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.

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.

The Call to Go

Tomorrow night, the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky will gather with our Bishop and other clergy from the Diocese of Kentucky at a service called The Celebration of New Ministry.  Our preacher will be none other than my former Rector, TKT, who will bring a word that the service itself really struggles to convey.  As glad as I am that the service has changed from the Institution of a Rector in 1928 to the Celebration of New Ministry in the 1979 Prayer Book, the service itself really lacks that reality.  It is, by and large, still all about me, the 25th Rector of Christ Episcopal Church  (Yes, I know there is a service in EOW, but like most everything else EOW attempts, the SCLM tried to fix too many things and as a result, created far too many problems).

I’ve not read TKT’s sermon, mostly because it probably won’t actually be written on a piece of paper, but I can still be sure that it will not be about Steve Pankey, the guy who’s work it is to be in the tent of meeting.  Instead, he will tell the story of Eldad and Medad from Numbers 11.  Depending on how you read the story, Eldad and Medad were either two of the 70 who didn’t go to the tent, or two in addition to the 70 who were gifted with the Spirit by God to do the work of ministry.  No matter how they ended up back in the village, the reality is that God chose to pour out the Spirit upon them and not just those who made their way to the tent of meeting.  It is a story about how God does the work of the Kingdom through all God’s servants, not just those who wear fancy collars, have calligraphic certificates on their walls, and draw stipends from the gifts of the faithful.

While the sermon will be important, what is more important to me is the effort TKT and his wife are going through to be here.  Not that I thought it would be any other way, but the process of leaving one church and taking a call at another is always a difficult one.  After 9.5 years of working together, there came an end, and rather than being bitter or frustrated, TKT has been affirming and supportive every step of the way.  That’s because we both took seriously the reality that God doesn’t just call people to a place, but there comes a time that God also calls people to Go.  As we both listened for the Spirit last year, it became clear to both of us that our work together was coming to an end, that I was being called to Go, and that both of our ministries would be fruitful if we were faithful to that call.

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In our Old Testament lesson for Sunday, we will hear Abraham’s call to go.  While the promise of God to Abraham is more than I could ever hope for, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” the hard truth is that God often calls his servant’s to go in order to bless others.  Sometimes, like in my case, it was the call of a professional minister to serve a new congregation, but more often, it is the call of a regular disciple to go out into the world in service.  Whether it is local work with the homeless, the outcast, or those in prison; or international service to bring clean water, education, or healthcare to those in need, God has a call to go for every disciple.  God has a plan to bless the world one person at a time through each of us who call Jesus Christ Lord.  If we are willing to listen, and more so, willing to take the risk and GO, we can all experience the blessing of Abraham; the blessing of following God’s call to go and be a blessing to someone else.

More Names

I may have gone a bit overboard on the influence of names in my final sermon at Saint Paul’s.  From a homiletical perspective, I took the hook too far.  From a liturgical year perspective, I undermined my Rector’s ability to preach on names on the Feast of the Holy Name this Sunday.  The Feat of the Holy Name is one of only a small handful of feast days that takes precedence over a Sunday, which means that when Christmas falls on Sunday, there will be no other Sundays in the season.  Holy Name supersedes Christmas 1 and Epiphany occurs before we can have Christmas 2.  So, what is TKT left to preach on this strange Sunday?

Well, names, of course.  I’m sure he will take some time on the power that lives in the very name of Jesus (God saves), but knowing TKT and his love of the story of Moses, I suspect that he will also focus his attention on the Aaronic blessing that Moses speaks over Aaron and the people of Israel.

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So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

In the Israelite tradition, the name of God is so holy that it is not to be spoken.  This name is the one given by God to Moses at the burning bush.  Rendered in Latin Script as YHWH, it means something like “I am.”  God is ever present. In the midst of bondage in Egypt, God is.  In the midst of the joyful expectation of the Promised Land, God is.  In the midst of famine, peril, and sword; birth, marriage, and triumph, God is.

While that holy name is not to be uttered, forms of us are all over the Hebrew language, including the other Holy Name we remember on the eighth day of Christmas.  As I noted two weeks ago,  the Hebrew form of Jesus is Yehoshua, and it is a combination of YHWH and shua, which means a cry for help.  In the holy name of Jesus, we are reminded that God saves; that God is our very present help in trouble.  Jesus is the Aaronic blessing of God personified.  He is the face of God that shines upon us.  The very image of God that gives us peace.  Within his name is the very name of God – I am – God is.

Experiencing Resurrection – #Acts8 BLOGFORCE

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge invites us to share stories of resurrection:

As we move through the latter weeks of the Easter season, it’s important to keep the story in our heads.  There’s a lot of doom and gloom around cultural change and restructuring, but we are a people of the Resurrection.  The BLOGFORCE question before us:  “Where have you experienced resurrection, either in the church or otherwise, this Holy Week and Easter Season?”


I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this week’s question; thinking back over the particularities of Holy Week and Easter.  We had our first “real” Palm Sunday procession this year: eight blocks from the main intersection in town to our front walk.  Evening Prayer was delightful, with meditative music, provocative lessons, and earnest prayers.  Maundy Thursday is always challenging, but I got away with not having my feet washed, and I knew that God loves me.  Good Friday, as I read the Passion from John’s Gospel, I felt the tears welling up, and remembered what it was all about.  And then there’s Easter Day, what can you say about a day so bright and glorious.

Even as I took the time to remember all those events, I felt like I was still missing the point.  I had done plenty, but I wasn’t sure I had actually experienced resurrection.  Sometimes I’m not even sure I know what that means.  Life is just so busy, I wonder how much I really experience anything.  And then I remembered this weekend.

On Saturday morning, we buried a Saint.  It was one of those times where the procession leaves the church, but doesn’t require police assistance or a pretty white hearse.  We left the Narthex and turned right into the Memorial Garden where the Committal immediately followed.  As the service concluded, I raised my arm to offer the blessing, which is one of my favorites:

The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant: Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight; and the blessing of God almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you this day now, and forever more.  Amen. (BCP 486-7, I’ve apparently changed the ending in my memory, this is the version I say, which is not what is actually in the Prayer Book)

On Sunday morning, we baptized a Saint.  We welcomed the three-month old granddaughter of our Rector into the household of God.  The church was packed, the music was glorious, and my arms felt as if they were floating as I stood in the Orans position during the Eucharistic Prayer.  As the service concluded, I raised my arm to offer the blessing, the same blessing as the day before, the blessing appropriate for Eastertide, for Good Shepherd Sunday, and for a baptism, and I almost didn’t make it through.  It was in that moment, as I pronounced God’s blessing upon the gathered body of Christ, that I experienced resurrection.

Things aren’t perfect at Saint Paul’s.  Finances are tight.  Average Sunday Attendance has plateaued.  A group of people don’t like the music or the noisy children or whatever.  As much as I hate to admit it, Saint Paul’s is pretty much like every other church in the world.  We have our ups and down: good times and bad.  I’ve been bummed about this realization.  After eight years of hard work, I want to only have good stories to tell.  I want it to be fun all the time, but as I raised my hand to bless the people on Sunday, I felt peace and joy that only comes from God.  As I struggled to get those words out, I knew that God was in control, that his work and his will are to be done, that even when it isn’t going the way I want it to, as long as we remain faithful, it will head in the direction God wants it to.  I felt relieved, and for the first time in longer than I’d like to admit, I got out of my head and experienced the moment again.  I experienced God’s blessing pouring down upon his people, and upon me.  I experienced all of heaven rejoicing at the baptism one tiny little baby.  I experienced resurrection.