Wednesday, December 26, 2012

And the Word was Made Flesh, A Christmas Homily

“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  So, declares today’s reading from the Gospel of John, which usually ends every mass.  The challenge with this statement, and with today’s readings, generally, is that it is so philosophical and abstract.  Today’s lections are dense, doctrinal statements that would make even seasoned theologians’ heads swim, so how do we process these biblical passages in a way that is useful and practical for us as Christians?

Well, I’d like to begin with faces.  I’m remembering the face of an elderly man, named Kenny, who I visited often while he was dying of lymphoma.  My mother once said to me, “Ethan, I don’t know how you can stand being in the hospital, where there is so much disease and death.  Don’t you find it depressing?” “Well, Mom,” I said, “I often find it overwhelming, but not depressing, because one of the most deeply meaningful things I have ever done is to help Kenny die, and to die well.” As I held Kenny’s hand and looked into his face while the priest anointed him and administered last rites, I knew that Jesus was really present in that hospital room.

I am remembering the face of a homeless man at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington DC, who sat next to me during an early morning Eucharist.  Although he was initially embarrassed for being dirty and shabbily dressed, he accepted my outstretched hand during the intercessions and we prayed together hand in hand.  I can still picture his smiling face, and I knew Jesus was really present in that pew.

I am remembering the face of a young transgender woman as we talked while waiting in line for the restroom at this year’s Outfest.  She revealed that she had been hurt and damaged by religion, and yet she was eager to let me know that St. Clement’s presence gave her hope in religion.  She gave me a big hug as we parted and I knew that Jesus was really present in that embrace.

Theology is important and necessary, but when it is only an abstraction, a principle, it fails to reflect the fullness of God’s divine mystery.  God is more than a concept. God took on the fragility, the grittiness, and the flesh of humanity as a way of redeeming us from sin and death.  And he came into this world in the very same way we did, as a vulnerable baby, dependent upon the care and nurturing of others.  But in the cherubic face of this squirming infant, is the face of God himself, full of the inexplicable mystery of the Creator, as well as of the eternal Word of God that gave order to the Universe.  This Word has now become flesh, bringing God’s justice and mercy, God’s peace and love, into a broken world.  God has given a human face to the Logos that was and is and is to come.

One of the reasons that the Incarnation has been such an important event to Christians, and especially to Anglicans, is that the Word become flesh did not simply appear as a flash of light for an instant and then dissipate into the darkness.  John declares “in him was life, and the life was the light of men: and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.”  The Word lived and moved among us, experiencing the joys and tribulations of brittle human existence, just as we do, interacting with Creation in a way that challenged and transformed it forever.  The Word gave light and shape to the void in the beginning of Creation, and when it became enfleshed in Jesus, this Word gave light to a world overrun by the darkness of sin, cruelty, and hatred.  And the light of Christ, of the Word Incarnate, illumines us still.

The challenge of the Incarnation, however, is that it goads us into seeing things in a new way.  It is not simply recognition of the familiar, but a re-cognition of it that demonstrates that the familiar is actually quite different than we imagined.  It calls into question “so-called” truths that we take for granted.  Few people could detect God in the small babe in the manger, and few could detect God in Jesus the social critic, Jesus the rabble-rouser, Jesus the miraculous healer.  And few could recognize God in Jesus the criminal nailed upon the hard wood of the cross.  And yet, God was really present, really embodied, in all of these Jesuses.  In so many ways, we are all Pharisees and Herods and Pilates unable to see in a face anything but what we’re accustomed to seeing. The same old same old.

But Christmas is about seeing in this baby and seeing in all human faces a deeper truth that has been unrecognizable before.  It is about seeing the divine imprint in the face of a dying cancer patient, in the face of a homeless man, in the face of a young transgender woman, and even in the face of our enemies.  The Gospel of John observes that “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”  The world could not see Jesus for what he was, and could not accept the truth that he had to share.  How often in our own world we refuse to see the reflection of God’s presence in those sitting next to us.  That great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said that “the Incarnation, with both cross and resurrection as its climax, is the divine self-giving, enabling men and women, through the now-indwelling Spirit to give themselves back to God in lives that are really a recreation of human nature in Christ.”

The Incarnation is therefore not just a renewed or expanding understanding of who God is and how God works, but it is also a call to live in a way, that we can more resemble the face of Jesus through our own self-giving.  This means learning to see beyond the surface of age, race, gender, and sexuality, embracing both those who have a roof over their heads and those who are homeless, giving equal dignity to those who are working and those who are currently unemployed, and joining hands with those you don’t like very much or identify with or understand.  As God has given himself to us in the flesh of Jesus, so we are to give ourselves back to him in our own flesh, in our hands and feet and faces in the world.   In our ordinary daily living, you and me.

But, more importantly, it is in our living as the body of Christ, as a community of believers, that Jesus will continue to be really present in the world, that the world will know him and receive him.  Merry Christmas, my brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Today's World is Coming to an End

There has been much talk lately about the end of the world.  We have known for a while that the Mayan calendar runs out this Friday, December 21st.  The Gospel reading for the second Sunday in Advent, moreover, enumerates the various events of violence, destruction and suffering that will signal the coming of Jesus, ending on the verse, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Luke 21:33).  I'm pretty certain that I will wake up on Saturday morning to find that the Mayans simply ran out of room on their calendar, and life will go on.  But in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I don't know that I can accept Jesus' words as signaling a better age to come that will replace the one in which we are currently living.  I imagine that life will go on much as it has for a while, and this concerns me deeply.

Crucifixion, Anthony van Dyk, 1622.
The trouble is that we are headed for destruction, and yet we seem surprised by the signs of this trajectory.  We are told in the Gospel of Mark, that "the Pharisees came and began to argue with Jesus, asking him for a sign from heaven to test him.  And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation ask for a sign?  Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation" (Mark 8:11-12).  I suspect that an exasperated Jesus threw up his hands and said, "Good grief, how many more signs do you guys need!"  Besides, there is no point in giving signs to people who don't heed them and act in accordance with the truth and wisdom they convey.  Why tell folks the truth if they're not going to change their ways?  Fair enough, Jesus.  John the Baptist, too, told people to repent and to prepare the way of the Lord.  Some did, no doubt, but many--probably most--did not.  Hence, Jesus' sacrifice to redeem a wayward and sinful humanity.  If the image of our blessed Lord's broken body on the Cross doesn't offer a potent enough sign of the broken state of the world, I don't know what else can.

Grieving parents of Sandy Hook massacre.
But the signs are abundant.  Global warming, the melting of polar ice, and climate change demonstrate the way we have been slowly, gradually, bringing about the end of the world.  The ease of obtaining guns in this country in the absence of adequate and sensible legislation that exists in other nations, such as the United Kingdom, is wiping out a generation of our children through gang violence and events like the Sandy Hook massacre.  The absence of affordable and accessible mental health services through mental health carveouts by insurance companies means that psychological and emotional problems will often be neglected and unaddressed.  In fact, after working in health care policy for 11 years, I can't help wondering if Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook might have been prevented if those gunmen had been identified early and treated for mental illness. 

The point is that the end of the world is a situation of our making, through our action and inaction.  In that quintessentially apocalyptic book, the Revelation of John, the angel of the church in Sardis says, "‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.  Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. [ ... ] Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches" (Rev. 3:1-4, 6).  The world that we know will end however we respond to the angel's exhortation, but it can be an ending that brings the finality of violence and death or one that inaugurates a future of peace and abundant life.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Advent Observance

I have often been accused, with some justification, of being insufficiently observant.  One afternoon many years ago, a good friend and I were browsing at a shoe store in a suburban mall.  After wandering about for a while, my friend said to me as we were walking out, "I wonder what all those cops were doing in there?"  "What cops?" I replied.  And then, my friend, incredulous, pointed to the 3 or 4 obviously uniformed police officers in the store.  "Hmm," I said casually, as if it were the most mundane scene in the world.  How I could have failed to notice something so noteworthy in such a small space remains a mystery to me.  But this morning, I experienced the exact opposite.  I seemed to be noticing everything in the smallest detail.  I was hyper-observant.

As I was saying Morning Prayer, for example, I became aware that I found the Sabon font in which the Book of Common Prayer is printed especially comforting and reassuring.  Perhaps it's like seeing the face of an old friend whose personality, laugh, and company you've enjoyed for years and years.  One instinctively smiles when it comes into view.  And then, as I was walking to physical therapy, I zeroed in on the many insignificant details that have become familiar to me on this oft-traveled route.  The fluttering of little birds around the bird-feeder in the St. Clement's garden. The smell of cigarette smoke outside a hotel on Cherry Street.  The banging of a hammer at that new construction site.  A drooping flower etched in the facade of a building facing the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  The fetid billows of steam emerging from the manhole cover on 19th Street. The lines on the face of the man always hanging out in front of the Walgreens pharmacy asking for change. 

Taize service during Advent
Is any one of these things remarkable?  Probably not.  But I am cognizant that so much of life is a blur, and I am grateful for the moments--rare though they may be--when my senses seem to be heightened, and I am able to appreciate the richness of human experience.  Maybe there is something of the movement of the Holy Spirit in this, urging me to slow down and take in the details that form the substance of existence.  In Advent, we are encouraged to be reflective, contemplative, to attend to the basics of our faith and life, not just let them pass us by in one undifferentiated whirl of stimuli.  After a particularly over-scheduled week last week, I am relieved to have time to savor the details, the minutiae, and occasionally, the silence.  I am pretty certain, then, that one of my Advent lessons is to slow myself down, pause, and take life in--not only in my walking to appointments, running errands, and checking off the items on my task list, but also in my prayer life, by saying the daily office more slowly, meditating leisurely on each of the petitions in the Lord's Prayer, and calling to mind in prayer people I haven't thought about in ages.  The world will accelerate and thrust us along with it soon enough.  So, for now, my friends, slow down, pause, rest.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Put on the Armour of Light

"Creator of the stars of night" is one of my absolutely favorite Advent hymns, and as I rediscovered it at Evening Prayer this week, I remembered why.  Not only is it lovely poetry, the evocative imagery stimulating my imagination, but the theology is profound and powerful. There is a wonderful icon in my study that shows Jesus creating the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies, and when I first got it from a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Wisconsin, I thought, "what an odd image. It shows Jesus in the role of Creator of the Universe.  Surely that can't be right."  But, of course, it is.  It shows Jesus as the Divine Logos, the preexistent Word, that was with the Creator in the very beginning of it all.  If God is One, then Jesus participated in Creation, just as the Creator was with Jesus upon the hard wood of the Cross.  The season of Advent emphasizes the coming of God into human history, an act which sets us free from sin and provides us with a new beginning, a fresh start. So, not only was Jesus with Creation at the formation of the universe, but he continues to be with it throughout all time to rescue and preserve it, as the hymn declares : "Thou, grieving at the bitter cry / Of all creation doomed to die, / Didst come to save a ruined race / With healing gifts of heavenly grace." Eucharistic Prayer A says it well, too.  "When we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy sent Jesus Christ your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all."  I've heard those words countless times, but only now am I connecting them with the hymn, the icon, and so many other carriers of the Christian theological tradition.

After spending all summer and fall in the season of Trinity-tide, we now glide into Advent, where the same Trinitarian theology is present.  Advent does not anticipate the first coming of Christ in the form of this tiny baby, Jesus, in a manger; it acknowledges that Christ will be coming to us in a new way, in human flesh, "the Son of Man, yet Lord divine."  However, Christ was always there, the Divine Word was always already present with Creation, but God's love has visited us in great humility, taking on human form, as the Advent 1 collect says.  Even though Advent is not strictly speaking a penitential season, it is undoubtedly a contemplative one that calls us to conversion, to adopt a new way of living.  Advent encourages us to do some deep soul-searching, to take stock of our lives, and to commit to reforming ourselves, so that we may be more like Jesus.  Advent is one bookend of the story of human story of salvation, with the resurrection of Easter and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as the other, and so for this reason, our liturgical year is structured around these two seasons.  "All praise, eternal Son, to thee, / Whose advent sets thy people free."  If Jesus is coming to save a ruined race, then we must respond to that invitation to salvation with something active and concrete.  The collect exhorts us to "cast away the works of darkness" and to "put upon us the armour of light," which explains the inclusion of the theme of judgment in Advent theology.  If Jesus doesn't come to save us from ourselves, from sin and death, then what was the point of it all?  "To thee, O holy One, we pray, / Our judge in that tremendous day, / Preserve us, while we dwell below, / From every onslaught of the foe."

Might I suggest that we do a few extra things this Advent to evade the onslaughts of the foe?  By making more time for contemplative prayer or spiritual direction, or volunteering to feed the homeless, or visiting the homebound and lonely, or showing greater respect for the natural environment, or comforting those who find the holiday season a sad time.  That is how we prepare to receive Jesus, by putting on the armour of light, by renewed commitment to prayer, corporal works of mercy, and love for humanity and the rest of Creation.