Reflections for the Great Vigil of Easter

This holy night is radiant with our good news. Out of the darkness, now this light.

I love the way the light dawns in the Great Vigil of Easter: from nothing—absolute nothing, the utter darkness of the grave—a new fire.

This is the truth about this day; this is what we celebrate and proclaim in Holy Week and at Easter.

We have been taken down to nothing: the blackness of the grave. That is where we find ourselves in the aftermath of the cross. On that cross our ‘No’ writ large, ‘no’ to God’s grace, ‘no’ to God’s healing, so many ways of turning away from our God, from our good, from our life. So many ways of dying to the light, and all of them come to a head on Good Friday, in Christ dying, on the cross.

There is our light and our life—if we only knew it—the immeasurable love and life of God nailed by our own hands to the cross. And there was darkness over the whole earth…. All things on Good Friday reach their nadir, their absolute zero. The good world God has made disintegrates into darkness again.

In this darkness we come here tonight as the women came while it was still dark to the tomb. We come in the utter emptiness that is the world without God.

And here on this holy night, out of the darkness of the death at our hands of the Son of God—suddenly a new fire, the light of Christ.

When we light that new fire, when the Paschal candle burns, down the dark aisle of the church, we announce the world’s new birth.

It starts as a promise, a few candles in a great darkness, the words of all the prophets from the birth of the world to Zephaniah, telling in the darkness God’s faithfulness and God’s power, the promise through years of the world’s wandering again and again into the valley of the shadow of death, the promise again and again of life.

From God’s first word in creation—let there be light!—through the Red Sea, into the place of dry bones and beyond it to Zephaniah’s hope, the promise is heard. God is for us. Even in our darkness God is for us. Who then will be against us?

The promise sounds in the scriptures down through the ages and then it sounds in Jesus the Christ.

It sounds in his birth and in his life, his word of mercy and truth; his hands that touch and heal; his feet that walk the world to proclaim the time of God’s redemption. The promise sounds in Christ’s life and it sounds finally in his death.

Here, it turns out, here beyond all expectation in the darkness of the tomb, God is with us finally, here in this last darkness, to save.

Out of the darkness the new light springs.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. And the darkness forever is changed. No longer the end; no longer the place only of tears; even the tomb by the power of God, by His unfathomable love, the place now of life.

And the light shines in the darkness—

Word of God here with us

Word of God spoken in the beginning now spoken again: let there be light. Kaine ktisis, Paul says, new creation.

And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

So we ring our bells and sing, this night, sing for the coming of the light.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

Here in our midst God’s promise, our true light.

 

 

Image:

Taize cross and candle, courtesy of https://www.stjohnthedivine.bc.ca/file/taize-candle-8493584444a3affe9c0akjpg

Advertisements

Lent V: On Dying

Jesus said to Judas, “Let her be. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:8).

It is, it seems to me, fitting that the recent statement from the Government of Canada on Doctor-Assisted Suicide (or “MAID” as it is being called: Medical Assistance in Dying, to cover nurses and other health-care providers as well) has been released during Lent, as we are on our way toward Jesus’ dying. For dying—Jesus’ dying—stands at the heart of our faith. Nor is it just any dying. It is death on the cross. It is dying in great suffering; suffering and death together. Always, over all we do and say and pray this Lent—over all we do and say and pray in all of our lives—the cross rises, Jesus’ suffering death. And we claim it as our good news.

This is the mystery at the heart of our faith. Jesus’ dying, his suffering death, is Good Friday, our good news.

That suffering death may be good news is very hard to hear. Every instinct cries out against it, because death ends a life that we know to be precious and suffering lays a pall over it. If life and health are good—and they are; our life is from the beginning God’s good gift and God desires us to flourish—then suffering and death are bad. That is why the current euthanasia movement has so much traction. It offers an escape from suffering and if it cannot offer an escape from death, it can at least offer control over it. Death be not proud, we wish to say. We will not let suffering and death get the better of us. And so, in an irony that no one seems to see, we rush to die.

Jesus, however, offers a better way. In his life and in his dying Jesus raises a giant question-mark against all programs of euthanasia, however well-meaning, all programs that encourage us to kill ourselves and each other, and offers a different way. It is a way that is rooted in love. For Jesus, too, knows the agony that death is, in the world. He knows the pain of suffering and he grieves to see it; he reaches out to the blind man and the leper and the woman who is bleeding to take their suffering away. Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus knows about the agony of dying and he walks with us there. He is walking with us there today, in John’s Gospel, on this fifth Sunday of Lent (John 12:1-8).

Jesus is in Bethany at the home of his friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His friends are having a dinner party. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was there—Lazarus whom, John adds laconically, Jesus raised from the dead. Mary takes a jar of myrrh, precious and very costly, and pours it all over Jesus’ feet. She anoints his feet with oil and then she dries them with her hair.

And the house was filled, John tells us, with the scent of the myrrh. This is a moment of beauty: Mary’s hair soft on Jesus’ feet, the air rich with myrrh; the beauty of the world poured out in love from a heart that is full.

For Lazarus is at the feast. Lazarus, Mary’s brother, whom she loves: he is at the feast, eating with Jesus, and in the very last chapter he was in the tomb. This is John 12. In John 11, Lazarus died. He was very sick; his sisters begged Jesus to come, and Jesus said, “This sickness is not for death but for the glory of God. It is so that the Son of Man may be glorified in him.” It must have seemed an incomprehensible thing to say; heartless even, when Lazarus lay dying and Jesus could have healed him. “Lord,” Mary would say later, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus was not there and Lazarus died, and his sisters laid him in the tomb. And at his tomb, Jesus wept. “See how he loved him!” those who saw it said.

And this is the point. Jesus loved Lazarus, and so he wept for his death. He wept with all those who grieved for Lazarus. Jesus wept for love of his friends, and for sorrow at their dying.  For we were not made to suffer and die. We were made to live, to live in joy in the garden, in the midst of the beauty of the earth. And God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Death is an offense against God’s good creation.

But it is our offense. It goes back to the beginning, and the garden, and our desire not to walk with God. “You shall not die,” the serpent said to the woman, “but you shall be as gods.” No longer walking with God of an evening in the garden, but walking as gods ourselves, walking by ourselves, in our own way. The turn to the individual: it goes back a long way, Genesis suggests.

And it is the defining mark of our time.  To walk without God, I by myself in lonely splendor; to walk without God into a future that finally holds death. This is what we choose, in the sovereignty of the individual. And even in death we turn to ourselves, seeking sovereignty. If I must die, I will do it myself. I will choose the time and the place: help me, we say to each other, to kill myself. In this world I am at the centre of all that is…and so in this world my death is the end.

We are bound by our dying like Lazarus in his grave-clothes. There is no way out.

And it is here that Jesus meets us. Jesus weeps at our solitude, and at our dying. He stands with us at the mouth of the tomb and says, “Lazarus, come out.”

And the dead man came out; his feet and hands bound with burial cloths and his eyes wrapped with a linen band. And Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

 Lazarus lives at Jesus’ word; Lazarus lives whom Jesus loved, and the world sees in the Son of Man the glory of God.

Is it any wonder that Mary’s heart overflows? My brother who was dead is alive again; he who was lost is found. Because of the love of Jesus he is alive again, because Jesus comes to him; because Jesus stands with him in the face of the tomb.

Mary anoints Jesus as king, this one in whom death is defeated, and she dries his feet with her hair for love of him.

It is love that has the victory here: the love of Jesus that weeps for his friend and stands with him even at the tomb; Jesus’ love, and Mary’s love in return. Love is stronger than death.

This is the great promise brought to birth on this day, in Lazarus who lives again and myrrh-bearing Mary. Love is stronger than death. This is the real truth about the world, the truth in which Mary joys, for which she spends and is spent: so much money, this precious oil, poured out all over Jesus’ feet. It is the truth that Judas does not know.

Love is stronger than death, in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the truth at the end of the world, and it changes everything. It is death’s redemption, the reason we can die, the reason we can suffer, and not be afraid.

Because Jesus is there with us. For love of us he is with us at the tomb and his love calls us out.

To this also Mary witnesses, when she pours the myrrh over Jesus’ feet. The glory of the Lord, his power over all the powers of death, over all that would harm and destroy on his holy mountain; the glory of the Lord is known in his dying.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus says to Judas, who is appalled at the profligacy of Mary’s love. Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The love that reaches out to Lazarus in his tomb leads straight to the cross. Lazarus alive again points toward Jesus’ death. So that we might not die but live: Jesus’ love has the shape of the cross. Mary pours out her heart to the one who loves her even unto death.

This is the shape of the world, this love and this cross. Christ at the heart of all things—never we alone. Christ with us always, even and especially in our dying; dying now with hope; dying whose end now is life.

It is a world made beautiful again by love even where it is most terrible, even in suffering death. It is a life made by love cross-shaped.

It is in Christ the shape of our lives.

That I may know Christ, Paul says, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing in his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death (Phil 4:10): this is Paul’s hope and his greatest desire. Why would Paul embrace suffering? Because this is to embrace Christ. We are never closer to Jesus than when we are suffering and dying.

When we live a life that looks like the cross of Christ, we live Christ’s love.

When we live a life that looks like the cross of Christ, we pour out our love at his feet as Mary poured out myrrh.

And so our dying is redeemed.

For it is in Christ no longer a sign of terror and solitude and the power of sin. It is a sign of Christ’s love and God’s great grace. Behold, I am doing a new thing, says the Lord (Isa 43:19).

This last moment of our lives may now be a last tribute from our hearts to Christ.

We will die with him as he has died for us.

We will die in him as he lives in us.

We will die in love, in Christ’s love lifted up,

now finally forever into the life of God.

Art:

Mary Anointing Jesus’ Feet: modern illustration artist unknown

The Raising of Lazarus: Rembrandt van Rijn

Last after Epiphany: The Transfiguration

When I was a child my family used to go out west in the summer. We’d pile into the car – three kids in the backseat; no seatbelts; no DVD’s; no hand-held electronic devices; no radio even! Certainly no air-conditioning: just 3 kids in the back of the Ford for 4 days, windows down through the dust of Kansas and the dog days of South Dakota (104 F and no shade, me sandwiched between my two brothers to keep them from killing each other, counting license plates and playing I Spy…) until we arrived crumpled but somehow happy in northern Saskatchewan, in a little town called Nipawin, where my grandparents lived. My Grandpa was a Free-Methodist pastor; on Sundays we’d go to the little white church next door and my grandpa would pray and the piano would start to play. And the people would open their mouths and sing. It is the singing I remember. Just a piano and a congregation, but the song would roll out like some kind of thunder, four-part harmony made up on the fly and my young aunt soaring into a descant. It was the most glorious music in that little church, farmers and housewives and the corner store owner lifting up their hearts to God. The ordinary day, the ordinary people, suddenly extraordinary, suddenly singing in the midst of their problems and failings, glory, real glory to God.

How is this possible? How is it that we with our ordinary lives and our foibles and failings and problems—our sin—may become the place of grace, this weekly song of glory to our God?

It begins, our Gospel tells us, with Jesus Christ. Our Gospel today from Luke talks about glory too; it locates that glory in the face of Jesus Christ. “And while he was praying the appearance of his face was changed, and his garment became shining white.” This, God says to the startled disciples as the cloud of God’s glory descends upon the mountain; this is my Son, the chosen one. Again and again in his Gospel Luke tells us that it is God whom we know in Jesus the Christ; that in Jesus’ hands and feet God reached out and touched the world—really touched it: one day near Gennesaret, for instance, when Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper, and the leper was clean; one day outside Bethsaida, when Jesus took five loaves and 2 fishes and blessed them and broke them and fed 5000 hungry people, or in the synagogue at Nazareth when he announced to his people the salvation of God in his own person, and his people tried to kill him. It is the glory of God that touches the world in Jesus the Christ: in Nazareth, in Capernaum, in Israel long ago, and now, here, today in Toronto, in our ordinary lives.

“Precious Lord, take my hand,” the people used to sing in the little church in Saskatchewan. They were singing the mystery: that God is with us in Jesus; that Jesus is Lord. That is why their song rose up; because they knew that Jesus is Lord.

And this is the one thing our generation—my generation most of all perhaps—does not want to admit. We like Jesus a lot. We like his justice and his compassion, his heart for the poor. We like his pithy sayings and the way he thumbs his nose at power. As this good man and rabble-rouser, he is our Man of the Year. Academics and archbishops alike invite us to be part of the Jesus movement, to be good people like Jesus, working for justice—as we drive to the rally in the second car, picking up a coffee on the way.

We like this Jesus, the good man, the prophet like us. But is this who Jesus is?

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus says to the man who asks him for wisdom. “No one is good but God alone.” Indeed.

Jesus is not a good man, safely dead. He is not safe, and he is not dead. He is the glory of God.

And while he was praying, Luke’s Gospel tells us, The appearance of his face was changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

The disciple woke up and saw his glory, and

A cloud came and overshadowed them and they were terrified when they went into the cloud. And a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my chosen one; listen to him.”

On the mountain, from the cloud, God names Jesus his son, and the glory of God not only rests upon him, but is seen in his face.

Jesus is Lord, and it is as Lord—and not as prophet or peasant or even good man—that he leads us on.

This is our hope. That it is God who is with us and not we ourselves, that this faith of ours is not just another movement, but God’s salvation.

That is what this transfiguration, this glory on the mountain, declares.

Listen: Moses and Elijah meet him, the prophets of Exodus and the eschaton, of Israel’s deliverance in the past and Israel’s deliverance still to come, in the time of God’s final appearing. Moses and Elijah, prophets of salvation for God’s people come to Jesus and they talk about his exodus.

The word the NRSV Bible translation renders as “departure” is “exodos”: it is the Exodus Jesus goes to Jerusalem to fulfil. As Moses led the people out of bondage in Egypt, so Jesus will lead the people out: out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

Jesus leads us out, as God led Israel out, through the Red Sea, out of bondage into life.

