Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle…

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A year ago, on Good Friday, I sat alone with a dear friend keeping early morning vigil in a silent church, dark at first but growing in light as our hour passed.  I wrote then of the ineffable inmost dwellings of our yearnings for the Other.  I tried to write, as best I could, of those things that are quite simply beyond words.

This year, the church was the same, but the circumstances different.  This year, my Good Friday was not that of a quiet lonely morning vigil, with no clergy or music but only growing light and deafening silence.  Rather, this Good Friday contained a bleak service at high noon, with the clergy moving in deliberate slowness dressed only in unadorned black robes, two simple but profound songs and a couple dozen fellow travelers.  A cross with a veil was quietly brought down the aisle to begin the Liturgy of Good Friday, with the small assembled congregation slowly bowing as it passed each pew.

In this starkness, the Celebrant begins…

Almighty God, we pray graciously to behold this your family… and already I am transported in a way that liturgy can, if only I allow it in.  Wait, what was that?…I am “family” to ALMIGHTY God?

Again and again in this barebones worship service, the lavious richness of the words pour over my head like the perfumed oil that the adoring woman used to annoint  Jesus.

In the lessons, first from Isaiah:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
    and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Then from the Psalm that Jesus remembered in his agony:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer…
    and by night, but I find no rest…

After the lessons, the reading of The Passion According to John and a brief homily, a chanted hymn is sung…

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle;
of the mighty conflict sing;
tell the triumph of the victim,
to his cross thy tribute bring.
Jesus Christ, the world’s Redeemer
from that cross now reigns as King.

Toward the end, the priest goes through “The Solemn Collects,” a long litany of elegant petitions for the depth and breadth of our profound needs:

Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before
you for all members of your holy Church…

Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of
peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for
the nations of the earth…

Let the cry of those in misery and need come
to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all
their afflictions…

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred 
mystery…

But for all the wondrous prose that this most sacred service contains, it was the singing of the simplest of hymns that made me stop before my voice broke.  I’m not sure what it was about “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?” that caught me so this day.  Was it the genesis of the song, and my uncomfortable knowledge of the generations of slaves that sought its solace? Was it the repetition of each phase of the story, asking me if I was there when they nailed Him to a tree, or laid Him in a tomb, or when He rose up from the grave? Or was it just the overwhelming, unimaginable idea of someone giving his life to us — to ME — to show the immeasurable and relentless Love that the Divine Power of this Universe offers?

I really don’t know.  What I do know is that the more I travel this journey and allow myself just to stop feeling unworthy and just accept the gift…it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

 

 

…and above all, in the Word made flesh, Jesus your Son.

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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.

logos

In the beginning was the Word...

But every so often, Grace breaks through.

Maybe it is the darkness that comes in late December and early January, but there is something about this time of year that seems to pull me further into Mystery.  Natural light is at a premium, and we dwell in darkness, metaphorically as well as literally.

And when it comes to “mystery” it may well be that “the Word made flesh” is the ultimate Mystery of all.

I am a lawyer, not a theologian, and as a habit I don’t like mystery.  (I often tell my staff that it is what I don’t know that bothers me.  I can take just about any bad news, and adjust as the circumstances warrant; it’s the “surprise” that often kills a case.)  If I were theologian, I might know more about all the meaning contained in that one little word, “Word”  (logos, in the original Greek).  As I understand it, though, “Word” or Logos in John’s context puts this whole “nativity” thing into a brighter light.  When the writer of John’s Gospel began his text “In the beginning…” not only was there the intention of going back to the Hebrew text and first words of Genesis, there was the revealing of the whole purpose of Jesus as “The Christ.”

For John, “In the beginning was the Word…” meant that logos was present from the start.  This Greek term was marked by two main distinctions — the first dealing with human reason (the rationality in the human mind which seeks to attain universal understanding and harmony), and the second with universal intelligence (the universal Ruling Force governing and revealing Truth through the cosmos to humankind, i.e. the Divine).

And so for John (and for any of us that are so bold as to dare comprehend it), what Jesus represents is nothing less than the Highest and the Best and the Ultimate of humankind, and of the vast cosmos, merged into human form:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…Out of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son…he has made him known.”  John 1: 14…16

And now, as I write this, we have moved from Christmas into the season of Epiphany. And I guess, even at the ripe “old” age of 62, I’m having one.  This one little word — “Word” — is taking on meaning and depth beyond what I could have thought possible, and certainly more than I deserve.

During the Eucharist in Epiphany, the Celebrant often recites…“Because in the mystery of the Word made flesh, you have caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of your glory in the face of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord…”  Normally I don’t pay that much attention, but last Sunday, that word jumped out.  That word — “Word” — seems to keep pursuing me, and almost always it is in the phrase “the Word made flesh.”  And frankly, it’s a little creepy.

But maybe, that’s not an altogether bad thing.

 

 

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.

Listening on Christmas Eve mornings to the local airing (WDAV-FM 89.9 Classical Public Radio) of BBC’s live worldwide broadcasts never fails to just leave me breathless, shedding more than a tear or two, trying to grasp my being blessed to savor something I suspect is akin to Heaven.

As the last strands of Processional fade and all are in place, the Dean offers “The Bidding Prayer,” a distinctly Anglican tradition of calling to God’s assembled people to petition the Divine for a particular purpose on a particular occasion. While certain parts change each year, most of the words to this opening “bidding” for lively worship is set in timeless stone, an annual reminder of the poignant and profound beauty that can be found in the words of the Liturgy.

“BELOVED IN CHRIST,” proclaims the Dean in perfect English accent and cadence, “…be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels…”  He urges worshipers to “make this Chapel…glad with our Carols of praise,” and then calls for a series of lovely intercessions.  We are bid to pray “…because this of all things would rejoice His heart, to remember in His name the poor and the helpless…the lonely and unloved…them that mourn…(and) all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love…”

And then the flood gates of tears open.  Especially compelling for me each year is the penultimate paragraph, a call for us to “Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light…

Oh, my.  Thinking of that image of the precious departed — close friends and beloved family — rejoicing together on some distant shore, bathed and basking in God’s perfect light of Love…it is is just overwhelming.  But even more than that, to ponder them rejoicing with us, as we — on this side of Heaven — gather for Christmas reunion and worship, is often a vision just too wonderful for me to bear.

Such a grand thing can often be beyond my ability, or willingness, or both, to even contemplate. Such blessings are too good, too fulfilling, too delightful, too perfect…too much. As the old hymn says, “I scarce can take it in…” much less build my life around.

After all, there are times when the Christmas story, quite frankly,  seems utterly absurd. It is as if the Celestial Master of Ceremonies is saying to us — “Ladies and gentlemen! Now appearing for the consideration of Humankind, please behold the Omnipotent Creator played on this silent night by a helpless infant of an impoverished, unwed peasant girl under bitter political oppression.”  Very strange, indeed.

BUT — there are also these unsettling moments of crystalline clarity, moments that compel me to ask whether a Divine Creator, seeking to be made manifest to our world, could possibly have it any other way? How could a Perfectly Loving God better show us Infinite Love, how could a Benevolent Creator more perfectly demonstrate Intimate Presence than by and through Emmanuel — “God With Us” — in the midst of muddled human messiness? Indeed, isn’t it with our raunchy, imperfect, faithless foibles of human “stuff” that our Loving God somehow does His (or Her) very best work?

That’s why the tears tend to flow on Christmas Eve mornings, as I listen again to the broadcast from across the pond. I am reminded of that which is all too easy and convenient to forget, that “too wonderful” Truth (with a capital “T”) that God, in God’s perfect and relentless Love, beckons me home for Christmas, and every other day of the year.

Beyond The Bidding Prayer, the service continues with “Lessons” of Scripture to “mark the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child”  separated by “Carols” of exquisite choral music that offers us a glimpse of the Divine Mystery.

All serve to overflow my cup even more.

The service ends each year with boisterous singing by all assembled — choir, clergy and congregation — of the traditional “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” sending the worshppers off into the lengthening Christmas Eve shadows of Cambridge.

It is the perfect send-off for me each year as well, to deal with the lengthening shadows of my life.  I do again blessed beyond measure with yet another glimpse of God With Us, a reminder of the marvelous Mystery that our God, beyond all reason, somehow still seems to be…
“Pleased with Man, as Man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.”

God. With. Us.
I scarce can take it in.

 

*EPILOGUE —

The words above were first published on December 22, 2013.  The reason I am re-posting them now is because this worship service will undoubtedly become even more important for me this year.  I have the truly blessed opportunity to actually be in Cambridge, England sitting in the St. Mary’s Chapel of Kings College to listen and participate in this remarkable service.  To hear it broadcast is one thing; to actually be there is something altogether different.  — mcd 12/18/2017  

http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/chapel/carols_from_kings_booklet.pdf

To mourn thee, well beloved…

Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

I’m a word-guy. I love words, and I love the “right word” especially — that difference between “lightning” and “a lightning bug” as Twain put it.

I make my living, such that it is right now, mostly through words, putting them together in such a way that might prove most persuasive for my clients.

