Wisdom 8:1, 9:4, 9-10;
Psalm 78:1-6; 1
I presume there are a few of you in the congregation who like me had the experience of growing up an only child. I certainly can attest to the advantages of being an ‘only’ through my observances of family and friends who did not share my experience. For instance, unlike my cousin, I did not have a younger sister who liked to pull my hair or inform my parents of my every move. Unlike my best friend in elementary school, I did not have to wear the ‘hand-me-downs’ from an older sibling. And, contrary to the experience of a college friend, I did not have to live up to the standard set by more virtuous siblings who seemed to do no wrong. I definitely considered these advantages. Yet, even though I enjoyed being an ‘only,’ I did experience some jealousy of my friends with siblings. My mom liked to tell the story of the time when I was 7 or 8 years old when I came to my parents who were sharing a conversation in the kitchen and asked if I could have an older brother! My dad, probably a little amused but letting me down gently said, “I don’t think things work like that, son.” Being resourceful, I had a follow-up question prepared. “Could we adopt one?” Obviously, knowing now how things turned out, they did not work that way either. As I think back to that story from my youth, I wonder what was behind my desire for an older brother?
This evening’s reflection is the first in a three-part series entitled “Lord Jesus, Come Soon,” in which we explore the great ‘O Antiphons’ of the season of Advent. On the last seven days before Christmas, this group of antiphons book-end the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) which is sung every evening at Evensong. Each of them refer to Jesus using an attribute associated with this long awaited Messiah: Emmanuel, Rex gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, Adonai, and Sapentia; translated: Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”), King of the Nations, Morning Star, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Lord, and Wisdom. When arranged in a particular order they form a Latin acrostic: Ero cras, which translated means, “Tomorrow, I will come.” This evening we will explore Jesus as ‘Wisdom.’ The text of the antiphon is:
Feast of All the Faithful Departed: All Souls’ Day
There is an old evangelical saying that comes to mind each year at this time: name it, and claim it. The idea is that you name some virtue, or aspect of God, claim it as yours, and live it as a reality. The idea is to name something, like God’s love for you, to claim it as yours, and then to live, not as if it were true, but live in the reality of its truth. Without using this name it and claim it phraseology, Father Benson uses the sentiment when he reminds us that we are to live … as those who have been with Jesus. He doesn’t tell us to live as if we have been with Jesus, but to live in the present reality of that relationship.
For me, All Souls’ Day is one of those occasions when we are invited to name and claim something, not for ourselves this time, but for others. It’s a bold move, because we are naming and claiming nothing less than the healing, redeeming, and sanctifying love of God, not for ourselves, but for those we love, but see no longer. We do this, not as if what we say in the Creeds is true, but living in the truth of the Creeds, where we proclaim I believe … in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
What we are doing today is claiming those very things: the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We claim them, not for nameless entities, not in a general, universal way, but for specific people who we love. Note, we name and claim these things, not for people whom we loved once upon a time, but for people who we still love, but see no longer.
Sing to the Lord a new song. The Psalmist exhorts us to sing a song we’ve never sung before. Certainly, it may come to us in fragments—a gesture here, a motif there—and sometimes (if we’re feeling particularly confident) we may even begin to think we know how this strange new air goes. Yet this isn’t a song we or the world are used to hearing, and we may often feel ill-trained to sing it; but that’s probably because we are.
As the ear of our prayer adjusts in the fullness of time, we begin to realize that this new song, from our vantage, requires a kind of virtuosity for which we alone lack the dexterity of heart; and we realize we will not learn this song on our own. And still, there comes also a sense, somewhere deep within noisy mystery of ourselves, that we have known this strange song we’ve never sung before.
Sing to the Lord a new song.
Here we kneel at the tomb once more, watching, waiting, numb, and grieving. We stare at love embodied and remember love received. Our song is love unknown, our Savior’s love—to you, to me—love to the loveless shown that we might lovely be.[i]
Love shown to children. “Let the little ones come to me. Do not stop them.”[ii] Listen to the kids and follow them that we might lovely be.
Love shown to blind Bartimaeus who cried out for mercy. Jesus turned, invited, and healed that we might lovely be.[iii]
Love shown to the palm-waving crowd who sang “hosanna.” Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey not a stallion, leading with humility that we might lovely be.[iv]
Love shown to the woman who returned to anoint Jesus with costly ointment. Jesus welcomed and honored her that we might lovely be.
Love shown resisting violence. Jesus said: “No more of this” and healed the one his followers struck that we might lovely be.[v]
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.
Today is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Fasting and ashes seem opposite of feasting and chocolate. Some celebrated yesterday, love with Mardi Gras.
Recently I visited two of my best friends. The past couple months had been very intense and hard for them. Amid a more chaotic house, we sat sharing stories of disaster and trouble. Each time I visit we go deep quickly being vulnerable about our lives. We bear witness to each other’s wounds and wonders. Our love is palpable. We are humble and truthful in sharing our questions, limits, losses, and desires.
Lent is about love, a clearing season to be deeply honest with God. We kneel to confess first hearing: “Dear friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy.”[i] We acknowledge our mortality, our frailty, failure, and limitation. Love humbly speaks raw, unvarnished truth, and love listens: love with ashes.
The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ
Today in the calendar of the church we arrive at the beginning of a new season: Epiphany. Growing up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time and more often than not, we learn by entering into the life and slowly absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
Grandmothers, at least my grandmothers, are quite wonderful! I have many fond memories of them. One of them, whom we all called Nanny, had the softest skin of anyone I have ever known. I loved to snuggle up with her when she came for a visit, and feel the softness of her cheeks. The other, whom we all called Grandma, took an interest in everything around her. Even when she was well into her eighties, she was always taking trips here and there, exploring the country with this friend or that one. Over the years she enrolled in countless classes, or joined book clubs and attended poetry writing workshops. She took film classes, and practiced her drawing, and went on bird watching expeditions.
The summer I was 20, I lived with Grandma, and over supper in the evening, she and I would talk books. I had discovered Thomas Merton that summer, and was reading The Seven Story Mountain. Grandma had discovered Hans Kung, and was reading On Being a Christian, and so our evening conversations were about theology and spirituality. Pretty heady stuff for a 20 year old and his grandmother!
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.”
Feast of the Holy Cross
The cross is everywhere. The geometric figure of a horizontal and vertical line intersecting one another is an archetypal form, noticed in nature and reproduced by hand by most humans in most cultures. But I am referring only to the cross we know best, in all its stylistic and material variety. Picture in your mind’s eye simply two or three of the probably hundreds of crosses you have seen in your life. I immediately think of the plain wooden cross above the pulpit in the Baptist church of my childhood, the garish crucifix that hung over the temperamental photocopier in the Roman Catholic high school where I taught theology, and a simple brass cross with a tree in the center, a gift from my mom when I told her I might want to become a monk. In flea markets, Bible outlets, laser light shows, ancient catacombs, and war memorials; as two sticks tied together on the corrugated aluminum walls of a shack in Jamaica or Colombia or India or Louisiana; as a gilded masterpiece commissioned by royalty and venerated by pilgrims in Rome or Jerusalem or Canterbury; in polished mahogany, in precious stones, in welded scrap metal, in glow-in-the-dark plastic: the cross is everywhere.