,
so that we might hear resound in the depths of our hearts
the good news that though we are but dust
the breath of life can be breathed into us once again.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lent 3


Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25

I found myself thinking this week
about the word “lapidary.”
I’m not sure it’s a word
that I’ve ever spoken aloud (until now),
and though I’ve read it on a number of occasions
I think I have had only the vaguest sense of its meaning—
the idea that it described a statement composed of few words.
And my vague sense was correct: it does mean that.
The term comes from the Latin lapis or “stone,”
so a lapidary statement is one
that is suitable for carving in stone.
It is a monumental statement,
a statement that is short and eloquent,
because carving stone is difficult
and whatever you carve in it
is going to be around a long time,
so you better make sure it’s something worth saying.

In our first reading, from the book of Exodus,
we hear proclaimed what is perhaps
the most famous set of lapidary statements ever:
the ten commandments.
They are quite literally lapidary,
for we are told a bit later in Exodus
that God gives Moses stone tablets
upon which are engraved
the words of the commandments.

Presumably God chose these words carefully.
But the pithiness of the commandments
is directed not so much to the stone of the tablets
but to the stone of our human hearts—
hearts grown hard in sin,
hearts that seek to make themselves
impenetrable to God’s word.
Some of the commandments are particularly pithy:
“You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.”
Each of these commandments
is only two words in Hebrew.
When we hear these commandments
and inwardly squirm,
feeling accused,
feeling even convicted,
this is the feeling of God’s lapidary word
being carved into the stone of our hearts—
monumental words that we cannot forget,
even if we try.
And we do try.

In our Gospel reading
Jesus comes to the Temple in Jerusalem,
the holiest place in all of Israel,
and finds it turned into a place of commerce.
Only hearts grown stony could forget so thoroughly
what the Temple was supposed to be:
a place of meeting between God and his people,
a “thin place” where heaven and earth touch,
where one could enter into
the life-giving communion of humanity with God.
Now the Temple is a place of monetary exchange:
a place where those who have get more,
where those who have not are exploited,
where the true God, the living God, is forgotten.
Into this place of stony hearts
Jesus comes as God’s lapidary Word:
a Word who is pithy and piercing
in both speech and action:
“stop making my Father’s house a marketplace”—
stop treating God as an idol whose grace
is turned into a commodity to be bought and sold.

As then in Jerusalem,
so now in our own lives:
Jesus the Word comes to carve himself
into the stone of our hearts:
a Word of power and wisdom that
can pierce our hearts,
can overturn the tables of business as usual,
so that God’s commandments can reach
to their very core of our hearts,
so that they can be healed of sin.
In the Middle Ages spiritual writers spoke
of the experience of “compunction,”
which literally means being punctured,
but was used to speak
of the experience of repentance,
the experience of God’s word penetrating
to the core of our hearts,
calling us back into relationship
with God and each other,
calling us to let God remake
the temple of our heart
into a “thin place”
where heaven and earth can meet.
Let Lent be a time to hear that call,
to let Jesus,
God’s lapidary Word made flesh,
pierce our stony hearts,
so that he might live in us,
and we in him.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

St. Paul’s words this morning,
from his First Letter to the Corinthians,
may not fall pleasingly upon our ears,
at least not the ears of those of us who are married.
While the unmarried are
“anxious about the things of the Lord,”
a married man or woman is
“anxious about the things of the world,”
seeking to please his or her husband or wife,
and thus is “divided”—
seemingly not fully committed.
It sort of makes us married folks
sound like second-class Christians.
And if you are a Catholic of a certain age
(you know who you are)
it may remind you of the days
when it was implied or often stated
that the true Christians
were the celibate priests and sisters
and that if you were serious about your faith,
if you had a “vocation” or “calling,”
you had better avoid the worldliness of marriage.

In Paul’s defense,
I would note that if we place this passage
in the context of his letter as a whole,
he is in fact defending marriage
against those Christians in Corinth who were arguing
that no Christian should be married,
that marriage and all that went with it—
managing households, owning servants, raising children—
was part of the old creation that was being swept away
by the new creation in Christ,
which would soon reach its consummation
in the return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead.
While Paul commends the fervor of these enthusiasts,
he tells them, a bit earlier in the letter,
that while he might “wish everyone to be as I am”—
that is, celibate—
“each has a particular gift from God,
one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:7).
In other words,
celibacy is a divine gift and calling,
but so too is marriage.

Yet it is undeniable that while Paul
affirms the goodness of marriage,
he holds celibacy is special esteem.
And it is undeniable that in the tradition of the Church
the consecrated life of poverty, chastity, and obedience
has had—
and continues to have—
an indispensible role in the life of the Church.
But what exactly is that role?
What distinctive things do those who vow themselves
to a life of celibate chastity
bring to our common life in the Body of Christ?

Let me try to answer that question
from my perspective as a married person.
I don’t think, as was sometimes implied in ages past,
that those who undertake celibacy
necessarily achieve a surplus of holiness
that makes up for my lack of holiness,
a lack brought about by my married state.
I have known a fair number
of celibate men and women over the years:
some have seemed to me quite holy;
some were noticeably not.
But what they have done, all of them,
is to remind me,
by their very act of promising themselves to celibacy,
that the call of Jesus is a call to radical love,
a love that reaches into the roots of our being,
a love so radical that one might for its sake
renounce other perfectly legitimate forms of human love.
By responding to Jesus’ radical call in their lives
by promising themselves to a life of celibate chastity,
they have challenged me, in my own life,
to find a response
that is as radical
as the call I have received.

At least for me, it takes something as drastic,
something as strange,
something as shocking
as a promise of celibacy
to drive home just how radical
my own calling has been.
The writer Flannery O’Connor,
in explaining why her novels and short stories
often had such appalling plot twists,
noted, “to the hard of hearing you shout,
and for the almost blind
you draw large and startling figures.”
For me, celibacy is a large and startling figure
that pulls me up short,
that makes me ask myself,
“What do I do in my life
to respond to the love of Jesus,
the love that gave up everything for me—
for me
even to the point of death on a cross?”
I think in our society as a whole
the life of celibate chastity
serves as a large and startling figure.
In a culture in which sex is a valuable commodity,
used for everything from selling products
to affirming our self worth,
the act of giving up something so valuable
seems shocking, unthinkable.
It is perhaps one of the few things
that you could tell someone about yourself
and elicit the response, “You’re what?”

Celibacy is a sign of contradiction
because it reminds us
that we do not live for this life alone,
but for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ,
and we live for that kingdom by clinging to God’s grace
and by that grace being transformed
into the likeness of Jesus.
This is an easy thing to forget,
and we need things that grab our attention,
things that startle and even shock us.
So we owe a debt of thanks
to our fellow members of Christ’s body
who have, by the consecration of their lives,
become living signs and reminders
of Christ’s call to radical love,
the love that opens its arms on the cross
to embrace me, and you, and all of God’s creation.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Epiphany



Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

You may not know that the first American city
with gas street lights
was our own beloved Baltimore.
The brainchild of the painter Rembrandt Peale,
who also founded Baltimore’s first art museum,
the first street lamp was lighted on February 7, 1817,
and the papers of the day tell us,
“that the effect produced
was highly gratifying to those
who had an opportunity of witnessing it,
among whom were several members
of the Legislature of the State.”
A monument to this lamp stands to this day
on the corner of North Holliday and East Baltimore Streets
(at one end of a rather notorious strip known as The Block).

No doubt one reason that witnessing
the lighting of this lamp
was highly gratifying
is because we humans are not by nature nocturnal creatures:
we have evolved in such a way that the light of day
is the environment in which we most naturally
live and move and have our being.
In Scripture and tradition, the darkness of nighttime
represents everything perilous about life,
everything outside of our control,
everything from which we pray God to protect us.
In the opening verses of the book of Genesis
God speaks the words “Let there be light”
and pushes back the chaotic darkness
in order to make a place for us.
In contrast, one of traditional names for the devil
is princeps tenebrarum—the prince of darkness.
As an old Scottish poem puts it:
“From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!”
St. Augustine imagined our final heavenly rest in God
as a Sabbath day would never be ended by night.
Night and day, darkness and light, are powerful images
of peril and salvation.

This morning we read from the book of the prophet Isaiah,
“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!
Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.”
God chose the Israelites, the family of Abraham,
to receive his promise of light,
to be an island of light in a world of darkness. 
Yet God’s chosen people did not receive
God’s light and glory
simply to bask in its protecting glow;
rather, they were to reflect that glory
so as to themselves become a light
by which other peoples, other nations, might walk—
a light of divine goodness
that presses back the night of evil.
In our Gospel reading, Matthew uses the story of the Magi
as a way of symbolizing that God’s promise of light
has now through Christ been shared with the Gentiles,
those who are not physical descendants of Abraham;
the story of the Magi shows that people of all nations
have become, as St. Paul puts it,
“coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus
through the gospel.”
Through Jesus, the light of God s
preads deeper into the night of sin.

