Crown him the Lord of Peace…

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Updated on “Christ the King” Sunday, November 20, 2022.

ADDENDUM: Once again, we come to the end of the Liturgical Calendar. It is the “Last Sunday After Pentecost” more widely known as “Feast of Christ the King.” The blogpost below was written two years ago on this occasion at the end of “Year A.” We are now finishing “Year C” today, and starting next Sunday we begin all over again at “Year A.”

Last year on this occasion, I was asked to give the sermon at St. Martin’s Episcopal in Charlotte. (A few years ago, our Bishop – for reasons I still cannot quite explain – appointed me as a licensed “Lay Preacher” for the Diocese of North Carolina.) I’ve not done this before on this blog, but here is a link to that “Christ the King” service from a year ago and my sermon on the gospel lesson for Year B, from John 18:33-37. (The sermon starts at 16:49 of the video. https://youtu.be/aup9of0nb74 )

Original Post from November 22, 2020…

Today marks the last Sunday of the traditional church calendar year. Mainline liturgical churches start all over again next Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent (moving from “Year A” in the Common Lectionary into “Year B” for those keeping score). Traditionally this last Sunday After Pentecost is known as “Christ the King” Sunday, and indeed it is a time for reflecting on the passage of time, and a time to imagine the end of time, and how Christ Jesus is to establish his reign for all time.

In 2020, the concept of “king-ly” power on earth has become anachronistic at best. In America especially, the notion of a God-appointed monarchy and ruler (despite what might be suggested in some circles, thankfully isolated) is a particularly prickly subject. After all, our nation was founded by getting rid of a king’s power over our “free and independent states.”

Maybe that is one reason I find it difficult to wrap my heart and soul around the moniker “Christ The King.” Not only that, but beyond my contemptuous aversion against authoritarian monarchs of any stripe, the discussion of “Christ the King” is often presented as an apocalyptic story of that one cataclysmic day when suddenly “the Rhapsody will cometh” with lots of horsemen on fiery chariots and cherubim and seraphim singing endlessly to “the Lamb upon the throne.” Such an existence, regardless of all the “green screen” special effects that might have to come with it to keep up with the book of Revelation, might well be infinitely better in so many ways than our current state of being in 2020. Even so, my sardonic and distrustful lawyer-brain cannot come close to believing in a “second coming” that is somehow filled with the literal emptying of graves, accompanied with clouds of fire and the sun turning to black and seven angels with seven trumpets pouring out seven bowls of God’s wrath.

The older I get, the more I’m thinking that maybe the “second coming” of Christ, the establishment of “Christ’s Kingdom” has very little to do with what the world might look like when God tries to out-do the latest CGI and VFX in the next Avengers release. Rather, I am more and more drawn to a cock-eyed notion that the true “second coming” of Jesus has much more to do with what the world might be like powered by the force of Love.

When I get all worked up, as I often do, over the world’s absurdities and cruelties (especially these days with the inability or unwillingness of so many people accepting or even acknowledging facts that they might find unpleasant or inconvenient to their myopic selfishness), it comes to me as sheer Grace to be reminded of the kingdom that Jesus conveyed to his disciples and followers over and over again. Even standing condemned before Pilate, knowing surely that crucifixion lay ahead with the answer he was about to give, Jesus quietly and simply but defiantly replied to Pilate (and to the millenia of generations to follow) regarding the question of whether in fact he felt he was a king…

“My kingdom,” he said, “is not of this world.”

And so it is that followers of Jesus in this world, the only one we really know and are forced to walk around each day, are left to ponder what to do with this world. Can it be that THIS world – here and now – is the one that is to be built into the “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus spoke about so much while walking in this world?

I have heard it said that the term often translated in English Bibles as “Kingdom of Heaven” in the New Testament can also be translated as “Realm of Love.” If indeed that is the case, then THAT is something even my lawyer brain can not only accept, but fervently yearn will bring about an everlasting reign for “Christ the King,” a veritable “second coming” of tough, powerful, radical and relentless love.

An obscure verse from the traditional iconic hymn for this Sunday says it well, I think:

Crown Him the Lord of peace,
Whose power a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease,
And all be prayer and praise.
His reign shall know no end,
And round His pierced feet
Fair flowers of glory now extend
Their fragrance ever sweet.

