Lamentation for Notre Dame

The burning of Notre Dame has broken many hearts, including mine. The fact that it happened in Holy Week feels strangely apocalyptic, as if the stability of our world were suddenly under threat. Like the earthquake at the death of Jesus, it suggests a cosmic shaking of the foundations.

Poems from Book of Lamentations, an anguished response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., are often sung during Holy week. Written to grieve the loss of a sacred place, their eloquent images of affliction and grief were later appropriated by Christian liturgy to lament the suffering of Christ. In gratitude and sorrow for our beloved Notre Dame, here are some of my own past views of the cathedral, accompanied by selected lamentations from the Holy Week lectionary.

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations. (Lam. 1:1)

Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and distress, all the precious things that were hers in days of old. (Lam. 1:7)

All you who pass this way, look and see: is any sorrow like the sorrow inflicted on me? (Lam. 1:12)

Listen, for I am groaning, with no one to comfort me. (Lam. 1:21)

For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you? (Lam. 2:13)

Cry then to the Lord, rampart of the daughter of Zion; let your tears flow like a torrent day and night. (Lam. 2:18)

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape. . . though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. (Lam. 3:7-8)

But this I call to mind, and so regain some hope: Surely God’s mercies are not over, his kindness is not exhausted. (Lam. 3:21-22)

It is good to wait in silence for Yahweh to save. (Lam.3:26)

 

Photographs and video by Jim Friedrich

A fig tree and a burning bush walk into a homily. . .

Richard Misrach, “Desert Fire #81” (1984)

This homily for the Third Sunday of Lent is a double feature. The lessons from the Episcopal lectionary, Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13: 1-9, are not thematically connected, but I felt both stories demanded attention.

Today’s gospel shows Jesus and some other folks talking about the local news. It’s something humans have always done, shooting the breeze about unusual or dramatic events. We don’t expect our conversations around the water cooler or wherever to be recorded for posterity. But 2000 years later, we’re still hearing about some Galileans slaughtered by the Romans during a sacred ritual, and eighteen unnamed victims killed by a falling tower.

But there’s no film at 11. We are given no further details. Some scholars speculate that both incidents involved the Zealots, Jewish rebels who may have been killed by the Roman soldiers during acts of resistance. Perhaps some Zealots were staging a demonstration in the Temple when the Romans struck them down. They died in the very spot where animals were being sacrificed in an atonement ritual. The image of their blood mingled with the blood of animals sacrificed on the altar was a horrific mixture of violence and the sacred. People wondered, if the animals were dying for the people’s sins, for whose sins did those Galileans die? Could it have been their own?

As for the Siloam tower, could it have been a rebel stronghold destroyed during a Roman siege, another case of those who live by the sword dying by the sword? Or maybe it collapsed in an earthquake, a so-called “act of God.” Or maybe it was built by crooked contractors who used shoddy materials. Or maybe it collapsed for no apparent reason at all.

Whatever the causes of those tragedies, people wanted to make sense of them, so they could continue to live in a predictable universe where events have reasons and everything can be explained. If we’re unwilling to live in a universe of absurdity or blind chance, we need to know why bad things happen to good people. And one of the easiest answers is to say that maybe good people aren’t so good. Maybe in some way they get what they deserve, like people’s bad habits catching up with them, or our collective addiction to oil bringing the climate apocalypse down on our heads. Or maybe human suffering is somehow God’s will, even if we can’t say why.

Jesus quickly dismisses this kind of simplistic blaming of the victim. He says there is no simple correlation between sin and suffering. The victims of those tragedies were no worse offenders than anyone else. The problem of reconciling human suffering with the providence of a loving God remains complex and ultimately insoluble in human terms. Jesus recognized that. And 2000 years later, we are still puzzled by the question of “why?”

But Jesus was not that interested in a theoretical discussion about the problem of suffering. He wanted the people in that conversation to consider their own situation. Did they think their story needed to get different? Were they prepared to change their life?

“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

What does Jesus mean by this? Without knowing the actual details of those ancient news stories, it’s hard to say for sure. If both incidents involved acts of armed rebellion, repentance could mean a refusal to participate in a world of reciprocal violence. Stop living by the sword, or else. More broadly, it could mean that we should stop describing the world as a place where God dishes out suffering or endorses any form of human violence.

Jesus could have meant many other things as well.  Renounce your self-righteous pride, and stop demeaning those who suffer as less good or less deserving than you are. Never presume your own innocence. No one is without sin, whether it’s personal sin or collective sin. The world’s troubles are not somebody else’s problem. Like it or not, everyone is implicated in a world of interrelated causes. And don’t treat life’s blessings as rewards for good behavior. They are gifts freely given by a generous and loving God, and you should receive them humbly and gratefully.

Stop trying to make the world controllable or predictable with simplistic explanations. Life is complicated and sometimes it’s sad. You can’t always have it go your way or have it make sense. You have to live by faith in love’s bigger picture.

In other words, if any of you think you can live in this world without grace, without mercy,
you have perished already.

Jesus ends this challenging conversation with a parable of mercy. A barren fig tree is taking up valuable space in a vineyard, sucking up nutrients and moisture needed by the grapevines. “Time to cut it down!” says the owner. But the gardener pleads, “Give it a little more time. I’ll add some fertilizer to help it along. That may make all the difference. If there’s still no fruit next year, then you can cut it down.”

That’s how the parable ends, but when next year rolls around, I suspect that the gardener will be telling the owner the same thing: “Just one more year. I know it can be fruitful. It just needs a little more time, a little more nourishment. A little more tender mercy.”

Now let’s leave that fig tree, and travel further back in time, 1400 years before Jesus, to see a very different kind of plant: a bush in the wilderness of Sinai—a bush which burns, without being consumed.

I saw a burning bush once, not in Sinai, but in the hills of Palestine. I was walking on a trail near Ramallah in the West Bank, when I saw a shepherd leading a small flock through a ravine below me. About 30 yards beyond him, a bush was on fire. I never found out why. But having imbibed the story of Moses since childhood, I could only experience this inexplicable reenactment with a sense of wonder. It was a gift, and I received it gratefully.

I heard no voice. For me, only the story speaks now. But for Moses, the voice came from the midst of the fire: “Moses, Moses!”

The Scripture does not tell us whether Moses is surprised, shocked, or frightened by this sudden intrusion of the divine into the routineness of a shepherd’s day, though we might imagine all of those things. All we know is that Moses responds as if his life were made for precisely this moment: “Here I am,” he says.

God calls, Moses responds. No matter how unlikely or uncanny this encounter between divine and human may be, no matter how unprepared Moses might feel for such a meeting, his whole being rises to the occasion. Before the voice even identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, Moses experiences the kind of recognition described by the mystics, an awakening to a reality so profound, so insistent, so real, that it seems to make perfect sense despite its utter strangeness.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote a poem, “Love after Love,” about the sudden recognition of your inmost reality, your deepest truth, which was there all along even though you hadn’t quite known it until it suddenly greeted you face to face:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart. . .

That is what I think Moses must have experienced, must have suddenly known, when he heard his name called from the midst of the flaming bush. That voice, however uncanny and unfamiliar, also produced a sense of recognition. Oh! it’s you, isn’t it. It’s you. The one who knows me by heart!

And Moses, however surprised he may be to meet at last the stranger who has loved him all his life, consents to the encounter with his response: “Here I am.” That couldn’t have been easy, for the divine stranger in the burning bush was not the gentle presence in Derek Walcott’s poem. Whatever Moses knew about God, he believed that it was a fearful thing to look divinity in the face. Mortals were not wired to handle so much voltage. So while Moses listened to the voice, he was afraid to stare into the fire.

So what happens next? As we know from our baptismal covenant, when God calls our name, that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new life, a life where something is asked of us. Vocare––to call––is the root of vocation. To be called is to be given a vocation. When God calls us, it is to do the holy work of repairing the world.

That work takes many forms, as each of us must discover as we practice our own vocation in a world of such great need. In Moses’ case, his work was to speak truth to power, stand up to the tyranny of Pharoah, and lead God’s people out of bondage to the land of promise.

That was a huge and intimidating assignment. Moses balked at first. “Who am I to do such an impossible thing?” But God was insistent. When God gets an idea, it’s no use saying no. And there’s no turning back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Every time we gather in God’s house, the bush burns and the flames speak. We hear the voice of God, the stranger who has loved us all our lives, who knows us by heart, calling our name. But we don’t get to stay by the fire forever, gently warming ourselves in the loving presence of the divine. Mary Oliver’s poem, “What I have learned so far,” makes this point perfectly:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause?

The poet goes on to say that our only choice is “indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.”

The voice in the flame is the voice that ignites us and sends us forth, to do the work God has given us to do. Some of that work seems feasible enough. As the Prayer Book says, “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.” But some of the work of loving our neighbor and repairing the world can seems overwhelming, even impossible. When we hear words like “racism,” “mass killings” or “climate change,” we cringe at their magnitude. Like Moses, we are tempted to cry, “Who am I to make a difference?”

And what does God say then? Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

Okay, Moses says. But if we’re in this together, I need to understand something about who you are. I need to know your name.

And God says to Moses, “‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.” It is a strange and mysterious name, whose precise meaning has eluded translators, scholars and theologians ever since. Robert Alter, whose recently published and profusely annotated translation of the Hebrew Bible should be in every library, says that “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” is the most plausible rendering of the Hebrew. But he suggests that its linguistic ambiguities could also produce variations such as “I-Am-That-I-Am,” “He-Who-Brings-Things-into-Being,” and “I-Am-He-Who-Endures.”

But whether the preferred translation stresses the being of God or the doing of God, whether it evokes the eternal source and essence of reality or the ongoing providential activity woven into the causalities of time and history, God reveals to Moses that whatever happens in this finite world or in this transitory life, God is. God endures. God will be. God will be with us.

However dark the night of violence and death, however deep the waters of catastrophe, God is with us. The God who endured the cross and grave, the God who makes a way where there is no way, will share our journey and deliver us to the place of promise.

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress. . .
[the] soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

This is not a prescription for passivity, as when people say stupid things like “God will take care of climate change, so why worry?” No. Passivity in the face of human sin and folly is not faith. It is complicity.

To those who are called and ignited by the Spirit’s fire for the work of repairing the world, God’s promise to be with us produces not passivity, but courage and action. Come what may, whatever sorrows, tragedies or defeats may await us: ‘Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Holy One remains, arms open wide, to welcome us to our abiding home, the loving heart of the divine mystery.

Or as Jesus put it, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

 

 

 

Related post: The voice that allows us to remain human

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering God’s Children: A Homily for Lent 2

Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness––The Hen (1939)

A homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA (Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 / Luke 13:31-35)

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid. Your story is not over.
It will continue long into the future.”

But Abram can’t believe this. “I have no offspring, no heirs. How on earth will my story continue?”

And God says, “Step outside, and look at the stars––more than you could ever count. So shall your descendants be.”

This kind of thing happens a lot in the Bible. God makes a way where there is no way. God turns nothing into something. God makes a barren marriage the seed of countless generations.

“Great!” says Abram. “But how can I know for sure?”

So God makes a covenant with Abram––a promise binding Abram’s story to God’s story, a promise to be with Abram’s people through the long journey of time.

Now we may find their covenant ritual pretty weird: cutting three large animals in half––a heifer, a goat, and a ram––but that was a common practice in the ancient Near East. The two parties making a covenant would walk between the cloven parts of animals, as if to say, if either party severs the covenant binding us together, there will be blood.

If one of the parties is human and the other is divine, we should not be surprised to find an uncanny dimension to the ritual, as there is in this story. Abram falls into the altered state of a deep sleep, and then God seems to pass between the cloven animals in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, anticipating the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud which will one day lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

This sense of covenant with God, a binding relationship enduring through all the ups and downs of Jewish history, is the central dynamic of the biblical narrative. And by the time of Jesus, twenty centuries after Abram looked up at those stars, the city of Jerusalem had been well-established as the geographical and spiritual center of that ancient covenant, because it contained the Holy of Holies, the enclosed void believed to be the earthly dwelling place of the Eternal. The Holy of Holies, situated within the Temple on the city’s highest place, was so sacred that it was forbidden to everyone except the High Priest, who could only enter it once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifice to the Most High.

Jerusalem’s sacred stature is affirmed many times in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the Psalms:

Blessed is the Lord out of Zion,
who dwells in Jerusalem. (Psalm 135:21)

As the hills stand about Jerusalem,
so does the Lord surround God’s people,
from this time forth for evermore. (Psalm 125:2)

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:5-6)

Jesus shared his people’s devotion to Jerusalem as central to both their self-understanding and their ultimate destiny. It was the place where earth meets heaven, where the blessings of God’s ancient promise would be most clearly manifested and fulfilled. And however Jesus thought his own mission would work out, he expected its definitive climax to come in the holy city.

Jerusalem is mentioned 139 times in the New Testament, and 90 of those mentions occur in Luke. His gospel might be called The Journey to Jerusalem. During Jesus’ entire ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s kingdom, Jerusalem is so often on his mind. Every step of his itinerant life takes him closer and closer to that place of destiny. As Luke puts it, “his face was turned toward Jerusalem.”

But when he draws near his goal, some Pharisees try to warn him away. “King Herod wants to kill you,” they said. “Get out of here while you still can.” But for Jesus there is no turning back. “It is necessary for me to journey on,” he tells them. “today and tomorrow and the day after that, because Jerusalem is where a prophet must go to meet his fate.”

So on he goes, eventually making the long climb up from Jericho, through a series of barren hills, until he reaches the Mount of Olives, a high point where suddenly the holy city and its great Temple come into view, stretching across a ridge on the opposite side of a ravine called the Kidron valley.

Have any of you been there, and seen that view? It is a stunning sight. And we might imagine the thrill that Jesus and his disciples must have felt at seeing the end of their long pilgrimage, right there in front of them.

Five years ago, I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, and I remember vividly the moment when I first saw the goal of my journey, the towers of Santiago’s cathedral, from the top of a hill a few miles away. Pilgrims call that hill the Mount of Joy, because joy is what you feel when you see for the first time the place which has pulled on your soul for so many days and so many miles.

So as Jesus descends the slope of the Mount of Olives toward the eastern gate of Jerusalem, he stops for a moment to take in the view. But joy is not what he feels. According to Luke, “as he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.”

Why does Jesus weep? Is it for himself, because he knows that this is where he is going to die? Or is he weeping for Jerusalem, because it is the killer, instead of the fulfiller, of God’s dream for human flourishing? The name Jerusalem means “city of peace”––salem means peace, like the Hebrew shalom and the Arabic salaam. God desired it to be a place of loving community, a just community, a neighborly community where divine blessings would be freely and gratefully shared with one another.

But the holy city was in fact closer to hell than heaven––divided by warring factions demonizing one another, distorted by vast inequalities of wealth, poisoned by fears and tribal hatreds, governed by political and economic forces resistant to change, and blinded by an obsolete pretension of being the greatest nation on earth.

From his vantage point on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gazes upon the broken and faithless city––and he weeps. Then he says, “If you had only known the things that lead to peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

This compelling moment is commemorated by a tear-shaped church erected on the slope where Jesus had stood. Most churches are designed to face east, toward the rising sun, but this one faces west, toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did when he lamented the sad state of the City of Peace. The window behind the altar is made of clear glass, so that the worshipper can contemplate the same view which filled Jesus’ eyes with tears. The name of the church is Dominus Flevit: The Lord wept.

What if Jesus had not wept there? What if he had looked at the faithless city, so unloving and so unjust, and been filled with anger and judgment? What if the church were called, The Lord raged? There was plenty to be angry about in the way people lived together and treated each other in that city. But the heart of Jesus was all compassion. He came to show us the God of mercy.

And in today’s gospel, when he responds to those Pharisees who urge him to avoid Jerusalem at all costs, Jesus gives perhaps his most startling self-description in all the gospels:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one killing the prophets and stoning those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Altar mosaic, Dominus Flevit church, Jerusalem

Look at the image of the altar mosaic  in Dominus Flevit. Notice the golden halo behind the hen’s head. This is a holy creature, showing us God in a new way, as a maternal figure, protective yet vulnerable. Not the lion of Judah, or a mighty eagle, but a barnyard chicken! Her chicks don’t seem to be paying much attention to their mother. They are liable to wander off at any moment and get into all sorts of mischief. But Jesus their mother spreads her wings wide, trying her best to gather them in and keep them safe.

There’s another animal in today’s gospel––the fox. That’s what Jesus calls Herod––a fox. Now as leaders go, Herod was pretty deplorable. He was an insecure bully who didn’t care much about the divine covenant or the holiness of Jerusalem. He only cared about himself. And he was little more than a puppet, easily manipulated by a foreign power (it begins with an “R”).

Why does Jesus call him a fox? Did he mean that Herod was cunning? Perhaps. But in such close juxtaposition with the hen and her chicks, it seems more likely that Jesus was describing Herod as a predator. What a predator does is find a way to isolate and attack the most vulnerable. He divides his victims from the wider community, and then he attacks. If you’re a defenseless chick, a fox is very bad news!

Jesus wants to protect the chicks from the fox, but he refuses to do that with violence. That would only make him a mirror image of the fox. As Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says in her memorable commentary on this passage:

“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”

For God so loved the world, that he gave the dearest portion God’s own self, that we might not perish. Self-offering for the sake of others, however costly, is the divine way.

When I first heard about the New Zealand massacre, I had just been reading a gospel commentary comparing the protective hen to Vicki Soto, the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook who died while shielding her little students from the bullets with her own body.

In times like these, the gospel gets very real, and we are confronted with an immediate choice: do we stand with the fox, or with the hen? God forbid that any of us should ever be in the line of fire, but even at a safe distance, we can raise our voices to resist violence, hatred, bigotry and fear. We can spread our wings to shield the vulnerable.

When our leaders echo the rhetoric of white supremacists by referring to immigrants as “invaders,” we need to shout, “No more!” When defenseless children are taken from their parents and put into cages, we need to insist, “Not in our country!” When the toxins of tribalism inspire violence even in havens like New Zealand, we need to confess our divisive ways and beg forgiveness.

As St. Paul urges us, let us all be imitators of Christ, spreading our wings in welcome, offering warmth, protection, shelter and love without qualification. The foxes of the world want to scatter us, but God yearns to gather every single one of us from the places of isolation, alienation, division and rejection, and bring us home to the welcome table.

Look again at the mosaic of the Christlike hen. She is circled by the Latin text of Jesus’ saying, “how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” At about 10 o’clock on the circle is the verb congregare, “to gather.” You see, a congregation consists of those who have been gathered safely under the wings of Christ. You have been gathered under the wings of Christ. And we have all committed in our baptism to spread our own wings in turn, and offer our own selves––our souls and bodies––for the sake of the world.

Now just beneath the chicks, there is one more phrase. It is what Jesus says just after the text in the outer circle: et noluisti (“and they were not willing!”). Jesus wants to gather the scattered, but they refuse. For whatever reason––obstinance, foolishness, blindness, or plain old sin––they just won’t be gathered. They were not willing. And that troubling phrase, et noluisti, explains why Jesus wept as he gazed at Jerusalem, Those word are set apart from the rest of the text, and instead of swimming in the gold of eternity like the other words, they are drenched in a deep red color, the color of blood––echoing the message of that primitive covenant ritual with the butchered animals in Genesis. If you don’t find a way to live together in love, there will be blood.

Jesus offers a better way. He did it in his life and teaching, he did it on Calvary’s hill. The hen’s outstretched wings are like the arms of Jesus on the cross, still trying to gather us in with his last breath. “Father, forgive them,” he prays. Even as he is dying on the cross, Jesus is trying to gather God’s children and bring them home.

In Franco Zefferelli’s 1977 film, Jesus of Nazareth, there is an extraordinary moment during the crucifixion sequence. It is not literally scriptural––the screenwriter invented it––but it expresses so well the heart of the gospel message.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is allowed by a centurion to pass through security to approach her dying son. Then Mary Magdalene tries to follow right behind her, but the centurion stops her.

“Please,” says Magdalene. “I’m one of the family.”

Hearing this, the mother of Jesus turns around sharply, clearly stung by the impudence of this outsider, this woman of questionable reputation, pretending to be related to Jesus. We imagine her thinking, “How dare she try to intrude on our intimate circle!” The centurion asks Mary, “Is she family?” And at that moment, the mother of Jesus has to decide whether she’s going to be tribal and exclusive, or whether she is willing to embrace the welcoming way of her son.

After a brief hesitation, she nods, but it’s not easy for her. “Yes,” she says. “She is one of the family.” And at that moment, at the foot of the cross, beneath Christ’s outstretched wings, the welcoming and sheltering community of mutual and unconditional love is born into the world.

Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas

Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation in the Temple (1459)

Today is Candlemas, the 40thday after the Nativity. Its liturgical origins are obscure, but its blazing processions of candles in the winter dark not only made a glorious end to the extended Christmas celebrations of less hurried times, it also provided a brilliant preview of the resurrection fires of the Easter Vigil. Although it still may allow, for a few liturgically-minded procrastinators, a generous extension of the deadline for boxing up our holiday decorations, Candlemas is rarely observed in American homes and churches. Our minds are fixed on groundhogs and football, not the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.

Still, I would gladly join a candlelight procession to a holy place on this night, to beseech the Light of the World “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”

In the Eastern churches, Candlemas is called “The Meeting,” highlighting the moment when two old souls, Simeon and Anna, met the One for whom they had waited all their lives. Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit” that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. Every time he went to the Temple, he wondered, “Could this be the Promised Day?” Whatever he may have imagined––the House of God filled with smoke and shining angels, a mighty king arriving in noisy triumph––the long-expected day arrived like any other, without the slightest fanfare.

Simeon liked to go to the Temple early, when it was still blissfully quiet and uncrowded. He began his prayers as usual, but his attention wandered when the entrance of a young couple and their baby caught his eye. He could tell they were country people, the way they looked with such amazement at the vast interior. As they passed by him, he smiled kindly, then closed his eyes to resume his prayers.

But everything within him shouted, “Look! This is the time. Don’t miss it.” As soon as he opened his eyes again, he knew. He didn’t know how, but he knew. That child, cradled in the arms of a peasant girl, was the One!

“Please,” he said. “Please wait!” The couple stopped and turned to face him. Simeon held out his arms, and the girl, as though they had both rehearsed it a hundred times, handed him the baby without the least hesitation. And gazing into those infant eyes, seeing there the future of God’s hopes for all the world, Simeon began to murmur the prayer which the faithful have sung ever since at close of day:

Lord, now at last you release your servant
to depart in peace,
for my eyes have seen the Savior,
just as you have promised.

Then Anna, the old prophetess who had camped out in the Temple for many years, stepped out of the shadows to add her own confirming praises. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

The Nunc Dimittis of these two old saints, near the end of their lives, being granted the grace of completion on that Temple morning, is beautifully echoed in a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter…

 

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

It is a custom at Candlemas to bless the candles for the rest of the year. In 2003, I happened to be in London’s Cathedral of St. Paul for a similar rite, when members of the Wax Chandlers Livery Company, in a practice dating back to the fifteenth century, brought long candles to be blessed for their service on the high altar.

The preacher on that occasion, Canon Martin Warner, took comfort in the fact that when his own brief candle should come to an end, another candle, the Paschal Candle of Easter, would burn over his coffin, declaring by its resurrection light that each of us is but wax “being consumed by the incredible flame of love that is God’s own self, melted not into oblivion but into the freedom of attaining our perfection and deepest longings.”

A candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing. Even so, the fire that consumes it bears Love’s name, and does Love’s work. Whatever is offered up shall receive its true being. Whatever is lost shall be found anew.

Fire of heaven, make us ready.

Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), National Gallery, London. (Creative Commons license)

A few years ago, while visiting London, I wanted to connect with a friend who lives at the outskirts of the city. Neil, who is an artist as well as a priest[i], told me to meet him at Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery. I arrived first, and stood transfixed before that marvelous 15thcentury painting. John the Baptist pours water over Jesus as the Holy Dove hovers just overhead. They stand at the edge of the river, in the shade of a great tree. The formality of the figures and the almost eternal sense of stillness induced a responding quietude in me. When I felt a hand on my shoulder, I knew it was Neil, but I did not look away from the painting. “Remember your baptism,” he whispered, and with a small vial of water drawn from his parish font, he poured a few drops onto my head.

It was a whimsical yet powerful way of connecting my own baptism with the baptism of Christ, making them both present in a single moment, inviting me to receive their multiple meanings into my heart and soul. When the Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, I will be thinking of that moment, and that painting.

Piero’s baptismal scene is untroubled by modern oppositions between empirical and spiritual. Its visible world is charged with something more than the eye can see. Or rather, what the eye sees participates in a reality the senses cannot directly grasp.

The Renaissance embrace of the empirical is clear. The sky is blue, not the gold of eternity. The natural world is prominent in the trees and landscape. The human bodies, while in the stylized poses of dancers, are not abstractions. They have weight and substance.

Yet we also see a world governed by invisible meanings: the dove, while rhyming perfectly with the hovering clouds, is the Holy Spirit; the trio on the left is angelic; the principal gestures are sacramental signs of inward grace; and the strong heavenward reach of the picture’s verticals balances harmoniously with its earthly horizontals. Strangely, there are no shadows, as if light is not cast from a distant, separate source, but inheres equally in everything: a sure sign of divine presence.

The more you look, the more you see. The face of the Baptist, who must now “decrease” with the coming of Christ (John 3:30), is only seen in profile, while the full face of Jesus confronts us directly, like an icon. But his eyes do not look outward to fix us with an iconic gaze; their attention is wholly interior. The bent figure on the right could be a realistic touch, another candidate preparing for baptism, but his faceless anonymity suggests a more symbolic meaning. The garment that hides his individuality indicates an identity in transition: either he is shedding the old self which is left behind in the sacrament of new birth, or he is putting on New Being as in the Pauline image from Galations 3:26: “All you who have been baptized have been clothed with Christ.”

The great tree, apparently an Italian walnut, is clearly more than an object of botanical interest. Everything about it suggests the Tree of Life, a mythic image prominent in the first and last chapters of the Bible. Rooted deeply in the earth, it reaches into the heavens, beyond the frame of the painting, where human sight cannot follow. Like the Christ whose erect body it exactly parallels (even its bark shares the identical color and smoothness of Christ’s skin), the Tree unites the dualities of earth and heaven, integrating them into a harmonious whole.

Perhaps the most uncanny element in Piero’s painting is the Jordan River. As the biblical boundary between the wilderness wandering of the Exodus and the land of Promise on the other side, the Jordan became a traditional image of the passage not only between old and new, past and future, but between life and death. Many examples occur in the American spirituals and shape note songs I love to sing with my folkie friends.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home of friends and kindred dear;
I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

These lines, from “Angel Band,” suggest a gentle crossing. But other songs, like “The Promised Land,” strike a note of anxiety and risk:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye,
To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. . .
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll, fearless I’d launch away.

But in Piero’s depiction, the river is no formidable flood fraught with difficulty and danger, but a quiet, meandering channel, calm and smooth as a mirror. And it comes to an end at the place where Jesus stands. This could be a direct reference to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, which parted like the Red Sea to let God’s people cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17). Or it could be showing Christ to be the one who opens the way between the worlds of life and death, sin and salvation.

The sacrament of baptism employs the tension between water as an image of life (birth, growth, and the quenching of thirst) and an image of death (flood and drowning), expressing the inseparable connection between dying and rising in the Paschal Mystery. We die to self in order to live to God. But in the eternal stillness and calm of this painting, that tension is absent. The raging flood has been tamed into a tranquil pool. We have already crossed over into the peace of heaven.

Of course, it’s only a freeze frame. Soon history will resume and pick up speed. The river will start to rise and become once again tricky to cross. Jesus will begin to make his way through many dangers, toils and snares. So will we. But I am grateful to Piero for this moment of calm, a promising glimpse of something behind and beyond the raucous flow of time.

 

[i]The Rev. Neil Lambert is the vicar of St. Mary’s, Ash Vale, a 40-minute train ride from Waterloo Station. You can read more about him in my post, “Dreaming the Church that wants to be.”

The Morning After: A Sermon for Christmas Day

Nativity (12th century), Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles, France. (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On January 2, 1734, a Boston poet and distiller named Joseph Green wrote these words in a letter to a friend:

 “The last Day I shall mention is Christmas. And this, I believe, keeps many People in good Terms with Religion, who would otherwise be at variance with it. They taste Sweet on this day, unknown to them the whole Year beside. Many who are Proof against a Religious Argument, cannot withstand a Dish of Plumb Porridge, and it is past all doubt to me, that a Christmas Sermon makes fewer converts than a Christmas Pye.”

But alas, I have no pie, so a sermon will have to do. But what exactly can we say on the morning after, when we’re trying to remember what really happened during the strange and wondrous night at that little stable on the edge of town. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time, and it was all just a dream. It seems like that now.

There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.

And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling by her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.

I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.

And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? I kind of hope it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I’m not sure I’m ready for whatever’s next.

Thus spake one of the Bethlehem shepherds. And each of us will have our own version of last night’s peculiar doings. But I suspect that everyone who was there caught at least a glimpse of a possibility, a promise, maybe even a vision of what this world could be if the angels’ beautiful song were true. But on the morning after, with the dazzling darkness of the holy night already a receding memory, will its meanings survive the cold light of everyday reality?

Well, as it turns out, what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.

And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-14)

In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the realm of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

But why? Why would God want to leave the peace and bliss of heaven to live and die as one of us? The doctrine of redemption says that God became incarnate to save us from the web of wrongness we have been powerless to escape on our own. That is no small thing, and we are oh so grateful for the gift of salvation. But was that the only reason for the Incarnation? The Christian imagination has suggested there may be more to make of this great mystery.

The nature of the trinitarian God is to be self-giving, and extending the eternal self-giving of divinity beyond the Godhead to include created beings is what God has chosen to do. In the language of the Fourth Gospel, God so loved the worldthat God gave the Only-Begotten to meet creation on its own ground. God loves us so much that God wants to be intimate with us, and not just love us at a distance.

So God didn’t just come because we needed saving. God came because God enjoys our company (though given our many faults, God only knows why!). But the Incarnation isn’t only a matter of God wanting to share our humanity, to make our humanness part of the divine experience. It is also God’s desire that we in turn become partakers of the divine nature.

St. John put it this way in his gospel:

To all who received the Incarnate Word, who believed in his name,” says the gospel, “the Word gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of human beings, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

In the centuries that followed, this theme of theosis, or deification––becoming God-like––has pushed the envelope of anthropology by setting a very high bar for the definition of human potential.

In the early church, Irenaeus said that “God became what we are, in order to make us what he is” Athanasius was even more explicit about the consequences of Incarnation, saying that “God became human so that humans might become God-like.” God-like! Imagine that after watching the evening news.

Martin Luther, perhaps surprisingly for someone so focused on the burden of human sin, said we were all called to be “little Christs,” and in a Christmas sermon he described the Incarnation as a two-way street: “Just as the word of God became flesh,” he said, “so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. . . [God] takes what is ours to himself in order to impart what is his to us.”

In the 18th century, some of Charles Wesley’s great hymns were almost shockingly explicit about our capacity to contain divinity.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join,
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

In the 20thcentury, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.” [i]

And after his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Merton said, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [ii]

Is this all this talk about divinization going too far? Could we really be walking around shining like the sun? Or at least have the potential for such glory, even if we’re not there yet? If the Nativity in Bethlehem means what I think it does, then the answer has to be yes.

On that wondrous night in Bethlehem, our nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

Another ancient theologian said, “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”

What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.

On the Winter Solstice about 25 years ago, I was flying across the San Fernando Valley into L.A.’s Burbank airport on a brilliant December day. The noonday sun was low enough in the southern sky to be reflecting its rays off the surface of swimming pools running along a line parallel to our flight path. There are so many pools in the Valley, and each one, as it was struck by the sun, exploded with an intense dazzle of white light. In rapid succession, tranquil blue surfaces were transformed into momentary images of the sun’s bright fire.

“They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness.” Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And though we have turned away from the Light, the Light seeks us out. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.

We may not feel capable or worthy or prepared to receive the Word into the flesh of our own lives, but it is what we were made for. Paradoxical as it may sound, partaking of divinity is the only path to becoming fully human.

A month before he died, Edward Pusey, a 19thcentury English priest, wrote to a spiritual friend about our God-bearing capacity:

“God ripen you more and more,” he said. “Each day is a day of growth. God says to you, ‘Open thy mouth and I will fill it.’ Only long. . . The parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself for the rain from heaven and invites it. The parched soil cries out to the living God. O then long and long and long, and God will find thee. More love, more love, more love.”

Participating in divinity doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. We won’t be throwing any lightning bolts. Just look at Jesus. His life tells you what “God-like” means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but as they are singing a carol about the mystery of the Incarnation, she leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to Love divine, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[iii]

So if you want to try it, if you want to complete your humanity by partaking of divinity, there are many ways to do that. Weep with those who weep and dance with those who dance,the Bible says. Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, free the captive.There are plenty of to-do lists out there. I recently came across an excellent one from the Dalai Lama:

May I become at all times,
both now and forever:
A protector for all who are helpless.
A guide for all who have lost their way.
A ship for all who sail the oceans.
A bridge for all who cross over rivers.
A sanctuary for all who are in danger.
A lamp for all who are in darkness.
A place of refuge for all who lack shelter.
And a servant for all those who are in need.
May I find hope in the darkest of days,
and focus in the brightest.

No, Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future.
And this is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey into God.

 

 

 

[i]q. in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own(2004), 403.

[ii]Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

[iii]The novel is The Greater Trumps(1932)

Trying to Get Home for Thanksgiving

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster) searching for home in “Leave No Trace.”

There’s no place like home.

–– Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

 And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there.
It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.

–– Thomas Wolfe, You Can Never Go Home Again

To be human means both to dwell and to wander.

–– Erazim Kohák

 

This is the week of the great American quest for a place of belonging where we will be welcomed and known and understood. Nearly 50 million of us will travel many a mile to find such a “home.” The rest will seek it closer at hand.  But every one of us will be looking for something that may be real or imagined or both, and often beyond our reach.

The painful irony of this particular Thanksgiving is that thousands of American men and women in uniform have been denied their own chance to make it home for the holiday. Instead, they’ve been ordered to our southern border as props for a shameful and heartless message: STRANGERS NOT WELCOME HERE!

The Pilgrim immigrants at the first Thanksgiving were lucky to have had more generous hosts. And whatever the balance of truth and myth in the famous story of Europeans and native Americans sharing a feast in 1621, many of us cherish the biblical hope that every one of the human family can one day come home to a table with room enough and food enough and love enough for everyone.

The Bible is one long story of exiles trying to find their way home: Adam and Eve expelled from the garden; Cain condemned to perpetual lostness; Abraham and Sarah commanded to leave everything behind “for a place I will show you”; Joseph exiled to Egypt; the people of the Exodus wandering the Sinai; the displaced Jews weeping by the rivers of Babylon. The New Testament tacks on a happy ending in its last book: a great city of welcome where we come home to God at last. But for the time being, that abiding city remains somewhere over the rainbow. Eve’s children still walk endless roads, dreaming of home.

In Debra Granik’s powerful film, Leave No Trace (2018), a father and his teenage daughter are living off the grid in a nature reserve near Portland, Oregon. Their secret encampment seems infinitely distant from the hectic complexities of contemporary America. When they are discovered by the authorities, they are dragged back into civilization as bewildered strangers in a strange land.

As we witness their distressing exile, we share their longing for what they’ve lost: an Edenic simplicity deeply connected with the natural world. But that longing is complicated by our awareness that Will, the father, is more Cain than Adam. As a veteran with PTSD, he was suffering the condition of exile long prior to his forest sojourn. Alienated from the world which had damaged him so deeply, he had retreated into nature, trying to exit history and “get back to the garden.” Trying to get home.

His daughter Tom seems to possess a purer innocence, like a prelapsarian Eve. When she is taken to a government agency and put in a room with a couple of runaway teens, they ask about her story.

–– Where were you?
–– With my dad. In the park.
–– So you were homeless, then?
–– No.
–– Why else would you be living in the woods? If you had a home, they wouldn’t have brought you here.
–– They just don’t understand that it was my home.

Exile and the search for home are the central subjects of this unforgettable film. The meandering journey of father and daughter takes them through the kind of marginal social terrain which many of us dismissively stereotype or even fear. Granik’s compassionate eye provides a revelatory glimpse of community and kindness in places where our impoverished social maps say little more than “Here be dragons.” And while the heavenly city of an abiding home remains elusive for Will and Tom, Leave No Trace does not leave us comfortless. Even in exile, one may find divine traces of blessing and grace.

In his compelling essay, “Longing for Home,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reflects on the theme of exile and return. It is a subject that Jews know all too well. Painful memories and vanished dwelling places are deeply woven into their history. But out of loss comes longing, and out of longing, hope.

“Would the paradise be a paradise if it were not lost? But what about longing for the future? Moses did not long for his Egyptian past but for his Jewish future. Messianic redemption implies the distant kingdom of David transformed in hope for a better future, a future when every human being everywhere will feel at home––at last––at home in his or her faith, country, and socio-economic environment.” [i]

One of the greatest injunctions of the Torah was forged from the experience of exile and homelessness:

Never forget what it was like to be a homeless stranger,
grateful for whatever shelter or meal could be found.
Welcome the homeless, for you too were once homeless exiles.
Welcome the immigrant, for you too had no place of your own.[ii]

Jesus knew this law so very well,
and he practiced it every time he reached out to the lost
or dined with the outcast.

Yes, Dorothy, there is no place like home,
except where we ourselves become
both givers and receivers
of the divine hospitality:
where no one is a stranger,
and there is always room enough,
and food enough,
and love enough
for everyone at the table of welcome.

May this Thanksgiving feast be a time of welcome, blessing, and deep gratitude for you, dear reader. And until that day when everyone of God’s beloved family comes home to the welcome table, let us all remain hungry for the justice to make it so.

 

 

Related posts

No Place Like Home

Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

We the People: Voices of the Immigrant Experience

 

[i]Elie Wiesel, “Longing for Home,” in Leroy S. Rouner, ed., The Longing for Home(Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1996), 28.

[ii]Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19. The injunction to welcome the stranger is invoked 36 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment.