(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.
(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 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.”
— 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.
(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.
“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.
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.
Did it know it was being noticed? Regarded? Admired? Worshipped for the Spirit that was within it and flowing from it?
I can’t imagine so. It was a tree after all. Who knows what a tree knows?
But I knew. For I was the one who had noticed, regarded, admired and worshiped the tallest of the tall oak trees, now completely bare and leafless in the midwinter cold, lining Providence Road outside Christ Church this past Sunday evening. I was sitting in the back pew at the 5pm evening Eucharist. Being late as usual, I had just sheepishly parked my walker/rollator out of the traffic pattern of the side aisle and surreptitiously slid into the vacant row. There was a smattering of worshippers spread out in the pews before me. Our deacon Emily was preaching, and I began listening.
She reflected on Paul’s metaphor in the appointed New Testament scripture for that Third Sunday after Epiphany (1 Cor. 12:21-31a), about how the different parts of our physical bodies are like the different members of the church, and how all of those members are part of one spiritual body in Christ.
As she spoke, I glanced outside, and began to take notice of how the shadow of the church sanctuary was slowly creeping up the main trunk of this magnificent oak. I thought about how long this tallest tree has been growing in that same spot, and suspect it must be significantly longer than the 80-year-old parish it now keeps company and watches over.
As I gazed, hundreds of the smallest branches extended to its outmost perimeter, all connected to dozens of not-so-small branches; all connected to a score or more of larger and thicker branches; all connected to the five or six huge and strong main branches which shot out at different heights and angles from its massive trunk. That trunk, of course, became even thicker as it extended into the ground where, unseen but so essential, silently grew equally large and deep roots. Over those roots cars now traveled, each with oblivious drivers and headlights beginning to come on.
Meanwhile, Emily the Deacon was reminding us scattered worshippers present how Paul wrote to the Corinthians, reminding them that “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:12,25)
Two millennia after Paul wrote these words, this one tree in that one moment gave me a gift of a great epiphany during this Epiphany season, one that I suspect will stay with me for a long time. It stood silent, proclaiming loudly and proudly to me that it was a pretty good metaphor for the Body of Christ, too.
It was later when I received a second gift, a bit of icing to go along with the delicious cake that this tree had served me. Just in case the Almighty wasn’t clear enough for my thick cynical lawyer-brain to get the message of the importance of paying attention, I noticed that night that the church bulletin for the evening service contained the appointed collect for the Third Sunday after Epiphany:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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.
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.
(An earlier version of this post was written in Advent 2014, but has been significantly revised and reposted here in Advent 2020 to ask whether we can “Rejoice, always!” even in the time of Covid.)
Two days ago was “Stir-up” Sunday — an irreverent nickname some of us “Whiskeypalians” give the Third Sunday of Advent, based on the (pun intended) “stirring” words of the opening collect:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The more traditional name given “3 Advent” is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Gaudete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!” That line comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:4), a young church he seemed to have particularly loved on the east coast of Greece. (The ALL CAPS are mine…not sure whether his shaky pen writing ancient Greek on papyrus did the same.)
Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggested to this fledgling flock of new believers, and maybe to all of us in 2020, that we should “Rejoice, always. Again I say, rejoice! …The Lord is at hand.” And in the same breath, he speaks of a “Peace of God that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). On the one hand, it can be seen as an utterly absurd notion, especially in times like these. But for generations of Christians ever since, it has proven to be more than a notion and somehow utterly true.
The Third Sunday of Advent also traditionally recognizes and celebrates Mary and her deep joy, hence the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath now illumined in her honor. And so the question is posed: on this Gaudete Sunday or “Rose Sunday” or “Stir-up” Sunday in 2020, is it possible to “rejoice in the Lord, always”? How can we follow, in such a year of turmoil and disease and death, Paul’s admonition to embrace an ineffable Peace and the “bountiful mercy and grace” of a “stirred-up” Lord?
At the beginning of Advent, I would likely have seen such a call as too much. And still it may be.
Indeed, just this week our nation passed 300,000 dead from this ravenous virus. Three hundred thousand chairs at last year’s Christmas tables will now be as empty as the hearts of those loved ones having to stare at them. And yet, also this week, nearing the end of this loooooooong and dismal year, there seems to be actual news about which we can in fact rejoice.
Thanks be to God – and thousands of researchers, scientists, healthcare workers and tens of thousands of volunteers willing to be guinea pigs in dozens of studies worldwide — vaccines are here! There’s a long way to go of course, but now the hope that seemed so far off is (as Paul reminded the Philippians about The Lord) “at hand.” That glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial Covid tunnel does not appear to be a train coming in the opposite direction.
For sure, we have this year been “sorely hindered” as the collect says, “by our sins” of neglect or ignorance or arrogance or all of the above — and more. Especially when looking at this nation, I confess that a daily dose of 9/11-sized deaths has, I greatly fear, made me numb, asleep to something too horrible to contemplate. To truly fathom the ongoing loss is crippling, and so out of a survival protection mode, I change the channel or click the next link. I suspect I’m not alone.
The power of powerful prayers like Sunday’s “Stir up” collect can bring me back, though, as can hearing once again the paradoxical Truth of a real Peace that does in fact simply pass human understanding. My lawyer-brain’s inability to make sense of it fails to make the Reality of It any less true. To delve into such Mystery behind a stirred-up, Rose-colored Gaudete Sunday is to be able to withstand the pain of knowing that much of 2021 will be too much like 2020, especially in the beginning. Throughout it all, though, the “Gaudete Sunday” of 3 Advent bids us look for, and indeed rejoice in, the “bountiful grace and mercy” to “speedily help and deliver us,” from a “stirred-up” Lord that indeed is close “at hand.”
This past Sunday was the Day of Pentecost. Although it does not get near the same attention as Christmas or Easter, the “Feast of the Pentecost” is also nonetheless a “principal feast” which is Whiskeypalian-speak for “big freakin’ deal.”
Always the eighth Sunday after Easter and the fiftieth day of the Easter season (hence, the term “pente”), Pentecost Sunday is that time when the church pays homage to the Holy Spirit, the third and most mysterious part of our very mysterious triune God.
The liturgy of Pentecost calls upon worshipers to “renew their baptismal covenant,” a series of eight questions all designed to walk believers through, in essence, what it means to be a Christian. The first three probe our doctrinal beliefs about the three entities of the Holy Trinity…Father, Son, Holy Spirit…Creator, Redeemer Sustainer. These questions are basically the restating of traditional creedal dogma — profound and deep…and (for me at least) utterly eye-glazing.
The next five questions, though, are anything but mind-numbing. The word “believe” is gone. These questions are all about commitment and action. They cover a wide array of habitual worship and fellowship, personal accountability, faithful witness and loving service. I have heard these five questions through the years countless times in countless ceremonies, but it was on THIS particular Pentecost Sunday of 2020 that the last question grabbed me by the proverbial collar, tossing a big ole boulder into my otherwise quiet and comfortable pond of Sunday morning solace:
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?“
Is there is ANY question more relevant for a Christian today in June 2020? I am writing this at a time when God’s world is burdened not only by the global pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but also in the last 10 days a different type of pandemic. It is a global illness no less compelling, now brought front and center, laid bare in the aftermath of the horrific killing of yet another black man at the hands of a white police officer.
I am not sure I will ever be smart enough to know just what it was about this particular needless waste of precious life, but the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week has unquestionably struck a common nerve worldwide. Maybe it was because of everyone on edge cooped up in quarantine. Maybe it was because, during this pressure-cooker of isolation, we had seen images of Ahmaud Arbery and Breanna Taylor being gunned down just weeks before. Maybe it was because, more than anything, the image of a nonchalant white officer, hands in pockets and knee on neck, draining life out of a handcuffed black man on the pavement provided the sickening but perfect metaphor for too much racism rampant in too many places.
Whatever it was, we are now seeing daily and nightly massive protests in big cities and small towns in every state of our nation. Americans are not alone in our outrage, as people of all stripes and types have assembled all over the world. A match has been thrown on kindling that has been building and drying for decades, even centuries. The fire of “enough is enough” has been lit and now seems ablaze beyond extinguishing. A Spirit is moving, and in the best of hearts with the best of callings, it seems during this Pentecost indeed Holy.
And all of it, all of the discord and strife and pent-up frustration, seems rooted in what this fifth and final directive of our faithful covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Because, it seems to me, it is precisely the lack of respect, the lack of acknowledging even the existence much less the dignity of EVERY human being that has led us to this point. And it is that same lack of respect that is the biggest hindrance to our ability to heal.
So how shall I manifest this respect? How shall I “strive for justice and peace among all people”? Like most folks (or at least I think I am not totally alone when I think this), I’m not exactly sure. I will engage lovingly with those who are different from and differ with me, write checks and give as I can, volunteer as I can, and (as the limitations of my MS might allow) maybe even march.
The only certainty is that I will falter and stumble, literally perhaps, and figuratively for sure. I’ll backtrack, make mistakes or — worst of all — let other less important pursuits take over. But I do believe my path forward to helping to make a broken world at least a little more whole requires the commitment to “strive” for it, just as that final question of our “Baptismal Covenant” asks.
The only answer I can only utter, with resolve and all the certainty and uncertainty contained in it, is the five-word response to each one of the last five covenant questions: