Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holy Family

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

As many of you undoubtedly know,
Christians in the first five or six centuries
produced a number of gospels
in addition to the four that are in the New Testament.
These gospels, which are almost surely not as old as the canonical Gospels
that the Church accepts as Holy Scripture,
seem to have been composed in many cases
to fill in gaps that were perceived in the Scriptural Gospels,
particularly concerning the birth and childhood of Jesus, or his resurrection.

One of these gospels is known as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
and is composed of materials written between the second and sixth centuries.
It tells stories of Jesus as a young boy – and an unusual young boy he is, too.
It opens with a story of five-year-old Jesus
playing by a brook on the Sabbath day:
he first gathers the water into pools, simply by commanding it,
and then begins to forms figures of birds out of the clay.
The neighbors, of course, complain to Joseph
that Jesus is engaged in work on the Sabbath.
When Joseph goes and reprimands him, Jesus claps his hands
and the birds come to life and fly away,
silencing, at least temporarily, his critics.
This is a charming story
that seems to be trying to depict God incarnate as a child:
the same God who in the book of Genesis commands the waters
and forms Adam from the clay of the earth
and makes him a living being.

Other stories in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
sound a more ominous note,
such as the one in which Jesus strikes dead
a boy who inadvertently runs into him.
When the boy’s parents go to Joseph to complain,
Jesus strikes them blind.
Joseph boxes Jesus’ ear, but this does not seem to have much effect:
in the stories that follow Jesus seems as likely to curse and kill the neighbors
as he is to bless and heal them.
Again, what we seem to have here
is an attempt to imagine what God incarnate is like as a child,
only in this case we see the power of God
combined with the impulsiveness and petulance
that sometimes characterizes young children.
Jesus comes across in these stories as some sort of evil child-genius
who terrorizes the town of Nazareth.
While we might appreciate the impulse
that motivated those who composed these tales –
the desire to imagine God incarnate as a child –
in the end what is conveyed
is less the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ,
and something more like one of those movies
in which the demon-possessed child kills off the characters on-by-one.
The events in these stories are, as my son Denis would say,
are not so much miracles as they are “weirdicals.”

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas concludes
with a version of the story from Luke’s Gospel
that is our Gospel reading for today,
which is the only story from the New Testament
that tells us anything about Jesus between his infancy and his baptism.
After the sometimes bizarre tales
that precede it in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,
it is something of a relief to arrive at this familiar story
that doesn’t involve anything particularly extraordinary.

Indeed, compared to what has come before,
one is struck by just how ordinary the boy Jesus depicted by Luke is.
True, he seems to astonish people with the answers he gives
to the questions of the teachers in the Temple,
but no one gets struck dead or blind;
Jesus doesn’t levitate or speak with a booming heavenly voice;
he seems nothing more than a spiritually precocious child.
He is not, as he comes across in the later imaginings
of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,
a powerful and capricious deity in human disguise,
like an avatar of Zeus or Apollo.
Rather, he is a fully human being,
who listens and asks questions of his teachers,
who slips away from his parents and causes them great anxiety,
who returns home with them and is obedient to them,
who advances in wisdom and age and favor,
in the same way that any of us grows and develops within a human family.

And yet, within this ordinariness
there is something extraordinary,
something miraculous.
The boy Jesus says to his anxious family,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Even at this young age, Jesus knows
that when he is in the Temple he is in his Father’s house;
even at this young age Jesus knows
that he is the Son of the God whom he calls “Abba,” Father.
We might try to imagine what this consciousness was like,
whether the twelve-year-old Jesus could have formulated words
such as “begotten, not created” or “one in being with the Father.”
But in the end our imaginations fail,
as they always fail when it comes to knowing God.
Suffice it to say that Jesus knows himself to be God’s Son
in something like the way we might, from our very infancy,
know ourselves to be loved by our parents.
While the newborn infant “knows” very little –
if we are using the term “know” in the sense
that I know next Tuesday is the 29th
or that Caracas is the capital of Venezuela –
there is a sense in which the infant that is held in its mother’s arms
knows her love more deeply and surely
than any other knowledge it will ever have.
The infant knows this love
as the power that has given and sustains its life.
It cannot know itself without knowing this love,
for this love is the soil in which it is rooted.
Just so, Jesus cannot know himself
without knowing the love of his Father,
which is the eternal source of his identity:
we might say that from the outset
he knows himself to be rooted from all eternity
in the soil of divine love.

But there is a difference between this divine love and our human love.
While we human parents try to love our children to the best of our ability,
we are also keenly aware of the failures of our love:
the limits of our patience and generosity,
the shortness of our tempers,
the poverty of our wisdom.
Jesus, however, knows himself to be rooted in a love that is perfect,
a generosity without limits,
a power that will enable him to face opposition and misunderstanding
and even the failure of the cross,
a love that will carry him through death
into the risen life of the Kingdom of God.
This is the true miracle of the boy Jesus:
not the power to make clay birds fly or strike opponents down,
but the miracle of a human life rooted perfectly
in the eternal love of God,
the miracle of one like us,
who unshakably knows himself to be God’s beloved child.

