Archives for January 2011

Your light has come, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2011

January 6, 2011

Isaiah 60:1-6Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14Ephesians 3:1-12Matthew 2:1-12

A man was walking through the mall. He came to an escalator and decided to go up a floor. As he approached, he noticed a warning sign: “Dogs must be carried on escalator.” The man grew anxious, desperate even, as he looked around, asking himself, “Where am I going to find a dog?”

The star in the sky, the Epiphany of Christ, is the appearance to all the world, to all of creation, of the Light of extraordinary kindness. God had been here, all along, ubiquitous, yet invisible.

The darkness hid God, occluded, and enshrouded the Divine. You couldn’t see God or heaven. Now you can see both. God as light pierced the darkness, as the North Star pierces the night, directing magi, and anyone else interested or paying attention.

Light is the epiphany, but so is the dove at Jesus’ baptism, and the water turning into wine. And God still seeps, blood-red, into the veins of people who welcome Spirit.

God in Epiphany is here, working wildly in this world, for you and for me. As Isaiah claims: “Your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Why, then, do you still live in darkness?

To celebrate God’s epiphany, priests throughout the church will lead congregations this Sunday in a renewal of baptismal vows. These vows are based upon the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The expression of faith in God, simultaneously as three and one.

The problem with this expression of faith is that people find it arcane. People find it to be ancient, holding little relevance to contemporary faith. Are we stuck in the past?

In his novel, “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky tells a story of two criminals.

The first criminal is a depressed but intelligent young man, Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov believes all morality is man-made, that right and wrong are bourgeois and do not apply to superior people like himself. To prove his theory, Raskolnikov murders a destitute old woman. Such murder is not a moral issue, he reasons, because the woman is worthless. Guilt nevertheless overwhelms him – enormous guilt, guilt his rational mind cannot resolve.

Sonya is the second “criminal.” She needed money to support her starving little family, especially her younger stepbrother and sister. To feed them, she sold her body; she became a prostitute. Sonya seems almost naïve. She believes innocently in God, and her most prized possession is a Bible. “God will save us all,” she claims.

Sonya and Raskolnikov meet. He is both enthralled with, and angered at her. He is enthralled because of her naïveté, and he is angered because of her faith. In one scene, he insists that she read Scripture to him. But reading Scripture is, to her, an act of intimacy. His insistence becomes a violation, an unwarranted intrusion. She does it anyway, and picks the story of Lazarus.

You recall Lazarus – Jesus’ friend. Lazarus died, and Jesus raised him from the dead. At the tomb, Jesus called out, “Lazarus come forth!” As Sonya reads the story to Raskolnikov, her voice rises in crescendo, until finally she proclaims her own resurrection faith: “… and they believed on Him.”

They believed, and with that, Dostoevsky writes, “The candle-end had long been flickering out in its crooked holder, dimly illuminating in this beggarly little room the murderer and the harlot, who had so strangely come together to read the Eternal Book.”

And don’t we strangely come together, every week to read the Eternal Book? Complicit in some perverse way, through our own crimes and darkness, we are desperate souls in contradictory need of faith.

Raskolnikov finds the Eternal Book unbelievable, and dry. And too often, so do we. We listen to the Eternal Book as though its essence, its life-giving spirit, has escaped like air from a balloon. All that remains is limp rubber, and perhaps a string.

But as Sonya said, “They BELIEVED!” And we so desperately want to believe. We need to believe that there is some truth that extends beyond ourselves, hidden behind darkness – but we are also so deeply afraid.

We long to be noticed by God, deeply noticed, yet so afraid that God will actually notice us. We desire God, yet we hide from God. We are at once Sonya and Raskolnikov; we own a faith we cannot give ourselves over to.

The Epiphany is not about preparing yourself to receive light. It is not about arcane words in the Creeds. Rather, the Epiphany is about the light of Christ dispelling the night in which we find ourselves.

The darkness is dispelled not because we are worthy, but because God chooses for some unknown reason to reach through time and space and into this dark world to save us. To love us. To give himself completely to us. Despite your resignation to darkness, your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The Creeds – Apostles’ and Nicene – were never about the factuality of the words. You and I are not perfect, and we cannot claim perfect faith. We just don’t believe perfectly. We believe, and yet we can’t quite believe. Like the man who told Jesus, “I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.”

Rather, the creeds give you a place to stand, they express your posture of faith, your intent.

The Latin word credo does not mean only “I believe,” but also “I give myself over to.” We give ourselves over to God as Father or progenitor, not because we can conceive mentally of God as source, but because we so desperately need God to be our source. We give ourselves over to Jesus Christ because we so desperately need God to be Savior. We give ourselves over to Holy Spirit because we so desperately need the breath of life.

The story about the man and the escalator – it did not matter that he rode the escalator without a dog, but it did matter that he carry any dog he might have.

It does not matter whether you believe literally in God as Father, or Mother, or Creator – but it does matter that you give yourself over to that God. Your posture is your faith; your faith is the act of donating yourself. It is not, and never was, your mental ascent.

Raskolnikov thought of faith as bourgeois; but he was wrong. Faith is life-giving. People in our progressive world think of faith as bourgeois; but they are wrong. Faith is life-affirming.

The God you fear most is waiting in love and open arms for you. That is the Epiphany. And his appearing has become your appearing.

And so, believe, Believer, in God, the Creator Almighty. For as it says in Isaiah, “your light has come.”

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

Where is the child?, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2011

January 2, 2011

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 or Luke 2:41-52 or Matthew 2:1-12

The only goal for the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, bodies, and worldly goods. The trek of the wise men as a spiritual journey is captured well by T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Weaving images from the gospel reading with Eliot’s poem serves as a guide for own journeys. T.S. Eliot wrote “The Journey of the Magi” in 1927. That same year, Eliot the intellectual who had vigorously studied Buddhist and Hindu philosophy at Harvard University, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized. This poem chronicles Eliot’s own journey to conversion.

In 1927, T.S. Eliot was also working on a book on the Anglican preacher Lancelot Andrewes and had recently completed an English translation of St. John Perse’s poem “Anabase.” Eliot freely borrows from both a sermon by Andrewes and the French poem “Anabase” in crafting “The Journey of the Magi.”

The first five lines of the poem are lifted, with slight poetic alterations, from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, preached for King James on Christmas Day 1622. Andrewes used as his text for the sermon Matthew 2:1-2, the first two verses of today’s gospel. In that sermon, Andrewes said the Magi readily undertook “a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey” to follow the star to the Christ child. Then looking out on the royal court that formed his congregation, Andrewes said that people of his own day were so complacent in their faith that they would not likely travel to the manger if they were as close by as the shepherds, much less as far away as the Magi.

Andrewes went on to speak of his mid-seventeenth-century fellows, saying that they make great haste to other things, but not to worship God. If Christmas were to involve a long journey begun in December, Andrewes said, “Best get us a new Christmas in September; we are not like to come to Christ at this feast.” For Andrewes the travel, the journey, the seeking, amounted to nothing in themselves. The only motivation of the Magi was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, their bodies, and their worldly goods. Andrewes said our goal should be the same.

This sermon of 1622 apparently had quite an impact on the scholar and poet Eliot, who read it more than 300 years later as he was nearing a critical point of decision. Eliot was letting loose of his preconceived notions of who God is and how God acts and coming to see that the goal of his own life could be to seek and worship God.

The word “satisfactory,” which ends the second stanza of “The Journey of the Magi,” brings to mind today the idea of something barely up to snuff or “just good enough.” However, for Eliot, the word more likely rang of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which describe Jesus’ death on the cross as the “satisfaction” of our sins. Jesus’ death was “satisfactory” in that it satisfied any payment we were to make to God for our sins. So far from being just good enough, “finding the place,” meant satisfaction for sins.

In the first of the poem’s three stanzas, the imagery tells of the perils of the voyage. Undertaking their journey in “just the worst time of the year,” the Magi push the sore-footed camels along only to find themselves lying down in melting snow and thinking of their summer palaces as sleep escapes them. Excuses were ample for turning back, yet the Magi redouble their efforts, traveling through the night, napping briefly, and moving on.

This part of the poem shows how a spiritual seeker encounters many obstacles to a true journey of faith. The way is not easy, and all along there are inducements to give up the trip altogether. Faith will not come easily, and reaching conversion happens when we are willing to let those voices that proclaim it all to be folly to recede to the background as we press onward.

Enlightenment and conversion come in the second section of the poem. The section opens at dawn. Leaving behind the cold, we are brought into a place flowing with living water, which beats back the darkness. At evening, the close of this conversion experience, the Magi find the place, and in it, satisfaction.

In the third section we discover that all that preceded it happened long before. The birth the wise men went to see turned into something like death, their own death. The conversion experience was a death to their old life and they are no longer at ease among the old ways of being. The once familiar ways of home are now, for the Magi, an alien people clutching their gods. The wise man now gladly looks to another death, or rebirth.

Like the Magi, Eliot recognizes that his own conversion experience was not a one-time event. Other conversions would need to take place. More than one conversion is needed if we are ready to worship God with our souls, our bodies, and our worldly goods, as Lancelot Andrewes said we should. We can find ourselves converted in soul, but still following the old ways with our bodies or with our possessions. A new change will take another sort of conversion. Not a repeating of the initial conversion experience, but a journey to a deeper knowledge of God.

The end of the poem is a new beginning. The traveler back home once again wants to seek more. He should be glad of another death, which is itself new birth. The faith journey continues. One key to where all of this leads us is Eliot’s enigmatic line from the third stanza, “but set down, This set down.” Eliot is quoted here again from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, which provided the first five lines of the poem. Andrewes said, “Set down this; that to find where He is, we must learn to ask where He is, which we full little set ourselves to do.”

Andrewes went on to say that there is a place to find Christ and it is not just anywhere. For Andrewes points out that Jesus said some will come and deceive you, saying of the Messiah, “Here he is,” and “There he is.” We must do what the wise men did that Herod did not do, we must seek. If like Herod we sit still, we will never find the Christ.

Our gospel reading today said that the wise men asked Herod, “Where is the child … for we observed his star … and have come to pay him homage.” They were seekers with a clear purpose. To take your own spiritual journey to another level, seek God in the places where he is found, through scripture, prayer, and worship. The journey is a long, the ways deep, and the weather hard, but in the end you will find it was, you may say, satisfactory.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon for Congregational Ministries for the Diocese of Georgia.