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.
People often remark on the homemade bread we serve at both altar and supper table. One guest told me: “Your bread is substantial and satisfying. Through this retreat I’ve experienced Jesus as substantial and satisfying.”
Bread is ordinary, daily, necessary nourishment, and a key symbol in our salvation story. God provided ancient Israel with bread from heaven in the wilderness for forty years. Wandering in the desert, our parents asked: “What is it?” God said take a measure of this bread from heaven every morning. More will come tomorrow. Don’t hoard it. I will give you enough.[i]
A bit earlier in John, Jesus turned a few loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. Followed by a crowd, Jesus raised the question of how to feed them. The disciples said: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread.” Jesus said: “Make the people sit down. … Jesus gave thanks and distributed the food, … as much as they wanted.”[ii]
A friend of mine recently e-mailed me a maxim which read, ‘Work tip: Stand up. Stretch. Take a walk. Go to the airport. Get on an airplane. Never return.’ I sometimes wonder if this is what Jesus and his disciples felt like in their own ministry. When you read the gospel of Mark, one thing you will notice straight away is the fevered pace with which Jesus and his disciples move in their ministry. After Jesus is baptized, Mark writes that the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. He then begins his ministry, chooses his disciples, heals a man with an unclean spirit, heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then others who catch wind of Jesus power. He then begins a preaching tour through Galilee and cleanses a leper he encounters along the way. And this is just the first chapter and in as little as 870 words!
We’re now in chapter six and we read that Jesus’ disciples have been out on their own preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons. They have met up with Jesus again and you can sense their child-like excitement as they begin to recount how they had put to use all that He had been teaching them. With all this commotion around them they had not even had time to attend to their own needs of sustenance and rest. We then hear Jesus tell them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” The sigh of relief is palpable as we read that they got in a boat and set sail for the other side. Can you identity with Jesus and the disciples? Have you ever had one of those days or even weeks that just doesn’t seem to stop?
Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, most famously known as “Doubting Thomas,” from the Gospel story we just heard. Thomas misses the initial appearance of the Resurrected Christ, and insists that he will not believe unless he can stick his fingers inside the wounds of Christ himself. Jesus later arrives, and after offering his disciples a greeting of “Peace be with you,” he does again what he has already done to an infinite degree: Jesus offers his body, for the dispelling of the shadows of doubt and the triumph of life through the light of faith. He orders Thomas to stick his fingers in the wounds of his body. Thomas immediately realizes his error, and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”1 Fear, repentance, shock, jubilation, hope, excitement, awe, love…all of these and more, bound up in Thomas’s beautiful cry, and the experience takes Thomas from doubt to a belief deep enough to explicitly affirm that Christ is God Incarnate.
I was eleven years old when I made my way to the front of my childhood church to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. In the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, the pastor would always give an “altar call” before the final hymn: he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire, which was the next step in the journey of faith. After I took that step myself, I always looked forward to that moment in the service, to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was.
Yet as I grew into an adult understanding of Jesus during my own journey into adulthood, the constant companion I had known as a child became a distant acquaintance that I would see once every great while (and when I did, I wasn’t quite sure what to say). Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’ve been trying to reclaim a relationship with Jesus. Or maybe, in light of current events, you’re presently searching for a ray of hope, confused and disoriented at what is going on in this world, wondering ‘where in the world is Jesus in all of this?’
In my own journey, I met Jesus again in the same place that I had first professed to follow him: at the altar. Late in my high school years, I had the opportunity to visit an Episcopal Church one Christmas Eve and was most struck by all the activity surrounding the altar during the second half of the service. Something mysterious was occurring, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, it was palpable. I eventually joined the Episcopal Church and came to know and understand what was happening at the altar. It was a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Through this sacrament, my personal relationship with Jesus was renewed. What’s more, I realized in this new ‘altar call’ that Jesus had always been with me on my journey, I just hadn’t recognized him. Every time we gather around an altar to break bread and share wine, we get a glimpse of Jesus, who is our constant companion.
As a monk now, I get the chance to meet Jesus at the altar every day during the Eucharist. Yet even as a monk, I also need to attune my eyes to see him in my everyday life. How can we become aware of Jesus, who is also called Emmanuel – “God with us” – when we’re away from the altar? I want to suggest a transformative practice which comes from the monastic tradition: reserving two brief periods of prayer to act as ‘bookends’ to your day.
