Today is the Feast Day of “St. Thomas the Apostle” and each year, just four days before Christmas, it is meant to remind followers in the church about the importance of faith. The collect for the day invokes our need this way:
Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Of all the lovely prayers in the Episcopal liturgy, today’s collect is definitely not my favorite. Any human with half a brain who prays for a belief that is “perfect and without doubt” knows that it is a petition akin to praying to Santa for the ability to fly… and then go into a coma.
For to have a faith without any doubt is 1 – not humanly possible (at least for those humans that would prefer to rise above robot status); and 2 – a recipe for stagnation. After all, once a human “achieves” such “perfect belief” status, how can there room for further growth?
I have never been comfortable with the idea that being a “doubting Thomas” is a bad thing. (It is probably the “raging agnostic” trial lawyer in me.) Sometimes, it’s good to be a little skeptical, especially if the news is “too good to be true.” And that was certainly the case with Thomas after being told the “goodest” of all good news that humankind has ever been told, that “The Lord is risen!” (Jn. 20::19-29)
Thomas understood the benefits of healthy skepticism when he made his proclamation to his fellow disciples that he would not (perhaps he could not) believe in such a grand thing. The disciples had shared that his friend and teacher Jesus, who a day earlier hung dead as a door-stop on a Roman cross, had just popped in for a quick visit with them as they cowered behind closed doors “in fear of the Jews.” We don’t know where exactly Thomas was when Jesus first appeared, but he was not there hiding out with them, afraid, behind locked doors.
Jesus understood Thomas’ reluctance too, I think, and that his hesitation may not have been based on the fear that his disciple brothers were playing some sadistic practical joke. Rather, Jesus could fully comprehend that Thomas’ fear about this incredible story was that it was in fact real and true.
And if true, it was the ultimate of all Reality and it would change EVERYTHING!
Maybe that is why Jesus was so compassionate when he reappeared to the disciples a week later. This time, Thomas was present. Far firm admonishing this deep thinker, Jesus simply beckoned Thomas to reach out his hands and touch his wounds.
During this Christmastide, on this darkest day of the year, could it be that Jesus beckons still? And that the invitation to Thomas is our invitation too? And that the path to having a faith “that is never found wanting” may start by touching the wounds of this world, and of those around us, and by acknowledging and attending to our own wounds?
And in so doing, believing that somehow we are touching the Son of God?
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.
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.
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.”
(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 IS… and 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.
As both a courtroom advocate and civil mediator, I have learned through the years that there are few “declarative” statements more powerful than a tough honest question.
An entire trial can turn on the right question being asked of the right witness at the right time. Likewise, the most intransient “dug in“ positions of the most hostile opponents can be altered by a skilled mediator asking a probing question that has yet to be fully considered.
It so happens that this past Sunday, many worshipers in many congregations worldwide heard one of the most important and insightful questions Jesus ever asked. The appointed Gospel for this week was taken from the most earthy and direct of the four Gospels, Mark. In its 10th chapter, the writer of Mark tells the story of Jesus leaving the ancient revered city of Jericho, where a few centuries earlier the city walls came a-tumbling down. Jesus and the large crowd that followed him come upon a person who – before this episode – the world held in a little account, a “blind beggar” named Bartimaeus.
As the crowd comes closer, this sightless destitute begins shouting at Jesus, calling him by name and the messianic title “Son of David” and beseeching Jesus to “Have mercy on me!” At first, the crowd tries to shut him up, but old “Blind Bart” yells all the more loudly, “SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!!!” Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call him forward. Bartimaeus immediately, springs forward, casting aside his cloak and somehow makes his way to Jesus.
It is at that moment that Jesus asks him the question. On one level it seems absurd, maybe even a little mocking or cruel. In reality, it reveals layer upon layer of insight, probing the depths of not only human nature but into the nature and mystery of Jesus himself.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar.
This question would be a lot easier for me and my cynical trial lawyer self if I could keep it at arm’s length, a rhetorical question asked to a different person in different circumstances “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But there is something nagging and gnawing, Some Thing beckoning within that will not let me escape the terrifying liberation of knowing that question is not just for Blind Bart. It is for ME. It is not only for me of course, but for anyone willing to listen and dare be so bold to answer. Regardless, I can’t answer it for anyone else, and no one else can answer it for me.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. For Bartimaeus, the answer was “I want to see again,” which I do not think for a minute he meant to be limited to the repairing of his optic nerves. What we do know is that Bart was in fact healed, probably had 20-20 vision (spiritual as well as physical) without benefit of Lasik surgery, and “followed Jesus along the way.” This blind beggar of little account became so important to the early believers that his story is included not only in Mark (10:46-52) but also later in Matthew (20:29-34) and Luke (18:35-43).
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. I don’t have my answer yet. Sometimes, I know my answer (at least in attitude, even if too fearful to express it otherwise) is to just leave me alone.
That’s the one request Jesus seems to have no interest in granting.
Every several years or so, I seem to get reminded from Lord knows where (a phrase that uncomfortably seems more literal sometimes than just a figure of speech) that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation.
It always occurs exactly nine months before the ”Feast of the Nativity” a/k/a Christmas Day. (Go figure.)
The day celebrates the account in Luke’s Gospel of the young maiden Mary, and her surprising visit by the angel Gabriel…and his even more surprising message that she had been appointed to offer human birth to the son of God.
It usually comes in the middle of Lent, a few days or weeks before Easter. It is a time (as said so wonderfully by Canon Rose Duncan at the Washington National Cathedral this morning) of “wombs and tombs, beginnings and endings, births and deaths.”
Regardless of what faith we might profess, or if we follow no organized religion at all, it seems that in every life it is inevitable to face times of real decision, of moving one way or the other, of following a path pointed this uncertain way or that, or maybe just staying put – frozen and hesitant – and making the decision of no decision. And in that sense, the story of Mary and her annunciation is, in absolute fact, a universal human story.
A few years back, I was also totally surprised by the Feast of the Annunciation one March 25. It led me (as these things tend to do) to pour a nice single malt and start writing, and wondering how that same God who beckoned a young girl to change the world forever might also be beckoning me.
(For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Generally speaking, we Episcopalians are not particularly known for our proclamations. Near the top of my list of favorite oxymorons (slightly ahead of “corporate culture” and “military intelligence,” but behind “Justice Thomas”) is “Episcopal evangelism.” It’s typically just not our style, which makes this third question of the Baptismal Covenant a bit problematic for many of us, at least for me.
I’m not at all sure why that is exactly, but a story by southern novelist Clyde Edgerton that he read here in Charlotte a few years back from one of his books offers a humorous clue. The scene was about an old man and a boy one Sunday morning on the front porch of a general store in Macon, Georgia. The old man is rocking while reading the Sunday paper, as the boy plays with baseball cards on the steps and a church bell rings out to signal the end of the service of the church across the street. “Look at them Episcopalians there, boy,” says the old man looking up from his paper and taking his reading specs off to watch the acolytes take the cross and candles around back to the sacristy and the priest in his vestments greet the parishioners recessing out into the humid air. “You know, there ain’t nothin‘ Episcopalians wouldn’t do for the love of God,” the man tells the boy, “…exceptin’ if it was tacky.”
That story is funny because in so many ways — at least in regards to this Episcopalian — it is so true. Why else, if not for fear of my being “tacky” would I feel the least twinge about the commitment to “proclaim…the good news”? It’s not that I am a particularly shy person, Lord knows. Indeed, family and friends would “proclaim” that I am most assuredly not. Nor am I all that shy about claiming to be Christian; I write this blog on the liturgy after all, and am a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of North Carolina.
Why so shy?
The hesitancy, the twinge, the “shyness” (such that it is) in my proclaiming anything about Christianity is mainly because, I confess, I just don’t want to be associated with “those” kind of Christians…you know, the ones with a lot of hairspray.
I try not to look down my nose at those good church-going folks who fill big NBA-sized arenas to hear the word of ”JEE-YAH-UH-ZUSS” shouted at them with all the cock-sure certainty of used car dealers whose sole task and desire is “closing the sale.” I try, I really do. Those mega-churches do fill an obvious need for those that flock to them. Even so, I fail miserably most of the time.
And then there are the “Christians” for whom the term “tacky” seems for me far too benign. These are the folks who seem hellbent (an adjective chosen with care) on making sure that the “club“ of Christianity remains exclusive. You are either “in“ (i.e., you have at some point repeated a magic prayer and have been “saved“), or you have not and are therefore “out.” They seem not the least bit shy in proclaiming loudly their “Christian” views of what the Almighty most certainly dictated about a number of current issues — abortion, guns, welfare, the border, school prayer, child adoption by LGBTQ parents and a heavenly host of other matters not really mentioned specifically in Scripture. The absence of specific, literal guidance does not at all prevent these “Christians” from offering specific and literal guidance as to what beyond all doubt and discussion Jesus wants. The problem is, most of the time, those views do not sound a whole lot like the Jesus I read in the Gospels.
If “proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ” means being associated with those “Christians,” I just as soon take a pass on that part of the Baptismal Covenant.
The problem is…
There is a significant drawback to my timidity, though, besides the obvious flaws that it is snobbish and snooty, and well, timid, in a time when I believe our faith calls for boldness. That huge flaw is the inescapable fact that being a true follower of Jesus, by today’s earthly standards anyway, is pretty damn nutty. Let’s leave aside for a second the whole Nativity legend of virgin birth and heavenly beings appearing to Joseph (in one Gospel, but none of the others) and to Mary and Shepherds (in another Gospel, but none of the others). Let’s not even dwell on the main point of the Baby Jesus legend — the Omnipotent Yahweh of Creation, now appearing as a helpless bastard infant born to a poor oppressed girl with confused boyfriend in a Bethlehem stable.
Instead, let’s just look on the central message of the adult Jesus. His word and example was — and to believers very much IS — a loud proclamation that God’s overwhelming healing Love for each of us is lavish, undeserved, illogical and radical. And Jesus’ primary command to us — to love God and neighbor — means that followers who take him seriously must forgive attacks on them over and over and over again, and actually do good to any and all folks who abuse us. We are instructed to pray to God like a neighbor banging on your door late at night wanting some beer and snacks for some friends who dropped by. To “proclaim the Good News” we are told both requires and leads us to care about and show love for our most hateful enemies. In a world of self-esteem, self-image and self-actualization, we are told we must lose ourselves in order to save ourselves.
Such counter-cultural thinking is not always appreciated in pop culture, high society or the academic towers. So yeah, there’s a real risk of Christians in general and Lord forbid Episcopalians in particular of being seen as kind of weird, a little crazy, and even <gasp > tacky. Episcopalians need to get over it. To be more precise, I need to get over it.
Getting over it.
Ever so slowly, and with a lot of fake-it-til-you-make practice, I‘m finding my lawyer-brained, bet-hedging self more and more able to share in my crazy and tacky beliefs. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – Biblical scholar and firebrand preacher all rolled into one — is helping me “get over it” when he writes a book he unapologetically entitles, “Crazy Christians.” He helps me further with his latest book (written just before the latest pandemic and racial upheaval and civil unrest, and released during the midst of them) that is premised on the ”crazy” but somehow absolutely true — and even empirically logical — notion that “Love Is The Only Way.”
Regardless of all the twists and turns and causes along the journey, I find myself more able — sometimes even willing and eager — to proclaim (even if more by word than example for now) that I have had these grand moments along the way, from “Lord knows” where. And those moments have been so grand and have given a small glimpse of a Divine Goodness beyond all human goodness, a Universal Beauty beyond all earthly beauty, and most of all an Infinite Unfathomable Love far beyond my ability to comprehend, or to resist. What small comprehension I can manage, though, inevitably leads me to person of Jesus of Nazareth as human embodiment of that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love. And who even now — two millennia later and with countless generous of “Christians” who have done their damnedest to muck things up — remains still Jesus the Christ, the Unifier and Healer of all living things.
Just this morning, after most of the above had been written, I happened to see an online sermon from one of my favorite priests preaching about today’s Gospel (John 3:14-21) for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, focusing on what it means to live as a Jesus-follower “in the light” versus trying to be a Christian hidden “in the dark.” He posed a question that his been gnawing at me all day, and seemed as good as any way to conclude: “Who is protected by keeping your faith a private affair?”
Regardless of my constant misgivings of doubts, uncertainties and silly concerns, I would do well to ask, whenever I hedge or hesitate to “…proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,“ … Who indeed am I trying to protect? If I’m honest, I’ll have to admit it is probably me.
In the appointed collect for today the worldwide Anglican Communion beseeched (don’t you just love that word?) God to “make us love what You command.”
>> Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. <<
One of the things that I’ve always admired in our collects is the sense of immediacy and intimacy in most of them. In that sense, they tend to model The Lord’s Prayer, in that there’s not a “Please” or request to “help us to…” to be found. Rather the best collects — just like the prayer that Jesus recited when his followers asked him how to best pray — is filled with imperatives to a Loving Omnipotent God. These urgent urgings to our Divine Creator have a power implied in them that we are, somehow, worthy to lay such demands before The Almighty. Even more than that though, there is also a sense that we dare speak to The Source of All Caring with a faith that our God is not just able to do such good things for us, but is also eager to do them, and eager for us to ask for such bold and audacious things.
But just like the Pharisees and lawyer in today’s Gospel (Matt. 22:34-46), so too am I tempted to ask the evasive, miss-the-big-point, follow-up question: “Yeah, Lord, but what — exactly — fits in that category of ‘what You command’ that we are supposed to love”? (At this point, I can only imagine collective “shaking their heads” among the Heavenly Hosts.). Fortunately, especially for those “cut to the chase” types like myself, Jesus tells us with in essence a one-word answer, LOVE.
Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s pretty much it.
A transformative light-switch was turned on for me a few years ago. I confess to being an unapologetic Anglophile, with a deep affection for words. More particularly, I am enthralled and passionate about “the right word” that makes all the difference, as Mark Twain once quipped between “lightning, and a lighting bug.” Such a difference comes with the different meanings assigned to the same word – that poor, overburdened, little four letter English word, LOVE. So often, especially in modern American culture, “love” is a noun, describing a feeling of attachment or affection. But in the Jesus Movement, I have grown persuaded that “love” is a VERB.
Not sure about anyone else, but for me at least, when I began to fathom that for Jesus, love is about ACTION, things became much more fathomable. That is the only way that the clear command to “love your enemies” makes sense and becomes real. Warm fuzzy feelings have next to nothing to do with it. Even though I might be disgusted by, and pissed off at, someone (often myself), I am still able to love them, to ACT lovingly toward them.
Mama Gump told Forrest over and over, “Stupid is, as stupid does.” She might well have added the additional wise words that “Love is, as love does.”
Sometimes simple things are all I can handle. LOVE. That’s it. Love what God loves, and remember love is a verb.
The First Sunday after Christmas Day is often called “Low Sunday” because attendance in Episcopal churches is typically sparse at best. Folks that amble into the wide availability of pews can be forgiven for wondering if “The Rapture” has come and somehow they’ve been “left behind.”
And that’s a pity, because there is an abundance of joyful reminders of Emmanuel, God With Us. Indeed, the opening collect is one of the most meaningful in the Prayer Book, bursting with layer upon layer of truth and significance:
“God of God, Light from Light Eternal”
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
That image, of a “new light” being “poured upon us,” evokes for me here in the dead of winter the warm thoughts of simply basking in the brightest of sunlight that offer comforting heat but does not blister or burn, sunlight that leaves no shadow nor room for any darkness.
Such light, as we are told in the collect, is the light of the “incarnate Word,” echoing the word so expressively presented in the opening sentences of The Gospel of John, the appointed Gospel for this first Sunday following Christmas Day:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (Jn. 1:1)
The writer of John was not so much a biographer as a free-verse poet, presenting the Oneness of Jesus with God and Creation more than promoting any legend about the man. There are no shepherds in the Nativity story for John, no Wise Men, no “angels we have heard on high,” not even a stable. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not so much born as Jesus simply is, from before time and for eternity, the Logos Incarnate, the “Word made flesh.” For John, to begin his version of THE Story — above all stories — in this way, was meant, I think, to drive home the point that Jesus was present from the start, because logos was present from the start. The Jesus of John manifests the Highest and Best and Ultimate of humankind, merged with the Divine Force of the vast cosmos. Logos in the flesh.
And now that this Word has taken human form, shedding its “new light” on a dark world, this lovely opening Collect reminded me that it is lavishly, extravagantly, ceaselessly “poured upon us.”
Only on rare occasion do I allow myself to comprehend such a fantastic thing. I’m not sure why that is exactly, except that if I take seriously the notion, allow it really to penetrate this hardened and scarred lawyer’s heart, I fear the sheer overwhelming Goodness of “the Good News” can cause my all too human heart to burst, not merely be “enkindled.” This Incarnate Word made flesh reminds me that God is not the God of the far off. God is the God of the here and now. God of the gritty, smelly, sweaty muck of life. God of the flesh.
And the word became flesh and lived among us…No one has seen God. It is God the only Son, who is the closest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.
This opening paragraph from Eucharistic Prayer B, and especially its last seven words, has had a special resonance for me lately.
It started around Christmas, and all its seasonal references to “the Word.” The author of John began that Gospel, of course, with the acknowledgment that “the Word” got this whole ball rolling, so to speak:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… (John 1:1)
It’s not easy for me, I must confess, contemplating the sheer foolishness of Christmas, and the whole concept of “Incarnation” — the act of the Divine somehow occupying flesh (or carnis, in Latin). Think of it — the Ubiquitous Power of all Existence, choosing to appear in that Creation as a utterly helpless and completely dependent bastard infant of a poor, oppressed peasant girl. Truly absurd.