Luke 1:57–80, Nativity of St. John the Baptist
On June 25th, 2010, nine years ago today, something amazing happed for which I’m eternally grateful. It was a Friday, around noonday, and even now I’m not sure what to call it. I’ve heard people talk about “conversion experiences,” but that never seemed to quite fit somehow. I started attending a church shortly after it happened, and the pastor there suggested it was a kind of “spiritual awakening,” which did sound a bit closer to the truth. But the description that felt most true, and came naturally as my mind tried to make sense of it, was that it felt like being born again. It felt like being utterly annihilated only to rise again as something new, simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. It was as if God, getting inpatient and tiring of being subtle, grabbed me by the ankles, held me upside down, and shook violently until… well, I’m still not sure, but let’s just say that a lot of spiritual and psychological loose change fell from my pockets.
I remember coming back to my senses slowly, and then carefully sitting up. Two very kind and helpful souls, were sitting to either side of me, and, looking very concerned, one of them asked if I was “OK.” My first reaction was spontaneous and tearful laughter, because “OK” seemed like a vast understatement if ever there was one. And then something curious happened…. I opened my mouth with every intention of giving some sort of answer, although not knowing what I was going to say. But when I opened my mouth nothing came out, and nothing would come out. I was struck completely dumb unable to speak or utter any sound at all, and even more curious, I didn’t feel any surprise or fear over this. I just tried to be helpful by pointing at my throat and shrugging. It’s probably because of this experience that when I read today’s gospel, I felt a strong kinship with Zechariah.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
John’s gospel takes up the theme of truth with notable frequency, and it is worthwhile for us as Christians constantly to take up this theme as well. Whether in our prayer, work life, or social life, our play, creative pursuits, or our time alone, we should remind ourselves that Jesus has claimed to be the Truth. Truth for us is therefore not some celestial force or an impersonal ideal; it is rather a person who graciously invites us into a deep and intimate knowing.
It is this very personhood, however, that begins to present our normative categories with some resistance, confusion, and misunderstanding. We may theorize about an idea all we like; but the depth and profundity of a personality will never fit easily into any theoretical category you or I propose. For if God is not simply an impersonal force or ideal, but a person, we may know of God only that which God has revealed. About a force, we may speculate; but to know a person is to open one’s self to the vulnerability of encounter. Encounter that might even change the nature of the inquirer.
It is clear that we need to be careful and discerning about the ways we speak and think about truth and the ways we suppose we understand who God is. St. Gregory of Nazianzus whom we remember today, spent his life thinking deeply about God’s nature and defending a particular way of understanding who God has revealed God’s self to be: namely, a trinity of persons ὁμοούσιονin one substance.
God is doing a new thing.
Jesus has just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. The crowd gathered at Bethany beholds something so powerful at work in Jesus that it astonishes them. A man, verifiably dead and decaying, emerges from his tomb at the voice of Jesus; a work so vivid and undeniable that some are convinced by the truth they see in him, and they believe. The power to give life is the sole property of God, and God alone. This man, Jesus from Galilee, must against all our own judgement be whom he claims to be, truly sent by the One he names ‘Father.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Others, however, cannot cope with what they have just seen. Jesus has done something that only the Lord of Israel has the power to do. And because Jesus meets none of their preexisting messianic criteria, the event they have just witnessed presents them, along with the leadership at Jerusalem, with a crisis.
God is doing a new thing.
For in the LORD’s hand there is a cup, full of spiced and foaming wine, which he pours out, and all the wicked of the earth shall drink and drain the dregs.
In the writings of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, as in the seventy-fifth Psalm, we encounter a cup that no one wants to drink. All tremble when God offers it. And for good reason. To “drink the cup of God’s wrath” is to imbibe the consequences of ungodly actions. Those who drink it stagger and fall down, overwhelmed by the awful knowledge of their sins.
These images of forced intoxication are harsh and terrifying. They feel punitive in the extreme. But to see this image from the vantage point of the prophets of Israel, to drink this cup is also to swallow the Truth. If we have developed a personal habit of avoiding or evading the Truth; if we have fallen captive to our culture’s prevailing tendency to do this on a national scale; if we have lied to ourselves or others; or if we have done things that feel untrue to our primary identity as God’s children; the Truth may very well feel harsh and terrifying. When God offers this cup to me, it inevitably feels like a confrontation.
The same God of Truth also offers the cup of blessing. For those who are living in the Truth, living for the Truth, to drink of this cup brings life and health, strengthening one’s intimacy with the God who offers it. This cup purifies the heart and prepares our thirst for more and more.
But what if this is the same cup? It is obvious that the biblical writers are using the image of God’s cup to convey a wide variety of different meanings. But might it be the case that, rather than selecting a different cup from a divine cup collection or even pouring a different vintage of wine for each guest, God offers God’s one cup – the offer of Godself? Might it not be that the disposition of the one who would drink of itis the variable here, and it is we – who can see so little of the vast and inscrutable purposes of God – who attribute to God a variety of motives beyond the one motive of saving Love?
