In this Gospel lesson appointed for today, there is a recurring word: light. In the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, we are reminded – seven times – that God is light, “the true light that enlightens everyone.” Light is a recurring theme during Christmastide, not just in the scriptures, but in life all around us. We see festive lights strung across the streets, on lamp poles, in shop windows, and on the gables of houses here in Cambridge and in so many places across the country. In your home you may have a lighted Christmas tree and festive candles on your table or in your windowsill. Here in our chapel, our crèche is lighted; the altar is specially lighted with towering candles. This array of lights we customarily see in Christmastide has a Christian history, but not a Christian origin.
The tradition of lights this season traces its way back to the Roman Empire, which marked the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti) on December 25th. Since early days, Christians have celebrated Christmas on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice,[i] when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky.”[ii] Isaiah had prophesied about the light of the forthcoming Messiah: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light…[iii]And so, light has figured very importantly into the Christmas story. The shepherds found their way to the manger of the Christ child by following a light in the sky. The Magi from the east also found their way to the Christ child by following stars in the night sky. In later years, the Gospel writers would remember Jesus’ saying of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[iv]
In this Gospel passage and elsewhere, Jesus speaks about our resurrection from the dead as a promise. Jesus speaks like a Pharisee. Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in bodily resurrection in the “age to come.” That’s about hope for the future, what the church calls “the hope of heaven.” I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, there’s something unique about Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Our resurrection is not just a future event; resurrection is for now. Resurrection informs or reforms how we live today. Saint Paul called it “resurrection power,” in the here and now.[i] Resurrection power. Resurrection is about hope for the future and about power for the present.
In the last 50 years or so, three novelists have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and beyond: C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels. All these stories have one theme in common. Power. The exercise of power, the need for power, the source of power. Why the “power” theme has so captured the attention of young and old alike is not because people are powerless. It’s not because these tales give us an imaginary respite from being overwhelmed by the powers that be. It’s much more the opposite of that. Power is of our essence, though many people do not recognize or accept this: their own power. We have been given power.
There’s an old story told from when God was creating the world. God assigned the angel Gabriel to distribute stones and rock. Gabriel did this faithfully, flying here and there with a very large sack of stones on his back. But when Gabriel was flying over the mountains around Jerusalem, the sack broke and the entire load fell.[i] It’s a charming story. What’s for sure true is that the Holy Land is a very rocky place.
It is no surprise that rocks figure into Jesus’ teaching. In his parable of the sower, Jesus speaks about a farmer “sowing seed, some of which falls among the rocks,” because farm fields would need to be endlessly cleared of rocks. Jesus speaks metaphorically of those who walk in the daytime “will not stumble,” won’t stumble over rocks. Tombs and burial boxes – “ossuaries” – were carved out of stone, and to this day; water cisterns were chiseled into rock, and to this day. Jesus would give a new name to Simon, the designated leader among his disciples. What’s the most powerful name Jesus could bestow on Simon? Peter, which means “rock,” the rock on whom Jesus would build his church.
St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
In the calendar of the church we remember today one of Jesus’ early followers named Philip, traditionally referred to as a Deacon and Evangelist. Most likely this Philip is not Philip the apostle, but rather a namesake, one of seven appointed by the apostles to distribute bread and alms to the widows and the poor in Jerusalem. We hear in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Philip travels south of Jerusalem to Gaza, and en route encounters an Ethiopian who is trying to make sense of the prophecy of Isaiah. Philip was obviously prepared and ready to give witness to how Isaiah was pointing to Jesus.
The church has remembered this story about Philip; however it’s less to do with the conversion of this Ethiopian. After Jesus’ resurrection, multitudes of people were converting to Christ. The importance of this story is more about Philip. He was prepared. Jesus had talked almost endlessly about being prepared almost endlessly in his teachings and parables. “Be prepared.” “Keep awake.” “Be ready.” Be ready for an encounter that awaits you. We read in the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”[i] Be ready. If you claim to be Christian, why? Not why did you become a Christian, but why have you remained a Christian? What is the good news – what is it of Jesus’ “good news” – that keeps you a follower of Jesus today?
In the calendar of the church we remember the life and witness of Vincent de Paul. He was born in France in the year 1580 to a peasant family. He was bright, given educational opportunity, and, at 20 years old, was ordained in year 1600. This was a time of enormous change in western Europe. Most historians locate the late 15th/early 16th century as the beginning or at least maturing of western capitalism. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers accumulated and manipulated capital in unprecedented levels. It was the best of times and the worst of times, worst certainly for the bankrupt and for the poor, who became more numerous and more destitute. History repeats itself.
Vincent, when called to hear the confession of a dying man, was shocked by the spiritual poverty of the penitent. Vincent began preaching sermons on confession, calling people to the necessity of repentance. His sermons were so persuasive that villagers stood in line to go to confession. It was not just the laity, but also his fellow clergy whom he found so poorly formed in their own ministry. He became a pioneer in the renewal of theological education, and was instrumental in establishing seminaries. He also pioneered conducting retreats for clergy. In year 1626, Vincent and three other priests vowed to live and pray together, and to devote themselves as mission priests. The founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson in the 1860s, patterned our own community on Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests.
In the calendar of the church, we remember today Thomas Traherne, one of the trio of great English poets and lyricists including John Donne and George Herbert. Traherne, Donne, and Herbert, each in their own way, expressed their profound awareness of the depths of God intertwined in all of creation. They articulated the Christian faith in the Middle Ages, which had a bewildering a maze of conflicting opinions about the meaning of life, not unlike today.
Traherne was born in 1637, the son of a humble shoemaker. He studied at Oxford, from where he earned three degrees, and was ordained priest in 1660. He died at age 37. Traherne’s poetry went unpublished and unknown until it was found in manuscript form in a London bookseller’s stall at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Hildegard of Bingen, Abbess of Bingen and Mystic (1098-1179)
God of all times and seasons: Give us grace that we, after the example of your servant Hildegard, may both know and make known the joy and jubilation of being part of your creation, and show forth your glory not only with our lips but in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Savior,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 43:1-2, 6-7, 9-12, 27-28
In the calendar of the church we remember today Hildegard of Bingen, born over 900 years ago in year 1098. For most of her 80+ years, she lived in an obscure hilltop monastery in the Rhineland of Germany. As a child she was drawn to the religious life, a life of silence and prayer; however a convent could also then be a place of freedom for a woman to develop her intellectual gifts and creativity and care, and she did it all. At age 38 she became abbess of her community, and she would eventually build a second convent. Her character absolutely teemed with creativity, and yet she could also be steely, determined, and, at times, overbearing. Her sisters flourished under her rather unorthodox regime.
Holy Cross Day
Jesus was convinced and, ultimately, convincing of others that on the other side of death is life. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[i] Here’s the best way for us to lose our life on Jesus’ terms: surrender. Surrender being god of your own life to Jesus Christ.The only way to live life is to allow Jesus Christ to live within us. This was St. Paul’s discovery. In his writings, St. Paul uses one particular phrase more than 85 times: “…in Christ.” He speaks of living his life “in Christ.” “No longer” living life on others’ terms, or even on his own terms. He’s “no longer” doing that. St. Paul says repeatedly he’s now living his life “in Christ.”[ii]
Live your life inside of Christ, who lives inside of you. Surrender your life, surrender your destiny, and take Jesus at his word: that life for you will come out of death. Your dying is the gateway to real life. You will face death many-a-time in this life. Life some days, some seasons, can be such a killer. And that is the very cross that Jesus is sharing with you. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside you, and you will absolutely, positively, undeniably, miraculously discover how life comes out of death.
There’s two ways to know this to be true about Jesus’ way of the cross: how life can come out of death for you. For one, remember your own life experience. The principal founder of SSJE, Richard Meux Benson, wrote: “A disciple asks Christ, ‘Teach me the law of the Holy Cross, the mystery of our redemption.’ To which Christ replies, ‘My child, you must learn this mystery by experience: Take up your cross and it will teach you all things.’”[iii]And so for you. Your cross is your teacher. Where can you recall how your breaking has been your making, how your dying has led to your rising, where life – real life, amazing life, abundant life – has come out of something that just killed you? This is not about resuscitation; this is about resurrection, the resurrection of your life. Draw on the miracle of your personal experience, how life, absolutely transformed life, has come out of death in your own past. That cycle will repeat: death and life; death and life.
Secondly, if right now you can find no hope but only suffering and desolation in the cross you’ve been handed to carry – what is just killing you now– surrender your life and surrender your death, your many deaths, to Jesus. The weaker you are, the more powerless you feel, the more you will be able to understand this. You have nothing more to lose. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside of you. He will embody you and enable you. This is Jesus’ way, the way of the cross. And it’s within reach. It’s within Jesus’ reach for you. And that he does: reaches out for you, carries you, makes good on his promise that life, amazing life for you, that comes out of death. It does, and it will.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
[ii]Saint Paul speaks of the radical turnabout in the management of his former life, using the term “no longer” more than 25 times.
[iii]Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824-1915).
We don’t know when or where Jesus met Mary of Magdala. We do know that she and a number of other women followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.[iii]She was apparently a wealthy woman; however we know nothing of her family or her vocation.[iv]Neither do we understand Mary’s condition when she first met Jesus, other than she had been very unwell: “seven demons had gone out of her.”[v] In Jesus’ day, “demon possession” was a catch-all distinction, and could mean some form of physical, or mental, or spiritual, or moral “dis-ease,” or a combination. The reference to the “seven demons” might emphasize either the seriousness of her condition, or its recurrent nature.[vi] In any event, she was a person in great need, and a person who came to have an equally-great devotion to Jesus. We meet her in this Gospel lesson, weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
Why? She is asked by the angels why is she weeping? She responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord.” What is behind her tears? What was her grief about? It’s not completely clear, so we can only conjecture about Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Three things come to my mind:
July 12, 2019
If I were to tell someone how much they mean to me, and I said to them, “You, my dear friend, are more important to me than sparrows.” I think this friend would be nonplussed. Probably offended. Deeply. So what’s going on with Jesus’ rhetorical question, “Are you not of more value than many sparrows…?”
It’s worth considering the value of a sparrow in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day, when making an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem, the poorest of the poor could not afford the offering of a lamb; they brought sparrows. Two sparrows were sold for one Roman penny. Two pennies made farthing. A farthing was 1/64 of a denarius. And a denarius was the average laborer’s wage for one day. So a common laborer’s daily wage would buy about 130 sparrows. It would have been one thing if Jesus had said, “you are of more value than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” But no. He says, “You are of more value than sparrows.” Sparrows.