Feast of Blessed Richard Meux Benson SSJE

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 27:5-11
1 John 4:7-12
John 15:9-17

It all happened so quickly. A letter arrived in early October and three weeks later, tickets had been purchased, luggage packed, work reassigned, a notice in the parish magazine placed, and an adventure begun.

It was October 1870 when a letter from the Wardens of the Church of the Advent arrived at the Mission House in Oxford, asking Father Benson if members of the Society would be available to assist the Rector of the Parish for a number of months. The invitation was so significant, and so unexpected, that Father Benson thought it best if he himself travelled to Boston to investigate. His departure was set for All Saints Day. The day before, he wrote to members of the Parish of Cowley St. John, encouraging them to be diligent in your attendance at all the means of grace, and in your prayers.[1]

It was not an easy crossing. Father Benson, and his companions, Father O’Neill and Father Puller, were not good sailors. Early in the voyage Father Benson wrote home saying: We do not feel well. The motion of the boat makes one so dizzy and stupid that it is difficult to read or write. Last night we went to bed feeling very bad, but we are now getting wonderfully used to the motion. The sea is what sailors call smooth.[2]

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Isaiah 9: 2 – 7
Psalm 96
Titus 2: 11 – 14
Luke 2: 1 – 20

When I came to the community now slightly over thirty years ago, we had just begun the process of writing our new Rule of Life. The old Rule had been respectfully laid aside, and we were experimenting by reading portions of the Rules of Life of other communities. We wanted to hear other voices, as we practiced using our own voice, as we began to articulate our own vision for our community.

But just as we listened to other voices, and began to listen to our own voice, we would often hear the voice of our original Rule of Life in the background. How could we not hear it? We had, after all, been listening to it on a nearly daily basis for almost 100 years but that time. Over the decades it had seeped into our corporate, and individual souls and would emerge in conversations, and reflections about the new Rule of Life that we were working on. Even though we were no longer reading our old Rule when I came to the community, certain phrases became familiar to me, so much so that thirty years later, they still crop up every once in a while in my prayer, and conversation.

One such phrase comes from the original chapter on Poverty where we read if the Society in any place is poor. Look to God to do great things by it. God has chosen the poor, the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. Think of the blessed poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary.[1] It is this image of the poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Calvary which arrests my attention this Christmas.

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Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses images and metaphors that would have been familiar to his original audience in describing the kingdom of heaven, his mission, or the nature of God. This particular metaphor of Jesus as the good shepherd would have elicited knowing nods of the head, not only from the shepherds in the crowd, but from everyone present, all of whom would have been familiar with the life of the shepherd.

The problem for us is that, 2000 years, an industrial and technological revolution, and hundreds, if not thousands of stained glass windows and icons later, the image of the good shepherd has lost much of its power. Today when we encounter the image, we see Jesus, with perfectly coifed hair; clothed in gleaming, pure white; holding a fluffy, white lamb in his arms. Gone is any sign that the life of a shepherd was difficult, dangerous, and dirty. In the winter, exposed to the elements for days on end, the life of the shepherd was cold, wet, and miserable. In the summer it was hot, dry, and miserable. Summer and winter, the days would have been long, often lonely, frequently dangerous, and always dirty. If it wasn’t the weather to be contended with, it was boredom and loneliness, on the one hand, and the dangers of predators on the other hand, and always there was the dirt, the muck, the flies, and the smell. And then, there were the sleepless nights and days during lambing season.

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Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Psalm 98
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Luke 1:26-38

Those of you who have joined us at one point or another for one of our meals, will know that most of the time, on most days, we listen to the reading of a book during the meal. It’s only on Sundays, Tuesdays and some feast days that we share in conversation. A number of years ago, our book of choice was a little denser than we normally read at meals, as we read Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin. Mother of God was a heavy read, and as we joked at the time, in the end we knew more about Mary than she knew about herself! One of the underlying themes of the book was that before she became known as the Mother of God, before she became known as the Queen of Heaven, she was simply Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus. In essence, underlying all the titles, and the various devotions, that is who she was, and that is who she remains, Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that young girl of Nazareth. It is a feast not spoken of in scripture but one deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church from ancient times, and one which says as much about us, and our life in God, as it does about Mary herself, and her life in God. So while the focus today is on Mary, we see in her the source, and ground, of our own life of faith. In looking at Mary we gaze not outwardly, or even upwardly, but inwardly to our own adoption as children of God[1] because it is there that we find Mary’s true vocation, and ours as well, to be the adopted daughters and sons of God.

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Isaiah 11: 1 – 10
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Luke 10: 21 – 24

We’ve probably all seen them somewhere: in a poster shop; at an art gallery; on a book or magazine cover. Depictions of the peaceable kingdom, as this passage from Isaiah is often called, are popular among artists and illustrators from a variety of traditions. One nineteenth century artist, Edward Hicks,[1] even painted 62 slightly different versions of the peaceable kingdom!

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain….[2]

But I am not an art historian, and this is not an art appreciation class, and as fascinating as it is to consider why Hicks painted so many different version of this passage, and what those differences might mean, the real question for us tonight is not, why we should care about Hicks, but why this passage from Isaiah is so important!

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If some of you are scratching your head, feeling a little deja vu all over again, as some comic put it, there’s little wonder. We have been hit this past week with a double dose of Maccabees[1], and today that double dose is doubled, by the fact that we read, more or less, the same lesson at Morning Prayer[2], as we have just heard here in the Eucharist. So no, you’re not dreaming, and no the reader did not make a mistake. We actually did read portions of 1 Maccabees for the second time today.

So what is it with all this Maccabees stuff?

In a nutshell Israel and Judea have been occupied once again by Gentile forces. Observance of the Law has been banned. Circumcision has been outlawed. Jews are forced to eat pork. The Temple, as we heard at Morning Prayer, has been desecrated. But a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, rise up in revolt, push back the Gentile forces, rededicate the temple, as we have just read, and re-establish Jewish worship and customs. It is out of this story that comes the Feast of Hanukah, which Jews keep to this day.

The question for us is, why should we care? And I assure you, Christians have cared passionately about this story for centuries. Indeed in some places a feast of the Maccabean Martyrs is kept on 1 August. Curiously this feast of the Maccabean Martyrs was one of the few pre-Reformation feasts that was kept in the early Books of Common Prayer. So the story of the Maccabeans, is part of our DNA not only as Christians, but also as Anglicans.

What captured the imagination of the early Church, as well as people of faith on both sides of the Reformation divide, was the story of the woman with seven sons described in 2 Maccabees 7. In this story a mother of seven sons is forced to watch, as each of her sons, one after the other is tortured, and killed, for refusing to abandon the Law and eat pork. Some point to this story as the source for Hebrews 11women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.[3] It is the steadfastness of the mother, and the courage of the sons, that holds our attention. Do not fear this butcher, she exhorts one son. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.[4]

It is this faithfulness in the face of torture, and death, as a witness to the resurrection that makes the story of the Maccabeans, not simply a curious appendage to Scripture, but a pattern of life for people of faith.

We say in our Rule of Life that [the] grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.[5]

And that is why we should care.

Since the beginning of the Christian Church, women and men of faith have suffered death at the hands of others, not as a sign of surrender, or defeat, but as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Like the Maccabeans, by their death, the martyrs declare that they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.[6]

As followers of Jesus, our witness is to his resurrection. For most of us that witness is the witness of baptism, whereby we die daily to our sin and pride, so that we may rise in Christ. For some of us, it will mean giving up our lives to the glory of God. In either case we do so in the confidence of a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ,[7] as we say in the burial rite, and that’s why we should care about the Maccabeans today.

Homily preached by Brother James Koester in the Monastery Chapel, Friday, 22 November 2019

1 Maccabees 4: 36 – 37, 52 – 59


[1] The First Lesson at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist this week (Proper 28) have been readings from 1 and 2 Maccabees.

[2] 1 Maccabees 4: 36 – 59

[3] Hebrews 11: 35

[4] 2 Maccabees 7: 29

[5] SSJE, Rule of LifeLife Profession, chapter 39, page 79

[6] Hebrews 11: 16

[7] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 501

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Malachi 4: 1 – 2a
Psalm 982
Thessalonians 3: 6 – 13
Luke 21: 5 -19

Before coming to the community, now just over thirty years ago, I was rector of a small parish on the west coast of British Columbia. The Parish of Salt Spring Island, was, as its name suggests, on an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The rectory was just perfect for me; a small two bedroom house built in the 1920’s or so. It was situated at the head of the harbour, facing southeast.

I had two favourite rooms in the house. One was the living room that had a fireplace and newly refinished hardwood floors. Shortly after I moved in, I came downstairs for my coffee one morning, and stood breathless as I looked into the living room. The sun was just coming up, and the living room glowed. It reminded me of one of my favourite prayers.

Gracious God, your love unites heaven and earth in a new festival of gladness. Lift our spirits to learn the way of joy that leads us to your banquet hall, where all is golden with praise. We ask this through Jesus Christ the Lord.[1]

That morning watching the sun come up in my living room, I had a vision of that banquet hall where all is golden with praise. I loved my little house from that instant.

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There is a line in our Rule of Life which, over the years, has become increasingly important to us. Indeed it has become one of our guiding principles, so much so that during the planning and actual renovation of the monastery, we referred to it repeatedly. However, having said that, I am not sure that when we wrote the Rule, we realized then that it was, or would become, so important and central to our lives. The line appears in the chapter on Hospitality and says quite simply, that our houses have simple beauty.[1]

As we know, there is a great deal of ugliness in the world, most if not all of it, if I can make a sweeping statement, created by humanity. The ugliness of the destruction of creation, as it is destroyed solely for our benefit, and the ugliness of the sin of poverty, racism, and war is all around us, and so places that are dedicated to simple beauty are a refuge for the heart, and mind, and soul.

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I spent a lot of time thinking, and pondering, and reflecting this past fall. Sometimes I simply thought about the weather, or the beauty of the scenery. Sometimes my reflections were much deeper than that, as I pondered where I had come from, and where I was going, not just that day, but in my life. A lot of the time, I thought about the path, literally, that was ahead of me.

Some of you will know that this September, I spent two weeks walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path in northern England. The Hadrian’s Wall Path, as its name suggests, is one of the great long distance walking paths in Britain, following the 85 mile route of Hadrian’s Wall, from Wallsend, just east of Newcastle, to Bowness on Solway, to the west of Carlisle. As you can imagine, walking 85 miles over the course of two weeks gives you lots of opportunity to think about any number of things.

But as I said, one of the things which I thought about, a lot, was the path itself, and more generally, the nature of paths.

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1 John 4: 7 – 16
Psalm 67
John 15: 9 – 12

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the marriage of Katharine and Michael Blachly

Today we rejoice with Katherine and Michael for twenty years of marriage. It might seem an odd thing to do, to come all the way from Dallas, to a monastery in Cambridge, with a group of friends, to celebrate a significant marriage anniversary, but in many ways, married couples and monks have a great deal in common. 

We say in our Rule of Life, and in the chapter on The Witness of Celibacyno less, that [our] fidelity to this vow [of celibacy] can be an encouragement to those who are united in the sacrament of Marriage; like them we depend on divine grace to help us remain steadfastly together until death through all the changes and trials of life.[1]Like a married couple, as monks, we too live lives of fidelity. 

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