Celebrating: The Nativity of Mary
When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas television shows was Frosty the Snowman. It was a short cartoon made in 1969, and narrated by Jimmy Durante; who also sang the song the story is based on. The song begins this way:
Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal
Frosty the snowman is a fairytale they say
He was made of snow but the children
Know how he came to life one day
What happens in the story is that some children build a snowman, and name him “Frosty.” While they’re admiring their new creation, a chance gust of wind carries a magical hat to the top of Frosty’s head, and suddenly Frosty comes to life. A number of adventures follow where the children foil the plans of an evil magician, intent on taking the magical hat for himself. During all this, Frosty sometimes loses the hat, and whenever the hat is placed on his head, including that first time, and as he springs to life, he lets out a joyous shout of: “Happy Birthday!”
And today we give a joyous shout of “Happy Birthday” for Mary, Jesus’ mother. Actually, we are a bit late, since the date in the church’s calendar was a couple of days ago, but a belated “Happy Birthday” is better than none at all. In some ways, though, and no offense to Mary, it’s not a very obvious choice to add to the church calendar. Many Christians don’t even celebrate Mary’s birthday, and we don’t have a biblical account of her birth to lend that kind of authority to the celebration. Still, the celebration of Mary’s birth is an ancient tradition going back to at least the sixth century.
“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19b)
God tries to make it easy for us. Here are two ways, God says:
One way is to love God, obeying God’s commandments and walking in God’s ways. This way leads to life and prosperity.
A second way is to turn away from God, to refuse to listen or obey, to give your heart to other things, idols of your own making. This path leads to adversity and death.
Not a difficult choice, really, and yet not an easy one for most of us either.
These two paths are set before us again and again in Scripture. Take Psalm 1, the psalm appointed for today. There are two kinds of people, the psalmist suggests: the “righteous,” who have chosen the first path, and the “wicked,” who have chosen the second. (Make no mistake: you are not misreading the psalm if you take from it a fairly black-and-white picture of reality. You will also not be incorrect if you see this same pattern popping up over and over again in the rest of the Psalter.) The psalmist is making a very clear distinction between these two types of people, with not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Here’s what he says:
1 John 4: 7 – 16
John 15: 9 – 12
On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the marriage of Katharine and Michael Blachly
Today we rejoice with Katherine and Michael for twenty years of marriage. It might seem an odd thing to do, to come all the way from Dallas, to a monastery in Cambridge, with a group of friends, to celebrate a significant marriage anniversary, but in many ways, married couples and monks have a great deal in common.
We say in our Rule of Life, and in the chapter on The Witness of Celibacyno less, that [our] fidelity to this vow [of celibacy] can be an encouragement to those who are united in the sacrament of Marriage; like them we depend on divine grace to help us remain steadfastly together until death through all the changes and trials of life.Like a married couple, as monks, we too live lives of fidelity.
One summer, a couple of years ago, I was standing on the white cliffs of Dover, in southern England, staring out over the expanse of the English Channel, towards France.
In that same spot, 1400 years ago, a Benedictine monk called Augustine, with 40 other monks, landed their boats. They were on a mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the English people. They were scared to death. They had already tried to turn back once, because the people they had met in France had told them horror stories: those Britons are violent and barbaric. With Brexit, I think the French may well have the same opinion today!
But the man who had sent them on the mission told them no– don’t turn back. And he encouraged them and gave them new courage. That remarkable man, who had the vision and drive to send Augustine to evangelize England, was Gregory. And we remember him today.
As Anglicans, we have I think a special closeness to Gregory. The Venerable Bede affectionately called him “our own apostle.” Gregory was a man of many gifts, but essentially he was a monk, a Benedictine monk, like Augustine, living peacefully in a monastery perched high on the Coelian hill in Rome. But Rome was anything but peaceful. He was experiencing the horrors of war – barbarian invasions, plague, and famine. Although Gregory wanted to live the monastic life, he was one of the most gifted men of his time, and he was almost dragged out of the monastery. And both the secular and religious authorities pleaded with him to help. His energy and abilities and holiness were so great that after a few years, he was elected Pope – the first ever monk to become Pope.
As Pope, his three greatest gifts came to the fore. First, he was a remarkable administrator. He personally organized the defense of Rome against the barbarian attacks, and he fed its people from the papal granaries in Sicily.
Secondly, he was a man of profound prayer and spirituality. Much of the worship life of the churches was in a terrible state, so drawing on his own monastic experience, he re-ordered the church’s liturgy, including the introduction of a beautiful chant, later named after him: “Gregorian chant.” In many ways his genius for worship and liturgy has molded the spirituality of the western Church till the present day.
But thirdly, he was a wonderful pastor. The Gospel reading today includes words which get to the heart of the kind of pastor Gregory was. From Mark’s Gospel, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be a servant.”That was Gregory’s mandate. So, of all the titles which were conferred upon him, the one he chose for himself was “Servus, servorum Dei”: servant of the servants of God. For him to be a leader was to be a servant, like his Lord. And this colored all his pastoral theology. He expressed his theology in beautiful writing. His most famous work is the Regula Pastoralis, or “the Pastoral Office.” It’s a wonderful work, written for new priests and especially new bishops. It’s still very popular, and it’s still probably the best held ever written about the inner life and work of a bishop.
It was written 1400 years ago, but still packs a punch. His harshest words were against bishops who did not preach God’s saving word. Listen to him: “There is a feature, dear brothers, in the life of pastors, which causes me great affliction. We have descended to secular business. We abandon the duty of preaching, and to our disgrace, we are bishops in name, and have the title but not the virtue that befits that dignity. For those committed to our care abandon God and we are silent. They commit sin, and we do not stretch out a hand to correct them.”
Gregory was ferocious about bishops who were guilty of the sin of silence. They allowed grave disorders to go on in their jurisdictions and they were silent. They were silent because they wanted to avoid trouble. They worked to maintain the status quo. They wanted to remain comfortable and secure, and highly thought of.
Over these past months, details of sexual abuse which had taken place over many decades in the Church of England have been brought to light. And it is clear that bishops had kept quiet. Over the past year, the extent of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been revealed, and it is clear that bishops have kept quiet. “They have the title, but not the virtue that befits their dignity,” says Gregory. Guilty of the sin of silence. Those powerful, courageous words of Gregory, uttered 1400 years ago, still have the power to convict us today. But not only the bishops, but each one of us who follow Jesus.
Through the centuries Gregory’s words ring out with the same conviction and point to each one of us, and ask us, “Where were you silent when you saw injustice being done? When were you silent when you heard others saying things which you knew were untrue – gossip or cruel words? When were you silent because, well, I just don’t want to get involved? And so you said nothing.”
Today we celebrate a man who was a true servant of God. And man of huge courage, who spoke out the truth without fear or favor. A man who spoke out whenever he saw evil or injustice both within and outside the church. A truly great man, holy and courageous.
Shortly after his death the church unanimously gave him the title of great honor: Gregorius Magnus – Gregory the Great. But for Gregory himself, Gregory, the humble follower of Jesus the Benedictine mon, the only title he ever aspired to was the one modeled on his Lord: “Servus, servorum Dei:” the servant of the servants of God.
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.
Sirach 10: 12 – 18
Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16
Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
If you are anything like me, (and I can already hear some Brothers muttering, please no, one James is already one too many, the last thing we need is a roomful of people like him) but if you are like me, you have spent the past decade (yes, DECADE), of your life waiting for the release of another programme on PBS or Netflix. First, it was Downton Abbey that we waited for. For six years we waited patiently each fall until the new season was released shortly after the New Year. Now, we wait, and wait for Netflix to release the next season of The Crown.
I’ve enjoyed both Downton Abbey and The Crown, partly because they have fed my fantasy life, but mostly because I have been fascinated, not always with the story line, but with the attention to detail. One of the things which has held my attention, has been all the care shown around the preparation for great occasions, even if it was only the Crawly family sitting down to dinner. Watching Carson measure the distance between the edge of the table and the bottom of the wineglass, or seeing Tommy Lascelles on The Crown, eye the great seating charts used for state occasions, and moving an individual a few seats up or down depending on their rank and station, has been a wonderful study in detail.
Now few, if any of us, will ever dine at Buckingham Palace, or take the care to measure the placement of our glasses when we set the table for dinner at home, but there isn’t all that great a leap between what we have been watching thanks to PBS, or Netflix, and today’s gospel from Luke, or even some of our own behaviour.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.
