Archives for 2014

Zigs and zags, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2015

January 4, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

The start of this new year invites us to take out the map of our life and look at it carefully. This is a time to recognize where we have been, so that we may be better prepared for the future that awaits us.

Where have you traveled in your life during these past 12 months? What is there to celebrate? What is there to lament? Who have been your companions on this journey? What have been the regrets, the surprises, the delights, the moments of judgment, the seasons of grace?

The end of one old year and the start of a new one invites us to look at our maps, review our travels and reorient ourselves for whatever road lies ahead.

The gospel for this Second Sunday After Christmas Day presents us with a map to look at. It is a map of where the Holy Family traveled in the months, perhaps years, after the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.

This is a zigzag map. The silent night, holy night when all is calm, all is bright, does not last long for Joseph, Mary and the baby.

It seems that when Christ’s birth is made known, King Herod trembles for his throne. The news of another monarch born in his territory raises in his mind fears of insurrection, the end of his time as ruler, maybe the end of his life.

Meanwhile, Joseph wakes up in the dark of night out of a troubled sleep. In his dream, an angel demanded that he take up the child and his mother and leave town, because Herod’s soldiers, the servants of his paranoia, were already about the cruel business of slaughtering every baby boy in that vicinity in order to eliminate the newborn Messiah. Even as husband and wife stumble about, making the briefest of preparations, the devouring sword draws near.

The angel does not send them back to their hometown of Nazareth. Instead, he sends them on a journey lasting hundreds of miles, which takes them in the opposite direction.

They are to go to Egypt, a strange and alien land. This route saves their child’s life, yet it is a zigzag, not what they expected when they lay down to sleep the night before.

In Egypt there are large Jewish colonies, and probably it is in one of these that Joseph and his family find a place to live. The baby prospers in that strange land, and days and months go by quickly for the young family.

Finally Joseph, the man of dreams, is awakened again from his sleep. Again an angel has appeared to him with momentous news. Herod, that killer of children, is now dead. It is safe to return, safe to go back to the land of Israel, that place they left in haste and fear. Joseph, Mary and their toddler son pack up and leave, invigorated by a sense of relief and hope.

Perhaps they had expected to remain permanently in Egypt, but there is another zigzag. Back home they go.

Once they arrive in the land of Israel, they hear that Herod indeed is dead, but his son has succeeded him, Archelaus, who is no better than his father. So Joseph and Mary decide to keep away form Judah, the region where Archelaus holds sway. In response to yet another dream, they continue northward to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. There they find safety and familiar faces welcome them. This is yet another zigzag,

A long and unpredictable journey, a zigzag trip, has taken them back home again so long after that census in Bethlehem. It’s a strange sight to see on the map, the life of this young family and their travels over many months.

Matthew’s gospel recounts events around the early life of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Old Testament. Thus, the opening chapters of Matthew are studded with Old Testament quotations.

This happens, in particular, with the zigzag trip taken by the Holy Family. Two quotations are cited to shed light on this journey. The first, from Hosea, is applied to the flight into Egypt and the return to Israel. “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” are the words attributed to God.

The other quotation, of uncertain origin, is applied to Jesus when he’s finally a resident in Nazareth. A single word describes him: “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The significance of this second quotation is unclear. It may represent a play on words referring to Jesus as the long-expected branch growing up from the stump of Jesse, father of King David.

But the significance of the first quotation is clear. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The reference here is to Egypt as that place where Israel was enslaved centuries before the birth of Jesus.

God heard the cry of his oppressed people and acted decisively to win their freedom. Moses became the Lord’s agent in the struggle that culminated at the Red Sea. There the people of Israel passed through on dry ground while the Egyptian army that was pursuing them was swept away by the returning waters.

The Exodus was the Lord rescuing his beloved child, calling his son out of Egypt. This was the event that made Israel a people, the people of the Lord.

That God also calls his son Jesus out of exile, out of Egypt, back to his home, means that Jesus is a new and better Moses, about to lead a new and better Exodus, one that will deliver all people out of the realm of sin and death.

So in the story of the Holy Family, the zigs and the zags have their purpose. The path taken by this little household – driven as they are by angels, led by a man who listens to his dreams – is no purposeless wandering. It serves the intention of God’s mercy: to offer new and lasting freedom to all the people of the earth.

Now is a season for each one of us to look at our own map; not simply the past 12 months, but all the years we have lived, and those still to come.

If we consider that map with care and honesty, we will recognize zigs and zags along the way, times that seemed to make no sense, moments when the road simply disappeared or led to places that should be avoided.

Look at the map, and there may be those nights, those days, when what drove you was a dream with a good angel, one seeking your safety, your redemption and new life not for you alone.

There may be for you no straight, consistent, logical lines, no paths that make ordinary sense. There may be instead greater themes, themes that take more time to satisfy, that make sense only further down the road, themes that require you to listen to your life for what is both very old and yet still fresh.

You may find that some phrase sums it up, like a prophecy fulfilled. For once Israel was led forth from Egypt. Then Jesus, still a child, came forth from Egypt. God remains in the Exodus business, and it may be that your story, your map, reveals that once again God has brought forth his child out of some slavery into the bright hope of freedom.

God writes straight with crooked lines. Let’s amend that saying just a bit: God uses zigs and zags to prepare an open road for his people.

Like the Holy Family, you may find this true if you look intently at the route you’ve traveled. Like Jesus, you may discover that time you spent away, literally or metaphorically, was for the sake of calling you home and so that others could march home with you.

Now is the season for each of us to pay attention to what we’ve lived, the map we’ve traveled. The zigs and zags may point to angels who speak in good dreams, who in turn point to One who still calls each of us “Child” and welcomes us back home.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

The power of a name, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2015

January 1, 2015

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

“All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall!
Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all!”

So proclaims one of the great hymns of the Anglican tradition. It calls upon the people of God to worship the Name of Jesus in anticipation of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This what the church does today, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus: We gather together to glorify his name.

In worshiping Christ’s name today, we join a long line of believers before us who have invoked God’s blessings by calling on the Savior’s name. But the questions arise – what is the importance of Jesus’ name, and why do we celebrate it today, a week after Christmas?

Names can be powerful things, and throughout the Bible God uses names to communicate his purposes and to mark his covenant blessings on those who enter into relationship with him. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah when they embrace the call to become the forbears of many generations of believers. Their son is named Isaac – “laughter” – on account of the joy God gave them. After a night-long struggle, the shadowy stranger changes Jacob’s name to Israel because he had wrestled with God. In the burning bush at Sinai, God reveals the Divine Name to Moses. He is Yahweh, the great “I am,” the Holy One.

Today’s lesson from Numbers, Chapter 6 tells us that God commanded the Old Testament priests to bless the people of the covenant with this holy Name: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

God promises to bless his people when they invoke his Name. The Name of God is blessing to those who call upon him faithfully. In the Ten Commandments, we learn that reverence for God’s Name is serious business: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

Because to honor God’s Name is to honor God himself, centuries ago pious Jews ceased pronouncing the name revealed to Moses, saying instead only Ha-Shem, “the Name.” The more familiar custom of English Bibles replaces the divine name Yahweh with “the LORD” in all capital letters.

Several centuries after Moses received the Law, the prophet Isaiah declared that among the titles of the long-awaited Messiah would be the name Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” From the gospels we learn that before this Messiah was to be born, the Angel Gabriel announced to the child’s mother that he was the Son of God and would be named Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. It was an auspicious announcement that brought both exceeding joy and grave concern.

In St. Luke’s account of the Nativity, a portion of which we have read today, the evangelist informs us that indeed the Son of God was born as the angel had promised. Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, it was an occasion of great happiness that brought hope to the many people who eagerly waited for God to save his people – people such as the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, the shepherds of Bethlehem, and later on people such as Simeon and Anna. Matthew’s gospel shares how the news spread quickly throughout Judea and especially in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

A week after Christ was born, in obedience to Jewish Law, Mary and Joseph circumcised him and named him Jesus, just as we read in today’s gospel from Luke. This is why we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus today on the Eighth Day of Christmas. We remember that a week after he was born, Jesus was circumcised and received his name in obedience to God’s commandments.

The angel’s message that Mary’s baby would save his people helps us to understand the significance of the child’s name. “Jesus” (or Yeshua) literally means “Yahweh saves.” The child whose birth the angels praised with songs was destined to save God’s people – a covenant people drawn from all the nations of the earth – by shedding his blood and giving his life for ours. The name of Jesus is above all other names, and in the words of the psalmist, is “glorious throughout the world” because it reveals what the covenant God we believe in is like: He saves.

Christians ought not to forget that, while still a baby, Jesus shed his blood for our redemption when he was circumcised. As the Apostle Paul writes in today’s reading from Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

The law required that boys who were born to Jewish parents had to be circumcised as a sign that they belonged to God’s people and that they shared in the God’s covenant promises to Israel. In a way, Jesus’ circumcision was his first public act of obedience to the Father’s will, and the blood Jesus shed on this occasion was the same blood he would shed later on the cross.

Although he was fully divine by nature, the Lord Jesus was born in the humblest of human circumstances in order to save us from our sins. He was willing to undergo suffering, shame and death in order to fulfill God’s desire to save the world. What kind of obedience could be more perfect, and what kind of love could be more merciful? Jesus Christ loves the whole world.

When we understand that the Holy Name of Jesus is a sign and symbol for us of God’s great love and of his desire to save the world, we can see why God would honor his Son’s name by declaring it the most glorious name of all. In his love, God’s Son came to the earth, took on our human nature and willingly gave his life so that we could be reconciled to God.

Because God has honored the Holy Name of Jesus, we, as Christians, ought to do the same. We ought to respect his name and love his name.

As St. Bernard of Clairveaux, an 11th-century French abbot, tell us, to praise the Holy Name of Jesus is to receive light, food and medicine for the soul.

So, what is so special about the Name of Jesus? The answer is to be found in what the name tells us about the God we worship. The Holy Name of Jesus tells that “Yahweh saves.” For those who turn to him in faith, the Holy Name of Jesus is joy, hope, peace and eternal life.

 

— The Rev. John J. Lynch is rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Va.

Christ doesn’t belong back in the box, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The poet W.H. Auden captured the after-Christmas feeling very well. Toward the close of his long poem, “For the Time Being,” he wrote:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.”

Auden’s “For the Time Being” is a Christmas oratorio written for the bleak mid-winter, post-Christmas malaise. The excitement of the holiday is past, and now we get back to our daily lives, made all the more dull by the brief holiday.

“For the Time Being” was written on the heels of Auden’s conversion to Christianity. The lengthy poem gives Auden’s understanding Christianity, particularly the meaning of the Incarnation – God becoming human in Jesus. Auden wrote:

“To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Auden wrote this oratorio in England in 1941 and 1942 and published it in 1944. He, like other Christians of the time, desperately wanted the brief glimpse of the Christ child to sustain the world in a time of war. The world was full of people naming other humans “it.” That’s how you get well-educated, thoughtful Germans to participate in the horror of the Holocaust. You rename another person as an “it” instead of a “you.” You dehumanize the other person. You certainly don’t try to see Christ in them. That the temptation to demonize the enemy existed on both sides of the conflict did not escape the poet. He concluded:

“There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

In lives full of work, keeping bills paid, writing papers or memorizing multiplication tables for school, it would seem impossible to redeem everyday time from insignificance. Yet, that is just what scripture tells us is the Good News of Jesus’ birth. The Good News is that all time is redeemable. Nothing has to be insignificant.

The Gospel of John begins with a cosmic view of time. John tells of the Incarnation from a heavenly perspective, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

The prologue to this fourth gospel introduces Jesus as the preexistent Word of God, the second person of the Trinity. John does not begin his gospel with Jesus’ birth, but with the creation, telling that not one thing is, that Jesus did not create. This ties Jesus very closely to the everyday stuff of life. Before he was born to a poor couple in a lowly stable, Jesus had worked to create dirt, water, air and all life.

These words from the start of John’s gospel are most likely the words of an ancient hymn, perhaps written by the John the Apostle, perhaps known in the community where he led the church. The hymn itself is verses 1 through 5, 10, 11, 14 and 16. A closer look at those verses shows that each verse contains a keyword picked up in the next verse. To introduce us to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, John weaves together a tightly written hymn of praise of Jesus as the eternal word of God, with John the Baptist’s affirmation that this eternal word has come among us as the light of the world.

John wrote: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John carefully and beautifully shows us how the two great ages – our time-bound world and eternity – coexist in the person of Jesus. By weaving the story of the eternal Word with the story of that Word being made flesh, we see that those two ages are not mutually exclusive. In the person Jesus, we can meet eternity in the here and now.

Through Jesus’ life, his words, his actions, we see the will of God lived out in the flesh. John’s prologue tries to stand at the crossover point between this age and the next. For John that nexus is the manger, when the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God did not send Jesus to redeem merely a stable in Bethlehem, or even all of first-century Palestine, but to redeem all creation.

Let us lay these two visions of life alongside each other – Auden’s vision of a Christmas celebration now morphing into a mid-winter malaise, and John’s vision of the light of Christ spreading into the darkest corners of our lives.

Do you entertain Jesus as merely an agreeable diversion? Or are you ready for something more? John wanted us to let the Word of God that created all that is pitch his tent in our day-to-day existence. I’ll warn you: This is risky business. It will always be far easier to confine Jesus to holidays and perhaps Sunday mornings. It will always be far more difficult to invite the light of Christ into every area of your life.

Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine in your darkness? What about the parts of you that you hope no one notices? What about the parts you like to keep tucked under the bed or in the back of the closet, so to speak? Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine there, too?

The celebration is over. As Auden writes, “Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes.” But the light of Christ was not meant to be tucked back in the attic with the decorations. The love of God as it shines through Jesus was meant to take root in your soul. And it still can, if you make room in your everyday life for light to shine in your darkness.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

The perfect Christmas and the real Christmas, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2014

December 25, 2014

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Crossing the minds of almost everyone around this time of year is the fantasy of the perfect Christmas. This fantasy appears in many versions, but a standard one goes something like this:

An attractive old house sits securely on its wooded parcel of land. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and more is falling – gently, silently – through the cold, crisp air.

Inside the house, members of a large extended family are caught up in their holiday celebration. Parents host their grown children and young grandchildren, various aunts, uncles and cousins, and the occasional in-law, fiancé or friend. The entire clan is attractive, respectable, well-mannered and well-spoken. Each member is either successful in school, advancing in a career or enjoying a comfortable retirement. No one is mentally unbalanced, seriously ill, chronically unemployed or even socially inept. All have broad smiles and straight teeth.

Most extraordinary about this gathered clan is that all the members get along with each other! Despite hours of proximity, rich food and potent drink, no simmering hostilities boil to the surface. No grudges are revived, no harsh words are spoken or even muttered. The animated conversation is mixed with frequent laughter, celebrated memories, and new stories.

Many hands in the kitchen make the preparation of Christmas dinner go quickly and peaceably, and soon the table is covered with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes. Everyone sits down and the family enjoys a splendid meal. After the dessert, the air echoes with compliments for the cooks. The entire family helps clear the table and clean up, and it’s not long before the kitchen counters are empty, and the automatic dishwasher hums contentedly.

The presents stacked beneath the tree are opened one by one, and each gift delights its recipient. It’s always the right size, color and style. Children gleefully tear off the brightly colored paper and smile gratefully at their elders. No one lashes out in envy, bursts into tears or damages one of the remarkably complicated toys. A dreamy state of tranquility overcomes the revelers as the fire in the hearth burns low. Outside, the gentle snow continues to fall.

There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy. Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day may feature drizzle rather than snow. Someone precious may be missing from the family circle, or someone hard to tolerate may be present – a ne’er-do-well, perhaps, or an obnoxious, screaming child, or a critical, controlling adult, or an insufferable boor. As for the rest, they are down-to-earth people with less-than-perfect profiles. A little overweight, perhaps, a little eccentric, a little shy. The fact is that most of us do not qualify as the best and the brightest. We do not live the lives of which fantasies are made.

Then there are the fights – arguments or heated discussions or vigorous fellowship, depending on your family’s particular euphemism. One brother-in-law remembers how much he resents another. A grown-up daughter again feels suffocated by her elderly mother. A nephew despises the uncle who sold him the car with the cracked engine block. An argument erupts in the kitchen over the way to make turkey dressing, and raised voices defend rival orthodoxies about the matter.

It’s not that all this happens every year, but any of it could! There’s testimony to the indomitable human spirit in the way families gather again and again despite the often painful consequences. Add to this the labor, so much of which falls on the women of the household, who are expected to make everything perfect – the cookies, the decorating, the tree, the gifts, the music, the food, the cleanup.

Our fantasy of Christmas – our pursuit of an elusive perfection – leads to frustration and disappointment. When the leftovers are stored away, the tree taken down, and the trash put out, we may find ourselves wondering whether Christmas is for us. Perhaps Christmas is for the perfect – those perfect people who live in an imaginary subdivision just over the horizon.

When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas fills our heads, we can do ourselves a favor by going back to the beginning. We can look at the original Christmas and recognize that this first Christmas was far from perfect.

Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the sake of the census. Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare remains in the old hometown. And there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money. The young couple find some space out back, inside a barn filled with farm animals. A couple of local women help with the birth and chuckle over the new-born boy.

Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy and nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end have been hard. The dream, demanding that he accept the child, was followed by this awkward travel to Bethlehem, and now this sleepless night in the barn.

Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labor. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians approach, caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy.

Christmas in the barn is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that there’s room at the manger for imperfect people.

The perfect Christmas of our fantasies is something we try to accomplish on our own. If we just bake more cookies, give more presents, smile more broadly, then it is sure to happen – or so we imagine. Yet we become frustrated time and again. We try to live up to some fictional standard, and we end up sorely disappointed.

The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise, a Christmas gift we did not foresee. God in Christ accepts us in our incompleteness, our imperfection. God in Christ comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough. God in Christ relates to our little, imperfect selves by becoming smaller, less powerful, more dependent than any of us who are old enough to walk and talk. The good news is that God knows our imperfection, and God loves us as we are. God does not require us to be perfect. God asks only that we become real, as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love.

What we need to do is remarkably simple: put down the burden of the perfect Christmas and accept the freedom of the real Christmas.

We can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary; with hard-living people like the Bethlehem shepherds. Here imperfect people like you and me find a surprising acceptance.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s, Baden, Maryland in the Diocese of Washington and is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

 

Who is Jesus to us?, The Transfiguration (A,B,C) – 2014

August 6, 2014

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99 or 99:5-9; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36

Each year, we hear the story of the Transfiguration twice – once on the Last Sunday After Epiphany and again on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is a narrative common to all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Moses and Elijah, long-deceased prophets of Israel, appear on a mountain with Jesus, whose appearance has radically changed. All in front of the disciples, who don’t seem to know quite what to make of all this, with a voice that comes from a cloud proclaiming Jesus as the Beloved Son and a command to listen to him. Admittedly, it is a strange story – especially to our modern, enlightened, scientific culture. Rather than seek a rational understanding of the spectacular details in this story, it might be more helpful to consider why it is told rather than what is said.

The Transfiguration in Luke follows on the heels of four vignettes that frame the repeated question of Jesus’ identity. First, Jesus sends out the 12 disciples and gave them “power and authority” over all demons and to cure diseases. As Christians who know the rest of the story, we might never stop to think about the audacity of this act. Who does Jesus think he is to grant mere mortals the power and authority over demons and to cure disease? Luke’s original audience might have asked this question at this point in the story. Who does Jesus think he is? He tells them to take nothing for their journey – in other words, rely on God alone for the provision of your needs. The disciples do as Jesus commands them, and we hear they bring the good news throughout the villages and cure diseases everywhere.

The second vignette cuts to Herod the Tetrarch hearing about “all that had taken place,” and we hear he is perplexed about the identity of Jesus. The buzz in the street is that Elijah had appeared or one of the prophets of old had been raised from the dead. Herod knows this cannot be John the Baptist – he ordered John beheaded. Luke tells us Herod tried to see Jesus, but there is no indication he was ever able to arrange the meeting.

This perplexity of Herod and the introduction of the idea that Jesus might be Elijah returned sets the stage for the third vignette: the feeding of the 5,000. Here we have Jesus feeding the 5,000 with the meager offering of five loaves of bread and two fish. This feeding miracle is not directly linked to Elijah, but to his successor prophet Elisha, who, as recorded in the Second Book of Kings, fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread. This feeding miracle, preceded by the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain in Luke 7, is linking Jesus to these great prophets of ancient Israel. Could Jesus be one of these great prophets?

Now Jesus puts the question clearly to the disciples: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

Who the crowds say that Jesus is has been set up by Luke’s narrative – he’s John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the ancient prophets arisen. But it is Peter who speaks the deeper reality: “You are the Christ of God.” While Peter says this, it is not clear that he or the disciples understand the full ramifications of what it means. Jesus continues on and tells them the Christ of God, the anointed one, must suffer and die at the hands of the very religious experts who claim to speak for God! This teaching just doesn’t make any sense to a first-century Jew – surely it perplexed the disciples.

It is after all of this that Luke tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus’ appearance was “transfigured” or, in Greek, “metamorphosed.” Instead, he says the appearance of Jesus’ face “changed,” which in Greek reads “became other.” Jesus’ face became different, and his clothing became dazzling white. This change in the appearance of Jesus’ face is reminiscent of the change in appearance of Moses’ face as he came down from Sinai, which continues the theme of Jesus being one of these ancient prophets. It is at this point our idea that Jesus is either Moses or Elijah is shattered when both of these ancient prophets appear with Jesus and begin to speak of Jesus’ departure – or, in Greek, “exodus” – which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. All three appear in glory as they speak of another exodus – an exodus through the suffering of the cross. Suddenly, the meaning of what it is to be the Christ of God is revealed as the veil is lifted for the disciples to see.

As Moses and Elijah depart, Peter, not really knowing what he was saying, blurts out his offer to build three booths: one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. While Peter’s thinking was lacking clarity – cloudy, if you will – a cloud descends on the disciples and they enter the cloud filled with terror. They hear a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice interrupts Peter’s babblings about booths and brings clarity to all of the disciples: Jesus is no ordinary prophet. He is not just another great teacher. Jesus is the Son of God, the Chosen one, and this is why we are to listen to him.

The story of the Transfiguration is one that grounds the identity of Jesus as Son of God, but through the experience of suffering, death and resurrection. Luke’s narrative hints at the glory of the empty tomb, but only after Jesus says it will come through the darkness of suffering and death. The earthly trappings of glory – power, riches and fame – are not the same as the glory of God brought to us through the cross.

The Transfiguration is a story that calls us to face our understanding of Jesus’ identity: “Who is Jesus to me?” and “Who is Jesus to us?” And although we hear this story over and over, we still have trouble accepting a Christ of God whose glory comes through suffering and death.

After 2,000 years, we still resist this message! Our cultural trappings around Christianity have distorted his glory as being grounded in something other than his suffering, death and resurrection. We are tempted to wrap Jesus in all kinds of false messages, because glory through suffering still makes no sense. We see evidence of this when we hear Jesus wrapped in nationalism by those who claim we are a “Christian nation” and attempt to enshrine biblical interpretation in secular law. We see it in the claims of prosperity from theologians who claim that all God wants to do is to bless you with more wealth and privilege, and imply that if you do not receive these blessings, it is because you are not “right with the Lord.” All of these false messages of glory through something other than the cross are false teachings. But they are persistent because God’s glory revealed through death and resurrection just does not make rational sense.

But just because something is not rational does not mean it is not real.

We may, like the disciples, see only brief glimpses of God’s glory in this life, while other worldly claims seem more prevalent. But our call as Christians is to see through false claims of earthly glory. We are to face the cross, its suffering and death, trusting that a resurrected life in God lies beyond.

Who do we say Jesus is? He is the crucified one with whom we are joined in baptism in a life where suffering and death happen, but are not the last word.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

God’s Passion, our passion, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2014

April 18, 2014

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

Each year, year after year after year, Christians gather on Good Friday to rehearse this story – what we call the Passion Narrative. On Palm Sunday we read versions from Matthew, Mark and Luke. On Good Friday it has always been from John. Each gospel offers a slightly different view of what happened on that day nearly 2,000 years ago. It is like looking at a diamond from different angles – one sees different facets, different sparkles, different ways the light plays off the gem stone.

For John, Jesus is Light – and His Light is the Life of the world. We call it Good Friday, even though it looks as if the light is extinguished. But for people of faith, we know that is just not the case. We know the rest of the story. We know that the darkness has not overcome the light.

But we do know a few things about darkness in today’s world. We see it from far off, we see it up close and personal. From the tragedy at the World Trade Towers, the tragedies of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see it in friends and family members who suffer from ailments like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we see it in young men whose lives are so broken they go on senseless shooting sprees in schools, movie theaters, churches and shopping malls.

There is darkness for those who have lost their jobs, for the child born of a mother addicted to crack cocaine, for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute and those without jobs here and around the world. For those who live under oppressive military dictatorships, for those mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers who sit on death row, for those who live with HIV/AIDS. We know something about darkness.

Darkness for John is evil – specifically the evil of living under the military yoke of Rome. Even more so, John and his community hold the memory of Jesus standing up to evil, to the imperial powers and the ruling religious authorities, to say that a lot of people, most people, are not getting the kind of care and support they need to survive – the kind of care and support our God commands us to provide as individuals and as a community.

This month, on April 4, we celebrated the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the church we observe the date of the martyr’s death, not his birthday like the rest of the country does in January. The night before he was assassinated, he had been in Memphis, Tennessee, to support the sanitation workers, garbage men, who were striking for a living wage. In his last days he was also an outspoken critic of our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia, against the war in Viet Nam. Some years before that, Dr. King was incarcerated in the Birmingham, Alabama, jail, from which he wrote a series of letters urging white Christians to join his movement to end racial discrimination – segregation, what amounted to apartheid in America.

In one of these letters, Dr. King quotes one of the 20th century’s most renowned theologians, Reinhold Neibuhr. Quoting from Neibuhr’s book, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” Dr. King reminds the white clergy of Birmingham that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” It has been observed that individuals rarely act immorally or practice bad ethics on their own. Such behavior patterns usually emerge in the actions and attitudes of a group – however large or small. It is the group mentality, or to quote the sociologist Erik Fromm, the “herd mentality” that drives greater hatred than the individual. Think of the Holocaust, the Ku Klux Klan, Rawanda, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, the Expulsion by the Church of the Jews from Spain, the Crusades and numerous other similar movements throughout history.

This theory suggests that evil always needs help. Evil needs companions! Evil, the devil, does not and cannot act on its own in order to achieve its intended goal. By comparison, “goodness” or “godliness” can always stand and act on its own merits.

This is what is going on in this story about Jesus. Evil had just enough companions to crucify him on that Friday, the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which, that year, was to be on the Sabbath. The collusion and collaboration between the Roman soldiers, politicians, religious authorities already on the payroll of Rome, and the usual crowd of “rubberneckers” always looking for a gory site to behold, was just enough to put him on a cross and let him hang there for all to see what the consequences may be for those who dare to act out of goodness and godliness to speak truth to power.

It is the Day of Preparation before the Passover. Jesus has been arrested. People all over Jerusalem are preparing for the Passover feast. Lambs are slaughtered for the Passover feast. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate cannot understand that Jesus is Truth. No one seems to understand, even to this day, that God’s new revelation and God’s Good News is not a doctrine or an idea, but a person – a person like any one of us. “A person,” writes Evelyn Underhill in her book “The School of Charity”:

 “whose story and statements, in every point and detail, give us some deep truth about the life and will of God who creates and sustains us, and about the power and vocation of a soul which is transformed in Him, and pays ungrudgingly the price of generous love.”

John’s passion has numerous unique details: Jesus sends Judas out from the Last Supper; Jesus is not identified by Judas’ kiss but steps forward announcing, “I am he”; Jesus is not silent before Pilate, but speaks to him; Jesus carries his own cross and does not stumble or fall. But is there any more tender and yet powerful moment than when Jesus, already nailed to the cross, as his last act of divine charity gives up his spirit – or, as we used to say, handed over his spirit?

It is that “giving up” that compels us to pay attention to this story year in and year out. In both Hebrew and in Greek there is just one word that means “spirit,” “breath” and “wind.” All three are understood to come from God. God’s breath is our breath, God’s spirit is what sustains our life, and God’s wind fills our sails and directs us and sends us places we would never imagine going ourselves to do things we could never imagine doing. Here in his final act of charity toward humankind, Jesus gives up his spirit – he hands over, he offers us His Spirit: the Spirit of God.

Jesus does not give in to the herd mentality. He does not give in to group evil. He remains steadfast in speaking truth to power, just like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ghandhi, Pauli Murray, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Martin King, just like so many other individuals throughout human history who have made a difference.

This story we read together today is drenched with meaning. Today let us focus on the fact that the choice is ours. The choice is always ours. Evil is always looking for companions. Evil is always looking for help. And the choice to side with evil is often attractive. There always appears to be something in it for us, even if it is just the cheap thrill of watching someone else suffer.

The other choice, of course, is to stand up to evil. To stand our ground. Not to give in to the group. To speak truth to power. Or to simply walk away and say we will not participate.

The world is still a dangerous place. There is no limit, however, to how much goodness and godliness even one person can give to the world. If there is one moment to remember from this Passion Narrative of John’s, it is that final moment, when Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit – that moment when God’s Passion becomes our Passion.

He gives it to us. He is still giving it to us. The man who healed people, helped people, fed people, gave outsiders dignity, and welcomed all to sit at his table and share a meal, gives his spirit to us. The question that resides deep within the rites and rituals of Good Friday, however, is, will we accept his spirit?

Will we take God’s Spirit and make it our own? Will we set our sails to capture God’s divine wind, breath and spirit and allow it to direct us and take us to places we have never been to do things we have never done?

The world needs His Spirit. The world needs your spirit. The church needs your spirit. You can accept His Spirit, which he gives away, which is given for the world, not just for Christians, not just for believers, but for the whole world, and you can do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit.

The World needs you. The church needs you. God needs you. We all need one another.

Our choice must be to accept that spirit of goodness and godliness, the spirit of God’s divine charity, and make it our own. We must allow God’s Passion to become our Passion. When we do, what looks like a tragic story becomes good – a very good story. This is why we call it Good Friday!

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Our mandate for this day: Love one another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2014

April 17, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The ancient designation of this day, this night, is “Maundy,” a form of the word “mandate.” And what is a mandate? It is a command, a demand, an order, an administrative determination, a legal authority, something required. It is mandatory, rather than optional. No choice.

So, what is our mandate on this day? To love one another.

The story of this day, this night, includes dinner with friends, some farewell speeches, the washing of feet, entreaties to wakefulness, sleep, betrayal, violence, absence. It is a night of sweetness and of division, of coming together and ripping apart. The stories we most often associate with this day, this night, and which we remember most fondly, are the stories of a last supper, of Jesus instructing his disciples to “remember me,” of Jesus washing his followers’ feet.

Maundy Thursday is generally regarded as the occasion for the institution of the Eucharist, what some call Holy Communion, to commemorate Jesus’ last meal. Numerous congregations will have a ceremonial washing of feet.

But do you remember, too, the entreaty of Jesus to “watch with me for a little while,” when his disciples wanted to sleep? Loneliness. Abandonment. The quiet of a slumbering night. Do you remember the betrayal of Judas, when he identified his lord to the soldiers? Treachery. Anger. The other disciples responded with horror. One disciple cut off a soldier’s ear before Jesus stopped him. Finally, Jesus was hauled away by the soldiers, the disciples were left alone in shock and grief, Peter stumbled around, lost, denying he even knew Jesus, and the cock crowed. Once. Twice. Three times. The dawning of a new and terrible day when people would be put to death.

This is not a time to be sentimental. It is not a time for pleasant reminiscing. There is nothing charming about this part of our Christian story. Indeed, it has all the elements of a modern crime drama of the worst kind.

In the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, we read of Jesus and the meal of bread and wine. Many details are missing from this story. Who prepared the meal? What else did they have to eat? Was anyone else in attendance? These gospel writers have distilled it down to its essence: It was a final meal of bread and wine during which Jesus instructed his followers to share these elements, to remember him in doing so, and to love one another.

In John’s gospel we get a different take on things, a different emphasis, with the story of the foot washing. John tells of a meal, too, but his focus is more on the show and tell: “this is what it looks like when you love one another.”

When we mark Maundy Thursday, we mark the beginning of the end, in a sense. It is the time when Jesus bid farewell to his followers on this earth and gave them final instructions for carrying on in his absence. It was a last opportunity for Jesus to tell them his message and show them what he meant: Love one another; do it like this.

But there is another aspect of the story that we must remember, and we need to tell if we are to be honest, and if we are to fully appreciate the events of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday. Yes, this occasion commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

But we must give consideration, too, to the brokenness of these events.

When we come together Sunday after Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist and proclaim Jesus’ words to “do this in remembrance of me,” what do we do next?

We break the bread.

Breaking bread is a practice steeped in tradition, going back deep into Jewish history. It is also a practical action prior to sharing a meal. Breaking bread is mentioned throughout scripture in connection with ordinary meals, ritual meals and the miracle meals of Jesus, such as the feeding of the 5,000 chronicled in John’s gospel. This breaking of the bread is an important part of the story as the synoptic gospels tell it, yet is absent from the Gospel of John, which we read this day. Why?

For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptics, Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples. Jesus ate the Passover meal, ate the bread. For John, on the other hand, Jesus was the Passover meal, the Passover sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb of God who is sacrificed for us. Jesus was present in the actual bread. Jesus was the bread. It was Jesus who would be betrayed and killed and shed the ritual blood that would redeem the people before God.

Jesus was the Passover sacrifice.

And so when we come together for the Eucharist, to commemorate the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, and we break that bread, it is much more than simply breaking bread that we may share it out among the gathered community. It is breaking Jesus all over again, that he may be the ritual sacrifice for us.

We break the bread. We break the Body. We break his body, as we have broken our promises, our commitments, our relationships, our community. All. Over. Again.

This is a pivotal point of the Eucharist, a pivotal point of our Maundy Thursday story, when Jesus is taken whole and consecrated to God, and then broken on the altar of our sins.

In the record of the synoptic gospels, Jesus and the disciples are nourished, body and soul, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a meal, much as we commemorate in our Eucharist.

In John’s gospel, there is a different kind of breaking, a different sort of nourishment. For John, Jesus is the sacrificial figure, but the emphasis here is not on the Eucharist. So that when Jesus washes feet, he is offering nourishment of a different sort. When he breaks himself, lowers himself, to take on water bowl and towel and perform this lowly act of comfort, he is giving life to the words: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The love of Jesus, the love of God, the love of neighbor, is more than breaking bread in church. It is emptying oneself in love and modesty to be filled with the spirit of God in service to our neighbors.

John’s relation of the story of this day, this night, has a message for us beyond the breaking of bread, even beyond the breaking of the Body of Christ, which we do over and over again in our lives and in our Eucharistic worship.

John’s message is this: Remember me. Love one another. And this is how you do it.

“Love one another” is our mandate for this day. As we break the Body of Jesus once again in the act of breaking bread, may we remember his command to love one another, and better yet, his example given us in the Gospel of John, to take care of one another – in remembrance of our Lord.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

What audience?, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2014

March 5, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today’s gospel text almost comes as a relief: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. It’s a relief because we can be fairly reluctant to show signs of piety before others, especially when we’re outside of our worship service. If you want to get strange looks, read your Bible in public, pray aloud in a restaurant or talk about what Jesus means to you to the person next to you while you’re waiting for a bus. So a gospel lesson in which Jesus says it’s better to practice your religious duties in secret may elicit a sigh of relief.

But it’s odd, isn’t it? Especially when a few weeks ago when we read Matthew 5:15, Jesus talks about letting our “light shine before others, so they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” Why the emphasis today on secrecy? And why the emphasis on secrecy today, on the one day of the year when we actually receive a visible mark, the imposition of ashes, that unmistakably says, “Something different is going on here”? Are we trying to show something? If so, to whom?

We have to start by noting that the ashes are not for God. We’re not trying to show God something by wearing ashes on our foreheads. In Isaiah, God says it clearly: What I want from you is not sackcloth and ashes. I don’t want you sitting around looking miserable. I want you to get up and do something. Something good. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Give to the poor. Change the world. That’s the kind of religious offering I’m looking for.

Does God want to see something? Yes. But it’s not ashes. It’s us getting busy. Doing God’s work in the world.

Jesus wants to see action too. His message today is about practicing our faith, linking our spiritual lives to action, through almsgiving – giving money for the care of people in need, and through prayer and fasting. These were three very important demonstrations of spiritual devotion in the Judaism Jesus practiced. Notice that Jesus assumes his followers do these three things. He says, “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” and “when you fast” – not “if.”

Living our spirituality through action is an important way to respond to God. So why does Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others”?

Jesus’ words highlight two things that can rule human life, two things that can distract us from having a right relationship with God. Jesus knows we can be motivated and misled by concerns over audience and reward. By audience, we mean, for whom are we acting? For whom are we doing our religious activities? Who is our audience when we give alms or do any charitable act? When we pray? When we deny ourselves anything? For whose benefit do we do these things? Who are we hoping will notice?

Who is our intended audience? The word Jesus uses in his instruction is “hypocrite,” from the Greek word for “actor.” Jesus warns us against being like hypocrites who draw attention to themselves when they put their check in the offering plate or say maybe too loudly as they wave the plate away, “I give online”; who make a show out of praying in public, who clear their throats before taking their Bibles out to read in front of you. The hypocrite acts for others. The hypocrite plays a role, and may not even realize it’s only an act.

The other concern that goes along with audience is reward. When the hypocrites do their religious duty as an act for the benefit of being seen by others, they have received their reward: They have been seen by others. That’s it. They have been noticed by people. Jesus invites us to put our faith into action, not so we can be noticed by people, but so we will receive our reward from God. Three times he says, “and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.”

Is it wrong to be noticed by others? No. If we let our light shine, if others see the good we do, we can be powerful witnesses to God’s compassion, mercy and love. But Jesus says if we’re motivated by being noticed by people and rewarded by people, that will be our only reward. If all the attention you want is from other people, help yourself. But why settle for less than the reward God wants to give us?

So why the ashes? If they’re not for God, and they’re not about being noticed by others, why do something so visible and exterior?

Ashes are a reminder of humility and honesty. Sometimes we get confused about what true humility is. It’s not beating ourselves up. It’s not denigrating ourselves and saying bad things about ourselves to bring ourselves down a notch. It is not some strange reverse pride where we say, “Really, no one is as bad as I am, no one is as stupid, foolish or forgetful as me. I have achieved the bottom-most rung of human reality. How can God possibly love someone as lowly as me? God couldn’t possibly love me; I’m just dirt.”

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will hear as we receive our ashes, reminding us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground. If we are dust, we are beloved dust, and God can do great things with just plain dirt once it’s filled with the very breath and Spirit of God.

Humility is about looking at what is true and real. Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are: finite, flawed, dependent on God, and completely, utterly, totally loved by God, nonetheless.

As we begin our Lenten journey, we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. We are invited to spend this Lent learning to trust that God is gracious and kind and forgiving and merciful, and that what humans think of us isn’t as important as our relationship with God and what we do for others because we are loved by God.

We are invited to take on a discipline of doing some action solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God’s Spirit to come in and move around it us.

God wants to be the focus of our attention and longing. God wants to be our audience and our reward. Let’s not settle for anything less.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Waiting, watching and discovering the glory of God, Presentation (A,B,C) – 2014

February 2, 2014

[NOTE: Because the Feast of the Presentation falls on a Sunday this year, its lectionary readings take precedence over the usual readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany in Year A.]

Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84 or Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Today we celebrate one of the principal feasts of the church – and, no, we are not talking about the Super Bowl!

The strange thing is that many will never have heard of it. The Feast of the Presentation occurs each year on February 2nd – exactly 40 days after Christmas. Most years the feast slips by us on a weekday, with perhaps a celebration scattered here and there.

This year, however, February 2nd falls on a Sunday, and this great feast takes precedence over what would otherwise be the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany.

The full name of today’s feast is the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. It’s a celebration of one of Jesus’ major life events; that’s what makes it a principal feast.

You may also have heard of it as “Candlemas” or “the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

“Candlemas” because this is the feast when candles are traditionally blessed.

In some places, today marks the end of the Christmas season, which is not observed as 12 days of Christmas, but 40 days of the Incarnation.

And “Purification of Mary” because the law of Moses required that she – like the infant Jesus – participate in a rite of purification 40 days after childbirth.

That’s the why of the event: Joseph and Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing along with them a pair of turtledoves to offer as a sacrifice.

But what happens at the Temple is nothing short of miraculous.

Two prophets encounter Jesus and understand there is something special about him.

First, there’s Simeon.

Simeon, we are told, was righteous and devout. And he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah.

You can imagine his plight. The older he got, the more he likely asked, “Is this the one?” of every person he encountered. “Is today the day?” And the answer must have been “No, not today”  a thousand times over.

But on this day, he takes the infant Jesus into his arms and sings:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

It is, of course, a text well known to Anglicans as one of the usual two canticles at Evensong.

And it is also a prophecy. Simeon says, basically: Today I have seen my salvation, my Lord, my Savior. And this God has made this revelation for the glory of his people.

We are told that Mary and Joseph were amazed. Jesus was not yet 6 weeks old. They had survived encounters with angels, shepherds praising God, wise ones from the east bearing gifts, and dreams that caused them to escape into Egypt.

And yet they must’ve wondered. Could they have said to themselves, “Do they really mean our child?” or even “Do these people really mean any child can be the savior of humankind?”

And then there’s another prophet, Anna.

We are told she had lived 84 years – no easy feat in first-century Palestine, especially for a woman! She prayed and fasted in the Temple night and day.

But on this day, she noticed that something was different. She finds Mary and Joseph and the baby and begins to tell about him. “Praise be to God,” she may have said, “for this truly is the redeemer of the world.”

So we have a story about waiting, a story about watching, and a story about discovery.

Waiting for the day to come, for the savior to appear, for all things to be put right.

Watching to see that the day has come, that this child is destined for the falling and rising of many.

And the discovery that God has revealed all this to us: this light that lightens all the world, this child who redeems all people, this savior who is Christ the Lord.

Like the prophet Simeon, we yearn for the coming of the Messiah, for all in this world to be put right: for the hungry to be fed, for prisoners to be set free, for the sick to be healed.

Like the prophet Anna, we hope that our prayer and sacrifice and faithfulness will be fulfilled: that equality will come for all God’s people, that peace will prevail over the whole earth, that justice will conquer all oppression.

And so, we believe.

We believe because we are tired of waiting.

We believe because we are weary of watching.

And we believe because we have discovered the truth.

The hard truth of Christmas, of Candlemas, of the Purification, of the Presentation: the hard truth of the Incarnation is, in the words of Howard Thurman, simply this:

“After the prophets have spoken,
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

Let us work, pray and give to make it so.

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates currently serves as interim rector of St. John’s Church, Montclair, N.J. He welcomes comments and chat to revdocbates@gmail.com and invites you to follow his blog of inspirational quotes, recommended reading and occasional spiritual musings.