In the morning, take a few moments and pray forward through your day. As editor David Cobb suggests in the newly revised Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book:
In God’s presence, think through the day ahead: the work you will do, the people you will encounter, the dangers or uncertainties you face, the possibilities for joy and acts of kindness, any particular resolutions you need to renew. Consider what might draw you from the love of God and neighbor, the opportunities you will have to know and serve God and to grow in virtue. Remember those closest to you and all for whom you have agreed to pray, ask God’s blessings, guidance, and strength in all that lies before you. Then, gather up these thoughts and reflections with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Or you might conclude, as I do, with Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” which is popular in 12-Step work:
GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find that, over time, this way of praying in the morning will help make you aware of Jesus with you throughout your day. Even the empty, in-between times of the day can become full of chances to meet him in the moment. Father George Congreve, SSJE once wrote:
At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with – Oh! Then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees an act of communion with God.
A second period of prayer, at the end of the day, can help you to see how many moments throughout your day were, indeed, “an act of communion with God.” Before you go to bed, take ten or fifteen minutes to pray backwards through your day. You might use the five-step prayer known in Ignatian Spirituality as “The Examen”:
- Become aware of God’s presence and ask God to bring clarity to the end of your day.
- Review the day with gratitude, both what went well and where you might have come up short. Pay attention to the small things. God is in the details.
- Pay attention to your emotions. Ignatius says that we detect the presence of God in our emotions. What is God saying through these feelings?
- Choose one feature from the day and pray from it. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart – whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.
- Look forward to tomorrow. Do all this with a posture of gratitude knowing that all of life is a gift of God, and then close with the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus always waits for us at the altar. And he meets us in the sacrament of our daily lives. He continually accompanies us along our earthly pilgrimage, loving us and upholding us, each step of the way. Look for him beside you.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a 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 in which we live. I remember being surprised to hear him say that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight we will 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 himself, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. The King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.
Read by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
I Thessalonians 5:18
I have a memory of my 5th-grade teacher asking us to write a short paragraph describing the things in our lives for which we were thankful. I don’t recall any of the specifics of that assignment, but I do recall having a terrible case of “writer’s block.” I sat for the longest time just staring at that piece of paper. I couldn’t think of a thing for which I was thankful.
Recalling it now, it seems shocking to me that a 5th-grade boy growing up in suburban America, with plenty of food and warm clothes and a comfortable home and a loving family, couldn’t think of anything for which he was thankful. I was surrounded by gifts, but I didn’t recognize them as gifts, and so I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for them. I suppose I naively assumed that everyone had food and clothing, a loving family and a comfortable home. I was unaware of how privileged I was to enjoy these things on a daily basis, and simply took them for granted.
1 John 4:7-21;
Like the founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, I grew up in an Evangelical tradition of the church. The word ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek euangelion, which means “bearer of good news,” and it is the charism of the evangelical tradition to spread by word the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. And so from a young age I was taught vivid Bible stories in Sunday School,that were often accompanied by handouts that I could take home and color with pictures of Jesus telling stories to children seated all around him. I also learned songs that I would sing ad naseum in the car on the way home such as ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children.’As a child I knew Jesus to be my buddy and as long as I had these Bible stories, songs, and coloring sheets, Jesus was with me wherever I went.
As I grew older, my dad encouraged me to leave the coloring activity sheets behind and begin to listen to what our pastor was preaching in church, something that I wasn’t thrilled about because I didn’t understand the message he was articulating. I didn’t yet have the vocabulary and experience to grasp concepts such as ‘sin,’‘atonement,’ and ‘repentance.’ It would take a while for me to gain an understanding of this adult expression of God, one that seemed so complex and at times frightening. What did resonate with me was when the pastor gave what was called an “altar call.” After the sermon and before the final hymn, he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire which was the next step in the journey of faith. I think I was eleven when I made my way to the front to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. I always looked forward to that moment in the service to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was. I imagine it is with a youthful twinkle in his eye that Fr. Benson once wrote: “If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know Him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with Him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”[i]
Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6
Canticle 16 or Psalm 46
Colossians 1: 11 – 20
Luke 23: 33 – 43
Those of you who have been on retreat with me in the past, or heard me preach, especially at Emery House, will know that I frequently go back to the same starting point over and again. I often begin with what is my favourite collect, the collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas:
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I was raised as a Baptist in Alabama, and spent my late childhood and early teens falling in love with Jesus and his Gospel. Years later, during my studies at Harvard Divinity School, I would discover a call to follow Jesus as an Episcopalian. The eight years or so in between I found myself on a prolonged hiatus from Church and from Christianity, zealously studying and practicing Buddhist meditation. I think my exposure to these practices was a providential preparation for my later encounter with Christian contemplative prayer, and the compassionate, joyful presence of the Buddhist monks who befriended and taught me may have planted the first seeds of the Christian monastic vocation I am living into today.