The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
One of the many gems of our liturgical space here at the monastery is the marble statue of the young Mary of Nazareth—whose nativity the church remembers today—and her new child, the infant Jesus. As I prepared for today’s celebration, the image of this statue kept returning to me, set against the memory of an episode it doubtless provoked one spring day shortly after I was clothed as a novice. Two young men entered the chapel about fifteen minutes into the Noon Office. During the time of intercession one of them not so inconspicuously asked, “Is there a Bible in this place? Where’s the Bible?” As we began the retiring procession following the Office, the two leapt to their appointed task: “We have a message from the Spirit,” one began as they attempted to call us wayward Episcopalians back from the thralls of idolatry, and surrender (what they mistook for) pagan practice and charism. “Mary’s not gonna save you,” one of them remarked.
This episode remained with me for some time because it revealed a set of pretty common misconceptions about the esteem and reverence with which the church holds Mary of Nazareth, whom the Greek Church calls Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” Without a window into the significance of Mary, it is easy to mistake her for a mere transposition of some pagan fertility goddess, the ancient fém-divine baptized and chastened. With such a window curtained, an image of Mary with the child Jesus is easily read as an idol, rather than an icon into a profound mystery.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.
As a monk I cannot deny Paul’s wisdom. Within the dance of a monastic community, the challenges of obedience to one’s superiors come with many unexpected and needful graces. Much of life in community is spent learning to receive the gifts at hand when we do not get our way. But we do not all live within the precincts of a vowed community, and too frequently have these words of Paul been used to lend and air of divine approval to otherwise illegitimate and abusive forms of state power. Colonialism, chattel slavery, the convulsions of the twentieth century, and bold abuses of contemporary leadership, all accompanied by cries of human beings battered at the hands of nations, ring out a warning: be careful not to mistake coercive power for God’s power. For it is Christ—not a Caesar, or an empire, or a nation—who is the Lord of History.
While civil authority’s claim to coercive power rests on an aspiration to do justice and preserve order, this same authority is always liable to abuse and malformation. Civil authorities do not in fact always punish evil behavior and reward good. Sometimes, with great boldness, civil authority actively rewards evil and punishes good. And so a superficial reading of this text will at best leave us sadly distant from a vengeful and coercive God, and at worst lend license to unspeakable crimes.
It is probably strange to hear this morning’s gospel text in light of the current state of our world. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Scenes of evangelism may be a challenge for us all right now. Rather than being sent out into the world, we find ourselves compelled to remain at home and distance ourselves from those we might otherwise wish to serve, up close and in person. We are not presently going, there are no homes into which we might safely venture, no opportunities for face to face discussion, study, or prayer.
Yet we still hear Jesus’s call, even in the midst of a crisis that would see us shrink back and retreat from the world to which we have been called to bring God’s love. Go.
Thankfully various technologies—especially the internet—have afforded us valuable ways to overcome the sharpness of our physical separation from one another. Although I count myself among the world’s stubborn luddites, I cannot imagine rising to meet the present moment without the advantages of our own community’s presence on social media and other web interfaces. Much like those Christians of the fifteenth century, who experienced for the first time a new kind of evangelistic media (the printing press), we have heretofore unexplored worlds of potential set before us.
For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’
I do not really know, Jesus. That is the challenge of our walk of faith, is it not? Forgiveness. To arise, to walk, knowing we are forgiven. It is all too easy a thing to say, ‘I forgive you.’ But I think all of us know that the manifestation of those words in a lived, shared life can feel as daunting and impossible as trying to cure paralysis with a speech act. It is easier to say, ‘I forgive you.’ It is harder to live the sacrifices required of what is said.
The scribes in this morning’s gospel—however swayed by ‘even thinking’ in their hearts—are nonetheless right: true forgiveness—forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of human disintegration—is the property of the divine. It is priceless. It has the power to bring life out of death. But of course the scribes don’t quite see what is in front of them.
Therein lies the miracle of today’s gospel. Yes, a paralytic man regained authority over his limbs, but this is not what amazes the crowds, and it is not what should amaze us. For the healing of the paralyzed man is merely the sign of something much more significant. As with all of Jesus’ miracles, I often have to remind myself that the sign is not itself the thing signified.
I must confess that the gospel we meet this morning is not an easy one. There is good news for us here, but it is not a simple news. It is a news that will fortify us, but to my fallen palette it tastes a bit like bile going down.
In 1937, just over 80 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his now classic text, The Cost of Discipleship (or, in the original German, simply, Nachfolge). His text opens with a harsh admonition, “Billige Gnade ist der Todfeinde unsere Kirche”—“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words to a church assailed by the claims of a dangerous ideology. An ideology that sought an illusory national purity. An ideology that marked one group as “fully human” while deporting, enslaving, and exterminating those groups deemed “less than human.” In the blink of an eye, the Nazi Party had leveraged itself into a fascist dictatorship. His church, Bonhoeffer worried, was at risk of missing the costly call of God, preferring instead billige Gnade, cheap grace that justified not sinners but sin itself.
Bonhoeffer found himself attempting to minister to communities who struggled to sense the cost of their allegiance to Jesus Christ—afraid to undertake the sacred labor of seeking Christ ready and waiting in their neighbors, enemies, and scapegoats. To preach the Gospel became an act of treason against a society that sought to deform and devalue the “teure Gnade,” the “costly grace” that comes with following Jesus Christ—the life-giving grace that only comes from the vulnerability of the cross. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, calls the church always beyond the narrow horizons of its own self-interest. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, makes no room for a spirituality that would simply treat God as a means to an end—even if that end is peace.
One of the things that has struck me continually since coming to the Monastery is the way in which narrative is so essential to our lives together. We all tell stories about ourselves to help us find meaning and significance, to find out who we are. The rich matrix of narrative allows us to find the multi-dimensional tapestry that unfolds within the confines of time and place, of necessity and contingency. Although our poverty means we are always limited in our knowledge and understanding, stories (if we let them do their work and tell them honestly) have a way of lifting our gaze out of and above the daily ooze of chronological time. In a sense, stories give us brief tastes of God’s time, Kairos time. This is especially true when we begin to allow the threads of a story larger than our own to weave their way into a tapestry we thought we had begun on our own.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
To my mind, the final line of this morning’s gospel is at once an indescribable consolation and a never-ending source of perplexity. Perhaps even frustration. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. How many of us have been caught off guard or even startled by this phrase? Did he really just say what I think he said?
During the so-called “Farewell Discourses” of John’s gospel (chapters 14—17), we greet a host of similarly enigmatic phrases such as:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” “I do not give to you as the world gives.” “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you; abide in my love.”
These dense discourses clearly deserve much more than a superficial listening. There is an infinity in these words, fertile and receptive to the whole texture of human experience. John’s Jesus therefore speaks to each of us in the voice of that wind as he says If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it. There is an infinity in his words.
Yet this infinity is lost to us if we simply hear what we would like to hear. Because of this, I believe there is wisdom in praying with a sensitivity to what a text is decidedly not saying. Yes, he really did just say something remarkable, but whereas I would like to hear Jesus say to me, “if you ask me for anything, I will do it,” this is not what Jesus says. We have to reckon with those three little words: in my name.
Dear Brothers, as this season in the world continues to unfold, I think there is no hyperbole in saying we live during an apocalyptic moment. No, not the end of the world (though, surely the end of a world), but an apocalypse in the purest sense: an unveiling or uncovering. Apo, to take away; kalypto, veil; apokalyptein, to remove the veil. Innumerable dimensions of a great global illusion now appear uncovered, revealing arrangements born of what proves to be an unsustainable way of life. For some, this period of epidemic is seen as a mere annoyance, an interruption; the sooner we return to the way things were, the sooner we can get on with our own projects, plans, and dreams of infinite growth and material security. For others, however, the apocalypsis of this season reveals the inevitable result of a way of life inherently at odds with the limits of nature and the poverty of our humanity. Now, with the kalypto plainly removed, we find ourselves confronted with urgent realities, larger than coronavirus, larger than individual or national dreams; realities as sharp as life and death. Realities that ask us to change our minds—that is, repent.
Today we remember St Mark the Evangelist, whom tradition remembers as John Mark, a disciple of St Peter. Mark, whoever he was, writes to a community in the very midst of apocalypse. His is the first gospel we have in any written form, and we find it permeated with the literary cues of apocalyptic language. The narrative is urgent and fast-paced as Mark seeks to uncover something for his hearers. Indeed, one of the most frequent words in this gospel is immediately. It not only moves quickly, but also seems mysteriously to imitate the confusing velocity with which the reign of God began its invasion of the world through that most unique and mysterious uncovering: Christ crucified.
“I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.”
– Saint Hildegard of Bingen
All of us, at one point or another (especially if we spend any extended time in silence), are confronted by the peculiarity of sound. Sounds surround us from our waking to our retiring. They meet us in the early-morning praises sung by choirs of birds and in the bustling clangor of work in the kitchen, in conversations with family and coworkers, and even the gentle babble of moving waters. Whether in a hymn or song shared in a gathering, or the tender melody of our final “goodnight” to someone we love, this phenomenon marks our lives in ways both subtle and profound. At its most profound, sounds can serve as signs, pointing our inner gaze toward truths whose glory overshadows their seemingly contingent origins.
Sound and Meaning: A Whole Resonance
Certain sounds can carry special semiotic content – that is, they mean or signify something. Think of an alarm or a church bell. Even though these two sounds may sometimes sound similar, we know at once the meaning carried by the one or the other. Take as another example the simple rise in inflection characteristic of questions. “Did you enjoy your supper?” We understand at once this interrogative modulation and respond to the meaning transmitted by it. Even sounds that occur in nature – sounds that do not originate from the minds and bodies of human meaning-makers – can come to bear a specific significance. Consider the sound of the salty ocean surf, the trickle of a stream, or the anonymous rush of a breeze. These sounds, depending on their volume and intensity, can either carry us into a region of calm delight, or cause us serious concern for our safety.
These semiotic or meaning-rich sounds find a unique expression when human beings make the kind of organized sound we call music. Though tempting, it would be a mistake to call music a “universal language.” The languages of music are as varied and diverse as the cultures that speak them. Yet despite myriad dialects, music-making marks the human heart in a distinctive way. We do not have to speak our neighbor’s musical language to see that it communicates something deep and true to the listener. Since our heart (sometimes even our whole body) responds so deeply to sounds received as music, we should be bold enough to say that music marks us as God’s own creation.
Shared music, like prayer or communion, seeks to transmit more than mere information; it seeks to transmit truth. Music is a particular shape of the sign of sound that invites and enables complex communication and communion, for knowing and being known. Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is the first piece of music I can remember hearing as a child. Subsequently, even the first interval of the first movement – a whole step – vividly re-members inner states of heart lost to my conscious memory. Past and present are blurred, and I am able to communicate with my own embodied memories of love and longing in a unique way for a brief moment. Of course, we experience this chronological diminution best and most fully in the sharing of the Holy Eucharist.
Sound and Creation: Sonic Sacramentality
Why should sound speak to us in so many rich and varied ways? Why does this phenomenon from time to time seem to cry out for our deepest attention? I suspect sound speaks to us in this deep way because sounds are essential to the kind of creation God has gifted to us and the kinds of creatures God has created us to be.