Good FridayYet, this day is just one of those days in which my words just fail. I try (because that’s just what I do) to put Good Friday into words.  With its feelings of concurrent and desperate hopelessness and hopefulness, I’m not willing (or able) to just let the moment or the feeling simply be. In that way, I guess I’m a little like Peter, always seeming to interject words when they really aren’t necessary. “Lord, it’s good that we are here…” he eagerly says at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4), or “Lord, you’ll never wash my feet, and a breath later, “…Then Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head as well!” he dramatically exclaims at the Last Supper (John 13:8-9).

I too want to capture the moment, to put into words what I feel when I sit in a silent church with a dear friend for an hour like I did early this morning. But on Good Friday, the best I can do is often just sit, in silence, and and maybe thumb my way through the 1982 Episcopal  hymnal, and let poets do what they do best…

168   O Sacred Head Sore Wounded

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

 

585   Morning Glory, Starlit Sky

…Therefore He who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree
And the nails and crowns of thorns
Tell us of what God’s love must be.

Here is God, no monarch He,
Clothed in easy state to reign.
Here is God, with arms outstretched,
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

 

And of course, there’s that hymn that thoroughly overwhelms me every time, not only for John Ireland’s sweet and simple and perfectly aligned tune, but most especially for sheer beauty of Samuel Crossman’s heart-warming and heart-wrenching words…

458   My Song Is Love Unknown

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I,
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh, and die?

In life no house, no home
my Lord on earth might have;
in death no friendly tomb
but what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heaven was his home;
but mine the tomb
wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King!
never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend,
in whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.

And so it is this day. I would be disingenuous to say, for sure, that “all my days I could gladly spend” but I will spend this one at least singing silently the “sweet praise” of “my Friend ” who died for me.

Love Unknown

The Choir at King’s College Cambridge: My Song Is Love Unknown

 

 

Dogs and Tears

This we know: every living thing is Yours and returns to You….

Several months ago, a dear friend lost a companion that had been a part of his life for the better part (a phrase here that is meant literally) of two decades.  I tried to offer — as best I could — some sense of awareness that his mourning and suffering over an animal was as real and as raw as any grief that any human suffers in this life.

Sandy SnoutIn doing so, I shared a special liturgy that I happened to come across while looking for something else.  Like the best of liturgy, it speaks to something deep within us, an ineffable and unexplainable “Something” in the words of worship that on an especially blessed occasion can carry us to a suffering that to be sure is still suffering, but somehow seems blessed, lifting us to our highest and deepest selves.

With permission, I share some excerpts of this letter to my friend who had to end the confused agony of his aging dog, just a few days before Christmas.

>>>Bill, this has to be so painful, especially at this time of year. That was a beautiful tribute you wrote to a wondrous and amazing creature. I’m so sorry for you and your family.

We Whiskeypalians have prayers and services for just about every damn thing. I came across this liturgy just recently.  On my better days, I do believe that our Loving Creator brings into our lives all manner of things that enrich us, and nourish us. When they are taken from us, it hurts like hell, but the richness and the nourishment stay behind.

Let me offer this, for whatever it’s worth…

Liturgy for a Dead or Dying Pet

Leader – Let us sing to the Lord a new song;
All – a song for all the creatures of the earth.
Leader – Let us rejoice in the goodness of God;
All – shown in the beauty of all things.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (8:18-21)
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

A Reading from the Revelation to John (Rev. 21:1, 4-5a, 6)
I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away. And he shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death,neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Reader: The Word of the Lord
All – Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

This we know: every living thing is yours and returns to you. As we ponder this mystery we give you thanks for the life of N. and we now commit him/her into your loving hands. Gentle God: fragile is your world, delicate are your creatures, and costly is your love which bears and redeems us all.

Holy Creator, give us eyes to see and ears to hear how every living thing speaks to us of your love. Let us be awestruck at your creation and daily sing your praises. Especially, create within us a spirit of gratitude for the life of this beloved pet who has lived among us and given us freely of his/her love. Even in our sorrow we have cause for joy for we know that all creatures who died on earth shall live again in your new creation. Amen.

Bill, my prayer for you and your family during this holy season and throughout the New Year is to have a holy and cleansing grief. And that through this loss, your broken hearts move even closer to each other, to lovely Cici (who I’d like to believe is romping and “slobbering” on another shore and in a greater light), and to a Mysterious and Infinitely Loving God who loves us and grieves with us more than we can possibly imagine.<<<

I’m not sure why during this hot July I’m led to write about such things now.  Except perhaps that in these last weeks of death and despair at the hands of sick people using guns and trucks and more guns, there has been much over which to grieve.  (And, for another dear friend, even more grief of late.)  I’m coming to find, more and more, that our God — whose Son wept over his friend Lazarus — does not take away our grief.  But, maybe, if we are so blessed, and we recognize that our Loving Creator weeps with us, we find some meaning in it.

