A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Sixth Day of Christmas: December 30 (Luke 2:36-40)

On the sixth day of Christmas, God’s true Love gave to me…

…curiosity about a silent prophet.

Today’s gospel text concludes the story of the presentation in the temple, after which the family returns to Nazareth to make their home.

Simeon was not the only righteous person in the temple who recognized who Jesus was and for whom his presence in the temple was meaningful. The elderly Anna, a “prophet” of at least 84 years, was there as well. In fact, we are told that she “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day”. Seeing the infant with his parents, she rushes to him, praising God and telling all who had been looking for the coming of the Messiah that in this tiny baby, their desire was fulfilled. Simeon’s words are recorded for posterity (and Evening Prayer), but Anna’s are not. What might her song of praise have sounded like? Why is her voice silenced? Prophets, we know, tell the truth even when the truth is uncomfortable. Why truth did Anna tell?

After this important ritual of purification and presentation has been completed, Joseph and Mary make their home in Nazareth, where it is assumed that Joseph resumes his carpenter’s trade. The young Jesus grows in wisdom, and finds favor with God.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Fifth Day of Christmas: December 29 (Luke 2:22-35)

On the fifth day of Christmas, God’s true Love gave to me…

…a glimpse into Mary’s own heart as she begins to understand what has been asked of her.

Mary is the mother of our Lord. An angelic visitor had told her just who her son would be; she could hardly forget that, given the shepherd’s adoration at his birth, and neither can, or should, we. Yet today, now that her time of uncleanness is over, she and Joseph present themselves and Jesus, a first-born son, in the Temple in Jerusalem. (The church celebrates this event as the Feast of the Presentation on February 2, but today we get the story in the sequential gospel readings for Christmas week.) This was a common practice, and a requirement under the Law; all parents of sons would do this. For Mary, its sense of routine and ordinariness might be comforting. Yet out of the crowds in the temple comes a man named Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit, who’d been promised by God that he would not die prior to seeing the Messiah. This stranger takes the infant Jesus in his arms, praises God in the beautiful hymn we’ve come to know as the Nunc dimittis (“Now I am dismissed in peace….”, a canticle second only in importance to the Song of Mary – Magnificat – for the Church). Basically, Simeon is saying that now he can die a blessed man. And Mary and Joseph are “amazed”. Even in these crowds of people, their son is singled out and recognized by a total stranger as the savior of Israel and a revelation to all the nations. And Simeon’s cryptic words – that Jesus will be “destined for the falling and rising of many…and a sword will pierce your own soul too” - will likely come back to Mary as her firstborn grows into manhood and begins to fulfill his mission: a mission that will be divisive among families and friends, and will take her to the foot of his cross as she witnesses his death.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Fourth Day of Christmas: December 28 – The Holy Innocents

On the fourth day of Christmas, God’s true love gave to me…

…a grieving heart, moved to seek justice.

Herod the King, in his raging charged he hath this day
his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay.

Into the joy and good news of Christmas comes an unthinkable, violent event of tragic proportions – the slaughter of innocent young children at the hands of an amoral, paranoid megalomaniac. King Herod, fearing what the birth of another “King of the Jews” might mean for him and his position, attempts to do away with the threat. And since he was tricked by the magi (with the help of God’s angel), who might have identified a particular child, he doesn’t know which of any number of children this baby boy king might be. So he orders his soldiers to kill all of the young ones in Judea (Matthew 2:13ff).

Such slaughter should be unthinkable; yet we have seen it, and continue to see it, over and over and over. Whether in an intentional act by a deranged killer in a single situation and locale, or as collateral damage in an ongoing military conflict or an urban gang war, the deaths of innocent children confronts us every day. Rachel continues to weep for her children, and will not be comforted, because they are not: in the Crusades, the concentration camps, the refugee boats; at Mi Lai, Columbine, Sandy Hook; in Syria, Cambodia, Liberia, Chicago, Israel/Palestine. …

That woe is me, poor child for thee! And every morn and day,
For thy parting nor say nor sing bye-bye, lully lullay.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Third Day of Christmas: December 27 – John, Apostle and Evangelist

On the third day of Christmas, God’s true Love gave to me…

…a reminder to walk in the light and to mirror the light as best I can in my own life.

John is almost universally acknowledged to be “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, and is often referred to as “St. John the Divine”. He was exiled on the Greek island of Patmos, and is believed to have lived long enough to see the fledgling church into its second generation. The fourth gospel and three New Testament letters are attributed to him, as is the book of Revelation. The ideas of light and darkness figure prominently in these books, and the prologue to his gospel hearkens back to Genesis both in opening text (“In the beginning”) and action (in the first act of creation, God breaks through the darkness by speaking light into existence, and through the Word made flesh the light shines in the darkness, which cannot overcome it). John reminds us that in the person of Jesus Christ, the light of God’s glory and grace came into the world. “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5).

The first of the Hebrew scripture readings for Christmas, Isaiah 9:2-7, proclaims that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. It’s not difficult to find darkness in the world; in truth, it never has been. Whether of our own making, or thrust upon us by people and situations beyond our control, it can threaten to overcome us. But we can take God’s promise of everlasting light to heart, and we can mirror God’s light, grace, and love in this world that God so loves.

The Second Day of Christmas: December 26 – Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

(This is the feast on which “Good King Wenceslas” - who was actually a duke - looked out and saw the snow lying “deep and crisp and even”.)

On the second day of Christmas, God’s true Love gave to me...a lesson in faithful courage and forgiveness.

The persecution, assault, and murders of prophets are well documented in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Stephen is not commonly referred to as a prophet; he was, in fact, one of the seven individuals chosen by the apostles in the earliest days of the church to give aid to those in need, especially widows and orphans. But in the tradition of the prophets, he told the truth to those in authority, reminding them of their heritage as the people to whom God had revealed the path to salvation, beginning with Abraham. But they paid to have him slandered, and in their anger stoned Stephen. As a result, he became the first Christian martyr, but as he was dying, he forgave his attackers. A bystander at his martyrdom was a young man named Saul, who watched over the coats of Stephen’s killers; Acts 7 tells us Saul approved of Stephen’s killing.

Truthtellers, whistle-blowers, those who expose lies and abuse by those in power and authority – these are prophets. They are not always killed, but they almost always suffer the consequences of their righteous actions. We seldom want to hear the truth about ourselves. I thank God for the courage of St. Stephen, and I hope to learn from his ability to be forgiving, even to those who failed to see the truth and killed him for his honesty.

The First Day of Christmas: December 25 - The Nativity of our Lord

This begins a series of brief posts modeled on the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" but reflecting on the gifts of God during this season, based on the Eucharist readings for those days, be they major feasts, lesser feasts, or ferial (i.e. "regular") days. Not everyone realizes that the twelve days of Christmas, rather than beginning twelve days prior to the 25th and culminating on that day, actually start on Christmas Day and go through the eve of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. (The Epiphany, January 6, celebrates the arrival of the "wise men from the east" who bring elegant gifts to the young Jesus.) 

On the first day of Christmas, God’s true Love gave to me….

…Salvation wrapped in swaddling band,
Divine encased in human flesh,
Truth made plain for every land,
Our redemption comes afresh
On view in abject poverty
While angels sang above,
“To God on high be glory!”
God’s priceless Gift of Love.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Centering Prayer at the Monastery

The leader reads a scripture passage. The bell rings. Silence begins.

As usual I am distracted; my mind is busy. Then I recall a simple prayer I learned as a child from my father: "Thou, God, seest me." It becomes my mantra for this morning, even as other thoughts intrude.

I am chilly in my short-sleeved shirt. I dare not risk the noise of fishing my jacket out of my bag, so I concentrate on what it feels like for my arms to be just a little bit too cold. "Thou, God, seest me."

My cheek itches, but I won't lift my hand to scratch it. Instead, I think about how the itch feels. It disappears.  "Thou, God, seest me."

There is a slight change to the ambient noise; did others hear it, too? Are others even listening? I want to clear my throat, or cough, but decide not to make any sound and endure the hoarseness. "Thou, God, seest me."

Thoughts of work intrude. "Thou, God, seest me." Is my breathing as loud to others as it sounds to me? I fight the urge to yawn.

I concentrate on the muscles I used in the morning's pseudo-yoga exercises, and those in my legs that I am more aware of because of the slightly hilly inclines I walk on the monastery grounds. Will they cramp up later? "Thou, God, seest me."

The bell rings again. We open our eyes. When did the person directly across from me enter the room? She wasn't there when we began, yet I didn't hear her come in. Her head is nodding over; is she asleep? I was not aware than one of the sisters had left her chair to sit on the floor. Another has crossed her legs on the chair; I heard no movement. We begin to stir, get up, and move away to begin the day's activities.

"Thou, God, seest me."