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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Joyful Expectation

Audio and video of this will be available on the Christ Church website.


On the afternoon of April 23, 2017, Dennis Dickey and his pregnant wife journeyed out into the desert near Green Valley, Arizona with some family and friends excited to reveal whether the baby she was carrying was a boy or a girl.  This gender reveal party, and gosh am I glad my girls were born before these became a thing, was going to be unique.  Dennis Dickey was a US Border Patrol agent who used his skills to pack a small package full of a target practice material called tannerite.  From a safe distance away, Dickey shot the small package which exploded with a puff of blue  smoke.  For a moment, there must have been excitement and joy at the thought of welcoming a new baby boy into the family, but that quickly dissipated as the target’s fireball set the surrounding brush ablaze.  In a video made available by the US Forest Service, you can hear the tone quickly change to panic as they pack up their belongings and hit the road.  That small brush fire rapidly spread into the Coronado National Forest, and became known as the Sawmill Fire, burning almost forty-seven thousand acres.   For almost a week, firefighters from some 20 agencies fought the fire, which caused more than eight million dollars in damage.[1]  This September, Dennis Dickey plead guilty to a misdemeanor, was sentenced to five years’ probation, and has to pay almost $8.2 million in restitution.  So much for the joyful moment of expectation.

To me, Advent 1 kind of feels like that gender reveal party that went terribly wrong.  The whole world outside these walls is decorated for Christmas.  Trees, lights, and pictures with Santa, the season of joy and giving is upon us.  Yet, here in church on Sunday morning, we’re stuck listening to Jesus, once again, predicting the end of the world and warning of signs in the heavens, distress among the nations, and people literally fainting from fear and foreboding of what is to come.  As Becca said when we heard an almost identical lesson from Mark two weeks ago, where is the good news?  Where’s the hope?  Where’s the joy?  After another week of wars and rumors of wars, images of children running away from tear gas grenades, and an innocent black man who was the proverbial good guy with a gun being killed by police, can’t we just put up a tree, sing Joy to the World, click our heels together, and wish our way to Christmas?

Unfortunately, we cannot.  We are called to wait.  When Jesus told the crowd that “this generation” would not pass away before all these things came to pass, he wasn’t so much talking about the generation of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nathaniel, and Salome.  The Greek is more generic than simply meaning a 20-year period in which people are born.  This generation is an epoch, an era, or a season.  We are stuck here because here is where God is.  In the muck and mire, in the time in-between Jesus’ first coming – his incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – and his second coming in a cloud with power and great glory to, as Billy reminded us last week, restore all things to their perfect state in God.  What defines this generation is our call to wait, not as idle observers, but as participants in the preparation: co-creators of the Kingdom of God.

Important things in life take time to plan, prepare, and bring to fruition.  Rome was not built in a day, and neither is Thanksgiving dinner.  It requires us to make a menu, develop a grocery list, and to know how long things take to cook.  You can’t pull a turkey out of the freezer at 9am on Thanksgiving Day and expect to sit down to a feast at 2.  The important things in life almost always take time, and then they are over in mere minutes.  Christmas takes at least a month of planning, shopping, and wrapping, and by 8am, the bags are filled with ripped paper and everybody is ready for a nap.  So too with the Kingdom of God.  Its arrival isn’t something that happens overnight.  Its preparation has taken two-thousand years.  It could take twenty-thousand more.

In the meantime, this generation, of which we are called to be a part, is one of waiting and preparation.  We are invited by Jesus to join with God in building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  “When you see these things begin to take place,” Jesus says, “stand up, and raise your hands.”  In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.

Disciples of Jesus are not able to sit idly by, fearfully waiting for the day of judgment.  Disciples of Jesus are called to lives of loving service while we wait.  We are called to avoid the causal anesthetics of this life.  Jesus calls them dissipation and drunkenness.  We might call them iPhones, Facebook arguments, cable news, or retail therapy.  Jesus warns us not to get so caught up in the here and now, be it the evil that we see around us, or the pacifiers we use to numb our fear-filled minds, that we lose sight of the bigger plan of restoration, renewal, and redemption.  It is easy to become numb to the bigger picture when all we see on a day-to-day basis are the painful realities of sin, but to get caught in the cycle of anger and fear or to allow ourselves to get drunk on groupthink and the comfort of being right is to lose focus on the signs that point to something larger, something more hopeful.

Just as the signs that Jesus talked about: wars, fear, and distress; have been around since the beginning, there have also always been signs of hope.  Even when things seem to be at their worst, we see people caring for those in need through acts of compassion and charity, strangers willing to love their unknown neighbor as themselves.  To borrow from Jesus’ metaphor, the fig tree has been coming into leaf for quite some time.  The Kingdom of God, even in our most godforsaken moments, is near at hand.  It has broken in through the birth of our Savior on Christmas and it will come to full fruit when Jesus returns with power and might.  In the meantime, as we long for moments of joy and hope amidst what can feel like the brushfire of everyday life, we are invited by Jesus to stand up, raise up our heads, roll up our sleeves, and get about the work of God: restoring all of humanity to right relationship with God and one another.  Are we willing to do that work? Will we be able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and to restore?  Be on guard.  Be alert.  Get to work.  As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both as an infant born of Mary and as the King of kings on judgment day, we are invited to a season of joyful expectation, of hope for the future, and of God’s great gift for the world.  Amen.

