Advent Blessings

REC_0033.MP4 from Christ Episcopal Church on Vimeo.


 

I said it three weeks ago, and I’ll say it again now, Advent in the Church can be a really challenging time.  While outside the world is full of colorful lights, glittering decorations, and songs of joy and wonder, inside the church it has felt stark, even gloomy at times.  There have been glimpses of our impending joy along the way, however.  With each passing Sunday, the light emanating from the Advent wreath has grown a bit brighter.  As the days grew shorter, I found this imagery particularly helpful [here] at the 8 o’clock service, which can seem like it starts before the sun comes up this time of year.  The lessons for the season are similarly stark.  Out there, stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in here we hear stories of the end times.  Wild eyed prophets warn us of the wrath to come.  Your brood of vipers!  Repent, for the day of the Lord’s judgment has drawn near!  All who fail to bear fruit will be torn out by the roots and thrown in the unquenchable fire!  And a Merry Christmas to you too.

It really isn’t until we get to the fourth Sunday of Advent that anything inside the church really begins to feel like Christmas.  After last Sunday, greenery snuck into the nave, albeit simply adorned.  There is nary a hint of a red bow to be found.  Just off Surface Hall sit dozens of poinsettias, their racks are staged, the magnolia is cut, all just begging to spread Christmas cheer.  In the windows, candles lie in wait, ready to radiate the light of the newborn King for all the world to see, but alas, that’s not until tomorrow.  Today, we remain in Advent.  Today, we are still waiting, but today, we get our first real taste of that old familiar story.

Our Gospel lesson has moved on from tales of the apocalypse.  John the Baptist has Benjamin Buttoned himself backward by about thirty years.  His bit part is played in utero.  Today our story features two women, traditionally said to be cousins.  Elizabeth, we know to be the mother of John.  She was thought to be barren in her old age, but was gifted with a late-in-life pregnancy.  Her son, as we well know, will grow up to be The Prophet who sets the stage for The One who is greater than him, The One sent to redeem the world.

Mary is the star of today’s narrative.  A young girl, maybe only thirteen years old, Mary has already been through quite the ordeal before she arrives in the hill country.  Gabriel has appeared to her and invited her to carry the Anointed One of God in her womb.  Joseph, her fiancé, has already decided to dismiss her quietly, and then had his mind changed by way of an angel and a dream.  It would have been a fairly decent journey for Mary to travel from Nazareth to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Yet, it is there that the lectionary has us first encounter Mary, the Mother of our Lord, already carrying the Messiah, hiding with a relative for safety during those difficult first few months of pregnancy.

As the story unfolds, Elizabeth is the first to speak, proclaiming Mary and her child to blessed.  As a more Protestant leaning priest, I’m not one to use the Roman rosary or say the Hail Mary very often.  It is, however, a part of colloquial Christianity, and so I’m sure many of you are familiar with Elizabeth’s ecstatic praise for her cousin, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  As I read those words this week, the idea of Mary’s blessedness caught my attention.  The Greek word used on both occasions in Luke 1:42 is eulegeo.  It is a compound word, combining eu, which means “to be well off” or “to prosper” and logos, which means “word” or “something said.”  Elizabeth’s pronouncement of Mary’s blessedness literally means that a good or prosperous word has been spoken upon her.  Blessedness wasn’t something Mary was simply born with, nor was it something she earned for herself.  Even in her youthful virginity, Mary wasn’t just randomly selected to be someone special, the ninth caller on God’s contest line.  No, Mary’s blessedness came from God, who, through Elizabeth, spoke a good word upon her.  Just as in creation God spoke all of what we know to be real into being, so too, in Jesus’ incarnation, God spoke grace into being by making a girl from backwater Nazareth into the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

I find this image of Mary’s blessedness to be very helpful because it reminds me that all of it is under God’s control.  It isn’t only some special person who seems to never make mistakes and always loves their neighbor who is blessed, but rather, blessedness is available for anyone upon whom God has spoken a good or prosperous word.  Blessedness is available for everyone.  Even this morning, as we wait for the coming of our Lord, Mother Becca will have the opportunity, challenge, and responsibility, to speak on behalf of God, in the tradition of Gabriel and Elizabeth, blessedness upon all of us.  It is our own good word from God, spoken and made real through another human being.  As Christmas fast approaches, I can’t help but wonder what it looks like to live into our blessedness?

For Mary, the reality of her blessedness causes her to break out in song.  She cries out in exaltation. Her very soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  The word, translated as soul, is psyche.  We’ve adopted it in English, the psyche being our soul, mind, or spirit, but its original meaning takes us all the way back to Genesis 1-3.  The primary definition of psyche is breath.  It is the Greek equivalent of Hebrew’s ruah, the very breath of life given to humanity in creation.  When Mary sings out the greatness of the Lord, it comes from that place deep within, her soul, her spirit, the core of her being.  It pours out from the breath that was given to her by God.  As disciples of Jesus, in the pattern of Mary, we share in that breath, and as we approach the annual remembrance of the coming of the Word made flesh, that same soul, breath, spirit, will rejoice in God our savior.