But the miracle does not stop there.
As our second reading, from the First Letter of John, tells us:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us:
that we may be called the children of God.
And so we are.”
The miracle is that God’s Son has become what we are
so that we might become what he is.
The divine love in which his life is rooted from all eternity
has now, in time, been bestowed upon us.
In the face of misunderstanding and opposition and even death
we can know that we are held in God’s love,
a love that will carry us through
to the risen life of God’s Kingdom.
Tricks with clay birds pale in comparison
to the true miracle of this Christmas season –
that we become by grace what Jesus Christ is by nature:
beloved children of God.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent

In our first reading, from the prophet Baruch,
we are presented with a vision of the return of the Israelites to the promised land
from their exile in Babylon.
We know from the book of Ezra that the return of the exiles
was not that of triumphant victors,
but of a divided and dispirited people,
plagued by economic woes and threatened by hostile neighbors.
And yet Baruch presents this return as a glorious one.
Indeed, in today’s reading the word “glory” is used six times.
God is glorious, shining forth in mercy and justice,
but the Israelites too are glorious:
indeed, Jerusalem is called to share in God’s glory,
which is like a cloak that she is to wrap around herself,
having put off her garments of mourning.

So who is right, Baruch or Ezra?
Was the return from exile a glorious one,
or was it really a disheveled band of displaced people straggling home,
beset by troubles and bickering among themselves
and otherwise acting in all-too recognizably human ways?

I am not sure we need to choose.
I suspect Ezra is more or less accurate
in his depiction of the disarray of the returning exiles,
but Baruch the prophet offers us a different sort of vision,
the kind of vision that only a prophet can have,
the kind of vision that can discern the glory of God in the most unlikely of events,
the kind of vision that sees God’s glory
even in the stumbling and all-too recognizably human return of these exiles.
Because Baruch knows that in this event
the most unlikely of things has happened:
God has made a way home for his people.
The prophetic eye can see glory
in the all-too recognizably human struggle of the returning exiles
because it sees that God is present.

What would it mean to look with the same prophetic eye
at our own community here at Corpus Christi?
Like the returning exiles, we too are all-too recognizably human;
even when we are on our best and most self-consciously “churchy” behavior –
when we gather to celebrate the liturgy –
our human limitations seem at times more manifest than God’s glory.
As any liturgical minister will tell you, during the liturgy, stuff happens –
stuff that you hadn't planned on.
You read the wrong reading as a lector,
or mangle the name of some Bronze Age potentate from Assyria.
You drop the host when you are a minister of the Eucharist,
or realize half-way through communion that you've been administering the chalice
with the words, "the body of Christ."
You are leading the the prayer of the faithful and realize in the middle of it
that the carefully thought-out and theologically profound response
you had so carefully prepared
is in fact too long and too quirky for the congregation to remember.
These examples spring to mind because they are all things that I have done.
For me, a particularly memorable moment came last Easter when,
after the gifts of bread and wine has been brought forward
and I had filled the first chalice,
I discovered that the wine was full of ants.
Often such mistakes go unnoticed by the congregation,
though they seem momentous to the minister.
But as anyone who has had a role in serving the liturgy will tell you,
that’s just how liturgical ministry is:
we prepare, we do our best, but sometimes things go wrong,
so we accept our all-too recognizably human imperfections,
and perhaps long for the heavenly liturgy,
where every voice will be in tune,
every word spoken eloquently,
every movement executed gracefully.

Of course, the all-too recognizably human imperfections of our worship
are not limited to liturgical faux pas.
The true imperfection of our worship
is our falling short in faith, hope and, especially, love.
The true imperfection of our worship
is not the mispronounced name,
but the unkindly spoken word;
not the inadvertently dropped the host,
but willfully ignored neighbor;
not the ill-chosen prayer response,
but the hardness of heart that turns us away from prayer altogether.
In short, our worship is imperfect
because we fail to be a people who, in the words of the prophet Micah,
do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.
This is why we begin our worship by acknowledging our sins
and asking for God’s grace and mercy.

Yet despite all this,
we believe it is in our limited, imperfect, error-prone liturgical celebrations
that God comes to meet us,
that the glory of Jesus Christ shines forth in our midst,
and we catch a glimpse of that perfect heavenly liturgy.
It is through hands that all too often fail to do God’s will
and voices that all too often fail to speak God’s good news
that we sinners worship the God of grace and mercy.
And this is possible not because of what we do,
but because of what Christ does.
Last week Fr. Rich spoke of the confidence that we can have that,
despite the turmoil in our world and within ourselves,
Christ is with us.
In the liturgy, Christ becomes flesh and dwells among us.
When we gather as Christians for worship and proclaim the mystery of faith
in words both ancient and new,
when we move beyond words and enact that same mystery
through the language of ritual,
we can have confidence that Christ is present,
speaking and acting with us,
speaking and acting for us.
It is this presence that takes from us our cloak of mourning
and wraps us in the cloak of God’s glory.

Julian of Norwich said that
“As the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin,
and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the chest,
so are we, soul and body,
clad in the goodness of God and enclosed in it” (A Revelation of Love, ch. 6).
We – a poor, disheveled and all-too recognizably human band of pilgrims –
gather weekly in this place
and speak our imperfect words of prayer
and make our imperfect gestures of peace and. . .
wonder of wonders,
Jesus Christ stands with us in our midst
and clothes us in the robe of his own glory
and, perhaps for just a moment,
we feel the weight of that glory resting on our shoulders,
and we know in that moment
that we truly are clad and enclosed in the goodness of God.