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/27/us/arizona-gender-reveal-party-sawmill-wildfire-trnd/index.html

Fun with Hebrew

There are many different names attributed to God in the Bible.  Often, they are associated with a particular action being attributed to God.  Amy Grant made “El Shaddai,” which roughly means “God Almighty” famous.  Speaking of which, this video is way to 1990s to not let you see it.

Yeshua, the Hebrew version of the name Jesus, means “God Saves.”  The list goes on.

Often in Scripture, the translators would keep the Hebrew word and then translate it for those of us not in the know, but that isn’t the case in the Jeremiah lesson appointed for Sunday, which caught my attention.  Here, the prophet is sharing God’s vision of a future restoration for Judah.  Verses 15 and 16 are almost identical to the same prophecy given several chapters earlier in 23:5-6.  In both cases, the NRSV, and several other English translations choose not to publish the two word Hebrew phrase, but rather the English equivalent.

And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

In doing a bit of digging, I came to realize a few things.  First, it seems the reason that the English translations don’t include the Hebrew original is because it includes the tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that make up the holy name of God, a name so holy that it ought not be spoken, but rather, is always replaced when read in Hebrew by “Adonai” or in our English translations by LORD in small caps that the WordPress editor doesn’t allow.

What I found even more interesting, and another reminder in how our English translations lack a lot being read some two to five thousand years removed from their original contexts, is that the word translated as righteousness is likely a play on words.  Tzedeq, according to my handy HarperCollins Study Bible, could be a wordplay on the name Zedekiah, which also means “the Lord is righteous” and happened to be the name given to the last King of Judah who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.  Tzedeq can also mean “legitimate,” which could very easily indicate that these parallel prophecies from Jeremiah are about a future king whose life and actions will indicate that the LORD is the legitimate King of Judah.

While it can be dangerous, and often self-serving, to read these prophecies backward through Jesus, that is what the RCL is inviting us to do by appointing Jeremiah 33:14-16 for the First Sunday of Advent.  The Branch, itself a word used to describe the Messiah, that will come and live a life showing the legitimate kingship of God is Jesus, whose birth and second coming we long for during this season of preparation.

Will it preach?  Maybe not, but just like Sheldon and Amy’s “Fun with Flags” series on “Big Band Theory” aren’t you glad you learned something today?

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Merry Christmas

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve falling on the same day this year, there isn’t much time to switch gears.  This is true in the life of the parish.  The greenery is already hung, candles are in the windows, and the remote control for the battery powered pillars has been located.  It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but only beginning.  The poinsettias and magnolia won’t show up until after the morning services are complete.  The Christ candle, lit twice this season in celebration of the Resurrection of the Dead, won’t get lit until Sunday night.  The decorations have only begun, but we know there won’t be much time to make the transition.  The same it true for preachers.  I’m grateful for the blessing of a staff.  This means that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t be preaching Advent IV in the morning, Christmas Eve that night, and Christmas Day early the next morning.  While this blog has been focused on Advent IV, my exegetical life has been already focused on Christmas Eve.  This also means there isn’t much time to make the switch here either.  So, with apologies to the Advent Police, today, with the O Antiphons still on our lips, I take a moment to consider the joy that comes on Christmas.

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It seems that every Christmas, my interest is drawn to the same place.  Having twice been in a labor and delivery room, I’m not real interested in hanging out with Mary and her midwife for the delivery of the Christ child.  Instead, since it isn’t my child, I’ll act like a 1950s dad and hang out on the greens.  I’m always glad for the shepherds in the Christmas story.  I’m grateful that it is to them that the Good News of Great Joy is first delivered.  There, out on the margins, is where the heavenly hosts arrive to sing praise to the God of our salvation.

Nobody liked shepherds.  They were a necessary evil in a world still transitioning from nomadic farming.  They were smelly and suspect in character.  They were not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I too might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you, dear reader, have what it takes to spread the Good News of Great Joy for all the people.

As you make the quick transition from Advent to Christmas this year, my prayers are with you.  May God bless you with the words necessary to share the unbelievable joy that comes in a manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas, dear reader, I will see you in the new year.

The importance of proclamation

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I wish there was a YouTube video I could share with you, but as of yet, there is not.  You’ll have to just trust me that the Betty Carr Pulkingham setting of the Mary’s Magnificat is legit and that if your congregation isn’t singing Mary’s Song this week, your worship will be sorely lacking.  If you have a hymnal handy, you should pull it out and open it to S247.  If you do, you’ll not that Pulkingham uses the opening verse of Mary’s famous hymn of joyful hope as an antiphon, which is just a fancy church word for a refrain.  It is set as a canon in two parts.  The way the setting is written, there is a certain highlight on the opening words of Mary in the ICET translation of the original Greek text.

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.

The focus of Pulkingham’s antiphon is on Mary’s proclamation, which is interesting, given that the title Magnificat is Latin for the Greek word that Luke’s gives Mary’s Song, that is better translated at “magnify.”  I haven’t been able to locate the ICET’s working documents on the Magnificat translation, so I cannot be sure why they made the switch from magnify to proclaim, but I’m certain they didn’t do it without careful consideration.

While I take great delight in the old version, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” there seems to be something important about this newer version’s attention to proclamation.  Mary’s intent, it seems, isn’t simply to shine a light on the greatness of God so that she and Elizabeth can experience it, but rather, her ministry as the God bearer is to show forth the greatness of God for all the world to see.  By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother and that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down: casting down the mighty, scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things; Mary is shouting from the rooftops the Good News that will come to completion in the life, death, and resurrection of her Son.

As we read and/or sing the Song of Mary this Sunday, mere hours before we light the Christ candle and rejoice in the birth of our Lord and King, it might be worthwhile to spend a few moments pondering the importance of proclamation, both in Mary’s Magnificat and in our own lives as disciples of the soon-to-be newborn King.

Stay Awake

I’m feeling really sluggish today.  It can’t be that I didn’t sleep well.  It isn’t that I’m stressed.  It is likely the result of my first fall in a decade, the histamine power of that classic fall forest-floor smell.  No matter what it is, I can tell today is going to be one of those days where I have to actively work at getting myself to do anything productive.  I would much rather space out scrolling through memes trolling the University of Tennessee Football debacle than come up with words to say about St. Andrew or a rough outline for my Advent teaching series.  As I read Sunday’s Gospel lesson through my droopy eyelids, tempted to pick up my phone, Jesus’ words hit me right between my itchy eye.

Keep Awake!

We may have switched Gospels for the start of a new Church Year, but our lesson is still situated on Tuesday in Holy Week.  Jesus, knowing what is to come, is preparing his disciples for not only his second coming, but his initial departure.  Things are fixin’ to get pretty awful, and being awake and alert, able to remember that which he has already clearly taught them, will prove helpful.  Of course, we who know the story, know that staying awake will proved difficult.  On Thursday night, after supper and a few glasses of wine, Jesus will ask them to pray in the Garden while he goes off for some one-on-one time with the Father, and they will fail.  Their eyes will get heavy, and they will fall asleep.

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But this isn’t just a literal word for sleepy disciples, it is also a metaphorical word for all of us who continue to follow the resurrected and ascended Jesus.  We have to sleep, our bodies require it.  Staying awake, as the Season of Advent begins, means putting aside the temptations and distractions and focusing on the Kingdom of God.  It means living as though Jesus will return tomorrow, expecting us to be actively engaged in the work of his Kingdom.  It means caring for the poor, protecting the environment, making room for the marginalized to have a voice, and creating space for all God’s children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

In a world full of distraction, technological, physiological, and otherwise, it can be difficult to keep awake and stay alert, but it is God’s will for us that we put aside the devices and desires of our own hearts and follow after the one who will come at an unexpected hour.

Advent Blessings

Photographed at frozen Irish Creek near Jasper, Ontario, Canada.

I love the beauty of a winter sunrise

The Season of Lent gets its name from a truncated version of the Old English word for Spring.  Etymologically, it is thought that the English words has its root in the Old Germanic word that means “longer,” such that it is the season of lengthening days.  This makes sense, practically speaking, since Easter falls on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox (first day of spring), or roughly right near the mid-point of the sunlit portion of our days getting longer.  Advent, on the other hand, is mostly made up of deepening darkness.  Christmas always falls on December 25th, which means that all but four days of the Advent Season come before the winter solstice.  Here in Bowling Green, that means Advent is spent in more than 14 hours of darkness.  A December 18th new moon will make for a stark reminder of the growing night.

It makes sense, then, that one of the themes we hear about in Advent is the juxtaposition between dark and light.  The Collect for Advent 1 sets the tone for the whole season when it opens with these words, “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…”  The Seasonal Blessing from the Book of Occasional Services highlights this as well.  “May the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path; and the blessing of God…”

The clear reminder of this interplay between dark and light came to me this morning as I read the Psalm appointed for Advent 1, with its ongoing refrain as a prayer to God from those who find themselves in deep darkness.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

In the growing darkness of the coming winter, our prayer to God is that we might see the light of God’s face, the unending support of the God by whose grace we are saved, made whole, and restored to right relationship.  This prayer seems particularly poignant this year as the world seems to be a darker place, each day bringing a new danger, further polarization, and heightening fear.  My prayer this season of Advent will be a prayer for light.  I think the Advent Blessing will be my mantra, asking in this time of darkness, that my daily bread might be the Sun of Righteousness shining upon the right pathways.

As you prepare for Advent this year, Dear Reader, it will be my prayer for you as well.  May the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path.