Today, through technology,
we have colonized the night
and turned it into day that is 24/7.
Beginning with that first gas street lamp,
we have illuminated everything.
For most of us, the night no longer holds hidden terrors:
we no longer the need to huddle together
amidst the encircling gloom of nightfall,
we no longer fear the darkened path along which we stumble.
Every dark place can be made bright with a flick of a switch.
But even if our electrified, light-polluted nights
have lost their power
to symbolize all those things
that we fear,
that are beyond our control,
from which we seek protection,
this does not mean that we have vanquished
everything perilous in life,
that we have brought all things
under our control,
that we no longer need God’s protection.
The very fact that the monument
to the first street lamp in our country
is located on the edge of
one of the seedier areas of our city
reminds us that the night
of evil and violence and human degradation
remains with us regardless of our technical mastery
of light and darkness.
We see it in the news and, alas, find it in ourselves,
beyond the reach of any technological solution.

This night cannot be vanquished
with the flick of a switch.
This night can only be vanquished
by the true light,
the light that God promised to the Israelites,
the light that the Magi sought in Bethlehem,
the light that God bestows upon us
in his word and sacraments.
The light that we celebrate on this Epiphany
has been given to us,
not to be kept as a private possession
with which to keep our personal night at bay,
but as something to be joined to the light of others
so that the glory of God might saturate
the dark places of our world
and the true light of God revealed in Jesus Christ
might lead all people
to that Sabbath day that has no end.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holy Family


Readings: Genesis15:1-6, 21:1-3; Hebrews11:8, 11-12, 17-19; Luke 2:22-40

Abraham was already an old man when God called him.
At seventy-five, he probably thought himself
well past his sell-by date.
Yet God called him forth from his homeland
and promised that he and his wife Sarah,
who had been childless for many decades,
would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.
It seemed an unlikely scenario,
but, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us,
“he thought that the one
who had made the promise was trustworthy.”
He had faith in God’s promise,
and from him and Sarah
came forth the nation
into which Jesus Christ was born.

Simeon also was an old man
who had received God’s promise:
in this case the promise
was that he would not die
before seeing God’s anointed,
the one who would fulfill the promise
that God made to Abraham and his descendants
that through them all the families of the world
would be blessed.
He lived in hope,
as he grew weary and weak with the years.
Yet his weariness did not prevent God’s Spirit
from leading him to the Temple in Jerusalem
on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus there
to offer the sacrifice of redemption for their firstborn.
His weariness did not prevent the Spirit
from giving him eyes of faith,
with which to recognize in the Christ child
the one for whom he and his people
had waited for so many years.

Anna the prophetess had, like Simeon,
grown old in God’s service.
We might imagine the grief she felt
when she was widowed after only seven years of marriage,
grief that led her to seek solace and hope in God.
At eighty-four, Luke tells us,
she never left the Temple area,
but led a life of fasting and prayer.
With her prophet’s eyes, she too, like Simeon,
recognized in the child Jesus
the arrival of God’s salvation
and she too offered up
a prayer of thanks to God.

So what is it with all these old people
in our readings today?
Isn’t Christmas about baby Jesus?
Isn’t it about something new, not something old?
Isn’t it about life that is just beginning,
not about life that is nearing its end?
So much of our celebration of Christmas
is tied up with images of childhood—
often highly sentimentalized and unrealistic images
of innocent, cherub-like tots
nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar-plums
dance in their heads.
So the presence on this feast of the Holy Family
of such emphatically old people
as Abraham and Simeon and Anna
can seem just a bit jarring.
This is particularly true in a culture like ours,
which seems to prize youth so highly
and to relegate the elderly to the margins,
seeing them as economically unproductive
and perhaps a discomfiting reminder of our own mortality.
Some even speak of those who are old and sick
as having “a duty to die”
so as not to drain resources
that could be used by the young
or burden them with their care.
And some elderly people internalize this way of thinking:
suffering from social isolation
imposed not only by their own infirmity,
but also by a culture that wants to hide them away,
they come to see their own lives as useless.

But this is not how God sees things.
God does not see age or weakness or infirmity,
but the potential of the human spirit
to be transformed and renewed by God’s Spirit
at every stage of life’s journey.
When God wanted to establish a people to be his own
he did not choose parents who were young and fertile,
but Abraham and Sarah:
old and barren—
as the letter to the Hebrews says, “as good as dead”—
yet fruitful in the hope of God’s promise of life.
When God wanted the Messiah’s arrival
heralded in God’s Temple
he did not choose fresh-faced prophets
who could relate to the young,
but Simeon and Anna:
sight failing with the passage of many years,
yet gifted with the eyes of faith
to recognize God’s salvation.
Where we may see only the infirmities of old age,
God sees disciples who are reborn in the Spirit
each and every day:
in God’s Spirit the eyes that have grown dim
can have the keenest of spiritual sight;
in God’s Spirit the body that is failing
can still show forth the glory of God,
even in its weakness.

The Holy Family of God’s people is, we might say,
a multi-generational family
in which young and old live together
within the household of the Church,
sharing with each other our unique gifts,
gifts that are bestowed on young and old alike.
When I think of my own parents,
of my elderly friends,
of parishioners here at Corpus Christi,
I think of the gifts of wisdom and experience
that age can bring.
But even more I think of the gift of the Spirit,
the Spirit that makes the young see visions
and the old dream dreams,
the Spirit whose love binds all of us—
young and old and in-between—
into one Holy Family of God.
May the prayers of Abraham and Sarah,
Simeon and Anna,
assist us as the Spirit works within us
to make us into a community
in which the gifts of all
are welcomed and valued.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent 2


Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

“Be prepared.”
It’s the motto of the Boy Scouts,
so it must be good advice.
The founder of the Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell,
explained this motto back in 1908:
Be prepared in mind by having disciplined yourself
to be obedient to every order,
and also by having thought out beforehand
any accident or situation that might occur,
so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment,
and are willing to do it.
Be prepared in body by making yourself strong and active
and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it.”

“Be prepared.”
It might also be thought of as the motto of John the Baptist,
with whom St. Mark associates the prophetic words:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Be prepared, so that you will know and do
the right thing at the right moment.

It is therefore surprising, perhaps,
that people in Jesus’s day
proved to be so thoroughly unprepared for him:
that when the right moment came—
that moment in human history
when God’s promise of comfort and salvation
was to be fulfilled—
almost no one was prepared to do the right thing.
In Mark’s Gospel in particular,
as we shall hear in our Sunday readings
over the course of the next year,
not only did the crowds and the religious leaders of the Jews
fail to do the right thing at the right moment,
but even Jesus’s closest followers,
even Peter who had confessed Jesus to be God’s anointed,
were unprepared when the moment of Christ’s passion came.

But perhaps we should not be surprised.
In the very first sentence of his Gospel,
Mark hints that the story he is about to tell
will be so strange,
that no one could have been prepared for it:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
He first tells us that this story is “gospel”—“good news”—
which in the ancient world was a term used to denote
the announcement of a royal birth
or a victory in battle.
And then he tells us that this good news
concerns Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God:
one who shares the nature of God
in the way that a child shares
in the nature of his or her parent.
Perhaps after this opening
we should be prepared to hear a story
that is not like your typical story,
since it is, after all, the story of the Son of God.
But just when we have prepared ourselves
to hear a marvelous story
of the mighty deeds
and the triumphant victories
of the Son of God,
Mark proceeds to tell us a story
of misunderstanding and rejection,
a story of betrayal and abandonment,
a story of suffering and death,
and a mysterious message at an empty tomb.
Who would have predicted that the story of God’s Son
would take such a form?
Who could have possibly,
in the words of Robert Baden-Powell,
“thought out beforehand
any accident or situation that might occur”?

It seems that the point that Mark is making in his Gospel
is that no matter how much we prepare,
no matter how thoroughly
we think things out beforehand,
no matter how strong and active
we make ourselves,
we are never prepared for Jesus:
we are never prepared for the surprising story
of the eternal Son of God
who takes on the form of a servant
for us and for our salvation.
We are never prepared because we inevitably think
within our human categories,
according to our human notions
of what the right thing is
and when the right moment.
But Jesus comes precisely to overturn
those categories and notions:
to make us rethink
what we have thought out ahead of time,
to undermine our idea of what it means to be strong.

Yet Mark’s Gospel also bids us,
“prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Indeed, the Church gives us this season of Advent
as a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus.
So how do you prepare for the one who is
the one for whom you can never prepare?
Perhaps we prepare not by making plans,
but by making space.
Not by thinking things out ahead of time
but by opening a place in our hearts and minds
for the Word of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Not by becoming strong and active,
but by making our hearts soft and pliable to God’s Spirit.

This is, of course,
the most difficult sort of preparation there is,
particularly in the season of frenetic activity
that leads up to Christmas.
But this is the challenge of Advent:
to clear some time in our busy lives,
to make some space in our crowded minds,
to prepare a way into our hearts
for the one for whom we can never prepare,
but who comes to us to shock us,
to surprise us,
to delight us with his love.