The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest may say two prayers over the bread and wine immediately following their placement on the altar. In these prayers, the bread is called the fruit of the earth, the wine, the fruit of the vine; both are identified as having been received through the goodness of God, and both are called “the work of human hands.” This understanding, what I’ll call the “offertory posture,” positions us and our labors as intertwined with God’s own goodness and creativity. Our work, and the fruit of it, is also the fruit of God’s creation, and anything we create is to be viewed as coming ultimately from God, and offered back to God. This reciprocity of giving involves continuous interchange between God and his people.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”1 James and John respond to this in the affirmative, with no further questioning. I wonder if this is an example of loving faith, or naïve foolishness, or both. Regardless, it is reasonable for us to ask, “What is this cup?”
The most obvious answer is that the cup Jesus mentions is a reference to his own death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before his arrest, Jesus refers to his impending death as a cup that he desires to pass from his lips.2 If this is the case, Christ’s assertion to the sons of Zebedee that, “The cup that I drink you will drink,” is a truthful one. James becomes a martyr, the first of the Twelve apostles to die, beheaded on the orders of King Herod in Jerusalem.3 John, the Tradition of the Church holds, lives on, the only one of the Twelve not to be martyred, instead spending his days watching his companions meet their deaths, each one a new nail in John’s own inner crucifixion.
In today’s Gospel reading, Christ miraculously feeds a crowd of hungry people. The people recognize him as a prophet, and gather to bring him to Jerusalem to proclaim him king. Jesus responds by fleeing to the solitude of the mountains.
Let’s rephrase this telling. A crowd of people, living in a country beset by political strife, gather to march on the capital. They are eager to replace their corrupt, ineffectual, incompetent ruling classes, who spend more time arguing about the minutiae of law than they do responding to the hunger of the people for bread and for justice. They have just seen a man whom they regard as a leader, one with power and legitimate claim to authority, and they long for him to lead their movement, to lead them in their resistance to the evils of their day.
Perhaps this telling hits close to home. Gazing out on the political landscape of this country, how many of us long for justice in the face of leaders embroiled in cruelty, corruption, self-importance, and outright malice? How many of us locate in Christ the supreme example of leadership, and, comparing him to the afflictions of our country now, how many of us channel Jesus in our protestations of this state of affairs? Before I came here, I used to want to work in politics. I even ran for public office. The political environment we face at present has awakened a long-held desire of mine to enter the fray, and the convictions of my faith highlight to me just how much injustice, just how much falsehood, we currently face. If the opportunity presented itself, I too would long to crown Christ.
“They begged him to leave.” With this, the townsfolk in today’s Gospel reading confess that there are more than two demoniacs among them.
Jesus comes to the country of the Gadarenes and encounters two men, possessed. He rebukes the powers that ensnare the men, allowing them to flee into a herd of pigs. The animals are driven mad and throw themselves into the water to drown. This terrifies the swineherds, who rush into town, recounting the whole story. At this, the townspeople come out to meet Jesus, and beg him to leave.
This story is consistent with Christ’s promise to bring not peace, but a sword. Christ is a calmer of storms for the afflicted, but a harbinger of upheaval for communities built on and preserved by sin. By begging Christ to leave, the people have preferred livestock to humans. They have preferred to abandon and exile the afflicted, selling their neighbors to purchase stability. For the sake of peace, they have preferred pigs to men. But this is a false peace, a veneer that serves to obscure the brutality of their society. And it is into this peace that Christ, God’s right hand, thrusts his sword.
In our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.2 We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”
This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit.
What is God calling you from? This is not a question many of us are used to asking; much more commonly, we ask what God is calling us to. But, upon reading today’s lessons, it’s the first question that stuck out to me: What is God calling you from?
Elijah has fled from his oppressors, fearing for his life. He finds a cave, a hiding place, a refuge, and it’s difficult for me to imagine just how comforting that must have been for him. But soon after, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah explains his predicament, and God listens, but then tells him to come out of the cave.
Immediately, the scene changes to one of destruction and upheaval. Whipping, wind, quaking earth, roaring fire: it must have been terrifying. But these terrors are only a prelude. The din of destruction dies down, and in the calm and the quiet, in the silence, Elijah encounters God. He shields his face with his mantle, because he knows this silence is holy ground.
“It is I; do not be afraid.”1This is a familiar pattern. The Gospel narratives are full of instances where Jesus appears to his followers in a way that causes them terror. These experiences of fear seem to come in response to those moments in which Christ’s divinity is revealed, full and alive within his human vesture. In Mark’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women at the tomb that Jesus has arisen as he said; to this, we respond, “Alleluia,”2but this news prompted the women to flee from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”3 At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are clearly astonished throughout the episode, but fall over in terror at the Father’s proclamation that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This fear is only calmed by Jesus touching the disciples and telling them “do not be afraid.”4
But then, Jesus’s revelation does not only cause fear among his disciples. In John’s Gospel, Christ asks the company of men who had come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies, “I am he.” At this, the men “stepped back and fell to the ground.”5 Falling to the ground implies an uncontrolled, instinctual response. Like a person whose hand touches the hot burner of a stove, this is not a thought-out reaction.
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 16:19-31
Our first reading today is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Over time, Jeremiah has garnered for himself the nickname, “The Weeping Prophet.” He’s earned it. Called to be a prophet at an early age, he is initially reluctant, but trusts in God, and diligently urges his people toward repentance. They don’t listen, and respond with dismissiveness, hostility, and violence. As such, the disaster Jeremiah has been foretelling comes true; the armies of Babylon come and overthrow the houses of Israel and Judah. Jerusalem is captured, and the Temple is destroyed. Jeremiah is cast into exile in Egypt, where he dies, estranged from his homeland and his people. He can do nothing but lament; he has no other option but to weep in the desert.
When Jeremiah tells us, then, that the one who trusts in God shall be like a tree planted by water, unafraid of the drought, still producing fruit, it is reasonable to ask, “Where is Jeremiah’s river? Where is his fruit?” His life appears to be a drought, from start to finish. Does Jeremiah condemn or contradict himself? Where are the waters to cool his scorched tongue?
It is further reasonable to ask this about ourselves. When we are in seasons of drought, when we are striving our hardest to live in faithfulness to God rather than to the flesh, it makes sense to say, “I feel like I’m withering; where is my fruit? I feel like I’m in the desert; where is my river? I’m a poor beggar and sore all over; where is the refreshing water to cool my tongue?” Indeed, it can be difficult to offer any prayer at all in this state of mind. When the tongue is dry, when the lips are cracked, it is a great, even painful effort to speak. We may feel we are living in the poverty of Lazarus, and yet receiving the treatment of the rich man, begging for a cool drink. Not only the mouth, but the soul itself may be parched. In the desert of Lent, we are especially prone to this drought. How, then, can we pray?
Here, Jeremiah’s story is instructive. The lament, the weeping, the tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment. These tears are rain to the thirsty land, the wellspring of the river of life in the midst of the desert, the water that soothes the dry mouth and the tormented soul.
“Jesus wept” is the most iconic depiction of the tears of grief leading to life; Christ’s tears both show his human sorrow and foreshadow the abundance of life that will literally burst forth from the earth at the resurrection of Lazarus. Hagar’s tears in the wilderness after she and her son had run out of water are met with God revealing a well. Writing around the year 600, the monastic saint John Climacus wrote in his Ladder of Divine Ascent that, “Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears…If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find. Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears, shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted.” St. Symeon the New Theologian, another monk, writing at the end of the 10th century, argued that holy weeping is a recurring gift of immersion in the waters of baptism, cleansing us and giving us life whenever we are bathed in our tears. Tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment; they are a sign of repentance, a sign of sorrow for the world, a sign of awe, a sign of love. They are the waters within, just waiting to course through the desert when words are too much and not enough.
We are in Lent. It is the season of the drought. We can look around and see plentiful sorrow, and we may be unable to fix it. We may find no words, no actions, are sufficient to dress the wounds of the world. So, take heart; do not shun your tears. Do not be ashamed or afraid or dismissive of weeping, for when the heat of the desert seeps into our bones, tears can be living water.
We continue our Epiphany preaching series, “Gifts for the Journey,” on following God’s call, focusing tonight on the gift of guides. Currently on display in the middle of our chapel is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Her hand gestures toward the child, in the classic iconographic depiction of the Hodegetria, Greek for, “She who shows the Way.” The tradition of iconography identifies St. Luke the Evangelist as the first iconographer, who painted the image of Mary while she was still alive; the icon he is said to have painted is the original Hodegetria, establishing this particular image of Mother and Child as both widely popular and a deeply reflective picture of who Jesus is, and, consequently, who Mary is. Jesus is the Way, and Mary is she who shows the way, her simple and silent hand gesture representing the life of the Virgin burning, brightly and endlessly, with the love and knowledge of God. In today’s Gospel reading, this is further encapsulated. At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the servants to do whatever her Son tells them. Just a few verses beforehand, Jesus has told the disciple Nathanael that greater signs of Jesus’s work and identity await. John, in his gospel, then describes the scene at Cana, and so gives us the first of these promised greater signs. In this scene, it is Mary who initiates the interaction, and it is Mary who points the way: “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary is ever-vigilant, always pointing to her Son, always guiding us to the Way.
This is no surprise or coincidence. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her, overshadowing her with the power of the Most High. It is the Spirit, dwelling in and among us right now, who is constantly pointing to Christ. It is the Spirit who, in quiet whispers and gestures, points to the Son as the Way to the Father. It is the Spirit who binds us, uniting us to one another in Christ as his body, uniting us to the Bridegroom as his Bride. It is the Spirit who points the Way, and teaches us how to point the Way, if only we let him, as Mary did so long ago.
And though Mary is the fullest expression of this divine gift of guidance, it was taking place long before. Soon, we will sing the Nicene Creed. About the Holy Spirit, the Creed says that “He has spoken through the Prophets.” The long line of prophetic witness is another manifestation of the Spirit’s guidance, inspiring others to be co-laborers with him in his guidance. Tonight’s first reading is from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament prophet. He is perhaps a mirror image of Jonah, whose single call to repentance of the people of Nineveh brought about repentance. Jeremiah has no such luck. He spends a lifetime prophesying to Israel of their sins and the impending destruction and exile coming from Babylon, to no avail. Jerusalem is sacked, the Temple is destroyed, and the Israelites are scattered throughout the empire. Jeremiah spends the rest of his life in exile, in Egypt; he is left with bitterness, and tears, and lamentation. But this destruction, this uprooting, is no final death. It is the clearing of the brush, the making of the paths in the wilderness. Despite their settling in the promised land of Canaan, the wilderness has not departed from the People of God. Thickets still obscure the sight of the watchers, thorn bushes still ensnare the ankles of the travelers, wandering and searching for the Way. After foretelling humanity’s long exile in the wilderness of Babylon, Jeremiah offers us a prophesy of sweet hope: that God has a plan for us, that he has not forsaken us, that he has not taken the Way from us, that he will restore his people to the place from which we were exiled. We will be shown out of the wilderness and into the Garden. The Spirit who blew over the waters at creation is still a wind, whipping over the wilderness, ever working his act of re-creation on a world and a race beset by the spiritual wilderness of the formless void. This whirlwind is the breath, the voice of the prophets in the desert, proclaiming to all who would listen: there is a way. Here is the Way.
But this prophetic speech is no ancient tongue. The Spirit has always guided the world, but at Pentecost, his descent onto the people Church is as fundamental as Christ’s Incarnation. At the Incarnation, God the Son became imbued with humanity. At Pentecost, humanity became imbued with God the Spirit. So the Spirit has not stopped moving over the waters, but now moves with more grace and more power, more gentle and more ferocious than ever before. Dwelling in us, imbuing us with gifts of divinity, the Spirit’s guidance persistently abides within us. He shows us the Way, and shows us how to imitate him in showing others the Way.
And this is, perhaps, the most likely place you may have encountered the Spirit. Often, it is very difficult to discern the Spirit’s guidance, thumping in our own chests. Instead, we look outward, toward our human fellow-travelers. In the voices of their mouths, we, often quite unexpectedly, hear the whistling of the Spirit’s divine gusts. If we are open and prepared, a single word from a friend or a lover or a stranger may strike a silent chord deep within us, might stand out as a bright and brilliant sign, pointing out the otherwise-obscured path. A conversation might take an unforeseen turn, and words that strike us as ridiculous at first glance are actually the work of the Spirit, doing his eternal labor of Creation, planting seeds in the chaotic uncertainty of our own lives, so that they might grow into trees lining the Way. Despite our best efforts to dismiss, ignore, or push aside this guidance, God assures us of the truth of his path.
And we are called to be guides, to be the co-laborers of the Holy Spirit. This is a path that requires serious discernment. But to be prophets, to emulate the Virgin Mary as She who shows the Way, is to live up to our full human vocation. We are to be guides just as we are guided. We are to travel the path of God while clearing the brush so that others may join us. The Way is narrow, and long, and often obscured, but we are assured of the Spirit’s guidance, and we are assured of our vocation to work with him in that guidance. Let us show forth our Way.
This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series.