Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
As I read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, I often imagine seeing an enormous tent being painstakingly erected, like those that are used for outdoor weddings. With the introduction of each significant character – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna – another stake or peg is fixed in the earth, with its own cord attached. These cords begin to cross and intersect at just the right angles, as if by the arrangement of some mysterious, divine geometry, held taut by the weight of poles and the canvas now unfurling from the ground into a recognizable structure. Into the particularity of time and space there unfolds a tabernacle, a tent or dwelling for Christ Emmanuel, God-with-Us. A web of divinely inspired, interpersonal encounters prepares the ground and provides a sheltering roof.
1 Corinthians 13:8-12 & Mark 8:22-26
Because children have a limited capacity to understand certain standard operating procedures of the adult world, they often come to conclusions that are very logical, but alas, entirely incorrect. National Public Radio’s Ira Glass calls this universal phenomenon “kid logic.”[i] For example, my younger sister was convinced that any building called a warehouse was a designated habitat for a werewolf, since these were the only two words she ever encountered with that particular prefix. Similarly, after overhearing an adult conversation featuring the improbable word “concubine” I became convinced that this was a rare species related to the porcupine. My parents patiently let us discover the errors of our “kid logic” on our own, and when we realized the inaccuracy of our theories, we were able to laugh at ourselves — and recalibrate. As children get closer to adolescence, they have a harder time with this gradual approach to revising their narratives. It’s a stage when many instances of “kid logic” collapse, often rapidly and ungracefully, in the face of new evidence about the world. That pre-teen struggle to integrate a vast range of new knowledge – along with the inner imperative to project a persona of effortless maturity to keep up with one’s peers – can make junior high school an unusually cruel boot-camp in disillusionment.
Listen for a moment and think carefully about whether you have had an experience parallel to any of the following:
The experience of a social worker as she counsels an opioid addict struggling to extricate himself from a destructive network of peer relationships;
The experience of a teacher giving hours of help after class to a student with special learning needs or a toxic home environment, neither of which the school system seems concerned about;
The experience of a doctor or nurse spending the time necessary to really listen to a patient’s needs, whilst attempting to navigate a broken medical insurance system;
The experience of a psychologist working with a transgender prison inmate who is verbally and physically abused by fellow inmates and guards, but whose gender identity is unrecognized by the prison system.
Isaiah 52:7-10 & John 1:1-14
We are here to celebrate Christ, to rejoice and revel in the revelation of the Word made Flesh, to fall headlong into belief for the first time, or the five-thousandth time. You are here, probably, to listen – for the first or the five-thousandth time, to “hear the good news of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” in the words of Isaiah. But, probably, you are also drawn to see. To see and exclaim, even before hearing, How beautiful. How beautiful: the messenger’s feet upon the mountains. How beautiful: the holy arm which the Lord has bared. My God, how beautiful: this Child we have sought with the eyes of our hearts for so long.
Christmas, for Christians in the West, is the foremost opportunity to re-embrace the Medieval impulse to look and to touch; to show things of great meaning first, then to tell as commentary on the showing. As the faith of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America remains to this day, the faith of the Medieval West was unabashedly sensory. Looking and touching and tasting were essential to believing, and they are even more so today.
Ecclesiasticus 48:1-11 & Matthew 17:9-13
Advent is one of my favorite seasons because it invites us as liturgical Christians to contemplate a vision of time that is circular and cyclical, rather than a merely linear arc. On the one hand, the Christ we meet in Advent assures us that he is the Beginning and the End, the Word and Wisdom of God present at creation and the Omega point in whom all things converge. One day, the story that we are reading will reach its apparent conclusion, and the last page will declare in bold, black letters: “The End.” On the other hand, we are assured that as we turn that final page, we will know in an entirely new way that the Story has only just begun. Likewise, as we follow Jesus through our own experience of past, present, and future, our individual journey can seem quite finite. But in the context of the great Story of salvation stewarded by the Church, the continual re-telling enacted and embodied, contemplated and savored each Advent, each Christmastide, each Epiphany, helps us orient ourselves in relation to a circle and a cycle. At the center of the circle is Christ; its circumference is a lifetime comprised of moments when we have turned – or are turning – or will turn — toward that center. In each turning moment, we know in our bones: we’ve been here before; we’ll be here again. Yet each encounter holds the promise of new grace. We light, we extinguish, we re-light the candles, and points of flickering light slowly connect the dots. Like the gradual, steady, inward motion of a spiral, we are drawn ever closer to that mysterious moment when, as the First Letter of John puts it, “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
In her short story Revelation, published in 1965, Flannery O’ Connor offers the reader a detailed psychological and spiritual portrait of a character named Ruby Turpin. Mrs. Turpin is a “respectable, hard-working, church-going woman,” white, middle class, and Southern. The story is set in the cramped squalor of a doctor’s waiting room, where an array of white characters – elderly and young, well-to-do and poor – are waiting to see the doctor. The omniscient narrator gives us a particularly intimate portrait of the thoughts that run through Mrs. Turpin’s head and heart, revealing an elaborate, personal hierarchy of class, race, and social status. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Turpin’s interior judgments roil and seethe. The casual conversation she makes with other patients slowly reveals the painful web of classism and racism in which they are all unconsciously enmeshed. And Mrs. Turpin’s running, interior dialogue with Jesus reveals the ways that she uses prayer to validate her prejudice, thanking Jesus for placing her exactly where she is and making her who she is and not like the others she has deemed inferior.
Feast of the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist
In a monastery, the past is inescapable. Formal, stately portraits of departed SSJE brethren hang on the walls of our refectory, placidly gazing upon daily breakfasts and Easter dinners alike. The names of others are inscribed on the bottoms of communion chalices or on memorial plaques, hanging in both obvious and out of the way places. Names and dates in elegant cursive script grace the inside covers of some of the older books on our library shelves. Occasionally, I stumble across prayers copied out on title pages or notes penciled in the yellowing margins, and I’m unexpectedly moved; I feel as if I am entering a conversation that began long before me. Finally, and most significantly, there is our practice of reading the obituary of a departed brother on the anniversary of his death. This moment at Compline is not simply a gentle reminder of our mortality. It is also a loving gaze at a portrait in the family photo album. And that probably points to the heart of the matter. When I say that the past is inescapable here, I do not mean that in an antiquarian or anachronistic way, as if living in a monastery were like living in a museum or an antique gallery. Nor do I mean that we are haunted by ghosts. In the phrasing of Donald Allchin, former Canon of Canterbury Cathedral and a friend of this community long before I came along, it is the “living presence of the past” that makes itself so mysteriously and palpably felt in a monastery.[i] Before I came to monastic life, my personal relationship with the past felt both very passionate and very piecemeal. Confined to favorite authors and artists and a handful of saints, I found it difficult to describe why these figures exerted such a persistent, gravitational tug upon my heart – and what meanings that tug signified for my life in the present. But as I come more and more to take my place in a lineage, and to discover my individual story knit into a fabric whose folds extend beyond my imagining, I begin to grasp in my daily experience the words from our Rule of Life: “As we explore the spiritual legacy of our forebears we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.”[ii]
Feast of St. Martin of Tours
St. Martin of Tours, whom we remember today, was almost universally unpopular among his fellow bishops. But the reasons for this unpopularity are also the reasons we remember his life and witness in the Church. He was strongly opposed to the suppression of heresy through the use of military intimidation or violence. Tragically, such suppression had become common by that point in the history of the early Church. Martin was also called to the monastic life, and refused to compromise this commitment after becoming bishop. The monastic movement in the Western Church was still new enough that this way of life must have made Martin seem even more eccentric and uncooperative with clerical business as usual. Finally, he lacked a formal Latin education and was not a member of the ruling class, having been trained from an early age as a soldier.
St. Martin is most frequently represented in sacred art wearing the military uniform of a soldier, seated on horseback, cutting his red cloak in half with his sword and giving one half to a poorly clad beggar. It is a deeply archetypal image of compassion. We have seen so many images in children’s books, in movies, or in video games, of warriors on horseback committing acts of violent subjugation, slaying dragons or evil knights or foreign invaders. Even those who do so in the service of rescuing a helpless victim are seen slaying or beheading or trampling in the fulfillment of their virtuous mission. St. Martin inhabits this mythic genre, but with a crucial twist that confronts all that what we have been conditioned to see or expect in a warrior. St. Martin believed that spiritual warfare called for spiritual weapons. Foremost among these was his sacrificial generosity.
Isaiah 45:1-7 & Matthew 22:15-22
We sing to God:
You alone are the Holy One.
You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High.
And God sings to us:
What’s your experience with demons? Demons appear on practically every page of the Gospel. Sooner or later, every conscientious follower of the Gospel of Christ must arrive at his or her own interpretive conclusions about these demons, a personal demonology, if we are to engage in any life-giving and meaningful way with these ancient texts, their ancient authors and their first-century worldview.