Only Moses raised up a staff over the waters to save his people from death. Jesus will himself be raised up. On the cross God’s son hoisted toward heaven, carrying our death on his back. In his Exodus, ours too; in his departure, our freedom, freedom from the black beast on our back; life for the world.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand: through the torrent of sin and death, the failures and foibles that dog us, through the distance, the unbridgeable distance between us and our God. Lead me on, precious Jesus, let me stand.

This is our song. We sing Jesus the Lord, because it is Christ’s lordship that is our hope. We sing Jesus transfigured with the glory of God, because it is God who saves. Lord, take my hand. This too is our song: take my hand. For that is what God does, in Jesus the Christ. He sends no fiery angel or emperor; this Lord is born in a manger. He sends the servant-son.

“This is my Son, my chosen one,” Luke’s Gospel says.

These words quote Isaiah 42.

Here is my servant (my child, the Greek text says),

my servant whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights.

I will put my spirit upon him.

So God says through the prophet Isaiah to God’s people in exile in Babylon, when they wait for another exodus. So God says today, to us, in Luke’s gospel. Here is my son, my chosen one, who brings forth justice as a servant, humble and riding on a donkey. He will not cry or lift up his voice, Isaiah says, …a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. Jesus is the gentle one, who takes his struggling people by the hand and lifts them up and carries them through. He is servant, AND he is Lord.

This is our hope. For we who were so far from the glory of God, we from whom God’s glory was veiled, covered over by cloud and judgement dread; we all now with unveiled face gaze as if in a mirror on the glory of God. In Christ Jesus, we gaze upon it. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 speaks with a luminousness born of love, love of the one who was blind and now can see, who was lost and is found.

Take my hand, precious Lord. We must allow Jesus to be the Lord. Because that is the heart of our song. The glory of God that rested upon the mountain in the days of Moses—and the people could not look even on its reflection, so that Moses veiled his face—the glory of God now shines in the face of Jesus Christ, now reaches out and takes our hand, and draws us in.

Glory and servant-hood are inseparable, in Jesus Christ. God’s glory and God’s love are one.

It is fitting that the transfiguration stands right up against Ash Wednesday. Because it is there in the place of ashes, in the place of our need, that Jesus comes to join us. Take my hand, precious Lord. In Jesus: God’s glory, and God’s outstretched hand.

 

ART: Transfiguration Icon, by Theophanes the Greek (15th Century)

Christmas I: Clothe Yourselves with Love

December 27, 2015. First Sunday after Christmas

Above all, clothe yourselves with love. (Col 3:14)

Clothe yourselves with love. On the day after Boxing Day, this third day of Christmas, Paul’s word to the church has an ironic ring. Because we are certainly, around Boxing Day, thinking about clothing ourselves…but we are not, perhaps, thinking much about love.

On December 26 we drove to Guelph to celebrate Christmas with our Guelph family. We were sailing along the 401 beautifully…and then we hit Halton Hills, and the outlet malls. And the 401 turned into a parking lot. For at least 2 kms we crept along in the company of the shoppers until finally the outlet mall exit appeared and most of our fellow-travellers peeled off to sit, again, on the exit ramp. We are all eager to clothe ourselves on Boxing Day: this is what you do, when Christmas is over and the sales have begun.

The problem is this: Christmas is not over. It has only just begun. This is the third day of Christmas; it goes on for 12 days—12 days of feasting and cider and carols and chocolate; 12 days to mark this truth: Christmas day is only the beginning. On it a love is born so deep and so broad and so high…and so concrete… that it will take not only the next 12 days but the rest of our lives to learn it.

There is a Christmas ad making the rounds on Facebook, put out by St. James Church in London, England. Maybe you have seen it…

A little girl looks through her telescope into the sky. She sees only the moon. Dear God, she writes, do you exist? Dear God, do you love me? She folds her message into a paper airplane and launches it to the moon. But it crashes on her roof, again and again, until there’s a whole fleet of paper airplanes marooned on the shingles, and she leans out her window and heaves a great four-year-old sigh. Then from the sky a baby appears—a real, quite adorable, baby. In a manger, floating down from heaven on balloons. The baby lands in front of her Christmas tree. “From God,” the card says, “with love.” For God so loved the world…

See how real the love of God is! See how concrete. It is as real as a baby held in your arms, as demanding, and as full of grace. Like a baby, the love of God born among us in the child Jesus makes a claim on our lives.

This love, the claim it makes and its surprising concreteness, is told already in the Old Testament.

Hannah, in today’s reading from 1 Samuel, is given a child after years of waiting and longing. And the first thing she does, when her baby is weaned, is to give him up.

 

She takes him to the temple and gives him into the service of the Lord. “And the child was young,” 1 Samuel says. The love that God has given into her life in the child born to her is expressed, for Hannah, in this act of giving up the child. God’s gift to her calls from her an answering gift, a difficult self-giving.

Hannah goes to visit her child every year at the temple, and she makes for him every year a little robe. Every mother; every grandmother knows the love Hannah has poured into that little robe. Hannah clothes her child with love.

The love of God that is born among us in the child Jesus at Christmas time does not ask us, first of all, to go out and buy some clothes for ourselves. The love of God at Christmastime asks us to think not about ourselves, but about others; to give not to ourselves but to and for others, because God has given himself to us.

“Above all, clothe yourselves in love.” 

This is the gift Christmas offers us: That we may know ourselves loved, really, truly, in the particular every day, by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and that we may love in our turn.

That we may love not only with our hearts—though that is where love starts, that is where Christmas starts, in the joy of this birth that fills the heart, joy sung to the skies at Christmastime in carols and candles and prayer—that we may love not only with our hearts but in our lives.

This is Paul’s vision, in the beautiful reading from Colossians that we heard today. Paul sees in the love of God given to the world so concretely in the outstretched arms of his son—arms of the baby reaching out from the manger; arms of the man reaching out on the cross—Paul sees in the love of God born (borne) thus in Jesus in and for the world, the possibility of a new community, an answering love, a people shaped by grace.

It is a community clothed concretely—and not sentimentally—with love. It is the community of Good King Wenceslas, who went out into the snow and the howling wind on Boxing Day, the Feast of Stephen, to take food to a poor man. Why do we sing about Good King Wenceslas on the day after Christ’s birth? Because he lives the love that is born among us in Jesus at Christmas. It is a love known in flesh and wine and pine logs and a hard slog through driving snow, because the Word was made flesh at Christmas. The first thing we are called to do in our love for the baby born in Bethlehem is to go out and feed the hungry man; to light a fire in a dark place, to stretch out our hands to bless in the flesh, as God in the flesh has blessed us.

“As God’s chosen people therefore,” Paul says, “holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.” Bear with one another, and if you have a complaint against anyone, forgive each other.

This is what love means; this is what Christmas means. Feed each other. Be kind to each other. Be patient. And forgive. Paul places forgiveness at the heart of Christian community—because that is what Christ did for us. The baby whose arms reached out to the world from the manger became the man who stretched out his arms for the world on the cross. It is no accident that Jesus in Luke’s gospel goes up with his parents to Jerusalem on the feast of the Passover. He will not go to Jerusalem again on the feast of the Passover until he goes to the cross.

The love of God for us known first in the child whose arms reach out to the world from the manger is the love that is known finally in the arms lifted up to bless and to forgive on the cross. Forgive each other, today, tomorrow, the next day— because that is what God does in Christ for us. This is the claim of love.

This is what God gives us, in the child born at Christmas. He gives us the ability to love as he has loved us—in flesh and blood, with wine and pine logs, with small (or large) acts of forgiveness and trust.

Paul sees springing greenly from the manger this Christmas a whole people, the people of God. He sees for us the joy of Christmas growing greenly not just these 12 days, but every day of our lives.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul says to his church and to ours—that peace to which in Christ’s arms stretched out you are called. Love each other, and feed each other, and forgive.

And sing! Sing together, and sing in your hearts. Sing as you sing at Christmastime, every day of your lives. For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love. Sing with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; let your lives be a thanksgiving-song to God.

This is my prayer for Christ’s people: that we may be Christmas people, now and always. That we may sing the joy of the love that has come among us at Christmastime; that we may live, in flesh and blood, an answering love.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love.

ART:

Gerard van Honthorst: Adoration of the Shepherds

Advent, ISIS and Apocalypse

Advent II 2015

St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness - Joshua Reynolds

“Make straight the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist cries, striding out of the desert in the fifteenth year (Luke tells us) of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, driven by the word of God. Advent gives us the prophet and the apocalypse, the revelation of God on earth.

“Look! I am sending my messenger before my face to prepare the way” (Mal 3:1). Suddenly the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple, and he is like a refiner’s fire.

Advent announces the coming of God among us, to purify and to save.

It is a promise for God’s people: he will purify the descendants of Levi. And it is a promise for the world: all flesh will see the salvation of God. John the Baptist went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3: 3, 6; cf. Isa 40:3-5 LXX; Mal 3:3).

Forgiveness and salvation: this is the prophet’s word this Advent, hope rising over the world in the coming of the Lord. This year of all years it is important to hear the hope that beats under every word of Luke’s gospel, announcing God’s coming, the revelation of God’s reign.

