Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Luke 2:41-52
When I was in sixth grade, I got to take the second major journey of my young life. By major I mean, pack a bag and get on an airplane which is very exciting for a young boy. The first trip was the summer before my first-grade year to the strange and mysterious land of Ohio where my Mom’s cousin lived. When we had crested the clouds, I asked my mom if we were in heaven, a question that she remembered fondly her whole life. The second trip was even more exotic! California. My father was the assistant band director of a successful high school band program that had been invited to perform in the 1984 Rose Parade in Pasadena. I was halfway through my sixth-grade year and since the parade was on New Year’s Day and the trip fell on winter break, my parents thought it would be a great experience if I could go. Mom stayed behind as Dad took me to California with his students and colleagues. Naturally, one of the most anticipated parts of the trip for me was the day we spent at Disneyland, the original park conceived in the imagination of animation and fantasy pioneer, Walt Disney. It was here that my father had one of the scariest experiences of his life.
All of the high school band kids were to be in groups of five while in the theme park and had a midday check-in with chaperones at a specific location. To give me a little freedom and perhaps my father a break, I was assigned to a group of high school kids. They all wanted to go on Space Mountain. However, having never been on a roller coaster before, I was afraid and did not want to ride. So, I turned around and went to wait at the exit. It was at that point I got separated from my group and began to wander around the park on my own. As I remember it, I did not panic because it was not long before I found another group from our school to hang out with. When my original group checked in at their assigned time and location, I was not with them and they had no idea where I was. My new group had already had their check-in time. So, I was never truly accounted for. My father was beside himself with worry. There was no telling what evil lurking about this park would be looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Would my father be able to find me or would I be the newest face on a milk carton that was iconic of that era. Eventually, I was found by my father and spent the remaining couple of hours allotted in the park with him. By the grace of God, we got back to our home in Appalachia, all present and accounted for and the trip went down in our memories as one of most amazing experiences of our lives.
This morning’s gospel reminds me a little of my father’s telling of that experience. Mary, Joseph, and their son had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival with a group of people whom they were familiar. When the festival was over, they all began their journey back to Nazareth. Mary and Joseph thought Jesus was with others designated as chaperones in the caravan. When they stopped after a day’s journey and realized their son was not where he was supposed to be, panic set in. They headed back to Jerusalem on their own wondering if they would be able to find Jesus and worried about what evil was lurking about the city looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Can you imagine the panic, desperation, and fear they must have felt? The gospel writer of Luke says that after three days of searching, they found Jesus. Where did they find him? Not in a Jerusalem back-alley, having fallen prey to people of questionable repute, but none other than in the Temple among teachers. For the Passover season it was the custom for the Sanhedrin to meet in public in the Temple court to discuss, in the presence of all who would listen, religious and theological questions. ‘Hearing and asking questions’ is the regular Jewish phrase for a student learning from his teachers.[i] Jesus was twelve years old and would have been at the cusp of adulthood in Jewish culture. Perhaps this is why Mary and Joseph undertook this momentous pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover. It is likely that this was a part of the customary rite of passage for a boy in Judaism. Was Jesus like the typical twelve-year old boy, hearing only half of what was said to him, ignoring or missing instructions, lost in wonder in the big city? Or do we get a glimpse of a newly recognized young adult, taking the reins of responsibility for his life, breaking free of the bonds of familial ties and recognizing the first fruits of his vocational call?
The exchange between Jesus and his parents in the Temple points to the fact that the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’ Mary admonishes her son, probably feeling the intense mixture of relief and anger, the output of love and concern for her first-born. ‘Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been scared to death!’ In my imagination, this scolding interrupts the discussions, inviting curiosity among those in the Temple. The gospel writer states that all who heard Jesus were amazed both at his questions as well as his understanding and answers. This young lad was prodigious in a way that none of his elders had experienced in another his age. When his humble parents burst in on the scene exasperated by all that was taking place, I imagine you could hear a pin drop as those gathered observed with curiosity not people of means and high education, but rather a modest carpenter and his wife from a town most notable for being on ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ You may recall that scene from the gospel of John when Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel replies incredulously, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[ii]
I do not imagine Jesus’ answer to Mary and Joseph disrespectful or as flippant as we may read into it. Certainly, in our youth we have all experienced a scolding with our retort in questionable tone, “….but Mom?!” However, I can see the wheels of revelation and self-discovery in Jesus’ mind as he is coming into full acceptance as to the identity of his ‘real’ father. We all know that children can be brutal in their honesty and at times take on the opinions they have heard their parents discuss. Jesus may have already experienced the taunts of friends who have caught wind that this small family had developed out of the bounds of traditional marriage. Jesus very well was coming into the knowledge that Mary was indeed his mother, but Joseph…? Joseph may have been his ‘dad,’ but he was not his father. Jesus response to his Mother’s question was direct and honest. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In a sense Jesus is saying, “Mom, I’m okay. I have come home. Why did you not look for me here first?” Luke says that his parents (and perhaps all that were ease-dropping on this exchange) did not understand what he was saying.
I find this curious since from the very beginning, Mary and Joseph knew perhaps more than anyone who their child was. Countless dreams and angel visitations had occurred telling them what was to happen, who this child was and was to become, giving counsel as to how best to protect this precious boy who was to be the target of the powerful. While they had every right to be concerned for their son, we behold them at a pivot and transition in their lives. Jesus was coming into the knowledge of his identity;[iii] Mary and Joseph were learning twelve years after the birth of this special boy, that his miraculous conception had not been a mere dream. The star of Bethlehem that had guided so many to witness the birth of Jesus, was now guiding Jesus himself into full revelation of his vocation and identity, one step at a time until he would be ready to initiate his public ministry.
So, what does this all mean for us today? Well I imagine that we could pray with this scripture in at least two ways. First, we could pray about our own search for Jesus. In a world that is unpredictable, unsafe, and seems filled with evil looking to exploit and harm the most vulnerable, we could wonder where in the world is Jesus in all this? While we may have many wonderful experiences in our life, I would say we all recognize that goodness is not static. We know there is suffering, malice, hate, greed, fear, and evil lurking about. Sometimes we feel like we experience this more acutely than others leaving us with questions as to why. Many of us are following the proverbial star of Bethlehem, searching for Jesus frantically, with the hopes of familial comfort, love, safety, and nurture that comes with being in community and with the one who knows us so intimately. It is no mistake that Jesus can be found here not only in the faces of those who sit next to us, but in a piece of bread put into our hands and a sip of wine from a shared chalice; Jesus body and blood nourishing and sustaining us back to health and wholeness.
We could also pray with this scene from Luke imagining Jesus searching desperately for us. You are the apple of God’s eye. You are his beloved, created by God, for the love of God, for relationship with God. In our temptation to be in control, we separated ourselves from God, becoming susceptible to evil lurking about, (and in the words of 1 Peter) seeking someone to devour.[iv] In this place, this beautiful church, you can be assured that you have come home and have been found by God in Jesus. As you come forward in a few moments and lift your hands to receive the gift of bread and wine, you can be assured that you have found your true identity and to whom you belong. In this place we can know that we are among family and in the midst of an uncertain world, claim that we have been found and marked safe. This is good news.
[i] Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Print.
[ii] John 1:43-46
[iii] Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone. London: SPCK, 2001. Print
[iv] 1 Peter 5:8
What does true darkness look like? You might think this a peculiar way to begin a sermon for Christmas Day, but I think it is a valid question. From the Autumnal equinox we begin a journey into deep darkness as our days grow shorter and our nights grow longer. Many of us dread the end of Daylight-Saving Time when we set our clocks back an hour. Even though we enjoy some extra sleep that night, we find our Monday afternoon commute home after work disorienting because it looks and feels more like 9 pm rather than 5 pm. On this Christmas Day, we now find ourselves with a glint of hope in our eyes, having just passed the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. We can now count on our days to increase in length as we journey towards the light, yearning for those long summer evenings and the experience of watching the sunset at the end of a warm weekend day.
Keeping this in mind, I would like to return to my original question: What does true darkness look like? I suspect most of us will have a different answer for this question. The condition of your eyesight and how well you see might determine how you experience darkness. Some might think of darkness metaphorically, especially those of us who have experienced depression, addiction, or know what it feels like to receive a distressing medical diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one. Perhaps it depends on the places we have traveled to or have lived in our life. If you have had the chance to live in Alaska, you might have a different perspective on darkness where there are places that go dark for about two months. Those of us who live in a city like Boston might have to create darkness in order to sleep, covering our eyes at night with a mask to block out the artificial light of the city that penetrates our curtains and blinds.
for everyday living
Br. Jim Woodrum follows the angels toward a deeper appreciation of why our church buildings matter and how they can help us to become one with the angels.
in the architecture
WHY CHURCHES MATTER
Two summers ago, while our community was on pilgrimage in Oxford, I found myself surrounded by angels. We were visiting the Church of St. Mary and St. John, on the Cowley Road, where SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, had been vicar. Inside, everywhere I looked, there were angels in the architecture: in the stone, glass, and wood. Of all the beautiful things in the church – the pipe organ, the stained glass, the altar and reredos, the arches – it was the angels that piqued my curiosity. Why were these angelic figures everywhere? What did they mean? And what were they trying to tell me?
I grew up in an evangelical tradition that did not talk much about angels, which is ironic, because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word “angel,” meaning a bearer of good news. While my mother didn’t speak about angels, she certainly seemed devoted to them. Upon entering my parent’s home, the first thing you would notice would be two curios filled with angels. There were cherubs, angels with trumpets, boy angels, girl angels, cupids, as well as a rather menacing angel standing on the head of a dragon-like creature with his sword in its mouth. In my adult life, I would come to know that this was the Archangel Michael, whose name means “Who Is Like God?” In Revelation, Michael defeats the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:7-9).
The angels of Scripture are as varied as those in my mother’s curio cabinet. Angels bear all sorts of different vocations. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”) is a messenger: he visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after, an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. The sky fills with angels praising and worshipping God, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 1:26-38; 2:8-14). There are also angels who minister: after Jesus is tempted in the desert, the devil leaves him and angels come to serve him (Matthew 4:1-11). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays in anguish about what is about to happen to him, and an angel of the Lord appears to him and gives him strength (Luke 22:39-43). In the book of Tobit, it is the Archangel Raphael (whose name means “The Healing of God”) who restores Tobit’s sight (Tobit 11:7-9). All angels have a specific vocation and belong to one of the nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout the pages of scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian angels.
With such diversity in the angel ranks, I wondered anew about the angels lining the walls of the churches we visited on our pilgrimage. Who were these angels in the architecture, and what was their mission? Every part of these churches seemed to point deeper into the mystery of God, with the angels beckoning me to follow.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit our monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you will notice many angels straight away. Angels throng the great Rose window at the back of the church in a vibrant vision of Heaven. Below the Rose window, where the Nativity is portrayed, angels gaze adoringly at the holy child. In the Lady Chapel, the lancet windows portray the mysteries of the Rosary, beginning with the depiction of the Annunciation and the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. When the light streams through these windows, all these angels shine forth in brilliant array, witnessing to the glory of God.
What about the angels we cannot see? One of my favorite scriptural encounters with an angel features Jacob. He contends all night with a mysterious figure whom some traditions have called an angel. In the morning, Jacob realizes that he has struggled with God. Jacob names the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God”: “For I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). Our monastery church, like Peniel, is a holy place because it is a place of encounter. The angel who wrestled Jacob greets us every time we enter the worship space, every time we prepare to encounter God.
In a subtle yet very real way, every church has angels beyond those carved in wood or illuminated in stained glass. The architecture itself acts as angels do: sharing messages which enlighten our prayer and worship of God.
Take what happens as soon as you enter the monastery church. To enter it you must ascend a small staircase and go through a door into the narthex. However, that is not where your journey ends. Once there, you must turn ninety degrees to your left and go through a second doorway in order to enter the church. This detail might be lost on us initially, but it actually is intentional: all those who enter the monastery church must undergo a “conversion” experience. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin convertere, which literally means to turn around. To enter the church you must physically turn, in order to cross a threshold, into holy space.
A passerby on Memorial Drive might venture in, curiosity piqued as to what is inside this gothic-style building. Others experience a conscious yearning to know God. These seekers or pilgrims are not wandering randomly, but rather are following the desire of their hearts, which is mysteriously moving towards the source of all holy desire: into the heart of God. The building itself thus hints at the conversion God invites, as we give up any semblance of control and are turned – sometimes even pushed – in a direction that we would not normally go in order to enter. Simply to enter the sanctuary, we have already turned and converted – perhaps unaware that we have just encountered an angel in the architecture.
A few years ago, a small group of school children, led by their teachers, made their way into the church. One of the children asked a Brother in quiet amazement, “How do you do that!?” He replied, “What do you mean?” She whispered, “How do you make it so quiet?!”
In the profound silence of the church, our eyes are drawn upward toward the light, as we follow the shape of the arches pointing to the saints depicted in the clerestory windows. The silence invites us to listen intently. In our Rule of Life, we say that in silence, “we pass through the bounds of language to lose ourselves in wonder. In this silence we learn to revere ourselves also; since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed, before which we must be silent until the day we come to know as we are known.” In the silence of this sanctuary, we join the angelic hosts in the ennobling act of prayer, as we seek to deepen our relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. In silence, we, finite creatures, seek the infinite.
The architecture of the monastery church depicts this intersection of finitude and infinite, chronos and kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time: the way that we, as finite beings, delineate time in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries. Chonos greets us in how the rounded arches at the back of the church – in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries) – give way to pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries), in the Quire on the other side of the gate. This journey through chronos points and leads to the altar, which is a place of kairos: God’s time, the critical moment that holds all of eternity. Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
Kairos is unknowable to us time-bound beings, yet we experience it each time we approach the altar.
The altar is the focus of our sanctuary, as it is of all sanctuaries. In our church, the high altar is adorned with an unusual architectural feature: a baldacchino, a canopy arching high above. Here, another angel in the architecture points us to the deeper mystery of God taking place before our eyes.
The baldacchino forms a cube through four pillars, representing the earth with its four directions. These pillars support the canopy, which is topped with a dome representing heaven. Connecting heaven and earth – and protecting a stone altar beneath – the baldacchino recalls another story earlier in Genesis where Jacob falls asleep, using a stone as a pillow. While asleep he dreams of a ladder stretched to heaven, with angels ascending and descending back and forth between earth and heaven. We read: “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” If we continue a little further, we read that Jacob poured oil on the stone which he had used as a pillow and built an altar there, consecrating that place and giving it a new name: Bethel (Genesis 28:10-19). In John’s gospel, Jesus recalls this story from Genesis, identifying himself as the stone altar, the place where heaven and earth meet: “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:47-51).
Upon the altar, heaven and earth are joined, and we get a glimpse of God. Upon this altar we offer up praise, thanksgiving, and all that we are to God. In return Jesus becomes truly present to us in the sacramental signs of bread and wine (which become to us flesh and blood), descending with the angels and bringing us with him up to heaven. Each time we consume this bread and wine, we ascend one more rung on the ladder with the angels, moving toward the holiness to which we have been called, becoming one with our Father in heaven. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson once wrote: “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”
In a sermon delivered at the University Church in Oxford around 1826, John Henry Newman describes heaven as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit. He takes as his reference point numerous passages in the Revelation to John: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped” (Revelation 5:11-14).
This passage from Revelation gives me chills, because this is what we do here in this monastery church every day: worship God, bestowing on Him blessing and honor and glory and might with the very best of our abilities. Perhaps our numbers are few and the quality of our voices is sometimes nowhere near angelic; but we, like the angels, were created for the love and pleasure of God and He delights in our love just as much as we delight in His. We have an inherent instinct to adore our creator. In this, we mirror God, who gazes in reverence on the Creation and yearns for us to know God as God knows us. Our love and praise are mutual. We offer them in tandem with the worship of the heavenly hosts. In his book The Angels and the Liturgy, Eric Peterson writes “When the church gathers in worship on earth, it is conjoined to the worship which is offered in the heavenly city by the angels. Through all the pain of this world there remains, eternal and unmoved, that worship which the angels offer to the Eternal, and in which the Church on earth takes part.” With the angels we sing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people of earth,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!”
Worship is a sanctifying act. The word “sanctify” has the same root as the Latin word sanctus, which means holy. These roots imbue the word “sanctuary.” In this sanctuary, in the shared experience of worship, we offer all we are, all we have, all of our blessings, and all of our sufferings, and we give it to God in sacrifice, asking nothing but to be sanctified and become more like God, that is: holy and fully God’s. In the same sermon, Newman goes on to say: “To be holy is … to live habitually in sight of the world to come as if we were already dead to this life.” In other words, now is our time to prepare and practice, joining the angels in the eternal praise of God, here on earth as it is in heaven.
A pew card at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley near Oxford, describes the meaning and purpose of its church building: “With the passing of the centuries there have been inevitable changes, but there have been no drastic alterations to the basic plan of the building, nor to its function. It exists to praise God. And for worship, sacred ritual and teaching. It is a sacramental reminder to the identity of those who gather inside it each day.”
Our churches are angels – angels, made of architecture – which exist to praise God as they help to deliver God’s messages. Even when we sleep, the angels keep at this holy task. And when we gather as a community in our own churches, chapels, and sanctuaries, with our hearts and minds turned toward God, we ourselves become channels of grace, temporal containers of eternal love. We become one with all the angels – both the angels in the architecture and the eternal company of heaven – as we too become bearers of good news, teaching, guidance, protection, and sanctuary to others. We lift up our voices with them, crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”
About Br. Jim Woodrum
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE lives at the Monastery in Cambridge, where he serves the community as the Director of Vocations. When he is away from his desk (and that “Office” in the Chapel), he enjoys cooking southern cuisine, exploring different neighborhoods in Boston, and has a keen interest in craft beer.
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Today in the calendar of the church we celebrate the solemn feast known as Christ the King. Normally positioned on the last Sunday after Pentecost before the start of the season of Advent, we pray these words: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. This prayer seems appropriate seeing that our popular culture reflects a renewed interest in all things ‘royal.’ Not only have we watched with fascination two royal weddings in recent years (the most recent of which our own presiding bishop Michael Curry gained notoriety as a preacher on the world stage), but shows like ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘The Crown,’ and the newly released Netflix production ‘The King,’ based loosely on William Shakespeare’s Henriad, have captured our imaginations as to what aristocracy and royalty look like. If you have not seen “The King,” I will not spoil it for you, but I dare say it will not disappoint, containing drama, adventure, action (including a portrayal of the famous Battle of Agincourt), as well as an eyebrow-raising twist at the very end that will leave you wondering what might happen next in the life of this young king who endeavors to save the realm from the chaos he inherited from his recently deceased, war-hungry father Henry the Fourth.
Images of royalty reflect, I think, the high ideal of order, unity, and goodness that we all desire and hope for in our lives, especially amidst so much that is chaotic, scattered, and untrue in our world. This monastery church certainly draws on the human imagination of what the heavenly realm might look like. The Revelation to John from the canon of scripture contains probably the most vivid descriptions of heaven and where we connect to what is referenced in our Collect: They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’ [i] The Rose Window at the back of the church, what stained glass artisan Dr. Charles Connick called “a playground for the afternoon sun,” represents a vision of God’s heavenly realm. The central medallion shows the Blessed Virgin Mary being crowned as the Queen of Heaven by her son, Christ the King;[ii] and I will come back to that.
Romans 8:22-27; Psalm 42:1-7; Matthew 5:13-16
Today in the calendar of the church we remember the sixteenth-century nun, abbess, and mystic Teresa of Avila. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada to a family of partly Jewish ancestry, she lived at a time of incredible persecution of the Jews known as the Inquisition. Educated by Augustinian nuns, she began to feel called to the consecrated life and joined a Carmelite Order. She eventually became distracted by the mollified Rule of the Order and set out to found a reformed Order called the Discalced Carmelites. The word ‘discalced’ is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘without shoes.’ Throughout the course of 25 years, she traveled frequently establishing 17 convents of the reformed Order. She wrote many letters, poems, books on the religious life, as well as an autobiography: The Life of Teresa of Jesus.
While it would be easy to project a certain saintly color of piety on Teresa, her autobiography proves her to have been very unconventional for what we imagine a contemplative nun to be. She is said to have been a very passionate person, describing in her autobiography mystical visions, highly erotic in nature. She writes viscerally of one of these visions in which an angel repeatedly thrusts a golden lance into her heart: ‘I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’ We can hear overtones of the Song of Solomon that seem to mix the essence of eros and agape, that is erotic love and Godly love. In her vision we experience her desire to be one with God.[i]
Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Today we celebrate one of the more mysterious feasts in the calendar of the Church: The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. Not only is it a feast, but it is what we monastics call a solemnity: one of the upper echelon feasts, with its title in ALL CAPS in the Ordo, and a lunchtime meal with not only meat and dessert but also ‘festive beverages,’ therefore it must be pretty important. What do you know about angels? Or what do you believe about these mystical beings? You may know a bit more than me. I have to admit that I had to do some research in preparing the homily for this feast because I know very little myself about angels except that most images I have seen of them show human like figures with wings and a glowing countenance.
Perhaps like a few of you here, I grew up in an evangelical tradition of the church that did not talk a lot about angels. Even though angels show up at different times in the scriptures, we just didn’t dwell much on them, which is ironic because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word angel: a bearer of good news. Primarily, angels are known as messengers from God. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”)[i] visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after in Luke’s gospel we hear that an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus and telling them where to find him. And before they set out the sky is filled with angels singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’[ii]
Psalm 138:1-4, 7-9
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). On his website and YouTube Channel, both bearing the name “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” John introduces us to words like: vermodalen, the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist. Liberosis, the desire to care less about things. And opia, the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye.[i] There is a word from this dictionary that has entered into my prayer life as of late: avenoir, the desire to see memories in advance. On his YouTube channel Koenig gives an exposition of this definition. He writes, ‘We take it for granted that life moves forward. You build memories; you build momentum. You move as a rower moves: facing backward. You can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way.’[ii]
I imagine that the reason this word has been the focus of my prayer lately is due to the fact that I lost both of my parents recently within the course of a year. Not only have these two losses in a relatively short time been disorienting, they have forced me to take action on many things that I thought I had time to plan. Being an only child, I am now facing the responsibility of resolving the affairs of my parent’s estate, including the clearing out and sale of a house filled with the remnants of memories made by three lives that once lived there. I am very in touch now with the enigma of time, both temporal and eternal. The temporal comes and goes within the construct of earthly time in the matter of decades, years, months, days, or as little as one second. The eternal lives on and on, long past the ability of finite human brains and hearts to recall. It is hard to imagine what exactly eternal means within the construct of our bodies and minds, which are temporary (a word that shares the same root as the word temporal).
Our Collect for today concentrates on the themes of temporality and eternity. Translated from the Gregorian Sacramentary in the sixteenth century by Thomas Cranmer, it bids us to pray about time in terms of our finitude and God’s infinity: ‘Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.’ I would say this is definitely a hard task that can only be accomplished with God’s help, thus why this Collect has itself stood the test of time, being prayed in the Anglican Church for close to five hundred years. What are these temporal things we need to pass through and what are the eternal things we do not want to lose?
In the book The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl write: ‘Do you ever see your life, in hindsight, at least, if not during the events when they actually happened, as an obstacle course? What should have ended well, did not. And the ending cast a shadow over everything, even the good things that preceded it?’[iii]I imagine that most of us here have had at least one bad month, week, or day in our lives where nothing has quite gone the way we expected or desired and it seemingly snuffed out the fire in our hearts. Certainly I! The SSJE Rule of Life acknowledges that: ‘Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation.’[iv] Fear, Shame, Guilt, Blame, Misinformation, and Misunderstanding are often the secret ingredients in a toxic cocktail that we drink thinking it will be an elixir to anesthetize our pain. If it was not hard enough to navigate our own particular orbit, we have a national and international community that seems to be fraught with turmoil. Racism, Xenophobia, Elitism, Homelessness, Addiction, Narcissism, and the myth of self-sufficiency whirl about us like the perfect storm. We turn to social media in the hopes of finding community and connection but end up further isolated, posting sound-bytes that feed narcissistic self-righteous attitudes and then not sticking around to face the alienating consequences. These constructs are of our own making, the temporal fabrications of temporary creatures who have not the wit nor the time to repair them. And so, we navigate through a minefield, trying to find our way through without taking a step that could alter our lives within a decade, month, week, day, or split-second.
So, what are the eternal things that we are want not to lose? The one thing that comes to mind for me is love. Not sexual love necessarily (or what is known as eros in Greek), although it is a wonderful thing (and I dare say, temporal). The love that I am referring to is the love that, in the words of St. Paul: ‘is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, or arrogant. Love that does not insist on it’s own way. Love that is not irritable or resentful. Love that rejoices in truth not wrong doing. Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’[v]This is a love that is sacrificial at its core. The gospel writer of John says: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’[vi]This is the love on which Jesus says hangs all the Law and the Prophets: love of God and love of neighbor as self. It is what is known in the Greek as agape. Agape love is eternal because it originates in God and is God’s very essence. And where do we find this love?
It seems almost impossible that we who are housed in temporal bodies could even contain, much less hold on to, things eternal. But, many temporal things point sacramentally to the eternal (a sacrament being and outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace). You could certainly say this chapel is iconic of this concept. When you enter, you literally undergo a ‘conversion experience.’ That is to say, you walk through the door into a narthex, and your stride is broken and you have to turn to cross a threshold. Once you cross this threshold, you enter into a space where two concepts of time conjoin: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time; that of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, etc. The rounded arches at the back of the chapel are in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries). Once you cross the gate, you are flanked by pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries). This journey through Chronos points and leads to Kairos. Kairos is God’s time, the critical moment of decision. The altar representing the Body of Christ and the Baldachino, the place where heaven and earth come together. We lift up our hearts and minds and all that we are in offering to God and here God becomes present to us in these gifts of bread and wine: the bread broken for us, the wine poured out for us. It is the re-membering of the ultimate sacrifice of love given by Jesus on the cross, forever joining the eternal to the temporal, and by grace the temporal to the eternal.
It is here that we come to know that we are made in the image of God, with the same capacity of eternal, abiding, transforming love. The presider says, ‘Behold what you are,’ in which we respond, ‘may we become what we receive.’ Temporal containers of eternal love. We take and eat with the assurance that little by little, with each approach to this eternal banquet table, that God’s mercy is increased and multiplied so that we may indeed pass through the things temporal and hold on to things eternal. St. Paul says: ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.’ Our founder Fr. Benson said about the Eucharist: ‘As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.’[vii] In this transformative journey through the temporal, with Jesus as our ‘ruler and guide,’ we become able to hold on to the things eternal and in our transfiguration, we can help to transform the world.
John Koenig goes on to describe avenoir, and equates this travel towards approaching memory as headed in the direction of child-like innocence, generocity, and wonder. I close with his words:
‘You’d remember what home feels like, and decide to move there for good. You’d grow smaller as the years pass, as if trying to give away everything you had before leaving. You’d try everything one last time, until it all felt new again. And then the world would finally earn your trust, until you’d think nothing of jumping freely into things, into the arms of other people. You’d start to notice that each summer feels longer than the last until you reach the long coasting retirement of childhood. You’d become generous, and give everything back. Pretty soon you’d run out of things to give, things to say, things to see. By then you’ll have found someone perfect; and she’ll become your world. And you will have left this world just as you found it. Nothing left to remember, nothing left to regret, with your whole life laid out in front of you, and your whole life left behind.’[viii]
[i]Koenig, John. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Tumbler, www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/.
[iii]Zahl, Paul F.M., and C. Frederick Barbee. Collects of Thomas Cranmer. William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1999.
[iv]The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Chapter 27: Silence
[v]1 Corinthians 13:4-7
[vii]The Religious Vocation: Of Communion, Ch. XII, pp. 160-161
Feast of Bernard Mizeki
Revelation 7:13-17; Psalm 124; Luke 12:2-12
When reading the lessons appointed for today, I could not get the front page of the Boston Globe from the day after the Marathon bombings out of my mind. The large picture was of a woman lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood with two men attending to her, one applying pressure to her badly wounded leg. The bold print accompanying the article underneath the picture read, “Amid Shock, A Rush to Help Strangers.”The article went on to describe the various reactions to the bombing.[i]The one I think we all can identify with is fear and the immediate need to get away to safety as fast as possible. All of us have this innate instinct for self-preservation that when something devastating happens, the body is driven to action by chemical processes in the brain such as the release of adrenaline.
There was also the unthinkable reaction of some, who despite not knowing what was coming next, ran toward the explosion sites to start helping people who had been injured. Some of the first responders were trained EMT’s, doctors, and nurses….and then there were others who had no idea what to do except to apply pressure to wounds and keep talking to the injured to ward off shock. In a chaotic scene such as that, I can only imagine the overwhelming sense of helplessness some people had, yet remained behind to help in any way possible, risking their own lives in the process. I greatly admire these people and wonder if I would have stayed to help or if I would have followed my instinct to run away to safety.
Four days ago we finally began our Lenten pilgrimage after a long Epiphanytide. For a solid eight weeks following the Epiphany we have celebrated all the ways Jesus was made manifest as the messiah to the world and have studied how these stories help us recognize how Jesus is made manifest in our midst today. Wednesday, we received our invitation to a holy Lent, had ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality, and we are now at the first Sunday in Lent.
As you might have gathered from our gospel lesson from Luke this morning, things have gotten really serious, very quickly! No sooner has Jesus come up from the waters of his baptism, he hears an affirmation of his identity from his Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. In a sense, Jesus has an epiphany and is filled with the Holy Spirit, which then leads him into the harsh Judean desert where the gospel writer says that he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Now, think about that for a moment: even though only three of Satan’s challenges are recorded in the lesson, Luke is quite clear that he is tempted for forty days, all the while with no provision of food or sustenance.
I do not know about you, but I am not encouraged by starting out on these forty days of Lent with a story of Jesus being subjected to mental and physical abuse by the devil! This may explain why Lent is not at the top of my list of favorite Liturgical seasons, especially since my track record with temptation is pretty dismal. I know you may find that hard to believe, but I am the guy who gives up craft beer for Lent and by week two I have succumbed to the desert heat and am quenching my thirst with a cold, refreshing IPA straight from the devil’s hand! In my frustration and disappointment with myself, I try to make myself feel better by thinking of something I can give up the next year where I might actually have success, like perhaps, asparagus. Nothing banishes temptation quite like asparagus. Yet to give up something that would not be challenging is to set out on an ‘adventure in missing the point’; the point being that temptation is a part of our everyday experience. Saint Antony, one of the first of the desert monastics was recorded as saying: “This is the great task of man, that he should hold his sin before the face of God, and count upon temptation until his last breath.”[i]
Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.