Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s calendar year. The lectionary gives us a great gift when it begins the year with this short passage from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2:1-5. Here we read the account of a vision given to Israel’s greatest prophet. Isaiah sees a mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – raised high above all other mountains. And to this place, he tells us, “all the nations” shall stream. They will say to one another, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
The mountain Isaiah refers to is, of course, Mount Zion, on which stood the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The revelation given to Isaiah in this vision is that this mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – will be a source of wisdom and right judgment for all people. The Law of Moses, given initially to the people of Israel, will instruct all the nations in the ways of God and teach them to walk in God’s paths. The result of this will be universal peace, the promise of peace with justice, which will allow humankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews: people like many of us. How will we know God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[The Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
“They begged him to leave.” With this, the townsfolk in today’s Gospel reading confess that there are more than two demoniacs among them.
Jesus comes to the country of the Gadarenes and encounters two men, possessed. He rebukes the powers that ensnare the men, allowing them to flee into a herd of pigs. The animals are driven mad and throw themselves into the water to drown. This terrifies the swineherds, who rush into town, recounting the whole story. At this, the townspeople come out to meet Jesus, and beg him to leave.
This story is consistent with Christ’s promise to bring not peace, but a sword. Christ is a calmer of storms for the afflicted, but a harbinger of upheaval for communities built on and preserved by sin. By begging Christ to leave, the people have preferred livestock to humans. They have preferred to abandon and exile the afflicted, selling their neighbors to purchase stability. For the sake of peace, they have preferred pigs to men. But this is a false peace, a veneer that serves to obscure the brutality of their society. And it is into this peace that Christ, God’s right hand, thrusts his sword.
As you listen to these words there are ten thousand miracles, at least, within easy reach.
Easy, if only we accept Jesus’ invitation and abide in the Love of Christ. Then, God’s Truth dawns upon us, and we taste the peace and joy of Christ surpassing all understanding. And with Christ’s joy within us, and our joy would be complete. You would think it would be an easy sell for Jesus, since it’s hard to argue with the appeal of complete joy. After all, we’re all looking for happiness. In fact, right there in the Declaration of Independence it gives as a self-evident truth that we’re all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, examples of which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we’ve come up with limitless ways to pursue happiness.
Maybe in the pursuit of happiness we pursue an iPhone X or the latest smartwatch. Or maybe we have our eye on a new 65-inch, 4K, Ultra HD, Smart LED television. Or maybe a new car will do the trick. Getting a new job could bring us happiness, or perhaps an exciting new love interest. Maybe losing ten pounds of fat will bring the happiness we seek or adding ten pounds of muscle. Our smile filled with freshly-polished, sparkling white teeth might make us happy, or getting a new haircut, or just getting rid of the grey. Maybe a new theology or a new kind of spiritual practice will bring happiness to our door. Or maybe the next self-help book will be the one, the one that uncovers the “secret” of happiness. And then our pursuit will end, because we’ve found it, we’ve caught this elusive creature, happiness.
Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of whom were chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer. We know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.[i] Nor is this the James, the brother of Jesus, the brother traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and the sometime-Bishop of Jerusalem.[ii] This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.[iii] This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles – the brothers Andrew and Peter – and that was Bethsaida, alongside the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.[iv] Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.[v] On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers Philip in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”[vi]
Isaiah 40: 1 – 11
Psalm 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13
2 Peter 3: 8 – 15a
Mark 1: 1 – 8
Each year I get a little crankier and a little more annoyed by Christmas.
Now, don’t get me wrong, before you write me off as some kind of a monastic Scrooge, let me explain what I mean.
If truth be told, I actually love Christmas. I love the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. I love the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking, (perhaps especially the baking!). I love Christmas. What makes me cranky, and annoyed, is that what many people really just want are the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. What many people really just want are the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking. What many people really just want is the baby and the celebration. What many people don’t want is a saviour. But isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? And you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
For many, Christmas is about a cute, pudgy, sweet smelling baby, nestled in a bed of clean straw, in a romantically quaint, clean, rustic looking barn, amidst softly falling snow, much as we had yesterday. What they don’t want, is a saviour. And they don’t want a saviour, because that would suggest that we need saving. That would suggest that life isn’t all that we so often pretend it to be. And who wants to admit that life, especially my life, is not perfect, or that I can’t fix it?
Romans 12:1-2, 9-21
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
There is within us all a very sacred place, a gift of stillness, light, and love central to our being. We could call it our heart or soul or the indwelling of Christ. It’s at once a point of utter nothingness, while also giving birth to all things in heaven and on earth. It’s a place capable of holding with infinite gentleness both incredible beauty and terrible pain. Against all reason, it’s the place God chooses to call home, and so it’s our home, too. It’s the place where Christ is born, and from where we share Christ’s love and compassion in the world. It’s God’s eternal Kingdom within us, our common inheritance as children of Light.
