Fellowship

The season of Epiphany taps into our own desire to know and be in relationship with God, and how God is manifest in our lives in the here and now. Our founder Richard Meux Benson poetically articulated this: “It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with Him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
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Epiphany

Epiphanies seem to be random, but they are not. They build over time until the last little bit of information is gathered, and the picture comes fully into focus. Epiphany means ‘manifestation.’ How has Jesus been made manifest in your life? How is it that you have found yourself in this place, at this time, to pay homage to Jesus?

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
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Birthright

Being created in the image of God means we have the capacity to mirror God’s love to others. Our call is to disassemble the structures of shame – the shame that has been forced upon us, and the shame we have forced upon others. Let us strive to see in one another not our image, but the image of God, with compassion, humility, and forgiveness.

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
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Magnificat – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Luke 1:46-56

Today’s gospel lection from Luke is known as the Magnificat, the first word of the Latin phrase Magnificat anima mea Dominum: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the monastic setting, including this monastery, it is the song that Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings at each Evensong through us and with us. It is a song of praise to God, a song of celebration, a song of joy, and a song of hope. Each time we chant this ancient hymn, we cannot help but feel warm and fuzzy, envisioning Mary singing her Magnificat in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth. These two women share with each other the wonder of what God is doing in their lives: one pregnant way past her prime and the other pregnant way too early.

If we take a closer look, beyond any cliché sentiments that might tempt us to get stuck, we can discern that it is also a song about revolution. In order for God to fulfill His promises conveyed through the prophets, and for all nations to be blessed through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the oppression imposed by institutional religion and the Empire had to be overthrown. Reflecting on this passage, theologian N.T. Wright suggests, “Nobody would normally thank God for blessing if they were poor, hungry, enslaved, and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the powerbrokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elisabeth knew all to well, living as they did in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up with the threat of Rome.” Read More

On Shepherds and Sheep – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Matthew 18:12-24

Many of you are aware of my special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures make appearances throughout scripture, filling the depths of my imagination with stories of their continuous worship in heaven, particularly as described in the Revelation to John. If there were a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. The primary responsibility of these country-dwellers was the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep entrusted to their care.

In Luke, chapter two, we learn that shepherds were the first to receive the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. In just under two weeks, we may soon find ourselves singing a popular Christmas carol that begins: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around.”[i]

Throughout scripture, we encounter numerous references to shepherds. For example, the renowned King David of the Old Testament served as a shepherd for his father Jesse’s flock during his youth. King David, who was not only a shepherd but also a skilled musician and credited as the author of the Psalter, likely penned the words found in Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”[ii] Read More

Delight

Turn away from those things that are consuming you and look for what is teeming with the light of joy in your life: A breathtaking view; a close relationship. Delight in these, for Jesus has taught that we will see God most in these encounters from day to day.

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
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Center

We should look for God in our midst through the lives of our neighbors. How you treat another child of God is this life is in actuality how you treat God. By seeing the infinite worth in our neighbor, we keep God as our center and focus.

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
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Visions of Heaven on Earth – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Matthew 13:44-46

When I was 6 years old, my mom took me with her to Ohio to visit her cousin that she had been close to as a little girl. It was my first experience of traveling by plane. While I don’t remember it with great clarity, my mom loved to tell the story of how when we began to crest the clouds, I turned to her and said with big eyes, “Mom, are we in heaven?” I suppose my vision of heaven was similar to a lot of children whose imaginations saw God sitting in the clouds with angels flying all around. Later in my life, I remember hearing old time Appalachian hymn tunes based on Revelation describing heaven as having streets paved with gold and a river with the water of life running through it. While these visions are dreamy, they actually differ from Jesus’ descriptions.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we see Jesus describing the kingdom of heaven to a crowd who had gathered to hear him teach. In this sermon by a lake, Jesus says that “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus’ descriptions are not about heavenly visions, but rather portray heaven dressed in earthy tones: a field, hidden treasure, and a pearl of great value. Just prior to this passage in Matthew’s gospel we hear other metaphors: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, and like yeast added to flour for leaven. Instead of describing a fantasy, Jesus is clothing the kingdom of heaven in a way that makes it accessible for his audience. In this way, Jesus says that the kingdom is not distant, but rather, directly in front of their very eyes. Read More

The Johnstown Flood of 1889

 

Fr. Charles Neale Field, SSJE

Chaos: a state of things in which chance is supreme, especially: the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms. This scientific definition of chaos might hearken us back to the very beginning of the creation account from Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word for “the deep” is tehor, which scholars think might be related to a Babylonian divinity associated with oceanic chaos. We gather from ancient writings, including our own Judeo-Christian background, that to the ancients, (especially those who lived in desert habitats), the sea was “chaos” and therefore something to be feared. 

With the help of science, we have a better understanding of watery chaos in our modern times and have systems in place to navigate it. Still, we can be caught off guard when we are blindsided by natural and human-made catastrophes. In 1889, such a catastrophe occurred when a defective dam in the Conemaugh Valley of Pennsylvania burst without warning and destroyed the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in an instant. Records of the tragedy indicate that 2,209 people died in the flood that ensued – 99 entire families – 396 of which were children. Bodies from the flood were found as far as Cincinnati, Ohio, as late as 1911.

At that time, there were Brothers from our Society ministering at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia including Fr. Charles Neale Field. Fr. Field volunteered to go and help in the relief efforts being organized by the American Red Cross. Joined by three men of the Guild of the Iron Cross (created by Fr. Field for working men and boys at St. Clement’s), they set off towards Johnstown. In a small book published by the Guild of the Iron Cross entitled After the Flood, Fr. Field recounted the story of the devastation and the heroic efforts of many who came to Johnstown’s aid. In this memoir, we hear him marvel at the devastation. He writes:

It is true that reflections are generally unsatisfactory, dreamy and transient. But reflections in a railway car, not of oneself but of the events of the first week after the flood are exceptional. Had I been dreaming? I felt more than half dead, as Dante might have felt coming out from writing of purgatory. I had seen Johnstown shortly before a flourishing city; where was it now? A name, a shell of a city. Where were the waters that had ruined it? Gone thousands of miles. Where were the people that had made it? Heaps of them dead, and those living, half dead, wounded in body and soul. Why had it happened to Johnstown?

Here we see a man of God clearly affected by the magnitude of human suffering he encountered. The question Fr. Field prayerfully asked was “Why?” How many of us ask this same question of God in prayer amidst the chaos we experience in our lives? Yet, Fr. Field was a man who knew that sacramentally he had entered into the waters of chaos in his Baptism and had risen from its depths into the promise of resurrection as a child of God. He knew that in spite of all the chaos he might encounter in his life, his Baptism gave assurance that God has brought and will bring order out of chaos. And so too for us, as we navigate all the uncertainties of our earthly life. He closes his initial reflections by writing that there were many good people in Johnstown:

Why God allowed men to build, and the State not to condemn the weak dam is a mystery contained in the deeper question how God can allow evil. The end of our reflection is that in spite of the carelessness and sin of men, God can and will bring good out of all this evil, and most good to those who have suffered most.

Abundance

God entered into our humanity in the person of Jesus, calling us to recognize in each other our beautiful, God-given distinctions, and to find them a source of vitality. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to live with arms outstretched and hands open, not to cling to the provision God has given, but to share with others from our abundance.

Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
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