Seeing and Being Seen

I am more and more convinced that the primary goal of Christian discipleship is learning how to see the world through the eyes of God.  The means to that end – Bible reading, prayer, worship, and acts of loving service – are all intended to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us, which should, it would seem, compel us, as the hands and feet of Christ, to get about that work.  To me, there is perhaps no better example of this calling than the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday from Luke 13.

The deck is stacked against the woman with the crippling spirit.  It has been 18 years since she was able to stand up straight.  18 years is a long time to live with a disability, and, if we are honest, it is a really long time for people to maintain compassion.  In the early days, I’m sure many saw her and had pity.  As the months went by, fewer and fewer people even saw her.  Eventually, even her closest friends began to forget about her.  Maybe even her family, weary of carrying her burden, fell away.  In modern times, we hear stories of those confined to a wheel chair who, because they sit below the typical line of sight, feel invisible even in the hallways of hospitals.

When Luke tells us that his woman “appeared,” it isn’t that she just fell out of the sky, but rather, for the first time in years, she was seen, known, cared for, and loved.  The Greek word that gets translated by the NRSV as “appeared” is horao, which means, variously:

  1. to see with the eyes
  2. to see with the mind; to perceive, to know
  3. to see, i.e. to become acquainted with by experience
  4. to see, to look to
    1. to take heed
    2. to care for
  5. to appear
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Barbara Schawrz, OP, “Jesus and the Bent Over Woman,” acrylic on canvas, 2014.

After 18 long years of being invisible, Jesus arrived at the Synagogue where, presumably, she had gone to pray at least weekly, likely daily, for her healing.  A new set of eyes raises the chances that she is seen, but she is still a woman in the first century, it is the Sabbath, she is still crippled, a sign of uncleanliness.  Yet, Jesus saw her, the same Greek root for her appearance, called her over, and declared her healed.  She didn’t come seeking Jesus.  She didn’t ask to be healed.  She had more than likely given up hope by now.  But, she was seen, and in being seen, she was healed.

Much of the world remains invisible to me.  There are people I can’t see, and people I choose not to see.  There are stories that ares systematically hidden.  There are motives that are well hidden.  As followers of Jesus, as we deepen faith and grow as disciples, more and more will be revealed to us.  It is dangerous work, this seeing business, but it is our calling.  To see, to perceive, to experience, and to care for the world around us.

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Without a Doubt

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The story of Peter and the sheet from Acts 11 is an odd one, even by Biblical standards.  It has so many supernatural elements as to almost be absurd.  In fact, it seems to read more like a hagiography than a historical account.  There’s the vision Peter has while in a trance.  There’s the exact timing of the arrival of the men from Caesarea.  There’s the Holy Spirit descending upon Gentiles just as it had upon the first believers at the beginning.  If you were trying to write a story that would carry spiritual gravitas, you couldn’t have scripted one better.

Lost in all of the supernatural events, however, is the deeper truth which Peter is trying to articulate to the Apostles in Jerusalem – the radically inclusive nature of the Gospel message even for the Gentiles.  Mired about halfway through the fantastic story, just after the three men arrive at Joppa, Peter, now removed from his trance, receives another word from the Holy Spirit, “to go with them and not make distinction between them and us.”

That phrase has always caught my attention.  In digging into it a bit, I’ve realized that it is another example of English trying to convey in a lot of words what the original Greek handled with simple eloquence.  Other translations say “The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry” (CEV).  “The Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (KJV). “The Spirit said to me: Go with them, without hesitation” (PNT).  The original Greek word means “to evaluate, consider, doubt.”

While the NRSV’s take, “make no distinction between them and us” works, I think it missed the mark on what Peter is really saying the Spirit said to him.  What seems to be happening here is an opportunity for Peter to trust God.  Not unlike that experience with Jesus walking across the water, through this vision and the call to Cornelius’ house, Peter is being invited to step way outside of his comfort zone.  As the story is relayed to us, it appears as though Peter’s actions have raised a lot of questions within the rest of the leadership of the Way.  He certainly knew, based on his faithful Jewish upbringing, that stepping into Cornelius’ house would forever change the game.

When the Spirit speaks to Peter as his stares, probably dumbfounded, into the faces of the three men from Caesarea, what I hear the Spirit saying is, “Without a doubt, go.”  “Go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Go and fling open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go and let the whole world know what God is up to.  Go and don’t doubt.  It isn’t for you to decide who is in and who is out.  Step out of the relative safety of this Jewish sect and watch what God has in store.”

Yes, it put Peter in an uncomfortable spot for a while, but because of his ability to trust, a skill that we know was hard earned in Peter, the Kingdom of God was opened to all and God was glorified.  I can’t help but wonder, what doubts are holding me back?  What is God calling us to do that will fling open the gates of the Kingdom?

Beloved by God

Having quit Greek after only a semester nearly fifteen years ago now, there is very little that I’ve actually retained.  I still know how to use a Greek lexicon, I’ll never forget the aorist tense being like the refectory’s Fiesta Dog, and because I use it in pre-marital discussions, I’ve got down the four words for “love” in Greek.  I’ve written about it before, so regular readers of this blog may want to skip ahead, but as a review:

  • Eros is the passionate love we associate with an intimate partner
  • Storge is the natural affection felt within families
  • Philia is the catch all type of love between friends and for Alabama football
  • Agape is self-giving love that seeks the needs of the other

The First Sunday after the Epiphany <colon> The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ is a day set aside each year to ponder Jesus as God’s beloved.  In the Collect of the Day, new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the author, the Rev. Dr. Charles M. Guilbert, chose to highlight that in his baptism, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and God proclaimed him beloved.  The lesson from Luke appointed for Year C, despite being mostly about John the Baptist (yet again), also makes note that the voice from heaven declared Jesus to be “the beloved,” o’ agapetos.

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Jesus isn’t just loved by God because he is God’s Son (storge).  Jesus isn’t just loved by God because God loves everybody (philia).  Jesus is declared by a voice from heaven to be The Beloved (agape), the one whom God’s self-giving love is directed towards.

Here’s the neat thing, however. That belovedness, that desire on the part of God to pour out agape love on something or someone isn’t the exclusive property of Jesus. As we can infer from the story in Acts, this belovedness, shown forth in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is the status of all who have been baptized into the family of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That Jesus is the only, pre-existent Son of God doesn’t mean that he is the only one whom God loves with agape love, but rather, Jesus serves as the harbinger of that love, the exemplar of that belovedness, in the world.

Imagine how different the world would look if we truly lived into the reality that we are beloved by God? How would it change the way we saw ourselves? How might we see our neighbors differently? How might it impact how we treat the stranger in our midst, our enemies, even the creation which God has entrusted to our care? Being the recipient of God’s agape love has the potential to allow you to love the world with that same sort of love.

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.

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.

A Good Work Begun

Given the baptismal theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, that is that baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” it has often been said that Confirmation is left as something of a vestigial service, a liturgy in search of a theology.  While I’ve not done the deep research to confirm, I have it on good authority that in the months leading up to the 1976 General Convention, it was thought that Confirmation would not end up in the final draft of the revised Book of Common prayer.  Evidence in the book suggests that even as it was inserted late in the game, its placement in Pastoral Offices, rather than the Episcopal Services, betrays the fact that many thought that it was unlikely Confirmation would stick around as the thing bishops did when they showed up in a parish.

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Deep within this vestigial liturgy, tucked way behind eight graders looking to graduate from Sunday school and that certain kind of person who actually takes changing traditions seriously enough to mark it liturgically by way of Reception, is the possibility for one to reaffirm their Christian faith.  It gets nary a mention in Concerning the Service or the Additional Directions, so we’ve had to kind of make up what it means.  Still, I think it is actually the most useful portion of this service, and we ignore it to our detriment.  Although it only gets less than three lines of text, the prayer that the bishop is to pray for those who are reaffirming their baptismal promises is a powerful one:

N., may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Amen.

If you’ve been reading ahead to Sunday’s Second Lesson from Philippians 1, you might recognize these words as being grounded in Scripture.  In the opening acclamation appointed for Advent 2C, we hear Paul doing his normal thing by heaping prayers and praises upon the heads of the Christians in Philippi.  Included are these words, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

In the Greek, the words translated as “completion” has its root in telos, which means something deeper than simply checking a task off the list.  Instead, the telos of God’s good work begun is its perfect end.  It is Paul’s prayer for the Church in Philippi, and while the Reaffirmation prayer doesn’t include the full text, I believe it is what we are praying for in that service as well.  Those who come to make a public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises do so for a reason.  It might be because they are coming back to the Church after time away.  It may be because they’ve found a new calling in lay ministry.  Whatever it is, the prayer we offer to God on their behalf is that whatever good work has begun, whether 9 weeks or 90 years ago, might be brought to its perfect end, to the benefit of the Kingdom, through God’s direction and upholding.

The Bishop won’t be coming for several months, but this Advent 2, my prayer for each of you, dear readers, is that God’s good work begun in you might be sustained and fulfilled by its perfect completion.