She goes on to sing of the great reversal that God has already done in the world.  Long before the resurrection.  Long before the crucifixion.  Long before Jesus’ first sermon, first miracle, or even his baptism.  Months before the Son of God will be born to the sounds of angels singing out good news of great joy, Mary sings, without doubt or irony, a song in the present tense.  To Mary’s mind, in the very act of choosing to redeem the world through the Word made flesh, God has already scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, God has already filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  In choosing Mary, God has already fulfilled the covenant with Abraham.

Of course, it doesn’t take too long to look around and realize that no matter what Mary might have sung, there are still many who are lowly and hungry, while the rich and powerful continue to hold tightly onto the purse strings of society.  We know Mary’s full story to be one of hardship and sadness.  Still, what we hear in Elizabeth’s proclamation of blessedness and in Mary’s song of praise is the word of hope that I think we all long for this Season of Advent.  It is the hope that we symbolize in the growing light of the Advent wreath.  The hope that I feel when I see candles perched in the windows and greenery swagging its way along the walls.  It’s the hope that we see in the creche, set and ready to receive the King of kings tomorrow evening.  In these waning moments of Advent, may we be blessed with the hope of what is to come, the gift of redemption for the whole world.  Amen.

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My Soul Proclaims…

Advent is a season of anticipation.  It begins by inviting us, in the midst of decorating, shopping, and busyness, to make room for the second coming of Christ in power and glory to judge the world.  It seems a bit odd to start the season leading up to Christmas in that way, but it is the reality in which we live: somewhere between the Incarnation and the Eschaton.  As the weeks progress, the tone begins to change.  Our preparation isn’t as much for the Second Advent of Christ, but for the First.  John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and then, finally, we come to Advent 4, and thing for which I wait each year.  Sure, Christmas is the telos of Advent, but for me, the Magnificat, especially sung by the congregation to Betty Carr Pulkingham’s setting, is the highlight of the Advent Season.  With the help of the choir, the round/canon nature of the antiphon echoes to the heavens:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

On Monday, I noted that Elizabeth’s proclamation of Mary’s blessedness had built into it an awareness that the foundation of blessing is found in God speaking a word of favor upon the one who is being blessed.  As I spent some time looking into the Magnificat, I became aware that just as our blessedness is from God, so too is our blessing of God a gift from the same.

JN958 Canticle of MaryMary cries out in exaltation that it is her soul that proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  That word, translated as soul, is psyche.  We’ve adopted it in English, to mean soul, mind, or spirit, but its original meaning takes us all the way back to Genesis 1-3.  The primary definition of psyche is breath.  It is the Greek equivalent of Hebrew’s ruah, the very breath of life given to each human in creation.  So it is that when Mary sings out the greatness of the Lord, it comes from that place deep within, her soul, her spirit, the core of her being.  It pours out from the breath that was given to her by God.

As disciples of Jesus, in the pattern of Mary, we share in that breath, and as we approach the annual remembrance of the coming of the Word made flesh, that same soul, breath, spirit, will rejoice in God our savior.

Many years later, as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey to cries from the souls of the crowd of “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” the Pharisees will rebuke Jesus and ask him to tell the crowd to stop proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.  In response, Jesus tells them that even if they were to be silenced, the stones would cry out instead.  It seems that there is no stopping creation, made by the breath and Word spoken, from proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.

Blessedness

This might be the first year I’ve made it through the week leading up to Advent 3 without hearing someone call it “Mary Sunday.”  This seems to happen because the candle we light on the Advent wreath for Advent 3 is pink or rose colored, which people associate with girls, and since Mary was a girl, it must be her candle.  Gender stereotypes aside, in congregations in which the color of Advent is purple, this makes little sense as both purple and pink have been the favorite colors of my daughters at times (as have black and teal, and mine was once purple, not bishop “purple” but lavender, but that’s for another post).  The candle of Advent 3 is pink or rose because Advent 3 is traditionally known at Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice,” and the lesson last week, which I should have written about, but didn’t, were focused on joy.  (Are you still with me?  There have been quite a few asides in this paragraph, I’ll try to focus).  As our focus moves to the quick-to-be-overlooked Advent 4, we note that the lessons here point us to Mary’s story.

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While I hope to dive into the Magnificat later this week, today I’m drawn to Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s arrival in our Gospel lesson.  As a more Protestant leaning Episcopal priest, I’m not one to use the Roman rosary or say the Hail Mary very often.  It is, however, a part of colloquial Christianity, and so I’m sure many of you are familiar with Elizabeth’s ecstatic praise of her cousin Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  As I read those words his morning, the idea of blessedness caught my attention.  I wondered what its underlying meaning was.  I opened my still-new-to-me Bible software and went digging.

The Greek word used on both occasions in Luke 1:42 is eulegeo (Strongs #2127).  It is a compound word, combining eu, which means “to be well off” or “to prosper” and logos, which means “word” or “something said.”  Elizabeth’s pronouncement of Mary’s blessedness, then, literally means that a good or prosperous word has been spoken upon her.  Blessedness isn’t something that just happened to Mary, even in her youthful virginity, she wasn’t just magically someone special, but rather, God spoke upon her a good word.  Just as in creation God spoke reality into being, so too, in Jesus’ incarnation, God spoke grace into being by making a girl from backwater Nazareth into the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

Marian myth and legend aside, I find this image of her blessedness to be very helpful because it reminds me that all of it is under God’s control.  It isn’t only some special person who seems to never make mistakes and always loves their neighbor who is blessed, but rather, anyone upon whom God has spoken a good or prosperous word is blessed.  And, you know what?  Every Wednesday and every other Sunday, I have the opportunity, challenge, and responsibility, in the tradition of Gabriel and Elizabeth, to speak, on behalf of God, that blessedness upon my congregation.  Blessed art thou, Mary, and blessed art you, dear reader.

Some Dark Comedy?

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Almost forgot to give this to you!

There are some lessons, especially in the Old Testament, that if they are read well, can really be hilarious.  The back and forth between God and Moses about the golden calf is probably my favorite, but the 2 Kings story of Elijah’s departure into heaven is a very close second.  The context isn’t particularly conducive to humor, the great prophet Elijah is being taken away from earth, after all.  Yet, the way the author uses the characters and their conversations always makes me chuckle.

On three different occasions, Elijah tries to convince Elisha to stay behind.  Each time, Elisha persists with these words, “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  Elisha knows that his master and friend is not long for this world, which makes his choice of words so darkly ironic.  Basically, Elisha says, “as long as you’re alive, I’m sticking with you.”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, the prophets there try to tell Elisha what’s up.  “You know the Lord is taking your master today, don’t you?”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, Elisha snaps back, “Yes, I know, now shut up.”  That part always makes me laugh.

Even in the story’s most poignant moment, as Elijah is finally being carried away to heaven in a chariot of fire, Elisha’s response makes me smile.  It is similar to Peter’s nonsensical response to the Transfiguration, as Elisha just blurts out what he sees, “Master!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.”  Funnier yet are the really terrible pieces of art that have been created in response to this story.  The one at the top of this post is pretty good.  So is this one.

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You should do your own Google search on it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

By now, you must be wondering what on earth this blog post is about.  I’ve been wondering that myself along the way.  What I think has hit me this morning is how often we take the personality out of the Bible.  We hear these stories or we read them silently, as if they are just words on a page – matter-of-fact accounts of things about God – as if God doesn’t have a sense of humor, or a personality, or engage with humanity on our own terms.  We tend to think the only emotion God can show is that of anger, but what if that isn’t true?  What if God can offer a wry smile?  What if God has a sarcastic streak?  What if God wants to use things like humor and joy to help tell the story of God’s love for all creation?  Is there some dark comedy in the story of Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind?  I kind of think so.  If you don’t, that’s ok.  Maybe you find humor somewhere else in the great story of God’s steadfast love.

Dazzling Jesus

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One of my favorite events each year is the annual tour given to the kindergarten and first grade Godly Play class.  There, I get to nerd out on stuff that they’ve been learning, but that most people don’t give a second thought to.  We talked about the word nave, and how it is built to look like the hull of a ship.  We got to touch the 1905 paten and chalice given in honor of Frederick and Sadie Price before the second Christ Church in Bowling Green was destroyed by fire.  They had the chance to see what the church looks like from the pulpit, lectern, and behind the altar.  Standing there, I asked the group why they thought we had candles in churches.  One, very practical child, guessed that it was so we could see better, which was, of course, true.  We went on to talk about how the candles in the church remind us of the light of Jesus, and how when we come to worship, that light comes alive in us, and we get to carry it out into the world.

What I didn’t think to tell them was that this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is all about the light of Christ.  The image above is from a painting of the Transfiguration by Carl Bloch (c. 1865), and I think it captures visually what the English translations of Mark’s account fall short on.  That is, Bloch’s painting shows us what Mark means when he says that Jesus’ clothes became “dazzling white.”  The Greek word is something akin to glistening, sparkling, or shining.  It isn’t that Jesus’ once dusty tunic became Clorox white, but rather, it light up like the noonday sun.  There, atop that mountain, Peter, James, and John became privy to the fullness of the light of Christ.

As they made their way back down to meet the waiting crowd, Jesus commanded his disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after his resurrection.  Stories about the light of Christ aren’t necessary when the light is standing right in front of you.  As time has passed, however, the need to tell the story and to share the light has grown.  As 21st century followers of Jesus, we are called to let the light of Christ shine through our lives, and the best way to keep that light shining brightly is by regularly returning to the source.  You could travel to the Mount of the Transfiguration, or, more practically, you can attend worship, commit to regularly praying and reading the Bible, and sharing the love of God with those inside your sphere of influence.

In the transfiguration, the fullness of the divinity of Jesus was made manifest by way of a voice from heaven, two prophetic witnesses, and the shining of a bright light.  Only one of those is available to us on an ongoing basis.  As I often say during the Offertory Sentences this time of, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your Good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Transfigured… Again?!?

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You don’t have to be a lectionary preacher for very long to realize that a few stories carry a bit more weight than all the rest.  John the Baptist gets a lot of love in the lectionary.  Toward the end of the year, things get pretty heavy with the mini-apocalypses.  This Sunday, we have another one of those lessons that gets a lot of air time, the story of the Transfiguration.  Because it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, the Transfiguration is an easy one to cycle in all three years.  In the Lectionary, we hear it read every Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and we hear both Matthew’s and Peter’s versions of it read on the actual Feast of the Transfiguration.

It can be difficult to find new things to say about these oft-repeated lessons.  The usual suspects seem to always appear.  Peter’s befuddled comments make it easy to say “we can’t stay on the mountain top.”  Moses and Elijah allow the preacher to talk a bit about the prophecy surrounding the Messiah.  The terrible darkness is a point of entry, as is the dazzling white of Jesus raiment.  But after ten years of Last Epiphanies, my initial reaction to the whole thing is

Transfigured… Again!?!

Writing this blog and my larger homiletical process have taught me that most of the time, I’m preaching to myself.  What I write here and what I say in the pulpit are usually indicators of how I’m feeling or what I’m struggling with at any given time.  Clearly, this whole post has been about me and my stuff, but I wonder if our people feel this too?  Do those who don’t spend hours each week immersed in the Lectionary notice when these things pop up again and again?  Do they hear something read on Sunday and say, “really, we’re doing this again?”  Do they wonder how the preacher comes up with something new to say, or, rather, do they wonder why the preacher always seems to say the same thing when these things cycle back around?

Thankfully, I’m not preaching this week.  In fact, given the content of the last three paragraphs, it is timely that I’m taking a vacation this weekend.  As I wonder what else I might say here about the Transfiguration, I’m thankful that I share the pulpit with two really good preachers who I know put in the word of study and prayer, and especially for my colleague Becca, who will preach a fine sermon on a difficult set of passages this week.  I’m praying for you, dear reader, and for the work you do.

Reading the Signs

wafflehouse

This is, by far, one of my favorite signs to see.  Despite the well worn jokes about its cleanliness and the decidedly unhealthy amount of butter they use to keep the scrambled egg pan lubed, I can’t help myself.  When I see a Waffle House sign, I know I am going to be in for a good meal at a reasonable price.  There are times when that is what I’m looking for, but more often than not, the Waffle House sign serves only as a temptation.

I think the same is true of the signs that Jesus describes in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  After three Sundays of apocalyptic parables from Matthew’s Gospel, Advent 1B opens a new Church year, and we begin our every-three-year journey with the Gospel according to Mark.  The themes are similar, as one might expect in a season devoted to being prepared for the Advent of Christ, both his first one on Christmas, and his second Advent at the day of judgment.  It seems reasonable, having heard about it week after week, that we might begin to see the world through eschatological glasses – seeing signs of the end at every turn.

Many a “prophet” has made a lot of money off humankind’s tendency to be tempted by signs.  They’ll point to wars and rumors of wars; earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters; the United Nations and the World Bank; whatever they can cram into the scripture passage they’ve pulled out of context, to convince us that the world is coming to an end, and because you won’t need money after the coming of the Son of Man, you should probably send yours their way.

Like a Waffle House sign on the interstate at 2:30 in the afternoon, nothing good comes from following these temptations.  Jesus is clear, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  When he invites his disciples to “keep alert,” the Greek is more simply, “stay awake.”  When we are looking for signs, we will always find them.  Rather, Jesus is inviting his disciples, and us, to keep at the work of the Kingdom: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, proclaiming the Good News; because the signs will trick us, we do not know the day or the hour, but when he comes, like a thief in the night, our laziness will not be rewarded.