Of Kitchens and Christmas – Br. James Koester

John 1:1-14

Memories are a powerful force in the human psyche. They have the ability to trap and imprison, but they have also the ability to liberate and free. They have the power to make one weep in despair or grief and to laugh with the delight of a child. They have the power to shape and mold a life and in hindsight to help make sense of all that was and is, and even is to be. As we all know, it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory: a sound, a taste, a smell, an image, even just a word or phrase and suddenly we are back there as if it were happening this very instant.

I have one such memory that crops up in my mind and heart on a regular basis and it happens many days at Morning Prayer. I had no idea at the time, that the event itself was to be a harbinger of things to come. As a memory it continues to delight and console, and even assure me.

I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 and my mother and I were alone in the kitchen. I can’t remember what we were doing, but we were doing something together, and we were talking as a 9-year-old boy talks with his mother, or at least as this 9-year-old boy and his mother did. I was puzzled and I wanted to know something. The burning question I had, had something to do with church. (It’s okay of you want to roll your eyes at this point.) We had been to church as some point before this conversation, and it had been a Morning Prayer Sunday (if you have been an Episcopalian for more than 50 or 60 years, you’ll remember those). We had sung the Te Deum, and what I wanted to know, and what had puzzled me, was what exactly did we mean when we sang: When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.[1] I knew what all the words in that phrase meant except one, and I wanted to know what was meant by the word abhor. Read More

Recognizing the Lord – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Sirach 48:1-11
Matthew 17:9-13

The prophet Elijah is one of the great figures of the Bible, and straddles both the Old and New Testaments. In our first reading today from the Book of Sirach, we have this great paeon of praise for Elijah: ‘How glorious you are Elijah in your wondrous deeds’. There is also a profound hope that he would come again, to prepare the way of the Lord. This hope grows through the Hebrew scriptures, and culminates in the very last verses of the Old Testament, in the Book of Malachi: ‘Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.’  And to this day, when Jewish families celebrate Passover, they leave a place at the table for Elijah, and at one point a son goes to the front door to see if Elijah has come.

In our Gospel reading from Matthew, the disciples Peter, James and John are coming down the mountain having just experienced the glorious Transfiguration of Jesus. At the Transfiguration they saw Elijah, as well as Moses, who were talking with Jesus. As the disciples walked down the mountain they questioned Jesus about Elijah. They wanted to know why Elijah had not come earlier, as promised in scripture, preceding the coming of Jesus. Jesus told them that Elijah had already come, but that people did not recognize him. ‘Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.’ John came preaching repentance and prepared the way for the promised Messiah. In this way, he was fulfilling the role of Elijah, but the religious leaders simply did not recognize him. They did not recognize him. The scriptures are full of this theme of failing to recognize the one who is in their midst; of not truly seeing; of spiritual blindness. Of course, Jesus’ enemies did not recognize who he was. Remember all those chapters in John’s Gospel, where the Pharisees keep asking him hostile questions about his identity. ‘Where are you from? Who is your family? How do you know so much – you’ve never been taught. You are not yet fifty; how have you seen Abraham?’  Finally, in chapter 8: 25 in exasperation, ‘Who are you?’  as the prologue to John puts it, ‘He was in the world, yet the world did not know him,’ Read More

Home for Christmas – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

I John 3:1-6
John 1:29-34

“Did you go home for Christmas?”  That’s a question you’re likely to hear these days.  “Were you at home for the holidays?”  “Did the kids come home for Christmas?”  It’s a common theme at this time of year.  We naturally associate the holiday season with “coming home.”  Retailers pick up on the theme, offering us images of families gathered before the fireplace or around the Christmas tree.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” plays over the loudspeaker in the grocery store.  The idea of being “home” for the holidays appeals to many of us.

But what does “home” mean, really?  Is it a place we can return to, or is it more of a longing?  For many of us, the word “home” summons up a whole range of things that are past and that cannot be retrieved.  The house we grew up in belongs to someone else.  Our parents may have divorced – or died.  Our siblings may be scattered across the country.  The neighbors we once knew have drifted away.  For us, “home” isn’t a specific place anymore; it’s more like a whole set of longings… or a collection of special people… or a treasure chest of memories that combine to make us feel safe and loved.

Many of us love the idea of “coming home.”  But for others of us, perhaps, “home” was never that fine a place to begin with.  Home was the place where mom and dad argued all the time until they finally split up, or where unkind and even abusive words were spoken.  For us, “home” wasn’t a place where we felt safe or loved.  We’ve had to find our “home” elsewhere – with different people and in different surroundings.

Being “home” for the holidays is important to many of us.  But what can the miracle of Christmas teach us about being home? Read More

O Root of Jesse – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey TristramIsaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17

Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading!  Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse.  O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.

Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament.  That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah.  But who would he be?  How will we know who it is?  People were always asking “who are you?”  “Where are you from?”  Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….”  He will be the one.  We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.

Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination.  And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination.  So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity.  They are called Jesse Trees.  We see them in stained glass windows.  (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.)  We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.)  And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you.  It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century. Read More