Very often, though, it seems so difficult to even visit this place, let alone claim our inheritance. We live our lives as if in a dream, where we’re separate from God and from all there is, and often we don’t even realize we’re dreaming. But then something happens, we start feeling restless, a part us senses our perpetual slumber, and we desire something more: to awaken to God’s Loving Presence, and dwell in that sacred place. And our Beloved God is encouraging us all the time, tirelessly offering this generous gift. Unfortunately, we tend to slumber deeply, but there is a way of being more receptive to this gift, and it’s truly very, very simple.
It is not unusual, when Brothers are speaking with guests, that they have lots of questions for us. It is safe to say that people are interested in what and why we do what we do, especially if the idea of monasticism is new to them, or if they are on a first visit to either the Monastery or Emery House. They are interested in who we are; where we came from; what we did before we came to the community; what we do in the community. Inevitably most of them are curious about two other things: what is the best part of community life and what is the worst part of community life?
I am no longer surprised when people ask me those two questions, and frequently now I will beat them to it and answer them even before they have a chance to ask. On hearing my answer, many people are surprised at first, because the answer is the same. The best and worst part of community life is … community life.
There are many reasons why I came to the community to test my vocation. One reason is that after living on my own for a number of years as a parish priest, I knew that I needed and wanted to live with other people who took seriously the same things that I took seriously. I knew that I needed the support of a community. I also knew that I needed the companionship of others as I learned to face more honestly all that was within me: good and bad; light and dark; joy and sadness. I knew that I needed a container for my life that would channel my gifts, but would also bind up my wounds.
Probably the greatest joy of community life is in fact the community. But that does not make less true the fact that the most challenging aspect of community life is also the community. It is no accident that our Rule of Life requires us to make our confessions once a quarter. We do this not because we are especially pious (or conversely incredibly wicked), but in part because we live so closely with one another. It is not possible to live in community, whether that community be a family household, a university residence, or a monastery, without sooner or later manifesting to one another our frailties, our brokenness, and our need of forgiveness.
The possibilities of forgiveness and reconciliation lie at the heart of the Christian faith. Because of that they are part of the daily bread of community life. Living and working as closely with one another as we do, there inevitably (and frequently) comes the time when we need both to forgive and be forgiven. Our Rule teaches that “we cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt. If we stay estranged in our hearts we jeopardize the communion we have with our brothers and our fellow members of the Body of Christ” (Ch. 30).
As sacramental and liturgical Christians we believe that the sacraments and liturgy have the power to transform us. One of my favorite passages from Father Benson on the subject of Holy Communion reminds us of this. In The Religious Vocation he says:
And we must look for the development of the life of Christ within us. Each communion should be, as it were, adding some fresh point to the image of Christ within our souls. As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ, which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us. And it is not that it does this merely in some one direction, but as each moment of the morning adds imperceptibly a fresh glow to the whole illuminated hemisphere, so each communion imperceptibly should add a fresh glow, a fresh brightness, a fresh coloring to the sphere of the soul which it penetrates; the whole nature should assume a fresh glory with each communion. As the form and color of the landscape come out with the sun’s advance, so with each communion the form and color of our spiritual life, not merely in this or that particular, but in all its complex bearings of form and color, is to stand out with greater clearness and beauty, each communion bringing its own fresh illumination, and perfecting us in the Sun of righteousness.
If it is true that Communion has the power to change and transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ, so I would suggest that each exchange of the Peace also has the power to change and transform us.
For me, the thing that is more challenging is not the frequent receiving of Holy Communion, but the frequent exchange of the Peace! There are some days I simply do not want to encounter a particular Brother, never mind exchange the peace with him. When I find myself in that place, an exchange of the Peace is exactly what needs to happen. Slowly but surely, day after day, liturgy after liturgy, exchange of the Peace after exchange of the Peace, my heart begins to melt, and I find myself in a place where I can at last speak to the one from whom I have been estranged or else the wound has been healed and the Peace again becomes a genuine expression of my desire for all that is good to be bestowed upon the other.
Wisely, our Rule of Life recognizes that we will “fall and fall again.” The question is not if but when. When that does happen, there is a mechanism to help us all get back on our feet again, and for me it begins with the exchange of the Peace.
There is a story that comes to us from the desert tradition. There was an old woman who lived near a monastery, but she never saw any of the monks. One day, by chance, she saw a monk returning from a journey, so she approached him and asked: “What do you do in there all day?” He looked at her and replied: “We fall and get back up. We fall and get back up.”
For me, part of the getting back up involves a simple gesture and an equally simple word: the clasp of a hand, and a word of Peace.