Jesus was steeped in the tradition of the Prophets and in the prayer book of Israel, the Psalter. He would have known this variety of cup imagery in scripture quite intimately. When Jesus says to James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” he has just offered to his disciples a third prediction of the suffering and death he is to undergo at Jerusalem, as well as a prediction of his resurrection. This is a cup of Truth so pungent and bewildering that they have avoided and evaded drinking it at all costs. And in just a few short chapters, Jesus will drink from a cup for the last time with his gathered friends, saying “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And he will go to Gethsemane and pray in the dark, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” The cup of Jesus is one cup. For him and in him, the cup of suffering is the cup of salvation. The cup offered to him and him alone by the hand of his Father isthe cup he invited his friends to share at their final feast. If James and John would drink the cup of blessing in the right hand of the king, they must drink all the Truth that that cup contains. And so must we.
The chalice of the Eucharist participates in the nature of all of these offered cups, which are the one cup – the offer of Godself. The bread and wine of the Eucharist are many, many things: food for our wilderness journey, medicine in this hospital for sinners, fruit hanging from the tree of the cross. But for me, a challenge – and some days, a confrontation– in receiving the Eucharist as frequently as we do is that the cup we drink also holds living fire. This image is especially prominent in the Eucharistic prayers of the Eastern Church, in which the bread is likened to the live coalfrom the altar that touched the lips of Ezekiel, and the wine a flow of living firefrom God’s throne. Such fire burns up sins, and sets the soul ablaze like molten metal. The heat that sometimes burns in my breast in response to this fierce gift finds poignant expression in the words of the Carmelite writer Marc Foley: “The deeper divine charity takes root in our hearts, the greater the guilt we feel when we hate or fail to love. The more we say yes to God, the more painful it becomes to say no. Nevertheless, we continue to resist God’s call to grow. Consequently, we feel trapped. We can’t say no, but we don’t want to say yes. We resent being put in this position.”
Each time we receive God into ourselves from this cup, we say yes– we say yesto the one who sensitizes our conscience, the one who sharpens our spiritual senses, and the one who turns up the light – and the heat – in our soul. The cup of Truth may cause us to stagger and fall down. But if we continue to drink from it – Christ promises – this loving confrontation will bring us to a miraculous and sober inebriation. We will know that fire can make its home in us, because our true nature is gold. The cup of his suffering – which is the cup of salvation – will bring with it each day a fresh opportunity to turn to the Lord and live. In this cup, we will know the Truth without fear, and the Truth will set us free.
The Martyrs of Japan
In 1597, 26 Christians, including three children, were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan. They were bound upon crosses, hoisted up, and stabbed to death with spears. There is no way to dress this up. There is no way to make it peaceful or pretty. These were gruesome, terrible deaths. The martyrs almost certainly felt a great deal of fear and pain. The killings were a deliberate attempt to stoke fear among any Christian converts, missionaries, and sympathizers. This has never been an ordinary form of execution in Japan; the killings were a deliberate mockery of Christ’s Crucifixion.
Maybe that’s our way in. Many Christians in our country live in an escapist fantasy, where they are the oppressed minority, and executions are only a generation or two away. This thinking seems to cut across many different denominations, and makes an utter mockery of the martyrs of the Church. But for the rest of us, real martyrdom is deeply difficult to wrap our heads around. We have, perhaps, felt a bit at-odds or out-of-place running in certain social circles. Maybe this has led to arguments or hurt feelings. But, for the vast majority of us, this is as bad as it will ever get. Genuinely being killed for being Christian is…unthinkable. Not here. Over there, sure. But not here.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
Rachel refused. She refused to be consoled. Wailing and weeping bitterly, she refused to be consoled.
And, yet, the very next line in Jeremiah has the Lord saying “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;” “there is hope in your future.” Don’t cry, God says, don’t be sad, it’s OK. My immediate reaction on reading that was, “Are you kidding me?”
I’ve imagined Rachel’s response, and let’s just say I’ll refrain from sharing it in polite company. What I can say, is that a perfectly natural reaction would be for her sadness to blossom into anger, even a righteous rage. How dare God offer any kind of consolation in the depth of her anguish. How dare God say anything at all. Where was God when children were being mercilessly slaughtered? How could God allow that to happen?
St. Michael & All Angels
Today we remember angels, mysteriously other. These outside, beyond, heavenly beings worship before God’s throne, fight evil, and come bearing messages.
When he was afraid, Jacob received a dream. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder connecting heaven and earth and heard God speaking to him. God who had seemed beyond and absent broke through to be present in voice and with the sight of angels.
Jacob woke from his dream and said: “Surely the Lord is in this place. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is gate of heaven.” So Jacob made a pillar, poured oil on it and called the place Bethel, the house of God.
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.
Who is Jesus Christ? This is a question that as Christians we must ask ourselves continuously. Who is this figure that stands at the heart of our faith? There is a tendency, a perfectly natural tendency, to focus on the humanity of Jesus, to see him, as it were, merely as a better version of ourselves. Jesus the good man. Jesus the wise teacher. Jesus the political activist. The one who hates to see injustice. Whilst none of these ideas are necessarily untrue, indeed they’re all right, by their very nature they only tell half the story. They only unveil half the picture.
Our Gospel reading today helps to shine light, perhaps give us some insights, into how the divinity of Jesus is manifested in his humanity. We hear of Jesus the healer. The miracle worker. The one who in raising the sick, and elsewhere in the Gospel of raising the dead, prefigures his own resurrection with the salvific importance that event has for all of creation. We hear of Jesus the cosmic warrior who, in casting out demons, is fighting a sort of proxy war on Earth in the constant, cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. We hear of Jesus Christ seated on his throne of judgment, looking forward to the end of all things when those who will dine at the heavenly banquet will be separated from those who will be cast into the outer darkness where we hear there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. We hear of Jesus the dynamic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The Messiah. The Christ. The one in whom all the hopes and expectations of Israel are met.
Isaiah 6: 1 – 8
Romans 8: 12 – 17
John 3: 1 – 17
Growing up in the Church, as I did, I often found myself, in those moments waiting for the service to begin, exploring the Prayer Book that I held in my hands. I would flip though it, as perhaps you have done, and read the interesting bits. I liked to look at the The Calendar, and wonder who some of these people were: Bede, Dunstan, Dominic, Stephen. Over the years I have stopped wondering who they were, or even their place and role in history. I have come to know them as friends. As our Rule of Life says, in a somewhat different context: we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.
Or I would make my with through the Table of Kindred and Affinity, where I would read: A Man may not marry his Mother, his Sister, his Grandmother, his Aunt. As I worked my way through the list, and picture the people I was not allowed to marry, I would wonder, not so much as why I may not marry them, but why on earth I would want to marry my mother, my sister, my grandmother, or my aunt, in the first place!
The other place that gave me endless hours of entertainment was the Creed of Saint Athanasius. I would read and ponder what this riddle that is our Faith, is actually about.
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
All this was pretty heady stuff for a teenager, but now that you know that about my teenaged self, is it any wonder that I ended up where I have in life, as a priest and now a monk?
At one point in the life of the Church, parishioners were expected to plough their way through the Athanasian Creed several times a year, but now it is relegated to the back of the Prayer Bookin the section referred to as Historical Documents of the Church. But while the text itself may be an historical document, the Faith it proclaims is anything but. For the Faith it expounds is nothing less than what Christians over the centuries have come to know to be true about God’s very being.
What Scripture proclaims, what the Creeds declare, and what Christians have affirmed about God over the last two millennia, is not some mathematical riddle the tells us that 3 = 1, but that God is a God who communicates with the creation; that God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus; and that God continues to be known to the people of God, even today.
For us as Christians, God is not some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life. Rather for us, God is known and experienced, not only in history, but in the tiny moments of daily living. We see God in the wonder and beauty of creation, and the awe of worship; we touch God, in the person of Jesus, and the simple elements of bread, wine, water, and oil; we know God, who is closer to us even than our own breath.
We see and touch and know God, not as three gods, but as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is this knowable, loving and sustaining God whom we describe as Trinity of Being, and Unity of Substance. But it is so easy to become lost in the math, and ignore the reality of our experience.
Father Benson, the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, in a letter dated 10 November, 1875, once said this:
I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church —the Sacraments —Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology —have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.
I think what Father Benson was trying to say is that when people lose sight of their personal experience of God, and cloak God in unmeaning jargon then God simply becomes mumbo jumbo. For many people today, and perhaps even for some of you, all this god-talk is nothing less than meaningless mumbo jumbo.
For the Church to reclaim a vision of God which is not shrouded in mumbo jumbo, we need to feel God as a power, and love God as a reality. I believe that the world is desperate for the witness of the Church to a God who can be known, loved and felt.
We say, again in our Rule, that: our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God. If we are true to our calling as a community, our Society will be a revelation of God.
The heart and example of Christian community, whether that be household, parish, or monastery, is the heart and being of God, who is community. Unless we live, and are known to live, in communion and community with one another, our witness to a God who is first and foremost community, will fall on deaf ears.
Our witness to a God who can be known, loved, and felt, stems from the witness of the way in which we live together with one another, not in our ability to decipher mathematical impossibilities.
If we are true to the mission of God, which is our mission, then God will be known, loved and felt, in our midst, not as some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life, but rather as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, who is knowable, loving and sustaining and whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today as we rejoice in God as Trinity, we do so not to confound people with mumbo jumbo, but to proclaim to a world hungry for the good news of the eternal reality that God can indeed be known, that God is indeed loving, and that God is indeed forever present. This is our mission. This is our purpose. This is our call.
SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition, chapter 3, page 6
BCP, Canada, 1962, page 562
Ibid., page 695
BCP, Episcopal Church, 1979, page 864
Ibid, page 864 ff
Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson, page 187
Ibid., page 187
SSJE, Rule,The Witness of Life in Community, chapter 4, page 9