“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.
1 John 4:7 – 12
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Mark 6: 30 – 44
Those of you who have heard me preach before know that when reading Scripture, my attention is often caught, not by the soaring passages, or the amazing miracles, but the details that often creep in around the edge. Yes, the majesty of the Prologue of John, or the poignancy of the Foot Washing at the Last Supper, or the beauty of the Psalms are not to be missed. However, there is more to Scripture than majesty, poignancy and beauty. There is also the ordinary routine of daily living. It is there, in the ordinary routine of daily living, that God can be found as well. And that is why I am drawn, not to the miracle of the loaves and the fish, but to what comes before.
Chapter Six in the Gospel according to Mark is one of those breathless sections of Mark. A lot happens, and I mean a lot. It begins with Jesus’ rejection by his hometown and carries on to the sending out of the Twelve on their mission, the dance of Herodias and the death of John the Baptist, the return of the Twelve from their mission, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the calming of the sea, and there arrival at Gennesaret. As I mentioned, in 56 breathless verses, Mark crams in an awful lot of action, so much so, that if it were read all at once, our heads would be spinning!
As you may know, this kind of concentrated action is typical of Mark’s Gospel. It reminds me of an excited child coming home from a great adventure trying to condense a whole day’s activity into a few sentences: and then we did this! Then we did that! Then this other thing happened! Then, guess what happened???!!!
Human beings have evolved in such a way that we do most of our sleeping at night. Under normal circumstances, even so-called “night owls” tend not to stay awake all night long without very good reason. Physical pain, insomnia, or intense anxiety may banish sleep from our eyes, but so also might sheer anticipation or overwhelming joy. A sense of urgency may compel us to remain awake, when something or someone simply cannot or will not wait until morning: a newborn infant, a dying friend, or an impending deadline. Night may afford a precious window of opportunity, when the world is quiet and we are unburdened by the duties of our waking hours. Artists, writers, musicians, aspiring comedians: all these know a form of passionate asceticism as they labor at their primary vocation long into the night, especially if they work during the day at other paid professions. And night has always been a sacred time for lovers of all sorts, giddy with the rush of newfound or newly rekindled intimacy. The night hours become an inner sanctum of privacy enfolding the union of lover and beloved.
In today’s gospel lesson we encounter one of the few, tantalizing glimpses of the nocturnal life of Jesus – who loses sleep for the love of God.
“Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
In one line, Luke’s subtle highlights and shadows render not just a person, but a personality. In Luke’s many portraits of Jesus, we meet a man who is drawn into intimate, moment by moment communion with the God he knew as Father. We encounter a person filled with power by the Spirit of God, led by the Spirit to astonishing new heights and depths of self-offering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Luke’s Jesus spends the whole night in prayer.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 16:19-31
Our first reading today is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Over time, Jeremiah has garnered for himself the nickname, “The Weeping Prophet.” He’s earned it. Called to be a prophet at an early age, he is initially reluctant, but trusts in God, and diligently urges his people toward repentance. They don’t listen, and respond with dismissiveness, hostility, and violence. As such, the disaster Jeremiah has been foretelling comes true; the armies of Babylon come and overthrow the houses of Israel and Judah. Jerusalem is captured, and the Temple is destroyed. Jeremiah is cast into exile in Egypt, where he dies, estranged from his homeland and his people. He can do nothing but lament; he has no other option but to weep in the desert.
When Jeremiah tells us, then, that the one who trusts in God shall be like a tree planted by water, unafraid of the drought, still producing fruit, it is reasonable to ask, “Where is Jeremiah’s river? Where is his fruit?” His life appears to be a drought, from start to finish. Does Jeremiah condemn or contradict himself? Where are the waters to cool his scorched tongue?
It is further reasonable to ask this about ourselves. When we are in seasons of drought, when we are striving our hardest to live in faithfulness to God rather than to the flesh, it makes sense to say, “I feel like I’m withering; where is my fruit? I feel like I’m in the desert; where is my river? I’m a poor beggar and sore all over; where is the refreshing water to cool my tongue?” Indeed, it can be difficult to offer any prayer at all in this state of mind. When the tongue is dry, when the lips are cracked, it is a great, even painful effort to speak. We may feel we are living in the poverty of Lazarus, and yet receiving the treatment of the rich man, begging for a cool drink. Not only the mouth, but the soul itself may be parched. In the desert of Lent, we are especially prone to this drought. How, then, can we pray?
Here, Jeremiah’s story is instructive. The lament, the weeping, the tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment. These tears are rain to the thirsty land, the wellspring of the river of life in the midst of the desert, the water that soothes the dry mouth and the tormented soul.
“Jesus wept” is the most iconic depiction of the tears of grief leading to life; Christ’s tears both show his human sorrow and foreshadow the abundance of life that will literally burst forth from the earth at the resurrection of Lazarus. Hagar’s tears in the wilderness after she and her son had run out of water are met with God revealing a well. Writing around the year 600, the monastic saint John Climacus wrote in his Ladder of Divine Ascent that, “Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears…If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find. Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears, shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted.” St. Symeon the New Theologian, another monk, writing at the end of the 10th century, argued that holy weeping is a recurring gift of immersion in the waters of baptism, cleansing us and giving us life whenever we are bathed in our tears. Tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment; they are a sign of repentance, a sign of sorrow for the world, a sign of awe, a sign of love. They are the waters within, just waiting to course through the desert when words are too much and not enough.
We are in Lent. It is the season of the drought. We can look around and see plentiful sorrow, and we may be unable to fix it. We may find no words, no actions, are sufficient to dress the wounds of the world. So, take heart; do not shun your tears. Do not be ashamed or afraid or dismissive of weeping, for when the heat of the desert seeps into our bones, tears can be living water.
I sometimes reflect on living the monastic life – how all-consuming it can be. There is always the next thing, and it can be very demanding. But the other week I was talking to my niece Katharine. She had a baby last year and she adores him, but she was telling me what hard work it is – day and night looking after a young child, on call 24 hours a day. Many of you will have had that experience and know exactly what it is like.
I remember a remarkable woman in my parish in England. She had five young children. When I used to visit there it was a maelstrom as they all came bounding up to the front door to greet me. So much energy! So much noise! I said to her once, “Gosh, how do you manage? How do you cope?” She said, “Well, I’ll show you.” We went into the hall and she opened the walk-in cupboard under the stairs, where most people stored their vacuum cleaners. I looked in, and there was a cushion on the floor and a candle. She said, “Every morning I go in there for 20 minutes, and spend time with God.” The children all knew that that was Mum’s special time. In fact, she put a sign on the door when she was in there. The children would never disturb her for those precious 20 minutes. “And that,” she said, “is what keeps me not just sane, but actually very happy.”
Who is more important? We compare power and privilege, background, connection, skill and status. Earlier in the chapter for today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples asked: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”[i] What’s the top which then defines the whole, including us? We wrestle for rank and worry about worth.
Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[ii] Become like children. Change your perspective. Rather than seeking power, skill, and status, acknowledge your need. Ask for help. Let yourself be helped and held. Relish wonder and love without embarrassment. Experiment, imagine, and playfully discover new ways of being. Gaze, dance, build, and fly. Become like children.
Who is more important? Each one. “Welcome one such child in my name, and you welcome me,” says Jesus. Woe to any who would “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus warns. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.”[iii]
Jane was a member of my congregation when I was a parish priest in England. She was a remarkable woman with great faith, but who had suffered so much over the past years as her husband struggled with cancer. She was brave, courageous, resilient, but it was clear the light had gone out of her life. But I remember, on one New Year’s Day, she came up to me in church and said, “Geoffrey, I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution – or rather a new year’s prayer.” I remember thinking, O good – maybe she’s going to travel or get a new job. “No, she said, not that. I’m going to ask God for JOY again in my life. I want the gift of JOY.”
I’d never heard anyone say that to me before – but I can honestly say that God did answer her prayer, and as the year went on, I saw her come alive again. God gave her the gift of joy. It was beautiful to see.
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.
I stood by her hospital bed with family and friends, feeling as powerless spiritually as was she, physically and emotionally. Almost everything was broken and much rendered paralyzed, save the life-altering words from Communion Under Special Circumstances: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” “Abide in me and I in you.” She said they were comforting words because the only thing left she could do was “abide,” and the only medicine that could heal her broken limbs and nerves was the body and blood of Jesus.