The Life You Share with the Blessed Virgin Mary – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis AlmquistThe Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Matthew 1:18-25

This Gospel account speaks of Jesus’ miraculous birth; however our celebration today remembers the miraculous birth of his mother, Mary. There’s no record of this in the Scriptures. The best we can do is found in the Gospel of James, which dates back to about year 145. The Gospel of James is “apocryphal,” i.e., it doesn’t have the authority of the Scriptures but it does give us an early picture of the piety that developed around Jesus’ mother, Mary. According to the Gospel of James, Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, fervently prayed and prayed for a child, to no avail. But then they received a miraculous promise from God that Anna would conceive a child, and this child would herald God’s plan of salvation for the world. God was especially present in Mary’s life from the beginning. Two second-century teachers, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Justin Martyr, who lived at the same time as the Gospel of Thomas appeared, wrote that if Jesus is the new Adam, then Mary, his mother, is the new Eve.[i]  Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, said that through Mary’s birth and the birth of her son, Jesus, the nature we inherit from our first parents Adam and Eve is changed from “original sin” to “original blessing.”[ii]  Mary, then Jesus, change everything. Read More

Mary, Warrior of God – Br. Lucas Hall

Br. Lucas HallIn our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”

This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit. Read More

Do Whatever He Tells You – Br. Lucas Hall

SSJE-60

We continue our Epiphany preaching series, “Gifts for the Journey,” on following God’s call, focusing tonight on the gift of guides. Currently on display in the middle of our chapel is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Her hand gestures toward the child, in the classic iconographic depiction of the Hodegetria, Greek for, “She who shows the Way.” The tradition of iconography identifies St. Luke the Evangelist as the first iconographer, who painted the image of Mary while she was still alive; the icon he is said to have painted is the original Hodegetria, establishing this particular image of Mother and Child as both widely popular and a deeply reflective picture of who Jesus is, and, consequently, who Mary is. Jesus is the Way, and Mary is she who shows the way, her simple and silent hand gesture representing the life of the Virgin burning, brightly and endlessly, with the love and knowledge of God. In today’s Gospel reading, this is further encapsulated. At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the servants to do whatever her Son tells them. Just a few verses beforehand, Jesus has told the disciple Nathanael that greater signs of Jesus’s work and identity await. John, in his gospel, then describes the scene at Cana, and so gives us the first of these promised greater signs. In this scene, it is Mary who initiates the interaction, and it is Mary who points the way: “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary is ever-vigilant, always pointing to her Son, always guiding us to the Way.

This is no surprise or coincidence. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her, overshadowing her with the power of the Most High. It is the Spirit, dwelling in and among us right now, who is constantly pointing to Christ. It is the Spirit who, in quiet whispers and gestures, points to the Son as the Way to the Father. It is the Spirit who binds us, uniting us to one another in Christ as his body, uniting us to the Bridegroom as his Bride. It is the Spirit who points the Way, and teaches us how to point the Way, if only we let him, as Mary did so long ago.

And though Mary is the fullest expression of this divine gift of guidance, it was taking place long before. Soon, we will sing the Nicene Creed. About the Holy Spirit, the Creed says that “He has spoken through the Prophets.” The long line of prophetic witness is another manifestation of the Spirit’s guidance, inspiring others to be co-laborers with him in his guidance. Tonight’s first reading is from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament prophet. He is perhaps a mirror image of Jonah, whose single call to repentance of the people of Nineveh brought about repentance. Jeremiah has no such luck. He spends a lifetime prophesying to Israel of their sins and the impending destruction and exile coming from Babylon, to no avail. Jerusalem is sacked, the Temple is destroyed, and the Israelites are scattered throughout the empire. Jeremiah spends the rest of his life in exile, in Egypt; he is left with bitterness, and tears, and lamentation. But this destruction, this uprooting, is no final death. It is the clearing of the brush, the making of the paths in the wilderness. Despite their settling in the promised land of Canaan, the wilderness has not departed from the People of God. Thickets still obscure the sight of the watchers, thorn bushes still ensnare the ankles of the travelers, wandering and searching for the Way. After foretelling humanity’s long exile in the wilderness of Babylon, Jeremiah offers us a prophesy of sweet hope: that God has a plan for us, that he has not forsaken us, that he has not taken the Way from us, that he will restore his people to the place from which we were exiled. We will be shown out of the wilderness and into the Garden. The Spirit who blew over the waters at creation is still a wind, whipping over the wilderness, ever working his act of re-creation on a world and a race beset by the spiritual wilderness of the formless void. This whirlwind is the breath, the voice of the prophets in the desert, proclaiming to all who would listen: there is a way. Here is the Way.

But this prophetic speech is no ancient tongue. The Spirit has always guided the world, but at Pentecost, his descent onto the people Church is as fundamental as Christ’s Incarnation. At the Incarnation, God the Son became imbued with humanity. At Pentecost, humanity became imbued with God the Spirit. So the Spirit has not stopped moving over the waters, but now moves with more grace and more power, more gentle and more ferocious than ever before. Dwelling in us, imbuing us with gifts of divinity, the Spirit’s guidance persistently abides within us. He shows us the Way, and shows us how to imitate him in showing others the Way.

And this is, perhaps, the most likely place you may have encountered the Spirit. Often, it is very difficult to discern the Spirit’s guidance, thumping in our own chests. Instead, we look outward, toward our human fellow-travelers. In the voices of their mouths, we, often quite unexpectedly, hear the whistling of the Spirit’s divine gusts. If we are open and prepared, a single word from a friend or a lover or a stranger may strike a silent chord deep within us, might stand out as a bright and brilliant sign, pointing out the otherwise-obscured path. A conversation might take an unforeseen turn, and words that strike us as ridiculous at first glance are actually the work of the Spirit, doing his eternal labor of Creation, planting seeds in the chaotic uncertainty of our own lives, so that they might grow into trees lining the Way. Despite our best efforts to dismiss, ignore, or push aside this guidance, God assures us of the truth of his path.

And we are called to be guides, to be the co-laborers of the Holy Spirit. This is a path that requires serious discernment. But to be prophets, to emulate the Virgin Mary as She who shows the Way, is to live up to our full human vocation. We are to be guides just as we are guided. We are to travel the path of God while clearing the brush so that others may join us. The Way is narrow, and long, and often obscured, but we are assured of the Spirit’s guidance, and we are assured of our vocation to work with him in that guidance. Let us show forth our Way.

This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series

Your Conscience and God’s Provision – Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis AlmquistAdvent IV

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.             

The prayer with which we opened our liturgy today includes a rather loaded word: “conscience.” We prayed, “purify our conscience, Almighty God…” I’d like to speak about your conscience… which may make some of you inwardly roll your eyes or duck for cover.  “Yikes: my conscience!” Our conscience typically gets rather bad press. Our conscience is about everything we do wrong… and we know it. We may hope it all stays a secret, and yet we also know, “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sakes…”[i]  Is that about Santa Claus or about God?  Hmmm. Well it’s certainly about conscience, which comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a knowledge within oneself, an inner sense of what is right.”[ii]  With our actions and our thoughts, there’s an inner knowing about our outer doing or saying, a kind of simultaneous overlay of direction and correction. That’s our conscience. In a few moments, we will be invited to make a confession of sin about things we know better about: where it is – don’t we know? – that things should have been different in what we’ve said or left unsaid, things we’ve done or left undone. And we know it. That awareness comes out of our “bad” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of being in the wrong. Read More

The Love Song of Silence – Br. Lucas Hall

Luke 1:26-38

In a fit of desperation, I asked God for a sign. A light, a feeling, a sound in the dead of one cold November night. I got nothing. But that nothing is the moment I have pointed to, for years, as the beginning of my conversion. Because, in retrospect, I don’t think I received nothing. I think I received silence.  Read More

Let us sing! Let us sing! Let us sing! – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

As an almost daily grocery shopper I have become quite well known at the local Shaw’s in Newburyport. Each time I go someone on the staff calls out a greeting to me. Colin, at the fish counter is always asking me to bless his pens. He thinks that I have some kind of ‘in’ with God, so that if I bless his pens he’ll be more likely to win at the race tracks.  Joyce, Jennifer, and Brandylee are always curious about how many guests we have at Emery House, and Ron and Jim at the meat counter have told me some pretty fabulous ways to cook various kinds of meat. If what I want isn’t out they gladly do up a special order for me. Just ask me sometime about Jim’s recipe for ribs wrapped in plastic and foil! In the last few months the manager has also begun to greet me whenever he sees me. By now most of them know I run a retreat centre. Some of them know I am a priest. A few of them know I am a monk. Curiously enough, it is not because I told them those things about me. Somehow they have figured that out. Now every so often one of them will ask me to pray for them, or they will tell me something that I don’t think they would tell one of their other customers.

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Mothers of God – Br. David Vryhof

David Vryhof SSJE  2010Meister Eckhart was a 13th century German Dominican who distinguished himself as a theologian and mystic.  He taught that the real meaning of Christmas is not only that God’s Son was born in a stable, but that Christ is born in us.  His most famous sermon, usually presented first in collections of his writings, was preached on Christmas morning.  It begins with this summary:

Here in time we celebrate the eternal birth that God the Father bore and still bears constantly in eternity, and which is also now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says that this birth is happening continually. We should ask ourselves: If it doesn’t happen in me, what good is that birth after all? What ultimately matters is that God’s birth should happen in me.

