It is curious that we begin a new season today, the First Sunday of the Advent season. Outside the walls of this monastery chapel, a new season began just after Halloween, called “Holiday Shopping Season,” along with the Amazon promise that you can have it all now… at least by tomorrow. The season of Advent interposes quite an opposite theme. Anticipating Christmas is not about immediacy. Rather, it is about watching, and waiting, and preparing to celebrate Christ’s infant birth at Bethlehem, and to prepare for Christ’s promise that he will come again in real time. In Advent, you will see no holiday glitter here in this chapel. What catches our eye’s attention is the Advent wreath, front and center, on which we slowly light candles. In the Hebrew scriptures, the promised Messiah teems with the language of light. The Messiah is called “the Dayspring,” “the Morning Star,” “the Sun of Righteousness,” “the Light of the World.”
And don’t we need light, especially as we approach the winter solstice? Meanwhile, there’s more and more darkness outside. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th probably has to do with light. The earliest Christians most likely wanted the date of Christmas to coincide with the festival of the Roman Empire on December 25th which marked “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[i] This festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky: December 25th.[ii] And so light has historically figured very importantly into this Advent season preparing for the coming and coming again of Christ: light. Light in the sky and light in our souls.
Monks pray often. But as we learn many times over, quantity or frequency in themselves don’t equal quality or depth. Neither, as Jesus points out here, do length or verbal sophistication in themselves equal substance in the realm of prayer. Even when the phrases are full of meaning, such as those drawn directly from Scripture, it is possible to come to them with absence of mind or heart, and miss the meaning because something in us is missing.
The Christians at Corinth seemed to go weak in the knees for verbal sophistication. In this slightly odd snippet from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, I hear Paul’s sense of humor and his deep sense of irony. The Corinthians are distractible; they are flirtatious with other teachings, other teachers, and other “gospels” with finer phrases and finer reputations than Paul’s gospel, which can be a bit of a downer. Length and sophistication were these teachers’ specialty: in public prayer, in preaching, and in their long and impressive resumes. Paul was capable of great rhetorical sophistication himself, but the gospel he stewards is, first and foremost, treasure in a clay jar, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Rather than a super-apostle– a term heavy with irony – Paul is a kind of sub–apostle. He’s a messenger on a distinctly downward trajectory, whose “resume” includes only the most ridiculous, painful, and shameful things he has endured for the sake of the gospel. Rather than marrying up in the world, spiritually speaking, Paul has married down… and down and down. He has wedded himself to a Bridegroom Messiah who makes him look like a loser. And that is his greatest boast.
After the death of my parents, I had to settle their estate and then prepare the house that I grew up in to sell. Among the almost five decades of memories were photo albums assembled through the years. In one of these albums is a picture of my Mom and me when I was an infant. She was in her nightgown, her hair in curlers, sitting in a rocking chair holding me. She was lovingly looking down at me and I was gazing up at her, our eyes locked while I sucked on my pacifier. I imagine my Dad seeing the opportunity for the iconic shot and carefully reaching for his camera. It is a picture we have all seen in the many photo albums of our lives or even while walking in the park, eating in a restaurant, or visiting family. The mother gazes at the infant with a gentle outpouring of love, comfort, and safety. The infant returns the gaze, looking up into the eyes of its mother, taking in information, studying her face, expressions, and eyes. This gaze of love is so compelling, you cannot help but to get drawn in. Even though you were too young to remember this interchange, somehow you hold it sacramentally in embodied remembrance.
It was this kind of gaze that came to mind when reading these words in a small book published by our Society called A Cowley Calendar which has a quote of our founder Fr. Benson for each day of the year. On the page marked “Tuesday in the Octave of Ascension” there is this quote: “We must realize that His eye is really upon us. We must therefore rest in the knowledge that He is looking on us. He gazes into our hearts, He knows all the thoughts that are there. He watches when perhaps Satan assaults us with manifold evil thoughts. He encourages us to be strong, to keep ourselves continually gazing upon Him; and if we will only live in His love, then no power of the enemy can tear us away.”[i] In our lection this evening from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus pray to his Father for his disciples in loving intercession. As he begins to pray, the author of John says that Jesus looks up toward heaven. Its almost as if Jesus returns the gaze of his father as he prays about his coming glorification on the cross and then for protection for his disciples.
Jesus paints the picture of two people: a judge, a man with authority with no respect for others who won’t be ashamed, and a widow, weak and vulnerable. The widow comes persistently asking for justice such that the judge relents, so as to stop being bothered.
Have you agreed to something like the judge? Given in just to stop someone from bothering you. Have you received something for acting like the widow? Persistently present, continually asking. Have you ever felt that God is like the unjust judge? Distant, unhearing, refusing, without respect or shame. Has prayer felt like repetitive knocking or finger pointing?
We never thought today would be like this, never considered we could lose so much. Death keeps shattering us, our plans and expectations with loss upon loss. Everything is upended. We are sad, so sad at all that has happened and is happening. It is confusing. Life is so strange. Things don’t make sense anymore. What in the world happens next?
Two companions are talking this way on the road to Emmaus, sharing grief. They talk of Jesus, their friend, whom they expected would save them, but who was betrayed, killed, and buried. There is talk of the body missing, and people supposedly seeing angels.
We are talking this way, talking much of our grief at so much death and loss. Talking of we have lost or fear losing: loved ones, health, employment, plans, and direction. The disorientation of life upended: staying at home, now all the time with the same people or so starkly alone, of aching added work or loss of work, with little idea what’s next or when this will change.
As the two walk to Emmaus, Jesus comes and walks alongside. They don’t recognize the one whom they most love and grieve. He is a stranger to them. Jesus asks about their conversation, sees and hears their sadness, and then shares about his own suffering, talking through scripture.
In today’s parable, Jesus paints the picture of two people. A judge, a man with authority who does not fear God nor respect people. He won’t be ashamed. Perhaps accepting a bribe, but otherwise immoveable. A widow comes repeatedly to this judge. As we see often in scripture, widows are most vulnerable and to be cared for. In Middle Eastern culture, men represented women in court. That she is here means she has no male relative to assist her.[i] On one hand, she is weak and vulnerable. Yet she is present and persistent, not accusing, asking for justice.
In Middle Eastern culture, there is also a social code of respect such that women sometime have unusual access that men do not. Kenneth Bailey, who taught seminary for many years in Lebanon, tells of seeing a violent militia take up residence in a neighborhood. An elderly woman came regularly telling the guards to go away. They responded by politely telling her to not be upset. If a man had done so, he would have been shot.[ii]
The widow keeps coming asking for justice. The judge relents, giving her what she asks so that he is no longer bothered.
Ask, and it will be given you.
But… what if it isn’t?
Search, and you will find.
But… what if I don’t find anything?
Knock, and the door will be opened for you.
But… what if the door just stays shut?
These are reasonable responses to this teaching of Jesus. The kind of asking, searching, and knocking Jesus is talking about summon us to a vulnerable stance. While we may recognize that vulnerability is necessary for any form of genuine connection, we will usually choose the least vulnerable way of getting our needs met whenever humanly possible. At its core, vulnerability is the experience of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.[i]What if I ask, and my request is denied – or even worse, met with a deafening silence? What if I search and I come up empty-handed, exhausted and looking like an idiot for investing myself in such a lost cause? What if I knock until my knuckles bleed and the door doesn’t budge? Thenwhere will I be?
These are supremely reasonable responses if we take our vulnerable human experiences of denied requests, fruitless searches, and closed doors and project them onto our life with God – particularly our life of prayer. These “what if” responses might cause us to entirely forsake asking, searching, or knocking for what we need. We might prefer always to pray for the needs of others. We might prefer to rest in a form of pseudo-contemplation that says, “Whatever youwant, God” rather than actively stay put in the excruciatingly particular vulnerability of our needs – until Godgives us the genuine freedom of contemplative detachment.
Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 6:7-15
Our first lesson, from the Letter to the Colossians, is sometimes called “the Creation Hymn,” how things came into being from the very beginning. The Son of God existed prior to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. What we experience in the human form of Jesus – using the language from Colossians – “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The Son of God had already lived forever, eternally, prior to his taking on human life as Jesus.
The best sense the Church has been able to make of this comes from experience. There is One God, the Creator of everything who, while remaining God, takes on human form: God the Son. This is Jesus, who grows, ministers, prays, dies, is resurrected, and returns to the life of God who has no beginning or ending. Jesus departs from earth. He ascends. He leaves us, not abandoned, but leaves us with another manifestation of the One God, whom Jesus calls “the Spirit,” the Spirit, another Person of the One God. It took the Church several centuries to find the language to try to describe the mysterious yet undeniable experience: that there is One God in Three Persons.
God took on human form in Jesus. How did God make this decision? I’m speaking here very anthropomorphically. How did God decide to become human? What was the “cost” to God to become human? The great Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, in his poem, “The Coming,” pictures God’s decision in a primordial conversation between God the Father and God the Son. The picture is of a desolated, hopeless, helpless earth.
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
“Let me go there.” And that was the decision.
God comes to us as a child of Bethlehem. We know him as Jesus, who grows up, like we grow up, and after many, many years, finds his voice and claims his power. He also prays. Jesus prays, enough so to catch people’s attention. This is God the Son in a very human way praying to God the Father. Very mysterious, and yet, clearly, this is what is happening… frequently.
The Gospel lesson appointed for today is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question how to pray. Jesus gives us what we call “the Lord’s Prayer.”[i] What I find most revealing in the Lord’s Prayer is the opening word, the plural pronoun, “our.”[ii]“OurFather.” Consider the context:
- Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and Jesus’ prayer envelopes his disciples as if he and they are all one: the 1stperson, plural possessive pronoun: our. How to pray? Jesus says we begin like this: Our Father…
- Jesus here regards his disciples not as his servants, but as his friends. They are his peers. They share the same prayer. He doesn’t say, “My Father,” or “Your Father.” He says, “Our Father.”
- The name Jesus uses for “Father” shows a very tender, childlike, trusting intimacy. A better, sweeter translation of the Greek word would be “Papa” rather than “Father.” “Our Papa in heaven.”
- Jesus speaks as a human being, as human as you and I are, and as full of as many wonders and needs as the rest of us. His prayer isn’t just “heavenly”; his prayer includes our need for food – for daily bread – and this isn’t metaphorical. This is table bread. This is about sustenance.
- Just prior to this – the preceding verse – Jesus has said, “Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.”[iii]So Jesus is teaching us to pray, but this is not about the dissemination of information to God. God already knows our needs. God is God. This is about our trusted and tender relationship to God.
- And the rest is history. I mean, our own history.
The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar, probably to most of us, perhaps too familiar to some of us for us to be mindful of its profundity. These are Jesus’ words, words which completely embrace us as if we, with Jesus, all belong to the same Father, the same Papa. You might inspiration for some meaningful meditation for Lent:
- Reflect on God’s “deciding” to become human, and its “cost” to God to be truly human and truly divine.
- Take R. S. Thomas’ haunting last line in his poem, “Let me go there.” Why? Why did God the Son say to the Father, “Let me go there?” Why did Jesus come?
- Why does Jesus pray? Jesus prayed and he presumed we would, also. He says to his disciples, “When you pray…” What does it mean to pray – to quote Jesus – when “your [heavenly] Father already knows what you need before you ask him.” So why is Jesus praying? Why are we praying?
- And lastly, where I began with the Lord’s Prayer, with the plural possessive pronoun, our: “Our Father.” What does that pronoun “our” invite in terms of your relationship to Jesus and the God whom he calls Father. And if you get in touch with some resistance within you – resistance to that kind of intimacy with God – then pray about your resistance.
[i]Matthew 6:9-15. See also Luke 11:2-4.
[ii]The Greek word (ἡμῶν) literally means “of us”: i.e., “Father of us.”
The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Phillipians 2:5-11 & Luke 2:15-21
After the long months of a pregnancy and the exceedingly dangerous experience of childbirth in the ancient world, bestowing a name upon a child must have been a deeply cathartic action. Even today, in the midst of the profound uncertainty that faces every new life, the moment a child’s name is first spoken aloud in his or presence signifies a new beginning rich with specific potential. The act of circumcision that accompanied – and still accompanies – the naming of a Jewish male child reminded the parents of a larger reality holding their new child in being: the ancient covenant between God and Israel. It situated the child on an axis of meaning both horizontally, in relation to his ancestors and his eventual offspring, as well as vertically, as a frail human creature in relation to the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Under normal circumstances, this was also the child’s first major wounding: the first shedding of blood.
A Name and a Wound. A sign taken upon the lips and tongue, and a sign written upon the body. In any ordinary human life, these are gifts of inexhaustible significance. At the same time they are utterly common, shared by countless others. The Holy Name of Jesus and the first precious drops of Blood spilled from his human body have become fountainheads of meaning for the Church throughout the ages. But contrary to the impression we receive from so many Renaissance paintings, the inner significance of these events would have been entirely hidden to the casual observer. The cosmic task initiated by God through the angel Gabriel is now brought to faithful, obedient completion by Mary and Joseph. But though it was spoken by the lips of an angel, the name Yeshua was, after all, an incredibly common name. The act of circumcision enfolded him into the common life of the Jewish people. The eighth day after the nativity of this special child was a very special day in the life of his human parents. But it was an utterly ordinary day for everyone else.
Human beings have evolved in such a way that we do most of our sleeping at night. Under normal circumstances, even so-called “night owls” tend not to stay awake all night long without very good reason. Physical pain, insomnia, or intense anxiety may banish sleep from our eyes, but so also might sheer anticipation or overwhelming joy. A sense of urgency may compel us to remain awake, when something or someone simply cannot or will not wait until morning: a newborn infant, a dying friend, or an impending deadline. Night may afford a precious window of opportunity, when the world is quiet and we are unburdened by the duties of our waking hours. Artists, writers, musicians, aspiring comedians: all these know a form of passionate asceticism as they labor at their primary vocation long into the night, especially if they work during the day at other paid professions. And night has always been a sacred time for lovers of all sorts, giddy with the rush of newfound or newly rekindled intimacy. The night hours become an inner sanctum of privacy enfolding the union of lover and beloved.
In today’s gospel lesson we encounter one of the few, tantalizing glimpses of the nocturnal life of Jesus – who loses sleep for the love of God.
“Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
In one line, Luke’s subtle highlights and shadows render not just a person, but a personality. In Luke’s many portraits of Jesus, we meet a man who is drawn into intimate, moment by moment communion with the God he knew as Father. We encounter a person filled with power by the Spirit of God, led by the Spirit to astonishing new heights and depths of self-offering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Luke’s Jesus spends the whole night in prayer.