Sound is essential to who we are as creatures – even those sounds we cannot hear – for the Bible reminds us that creation is sound. The language of Genesis 1 uses sound as an image for the divine creative act, rather than a grand cosmic war or the manipulation of preexisting matter (as we find in other local traditions of the Ancient Near East and beyond). We read “And God said …” seven times as the narrative of Genesis unfolds God’s creative character. No new texture, creature, or reality emerges without God first speaking.
While the Scriptures tell of creation by fiat – that is, through speaking – we need not necessarily understand this as literal speech. In Jewish tradition, the border between sacred words and chant is extremely blurry. The Hebrew Scriptures are rarely, if ever, simply spoken. They were (and continue to be) recited according to a specific set of sung (or “cantilated”) formulas known as ta’amim (“flavors”) or ta’amei ha-miqra (“flavors of reading”); tajweed or qur’an tajweed in Islam. Christian tradition shares this characteristic, particularly within monastic communities. While this kind of recitation is common to all three Abrahamic faiths, it is not exclusive to them.
Such an image of creation, at its core, carries the implication that underwriting all beings in creation is the vibrant, living, dynamic resonance of God’s creative Word. We can trace this concept throughout the arc of salvation history, and the Gospel of John reiterates it in light of the revelation in Jesus Christ: “In the beginning was the Word.” From the beginning, all being is inextricably linked to the sounds of the heart of the divine – the ever-vibrating Word of God. The insights of modern genetics and physics harmonize with John’s wisdom. The human genome contains more than three billion letters of a chemical alphabet, arranged in precisely the right order. Furthermore, the physical universe – its constituent parts, including us – consists in vibrations, of resonances tuned in relationship. We are each a word and a song of God.
In this way, we may say that sound has a deeply sacramental quality, “outwardly” signifying an “inner” grace. Saint Hildegard speaks of the sacramentality of sound when she writes, “The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self. Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played. The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather, through the touch of the musician. I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.” It is the invitation of our life in Christ to tune our hearts to those sounds that our physical ear is incapable of hearing, for which all physical sound is but an icon and signpost. In so tuning our hearts, we find there is only one musician skilled enough to provide the music for which they were made: Christ himself.
Sound and Us: A Song Day by Day
In our inner life we often encounter movements or experiences that escape linguistic description. So too, we encounter in biblical or devotional texts a certain uncanny profundity that requires the kind of sensitive attention we might also give to a piece of music: a listening that seeks something deeper than mere information. Nikolaus Harnoncourt reminds us that, in many languages, the word for “poetry” is also the word for “song.” He writes, “At the moment when language [surpasses] any concrete message, it is immediately likened to song, because with the help of song anything over and above pure information can be conveyed more clearly. [Song] make[s] it possible to reach a kind of understanding that goes beyond the purely linguistic.”
Prayer and Holy Scripture mark our day-to-day life at SSJE – specifically, sung prayer and chanted scripture. When we Brothers gather in chapel to sing the daily office, we step into a place that only the vulnerability of singing together can manifest. As we sing hymns and canticles and chant the psalter, we encounter one another in a peculiar way. Our voices can compete, overpower, derail, and distract; and at the same time they can mingle and meld, weave fresh textures, interpenetrate and color one another, and cause the chapel stones themselves to sing as they ring with the sound of our prayer, praise, and lament.
A song, no matter how simple or short, has the potential to point our hearts to their source. An occasion spent immersed in music can tantalize unexpected gratitude out from under a grief-stricken or cynical heart. The otherness of an unfamiliar piece of music can remind us of the breathtaking infinity of God’s diversity. When we encounter something anonymous yet undeniably present, true, and weighty in the sounds that surround us, we can be sure a sign has crossed our gaze. Listen. Sound and music remind us that life is profoundly mysterious and difficult to grasp with any kind of absolute certainty. A song will not necessarily speak the same word to you as it will to me. Yet this same phenomenon holds us together, marking our diversity as creatures, inviting us into that place within us that yearns to hear the uncreated symphony of our divine Composer.