The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This Gospel account speaks of Jesus’ miraculous birth; however our celebration today remembers the miraculous birth of his mother, Mary. There’s no record of this in the Scriptures. The best we can do is found in the Gospel of James, which dates back to about year 145. The Gospel of James is “apocryphal,” i.e., it doesn’t have the authority of the Scriptures but it does give us an early picture of the piety that developed around Jesus’ mother, Mary. According to the Gospel of James, Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, fervently prayed and prayed for a child, to no avail. But then they received a miraculous promise from God that Anna would conceive a child, and this child would herald God’s plan of salvation for the world. God was especially present in Mary’s life from the beginning. Two second-century teachers, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Justin Martyr, who lived at the same time as the Gospel of Thomas appeared, wrote that if Jesus is the new Adam, then Mary, his mother, is the new Eve.[i] Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, said that through Mary’s birth and the birth of her son, Jesus, the nature we inherit from our first parents Adam and Eve is changed from “original sin” to “original blessing.”[ii] Mary, then Jesus, change everything.
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
If I were to tell you that I love my sister – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, have a sibling, or spouse, or partner, or best friend whom you love very much. If I were to make the revelation that I also love dill pickles – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, love dill pickles, or, if not, you love something delectable. But you would understand that I don’t love my sister the same way I love dill pickles. Right? In English we use the verb “love” in many, many different ways, our word “love” being defined by its context. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. In Greek there are four different verbs which we, in English, translate as “love.” And in the Greek, there’s also a host of other verbs that describe our relationship to pickles and the like.
So we should rightly ask, when we hear Jesus say “love your enemies,” what kind of love is this? What’s the Greek verb? It’s rather unfortunate. Jesus is talking here of love at its most, most extreme, self-sacrificial way. Jesus is using the same “love” verb that describes how he literally lays down his life in being crucified by his enemies. Why? For love. It’s imaginable how we would give up our lives, lay down our lives, expend our lives in very self-sacrificial ways for our spouse, or lover, or child, or for someone else whom we adore. That goes without saying. But what Jesus is saying here is to love our enemies in the same way. I beg to differ.
for everyday living
Br. Curtis Almquist suggests why and how to prepare our hearts for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
PREPARING FOR THE SACRAMENT
In our relationship with God we are always respondIng. God is wooing us, luring us, loving us into a more beloved relationship. How God will break through to us will oftentimes be through something that is broken within us. Our break will be God’s “break,” God’s breakthrough, God’s point of entry into our lives.
Any awareness of a need to confess our sin is already an act of preparation, God’s preparatory work in our souls. If you are sensing a need to make a confession of sin – and the fact that you are reading this suggests that, perhaps, you are – then trust that this is already a response to God’s initiative, and that is good news. God’s invitation is for you to be reconciled to God, to your own self, and to others. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a powerful means of grace available to you. In the Anglican tradition, this is not a mandated sacrament. You have every liberty, in the privacy of your own heart and in your own words, to confess your sins in prayer directly to Jesus. In the scriptures we read, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6). And from John’s first letter: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).
Another opportunity for the confession of sin in our tradition comes in the corporate confession of sin included in most liturgies. The Book of Common Prayer provides language for you to express aloud your awareness of sin “in thought, word, and deed, by what [you] have done, and by what [you] have left undone.”(1) With the authority Jesus gives to the Church, the priest responds to the corporate confession of sin with words proclaiming God’s forgiveness. Availing yourself of these personal and corporate practices, you may have every assurance you need of God’s forgiveness. As Anglicans, we say of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, “all may, none must, some should.” And you will know when you should. Either at a particular point in time or on a regular basis, you may need the help of this sacrament. You may be at a point of crisis, aware of some egregious breakdown on your part, or rather burdened by a tedious, repetitive sin. Either way, if left alone, you may conclude you are both unforgiven and unforgivable. You may need a very personal and powerful intervention of the grace available in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You may need certainty – certainty that Jesus has both heard your confession and assured you of his forgiveness. That will happen: “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and ￼ spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”(2) You may need this very explicit assurance of your forgiveness, of your being liberated from an internal prison of condemnation.
We see in the Gospels that Jesus always calls us by name: Peter, John, Mary. We'd love to know your name.
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About Br. Curtis Almquist
Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE resides at Emery House, sharing in the daily round of prayer and worship, meeting with retreatants, stewarding the beautiful grounds, and doing some baking and cooking. He is an avid photographer and swimmer. He came to SSJE almost 25 years ago and served as Superior from 2001 to 2010.
For Jesus, Saturday – not Sunday – was the most important day of the week. Saturday, not because of shopping, or afternoon barbeques, or baseball games, or getting bills paid and the laundry done, but because Saturday was the sabbath, the most important day of the week. Jesus was formed in the observance of the Ten Commandments. Of all the Commandments, the longest explanation is given to the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”[i] You are probably quite clear about the commandment not to commit murder, and not to steal, and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but what about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy?[ii] Is that a little fuzzy for you? If so, what happened, because you’re not alone? For many people, several things have colluded to compromise the observance of sabbath.
For one, there’s the Church’s deference to Sunday. Sunday is the day of resurrection. Every Sunday is a little Easter. By the Middle Ages, most Christians had transferred sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday, i.e., keeping Sunday holy. Sunday, for most Christians, became the new sabbath. As a young boy, I remember the preparation for Sunday, our sabbath day, included the ritual Saturday night bath. Sunday morning I put on my very best clothes for church. My father taught me how to tie a necktie because because of church attire on Sunday. And that’s pretty much what we as a family did on Sundays: we went to church Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and we were together as a family all Sunday. I didn’t play with my neighborhood buddies, I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t make a lot of noise. There were no school activities on Sunday. There were “Blue Laws” which kept the stores shut: no shopping on Sundays, which also allowed store employees to do the very thing we were doing on Sunday: having a day of rest.[iii]
In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of whom were chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer. We know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.[i] Nor is this the James, the brother of Jesus, the brother traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and the sometime-Bishop of Jerusalem.[ii] This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.[iii] This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles – the brothers Andrew and Peter – and that was Bethsaida, alongside the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.[iv] Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.[v] On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers Philip in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”[vi]
…Create in me a contrite heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit…
The gradual psalm we prayed together moments ago, Psalm 51, is the same psalm we prayed aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy as we began the season of Lent: “Create in me a contrite heart, O God…”[i] The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The energy around the word “contrite” is not a prayer that our heart be broken. It’s already happened. Contrition is a state you realize: “I’m just crushed.” If you’ve ever said that or felt that – “I’m just crushed.” – because of something sad or bad that has happened in your life, you will understand the essence of contrition. It’s just that contrition is feeling crushed from the inside out. You are not just the victim; you are also the culprit. Contrition is the dawning of regret or remorse about something you know to be wrong in your life.
Lenten Commemoration – George Herbert (1593-1633)
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert. Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry, which was published posthumously. There was a secret to George Herbert’s greatness, but not the obvious.