Even the casual reader of Luke’s gospel will become aware that Luke fills his gospel with stories about meals, and great banquets. We have this meal today. In the next chapter there is the banquet held by the father on the occasion of the return of the prodigal. There is of course the Last Supper, the supper at Emmaus, and the account of the Risen Lord eating broiled fish in the Upper Room. Luke fills his gospel with stories of meals, so much so, that for Luke we can stay that the meal is a sign, and foretaste, and announcement of the breaking in of God’s reign, the heavenly banquet which we will all share, and the establishment of the kingdom of God, here and now. Just as in Downton Abbey and The Crown, meals in Luke’s gospel are wonderful occasions, and occasions to watch people in order to see their real motives.
When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable.
All this talk of meals, and banquets, and watching people, reminded me of an event in my own life.
I was a brand new deacon, not long ordained, and finally serving in my first parish as the Assistant Curate. Shortly after my arrival in the parish, a couple invited me to dinner. Their family was coming, and they thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to meet them, and get to know them. I arrived in my new clerical collar, grey flannel trousers and tweed jacket, looking every inch the new Curate. There was a very pleasant half hour or so, as we enjoyed drinks and nibbles in the garden, and I chatted with a number of others. When our hostess called us to dinner, I followed the crowd into the dining room, looking forward to more conversation and a wonderful meal. Imagine my shock and horror when my hostess turned to me and said, Oh, James, we have put you in the kitchen with the grandchildren. We thought that you would be good with young children.
‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.
It would be easy to dismiss this parable of the meal, as just an easy bit of social advice: when someone invites you to their house for dinner, don’t assume that you are the guest of honour, and take by right the seat of privilege. But neither Luke nor Jesus use these parables and stories of meals and banquets, simply as occasions to discuss social etiquette. There is a lot more going on here than that. In his gospel, Luke uses meals in a number of different ways. One of the ways in which he uses them, is to enable Jesus to make rather cutting comments about people’s unbridled pride, sense of privilege, and ambition. But Luke also uses meals to show how Jesus is turning people’s social expectations about the kingdom of God, upside down.
So, this story is about so much more, than social etiquette. It is a reminder of our natural tendency simply to assume certain rights and privileges, based on who, we at least think, we are. Much of our un-thought out behaviour stems from assumptions we make about ourselves. Just as that new deacon assumed certain things about himself, and his place in the scheme of things on that occasion, we assume certain things about ourselves, and what is ours by right.
But that is not the way it is in the kingdom of God, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Sadly, we live in a world and a culture that makes assumptions all the time about an individual’s worth and dignity all the time. I was insulted that day being sent to eat in the kitchen with the grandchildren, believing that my place was in the dining room, thinking that those with whom I was to eat, were below my dignity, and forgetting that they too have a place set for them at the heavenly banquet.
When we get caught up in our own pride, and privilege, and entitlement, as did the Pharisees at the dinner party Luke tells us about in today’s gospel, and as I did as a new deacon that afternoon years ago, we lose sight of the dignity of those with whom we have been invited to dine. When we are concerned only with our own dignity, we forget about the inherent dignity of others. They too have a place set at God’s bountiful table, where there is room and enough for all.
In our baptisms we pledged, with God’s help, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and [to] respect the dignity of every human being.But we cannot do that, if we are constantly elbowing people out of the way, in order to get what it is we think we are owed. We cannot do that, if we fail to see the image of God in the faces of those whom we deem to be insignificant, or least, or last.
Today’s gospel doesn’t come down to us from a book of etiquette about rules for every social occasion imagined (although if I had read it before going to dinner that day, I might have saved myself some embarrassment). Rather it is about how to live in the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ parable about choosing the lowest spot at the banquet table must have touched a raw nerve among the Pharisees, just as it should us. But again, it is about more than simply social etiquette or good manners, and a lesson about not elbowing our way to a seat of privilege at the dinner table. It is also about not elbowing our way into the kingdom of God.
Just as we make assumptions about our rightful place in the scheme of things, so too do we make assumptions about our place in the kingdom. I made certain assumptions that day about my place, and where I deserved to sit, largely based on the collar I wore around my neck. But as I have reflected on that experience over the last 40 years, I wonder about what other assumptions I am making, not about my place at the dinner table, but about my place at the heavenly banquet, and where and with whom I sit.
There is a great debate going on in the world today, and not just in this country, about who deserves a place at the table and where, as millions in India discover they are not actually citizens of the country where they have lived for generations; as Britain wrestles with the implications of Brexit; and as people of colour in this country are told to go back where they came from. The elbowing our way into places of privilege, and entitlement, is not confined to the Pharisees described by Luke, and challenged by Jesus, because it is happening even now as people are elbowed out of place, based on any number of factors. But into this melee, Jesus comes and pours over us the waters of Baptism. Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human being? This is the challenge of Baptism, as Jesus reminds us that there is another way to live, the way of humility, love, justice, and peace. These are the marks of the kingdom of God, and every time we swallow our pride, pull in our elbows, sit down in the kitchen, and eat with the grandchildren, something happens, and the kingdom of God takes root in our lives.
Luke 14: 1
Luke 15: 11ff
Luke 22: 7ff
Luke 24: 13ff
Luke 24: 36ff
Luke 14: 7
Luke 14: 8 – 9
Luke 14: 11
TEC, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 305
There will be a pause in the posting of new sermons while the Chapel is closed and Brothers are away in August for our Annual Community Retreat, time for Community Discussions and Chapter, as well as Vacations and Family Visits. For a daily dose of monastic wisdom, subscribe to “Brother, Give Us a Word.” Sermons will resume once the Chapel opens on Aug. 31.
Psalm 138:1-4, 7-9
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). On his website and YouTube Channel, both bearing the name “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” John introduces us to words like: vermodalen, the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist. Liberosis, the desire to care less about things. And opia, the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye.[i] There is a word from this dictionary that has entered into my prayer life as of late: avenoir, the desire to see memories in advance. On his YouTube channel Koenig gives an exposition of this definition. He writes, ‘We take it for granted that life moves forward. You build memories; you build momentum. You move as a rower moves: facing backward. You can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way.’[ii]
I imagine that the reason this word has been the focus of my prayer lately is due to the fact that I lost both of my parents recently within the course of a year. Not only have these two losses in a relatively short time been disorienting, they have forced me to take action on many things that I thought I had time to plan. Being an only child, I am now facing the responsibility of resolving the affairs of my parent’s estate, including the clearing out and sale of a house filled with the remnants of memories made by three lives that once lived there. I am very in touch now with the enigma of time, both temporal and eternal. The temporal comes and goes within the construct of earthly time in the matter of decades, years, months, days, or as little as one second. The eternal lives on and on, long past the ability of finite human brains and hearts to recall. It is hard to imagine what exactly eternal means within the construct of our bodies and minds, which are temporary (a word that shares the same root as the word temporal).
Our Collect for today concentrates on the themes of temporality and eternity. Translated from the Gregorian Sacramentary in the sixteenth century by Thomas Cranmer, it bids us to pray about time in terms of our finitude and God’s infinity: ‘Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.’ I would say this is definitely a hard task that can only be accomplished with God’s help, thus why this Collect has itself stood the test of time, being prayed in the Anglican Church for close to five hundred years. What are these temporal things we need to pass through and what are the eternal things we do not want to lose?
In the book The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl write: ‘Do you ever see your life, in hindsight, at least, if not during the events when they actually happened, as an obstacle course? What should have ended well, did not. And the ending cast a shadow over everything, even the good things that preceded it?’[iii]I imagine that most of us here have had at least one bad month, week, or day in our lives where nothing has quite gone the way we expected or desired and it seemingly snuffed out the fire in our hearts. Certainly I! The SSJE Rule of Life acknowledges that: ‘Powerful forces are bent on separating us from God, our own souls, and one another through the din of noise and the whirl of preoccupation.’[iv] Fear, Shame, Guilt, Blame, Misinformation, and Misunderstanding are often the secret ingredients in a toxic cocktail that we drink thinking it will be an elixir to anesthetize our pain. If it was not hard enough to navigate our own particular orbit, we have a national and international community that seems to be fraught with turmoil. Racism, Xenophobia, Elitism, Homelessness, Addiction, Narcissism, and the myth of self-sufficiency whirl about us like the perfect storm. We turn to social media in the hopes of finding community and connection but end up further isolated, posting sound-bytes that feed narcissistic self-righteous attitudes and then not sticking around to face the alienating consequences. These constructs are of our own making, the temporal fabrications of temporary creatures who have not the wit nor the time to repair them. And so, we navigate through a minefield, trying to find our way through without taking a step that could alter our lives within a decade, month, week, day, or split-second.
So, what are the eternal things that we are want not to lose? The one thing that comes to mind for me is love. Not sexual love necessarily (or what is known as eros in Greek), although it is a wonderful thing (and I dare say, temporal). The love that I am referring to is the love that, in the words of St. Paul: ‘is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, or arrogant. Love that does not insist on it’s own way. Love that is not irritable or resentful. Love that rejoices in truth not wrong doing. Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’[v]This is a love that is sacrificial at its core. The gospel writer of John says: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’[vi]This is the love on which Jesus says hangs all the Law and the Prophets: love of God and love of neighbor as self. It is what is known in the Greek as agape. Agape love is eternal because it originates in God and is God’s very essence. And where do we find this love?
It seems almost impossible that we who are housed in temporal bodies could even contain, much less hold on to, things eternal. But, many temporal things point sacramentally to the eternal (a sacrament being and outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace). You could certainly say this chapel is iconic of this concept. When you enter, you literally undergo a ‘conversion experience.’ That is to say, you walk through the door into a narthex, and your stride is broken and you have to turn to cross a threshold. Once you cross this threshold, you enter into a space where two concepts of time conjoin: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is physical, temporal time; that of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, etc. The rounded arches at the back of the chapel are in the Romanesque style (ranging from the 6th to 11th centuries). Once you cross the gate, you are flanked by pointed gothic arches (prevalent from the 12th to the 16th centuries). This journey through Chronos points and leads to Kairos. Kairos is God’s time, the critical moment of decision. The altar representing the Body of Christ and the Baldachino, the place where heaven and earth come together. We lift up our hearts and minds and all that we are in offering to God and here God becomes present to us in these gifts of bread and wine: the bread broken for us, the wine poured out for us. It is the re-membering of the ultimate sacrifice of love given by Jesus on the cross, forever joining the eternal to the temporal, and by grace the temporal to the eternal.
It is here that we come to know that we are made in the image of God, with the same capacity of eternal, abiding, transforming love. The presider says, ‘Behold what you are,’ in which we respond, ‘may we become what we receive.’ Temporal containers of eternal love. We take and eat with the assurance that little by little, with each approach to this eternal banquet table, that God’s mercy is increased and multiplied so that we may indeed pass through the things temporal and hold on to things eternal. St. Paul says: ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.’ Our founder Fr. Benson said about the Eucharist: ‘As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.’[vii] In this transformative journey through the temporal, with Jesus as our ‘ruler and guide,’ we become able to hold on to the things eternal and in our transfiguration, we can help to transform the world.
John Koenig goes on to describe avenoir, and equates this travel towards approaching memory as headed in the direction of child-like innocence, generocity, and wonder. I close with his words:
‘You’d remember what home feels like, and decide to move there for good. You’d grow smaller as the years pass, as if trying to give away everything you had before leaving. You’d try everything one last time, until it all felt new again. And then the world would finally earn your trust, until you’d think nothing of jumping freely into things, into the arms of other people. You’d start to notice that each summer feels longer than the last until you reach the long coasting retirement of childhood. You’d become generous, and give everything back. Pretty soon you’d run out of things to give, things to say, things to see. By then you’ll have found someone perfect; and she’ll become your world. And you will have left this world just as you found it. Nothing left to remember, nothing left to regret, with your whole life laid out in front of you, and your whole life left behind.’[viii]
[i]Koenig, John. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Tumbler, www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/.
[iii]Zahl, Paul F.M., and C. Frederick Barbee. Collects of Thomas Cranmer. William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1999.
[iv]The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Chapter 27: Silence
[v]1 Corinthians 13:4-7
[vii]The Religious Vocation: Of Communion, Ch. XII, pp. 160-161
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.
We don’t know when or where Jesus met Mary of Magdala. We do know that she and a number of other women followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.[iii]She was apparently a wealthy woman; however we know nothing of her family or her vocation.[iv]Neither do we understand Mary’s condition when she first met Jesus, other than she had been very unwell: “seven demons had gone out of her.”[v] In Jesus’ day, “demon possession” was a catch-all distinction, and could mean some form of physical, or mental, or spiritual, or moral “dis-ease,” or a combination. The reference to the “seven demons” might emphasize either the seriousness of her condition, or its recurrent nature.[vi] In any event, she was a person in great need, and a person who came to have an equally-great devotion to Jesus. We meet her in this Gospel lesson, weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
Why? She is asked by the angels why is she weeping? She responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord.” What is behind her tears? What was her grief about? It’s not completely clear, so we can only conjecture about Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Three things come to my mind: