Today is Advent Sunday – the first day of a new Christian year. It is, as the Scriptures urge, a time to wake up. To shake ourselves, to take stock of our lives. And to do it NOW! There is an urgency to Advent. Urgent, because God is working his purposes out in our world and in our lives. Advent proclaims loud and clear that there IS a purpose to our lives, and that there will be an end, and that that end is coming ever nearer. For that reason, Advent has always traditionally had as its themes, the ‘four last things’; death, judgment, heaven and hell. These sober realities are coming nearer to us each one of us. Or as a friend of mine used to put it with a bit of a grin, ‘None of us gets out of this alive’! So, Advent is a serious and challenging season, and challenges us to take stock of our lives, and to do it NOW.
The Gospels are full of this sense of urgency. Jesus’ words are so often full of this urgency. We hear it whenever Jesus encounters men and women. Jesus doesn’t just wander around Galilee uttering timeless, philosophical dictums or epigrams. He is not essentially a philosopher – he is a prophet. He speaks OUT, he speaks hard things which challenge, and shock, and outrage. He tells a parable and immediately says, ‘What do you think?’ How will you respond? Now. He challenges, and confronts, and brings judgment, now. To one he says, ‘Change your life.’ To another, ‘Repent. Follow me. Sell everything you have. Leave your mother and father and family. Come. Now.’
St. Michael and All Angels
I don’t know when it began, perhaps the first time someone put an angel on the top of a Christmas tree. Delicate, covered in lace and flounce, sometimes with a magic wand, they may be beautiful, but they have little in common with the angels of scripture, or the iconographic tradition through the ages. These angels as ornaments are likely to shatter with one tap, or smash into tiny pieces unless handled with care and caution. Not so the angels we hear of today. Armed for battle with sword, shield, helmet and staff, clothed in armor, these, dare I say it, muscled and chiseled messengers from God, as icons depict them, are far from the delicate beings hopping on toadstools, dancing on pins, or decorating trees. These are the angels engaged in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. These are the angels of Genesis, Revelation, and John.
Growing up as I did in the 1960’s, my world view was pretty consistent. What I saw on TV, as I sat cross-legged in the Davin School gym as each Apollo mission took off into outer space, or splashed down after a successful mission was the same as I saw each Sunday, gazing up at the stained glass window over the altar at St. Mary’s Church. There was Jesus, blasting off into heaven, vapour trails around his ankles and awestruck or bewildered disciples kneeling, watching in amazement as this first century space mission took off into orbit. It all made perfect sense to me at the time, and I must confess, that is the image of the Ascension that first comes to mind as I ponder the mystery of the feast each year.
But we need to remind ourselves, the Ascension is not rocket science. Jesus is not some first century astronaut. We’re not looking at a space mission or vapour trails. The disciples are not the earth bound mission control team of NASSA. The Ascension is much more than that, because the Ascension as we see it in stained glass is not about some exploration of limitless space, but the reality of the limits of language.
What the disciples experienced that day, was so profound, that language and art have failed over time to convey the depths of the reality. When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. Even Paul struggles with how to convey the mystery of the Ascension when he says simply God raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
Today is Easter Day; the glorious culmination of these days of Holy Week. Today, our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Today is a day for rejoicing. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Although we’ve had to wear masks for much of the time, this has been a wonderful Holy Week. But during the week, my mind went back to a very special Holy Week I had, many years ago, when I was rector of a parish in England. What made it especially memorable was that I had invited a friend of mine to come and stay with me for the week. Richard and I used to teach together, and it was great having him to stay for Holy Week and Easter. But Richard was not a person of faith. It was a very strange experience to be immersed in all the preparations and liturgies of Holy Week, and then to go home to someone who wasn’t really very interested. Perhaps some of you know that experience, with perhaps a spouse, a child or close friend. In fact, quite a lot of my friends don’t believe in God, and I sometimes feel a bit of a failure: these friends who know me so well – so why don’t they believe? I can’t be a very effective evangelist, and I’m a priest as well!
Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a prominent theologian who was then on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University. Dr. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense kind of guy who believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture which surrounds us. That was a radical statement to make, but what was even more shocking and unexpected was his insistence that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight’s liturgy, I think, can help us understand why this is true.
Tonight, we watch in wonder as the only begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Tonight, we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around his waist, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. Tonight, the King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.
What’s in the news? What political calamity is happening? On the cusp of Palm Sunday, what garners the attention of the general public is not Jesus, but rather the reports from various sources about all the political machinations – who is in and who is not – and the endless conflicts between various camps. Meanwhile the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Truth be told, Palm Sunday hardly gets noticed by most people, including the Roman and Jewish authorities.
I’m talking here about the original Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago. What garners the attention of the general public is not Jesus, but rather the reports from various sources about all the political machinations – who is in and who is not – and the endless conflicts between various camps. Meanwhile the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Truth be told, Palm Sunday hardly gets noticed by most people, including the Roman and Jewish authorities.
The Transfiguration closes the season after the Epiphany, and bookends, in language and details, Jesus’s baptism, which opened it. Jesus ascends—from the water at his baptism, and up a mountain now. A voice recognizes him as “my Son, the Beloved.” But between the two events, Jesus has invited people to follow him; he has called his disciples to be with him and to share in his ministry.
These disciples have had glimpses that Jesus is more than just a man. But here, glimpses give way to full vision. The three disciples see Jesus transfigured, his clothes becoming “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” They are terrified. Peter doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on. They see Jesus, their teacher, their friend, their Messiah—and they see him changed.
But we might ask, “who was changed? Who was transfigured?” Was Jesus changed—or were the disciples? Was it, perhaps, that the eyes of the disciples were opened so that they could see the reality behind the reality?
Today we celebrate the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, or Candlemas. It has a particular resonance for me, because Candlemas was the last Sunday that I spent in my parish in England before coming to the United States. I remember the very mixed feelings I had during that final service. On the one hand looking back with thanksgiving and celebration, but on the other, looking forward with a certain degree of trepidation.
And I think the feast of Candlemas has a similar liturgical function in the Christian year. On the one hand, we look back on this day, to the forty days of light and rejoicing which we have been celebrating during Christmas and Epiphany. But on the other hand, we are forced to look forward with some trepidation, to anticipate the events of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, his passion and his death.
This bitter-sweet character is articulated by Simeon, on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the Temple to be presented to the Lord. As he takes the child into his arms, he utters that great peon of praise, ‘Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see.’ But then, with prophetic insight, he looks forward to what is yet to come, and says to Mary, ‘This child is destined to be a sign which many will reject, and you too shall be pierced to the heart.’
Preached at: Church of St. Mary the Virgin, NYC
A few years ago, while on pilgrimage in Great Britain, I had the opportunity of taking in a meal at The Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford. While the food was good, the actual reason for visiting The Eagle and Child was that it was a regular meeting place for a literary group known as “The Inklings,” of which authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were members. Sitting in a cramped corner of this pub I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps I was sitting at a table where Lewis and Tolkein might have sat, discussing literature, philosophy, religion, and theology. One of my favorite poems from Tolkein’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings kept playing over and over in my head. It begins:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.[i]
Indeed, this became my own personal mantra for the pilgrimage: “Not all those who wander are lost!”
While praying on this theme for tonight’s homily, I turned to the dictionary as I often do, to see what all the meanings of the word ‘wander’ encapsulate. The first definition might be synonymous with rambling: ‘to move about without a fixed course, aim, or goal.’ I do not imagine that inhabitants of this amazingly busy city of New York do much rambling. There are places to go, people to see, business to be done—all of which require a strategy for moving about these crowded streets. If there are ramblers, they might be personified as tourists—folks that seem to wander about the city with their heads pointed up at the iconic skyscrapers or down at their phones trying to navigate where they are going.
The Holy Name of Jesus
The federal government tracks a lot of information, including “The Top 10 Baby Names” for any given year.[i]For baby girls, currently the most popular name is Olivia, followed by Emma, then Charlotte, Amelia, Ava, Sophia… and on it goes. For baby boys, currently the most popular name is Liam, followed by Noah, then Oliver, Elijah, James, William… and on it goes.
The naming of a baby is no accident, don’t you know? The child’s given name or names may be the continuation of a family’s heritage, or the opposite: a sign of a family’s wanting to start afresh with the birth of this child. The child’s name may express identity, or dignity, or hope, or gratitude. Sometimes names demarcate a family’s history. One of my nephews has a middle name “Taif,” which is Saudi Arabian, because he was born while his father (my brother) was working in the Persian Gulf. We are known, remembered, identified, and called by name.
As children grow up, they will name their belongings, and they will be in relationship with everything they name. Children will often take on new, imaginary names for themselves, and with the names, new exploratory identities. I remember one summer as a young camper far away from home, I told all my cabin buddies that they should call me “Butch,” because I was tough. (That’s probably hard to imagine….) It worked pretty well for a week at camp, but my new identity disappeared when I returned home to face my little brother. He certainly did not know me as “Butch”; he was still struggling to simply say “Curtis” or “Curt,” which he could not pronounce. What he could say was “Dirt.” “Hi Dirt!”, which hardly suited someone trying to be “Butch.” For names to last, they need to fit.