Lectionary Year and Proper: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A
In today’s gospel lesson we hear what I experience as the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings: the admonition to forgive. Not only to forgive just one transgression, but to forgive them all. There may be a few of you who disagree with me thinking surely the most difficult teaching would be to love your enemies. That would be fair. Loving someone who wishes you harm and forgiving someone who has harmed you, especially harm that is irreversible, certainly burn with similar intensity. We could agree that they are akin to one another, with varying degrees of intention and action being contrasting pieces of the puzzle. Regardless of this quagmire, Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question ‘how often should I forgive,’ is that forgiveness is never discretionary. Rather, forgiveness is Divine directive.
Jesus illustrates his point with a parable in which a king wishes to settle his accounts. One of his servants who owes him ten thousand talents is unable to repay. Begging the King for patience he promises that given some time, he will be able to pay in full. Surprisingly, the king has pity and not only reneges on his order to sell the servant and his family, but pronounces his debts forgiven. Completely. I admit I do not know much about ancient currency, but ten thousand of anything sounds like no small amount. I imagine it would be like having your mortgage forgiven when still owing over half with interest. What would your reaction be if this happened to you? I know that I would be incredibly thankful and filled with a sense of awe at the grace shown to me.
In our lection from Matthew this morning we observe something in Jesus that is rarely expressed in the gospels: we see a display of emotion. Other instances include Jesus feeling compassion: as in the hungry crowds who endlessly follow or seek an audience with him. Or in the case of the rich young ruler who when asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, the gospel of Mark says that Jesus loved him before telling him to go and sell all his goods then follow him. With all the dinner invitations Jesus received, I am sure there had to be some merriment and laughter during his ministry and I wish we had a confirmation that Jesus did in fact share a good chuckle with his friends. We know that in John’s gospel, Jesus wept in grief over the sadness surrounding the death of his friend, Lazarus. Today, we hear that Jesus was amazed. What is it exactly that could amaze the incarnation of God?
In this story we observe two men, from two cultures, sharing the same geography. Both men are powerful; both men have authority; both men have a following. From the outset, it may look as if the only thing different about them are how they look. One man is a Roman centurion, an enforcer of the Roman occupation of Palestine, a Gentile dressed in the finest uniform of the Roman army which displays his elite social status. The other man is an itinerant rabbi, a teacher and reformer, a Jew dressed in the clothes of nomad. The one thing they have in common is humility.
Jesus has displayed his humility in the willingness to reach the most disenfranchised of his people. In the reading just prior to our gospel this morning, we observe Jesus grant the request of a leper who asks to be made clean. Lepers were outcasts of society due to the vileness of their disease which was highly contagious and for which there was no cure. Jesus not only confronts the man who requests to be healed, but actually touches him in the process. This alone would have made Jesus ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the temple leaders and unfit to enter the temple. Yet Jesus heals him and tells him to go show himself to the temple leaders and to give his gift in thanksgiving
One of the most prevalent needs in the human condition is that of intimacy. Intimate relationships allow us to be vulnerable and share things that are deeply personal and guarded. If these are not handled with great care and compassion, we can experience deep shame and humiliation.
In our national civic discourse, we see devastating examples of a lack of empathy and compassion for each other. Our government leaders use bully tactics to berate, infantilize, and minimize those with whom they disagree. The cultural equating of intimacy with sex has resulted in people allowing themselves to be vulnerable without the requisite building of trust and emotional connection. Our inherent yearning for true intimacy, coupled with our experience of shame at the hands of those who have betrayed our own sense of what is good and true, can leave us mired in fear. As a result, we engage others with unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings that lead to disillusionment and the eventual disintegration of relationship. Lack of intimacy is often a contributing factor in addiction, depression, and bodily illness.
We begin to celebrate Trinity Sunday this evening, just shy of two weeks since the senseless death of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of members of the Minneapolis police department. This murder (the latest in a string of fatalities of black men and women) has sparked anger and outrage, as well as suspicion of uniformed officers of the law, who have sworn to faithfully uphold their communities.[i] We have watched (and some have witnessed first-hand) the daily protests that have taken place across the country, some peaceful, and others turning violent, unable to contain the frustration of not being heard; all of this against the backdrop of a pandemic that has us reeling in isolation.
The civic unrest that we are experiencing in our country is not only the result of a Constitutional crisis symptomatic of racism, but even more so because the attempt to subdue, divide, or destroy community, which springs from the common good, goes against the very nature of the God whose image we bear. The founder of our Society Richard Meux Benson wrote: “By the communication of the Holy Spirit, the personal God is found dwelling in all the faithful, not as a Sovereign to overpower their individuality, but as a Giver of life and fullness, that our fallen emptiness may rise into true correspondence of Love with Him from whom it came.”[ii] The word community comes from the Latin communitas, which literally means “with oneness.” Community and communion are related to each other. The anger being expressed in our country over the death of George Floyd and countless other of our black sisters and brothers is a righteous anger. It is the blood of Abel crying out from the ground of our very being which is a creation of God. We should not be outraged at the anger of those who have taken to our streets in protest, but conversely, at the source of that anger. We should deeply mourn the sin of all who seek to destroy the very dwelling place of God in our midst. The inability or unwillingness to speak the truth of love to power is to be guilty of complacency. Silence in this case is not holy, but rather synonymous with death.[iii]
Ascensiontide always reminds me of a story my mom loved to tell about my first trip on an airplane when I was six years old. I was so excited because I got to sit near the window, the best place to witness our ascension into the sky. As we rose to our cruising altitude above the big, fluffy clouds I turned to my mom, wide-eyed, and asked, “Mama, are we in heaven?” This is not surprising, considering that every illustration I had seen of Jesus’ ascension heavenward had Him standing on a pillow of clouds. To this day the beauty, serenity, and peace of flying above the clouds is ‘heavenly’ in my mind’s eye.
But if I’m honest, my childish understanding of heaven has always made Jesus seem far away. While flying above the clouds seems like a heavenly realm to a small child, technically it is only six and half to seven miles above the earth; a walkable distance here on the ground. Conversely, heaven seems so distant, otherworldly, and infinite to our finite minds. In the Collect for Ascension Day, we pray for the awareness of Jesus fully present to us now and always: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.”
Perceiving that Christ abides with his Church on earth is not easy in our COVID-19 world. It seems that in a blink of an eye our world changed. This pandemic has forced us to take cover, to distance ourselves from friends and family. It has shut us out of our places of worship, and thrust us into economic uncertainty. It has revealed weaknesses in our systems of care that have led to even more deaths. There are clear signs of racial and economic inequality, and tension between those who favor restarting the economy as soon as possible, and those who want to be more cautious. Two and a half months into our isolation, we worry about a second wave of the virus. Some of us are restless; all of us are eager to get beyond this. We might identify with the Psalmist as he cries, “How long, O Lord? How long will I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?”
This is why we pray for faith to perceive Jesus’ abiding presence with us. We have faith in God’s Incarnation: that God entered our human experience in the person of Jesus, and that he lived among us announcing the arrival of God’s reign. We have faith that he died a bodily death, and experienced the resurrection of his body. We have faith that Jesus, both divine and human, had a bodily ascension into heaven. Yet the perplexities of this pandemic might seem like clouds veiling our perception of God Emmanuel (that is “God with us”). We gaze up and down, left and right, wondering, “Where in the world is God in all of this?”
Our founder Richard Meux Benson once wrote, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought our humanity into the heart of God, and made heaven present to us here on earth. When we make the decision to put our love, faith, and hope in Jesus, we are infused with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us what we need to know and reminds us of Jesus’ promise: I will not leave you orphaned. Jesus abides in the tabernacle of our hearts making heaven present to us, speaking a word of heavenly serenity, peace, and calm in the midst of the storms of life.
One of my favorite hymns in the Hymnal 1982 (#669) begins this way:
Commit thou all that grieves thee and fills thy heart with care
To him whose faithful mercy the skies above declare,
Who gives the winds their courses, who points the clouds their way;
‘tis he will guide thy footsteps and be thy staff and stay.
These faithful words of counsel help me to rise above the perplexing clouds that seemingly veil my eyes from God’s presence. The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith to know that Jesus is born in our hearts, that He bears us up to heaven, and that He abides in the tabernacle of our hearts forever. So, “Children of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Heaven begins within you and Jesus abides with you there!
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Many of you know that I have a special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures show up throughout scripture and fill the depths of my imagination with stories of their continual worship in heaven, especially as described in the Revelation to John. If I had to say there was a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. This is in part because they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. The main job of these country-dwellers was for the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep placed in their care.
When I first began to pray with our Collect for this morning the phrase ‘good shepherd of your people’ caught my attention. I began to think back throughout my life to people who had been shepherds to me, and thank goodness there have been many. I recall the youth program at my elementary school that occurred every summer sponsored by our local Department of Parks and Recreation. While parents were working, neighborhood kids could ride their bike up to the school where young adults employed by the Parks and Rec would be on hand to facilitate games, art, physical fitness, and field trips. Being an only child experiencing the ups and downs of family life that was not always happy, I craved and needed special attention. There were two or three young adults during those summers who recognized that need and would play board games with me when no one else showed any interest. They shepherded me when I, in a way, was a lost sheep, bullied by other kids and isolated because I was not popular. When I received the attention I so desperately needed from these councilors I felt happy, content, and most importantly, safe. Perhaps this is what inspired me to ask my parents one Christmas if I could have an older brother. I wanted someone who cared for me, looked out for me, and who had walked the very path I had walked earlier in his life; someone who could guide, affirm, and encourage me when I felt especially alone and vulnerable. I think this is as true for the 49-year old Jim as it was for the 9-year old Jim.
Why is Good Friday called ‘Good’? This is not a new question. If you do a Google search you will find a supply of answers to this question with no certainty landing on any of them. One explanation is that the title is unique to the English language and is derived from the old English designation, ‘God’s Friday.’[i] In catholic teaching, good is congruent with the word holy. This sounds right considering the sacredness of the Paschal Triduum, the three days leading to the Great Vigil of Easter which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Growing up in an Evangelical tradition of the church, I was taught early on that it was good because of the salvation wrought for us by Jesus dying on the cross.
To be honest, all of these feel right to me. But it is the third explanation, the one I grew up with, that grabs my attention. Mainly, this is because of the paradoxical nature of the idea that someone undergoing torture, pain, and death, is considered good. This is what we hear in our gospel text from John this evening. Jesus and his disciples go across the Kidron Valley to a garden, identified in the other synoptic gospels as Gethsemane, where they say he prayed earnestly while his disciples slept, unaware of the intense situation that was about to unfold. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, a member of his circle of friends, and taken to be questioned by the high priest Caiaphas where he was then subjected to abuse. Jesus interpretation of the Law as well has his claim of God as his father was considered blasphemy. The fact that people were beginning to follow Jesus challenged the power and authority of the Temple leaders. They take him to Pontius Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judea, to be tried and convicted as a criminal. Using mob tactics, the Temple leaders not only rile up the crowd, but insist that if Pilate does not sentence Jesus to death, he will be seen in the eyes of Rome to be disloyal to the emperor Caesar, which would place him in grave danger.
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.