When I was a young boy, the day after Thanksgiving began what my parents eventually coined ‘the countdown to Christmas.’ Since I grew up in a church that did not celebrate liturgical seasons, we put our tree and decorated the day after Thanksgiving. This would begin the monotonous building of anticipation as presents were slowly added under the tree for a whole month. The week prior to Christmas, my parents would let me open one small gift early, because if they didn’t, they might lose their sanity. So, they would pick the package that I would tear open with excitement. Sometimes it was a pack of pencils for school, or a new pair of socks. Other years it was a pack of batteries that was meant to accompany some other bigger gift that I would receive on Christmas morning. What could it be that would require a set of six “D” batteries? Perhaps the latest Star Wars toy? Or, as I got older a new “Boom Box!” While the gift was never intended to fully satisfy my anticipation for Christmas morning, it did manage to enhance my joy and excitement as I began to imagine what Christmas surprise would be awaiting as I awoke at the crack of dawn and snuck downstairs to peer around the corner at the tree.
This building of excitement, anticipation, and joy is not just an experience of my childhood, but has emerged in my adulthood as an ‘angel in the architecture.’ In our monastery church, we follow a tradition that is common across liturgical traditions, of embodying this mounting joy in the wonderful symbol of the Advent wreath: a ring of seasonal evergreens with four candles that are lit one by one as we arrive at each new Sunday in Advent. Each week of Advent, we move further into darkness as we reach the longest night of the year at the Winter’s Solstice, which coincides closely to our celebration of Christmas, when we commemorate the birth of Jesus whom we know from John’s gospel as ‘the Light of the world.’ As each week progresses in the deepening darkness, we light a new candle in the anticipation and hope of the birth of Jesus, the Light of the world, at Christmas.
The third Sunday of Advent (just a little over a week before Christmas) is called ‘Gaudete’ Sunday—Gaudete is the Latin word for ‘rejoice.’ This day is marked by the addition of the color rose to the Advent blue, In many Advent wreaths, you’ll see three blue candles (or purple depending on your tradition) and one rose candle. Here at the monastery, we place pink roses among the evergreen branches of the wreath, and our altar frontal is turned around to the side that contains only blue and rose. The seasonal Advent Chasuble (the vestment worn by the presider at the Eucharist each day) has a ring around the shoulders that symbolizes the Advent wreath with four golden crosses, three set in a deep blue, and one set in a velvety swatch of rose.
Even as our building changes subtly around us, our worship reflects a similar change. In our readings for the third Sunday in Advent, we notice a shift in tone from a building anticipation of hope to one of rejoicing (there the ‘rejoice’ of Gaudete again). As I hear this call to rejoice early, I feel like a child again: It’s as if we have been given a present to open early in order to give expression to our joy as we approach Christmas.
Of course, like all the symbols of Advent, this observance is not only meant to symbolize the first Advent of Jesus at Christmas, but also to remind us that we are awaiting his second coming at the end of the age, when this veil of tears will melt away and we will all be together in the presence of God as one family beloved by our Creator. We still await the fulfillment of Jesus’ sacrifice to reunite all of creation through grace. In the meantime, we are all called to live in the spirit of the third Sunday of Advent, in joyful expectation and hope.
During this third week of Advent, reflect on those things that make you joyful. How are you being given a ray of hope in this present darkness? How is God pointing to gifts placed in your life like pink roses augmenting an evergreen landscape? What is your experience of living in the light of the third Sunday of Advent? How might you help to spread this joy to a darkened world so desperate for a new dawn that will usher in the growing light and warmth? Gaudete! Rejoice!
Our lection this morning is one of three or four concentrated stories of healing in Matthew’s gospel. Usually, they are considered together in context. But this morning we hear only one of these: two blind men following Jesus and crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Jesus engages with them and asks, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They reply, “Yes, Lord.” He then touches their eyes and says, “According to your faith let it be done to you.”
For me, this story brings to mind a prayer which we find in the Rite I liturgy of the Eucharist in the Prayer Book. The Prayer of Humble Access[i], while beautifully worded in the archaic poetry of the Rite, evokes different feelings in people depending on their experience. Some find the language self-deprecating. Yet, others find in it inspiration. It begins: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
Welcome to “Angels in the Architecture,” a new podcast series by the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. My name is Br. Jim Woodrum and it is my pleasure to be your guide as we explore the angels in the architecture during this season of Advent.
You may be wondering what I mean when I say angels in the architecture. A few years ago, while our community was on pilgrimage in the UK, I found myself surrounded by angels. We were visiting the Church of St. Mary and St. John, on the Cowley Road in Oxford, where our 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, 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?
You see, I grew up in an evangelical tradition of the Church that didn’t talk very much about angels, which is ironic, because it is from the Greek word for evangelist that we get the word “angel.” That word is euangelion, and the words ‘evangelist’ and ‘angel’ are both imbued with this root meaning: one who brings good news. All angels have a specific vocation under this shared banner and belong to one of the nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian Angels.
With such diversity in the angel ranks, I wondered not only about the angels lining the walls of the architecture in our church buildings—which ones were they?—but also what angels I might find in other places close to home, now that my eyes were opened. What other ‘structures’ beyond literal buildings might house angels, given that, in them, we experience tidings of good news? For instance, in the Anglican tradition (which includes the Episcopal Church) we have a book that sets up the structures of how we worship God in community. The Book of Common Prayer sets out to provide a “common,” which is to say a shared, structure of prayer and worship into which we can all enter, a structure that is familiar and provides for all our needs—including community, forgiveness, love, healing, blessing, and even how we bring our lives to a close. Might not the book, and our liturgy itself, also be a sort of architecture, full of angels?
Our church buildings, liturgies, colors, vestments, and traditions are angels—angels in the 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 in the architecture and the eternal company of heaven—as we too become bearers of good news, teaching, guidance, protection, and sanctuary for others.
Where do you recognize angels in the architecture that surrounds you? What angels have formed and guided you in your life? Some of these may be in our sacred buildings and liturgies, but if the Divine permeates all things, you might be able to recognize angels in your everyday life pointing the way into a deeper relationship with God.
Sometimes participating in God’s mission may not turn out the way we expect, or we may be called to change course mid-journey. We cannot fully know the mind of God in the accomplishment of God’s will. But that’s okay. All you need to ask God in prayer is ‘What’s the next right thing?’ And then do that one thing.
-Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
In order for music to be made, you must have elements of both sound and silence. This a perfect metaphor for our relationship with God. God lures us into God’s holy silence by what is resonating most in our lives. It is there that God is waiting to meet us.
-Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
Why does the word “evangelism” evoke such a negative emotion in many of us? I think we have misunderstood the meaning of the word. This word actually comes from the Greek word “euangelion,” which means “messenger of good news.” It is where we get the word “angel.” The angel Gabriel was an evangelist, a bringer of good news.
-Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
When the pandemic first struck, we Brothers had been in the middle of a year of facilitated community discussions, an exploration of all aspects of our life that we had dubbed “Renewing Our Foundations.” Over the last year, as we’d explored our history, we had marveled at the missionary zeal of our founder, Richard Meux Benson, and our forebears in The Society, as they began to travel to the United States, India, and South Africa. Fr. Benson had a vision for ministry that blended catholic tradition to the evangelical impulse within the Anglican church renewal initiated in Oxford. 150 years later, we stood in the present, looking at our past, praying about our future: What is the mission field for us? And, what exactly is the mission? It was then that, as for the rest of the world, we felt the rug pulled out from under us by Covid-19, leaving us disoriented, confused, and seemingly lost.
If we had felt uncertain about our future “mission field” before, it was only more complicated now, under the new (and ever-shifting) pandemic rules. How long would this shutdown last? How would this change our worship? How would we be able to give retreats when we were unable to travel to parishes or host groups in our Guesthouse? How would our staff be able to continue the daily business that enables our ministry, while keeping them and their families safe? And finally, since we meet Christ in everyone who comes through our doors: how will we meet Christ when those doors must remain closed?
We need to practice a posture of humility that seeks forgiveness for the shame we force upon others. In our human finitude, we all transgress against our neighbors. The act of asking to be forgiven, if genuine, is the doorway which frees all of those involved and incarcerated in the shame of injustice.
-Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE