Celebrating the Holy Name on New Year’s Day

To the Name that brings Salvation
Honour, worship, laud we pay.

— John Mason Neale

Aelfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon monk around the turn of the first millennium, thought January 1 a poor choice for New Year’s Day because it lacked the inherent significance worthy of time’s annual renewal. The birthday of Jesus on December 25, or late March, when the land starts to wake from Winter’s sleep, seemed more propitious, and were each widely observed in the Middle Ages as the year’s true beginning. In the Church calendar, the year began in late autumn, on the First Sunday of Advent. In Britain, the First of January did not become the officially accepted New Year’s Day until 1752.

As Eleanor Parker explains in Winters in the World, her charming study of early English understandings of the seasons, monastic writers like Aelfric “wanted to read and interpret the natural world, to learn to recognize the meaning God had planted in it. They saw time and the seasons, from the very first day of the world, as carefully arranged by God with method and purpose—so they believed it should be possible to organize the calendar not according to the randomness of custom and inherited tradition, but in a way that reflected that divine plan.” [i]

But January 1 did mark a singular event in the life of Jesus. As the octave, or eighth day of Christmas, it was the date of the Christ Child’s circumcision, based on Luke’s description of the timing (“When the eighth day came …”— Luke 2:21). The Feast of the Circumcision was celebrated in Spain and Gaul as early as the 6thcentury, but Rome, reluctant to associate with the chaotic excess of popular New Year celebrations, waited until the 11th century to adopt the feast. While modernity has found the circumcision of Jesus a peculiar choice for liturgical celebration (it was finally suppressed in the Roman Catholic calendar revisions of 1969), the Middle Ages saw significance in the first shedding of the Savior’s sacred blood. It not only proved his fully vulnerable humanity; it also foreshadowed the sacrificial offering of Calvary. 

St. Paul’s spiritualization of the physical ritual, making it an interior, metaphorical image of severing ourselves from the old body of death (“circumcision of the heart”—Romans 2:29), helped perpetuate the liturgical observance beyond the Middle Ages, but our own era has found more profitable meaning in the other thing that happened on the octave of the Nativity: Jesus got his name. 

When the eighth day had come and the child was to be circumcised, they gave him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before his conception (Luke 2:21).

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on various dates in early January, but the Episcopal calendar, following Luke’s account, puts it properly on New Year’s Day. And while many of us usually spend January 1 watching the Rose Parade and bowl games instead of keeping the sacred feast, whenever the year begins on a Sunday, the secular traditions are transferred to January 2, leaving Episcopalians free to gather on January 1 to observe Holy Name.

Although the Hebrew name “Yeshua” (“Iesus” in the 4th-century Latin Bible, becoming “Jesus” in the 17th-century Geneva Bible) was fairly common in 1st-century Palestine, it was given special weight by divine authority (both Mary and Joseph were told by God’s messenger, “You must name him Jesus.”) And its literal meaning, “Yahweh is salvation,” became fully embodied and expressed in the life, death and resurrection of the son of Mary. Jesus is the one who saves.   

St. Paul defined Christians as “those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 1:2). The whole New Testament attributed great power to the name of Jesus. The first Christians prayed in his name (John 14:14), baptized in his name (Romans 6:3), and healed in his name (Acts 3:6). The Prologue to the Fourth Gospel declares that “to all that received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). And in Paul’s famous tribute in Philippians, no other name can compare:

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2: 9-11),

Medieval theologians sang exuberant praises of the Holy Name. St. Bernard wrote: “The name Jesus is food. Are you not strengthened every time you recall it? What else builds up the spirit of the one pondering it as this name does? What so refreshed the tired heart, strengthens the virtues, fosters chaste loves?” Richard of St. Victor said that “Jesus is a sweet name, a name of delight, a name that comforts the sinner, a name of blessed hope. Therefore Jesus, be to me Jesus!” And Peter of Ravenna equated the name with the effects of salvation: “You shall call his name Jesus—the name that gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, walking to the lame, speech to the mute, life to the dead; and the power of this name drove all the might of the devil from the bodies of the possessed.” [ii]

Eastern Christianity developed a repetitive recitation of the Holy Name into the transformative practice of centering prayer.[iii] And countless hymn writers have hailed “the power of Jesus’ name.” 

John Newton (1725-1807), author of “Amazing Grace,” celebrated the Holy Name’s healing power:

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.[iv]

Even at our end, he believed, “the music of thy name” will “refresh my soul in death.” An expanded list of the Name’s effects was given by John Mason Neale (1818-1866):

Name of gladness, Name of pleasure,
By the tongue ineffable,
Name of sweetness passing measure,
To the ear delectable.

‘Tis our safeguard and our treasure,
‘Tis our help ‘gainst sin and hell.
‘Tis the Name for adoration,
‘Tis the Name of victory;

‘Tis the Name for meditation
In the vale of misery:
‘Tis the Name for veneration
By the Citizens on high.

‘Tis the Name that whoso preaches
Finds its music in his ear:
‘Tis the Name that whoso teaches
Finds more sweet than honey’s cheer …[v]

Such praises of the Holy Name do not mistake its invocation as a magic charm detached from any concrete meaning. When we say “Jesus” with prayerful, sacred attention, we call up a vast array of transformative forces, from the salvific events of the gospels to the abiding energies of divine presence. As a young Palestinian woman put it to me once, in her imperfect but brilliantly accurate English: 

Jesus is a big word. You can never come to the end of it.”

Episcopal theologian William Porcher Dubose (1836-1918) made the same point this way:

“Jesus Christ is to me, not a name, or a memory or tradition, nor an idea or sentiment, nor a personification, but a living and personal reality, presence, and power. He is God for me, to me, in me, and myself in God … And ‘in His name’ means ‘in Him,’ and ‘in Him’ means ‘in his death and resurrection.’” [vi]

The attempt to grasp the reality represented by the Holy Name is vividly imagined by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) in the figure of Jacob wrestling with the Divine stranger whose name he struggles to know:

Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see! …

I need not tell thee who I am,
My misery or sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on thy hands, and read it there.

But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.…

Art thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold:
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.…

The wrestling with the nameless Transcendent continues, and even though its ungraspable essence departs with the dawn, there is a personal, relatable presence that remains, and can be named. 

I know thee, Savior, who thou art—
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend.
Nor wilt thou with the night depart,
But stay, and love me to the end …

And in this abiding, enfolding presence, the poet discovers yet another name behind (within?) the name of Jesus. It is the Holy Name above all others:

Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE. [vii]


[i] Eleanor Parker, Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion Books, 2022), 76.

[ii] The quotations are cited in the 13th-century collection by Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, Volume 1, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 73.

[iii] The “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me) is often synchronized in its repetitions with a pattern of slow, deep breathing. 

[iv] John Newton, “The Name of Jesus.”

[v] John Mason Neale, “The Name of Jesus.”

[vi] Wiliam Porcher Dubose, The Reason of Life (London 1911), cited in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, & Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 493.

[vii] Charles Wesley, “Wrestling Jacob.” The original biblical story is in Genesis 32:24-33.

The Music of What Happens

“The old year now away is fled …” (New Year’s Carol)

Do you have hope for the future? someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end. Yes, and even for the past, he replied, that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was, something we can accept, mistakes made by the selves we had to be—not able to be, perhaps, what we had wished or, what looking back half the time it seems we easily could have been, or ought to have been … The future, yes, and even for the past, that it will be something we can bear.

                                    — David Ray, Sam’s Book (Wesleyan, 1987)

Happy New Year, one and all!! And thank you, dear reader, for all the times you dropped by to read and reflect and respond over the past twelve months. I am grateful for your thoughtful attention, and for your supportive sharing of the posts that move you. Thus does our circle of thought grow wider.

As we prepare for the turning of the year, let me pass on to you two gifts for the occasion from John Burnside’s The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2020). The first is a story from Ireland:

One night, around a campfire, a band of Celtic warriors begin to debate what might constitute the finest music in the world. One man says it is ‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ while others jump in to suggest ‘the top of  music is the ring of a spear on a shield’ …  ‘No, it’s the bellowing of a stag across a lake’ … ‘It’s the song of a lark’ … ‘It’s the laugh of a gleeful girl.’ Finally, they turn to their chief, Fionn, and ask him what he would choose, to which he replies: ‘The music of what happens. That is the finest music in the world.’

The second New Year’s gift is Burnside’s translation from the Ninth of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. The “once and no more” need not be a denial of resurrection (we are, I believe, more than “earthly”), but it is a candid reminder to savor the gift of every moment and every face.

A time
for everything, but only once. Once and no more.
And we too, only once.
Never again. But to have been here
this once, even if only once:
to have been earthly, this cannot be revoked.

A snowman surrenders to what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt” (Jan. 3, 2022).

And if you’d like to revisit some past New Year’s Eve reflections on our dance with time, click the links below. May 2023 be a year of grace for you and those you love. Great joy to the New!

The Angel of Possibility (2014)

There is an element of carnival this night, as we throw off the tyranny of good order for a bit of wild excess, declaring independence from the way things are in the name of things to come. But the night’s underlying theme is not chaos but renewal.

Tick-Tock: Thoughts on New Year’s Eve (2015)

It seems fitting that the world festival of the turning of time comes in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, since the Incarnation is God’s decisive embrace of the temporal and finite, while extending – simultaneously – an invitation to us humans to embody in ourselves the divine kenosis – the eternal self-emptying that constitutes God’s trinitarian life. In other words, both human and divine are all about giving over and letting go. Never just being, but also becoming.

On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope (2018)

At year’s end, I sometimes lapse into a retrospective melancholy, thinking of people, moments, experiences and places that have come and gone in my life, some for the last time. My sense of future will revive at midnight, when we will go outside to bang gongs, beat drums and blow kazoos and whistles to welcome the New. But until then, impermanence shall be my partner in the year’s last dance.

Tending Hope’s Flame on an Anxious New Year’s Eve (2021)

With the flag of hope tattered and torn by endless battles, I draw inspiration from Thoreau, who continued his quiet work of studying the natural world even as the Civil War ravaged the American consciousness. We must, he argued, refuse the hypnotic spell of the chaos which seeks to seduce our gaze. The refusal to take our eye from the transcendent goodness and beauty at the heart of things is “the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.”

“No place to hide from God”—Frederick Buechner on the Nativity

Nativity, Flemish follower of Jan Joest (c. 1515)

Merry Christmas, dear reader. May you find your heart’s desire in the stable tonight. Although we may stammer before such a Mystery, we are grateful for the writers who have bravely attempted to put it into words. One of my favorites is Frederick Buechner, who departed this life last summer on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Here is what he preached to students many years ago:

The child born in the night among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again.

Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.

For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that. God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon. It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering that we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves. Because that is the way love works, and when someone we love suffers, we suffer with him, and we would not have it otherwise because the suffering and the love are one, just as it is with God’s love for us.

+

Buechner’s complete sermon was published in The Hungering Dark, and later in Secrets in the Dark. You can also find it here.

Gaudete!—The Advent Dance of Honesty and Hope

Our Lady of the Angels (Robert Graham, Los Angeles cathedral, 2002)

Gaudete! Gaudete! Christus est natus 
Ex Maria Virgine. Gaudete!

Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary. Rejoice!

So goes the joyful refrain of a late medieval carol, and even though the celebration of the Divine Birth is still two weeks away, the note of rejoicing (GaudeteGaudete!) is already beginning to dispute the wintry gloom in our Scripture readings, our hymns, and our expectant hearts. 

For many centuries, the Third Sunday of Advent has been called Gaudete Sunday—Rejoice Sunday. In the Advent wreath, the somber blue is replaced by a brighter, warmer shade of rose. Churches lucky enough to have rose vestments will be using them today. And in the Common Lectionary cycle of readings, the word “rejoice” turns up in each of the three years. 

In Year C, the prophet Zephaniah exhorts his disheartened people, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem” (Zephaniah 3:14). And St. Paul, overflowing with the Spirit, urges the first Christians to make joy a constant spiritual practice: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he said. “Again I will say, Rejoice (Philippians 4:4)

In Year B, Isaiah tells us, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10), while Mary’s heart pours out the Magnificat’s ode to joy: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1:47).

And now, in Year A, Isaiah promises that even the most barren and forsaken places will become a paradise in God’s future: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom,” he assures us. “God’s ransomed exiles shall return …Gladness and joy shall come upon them, while sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

Such hopeful refrains lift up our hearts and light a bright candle in the dark. But we also heed the voice of St. James, who curbs our enthusiasm with his “Not so fast! The Kingdom doesn’t come all at once. We’ve got to be patient” (James 5:7). 

And we know he’s right. We still abide in a severely damaged history which seems to repeat itself rather than make real progress toward the horizon of God’s future. We have been shocked in recent years to see such seemingly outdated sins as overt racism and anti-Semitism come roaring back, like the alarming return of “conquered” diseases like polio and measles. 

The French thinker Jean Baudrillard wrote about the myth of human progress just before the Millennium, critiquing the optimistic talk of a New World Order by reminding us that humanity continues to have a serious waste disposal problem (theologians would call this Original Sin, the persistent flaw that burdens and bedevils every human endeavor).   

As Baudrillard put it, “The problem becomes one of waste. It is not just material substances, including nuclear ones, which pose a waste problem but also the defunct ideologies, bygone utopias, dead concepts and fossilized ideas which continue to pollute our mental space. Historical and intellectual refuse pose an even more serious problem than industrial waste. Who will rid us of the sediment of centuries of stupidity?” [i]

I ask that question every day when I see the news! But the genius of Advent is its ability to perform the difficult dance of honesty and hope. It doesn’t deny the darkness, but it also refuses to accept the black hole of unredeemed history as an inescapable fate. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,” we pray, “and put on the armor of light”—not just in some distant utopian future, but “now, in the time of this mortal life.”

Now, now, now. But also not yetGaudete, but also Kyrie eleison. Rowan Williams, borrowing an image from Diadochus, a fifth-century bishop, describes Advent spirituality as the practice of “looking east in winter.” 

“Looking east in winter we feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, while still sensing an icy chill at our backs. Our divided and distorted awareness of the world is not healed instantly. But we are not looking at the phenomenon from a distance: we do truly sense the sun on our faces; and we have good reason to think that the climate and landscape of our humanity can indeed be warmed and transfigured.” [ii]

The next time there is a sunny morning, go stand somewhere on our island’s eastern shore. Feel the chill at your back, and the warming sunlight on your face. Do it without words. Let those contrary sensations of cold and warmth be your Advent prayer. 

Not every morning brings a bright sun, of course. Sometimes the warmth of hope is a matter of faith, not immediate experience. Yet even when we can’t feel it, God is redeeming the time and preparing the dawn. And when we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us,” the Holy One is listening. 

“Stir up your power” is such a striking prayer, a bold cry of the heart to the One who saves. [iii] And because it is always the Collect-prayer for this day, Gaudete Sunday is also known as “Stir up” Sunday. But what do we mean when we call upon divine power? What does the power of God look like in the world we inhabit? 

Well, it looks a lot like what happened when Jesus arrived: “The blind see, the lame dance, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news” (Matthew 11:5). It’s not a violent head-on clash with the powers of this world—meeting them on their own bloody terms—but the liberation of the faithful into a new form of being, enabling the friends of God to “plant the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [iv]

In Roberto Rossellini’s film, Europe ‘51 (1952), Ingrid Bergman plays a wealthy woman who gives up all her privilege to serve the poor and vulnerable. Rossellini, who had made a joyful film about St. Francis two years earlier, wanted to explore what would happen if someone behaved like St. Francis in the contemporary world. As it turns out in Europe ‘51, Irene (Bergman’s character) is judged to be insane by her husband, her social class, her doctors, and her Church, and the film ends with her locked away in an asylum. The powers-that-be have decided that there is no place in the world for the impracticality of unconditional love. 

But even as Irene suffers this sad fate, we see her continue to be who she is, embodying God’s compassion for her fellow inmates. Like the incarnate God enclosed within the finite space of the Virgin’s womb, she can still practice heaven within the confines of the asylum. As she comforts a despairing woman who has tried to commit suicide, we see Irene, in a close-up reminiscent of an icon, speaking the words of Christ: “You are not alone. Don’t worry. I am with you. I will not leave you.” She becomes, in that moment, what we are all invited to become: an image of Christ for others.

“I am with you,” Irene (Ingrid Bergman) tells a distressed woman in Roberto Rossellini’s Europe ’51.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. But God’s idea of “great might” is not the way the world understands it. No lightning bolts. No legions of angels. Just a babe in a manger, a tortured man on a cross, a disciple locked in an asylum. As W. H. Auden said in the Advent portion of his Christmas Oratorio: “The Real is what will strike you as really absurd.” Or as an old carol puts it, “Weakness shall the strong confound.” [v]

In another of his poems, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden suggests that poetry operates much like divine power. Poetry “makes nothing happen,” he says. In other words, poetry doesn’t force its will upon the world, but in offering an alternate perspective for engaging reality, it makes the world different nonetheless. Auden describes poetry as if it were a stream, making its own way through the landscape. 

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. 

In his analysis of this poem, John Burnside notes that poetry’s work is “to survive—not in some dogged but enfeebled fashion, hanging on, though barely noticed, in an indifferent world, but actively, on its own terms—that is, ‘in the valley of its own making.’” The ‘executives’—the powers-that-be—take no notice. It means nothing to them. But “poetry flows on, through and away from ‘the busy griefs’ and the ‘raw towns that we believe in and die in,’ its business is more fundamental, its true nature more elemental” than the ‘executives’ can imagine.[vi]

And just so does the power of God flow through the world. Not to force anything to happen in a blunt cause-and-effect way, but to exist, like the waters of baptism, as an inviting and life-giving reality: “It survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” 

We find this same image of the flowing, living water in today’s passage from Isaiah: “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sands shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isaiah 35:6-7).

The concluding words of Auden’s stanza, “a mouth,” may strike our ears jarringly after the metaphor of a quietly flowing stream, but both poetry and God are given to speech: In the beginning was the Word

And in the same way that the “Stir up” prayer beseeches the God who saves, Auden’s poem, written on the eve of World War II, calls upon the poet to speak a word against all the dark sorrows of the world: 

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate …

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice … [vii]

There’s that word again: rejoice. We have prayed for a word of power today, and what we are given is: Gaudete! Rejoice! God’s power will never compel us to rejoice, or to hope, or to love. But it will always seek to persuade us, until the end of time. 

Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span sing my favorite version of Gaudete.

[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 26

[ii] Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), 8.

[iii] The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”

[iv] I can’t locate the source of this quote from an old homily, but it may be from either Paul Evdokimov or Olivier Clément. 

[v] Auden’s line is from “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (Collected Poems, Random House, 1976, p. 274). The carol line is from Gabriel’s Message (trans. J. M. Neale). Like Gaudete, it is in the famous Piae Cantiones collection of 1582.

[vi] John Burnside, The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 23.

[vii] W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (Collected Poems, 197-198).

You Gonna Have to Serve Somebody: Thoughts on Christ the King

The Enthronement of Christ (Bamberg Apocalypse, early 11th century).

The extremists in American politics say that God is on their side, but such statements are lacking in content. Their “God” is not really expected to supply any concrete assistance, such as plagues or angelic legions, to carry them to victory. “God-on-our-side” language is just a dramatic way to say that “we are right and you are evil.” 

However, a new video ad is selling the startling idea that God has indeed, in these latter days, directly intervened in history by anointing a human messiah to enforce divine will through political power. Over God’s-eye aerial views of land and sea, we hear a caricature of Charlton Heston recite a text with biblical cadences and a lot of reverb:

“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise, and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.… God said, ‘I need someone to be strong, advocate truth in the midst of hysteria, someone who challenges conventional wisdom, and isn’t afraid to defend what he knows to be right and just.… someone who will take the arrows, stand firm in the face of unrelenting attacks.’” 

As we hear these words, photographic images of the Chosen One fill the screen. The new messiah is revealed to be—wait for it—Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida! I knew he had presidential ambitions, but now he’s in the running for the Antichrist! Are there really enough rubes out there to fall for the old false messiah gag? [i]

About 60 years ago a southern preacher named Clarence Jordan liked to ask his fellow Christians: “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?” He’d let that sink in for a bit, and then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: ‘Jesus is Lord.’”

In other words, if you say “Jesus is Lord” and foster racism, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and support white supremacy, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and foment bigotry and hate, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and afflict the vulnerable, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and do harm to your fellow beings, you’re a liar. 

Someone recently posted a short video on the internet depicting Jesus as the incarnation of our worst politics. It shows Jesus teaching his disciples in a variety of settings: 

“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. And behold: Now I’m all lazy and entitled. You shouldn’t have done that.”

“What is a man profited, if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul? A lot! He has profited a lot. One soul for the whole world, that is an amazing deal!” [ii]

Sad to say, some people would prefer the anti-Jesus who does nothing but reflect their own pitiful values. In any case, as the song says, “You gonna have to serve somebody: Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gonna have to serve somebody.” [iii]

So who’s it going to be?
Whom do we serve?
Who—or what—rules our life?
To whom do we belong?
To what do we surrender?

In a culture of hyper-individualism, the idea of submission to a larger reality, a greater good, goes against the grain. But we are all governed by something, maybe even a whole crazy stampeding herd of somethings, pulling us here, driving us there. Whether we are conscious of it or not, there are voices, inside us and outside us, which direct and rule our hearts in every moment.

A hundred years ago, Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth suggested that “The first duty of every soul is not to find its freedom, but its Master.” And then he added: “If within us we find nothing over us, we succumb to what is around us.” [iv]  When that is the case, there is no shortage of impulses, passions, ambitions, ideologies, agendas and distractions to swallow us up and sweep us away.

On the last Sunday of the Christian year, the Feast of Christ the King, we pledge allegiance to the Divine Love that governs the universe. As Frederick Denison Maurice, nineteenth-century Anglican priest and social reformer, reminds us, the reign of Christ extends into every province of our common life: 

When we say, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we desire that the King of kings and Lord of lords will reign over our spirits and souls and bodies, which [belong to God]… We pray for the extinction of all tyranny…; [we pray] for the exposure and destruction of corruptions inward and outward; [we pray] for truth in all departments of government, art, science; [we pray] for the true dignity of professions [and labor]; [we pray] for right dealings in the commonest transactions of trade; [we pray] for blessings that shall be felt in every [dwelling].[v]

“Crown him Lord of all,” we sing at the Feast of Christ the King. But the gospel for the day does not show us a mighty ruler, but only a naked man nailed to a tree. Soldiers mock the pathetic absurdity of his “kingship.” The sign above his head—“King of the Jews”—is a mocking irony. His only apparent subject is the dying thief hanging next to him. “Jesus,” he gasps, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [vi]

Some kingdom!
Some king!

Does Christ’s kingdom exist only in the future? Or is it somehow breaking into the here and now, even in the killing fields of history, where you need the faith of a dying thief to see it? 

The question we began with—whose world is it?—is, alas, undecidable within the flux of history. You can’t choose on the basis of the evidence, because for the time being the evidence is mixed, like the wheat and the tares.

But you can decide who’s got the better story—Jesus or Satan.
And you can choose which story you want to belong to:
The story which overflows with life, 
or the one that ends in death.

Your choice.


[i] You can see the video here: https://youtu.be/U9oTBA-MvZk

[ii] The “GOP Jesus” video, produced by Friend Dog Studios, is here: https://youtu.be/SZ2L-R8NgrA

[iii] Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” on Slow Train Coming (1979).

[iv] Quoted in Leander E. Keck, Who is Jesus? History in the Perfect Tense (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 164, 167.

[v] Goeffrey Rowel, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams, eds., Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 416.

[vi] Luke 23:33-43.

Can the Right Please Stop Taking God’s Name in Vain?

Fra Bartolomeo, St.Dominic (c. 1506-7), Museo di San Marco, Florence.

How hath man parcel’d out thy glorious name,
And thrown it on that dust which thou hast made …

— George Herbert, “Love (I)”

I sometimes meditate on a poem by George Herbert in my morning prayers, assisted by Helen Wilcox’s marvelous annotations [i] (the poet’s 17th-century idioms can be obscure for the contemporary reader).  And although “Love (I)” is not one of Herbert’s best poems, these lines jumped out at me when I read them today, for the debasement of the divine Name by American extremists has been very much on my mind. 

For example: Last week on Newsmax, a far-right cable channel, Eric Bolling (fired by Fox News in 2017 for sexual harassment) was interviewing conspiracy fabulist Lara Logan (“dumped”—her words—by Fox six months ago). Their subject was immigration at the southern border, which Logan said was a plot “to dilute the pool of patriots” in the United States. 

Bolling: “How does it end?”

Logan: “… this is a spiritual battle. I am a firm and solid and immovable believer in God and I believe that God wins.… and if you fight for god, god will fight for you.”

Bolling: “I have to ask you, because my audience is very god-fearing, god-loving, etc. Final thought, please, just a couple seconds: Is god ok with a closed border?”

Logan: “… God believes in sovereignty and national identity and the sanctity of families and all the things that we’ve lived with since the beginning of time, and he knows that the open border is Satan’s way of taking control of the world through all of these people who are his stooges and his servants … the ones who want us eating insects, cockroaches and that while they dine on the blood of children.”

Bolling (nervously): “Ha, ha, yeah.” [ii]

A day later, the opening prayer at the “ReAwaken America” tour in East Hempfield Township, Pennsylvania, went like this:

“Father god, we come to you in the name of Jesus. We’re asking you to open the eyes of president Trump’s understanding, that he will know the time of divine intervention, that he will know how to implement divine intervention, and you will surround him, father, with none of this Deep-State trash, none of this RINO trash. You will surround him with people that you pick with your own mighty hand. In the name of Jesus.”

The crowd, including Eric Trump, Michael Flynn (his father’s disgraced national security adviser), and the current Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, repeated this evil prayer phrase by phrase.

White “Christian” nationalism is on the rise in America. It’s a toxic mixture of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, resentment and rage, thinly dressed in pious nostalgia, theological ignorance, and historical lies. For the increasingly extreme right, these are features, not bugs: 61% of Republicans—and 78% of Republican evangelicals—believe the United States should be declared “a Christian nation.” [iii]

I shudder to imagine what they have in mind, but I’m sure it has more to do with reactionary tribal identity and fear of the “other” than with the gospel, or love, or justice, or caring for the vulnerable, or welcoming the stranger, or healing God’s creation. And it’s not just a disgruntled and deluded mob that wants a more theocratic and less inclusive America. The defilement of both democracy and religion extends to the highest levels of government. 

I have written previously about the Supreme Court rushing in where angels fear to tread, substituting highly contested theological assertions for legal reasoning. If Republicans have their way in upcoming elections, it will only get worse. In a carefully argued response to the Dobbs decision on abortion, legal scholar Laurence Tribe warns, 

“… as the Court continues on the path of replacing long-settled individual rights with religiously inspired mandates, the odds would increase that the rules under which we live will reflect the preferences of ever smaller minorities.” [iv]

Gilead, here we come. 

In the January 6 insurrection, the rallying cry was “God! Guns! Trump!” The mob carried signs and shouted slogans proclaiming the will of God and the will of Trump to be identical. One attacker later told the Wall Street Journal how he sought divine guidance before storming the Capitol: 

“Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?” He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward. “I checked with the Lord,” he says. “I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.’” [v]

Insurrectionist wanted photo.

It is distressing to hear the word “god” on the lips of the wicked. But not shocking. Taking God’s name in vain is an ancient sin, from the Crusaders and Inquisitors of the past to the terrorists and extremists (including elected officials!) of our own day. Whether they sincerely believe that ultimate reality is backing them up, or cynically employ the word to authorize their own seething id, “god” on their lips becomes drained of meaningful content. It refers to nothing outside themselves. To borrow Herbert’s image, they have “parcel’d” out the divine Name, cut it into tiny pieces and tossed it into the trash.[vi]

Of course, “God” has never been a proper name. It’s more of a nickname, enabling us to talk to or talk about the “ground of our being” (Paul Tillich) or the “Love who loves us” (my personal favorite[vii]) without thinking we have reduced the Real to the dimensions of language. The Holy One has many such nicknames: Kyrie, Deus, Abba, Creator, Deliverer, Father, Mother, Spirit, and countless others. In Herbert’s poem, the “glorious name” is “Immortal Love.” If “love” had been invoked instead of “god” by the mob at the Capitol, might it have tempered their violence or extinguished their rage? Or would Love, too, have been thrown so carelessly into the dust?

Seventy years ago, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote a moving defense of the problematic necessity of “God” language in human discourse. I first heard this passage read aloud in a theology class by one of my great mentors, the saintly Robert McAfee Brown. It touched my heart then, and has remained with me through the years: 

“‘God’ is the most heavy-laden of human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of men have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. The races of man with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger-marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! … We may not give the word ‘God’ up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about the ‘last things’ for a time in order that misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.” [viii]


[i] Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Each poem is accompanied by extensive notes and a survey of modern critical views.

[ii] I have not capitalized “god” in these kinds of statements, since they speak of something quite other than God. https://twitter.com/JasonSCampbell/status/1583069972267696134?s=20&t=KwdkjkDH7hvg0GSnYm79NA

[iii] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/09/21/most-republicans-support-declaring-the-united-states-a-christian-nation-00057736

[iv] Laurence Tribe, “Deconstructing Dobbs,” New York Review of Books, Sept. 22, 2022, p. 81.

[v] Michael M. Phillips, Jennifer Levitz, and Jim Oberman, One Trump Fan’s Descent Into the Capitol Mob, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/one-trump-fans-descent-into-the-u-s- capitol-mob-11610311660 I found it in Andrew L. Seidel, “Attack on the Capitol: Evidence of the Role of White Christian Nationalism,” which contains many such examples. Seidel’s article is Part VI of a highly recommended report and analysis, “Christian Nationalism and the January 6 Insurrection”: https://bjconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Christian_Nationalism_and_the_Jan6_Insurrection-2-9-22.pdf

[vi] Herbert’s poem was contrasting the immensity of divine love with the trivializing reductions and diminishments of love we creatures of dust make when we apply it to the wrong object. But as I say at the outset, his lines seem a perfect match for the misuses we make of “God” in our political life.

[vii] From Terence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life (2011).

[viii] Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God (1952), 8-9.

Crossing the Great Divide: A Homily on Dives and Lazarus

Skylight (1732) for the high altar of the cathedral in Toledo, Spain .

Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
He who lay down by the rich man’s gate
To beg for some crumbs from the rich man to eat
But he left him to die like a tramp on the street

— Grady and Hazel Cole, 1939

Jesus was a great storyteller. He knew how to use a good story not just to make a point, but to change lives. But today’s story isn’t quite like any other parable. It’s the only one where a character is given a name. The poor man is called Lazarus, a variant of Eleazar, which means “God helps.” The rich man is unidentified in Scripture, but tradition has given him the name Dives. That’s Latin for “rich guy,” so readers of the Latin Bible began to treat it as his proper name.

This is also the only gospel parable about the afterlife.[i] Most scholars suspect it to be a version of a popular Egyptian folk tale widely told the in the first century. The fact that it makes it into Luke’s gospel suggests that Jesus liked the story well enough to use it in his own preaching.

It’s easy to see why people loved the story in a time when economic inequality was as appalling as it is in America today, where the 3 richest billionaires have more money between them than the bottom 50%. In first-century Palestine, the rich had scooped up most of the land and money, leaving tenant farmers with pretty much nothing of their own, while those who hired out as laborers got only starvation wages. So the idea of a great reversal of fortune was an appealing and consoling image. 

The reversal theme certainly resonated with St. Luke, whose gospel, more than any other, expresses a “preferential option for the poor.” [ii]  We hear this in Mary’s Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” And we hear it in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

A twelfth-century Italian bishop, Bruno di Segni, said of this parable, “These words are most necessary both for the rich and for the poor, because they bring fear to the former and consolation to the latter.” [iii] In Herman Melville’s 19th-century novel Redburn, his protagonist invokes the parable when he cries, “Tell me, oh Bible, that story of Lazarus again, that I may find comfort in my heart for the poor and forlorn.” [iv]    

We all love reversal stories, where the bad get their comeuppance and the lowly are given a happy ending. I have to confess that I myself would take pleasure in a story where, say, the governor of Florida is tricked into boarding an airplane, only to find himself dropped in the middle of a burning desert, with nothing but the desperate hope that a passing migrant might appear with a canteen of water. “Oh Señor, have mercy on me! I beg you, give me a drop of your water to cool my tongue!”

So is Jesus telling a reversal story in the parable of Dives and Lazarus? Or is he doing something else? The Bible certainly can be critical of wealth’s dark side. We’ve heard plenty of that in today’s readings:

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, 
and for those who are complacent on the mount of Samaria…
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, 
and sprawl on their couches,
stuffing themselves with lamb and veal, 
singing idle songs and drinking wine by the bowlful,
who anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6: 1, 4-6)

And St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, warns that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (I Timothy 6:9-10)

But while the parable presents a strong contrast between situations of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, between high social status and low social status, between easy pleasure and terrible suffering, the point is not about changing places, or even about trying to reduce the contrast to some extent—a little less for the rich, a little more for the poor. This parable isn’t about making the game fairer, but about changing the game entirely. 

Right now, in our time, our country, the game is so much about individual winning. The lucky ones win the lottery, invent the Internet, crush the competition, or throw more touchdowns than interceptions. The rest must fend for themselves. Dog eat dog. There have been notable attempts to counter the personal, social, and environmental damage of our careless individualism, but in the absence of a more widely supported vision of the common good, it continues to be an uphill battle. Can we order our lives and our society to be more in accord with divine intention? We’d better. As W. H. Auden put it on the eve of World War II, “We must love one another or die.” [v]

We all enjoy the hymn, “All things bright and beautiful,” celebrating the wonderful world God has made: “Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings,” and so on. But one verse—thankfully scrubbed from our hymnal—celebrates an archaic social order as divinely ordained:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

In the kingdom of God, the economy of God, such sundering of neighbor from neighbor is definitely not bright and beautiful. We all belong to one another; we are all intended to share God’s gifts in just measure. To forget this is to choose death and hell. 

Kathleen Hill, an American writer, lived in Nigeria when the traditional cooperative social ethic was being eroded by the lingering effects of colonial rule. She tells of a driver who sped by a hit-and-run victim lying on the side of the road. He didn’t stop because he was afraid that if he put the wounded man into his car, he’d get bloodstains on his new seat covers. “He’d felt no need to apologize,” Hill said, “no need to feel ashamed. It was a culture of money that was growing in Nigeria, a new emphasis on personal wealth.… [N]ow, without the play of traditional values that had connected one person to another, there seemed no limits to self-interest, to the tendency to regard someone else exclusively in the light of one’s own personal imperatives.” [vi]

Where there are no limits to self-interest, no one is my neighbor. Dives feasts inside his mansion, while Lazarus starves on the street. And never the twain shall meet. I think that Jesus would say that Dives was in hell from the start. He didn’t have to die to get there. 

But is this state of separation and disconnection the way things must always remain, now and forever, Amen? Is there any chance for the twain to meet? I think the key to this parable is the gate. The rich man is on one side; Lazarus is on the other. In the story, the gate never opens. In fact, its role as a barrier eventually translates into an uncrossable chasm in eternity.

Narciso Tome’s dramatic skylight seems to visualize a glimpse of heaven from a dark abyss,
like Dives’ view of Abraham and Lazarus across the great chasm.

In the parable, Dives in hell is able to see, across that chasm, Lazarus at ease in the bosom of Abraham. But the gap between them is uncrossable. If only he had opened his gate and experienced Lazarus as a fellow child of God—not just a tramp on the street—there would be no uncrossable chasm between them now. He wouldn’t be stuck in the lonely hell of self-interest and self-isolation. It turns out that the closed gate keeping Lazarus out has also been keeping the rich man in. Even after death he remains in the prison he built for himself, behind the locked gate preventing the communion for which every person is made. 

New Testament scholar Bernard Brandon Scott says this about the gate: “In this parable the rich man fails by not making contact.… The gate is not just an entrance to the house but the passageway to the other.… In any given interpersonal or social relationship there is a gate that discloses the ultimate depths of human existence. Those who miss that gate may, like the rich man, find themselves crying in vain for a drop of cooling water.” [vii]  

“I came that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that you may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). So is there abundant life in the rich man’s future? Can the chasm ever be bridged by repentance and mercy? Ebenezer Scrooge, after being shown what a mess he was making of his own future, put this question to the final spirit in A Christmas Carol,: 

“Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.” [viii]

Can there be a different outcome to the story of Dives and Lazarus? A couple of poets have explored interesting options. James Kier Baxter (1926-1972) of New Zealand concentrates on Dives, who is far worse off than Lazarus even before he departs this life:

Two men lived on the same street
But they were poles apart
For Lazarus had crippled bones
But Dives a crippled heart

In an intriguing twist, Baxter leaves Lazarus on earth and puts Dives in the Divine Presence. ‘My poor blind crippled son, [God] said, / ‘Sit here beneath My Throne.” And instead of eternity in Hades, Dives is given a chance to change his life: 

‘Go back and learn from Lazarus
To walk on My highway
Until your crippled soul shall stand
And bear the light of day,
And you and Lazarus are one
In holy poverty.’ [ix]

Canadian William Wilfred Campbell (1860-1918) focused his poem on Lazarus, giving him a voice he never had in the original parable. While enjoying the bliss of the afterlife, Lazarus is suddenly troubled by a “piercing cry of one in agony, / That reaches me here in heaven.” It’s the rich man’s anguished plea from hell, drowning out the more amiable sounds of heaven.

So calleth it ever upward unto me
It creepeth in through heaven’s golden doors;
It echoes all along the sapphire floors;
Like smoke of sacrifice, it soars and soars;
It fills the vastness of eternity.…

No more I hear the beat of heavenly wings,
The seraph chanting in my rest-tuned ear;
I only know a cry, a prayer, a tear,
That rises from the depths up to me here;
A soul that to me suppliant leans and clings.

O, Father Abram, thou must bid me go
Into the spaces of the deep abyss;
Where far from us and our God-given bliss,
Do dwell those souls that have done Christ amiss;
For through my rest I hear that upward woe.

Lazarus can’t ignore the sinner’s plea, nor does he want to. In a replication of both the Incarnation and the Harrowing of Hell, he begs “Father Abram” to let him descend to the uttermost depths on a mission of redemptive love. The journey is immense, and when the poem ends Lazarus is still on the downward way, with cries of pain ahead, shouts of glory behind. As he traverses the infinite gap between heaven and hell, we suspect this outward motion of self-diffusive love will go on and on, until that day when the tears are wiped from every eye and “God is all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28).  

Hellward he moved like radiant star shot out
From heaven’s blue with rain of gold at even…
Hellward he sank, followed by radiant rout…

‘Tis ages now long-gone since he went out,
Christ-urged, love-driven, across the jasper walls,
But hellward still he ever floats and falls,
And ever nearer come those anguished calls;
And far behind he hears a glorious shout. [x]

It’s a striking image: Love perpetually reaching for the hopeless and the lost, opening every gate, overcoming every obstacle that separates us from God. However, in the original parable, the rich man’s repentance is not off to a promising start. In his cry from hell, Dives doesn’t deign to speak to Lazarus at all. Instead, he asks Abraham, a personage he considers of equal status, to treat Lazarus like a common servant. “Have him dip a finger into cool water and come to me, so he can drip it onto my tongue.” Even in his agony, the rich man’s arrogant self-interest is unabated. 

In Luke’s gospel, this parable always ends the same way, no matter how many times we read it. Dives will stay stuck in the prison of his own making for as long as the story is told. If we want a new ending, we must write it with our own lives and times, as we push through the gate into a deeper union, a more loving communion with our fellow creatures. This is not only radically personal work, it is also the collective endeavor of Church and society. In a time when the common good and neighborly love are in acute peril, love and mercy ceaselessly call us to choose the better way. 

This homily was written for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.


[i] Matthew 25: 31-46 (The sheep and the goats) is also about the afterlife, but many scholars say it does not fit the definition of a parable. 

[ii] The term was popularized by Liberation theologians and activists in Latin America in the 1960s as a key element of Catholic social teaching.

[iii] Cited in Stephen L. Wailes, Medieval Allegories of Jesus’ Parables (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 255.

[iv] Herman Melville, Redburn (1849), ch. 37.

[v] W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939.”

[vi] Kathleen Hill, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, 2017), 57.

[vii] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 159.

[viii] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (18­­43), Stave IV. 

[ix] James Kier Baxter, “Ballad of Dives and Lazarus,” in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess, & Peggy Rosenthal (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 260-261.

[x] William Wilfred Campbell, “Lazarus.” For complete text: https://www.poetryexplorer.net/poem.php?id=10045686

The Art of Borrowed Scenery

A medieval hortus conclusus: The Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhenish Master (c. 1410).

Outside, the mountains have been drawn into the garden, becoming a part of it. Aritomo was a master of shakkei, the art of Borrowed Scenery, taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation.

— Tan Twan Eng , The Garden of Evening Mists [i]

The Rev. James Bramston, an eighteenth-century English cleric, was known for his satirical verses. One of his targets was Archibald Campbell (Lord Islay), who wanted to improve his extensive gardens by removing some of the trees blocking his view of the world beyond his private Eden. 

Old Islay, to show his fine delicate taste,
In improving his gardens purloin’d from the waste,
Bade his gard’ner one day to open his views,
By cutting a couple of grand avenues;
No particular prospect his lordship intended,
But left it to chance how his walks should be ended. 

With transport and joy he beheld his first view end
In a favorite prospect — a church that was ruin’d —
But also! what a sight did the next cut exhibit!
At the end of his walk hung a rogue on a gibbet!
He beheld it and wept, for it caus’d him to muse on
Full many a Campbell that died with his shoes on.
All amazed and aghast at the ominous scene, 
He order’d it quick to be clos’d up again
With a clump of Scotch firs, that served for a Screen. [ii]

In those days, landscape design cultivated the idea of the “Picturesque,” in which a visual environment is composed like a painting. In a picturesque scene, whether discovered or constructed, every element presenting itself to the eye of the beholder plays a part in summoning a feeling, stimulating reflection, or creating a mood. “Views were created resembling paintings or recalling events from myth or literature with the aim of producing desired states of feeling in the observer.” [iii]

One of the more unusual elements of the Picturesque was the ruin. A decaying church or temple, a weathered pagan statue, a partially collapsed arch or a broken column—traces of human pastness amidst the greenness of the natural world—aroused “la douce mélancolie qui parle à l’âme sensible” (“the sweet melancholy which speaks to the sensitive soul.”) [iv]  Since authentic ruins were few and far between, it became the fashion to build new ones, in either classical or medieval styles, fabricated to appear like ancient remnants. In 1767, Diderot described the intellectual and emotional effect this way: 

“The ideas aroused in me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away; the world alone remains, time alone continues. How old this world is! I walk between these two eternities … What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of crumbling stone?” [v]

When the poem’s Lord Islay told his gardeners to “open his views” by cutting a couple of wide avenues in the woods around his estate, he was reaching for the Picturesque, though rather by chance than careful design. In the first instance he succeeded wonderfully. At the end of the first avenue, perfectly framed, was a ruined church, promising many pleasurable ruminations on time, history, and divinity in the days to come. 

But when more trees were felled to make the second avenue, the results were less agreeable. Lord Islay’s eyes were met with a ruin of the worst kind: a human corpse hanging on a gallows. “Amazed and aghast,” he quickly closed off the terrible vista with a planting of tall firs.

I recently came across Bramston’s poem in Roy Strong’s marvelous anthology, A Celebration of Gardens. While I can’t vouch for the factuality of the story, it struck me as a vivid image of the challenge for spirituality in this troubled and suffering world. How can we enjoy our gardens—the necessary environments and practices for emotional and spiritual health—and yet remain vulnerable and responsive to the cries of distress from near and far? 

Isaac Walton window, Winchester Cathedral (1914).

From the Garden of Eden to the medieval cloister, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), a tranquil space of beauty and calm, walled off from the outside world, has been a significant image of the interior life. We all need the kinds of spaces, both physical and spiritual, where we can shelter from the storm, sink into the depths of holy Presence, and “study to be quiet.” [vi]

But we are long past the innocence of the first Eden. We know, all too well, of the terrors and horrors raging beyond the protecting walls which nurture our peace and shield our joy. We may, like Lord Islay, be aghast at the sudden glimpse of the victim on the gallows—or the cross—but we are long past surprise. A row of tall firs cannot protect us. The knowledge remains. How do we live with it—and act in response to it—and still guard our heart in its hortus conclusus

Tan Twan Eng’s deeply moving novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, suggests a way. The Japanese gardening practice, shakkei, is described (see the epigraph above) as “the art of Borrowed Scenery.” Sometime after the Second World War, Aritomo, a Japanese master gardener living in Malaya, agrees to teach his art to the Malaysian narrator, Yun Ling. But their collaborative garden project does not enjoy the innocence of Eden. Yun Ling’s sister had suffered abuse and death in a Japanese internment camp during the war, and she wants to create a memorial garden for her lost sibling. Years later, she returns to the garden while investigating war crimes by the occupying forces. Aritomo, who had participated in that occupation, carries his own secret burdens and sorrows. 

Aritomo and Yun Ling are not insulated from pain, guilt, grief and loss. Even from their beautiful garden, they can glimpse the gallows. And yet, the garden’s beauty—and the spirituality it engenders—is not diminished by the pain outside its sacred enclosure. Yes, look just beyond the garden, and you will see immense suffering. But look further, beyond the gallows. Can you borrow what lies in the greater distance? Can you make the Transcendent an integral part of your view?

Are the mists, too, an element of shakkei incorporated by Aritomo? I wonder. To use not only the mountains, but the wind, the clouds, the ever-changing light? Did he borrow from heaven itself? [vii]  

The rose garden in Portland, Oregon, “borrows” distant Mt. Hood for this view.

[i] Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists, (New York: Weinstein Books, 2012), 25.

[ii] Cited in Roy Strong, A Celebration of Gardens (Portland, OR: Sagapress/Timber Press, 1992), 105-106.

[iii] Diana Ketchum, Le Desért de Retz: A Late Eighteenth-Century French Folly Garden (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), cited in Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 224.

[iv] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 158.

[v] Ibid., 153.

[vi] The famous motto of Anglican writer Isaac Walton (1593-1683), who valued his tranquility (and loved to fish). 

[vii] The Garden of Evening Mists, 27.

America in the Ditch: The Good Samaritan Revisited

Balthasar van Cortbemde, The Good Samaritan (1647).

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) is usually heard as a reminder to care for the needs of others, including strangers or even enemies. That’s why some hospitals have taken their name from the protagonist. I myself was born in the Episcopal Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles and, four days before my 22nd birthday, my father died in the Intensive Care Unit of the same “Good Sam.” So this parable carries some special meanings for me.

We all hope to be like the Good Samaritan, but the late Doug Adams, an extraordinary friend and professor of Religion and Art at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, proposed an alternative reading of the parable. Instead of asking us to identify with the Good Samaritan, he wondered, what if Jesus wants us to identify with the man in the ditch?

The Samaritan is the person with all the power in the situation. He has a donkey, oil and wine, enough extra clothing to make bandages, the strength to lift the wounded man onto the donkey, and money to pay for the man’s medical care. He gives, most admirably, out of his own abundance. 

But the naked, beaten, half-dead man in the ditch has no power. He has no capacity or ability to help himself. He is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. And who is the one who stops to help him? Not the priest, not the Levite, not one of his own kind, but a Samaritan. For a Jew, including everyone in Jesus’s original audience, a Samaritan was a bad person, a despised enemy. 

Now you don’t need to understand the history of the cultural and religious enmity between Jews and Samaritans to grasp Jesus’ point here. Think of anyone of whom you disapprove, or someone you have a difficult history with. If you are lying helpless in the ditch, you don’t get to be selective about your rescuer. You have to accept their help, even if they happen to be your worst enemy. And that would mean you’d have to change your mind about them and, like it or not, be in relation with them.

Remember the question that prompted Jesus to tell this parable: “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer turns out to be: Everybody! In God’s alternative version of reality (which the gospels call the Kingdom), everyone—even my enemy—is my neighbor.

When I first heard Doug talk about this parable, it was during the first Gulf War. “Imagine you are lying helpless in that ditch,” he said, “and down the road comes Saddam Hussein. When he sees you, he bends down, offers his hand and says, “Can I help you out of the ditch, brother?”

Today we might substitute Vladimir Putin for the Samaritan to experience the same radical discomfort that Jesus’ first listeners must have felt when they heard the parable. Or suppose the person in the ditch is a white supremacist, and the Samaritan is a person of color? What if the victim is homophobic, and the rescuer is gay? What if a misogynist is the helpless one, and a woman comes by? What if it’s a Progressive in that ditch, and along comes a Proud Boy? 

Do you find any of these scenarios unsettling? Parables are meant to be hard. They are meant to break us open.

And as I listen to this parable in the Year of Our Lord 2022, it strikes me that America itself is in the ditch, wounded by its sins, torn by its conflicts, half-dead from innumerable unaddressed ills. White supremacists and so-called “Christian” nationalists seek a cure in the subjugation or even the elimination of those they consider to be “other”—that is, those who are “not our kind,” whether that be people of color, the LGBTQ community, empowered women, Muslims, Central American refugees, nonwhite immigrants, or whomever. That way lies madness and death.

If we are ever to be delivered from the ditch of our own national folly and sin, we desperately need the help of the “other”—the ones whose race, religion, class, gender and life experiences are different from our own. We need to listen to their voices, their perspectives, their pain, their anger, their sorrows, their hopes, their dreams. We need not only to learn from them and be taught by them; we need to receive their stories into our hearts. Otherwise, we’re just going to stay stuck in that ditch. 

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Following Jesus in the Worst of Times

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Any number of things can happen when we encounter Jesus. We might be comforted—or we might be uncomfortable. We might be healed—or we might be wounded. We might be instructed—or we might be turned upside down. Jesus is a difference maker. For better or worse, he comes to interrupt—and disrupt—our lives. 

Sometimes Jesus speaks to our heart. Sometimes he speaks to our mind. But every time, he speaks to our will, as he puts the crucial question: 

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown?
Will you let my Name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? [i]

We can always say no, of course. Many people have; many people do. Or we may profess our unreadiness or our inadequacy. “Are you kidding me?” said Moses at the Burning Bush. “Who am I to go and talk to Pharoah? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah also resisted his call: “No way, Lord! Don’t ask me to be a prophet. I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.” God has heard all the excuses, but the Divine Intention is not easily dissuaded. “Just do it,” God says.

When Jesus tries to recruit a few followers in Luke 9:51-62, he hears plenty of excuses. “Lord, let me first go home and bury my father,” says one. This sounds reasonable enough, if he’s talking about a corpse back at the house that needs some prompt attention. But this line can also be understood to mean, “I can’t go anywhere as long as my parents are still living. Family obligations come first.”

Another makes a similar excuse: “I will follow you, Lord, but first I must go home to take my leave. I need to get permission from my family before I can come with you. And that may take some time.”

I don’t think Luke’s gospel is telling us to walk out of important relationships. Rather, it is prompting us to ask ourselves: What is so important in my life that I need its permission before I can follow Jesus? My true master might be something as big as the security of having somewhere comfortable to lay my head at night, or as trivial as my habitual routines. I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but let me check my calendar first. 

The excuses in Luke’s passage suggest a world of expectations, obligations, and best-laid plans that prevent us from running away to join the Jesus circus. Today we may enjoy far more social mobility than a first-century Middle-Easterner, but we each have our own version of situations and circumstances that delay and distract us. Some things just won’t let us go. It might be something lingering from our past, like unhealed anger or grief. Or it might be a present concern, like a steady income, emotional needs, or personal ambition.

Jesus says: If you want to follow me, nothing can have more authority over you than the will of God. As for the things that hold you back, just let them go. Let the dead bury the dead. It’s time to move on, deeper and deeper into God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. And once you’ve put your hand to the gospel plow, don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

The call to be a follower of Jesus may arrive unexpectedly. It may seem inconvenient, or even impossible. But as the saints all tell us, it’s what we are made for. To borrow a line from songwriter Bob Franke, 

I can’t really say it’s the thing I do best, 
but it’s the best thing that I do. [ii]

True vocation is not so much surrender to an outside force as it is the recognition of an internal capacity. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer makes this point beautifully. “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not,” he writes. “It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about.… The word vocation … is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” [iii]

When Jesus calls me, it is, as it were, “my life telling me who I am.” And Jesus has many voices. You may hear him in the Scriptures or the liturgy, or when you enter the prayerful state of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iv] He will speak through the need of your neighbor, or in your deepest longing. His voice may come as dissatisfaction with the old, or as the intuition of fresh possibility. It may proceed from the mouth of friend and stranger. It may thunder like the transcendent Other, or whisper like the intimate inward presence who has known you all your life.

However Jesus may call us, what happens if we say yes? How do we put our hands to the plow, keep our eyes on the prize, and not look back? When we decide to follow Jesus, when we consent to lose our old lives in the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising, we are born again into a new way of being. No turning back, no turning back. But what will that new being look like? How will we be different? How will we make a difference?

St. Paul gives us a good list to start with in his letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-25). Everything that binds, enslaves, and weighs you down, forget it. Instead of indulging yourselves, start loving one another. Say goodbye to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy and licentiousness. Practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Let the Spirit dance in you. 

Paul’s advice seems radically countercultural in an America so sickened by hatred, division, malice, and fear—a contagion which has spread to a degree unimaginable just five years ago. As Judge Michael Luttig recently lamented in his testimony before the January 6th Select Committee, “In the moral, catatonic stupor America finds itself in today, it is only disagreement we seek, and the more virulent that disagreement, the better.” [v]

In such a country, such a world, such a time, what is a disciple to do? Well, there’s no easy answer, no single method or path. We must figure it out as we go, the way the saints of old did amid crumbling empires, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in 1930s Germany, or as Martin Luther King did in a Birmingham jail. It will certainly require steadfast faith and boundless love, but perhaps it is courageous hope we will need most of all. 

In the worst of times, hope is the engine of persistence and the antidote for despair. Never forget: God makes a way where there is no way, and as God’s friends we are called to shine with that truth every day, “planting the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [vi]


[i] “The Summons,” a song from the Iona Community in Scotland (GIA Publications, 1987).

[ii] Bob Franke, “Boomerang Pancakes” (Telephone Pole Music, 1986).

[iii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10, 4.

[iv] The phrase is from Simone Weil.

[v] Michael Luttig, testimony before the January 6 Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, June 16, 2022.

[vi] I believe I got this quote from an Orthodox theologian, but I can no longer trace the source. 

This post is adapted from a homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, 2022.