For we have seen other visions of the apocalypse this year, and they are full of horror. The Islamic State bathes the Middle East in blood as it announces the nearness of the end and seeks with every infidel’s and sinner’s head cut off to provoke the apocalypse.(http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/)

This is the crude brutality of evil, and there is no room for God in it.

For God comes as light into our darkness—this is the Advent message; God comes in truth and in love, and God comes for the sinners first of all.

Impelled by the word of God John the Baptist announces the salvation of God…precisely to the sinners and infidels. Repent! he says to the crowds who come out to hear him, this “brood of vipers.” Come, and repent, and be baptized. Do you not know, he says to the sinners and infidels, that the evil-fruited tree cannot stand in God’s sight? So come! Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins; become the tree that bears good fruit. And this brood of vipers comes. “What shall we do?” they say. The prophet holds out to them the possibility of a purified life. Give your extra coat this winter to the street-person who has none. Share a meal with a hungry mother and child; give a home to a Syrian refugee. John the Baptist speaks to the brood of vipers—to each one of us—and invites us into God’s salvation. Even the tax collectors, even soldiers who serve the armies of Rome, come to hear him and be forgiven. John the Baptist announces the apocalypse, the revelation of God among us, and it looks like justice and mercy for all.

This is the shape of God’s coming, the apocalypse we await: justice shot through with mercy, God’s truth naming the harm that we do and in His love forgiving it, reclaiming our hearts (reclaiming our world) for grace. John the Baptist announces the dawn, the Sun of righteousness rising over the world, and he invites the whole world—tax collectors, infidels, sinners all—to come in.

ISIS, by contrast, finds the infidels and sinners and cuts off their heads.

In Iraq, The Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew White (called “the Vicar of Baghdad”), for years Anglican chaplain in Iraq, faced the wholesale slaughter of his own congregation (1200 killed recently by ISIS, including children because they said they loved Jesus). An experienced hostage negotiator, formerly director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, White invited the leaders of IS to come to the table. Share a meal with me, he said, and let us talk.

“You can invite us to dinner,” ISIS said. “But we will cut off your head.”

http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/11/after-dinner-a-beheading

 

There is a dinner in John the Baptist’s story too. Herod throws himself a birthday party; entertains his guests with a feast and with Salome, daughter of his sister-in-law…and wife. Salome dances; she pleases him; he promises her anything. “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter,” Herod’s wife’s daughter says.

“We will come to your dinner and we will cut off your head.” The Islamic State’s feast is Herod’s: violence and fear spread abroad in the land.

We announce this Advent a different feast.

Immediately after Luke tells of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus speaks to the crowds. He tells them about the coming reign of God. Some are sick, and he heals them. All, by the end of the day, are hungry and there is no food; just five loaves and two fishes, and 5000 people. Jesus takes the loaves and the fish and looks up to heaven and blesses them; he breaks them and gives them to his disciples and they give them to the crowd. “And they all ate and were filled,” Luke says (9:11-17).

In the face of the evil that haunts this world—Herod and Islamic State, their twisted feasts and desire to destroy—we proclaim the feast of Christ.

Bread for the hungry, healing for the sick, and the sick at heart. A table to gather round, a table for all, and Christ himself the gift.

This is our apocalypse, the revelation of our God. At the table we know him, in the bread of life there given, in the faces that gather round, children and sinners and women and men, this great community of grace.

In the gift we know him, this bread, this balm, this love.

He does not take our life. He gives his life for us.

And he asks us to do the same. In John the Baptist beheaded we see his coming; in the Vicar of Baghdad; in the four young boys who died; in the love that is gentle and true. This is the coming of the Lord.

As a child he comes, Mary encircling salvation in her arms. Gently he comes, in truth and in love; and gently we go this Advent to meet him, with love in our hearts and without fear.

And all flesh will see the salvation of our God.

 

Art:

John the Baptist, by Joshua Reynolds

Salome and Head of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio

Madonna and Child, by Filippo Lippi

 

 

Holy Cross Day

Italy 2013 1187

Holy Cross.

We are so used to hearing these words together that I’m not sure we hear what a strange pair they make. The cross: Rome’s most terrible sentence of death. Ugly, slow, agonizing; a public humiliation. And now we call it holy? It’s an extraordinary claim: that in Christ even the cross is made better. That this world’s worst may be made better…in the death of Jesus the Christ. Do we get it? I am not sure.

This week I saw a sign as I was walking down the Danforth.

“Make your day better: Buy a graphic tee!”

It struck me this week–because it speaks to the deep-seated longing that we mark on Holy Cross day. Make your day better…make your life better…make your world better. Surely that is what we all want. Such an outpouring of compassion there has been, and of anguish, over the past couple weeks, since the picture of the little boy dying on the other side of the world hit everyone in the heart. Make this day better. Let there be peace. We long for the better day.

It is the other part of that sign on the Danforth that is the problem. Because it is not going to happen that way. No amount of graphic tees, no amount of buying them, can make this the good day, the good world for which we long. And there is, it seems to me, a terrible kind of blindness in the way our real pain for the suffering of the Syrians coexists in our daily life with this other thing, this turn to ourselves (make YOUR day better); this desire to seek a better day in the things that we can have. It is not here that happiness is found: not while a boy lies dead on the Turkish shore; not now and not ever. Because the tee bought for me and my better day ignores the pain that is out there—and so it does not speak of love; there is in it no sign of our love for the suffering people, and it cannot make our day, or anyone’s, better.

Jesus offers us another way. Jesus offers us a different sign, to wear like a t-shirt over the heart. Jesus offers us the cross. It is the sign that is true, for it does not ignore the pain that is out there, even as it announces the better day.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness: this is where the cross begins. It begins in the place where the people reject God. It begins with the grumbling we do against the difficult purpose of God. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God’s people say. “For there is no food and no water—certainly no graphic tees—and we detest this miserable food.”

I have always found that line funny: there’s no food here–and it tastes terrible!

It is a ridiculous complaint: God has delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them safely through the Red Sea; God has given them manna from heaven and water out of the rock. And they look back to the fleshpots of Egypt, the fish, the melons, the onions and garlic”and now there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” they say, in Numbers 11.

Freedom…or garlic? Which would you choose?

It is ridiculous—and it is human. The rejection of God’s purpose never does make sense. For no matter how difficult God’s way is (and often it is indeed difficult, leading us into a wilderness on our way to worship our God), God is with us always. Our God is the one who can part the Red Sea, a priest said to me in Cuba, in the days of Castro. Our failure, to trust, to follow, to leave behind the old life that binds us, is ridiculous—and worse; it is poisonous, in the face of God’s faithfulness.

“Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many died.” And the people said, “We have sinned against the Lord” (Num 21:6-7, paraphrased).

But it is human.

The newspaper cries pity for the Syrian child, and beside it the sign says “Make your day better: buy a graphic tee.”

And the serpent creeps into the garden, into the wilderness, calling our hearts away from God’s purpose, calling our hearts away from God’s love, turning us in on ourselves. This is sin. And it poisons our lives.

In the wilderness the people die. Is there then any hope?

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:13). If our inability to follow in God’s way poisons our world; if the cry of the sweatshops and the starving and the fleeing and the lost—a whole culture desperately seeking happiness in a t-shirt—if the cry of the lost still rises from earth to heaven, that is not the final word. For God hears the cry of his people, then and now and always. Precisely in the place where we are lost; precisely in this death we mete out to ourselves and to each other, this wages of sin, God comes to meet us. The Son of Man is lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, God’s love meeting our agony, this harm that we do.

For there is nothing more cruel than a cross. The cross stands over our world as an indictment, sign and sum of all the evil that we do. Here is the suffering of the Syrians; here is the suffering of the Jews; here is the pain of all the crucified people since the world began and also the will of the world to crucify and to ignore: here it is, written on this wood.

And it is here that God meets us. On the cross God’s Son raised up, the body of Jesus, the beauty of Jesus now covering this wood: covering our sin with his love, covering our pain with hope.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul? The hymn sings.

What wondrous love is this,

that  caused the Lord of bliss

to bear the dreadful curse for my soul. (Common Praise 400)

On his back bearing the harm that we do, covering our pain with his love.

Holy Cross! Can there be any name stranger and more wonderful? For the instrument of sin has become the instrument of God’s love, and death is swallowed up in victory.

Holy Cross. It is a contradiction in terms. And it is the sound of hope. For it is so true. It does not ignore the pain there is in this world of ours, the harm that we still do. It is to that pain that it speaks. For there, precisely there, the face of Christ rises too, suffering with us, suffering for us, radiant with grace. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown? Sorrow and love together, in the face of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross is beautiful. For the harm that we do is not the last word, and there is a greenness that leaps at the heart of things.

There is such joy in the cross. Pray that we may wear it always as a sign over our hearts; pray that it may be written on our lives. Lift high the cross. May we find in it this world’s better day.

St. Augustine of Hippo

Augustine_Lateran

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (d. 430 AD)

Feast Day August 28

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

These words of Augustine’s come back to me more and more, a kind of refrain that stands before and behind and in the midst of all the strivings of life, reorienting our hearts, pointing them home.

Augustine knew about restlessness, the striving heart. His Confessions – often called the first modern work for its acute awareness of the inner life – opens with these words, and tracks a life that has been, as Augustine looks back on it, from earliest childhood a search: his for God, (though he did not know it; though indeed he often acted directly in contradiction to it), and God’s for him. He was, as his translator Pine-Coffin says, “a great sinner who became a great saint”—that is, Augustine might say, he was a man like any of us, who found and was found by the grace of God.

His Confessions are just that: the confession of his own capacity to resist God, to resist the good that touches the world with beauty in spite of all human blindness to it. Yet they are confession in another sense too, the confession of God’s grace, a song of praise to the one who seeks us always, to draw us in.

Augustine was born in 354 AD in North Africa (Thagaste, now in Algeria) to a pagan father and a mother, Monica, of deep and patient Christian faith. He loved his mother tenderly and she him, and he has no doubt that the long slow dawn of his adult faith owed a great deal to her faith, her love and her prayer.

“I was a great sinner for so small a boy,” he says (rather winsomely) of his childhood. “I did not care for lessons”; he would rather be outside playing—or later at the games or at the theatre or pursuing the latest girl. Beatings, because he did not know his lessons well enough, were “my one great bugbear” and inspired an early devotion (though evidently not more study!): “I used to prattle away to you (O Lord) and though I was small, my devotion was great when I begged you not to let me be beaten at school” (Confessions 1.9). He was jealous when his friends beat him at games; he loved Latin and hated Greek (and grammar in general) and lived, to his later dismay, in a fog of 16-year-old lust.  He sounds in fact like any other boy: and that is in part his point. “Was the master who beat me very different from me?” he asks. “If he were worsted by a colleague in some petty argument, he would be convulsed with anger and envy, much more so than I was when a playmate beat me at a game of ball.” We were punished for our games, Augustine says, “by men who played games themselves”: grown-up games called business (1.9). Though they were right to insist on the discipline of learning, they were entirely blind as to the point of it all.

We are all estranged, Augustine argues, from our soul’s true good; even when we see what is good we use it to the wrong end, and our efforts to find satisfaction in the pleasures of life without the God who is the source of all true pleasure leave us empty. “Idleness poses as the love of peace: yet what certain peace is there besides the Lord? Extravagance masquerades as fullness and abundance: but you are the full, unfailing store of never-dying sweetness” (2.6).

It is the incident of the pear-tree—he and his friends climbing the neighbour’s wall and raiding his ripe pears one night—that sums up for Augustine the estrangement of the human heart. A pear is beautiful, and good to eat; but it was not for its beauty or his own hunger that Augustine wanted it. The boys fed the pears to the pigs. He stole, he says, for no reason at all, simply because it was forbidden. “Could I enjoy doing wrong for no other reason than that it was wrong?” (2.6)

Augustine paints a powerful picture of a world gone awry, beautiful and blind. Yet his very next word is joy. “How can I thank God?” he says—for I can recall these things now without fear. “You melted away my sins like ice…You have forgiven me all” (2.7). Over against our recalcitrance, even the plain choice for evil, stands the grace of God; sorrow and joy meeting together, our confession always also praise.

Augustine still had years to go in his walk away from the heart that enjoys what is wrong to the heart that joys in God, years of scorn for the Bible (so much less impressive than Cicero’s polished prose and the beauty of Virgil), scorn for a philosophy that allowed both a good and omnipotent God and the presence of evil; years spent in Carthage and Rome among the rhetoricians, polishing his tongue with (Augustine says) no thought for his soul; years spent as a Manichean.

220px-Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustin

There were years to go before the moment when, weeping in the garden for his failure of faith he heard a child’s voice calling as if in play, “Tolle, lege”; pick it up and read it. And he picked up the Bible and read, and found in it finally the Word that would enable him to give himself to God; the Word that would be his fascination and his joy for the rest of a long life.

There were years still to go…yet Augustine’s life, as he retells it, is from the very beginning a dialogue with the God to whom he would not turn. From the beginning God sought him; God, in whom abides all that there is, teaching him through all that there is, even by the beatings his teachers doled out, even through his own recalcitrant heart, calling him to Himself.

Confession is a thing compounded of tears and of joy, the knowledge of our persistent distraction from God; the knowledge of God’s persistent love. To confess is also to sing.

You have made us for yourself, and you do not cease to stretch out your arms, in sorrow and in love, until we shall come in.

Most of all the Confessions is a song of praise, wonder at the beauty Augustine has found in spite of himself.

You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised (Ps. 145.3): these are the book’s first words and the great discovery of Augustine’s life. It is not games or thrones or sex or possessions or the thrill of the forbidden fruit; it is not this for which we are made. We are made to sing God’s praise, for love of the God who loves us, and seeks us, and does not let us go.

Sing and walk, and walk and sing, and sing and walk; these are also Augustine’s words. Life is finally a love-song to our God, and we are given the grace to sing it.

Collect for the Feast of St. Augustine:

Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Art:

Augustine (earliest known representation): 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome

Conversion of Saint Augustine: Fra Angelico