…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.

…and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.

Goldfish. How and why would I think of goldfish?

At a recent communion service, I was mindlessly thinking of everything BUT such things as “unity, constancy and peace.” Contemplation of God’s unfathomable Love was, well, unfathomable.

Then, suddenly my mind actually heard the words the Celebrant was saying, and I focused on the ending phrase of one particular sentence (from Eucharistic Prayer A): “…Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.”

Unity Constancy and Peace - names of Goldfish?!?!

Unity Constancy and Peace — Strange Names for Goldfish?!? …Stranger thoughts on a Sunday morning.

And I thought how those would be great names for goldfish…or maybe names of children at some tree-hugger commune. I smiled quietly but after that, didn’t give the phrase much thought.

Then, just a day or two later, I “just happened” to read a commentary to a morning devotional online, and was struck particularly by the writer’s lament. She worried about dwelling in her house of “resentment, anger and fear” and I instantly thought about those three words from the Eucharistic prayer that had made me grin just a few days earlier.  While I can never say for sure, I’d like to think that just maybe I was taken back to that funny little moment about fishy names by some Holy Guidance. Maybe what was “given” to me, when thinking of “unity, constancy and peace” was a counter to that unholy trinity of “resentment, anger and fear.”

The holy triune of “unity, constancy and peace” has been on my mind even more in these last weeks.

It has been almost a month now since the horrific event that occurred in a city that I dearly love. On June 17, 2015, nine parishioners extended faithful hospitality to a very sick young man in Charleston, South Carolina, and paid for it with their lives. In the days since, gallons of ink and gigabytes of data have been used by all manner of writers trying to make sense of something that can never make any sense.

The only small thing I can add is to note how the surviving members of the mass shootings at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church are exhibiting EXACTLY those God-favored qualities of “unity, constancy and peace.’ And it strikes me that seeing those three qualities in action can truly lead us all to a stronger faith.

The events in Charleston, and more particularly its blessed aftermath of forgiveness,mercy and grace, are tangible examples and evidence to this jaded trial lawyer of a Divine Good in this Universe. Beyond all reason or logic or science, this Loving Life Force has the capacity to somehow transform horror into hope, tragedy into triumph, and victims into victors.

And once again, the gift of Liturgy can serve as an expression of such mysterious Grace. One other thing struck me in freshly considering this well-worn and too-familiar phrase.

The order in which these words appear — “unity” first, then “constancy” and finally “peace” — seems by itself to be a divine design. That is, the first when combined with the second are precursors and prerequisites which can lead to the third.

  • Beginning with Unity, and the realization that those things that divide communities and souls are so much smaller than those things that unite.
  • And that sense of oneness, when applied and nurtured with Constancy
  • Can, at long last, lead us (and me) to Peace.

Thanks be to God.

…a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.

Maybe it is just the times in which these words are most often uttered…

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

The ancient Greeks spoke of time in terms of kairos as well as chronos. The former is a time of essence, time of real life-changing and memorable substance, not mere seconds or minutes or hours that are registered on a stopwatch. Kairos is something beyond measurable time. It is what the Celtics call “thin” time; a time when the barriers and curtains between what is seen and the Unseen are paper-thin, and we can glimpse the Hereafter with some sense that this universe possesses mystery (Mystery?) that is FAR more than our five little and meager human senses can ever perceive.

Whatever the reason, when this collect is said, Continue reading

Hosanna! (Revisited)

Updated Friday, March 27, 2015   Once again, on this Palm Sunday, we will all proclaim this “song” that has echoed through the generations.

A year ago, I wrote of how this word — this unique and solitary word — expresses an ineffable awe of, and to, the Divine.  Tradition holds it is both a salutation and a lament.

Sometime shortly after writing that blog post (see below), I was blessed to hear a song of the same name.  Although most of modern “Christian rock” music leaves me cold, “Hosanna” by Hillsong United is a gracious and gorgeous ballad of contemporary worship.  And like the ancient Hebrew expression itself, it is both an expression of thanks and praise for what is, and a lament for what is yet to come; a “new revival” for here and now, and a deep yearning for what has not been accomplished.

Maybe it was just what I was going through at the time, but the words of the “bridge” pierced as deep as I’d heard in a while: I was simply overcome:

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things Unseen
Show me how to love
Like You have loved me.
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause
As I walk with You into
Eternity

On this chilly Saturday before we enter into this Holy Week, I gladly share it:

Originally Published April 14, 2014 — We say or sing it every Sunday, as part of the “Holy, holy, holy” acclamation to begin each Eucharistic Prayer.  But today, on THIS Sunday — Palm Sunday — “Hosanna in the Highest” takes on “passionate” significance. 

But, like so many of my prayers, I’m not really sure what I’m saying a lot of the time. To confidently proclaim “Hosanna in the Highest!” is to speak in words rarely used other than in a liturgical context. (Seriously, do any of us ever utter it outside of worship? “Hey honey, can you pick up [fill in the blank] on your way home?  You can?!? Hosanna in the highest…!”)

Even when we speak it in church, its true meaning is less than clear. 

An old Biblical Commentary text --  part of the "hot discussion" over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

An old Biblical Commentary text — part of the “hot discussion” over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

The derivation and definition of “Hosanna” in old Aramaic and Hebrew texts are apparently matters of some hot discussion (at least among those who lead such lives that allow for the hot discussion of such things).   

Is “Hosanna” a form of great praise, as the Jerusalem crowds seemed to suggest as they welcomed Jesus in today’s “Palm Sunday” Gospel?  Or is it more of a cry for help for The Lord to “Save Us!” as suggested by the Old Testament, such as in Psalm 118?  I’m not convinced there is that much of a contradiction.  The Psalmist’s cries of “Hosanna” in Psalm 118:25 are pleas that are exclaimed in the midst of celebration and triumph.  I suspect that the multitudes crowded in Jerusalem for Passover had the same mixture of hope, praise and desperation, as they cheered this charismatic young carpenter turned preacher who came riding into town.

Ultimately though, for me at least, “Hosanna in the highest” is a phrase of ineffable joy, spoken uniquely to The Divine.   Perhaps more than any other phrase in the liturgy, it is what we bring to it.  

Maybe some additional insight into the meaning of “Hosanna in the Highest” can be gleaned by a phrase that is even more prominent in Psalm 118.  “Steadfast love” appears four times in the first four verses, when we are told that God’s steadfast love “will endure forever.”  Such a powerful word is “steadfast,” and by using it, the Psalmist conveys to us an even more powerful and enduring love.  Thus, “Hosanna” becomes a uniquely powerful and enduring response.

That love — powerful, unique, enduring — is of course on radiant and heart-wrenching display this week. And at the end of the week, even a word as joyous and mysterious and wonderful as “Hosanna” will take a backseat to one even better.  An old friend we Episcopalians haven’t said in quite a while…

“Alleluia!”

  

    

    

    

…joining our voices with Angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven

It is a peculiar notion, utterly absurd yet irresistible and stunning.

At a recent Eucharist, my wandering mind suddenly latched onto the proposition proclaimed just about every Sunday, but rarely considered, at least by me — that I am worshipping with a veritable heavenly host:

Angels and Archangels

The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini

“Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name…”

Could it really be that our voices join with those of Seraphim and Cherabim, of some divine dimension of the Unseen? Contemplating such celestial choirs led me to some deeper thinking (always a dangerous prospect) about the different “voices” of God.

Throughout history, humankind has believed God speaks to us not only through holy scripture, but through fire and rain, the human touch, music and the arts, literature and liturgy. Only recently in this ongoing and unfolding love story has the Almighty revealed glimpses of Mystery and Glory and Divine Love through the use of vanity license plates.

True story…

Several years ago, I was driving around Charlotte one Saturday morning, seething over some minor spat with a family member, cursing myself and all my shortcomings. A car passed by, and I glanced at its license plate. It read, “URWATUR.”

I smiled, being reminded that indeed, for better or worse, “I am what I am.”  I thought back to a story told by Frederick Buechner, who wrote he was once rescued from utter despair (in the midst of his daughter’s near-fatal anorexia) when he happened to see the word “TRUST” on a license plate. It came precisely, he says, at a moment when he desperately needed to simply trust God’s Providence.

He later discovered the car’s owner to be a trust officer at a local bank, but as he asks, does that really matter?

More and more, I’ve come to accept that Buechner is right when he observes that how we respond to these “little” moments determines a great deal of how we live our lives. Do we write them off as some silly bit of happenstance? Or do we seize them, and grasp the memory of them, time and again, like driftwood in a stormy sea?

Most of us, I suspect, do a bit of both.

Again, I smiled and chuckled to myself as the car drove on.  I thought, “OK, Lord, yes, I promise.  I’ll lighten up a little.”  The very next car passed by. Its license plate shone back at me: “GRACE2U.”

Soon after that little encounter was Transfiguration Sunday, which always is the last Sunday after Epiphany, right before Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent.  I’m not saying my little encounter was quite the same as seeing Jesus in blinding white with Moses and Elijah up on a mountaintop. Nor can I speculate as to whether my reaction to being shown such mysterious Grace even comes close to that of Peter, James and John.  All I know is that I even my most cynical “rational” lawyer-self cannot dismiss such things out of hand.

Mountaintop visions. Angels and Archangels. Vanity license plates.

“Heaven only knows” what what I experienced that morning.  Was it another manifestation of “The Voice of God,” or just two random drivers trying to get by my slow moving vehicle?  What I can say is that it has stuck with me, and that sometimes I just have to go with what I’ve got, choosing to believe on my better days that it’s not just simply what I have got, but also blessfully what I’ve been given.

…a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

Of all the sentences in the entire lexicon of the liturgy, surely one of the most profound and powerfully packed is the one which is composed of these twenty-three words In Eucharistic Prayer A:

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

The Whole WorldAs shared in an earlier post, the first phrase of that sentence, about Jesus’ outstretched arms on a cross, just hit me to my core one Sunday morning in a fresh and paradoxical way, leaving me breathless.

A similar stunning epiphany was granted to me somehow not long ago, at a time when I was struggliing especially hard with the wicked whispers in my brain, leaving me riddled with all manner of aimless doubt. Desperately seeking some goals I really desired, and even more desperately seeking God’s guidance for them, I was finding only that God seemed nowhere to be found. To say I was feeling broken on that morning would not have explained the half of it.

In this state of brokenness, a message of wholeness somehow broke through.

For the umpteen-thousand previous times I had heard the words “…for the whole world” I had understood that Jesus’ sacrifice was for the entire planet. Christ was crucified, once for ALL. The feast at this Eucharistic table is for EVERYONE.

But on this particular morning, what came to me when I heard that phrase “for the whole world” was something wholly different; a new message in a wholly deeper context.

Jesus’ “perfect sacrifice” is not just about the numbers, the entirety of humanity before and since and ever to be. This ultimate offering “for the whole world” is about the world’s WHOLENESS, so that humankind might obtain completeness and a sense of one-ness — both with our Creator and each other. And this “whole world” is not just for a “macro” vision, that all nations and races and religions be united as one creation of God’s family, but also, and maybe more important, from a “micro” standpoint, Jesus took the cross upon himself so that EACH person, as a child of Our Creator, might obtain an intimate wholeness, a sense of unity and completeness within.

And the gift went further. The words “…a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” meant to me on that particular morning that Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s boy and the carpenter’s son, made the conscious choice to take upon himself the nails and crown of thorns in order to be a perfect offering, not just for the salvation of humanity and all beings to ever roam this celestial speck of dust, but that Jesus did this for ME. It was so that MY foibles and frustrations and other fragments of brokenness might be made whole, that Jesus gave this absolute ransom.

It was an astounding thought.

Upon another shore and in a greater light…

One year ago today, I penned the words below, in anticipation of what I like to call “the best worship service on the planet.” This blog has always been about the mystery and beauty of liturgy, and never is it on more brilliant, more moving, more poignant display than each Christmas Eve with the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College in Cambridge, England. After updating and adding a few new links, I’m pleased to share it again.
–mcd

With Gladness and Singleness of Heart

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 my money, it’s the best worship service on the planet!

Listening on Christmas Eve mornings to thelocal airing of BBC’s live worldwide broadcastsnever fails…

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