Thy kingdom come.

…the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son.

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Today is a special day to remember and celebrate all those special people in our lives who now (to borrow a wonderful phrase of liturgy) “celebrate with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light.”

Yesterday was All Saints Day. Today is the lesser known companion feast of “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” The collect for this day contains one of the those small phrases of liturgy that can so easily be passed over, but sometimes just do not…

God, the Maker and Redeemer of all believers: Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Lighting candles on All Souls Day for “The Faithful Departed” is one of the many ways to celebrate and remember “those we love but see no longer.”

Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, celebrating “that vast multitude that no one can number,” the emphasis during All Souls Day is more personal, intended to honor a particular loved one or small set of intimate loved ones.

I’m not at all sure why exactly, but for some reason I’ve have been led to rediscover two other collects that at certain times have caused me to stop in my track, taking my breath away. Those times have are remembered for the blessing of hearing those prayers, said just in the right way and just at the right time, when the loss was overwhelming and I was in desperate need of some comforting assurance.

One is from the “Additional Prayers” that appears toward to the end The Burial for the Dead:

Father of all, we pray to you FOR THOSE WE LOVE, BUT SEE NO LONGER: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is another collect equally moving. Actually, it is heard not only in funeral services but often near the time of death of a loved one. As I’ve written in this blog, it cuts straight to the soul. It is a commendation for someone departing the “here and now” for the “There and Ever After.” It is a commission of sorts, an offering into God’s perfect providence a dear person who will be dearly missed:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant (Name). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive (her) into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.
Amen.

Today’s “Feast of the Faithful Departed” is often celebrated by such things as listening to music that a special loved one really enjoyed, or preparing and savoring the food they found especially satisfying, or maybe wearing an article of their clothing, or carrying a personal item they treasured.

Whether it is by any of these special activities or simply pausing for a meaningful moment of reflection and gratitude, may each of us — on this “All Souls Day” — be granted the good Grace to reflect upon those bountiful gifts of Grace that we received from those lovely and loving special persons “whom we love but see no longer.”

The glorious liberty to which you call all your children…

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Today (July 20) in the Episcopal Church calendar, we remember and honor and reflect upon the lives of four remarable women whom we VERY MUCH need to remembered right now.

Four remarkable women we rightly remember and honor, especially for these times, for much-needed “vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice…”

Especially this year and especially during these very troubling times of late, with so many feeling rightly supressed under the thumb of minority rule, the stories of ELIZABETH CADY STANTON, AMELIA BLOOMER, SOJOURNER TRUTH, and HARRIET TUBMAN shine as a lighthouse of hope and a testament to the power of prayer and persistence.

Each of these women, each in their own way, faced oppression and injustice and took whatever steps they could, whenever they could and however the could to liberate and uplift others, changing American history in the process.

The appointed collect on this “Feast Day for Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner and Harriet” is truly a prayer for our time:

O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free: Strengthen and sustain us as you did your servants Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give us vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which you call all your children; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

…may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace

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The writers of the Book of Common Prayer in their wisdom set aside a specific set of readings for this most secular of holidays, the fire-cracking, rocket-glaring, star-spangled Fourth of July! The appointed Gospel lesson for Independence Day comes from Matthew, and includes the essential admonition from Jesus to “love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:43-48)

On this 246th birthday of our nation, we Americans — especially those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers — have never been more in need of paying heed to this command so central to Jesus’ teachings and ministry. All four Gospels make inescapably clear that for Jesus this notion of loving enemies was not a quaint suggestion, but indeed a COMMAND — and there was nothing quaint about it. I confess that I often find that little fact horribly inconvenient, and to make matters worse, I’ve come to find that this command to love our enemies is far from impossible because it has very little to do with feelings beyond my control, and a lot to do with how we — how I — choose to act and respond and DO to others with whom I vehemently disagree.

That is especially hard, but especially good, for me to hear on THIS Independence Day.

Usually by mid-morning on Independence Day, I have wiped away more than a few tears of amazement and joy from my annual rereading and rehearing of Jefferson’s immortal words from 246 years ago that, quite literally, changed the world forever. The Declaration of Independence is, for me, the single most important political document ever composed — and the best damn “legal brief” I’ve ever read!

But I must confess that on this July 4, in the Year of our Lord 2022, my heart is much more laden with sad despair for this nation I love than bursting with hopeful joy.

This year, it has been hard for me to stir up great pride for an America that, far from being “one nation under God” is acting like a divided nation under a vocal minority making up rules on behalf of God.

It is quite true that America has always been a “republic” and not a true democracy. It is equally true, however, that our founders envisioned a republic as a need to protect against “the tyranny of the majority” not to establish an authoritarian “tyranny of the minority.”

For the short-term, if not the foreseeable long-term, the outlook for America looks even more fraught with despotic peril, not less. In short, it seems America has become much less American, especially in the last few weeks.

Make no mistake, America is today very much under MINORITY RULE. Consider that just forty U.S. Senators, representing barely more than one-third of all Americans, can — and often do — stop almost any legislation from becoming law, no matter how popular or needed it is. Five of the nine current Supreme Court Justices were nominated by a Presidents that failed to win the popular vote, and the last three given lifetime appointments by a razor-thin majority of Senators representing far less than a majority of Americans.

And so, I’m brought back to our appointed Gospel for this Independence Day, and the Jesus way of moving forward, i.e. the command (there’s that damn pesky word again) to “love your enemies, pray for those that persecute you.”

And so, yes, I will be praying A LOT for those whom I find disagreeable. And I will pray for grace to listen and learn from them. I want — I need — to find out why these fellow citizens and fellow Christians seem to want an America where it is far easier for a troubled teenager to obtain a high-volume assault weapon than it is for a competent adult woman to obtain reproductive health care. Persons of good will can certainly disagree on proper policy, but we should all agree to look honestly at what these current policies in fact are, and the consequences they cause.

Fortunately, the Collect appointed in our Prayer Book for this Independence Day indeed asks for that grace I so desperately need right now. It’s a good place to start:

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. <<

God bless America. We need those blessings now more than ever.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons…?

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Originally posted on Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021

Today is the feast of Pentecost.

While it does not get anywhere near the secular attention that Christmas or Easter garner, Pentecost is still a “biggie“ in the Christian tradition. That’s because it’s the big celebration of “The Holy Spirit” — that most mysterious portion of our mysterious and unfathomable triune God.

seek and serve ChristIt is often called the “birthday of the Church,” and commemorates the very strange appearance of the HS coming upon the disciples of first century Palestine, very soon after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Nobody knows exactly what happened on that particular morning, but the writer of Acts says it was “like the rush of a violent wind” with something like “tongues of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.” (Acts 2:1-4). Because of the day’s significance, a reciting of the “Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant” is often part of the Pentecost worship service.

As I’ve written before in this blog, this fairly modern liturgy of Baptismal renewal goes through a series of eight questions, the first three being corporate “we” affirmations of doctrinal beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed. The last five though are individual and specific, compelling the personal commitment of each believer and the promise of “I will, with God’s help.”

Four of those five specific questions have been covered in previous posts:

Will you continue in the Apostle’s teaching and the prayers…?

Will you persevere in resisting evil…?

Will you proclaim… the Good News…?

Will you…respect the dignity of every human being?

This last one, for my money at least, is the sine qua non of them all:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

It seems to me that this one personal commitment is the one that matters most, the one without which the other four really wouldn’t matter all that much. The depth of this question, if taken seriously, both expands the world view of a “Jesus follower” and compels a believer to bring it down to the most intimate and microcosmic view.

I believe that it is no accident that the writers of this liturgy purposely chose the term “Christ” as opposed to “Jesus.” Of course, the central tenet of the Christian faith is to believe that “Jesus is the Christ”inextricably intertwined.

But they are not synonymous.

Jesus is the human, the carpenter’s son turned itinerant preacher. Christ is the title, the fulfillment, the hope of humankind — as old as humankind itself — that God the Creator would be made manifest in humanity, thereby drawing all creation to its Self in unity with the Divine.

The first seven words of this question presume an astounding truth. That is, the assurance Christ is woven within every human being, without exception, and without regard to race or age or gender or nationality or status or for that matter one’s personal religion or faith. Paul spoke this Truth to the early church in Galatia that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Likewise, John writes the nascent churches in Asia that, far from being some stern celestial grandfather or vengeful prison warden, “God is love and whoever abides in love abides in god, and God abides in them.  God is love and all who live in love live in God and God abides in them.” (1 Jn. 4:16)

Maybe the simple, sweet words of that old hymn say it best and make this truth plain:

In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north; but one great fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide earth.

Such a truth, seems to me, leads then inevitably to the commitment encapsulated in the last five words of this quintessential question in the Baptismal Covenant, about ”loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus told a profound story once about being a “neighbor” that may be the best known of all his parables. I confess to taking some misguided and ill-advised  pride that it was a lawyer that led to Jesus sharing his story of the “Good Samaritan.” (Lk. 10:25-37) After correctly reciting the letter of the law to “love your neighbor as yourself,” this smart-ass barrister proves to Jesus he really doesn’t understand it. He attempts to slice and dice and parse the commandment, and asks Jesus a smart-ass technical question about the definition of “neighbor.”

“Yeah, but Teacher Jesus, really now…just who exactly qualifies as my ‘neighbor’?”

Of course, like the most evasive of witnesses, Jesus never really answers the lawyer’s question but rather tells the timeless story of a Jew being helped by a lowly Samaritan. There are hundreds of modern-day equivalents, whether someone in a BLM t-shirt being rescued by someone in a MAGA hat, to a Tar Heel picked up from a broken down car on 15-501 by a Duke fan.

Jesus is never interested in legal technicalities or strict definitions. Rather, we are led to a broad all-inclusive embrace that my “neighbor” comes to me in the form of whoever darkens my doorstep or crosses my path.

One last point about this most essential part of Baptismal Covenant. I often overlook the fact that Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” pretty much requires that I have to find a way to love myself, too — not at all an easy thing for me to do sometimes. There are things that I say to myself, with such vitriol and venom, that I would never say to any other human. Ever. Thus, this question in the Baptismal Covenant reminds me to ease up on myself, to cut myself as much slack as I would readily give to the guy in the apartment upstairs making a little noise, or a colleague or client missing a deadline, or a fellow parishioner for taking up that last space in the parking lot.

That’s why THIS part of the Baptismal Covenant, more than any other I think, merits the most earnest and hearty response: “I will, with God’s help.”

“… that we may be true as they were true, loyal as they were loyal

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(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Originally posted on May 31, 2014. Reposting for Memorial Day 2022, during a time of immense grief in America over the shooting deaths of 19 children in a south Texas elementary school. It is hard to imagine that any of the revered dead we honor on this Memorial Day weekend sacrificed their lives for the right of Americans to own weapons that can kill numerous other Americans very efficiently and effectively, in a short amount of time. Much easier to imagine that Wherever they are, they are grieving over our inability to do anything about it.)

Summer is here. Well maybe not officially in schools yet, but the dreaded slow “Summer Schedule” has taken over in most churches. While the old adage ithat “God never takes a vacation” is of course true (to which I can only quickly reply “Thank God!”), the plain fact is that God’s people do. And when they do, they tend not to attend church.

Dawn breaks at the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg.

Yesterday’s attendance at my parish on Memorial Day Weekend Sunday was sparse to say the least. And that’s a pity, because those absent would have heard an exquisitely poignant collect to commemorate the actual and original intent of this holiday. I asked the Celebrant afterwards about it, and she gave me her xeroxed copy. It’s not in the Book of Common Prayer, but rather from a book of collects for various occasions.

Now, I am not one to look down my nose at NASCAR and Indy races, beach trips and lake outings, or even a good retail “SALE!” or two. (Frankly, I wish I made more time to enjoy those distractions.) But it IS important, vital really, to indeed REMEMBER on Memorial Day, and to hold especially close in our hearts those men and women upon whose sacrifices we can enjoy such things.

Herewith then, the prayer yesterday that caught my breath so:

Almighty God, by whose grace thy people gain courage through looking unto the heroes of faith: We lift our hearts in gratitude to thee for all who have lived valiantly and died bravely that there might be truth, liberty and righteousness in our land. Help us to prize highly and guard carefully the gifts which their loyalty and devotions have bestowed upon us. Grant us the joy of a living and vigorous faith, that we may be true as they were true, loyal as they were loyal, and serve thee and our country selflessly all the days of our life, and at last receive the victor’s crown, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That we may know him (or her) who calls us each by name…

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Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day when the Church recognizes and rejoices, through scripture and hymns and prayers, the special guidance, sure protection, relentless pursuit and loving care of God and Christ as a “good shepherd.”  It is a metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testaments.

Jesus the Good Shepherd
…just like the Best. Mom. Ever!

It doesn’t happen often (Easter being a movable feast after all) but it does happen, when “Easter 4” falls on an early Sunday in May. For those special years, a marvelous combination of traditions occurs, when much of secular society celebrates “Mother’s Day.” It is a time of giving thanks and paying tribute to those special women in our lives who have supplied those same traits of a “good shepherd” — guiding, protecting and caring for each of us in unique, and uniquely needed, ways.

The psalm appointed for today is probably the best known of all psalms, the 23rd, proclaiming “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and praising a protective, attentive God providing all our real needs. The appointed Gospel speaks of Jesus as a shepherd who calls each of us his sheep by name, and whose voice we know. (John 10:22-30)

Even for those who — for any one of an infinite number of reasons — were not fortunate enough to have an earthly mother able to nurture them, many have been blessed with some motherly figure (sometimes more than one) who “shepherded” us through much of the “valleys” and “shadows of death” in our lives. It makes Mother’s Day a time of special significance.

It is an unusual joy, then, when church and secular calendars align just right, and we are called to focus an “attitude of gratitude” not just for our earthly moms but also our Heavenly Creator God. This awesome God (whom our patriarchal tradition often calls “Father” but Who of course transcends beyond all gender) so frequently reminds me of certain things, I think, if I could only be more open to them. Despite my cynical lawyer’s streak, I am coming to believe more and more that we are indeed creatures of Love, created for Love by a Creator Who is Love, and Who wraps perfectly loving arms around each precious creature…just like the Best. Mom. Ever!

Growing up, somehow I could pick out my mom’s voice over all other voices whenever she cried out to me, especially when calling me by name. (If ever my middle name was included, I knew I had better come running!) I suspect I am not alone in having such precious memories. So it is not surprising that today’s collect for this Good Shepherd Sunday, with its special timing this year honoring all moms, earthly and heavenly, bears special resonance.

“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

…so we may await with him the coming of the third day

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(Originally published for Holy Saturday, April 2014.)

The collect from the very sparse Holy Saturday liturgy says a lot about this “in between” day...

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the
crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and
rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the
coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of
life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The rubrics of the Prayer Book are very clear. No Eucharist today. There is to be one and only one service before tonight’s Easter Vigil, with a worrisome Gospel reading from Matthew 27 that speaks of Jesus’ dead body being moved into the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate sending soldiers going to seal the stone that covered it and to “make it as secure as you can.” And Matthew also writes “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb” (Matt 27:61).  

In the face of death, that’s often the only human thing we can do — sit in grief-stricken paralysis, in awe and uncertainty.

One spring morning many years ago, I was at the breakfast table sipping my coffee as my then-young son munched his cereal in his high chair. I opened the paper to see that a local judge had died the day before, after a long and painful battle with cancer. Instinctively, I moaned “oh” and my son looked up to inquire, “What wrong, daddy?” As best I remember, I think I tried to explain to him how daddy knew this lady who had been very sick, and died, and had gone to heaven, but daddy was still sad because he would miss his friend.

Mainly, what I recall is muttering some miserable mess trying to clarify to a child something no adult can truly understand.

Even so, my 4-year old took all this in and seemed to be satisfied and took another scoop of his cereal. After a few seconds, though, he looked up and asked, “Daddy, does she feel better?”  In an instant, my muddled confusion was wiped away and replaced with an absolute rock-solid answer I could give him with unquestioned certainty, albeit now with a flushed face and choked voice: “Yeah big guy… She feels better.

There is an awful lot that my lawyer’s brain can’t wrap around during these mysterious high Holy Days leading up to Easter. But here is what I can grasp — something (or Something or Some One?) has grabbed hold of me. And despite my very best (or worst) rebellious stubborn efforts sometimes, this Mystery does NOT let go.  

Lord knows (literally?) that I have more than a few doubts about the nature of God (“My ways are not your ways, sayeth The Lord…“). But here is what I do know, if for no other reason that I have felt it and experienced it so deeply in my life: Whatever God is, God ISand He/She/They/It is relentless.

For reasons far beyond my understanding tears well up while I write such things. They are tears of hope, regret, sorrow, wonder, joy. Perhaps most of all, they are tears reflecting a desperate need and deep desire for it all to be indeed true.

So, not unlike the women sitting across from the tomb, I too wait and wonder what comes next, and just how God is going to act in my life and in this broken world.  And I wonder even more how I might respond, not yet understanding just how near Our Lord of Resurrection might be.

“…born of the Virgin Mary”

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(Originally posted in April 2014.  Updated, edited and reposted for the Feast of the Annunciation, 2022.)

Today, March 25, the church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, a fact that normally escapes my attention most every March 25th, and it most certainly did in 2014. (After all, there’s not much need for me to note “Just nine more shopping months ’til Christmas!”) But 3/25 on the 2014 calendar “just happened” to come on a Tuesday, and on that particular Tuesday I “just happened” to make it to the small Tuesday evening Eucharist celebrated each week in my home parish. The Celebrant, The Rev. Lisa Saunders, “just happened” to inform the dozen or so assembled faithful about that day’s significance.

Gabriel's "perplexing" proposal to a young girl... A lot riding on her answer!

Gabriel delivers a “perplexing” proposal to a young girl… with a lot riding on her answer.

That particular Lent, Mary was on my mind – a lot.

Maybe I was just taken by the Gospel reading about Gabriel’s surprise visit to this young Nazarene girl.  Standing before an Archangel, I’m not t all sure I would react with Mary’s sanguine aplomb at some other-worldly being suddenly appearing before me with a hearty, “Greetings, favored one!”

Being “perplexed” would be the least of my reactions. Call me faithless and crazy but I’m thinking Gabe’s reassurance that “The Lord is with you” would somehow strike me as less than reassuring.

Whatever the reason, the term “…born of the Virgin Mary” has now become one of those phrases that just seems to jump out during the liturgy. It is important to note that the term which is often translated to “virgin” in English simply connotes a young unmarried woman of child-bearing age. Most scholars agree that the term in original scripture says more to being a “maiden” than any statement about sexual “purity.”  Regardless, it is her obedience, her surrender, her willingness to walk the unknowable path of the Unknown that has taken more and more of a focus this particular Lent.

As she stood there pondering this sudden proposal from some strange messenger claiming to speak for the Omnipotent Creator, Mary could never have known what all was to come. Indeed, if we as God’s children truly do have God’s awful gift of free will, I wonder sometimes if God actually knew what all was to come?

I love Frederick Buechner’s take on Gabriel’s task in selling Mary on the whole idea…

“(Mary) struck the angel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it…
As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
(Luke 1:26-35)

— from Peculiar Treasures

I can never know the anguish, angst and anxiety that a mother feels watching her son take a fearful path. I have witnessed it, though, in my own mother, in the lives of some women I’ve been blessed to know in my life, and in the mother of my own son. It may not be the pain of nails that pierce flesh and bone, but it is searing pain nonetheless and it deeply pierces the human heart.

Jesus’ decision to go to the cross was a sacrifice willingly made, thanks be to God. Mary’s unspeakable sorrow and suffering, watching her child endure that cross, was not.

…that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness…

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(Originally written last year, February 2021. Updated to reflect changes in Covid status and the current war in Ukraine.)

Ash Wednesday is not a day for high self-esteem.

In the centuries-old tradition of Lent, we strange Christians begin this forty-day season of penitence, preparing for the joy of Easter by submitting – however hesitantly – to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we, ALL of us, are really just passing through.

Ash Wednesday 1“You are dust,” the priest reminds each one of the assembled, one by one.  And just to make the point clear, ashen dust is smeared on each forehead in the sign of a cross.  “…And to dust you shall return.”

That’s in normal times, of course, not Covid times.  Last year, that little uplifting ritual was self-imposed.  As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in countless scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and, all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them, from whence they came and their inevitable destination. This year, 2022, the outlook pandemic-wise may have lightened a little — at least enough for in-person services with actual cold dead ashes on actual live warm foreheads — but the world outlook is FAR from improved as Russian troops bear down on Ukraine.

Whoopee!

This dismal exercise is meant to set the stage for a reflective, more intentional and “penitent” Lent.  Today’s virtual service began — like any other year — with no introductory fanfare of any kind, no processional music, no opening acclamation or liturgical response; just a silent slow procession through the (for now empty) church sanctuary.

For me, the opening collect of Ash Wednesday paints a distressing portrait of humankind’s depraved state and utter need for redemption:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who ae penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Before we are smudged with ashes and once again given our yearly instruction regarding our dusty ancestry and legacy, the Ash Wednesday liturgy calls for the Celebrant to pray with words lifted from Psalm 51, beseeching God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts” while we go about “worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness.”

And yet, amidst all this lamentation, there are reminders not just of our desperate need for redemption, but thankfully God’s eager yearning to offer it.

Thus, for all its solemnity and breast-beating, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is an invitation, and a glorious one at that.

If I can somehow focus my feeble five-second attention with a faithful more-focused intention for the next forty days (thankfully we get Sundays off), then such a Lenten journey just might crack open a mysterious door a little wider.  Lord knows what is on the other side of that door.  On this side is the fervent hope of a “perfect remission and forgiveness” from an “Almighty and Everlasting God” who indeed “hates NOTHING”…not even a frenetic and distracted and sometimes disillusioned cynical lawyer who too-often seems more concerned with finding answers instead of just accepting gifts.

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…for those we love but see no longer.

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One of the greatest gifts of liturgy, much like a powerful poem or memorable speech, is the way a simple succinct phrase within it can sometimes reveal a depth of experience or emotion that is almost beyond words to truly capture. Just a few words, expressed in just the right way at just the right time in just the right circumstances, can express an intimate knowledge and awareness that says to the hearer “I think I know some of what you are feeling, what you are going through…I’ve been there.”

One such phrase comes within one of the “Additional Prayers” that appear toward to the end of the pastoral service for the The Burial of the Dead:

Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Those eight words “for those we love, but see no longer” capture for me all the tender and bittersweet emotions for those persons especially dear who have ended their time on this planet, and yet still very much alive in my heart. Those eight words speak of special loved ones never again to be gazed upon this side of paradise, except in the mind’s eye and perhaps glimpsed in the most fortunate and happiest dreams.

Earlier this week, on November 1, many liturgical churches celebrated the “Feast of All Saints” most often referred to as “All Saints Day.” It is considered one of the high holy days of the Anglican tradition and is a time to pause and pay special attention to that “great cloud of witnesses” that have come and gone before us on this earthly journey. Often in the All Saints Day service, the names of all the parishioners who have died in the previous year are read aloud, one by one, as a way of remembrance.

The next day, November 2, is the companion feast of “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” It is more widely recognized in Latin America than the United States. Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, celebrating “that vast multitude that no one can number,” the emphasis during All Souls Day is more personal, intended to honor a particular loved one or small set of intimate loved ones. The Feast of the Faithful Departed is celebrated with such things as listening to music they especially liked, or preparing and enjoying the food they found especially satisfying, or wearing an article of their clothing or carrying a personal item they treasured. It is a common practice to place a picture of the departed by a candle for the day.

Most often in most Episcopal churches in the U.S., the two days are celebrated as one on “All Saints Sunday” — which happens to be today. It seems an especially appropriate time then to embrace such a prayer as the one above, and indeed, to let it embrace us.

Upon another shore and in a greater light…

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(Originally posted December 22, 2013)*

One small voice, belonging to a 12-year old boy, begins to sing…

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

Other young boys join in, followed by the full choir, followed by the congregation, as the throng of Choristers and Acolytes and Priests make their way forward…

One small, young voice... ushers in the best worship service on the planet. One small, young voice… ushers in the best worship service on the planet.  (Click HERE.)

The place is Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. The time is a minute or two after 3 p.m. London time on Christmas Eve. The occasion is “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.”  And for this crusty curmudgeon, it is, quite simply, the best worship service on the planet. Continue reading