 

…marked as Christ’s own, for ever.

Then the Bishop or Priest places a hand on the person’s head, marking on the forehead the sign of the cross [using Chrism if desired] and saying to each one…   N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.

Not sure what it is about Baptism, but I become a misty-eyed old fool most occasions. It’s not the babies that get me all sentimental. After all, cute though they are in their snow white “Christening gowns,” those little cherubs are basically just sleeping & crying & feeding & pooping machines. No big deal.
Christs own forever

The Christian version of branding a calf…signed, sealed and delivered.

And yet, what our tradition offers to them is a very big deal. It is an extraordinary thing we offer these pudgy-faced lumps of flesh in baptism — we name them and brand them.

“(Jackson Benjamin or Mary Catherine or John Jacob Jinglehimer…), you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as CHRIST’S OWN…FOR EVER!!!!!!!”
I look at the priest holding that baby, and sometimes think of a little calf scampering off having just had its rear flank permanently seared by the red-hot branding iron. And for whatever reason I mist up, knowing (or at least wanting desperately to believe) that whatever lies ahead for that infant, whatever future choices are made for or by that child, whatever those innocent eyes see (or refuse to see) in the lifetime waiting ahead, I am being told that this newest Christian belongs, not just to our parish, not just to the one holy catholic church universal, but to Christ!
Christ named him.
Christ claimed her.
And Christ marked and sealed that young child as his own.
And NOTHING can separate him or her or any of us from God’s infathomable Love and Grace.
For ever.
Quite overwhelming, when you think about it.

…of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

This season of Advent just seems to do a number on me.

Yes, there is the absurd rush, the frenzy to not miss a single party or sale or movie opening.  But there is also, from time to time, a sense of the surreal that breaks through.

Christmas Tree lights2
Christmas trees in the dark: Yearning for something, not knowing what it is, only that it is.

It’s another kind of absurd altogether — a fuller sense of the “absurd” reality that we Christians profess.  We are reminded this time of year more than any other that our God, the “one God, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” chose to appear to Creation in the form of an utterly helpless infant, born to a young unwed girl under desperate conditions.

Maybe I just manage to keep this absurdity at bay better during other seasons, more easily brushing off the sheer wonder and profound beauty of a single human breath.  Not so much during the longer, colder nights of Advent.

When I refer to the long, cold nights of this season, it has little to do with shorter hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere.  For me, these “long and cold nights” are more of a spiritual description than thermal — the darker, longer, colder nights of the soul.  Watching lights on a Christmas tree in the quiet dark lead to a deep stirring within.  My truest heart desires something intensely, to know something and to know it deeply.  And yet, that heart is not really sure what it is yearning, sure only in the deepest feeling that whatever it is, Whoever it is, it IS.

Most times when I am asked by the Celebrant to “stand and profess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed,” I begin to mindlessly recite the words, and just gloss over the opening sentence, and its enormously powerful last phrase. But it is this darkness of Advent that reminds me more clearly that God is the maker of “the seen and the unseen.” God has made not just the stars in the heavens and the hairs on my head — not just what can be seen through telescopes and microscopes — but the Unseen, too.  We are surrounded by a holy host of maybes, which (or who) somehow swirl around us at the most needful of times, like a snowfall at night, unseen until one awakes in the morning, and  realizes what has been going on while we slept.

This time of year leads me to understand more clearly that part of our human nature is to seek and yearn for the unknown.  And it leads me to believe more and more that this very human trait exists because we have been “created” to seek and yearn for a Creator. We are meant to bathe in that Mystery. And perhaps, such a Divine (?) purpose goes even further. Part of my “rent” for occupying space on this planet is to purposefully search for that Mystery not only in what is “seen” around me in this universe, but also in the “unseen,” in those closest to me, and ultimately in myself.

And I as engage in that exploration, I am bound to be in that state perpetually.  I am like Bono singing “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” and I’m beginning to understand I never really will. Advent is telling me that the finding comes most often is in the searching itself. The “answer” is not discovered by “arriving” at a destination but in the journey along the way.

And the deepest of such yearning is to know and feel Emmanuel. God with us.

God- the of the omnipotent loving Creator
With- not over us or far away, but closer than close, touching us and everything in our existence
Us – in this tiny speck of dust that is our little corner of galaxy in the universe.

I become like the author of Psalm 8 when confronting such things. Such knowledge is too good for me; I cannot attain it.

I can only yearn for it.