Statue of the Virgin & Child at Saint John’s
Statue of the Virgin & Child at Saint John’s
Just what are we doing here in the mid-night? I find myself in a new place this Christmas, different from any other in my 61 years. This state is new for my 31 years in this collar. I feel a peaceful agitation a tender urgency to proclaim the awe-ful mystery that orders time from before & after the events of this night! In the name of the one most holy child conceived in the Virgins womb hear & perceive the wondrous gift given us.
They studied the story just as we do. Let us follow their lead in plumbing the depths of sacred story
There are Four Senses of Scripture –
I. The literal story that charms the world this one night. What a nice story, if only it were true. In the Church tonight we will tell the story & the pews fill, some to overflowing as if by some primordial instinctual urge to return to remember, almost remember why? And, yet will leave from our several churches this night, vaguely unsatisfied.
If we remain with only this sense of the Scripture we loiter near but not near enough.
II. Deeper than the text itself, lies the symbolic layer of meaning. This room is literally screaming with symbol. This place makes no sense without the key to the lock of meaning in this place.
The Lady Chapel to my left is place to start. There the Virgin sits dressed in red dress & blue cloak, red is the color of earth & blue of heaven. The angel promised her that the Holy Spirit would over-shadow her womb –
The same word described the brooding contemplation by the Spirit of God over the waters of chaos in the beginning. From her womb came the child, the holy child, who is the word made flesh.
There in the mural he sits in his mother’s lap, fully human yet not infant shaped, no he is proportioned as an fully grown man. Mary displays him to the world and he looking directly at us beckons restraint with his left while raising his right hand in blessing.
The identical posture he takes in the great tower wall – Jesus enthroned in glory. This sense of Scripture is artful & instructive & yet not enough.
III. The Moral Sense of Scripture is deeper yet and demands a response. What are we to do? The shepherds are privy to the oratorio of the angels, and yet do they not go and see this thing that has come to pass? They do go and there in that womb, that cave, find the babe lying in a manager. And yet there is another depth that the Holy Spirit reveal if we are willing.
IV. Here the duo of heart & mind unite in a great paradoxical one, holding contradicting opposites in a holy tension. What happens this night is only historic rumor and magical tale unless it reaches its holy conclusion.
Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic, of the 13th Century, wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.
Saint Basil, the Great, in the fourth Century, speaks from the mystic depths when he said, “There are many annunciations, few Incarnations. “
Oh Lord, let one of those rare, elusive incarnations, be born here this night, in us. Amen.
Mary & Jesus with Elizabeth & John
December 23, 2012
Tradition says that Mary was at the well drawing water when Gabriel first approached her with the prospectus. Artists often show her tilting her head as if listening carefully – for the good news comes through hearing as we know – and it came to pass that she … was pregnant … and then the neighbors & the busybodies noticed she was showing. Knowing full well she was not living with Joseph that it couldn’t be his child – and of course it was not his child – it’s was the Son of God.
In the second century a Greek philosopher named Celsus repeated a vicious rumor that as he put it, “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and bore a child to a certain [Roman] soldier named Panthera.” It doesn’t get uglier than that …
That being the case it is small wonder that Mary made haste to the hills of Judea to the home of her Aunt Elizabeth & Uncle Zechariah who up in years were the archetypal childless couple who doted on the nieces & nephews.
But suddenly, to the amazement of everyone, Elizabeth is pregnant and she is now in her sixth month.
Ephrem the Syrian –“ Our Lord prepared his herald in a dead womb, to show that he came after a dead Adam. He vivified Elizabeth’s womb first, and then vivified the soul of Adam through his body”
The babe leapt in her womb – the crippled man in the temple went walking & leaping & praising God.
The word Hallelujah is rooted in a Hebrew letter that represents a leaping man.
Christians from the beginning examined scriptures from more than one perspective. There are two of them with one those two having three parts.
The literal story itself
§ Mary is the soul that opens to the creative Holy Spirit
§ Her womb filled with water – like the waters of creation in Genesis, the Holy Spirit broods, some say, like a nesting hen.
§ Every time we create a concept – we hearken back to the listening Virgin
The moral (what might this call ME to DO?)
§ Saint Basil the Great once said that “there are many annunciations but few incarnations.”
The mystical (when the soul is stirred, and the head operates with the heart)
The symbolic & moral layers deepen yet again to a place we cannot will into being.
Come, abide within me;
let my soul, like Mary,
be thine earthly sanctuary.
Come, indwelling Spirit,
with transfiguring splendor;
love and honor will I render.
Where I go here below,
let me bow before thee,
know thee, and adore thee.
Suddenly, to quote Ellis Peters, there is an sudden irresistible movement of grace, and our horizons expand – past our petty peeves & sniveling sins – beyond what we think is important – every problem & compulsion loses its urgency and we have clarity, peaceful clarity.
It is real. What happened to Mary in history must happen in me spiritually! I must be pregnant with Jesus.
When a pregnant woman enters a room everyone in the room recognizes the life that is within her; in former days in recognition of that life, a man rose promptly to offer her his seat if one was not available for her.
Maybe this is the year, the time, high time, God’s time that there be not only a annunciation but this year an incarnation.
The Visitation – Upon seeing Mary, the babe leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. Mary breaks into song. It is the duet scene in the musical of the Incarnation.
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.
– Meister Eckhart, 1260-1328, German Dominican
… and a little child will lead them.
Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming but not at Sandy Hook School or Newtown Connecticut – they, who planned to celebrate the coming of the Christ child, rather bury their hopes. It is cold & now bitter.
Bryan Fischer, American Family Association said two days ago that, “God could have protected those children in Newtown but he didn’t because he doesn’t go where he is not wanted.”
Jeremiah 31:15 Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
I say to you this morning that God has always gone where He wasn’t wanted, what Christmas but God is sending his own son where he was not wanted or expected into risk & ultimate death for our sakes. Never forget that in the middle of the Christmas story, Herod murdered the children of Bethlehem, all younger than 2.
What do we do? What do we do in the face of such violence? What do we do with the anxiety that rises in our souls? I’ll tell you what we do, we work on ourselves, calming ourselves down and growing up so that we will be ready when we are called on.
This is the message of John the Baptizer
John the Baptizer was what the folks I grew up with in the country would call a “hell-fire and brimstone” preacher. That was his theme and he preached it every time. John did not pull punches, He said to those who came to hear him, “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flew from the wrath to come,” as if they were snakes fleeing a burning building. And he told them not to tell him who their daddy was or how they were descended from Abraham, ‘cause God could raise up children to Abraham from the rocks on the riverbank. “The chain saw is at the root of the tree”, he railed, “and those trees that bears rotten fruit will be slashed and burned.”
In today’s Gospel reading we learn that John attracted an enormous crowd. This is one of those rare passages where we have an extra-biblical document, which throws light on the scriptural story, namely Josephus. He writes in The Antiquities of the Jews, “Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seems ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause …”.
Luke gives us insight into Herod’s anxiety by telling us that the crowds consisted of three groups: the ordinary folks/the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers. John Meier writes in, A Marginal Jew, “The two great props of any regime are the military and the financial institutions. If these not especially religious Jews are flocking to John and hanging on his words, the power of the state might be undermined. So Herod moved against John.
But for the time being John worked along the Jordan River, preaching repentance.”
I. Repentance is a word that has become very negative in our culture. I suspect that the reason for that is that repentance usually comes after someone has been caught in something and that something has been proven beyond any doubt. Repentance has become what celebrities do on talk shows to repair their image. That is less about forgiveness and reconciliation than damage control. Frederick Buechner writes in Theological ABC’s, “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m sorry, than to the future and saying “Wow!”
That was what happened in the Jordan valley. People were coming to their senses; people you would never have dreamed would, people you would have rather did not were waking up, coming to their sense: tax collecting scalawags and cutthroat mercenaries. Repentance is that moment when we stop looking around us to see what mischief others are doing and look at ourselves at our own errors and sins. We begin to sing that old southern spiritual, “it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. It’s not the soldier, It’s not the tax collector, it’s not the (insert favorite sinner here), It’s me, it’s me O Lord standing in the need of prayer.”
An essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been very important in my thinking over the years of my ministry. It is entitled, “Repentance and Self-limitation in the life of nations.” In it he writes, “It is the gift of repentance which perhaps more than anything else distinguishes man from the animal world. Throughout history we have paid dearly for the fact that we have all throughout the ages preferred to censure, denounce and hate others, instead of censuring, denouncing and hating ourselves. The line between good and evil cuts not between peoples and nations and individuals, but through them . … It divides the heart of every man.”
I. Repentance: The process of Repentance begins when we wake up. We wake up to the good news of God in Christ Jesus. We wake up to our contribution to the brokenness in us and around us. Waking up is just clearing the ground, making a clean basis for spiritual growth. Feeling momentarily sorry and then continuing on our way won’t do it. Waking up and repenting begins the process, but that is not the end.
The crowds asked John, “What then shall we do?”
1. Those who have two coats — share one.
2. Those who have food —- share what you have.
3. Tax collectors —- collect only the amount prescribed.
4. Soldiers – do not extort money, be satisfied with your wage.
Solzhenitsyn describes the process that comes after repentance.
II. Renounce the use of force———do not extort.
Give up force and choose not to expand in every direction. Force is not just holding up someone with a gun. It is the abuse of power because we have it and someone else does not. We are taught to do what we want because we can. We eat more, drink more, and consume more we can. It is as if we thing that because we can therefore we must. We are called to inner development rather than outward expansion. This is a useful thought in this the most excessive time of the year.
III. Self-limitation —————— share, be satisfied with your wage.
Solzhenitsyn, “The definition of freedom for a Christian is self limitation for the sake of others.” Limitation of others is an idea we entertain regularly. “Why does this person not give it a rest,” we say. Our stomach tells the story when certain people call or come by. Some people do not visit they invade our lives. They often preface all this by saying they are only trying to help and are doing it for our own good. We all know them. They pinch our cheeks when we were little and press our boundaries when we are adults.
Of course the truth is they are us. To have our boundaries respected we have to respect the boundaries of others. To leave room around us for breathing and loving is a gift we give others and ourselves. This will be particularly welcome to those closest to us. Freedom requires courage and sacrifice.
Advent is about waking up. Really, waking up and saying WOW!
We are free not to extort.
We are free not to take from other people.
We are free to share our spare coat.
We are free to share our food.
We are free to limit ourselves for the sake of others.
John the Baptizer validated his message by practicing what he preached. The crowds admired John and said, “Is he Messiah, the one who is to come?” John said, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John modeled repentance, renunciation of force and self-limitation. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) in one of his essays calls John the Baptizer, the paranymphias (aranymphias) ofan supports the bridegroom. He stands by to give assistance in whatever is needed best man. The role of the best man is unique in our culture. The best m Nothing is too trivial or menial for him to do if his friend needs it. He participates in the joy of his great friend. Out of love for his friend he joyfully takes the role of servant. The joy of the friend of the Bridegroom is the joy of every soul at the approach of Christ. The attitude of John the best man is the posture of our souls on our way to Christ; repentance renunciation of force and self-limiting love is the posture proper to the friend of the bridegroom.
John the Baptizer is a sign to us of hope. He preached and lived out a life of repentance.
Advent is about the good news of repentance.
Let us repent, renounce force and limit ourselves that we may with joy greet the coming of the Bridegroom, Jesus the Christ, our Lord and our Friend.