What good is it, Meister Eckhart asks, that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in me?  Read More

Faith Will Show Us How – Br. David Allen

Today is the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

When I was a small boy, about 4 or 5 years old, My paternal grandmother, who had been a Presbyterian missionary to the American Indians for about 40 years, told me that when God wanted his Son, Jesus, to be born into this world as a human baby, God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and made her to be born pure; without sin.

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Making Space for God – Br. James Koester

2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 18; Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38

Every year at this time I am caught off guard, and it happened again yesterday. For the last several weeks we have been reading lessons, which frankly can terrify me:

But the bridegroom replied, “Truly I tell you, I do now know you.1

You that are accursed depart from me, into the eternal fire prepared
for the devil and his angels.2

… for you do not know when the master of the house will come … [and]
he may find you asleep…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.3

And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John the Baptist], and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.4

These gospel lessons, beginning toward the end of the Pentecost cycle are not all that fun to ponder. After all, who among us wants to be reminded week after week that it is quite possible to be denied, especially if we have denied; to be left out, when we have left others out; to fall asleep when we have been charged to keep alert.

But suddenly everything has changed, and I am caught off guard. It happened once again yesterday.

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the
son of Abraham.5

For the last several weeks we have been pondering lessons which point us to the coming of Christ at the end of time to be judge and ruler of all. Suddenly, suddenly our focus shifts and we are invited to ponder the coming of Christ, not in glory at the end of time, but in lowliness in time as the babe of Bethlehem. We are invited to ponder Jesus, not as judge, but as messiah; not as ruler, but as savior and we do that today by pondering the familiar story of Mary’s strange encounter with Gabriel; a story which we remember here at the monastery three times each day.

The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary:
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you….6

We remember this encounter because it both fulfills and begins a whole sequence of events reaching back to one garden and forward to another, from one tree to another: from Eden to Gethsemane; from the tree of life to the wood of the cross and beyond. Mary’s ‘yes’ spans time and space and opened her to become the temple of the Lord that David longed to build. In spite of David’s desire to build, it was in Mary that God chose to dwell, for the building blocks of the temple are not wood and stone and gold, but flesh and blood and a heart full of love. And that is precisely what God found in Mary.

By saying ‘yes’ to God and becoming the Mother of the Saviour, Mary made room for God not only in her womb, but in her heart. Because of this act of great love she became, as Orthodox tradition calls her, More Spacious than the Heavens for “He whom not even the universe could contain was contained within the womb of a virgin, making her more spacious than the Heavens.”7

David longed to build a temple fit for God to reside and in the heart of an unwed teenager, God found that temple not because she was a master builder in wood and stone but because she was a master builder in love.

Like that day two thousand years ago, God longs for a temple in which to reside. He longs for a temple, not of stone and light, no matter how glorious, but of flesh and blood and a heart of full of love. Like Mary, you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you8 for when you say ‘yes’ to God you open yourself to God and God’s glory abides in you; when you say ‘yes’ to God, the Word is made flesh and dwells among us.9

Although everyone loves a baby, Christmas is not actually about babies. Christmas is about saying ‘yes’ to God. Christmas is about making space for God. Christmas is about becoming God’s temple. Christmas is about becoming, like Mary, ‘more spacious than the heavens.’ Christmas is about opening the temple of your heart to the love, and life and light of God.

We have just a week to get ready for Christmas and there is a lot to do: there are presents to buy; trees to decorate; puddings and cakes and cookies to make; gifts to wrap; parties to attend; cards to send. But the most important thing to do is that there is a ‘yes’ to say and a temple to build.

Only you can say ‘yes’ to God and only you can open your heart to God. Only you can build that temple in your heart where the one whom the heavens cannot contain may dwell.

Two thousand years ago, Gabriel appeared to Mary looking for a heart of love where God might dwell, and all creation waited with bated breath for her ‘yes’. Today the sound of angel wings stir the air and Gabriel is once again looking for someone whose heart is full of love. Won’t you this Christmas open your heart to God and say ‘yes’ so that the Word might once more become flesh and dwell among us? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God and offer him the temple of your heart? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God and make space in your heart so that like Mary’s heart yours too will be more spacious than the heavens? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to Gabriel so that God’s light and life and love might dwell in you?

Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God?  Gabriel and all creation are waiting with bated breath for your answer.


1  Matthew 25: 12

2 Matthew  25: 41; Christ the King, Year A

3 Mark 13: 35, 36; Advent I, Year B

4 Mark 1: 5; Advent II, Year B

5 Matthew 1: 1; Gospel appointed for 17 December, Year 2

6 The Angelus: A Devotion of the Incarnation recited daily at 6 AM, 12 noon and 6 PM

7 See 1 Kings 8: 27 and 2 Chronicles 6: 18

8 1 Corinthians 3: 16

9 John 1: 14