Luke 5: 12-16
“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
All four of the gospels give us tell-tale signs of a distinct pattern in Jesus’s own rhythm of life: his withdrawal into solitary places for prayer. The word in Greek can mean to slip away quietly, to go back, to go aside: it literally means to vacate or make space down, perhaps a bit like how we say, ‘My schedule will free up in a few days.’ The word withdraw can have rather negative connotations in English: to take something away after it has been offered; or to stop supporting someone, like a political candidate. People go into withdrawal if they stop taking an addictive drug: the end result will be freedom from addiction, but in the meantime, great suffering is in store. To describe someone as withdrawn is not a positive assessment.
Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Worlds apart, though not a great distance, Mary and Joseph bear parallel but private burdens. What thoughts must have raced through their solitude?
Oh God, what would he say if I told him the truth?
What will he do if I say nothing?
Oh God, what will happen when he begins to notice that I am pregnant?
If he dismisses me, what will become of me? What will become of this child?
Oh God, you began this work in me. How will you see it through to its promised end?
Oh God, what would she say if I asked her for the truth?
Would I want to know?
Oh God, could I ever learn to love her and this child that isn’t mine?
Am I not enough to wait for?
Oh God, how could she do this to our promised future?
Mary holds the weighty knowledge of her intimate, personal involvement in God’s saving plan, as another life takes on its own weight within her body. But she holds this knowledge alongside an utter incapacity to explain that plan to others. Reading only Matthew’s text, we know at least that she has not ventured to tell Joseph.
Meanwhile, Joseph undergoes the trial of his deepest conscience: a conflict between the righteous observance of the Law, his personal instincts of compassion and discretion, and his own dashed expectations. Probably, he is gravely disappointed.
I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peonie, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peonie, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
2 Timothy 2:8-15 & Luke 17:11-19
The patterns of life help us predict and control the chaos of creaturely existence. But there arises inevitably the unforeseen variable. The variable may visit in the form of a disruption in a system; as a tipping point or breaking point. Or a sudden reversal or unexpected contradiction can interrupt the flow of a familiar pattern. We witness this in all fields of human experience, from economics to meteorology to evolutionary biology to poetry. The loss of control that accompanies such variables can be truly terrifying. But there is another law of creaturely existence to bear in mind: without the unforeseen variable, genuine change cannot emerge. Without the couplet at the end of the sonnet that unlocks the poem’s meaning, the reader will remain unmoved by the galloping rhyme and meter that brought her there. For us, the Holy Spirit is this change agent. The Holy Spirit is made known within us as what theologian Karl Rahner called “an interior pressure by which we become more.” Such moments are usually the cumulative effect in our praying consciousness of many seeds of grace planted and forgotten, tended in the nourishing darkness of God. Moments of becoming unfold in real time as the fruition of a pattern, but what they point to is something altogether unpredictable. We can witness them if we have eyes to see. They break upon our hearing if we are attentive to how we listen.
The authors of scripture were well-attuned to the basic momentum of the Holy Spirit, that “interior pressure to become more” pulsing within the collective life of Christ’s new Body. They interiorized and recorded the testimony of those who had witnessed, at firsthand, the great unforeseen variable of The Resurrection. The cross and empty tomb together represented the sudden reversal by which God’s wisdom and power shone forth in the least likely, promising, or predictable ways. I want to explore the ways our Epistle and our gospel text show us this relationship between the pattern and the unforeseen variable in the shape of Christian life.
There is a subtle and mysterious power that begins to permeate the experience of someone who is becoming acquainted with the largeness of the soul – not just “the soul” as some abstractly beautiful idea, but with the largeness of his or her own inmost self. When Walt Whitman wrote the phrase “I am large, I contain multitudes” in his epic Song of Myself, he was perhaps following his own ecstatic muse toward a version of the truth we find in the letter to the Colossians. This letter, I confess, is one of the epistles I cherish most. When I read it, the most interior, intimate, and invisible part of myself feels so palpably enlarged – and empowered. Here is a truly expansive vision of Christian identity, perhaps best summarized in the single, breath-taking phrase from its third chapter: “There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything.” All, everything, whole, full, fullness – these are the characteristic words of the Letter to the Colossians, words by which the reader becomes something more, someone larger than life, a person filled with Life beyond his or her own.
This Christ whose heart of love is now the center and binding agent of the whole cosmos is the one in whom the soul discovers the true measure of its wingspan. For the author of Colossians – probably not Paul, but almost certainly a disciple of Paul’s spirituality – there is a direct relationship between the expansiveness we come to know by participation in this cosmic Christ and the empowerment of the Christian. The follower of Christ knows the power of God in Christ, a power that liberates in a world filled with powers that enslave, abuse, diminish and make small.
If you have kept a journal with any regularity at any point in your life, you’ll know that reading old journal entries can be a little risky. Whenever I meet people who journal, I like to ask if they read what they wrote a year, or two years, or ten years ago. Some visibly cringe at this thought. From the vantage point of the present self, that past self narrates a story that begs not to be revisited, either because it no longer rings true, or it still rings all too true. And all of it is expressed in yesterday’s language, bristling with a permanently adolescent awkwardness. But once, when I was leading a men’s retreat, I witnessed a man read aloud from a journal entry he had written thirty years ago – in his mid-twenties. He prefaced his reading by saying that he found most of it woefully embarrassing, decidedly cringe-worthy, but that revisiting that self – and the intensity of that self’s first desire for God – was crucial to reconnecting with God in the present. He was approaching a mellowed maturity, but sought an understanding of God that he could only arrive at by praying through the lens of his first fervor. A group of twelve men – myself included – listened with rapt attention and respect.
When I imagine the apostles James and John overhearing this gospel passage each time we read it in church, I wonder if they cringe in embarrassment at a past self, still full of fervor but struggling to lay hold of understanding. I then realize that I am the one who is embarrassed on their behalf, as I conjure up my own moments of misguided zeal. I wonder if Matthew wasn’t a little embarrassed on their behalf. Mark places this audacious request in their own mouths: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Matthew presents it as a favor sought from Jesus by their mother: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” In her great love, a mother can be excused for saying embarrassing things in public on behalf of her children.
Jesus is realistic with them. They have made a very adult request of him – too adult, in fact, too full of the world’s ambition and a worldly conception of privilege and prestige that colors their still emerging notion of the kingdom of God, where one must become humble like a child. But in reply, Jesus treats them like spiritual adults: “You do not know what you are asking.” I see his faint smile, completely free of condescension or judgement, turn into a look of utmost sobriety as he looks them both directly in the eyes, assessing their readiness, knowing that one is never ready. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus has seen their first fervor, the sudden zeal with which they stepped from the fishing boat of their father Zebedee into his tutelage and his care. He now honors that first fervor in their all-too-teenaged reply: “We are able.”
It is a grave moment of consent, to participate in their Master’s glory to some unknown degree, in some mysterious measure. It is at least clear that this will entail suffering. It is a statement of bold trust – even if its utterance is still ninety-percent aspiration, saturated with what a friend of mine who is both a priest and a mother calls an “over-realized eschatology.”
James and John don’t know it yet, but “We are able” may well be the shortest, simplest, most direct, most honest prayer of their lives. It is not, as they believe in the moment, their consent to a condition that will fulfill and validate their first fervor. Rather, it is a prayer that expresses the truest, noblest, and holiest intention of their lives, a prayer that will never be fully translatable on this side of heaven; a prayer that fulfills their vocation in God.
James and John have heard our version of their story many times. In the heart of Jesus, I imagine that they are held beyond first fervor or mellowed maturity, but in eternity, see through the lens of both simultaneously, and can say with the assurance of the saints, “We were never able. But because he took us at our word – our own impossible words – he made us worthy.” Blessed James and John, whom we remember today.
The Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion:
The Profession of Marian Rebecca Hughes
“I was enrolled one of Christ’s Virgins, espoused to him and made his handmaid and may he of his infinite mercy grant that I may ever strive to please him and to keep from the world though still in it.”[i]
A twenty-four year old Englishwoman named Marian Rebecca Hughes wrote these words in her diary in the year 1841. On Trinity Sunday of that year, she stepped boldly but quietly into uncharted territory for a nineteenth-century Anglican: she vowed to remain unmarried in devotion to Christ and in service to the church. From John Henry Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey, pioneering priests and theologians of what we now call the Oxford Movement, she had learned that such consecrated women had played a vital role in the early church. From her growing knowledge of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and of the social work of Lutheran deaconesses, she drew inspiration to live a life of service. Her vows were received by Pusey in a private home, but this private ceremony also included a humble, public act. Marian went immediately to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where she knelt at the altar rail beside Lucy, Dr. Pusey’s daughter. Lucy, aged 12, was that day receiving her first communion. Both Newman and the young Ms. Pusey were fully aware of Marian’s consecration; they were, in a sense, co-conspirators. Upon receiving communion and completing the final prayers of consecration, Marian had become the first person to take up the vocation of vowed religious life in the Church of England since the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation. It is difficult from our historical distance to fully appreciate how counter-cultural this decision was. While she was amply resourced by highly sympathetic male clergy, Marian was a young Victorian woman in an age that still had no cultural reference points for the life she aspired to live. For the next nine years, she gathered information about Roman Catholic women’s religious life in France and cared for her aging parents. It was not until 1850 that she would take up life in a community of Anglican sisters, the newly founded Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. By the time Mother Marian died in 1912, in the ninety-fifth year of her age and the seventy-first year of her religious profession, she had witnessed the firm foundation of Anglican religious life for women and men – including the founding of our Society in 1866.
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Before I entered monastic life, I experienced the Ascension in both its scriptural telling and its liturgical observance a bit the same way I experienced a lay-over between flights. Why this seemingly unnecessary stop on the journey from Easter to Pentecost – and so close to our final destination? Jesus had risen. Why did he now need to go up still farther – to a Heaven I certainly believe in but did not (and do not) regard to be “up” at all? In the monastery, where scripture rains from above and seeps up from below until it gets inside you, it was clear that the Ascension meant more – much, much more than I had assumed. But it still felt like an irritant – a grain of sand that might produce a pearl – one day.
My relationship with the Ascension is now very different. I now delight to get off the Easter-to-Ascension plane, stretch my legs, and take in the breath-taking view before climbing aboard for the Ascension-to-Pentecost leg of the journey. I understand why lay-overs and way-stations are necessary on long journeys – and what they can do to shift the perspective of the traveler toward the terrain. I understand that “direct flights” in the spiritual life are available only to angels. I do not understand the Ascension, anymore than I can levitate – or fly. But I love the Ascension because I love the Ascended Christ and I sense now more than ever what his Ascension means for us here below.
Peace – as we ordinarily understand that word — is often very hard work. Whether it is the resolution of conflict between nations or ethnic groups, or an inward psychological disposition leading to deeper wellbeing, peace is usually work-in-progress. It is no secret that these two forms of peace are deeply interrelated. The crucial work of social peace (negotiating peace, organizing peace, facilitating peace, instituting peace) only maintains a superficial and tenuous harmony if there is no on-the-ground commitment to interior peace, the kind that changes lives from the inside out. Countless civil disobedience movements have demonstrated the power of non-violent action when it is steeped in spiritual intention and grounded in a peace that no oppressor can give or take away.
The peace of Jesus was a living, inner presence that challenged, changed, and empowered his followers to seek the peace “which the world cannot give.” This inner presence inevitably brought Jesus into conflict with the ambient culture of violent occupation around him. The religious leaders who benefitted from their quiet complicity no doubt had a very different understanding of shalom. Rather than a dynamic, empowering presence, “peace” meant maintaining a broken system with minimal disturbance to received tradition.
Jesus says to his gathered disciples:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Jesus, knowing that his death is imminent, bequeathes his own Peace to his inner circle, who will so desperately need it in the midst of the suffering and death about to break upon them like a tidal wave.
Like most of the sections of Jesus’s lengthy farewell discourse, this specific section is prompted by a question: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” The first part of Jesus’s reply focuses on the gift of the Paraclete or Advocate, the Holy Spirit who “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The gift of Jesus’s Peace is a highly related but ultimately distinct gift. And while the gift of Peace participates in the tradition of shalom as both greeting and farewell, this Peace is a promise of ongoing presence because it harkens to the gift of Peace inaugurated by the Messiah: the righteous rule of the “Prince of Peace,” which will be eternal.
Marianne Meye Thompson notes that in this Farewell Discourse of Jesus, the world is almost always mentioned in the same breath as the promised Holy Spirit. Similarly, Jesus here explains, “I do not give to you as the world gives,” immediately following his twice-repeated gift of his own Peace. While the term “world,” or kosmos, in John’s gospel is a bit elastic in its meaning, it takes on an unequivocally threatening character in John’s closing chapters. A dense energy of worldliness threatens to obscure or corrode the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The world “hates” Jesus’s followers just as it hates Jesus. Thompson sees “the world” in the Farewell Discourse as both the “source of opposition” facing the followers of Jesus and the “arena” in which their witness to the gospel must unfold. As such, it remains a perpetual challenge for the Church to grapple with in every generation.[i]
It is very easy to be seduced by a peace that is not Christ’s, but rather a false peace that is of the world. There are at least three forms this might take:
We often seek permanent, lasting peace in places we will never find it, or will find only provisional peace: a political party, financial security, a beautiful house, a romantic partnership, a career promotion, retirement, a new ministry, a denomination of the Church, our liturgical preferences, our physical or mental talents. The list can grow quite long. It sometimes helps to honestly assess the direction in which we are seeking ultimate peace. “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them,” writes the Psalmist, and there are endless variations on this theme in scripture. Horses? No. Chariots? No. Riches? Nope. All of these will fail us. If we look to provisional or temporal things for ultimate peace, we are likely to wake up itchy, restless and dissatisfied when they disappoint us. These paths toward peace are often onramps or runways toward the Peace that is Christ’s Peace. But our trust in these things is provisional because it is light, gentle, and acknowledges human frailty – others’ and our own.
We often seek to “build” peace with the hope of arriving at a lasting, permanent solution in the sheer strength of our own efforts. As a form of service to humanity this is a noble and selfless motive. But if we are not co-creating paths toward peace with Jesus, we are pursuing the world’s peace. Participating in the Peace of Christ requires a patience and a persistence that only Christ can supply. It demands an attentive eye to recognize where Christ’s Peace is already breaking forth as slow growth unassisted by our well-organized efforts, and asks only for us to bear witness.
We often wish, aspire, or pray to arrive at an interior peace that is a “once and for all” accomplishment. If we establish the right spiritual practices with the right frequency and depth, if we follow the right Rule of Life, if we say “yes” to every opportunity to be of service, if we worship God with deep enough focus and sincerity of heart every day, maybe we’ll reach a plane of permanent spiritual peace where we no longer swear in traffic or eat too much dessert or judge ourselves for our mistakes or make superficial assumptions about people. As far as I can tell, such a Peace does not exist this side of heaven. I do believe that the Spirit works in us a slow purification of the will that renders certain habitual sins a lot less interesting than they once were. But until then, I think that following Jesus opens us to receive his Peace in the midst of our flaws, not in spite of them. We hold the treasure of Christ’s Peace in clay jars, as grateful sinners.
As recipients of the Peace of Jesus, we have been given – in trust – the defining gift of Jesus’s now-and-future reign. Hearing Jesus invite me to make use of his Peace – a Peace already entrusted to me – changes my understanding of the adventure and challenge of peace-making in a very unpeaceful world. Making peace becomes consenting to Christ’s peace-making process wherever it is unfolding. Making peace becomes receiving Peace and being Peace. Only then can Christ use you and me to give Peace – a Peace which will remain his alone, but will change us each time we give it away, and each time we pass it around in our Eucharistic feast.
I give to you the Peace of Christ – a Peace which the world cannot give.
I give you the unshakable sanity and unflappable presence of Christ.
I give the Peace that saves you and me from all inner and outer persecution and from every stone the world may hurl your way.
I give you a Peace that will never falter or fade, and will carry you all the way Home.
The Peace of Christ be with you.
[i]Marianne Meye Thompson. John: A Commentary. p. 313.
“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.