Fireworks and Stories: Creativity Aboard the Easter Vigil

Noah’s Ark: Fresco, Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France (c. 1100).

My sister Martha Stevens is a marvelous storyteller. It was her profession for a long time, as she traveled far and wide to hold listeners spellbound with tales from many centuries and cultures. In the late 1980s, inspired by her work, I began to foster retellings of biblical narratives at the Easter Vigil—Creation, Flood, the Binding of Isaac, the Red Sea and the Valley of Dry Bones. Over the years, these Vigil retellings expanded to include theater and multimedia as well as individual storytellers. 

Although I have curated creative Easter Vigils with story teams in a wide variety of parishes over the years, I began with an 8-year stretch at Christ Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish in Ontario, California. When I introduced the storytelling component in 1988, the church already had a famously distinctive practice for welcoming resurrection. 

While a joyful noise is customary in most churches after the first shouts of “Christ is risen,” this usually means the ringing of bells and the organ’s roar. But to these were added not only dozens of wind chimes placed within the reach of every worshipper, but the boom and blaze of fireworks. After his first experience of the Christ Church Vigil in 1989, visitor David Trowbridge wrote down his impressions. His description of the fireworks reflects the assembly’s collective astonishment in that moment:

“Well, at this point, everybody for at least three miles in every direction who wasn’t awake woke up and knew that it was Easter again at Christ Church. There was a shattering explosion from the courtyard [visible through the nave’s glass wall] as the first of at least 10,000 LARGE firecrackers went off. Then the pinwheels, then the Roman candles, and then the 10-foot high cross in red fireworks with blue fireworks (representing the water of baptism) underneath. Everybody started laughing and exclaiming and jumping up and down, but nobody could hear anything. 

“The contrast between the mystical beauty of the Kyrie just before and the almost orgiastic release of the fireworks was exactly right—nothing I have ever experienced has so truly expressed the joy and release that Christians should feel in celebrating the mystery of the empty tomb. We tend to take the story for granted, but at Christ Church, the noise and the excitement made it all new again, and we all felt, for a few minutes, a little of the unbelieving excitement that the disciples must have felt that first Easter Day, when they found that He, first of all [human beings], had conquered death.”[i]

The previous year, I had approached the church’s longtime rector, Jon Hart Olson,[ii] about adding storytelling to the Easter Vigil. Jon, a brilliant theologian, exquisite liturgist, and a generous encourager of my own priestly imagination, welcomed the chance to offer fresh versions of the old stories. The people of Christ Church embraced the idea as well, and it became part of their annual tradition. When I had a chance to revisit their Vigil 20 years after leaving the parish, I was delighted to see the creativity continuing, as Dry Bones came to life in the form of two break dancers in skeleton suits. As they gyrated beneath a blacklight, all we could see in the dark was their dancing bones.[iii]

In his account of the 1989 Vigil, Trowbridge found the storytelling as compelling as the fireworks: 

“The priest who told the story of Noah and the Ark was especially entertaining. At one point, describing the animals boarding the ark two-by-two, he named about 100 animals in alphabetical order … He described how cranky and bored everyone got on the Ark, and how Noah organized singalongs for the animals. At this point he got everyone making their favorite animal noises all together. Pandemonium! I was screaming like a chimpanzee, which seemed to provoke the rector, who was sitting nearby, into a fit of laughter. At the end of the reading, the [storytelling] priest unfurled a long cloth rainbow across the room …

“After the [fireworks], the Eucharist proceeded as usual, or so we thought, but there was one more surprise in store for us. At festal Eucharists, it is customary to read the Gospel lesson with much ceremony. The Bible is carried from the altar, the deacon who is to read it is blessed by the priest, it’s carried out into the midst of the congregation with candles and incense … and so it was here. Then, as is customary, the deacon lifted up the Bible and intoned, ‘The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Luke,’ and we all responded, ‘Glory to You, Lord Christ.’

“And the back door of the church swung open with a loud crash, and a disheveled woman in a purple sweater and black pants rushed in! She shouted, ‘Sit down, all of you,’ and pushed her way to the front, rudely shouldering aside the deacon with the Bible. ‘Sit down! I’ve got something important to say.’

“At this point, I’m sure many people (I know I was) were thinking that one of Ontario’s street people had crashed the service. After a long moment of embarrassment and that ‘what should I do? … should I do anything?’ feeling, the woman identified herself. It was Mary Magdalene, who told us, in the vernacular, instead of in the elevated style of the Bible, what happened when she went to the tomb that morning to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. What a way to hear the Gospel! It was like hearing it for the first time.”

I do wish there were more storytelling in church. There’s nothing wrong with a well-read passage of canonical text—I’m quite fond of a good reading by a practiced and thoughtful voice—but sometimes a telling can reach places which a reading cannot. Instead of a reader as a passive, transparent window for a sacred text to pass through without inflection or distortion, a teller embodies the text in breath, intonation, gesture and movement, making it alive and present and urgent in the moment of its speaking. A story told rather than read has a unique kind of authority, coming from the heart instead of a book. God is not ink. God is breath. 

Not everyone is prepared for the energy—and occasional lack of decorum—of good storytelling in church. But many find it engaging, even revelatory. Dennis Dewey,[iv] a brilliant storyteller, is careful to deflect the inevitable praise evoked by his creative delivery of Bible stories: “You make the Bible come alive!” people tell him. “No,” he says. “The Bible already is alive. I just try not to kill it.” 

At this year’s Easter Vigil, pandemic protocols were still in place, so we were streaming the liturgy. For the Flood story, I solicited participation by asking parishioners to send me videos of themselves entering the ark (their front door) and staring out the ark’s portholes (their front window). Since we have all been on our separate arks for the past year, I wanted to acknowledge the challenge of our collective pandemic experience, while affirming our enduring faith in the rainbow promise. We’re in the story, and the story is in us.

I added voice-over to the submitted clips, and inserted a segment from a video of my Vigil stories, The Electronic Campfire: New Storytelling from Scripture (1991), made in collaboration with the amazing storyteller Angela Lloyd.[v] I hope you enjoy this short video, “The Flood and the Ark.” Even more, I hope you will be inspired to explore storytelling—and storylistening—within your own faith community. 



[i] David Trowbridge, unpublished manuscript (April 1989). David’s wife Nancy sent me this writeup at the time, encouraging me to share it “here and there if you wish.” It only took me 32 years to do so. My memories from several decades of creative Easter Vigils tend to conflate and become less true as memory simplifies and smooths out the details, so I am happy to possess this vivid firsthand impression from an attentive observer having the Christ Church Vigil experience for the first time. 

[ii] The Rev. Jon Olson preached at my ordinations to the Diaconate and the Priesthood, and taught me so much about liturgy and spirituality. He was the kind of friend who kept you up well past midnight with luminous (and hilarious) conversations. I cast him as Lazarus in my 1970s film The Investigation, which explores the Jesus story in a modern setting. I will always be grateful that Jon gave this itinerant priest an abiding place of welcome in the unique community he served at Christ Church. 

[iii] The break dancers were young men, part of the parish family, who danced professionally at Disneyland. They raced to the church after work to perform Dry Bones (those Vigils started at 9 p.m. and went past midnight). The teller of the story spoke, unseen, from the balcony at the back of the church, while the skeletons danced before the altar. 

[iv] I had the pleasure of taking a workshop in biblical storytelling from Dennis Dewey. Find his website here: https://sacredstoryjourneys.wordpress.com

[v] The Electronic Campfire, not currently available on disc, may be seen here: https://youtu.be/sDDdSKFSWoE   Angela Lloyd is not in the Flood story, but is featured in most of the others. Angela took part in most of my Christ Church Vigils. She is not to be missed (“a combination of Maria von Trapp, Mary Poppins, and Tinkerbell”—Donald Davis). For her website: https://www.angelalloyd.com

The Fullness of Time

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son, born of a woman … 

— The Letter of Paul to the Galatians (4:4)

In my six years of blogging, I have always posted a reflection on New Year’s Eve. The symbolic border between old and new prompts the big questions: Where have we been? Where are we going? If “Time is our choice of How to love and Why,”[i] are we using it well? Here are links to all my past posts dated December 31, followed by some thoughts at the end of a year like no other.  

The Angel of Possibility (2014)     Fresh starts nurture fresh hopes, but the turning of the year is of itself not enough to save us. The only sustainable new birth is rooted in the Nativity’s marriage of earth and heaven, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, human and divine, and I am grateful that our passage into the New Year falls in the middle of the Christmas feast, enriched by faith’s larger hopes. We are not alone. As the Psalmist cries to the Holy One, “My times are in your hand; deliver me.” (Psalm 31:15)

Tick, Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve (2015)     On the one night of the year when countless human beings devote collective awareness to the vanishing Now (at least for the last 10 seconds of the 12th month), time is on everyone’s mind. And though there may be little consensus on the theoretical nature of time, we are all immersed in its flow, or what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt.” We feel keenly the effects of beginnings, transitions, losses and endings. At year’s end, we pause on the razor’s edge between old and new, memory and expectation, regret and hope. When we dance our welcome to the New, may that narrow boundary prove wide enough for our joyful steps.  

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017 (2016)      At the outset of our 4-year political and social nightmare, I beheld my country teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin. The New Year brought more dread than hope. It demanded a sturdier and steadier kind of moral resolve than the customary pledges of self-improvement. It required that we renounce despair. “We would do well,” I wrote, “not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end.” 

At the Mercy of the Future (2017)      My title came from Didier Maleuvre: So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future. 2017 was a painful year to be a person of hope, but I found consolation in Maleuvre’s study of ancient sculpture, contrasting the “readiness” of Greek statuary with the blank visages of Egyptian figures, who appear to expect nothing from the world, their minds closed to wonder, risk, or surprise. I myself am partial to the Greeks. “We are creatures of longing and hope,” I wrote, “and it is our fate to wade into the stream of time, come what may. But as the biblical God tells us at the beginning of every journey, Do not be afraid. I will go with you.”

On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope (2018)     Midway through the Trumpian hell, I hear the voices of three poets tending the flame of hope. In “O Esperanza,” Catherine Barnett cites one of her teachers, the philosopher Richard Rorty: “Just before he died, Rory said his sense of the holy was bound up with the hope / that someday our remote descendants will live in a global civilization / in which love is pretty much the only law.” 

Farewell to a Decade. And then? (2019)     The strain of these evil times was taking its toll on everyone as the decade ended. I recalled how Thoreau ignored the outbreak of the Civil War in his voluminous journal while continuing to register the doings of nature in extensive detail. When asked how he could remain silent on such a momentous national subject, Thoreau said that refusing to let our attention be consumed by the hypnotic gaze of chaos “is just the most fatal, and indeed the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.” In that same spirit, I wrote: “2020 promises an immense struggle requiring the best of us, and I am grateful for those who plan to welcome the New Year with their most prayerful attention, keeping their eye on the Light rather than being transfixed by the dark abyss of malevolence.”

Harold Lloyd, Safety Last (1923).

As for 2020, does anyone expect it to go quietly, to cease at midnight from doing further harm? Though we may find catharsis in shouting our “good riddances!” tonight, this year’s manifold ills will linger a while longer, and fresh starts will take time. Tomorrow morning the world will look much the same. “A change is gonna come,”[ii] but not in an instant. 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife 
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled 
two thousand years of wrong. [iii]

Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th-century English bishop, preached seventeen Christmas Day sermons before King James in the Chapel Royal. Preachers who struggle to come up with fresh Nativity sermons year after year must stand in awe of Andrewes’ inexhaustible richness of expression and range of thought. “He cuts and polishes a text, like a jeweler a diamond,” wrote a later editor of those sermons, “and the rays of truth from its heart of light flash from every facet.” [iv]

The bishop’s Christmas sermon of 1609 explored St. Paul’s verse (Galatians 4:4) about the “fullness of time.” For Andrewes, St. Paul’s phrase itself is full, generating a surplus of meanings and implications. It suggests a condition of completeness, where nothing essential is lacking. More specifically, it designates the pivotal moment of history’s ripening, producing the Incarnate Word, the crown of creation. But the fullness is not just a property of time. It is an attribute of God: the overflowing fullness of Divine Love pouring itself endlessly into the world. The birth of Christ, said Andrewes, entails “the full measure of [God’s] sending.” 

At the same time, there is a receptive dimension to the term, which Andrewes called “the fullness of the benefit we receive” from the Incarnation—not just redemption from sin but the means of union with God—and the joy which fills us in consequence. Fullness is not just divine gift; it is something that happens within us, a grace in which we participate. 

“And after our joyfulness or fullness of joy, our fullness of thanks or thankfulness is to ensue; for with that fullness we are to celebrate it likewise. Our minds first, and then our mouths, to be filled with blessing, and praise, and thanks to Him, that hath made our times not to fall into those empty ages of the world, but to fall within this “fullness of time,” which “so many Kings and Prophets desired to have lived in …”

Adoration of the Christ Child, follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar, c. 1515.

But the fullness comes and goes, ebbs and flows. What do we do in its absence? At the end of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, the poet laments the relative emptiness of time once the Vision fades:

To those who have seen 
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

Once we have experienced “the stable where for once in our lives / Everything was a You and nothing was an It,” how can we go back to the way we were? How can we settle for anything less than “the fullness of time?”[v] We don’t. Instead, we make our longing an instrument of change, energizing us—by the grace of the Spirit—to manifest and embody the fullness in our own stories, whenever and however we can.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rimes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.[vi]

When we beat our gongs, bang our drums, and blow our whistles on the porch at midnight, I will recite these lines of Tennyson. But when we go back inside, I’ll put on Rachel Platten’s “Soldiers”—a rousing response to 2020’s time of trial—and we will dance to the fullness of time.

We’re at the end of the road
We’re all soldiers on our own
Trying to find our way back home
And at the end of the day
Nothing matters anyway
Just the love that we have made

So let’s let go of our mistakes
We’ve all got hearts that easily break

No matter how the light may fade
We’ll carry on, it’s how we’re raised
We might fall
But we won’t break
Yeah, we won’t break …

And now our hearts will beat, now they’ll beat as one
We made it through, and after all, came the sun
And now our hearts will beat, now our hearts will beat as one

— Rachel Platten, “Soldiers” [vii]


Happy New Year, dear Reader! Thank you for reading and sharing through this challenging year. “We made it through!” I am grateful for your thoughtful attention to things that matter. I wish you much joy, health, love and peace in the days to come. Great joy to the New!

[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, ed. Alan Jacobs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 46.

[ii] Sam Cooke wrote his great song, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964), in support of the Civil Rights movement.

[iii] Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876), “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

[iv] The Editor is uncredited and the date, probably early 20th century, is not given in my reprinted volume of Lancelot Andrewes Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Trieste Publishing, 2017). All the Andrewes citations are from Sermon IV (Dec. 25, 1609), pp. 44-62.

[v] For the Time Being, 64-65.

[vi] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam.” Emphasis mine. The “fuller minstrel” is the Christ, embodying the fullness of our humanity united with divinity, singing Possibility into being.

[vii] Rachel Platten, “Soldiers” (2020). Platten recently explained her commitment to speaking out through her songs: “We need to use our art right now, because I truly believe beauty can save the world.”

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

The Nativity (Romanesque capital at Saint-Tropheme, Arles).

No time for words this week, only images. I’ve been editing the parish Christmas pageant as well as our Christmas Eve liturgy stream. With COVID cautions in place, I sent a shot list to the parents, who sent me back wonderful clips of their little angels, shepherds and Holy Family, all shot in their bubbles as if interacting with characters who weren’t there. The joy and beauty they brought to the Nativity story has been a great Christmas gift to me in this strangest of Christmastides, and I pass it on to you. Merry Christmas, dear reader! May this holy season take you ever deeper into the Mystery of God-with-us.


What Would Samson Do? — Finding Trump in the Bible

Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.

— Henry David Thoreau [i]

[T]his president and those in power—those who benefit from keeping things the way they are—they are counting on your cynicism … Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy. 

— Barack Obama [ii]

 

When the previous American president called out the most dangerous man in America at the Democratic Convention, he broke the presidential norm of speaking softly about your successor. “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” said Obama. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.” [iii]

Three years ago the press would have worried more about the broken norm than the words themselves. No longer. Democracy is on fire, and even some former White House officials are grabbing the nearest hose. In normal times, the Senate report detailing Trump’s extensive Russian collusion would bring an Administration’s swift collapse. But amid the ongoing maelstrom of misdeeds, it’s barely noticed. In normal times, a reporter would not be inviting a president to refute the conspiracy theory of his secret plan to save the world from a satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. And in normal times, the president would not respond by wondering “is that supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing?” [iv]

Coincidentally, in recent weeks the Episcopal Daily Office has been taking us through the Book of Judges, one of those disturbing texts that won’t let us mistake the Bible for a handbook on exemplary behavior. It’s a collection of ancient tales—legends with historical origins—from Israel’s history after the Exodus, when the refugees from Egyptian slavery were establishing themselves in a Promised Land. That land’s existing occupants were not so thrilled with the immigrants’ aspirations, and the narrative accounts are filled with appalling violence. It’s not a book I’d care to preach on.

When a later editor wove the stories into the Book of Judges, he sought to make a larger point about the Israelites losing their way as a people whose identity and survival was rooted in the divine Deliverer. Judges begins with stories of charismatic leaders who rise up as needed to guide their people through a formative time. But charisma proved an unreliable form of governance. Judges ends with several tales to demonstrate a need for a more stable political system, as the tribes devolve into civil war. The story of Samson is the turning point.

While Sunday school teachers have long cringed at the sex and violence of the Samson saga, children (and Hollywood producers) have been captivated by his superhero powers and comic-book adventures. Outnumbered by those Philistine bullies, he always gives them their comeuppance. BAM! POW! OOF! Not even a lion can beat him. And though tricked and weakened by a femme fatale, he still brings the house down on the bad guys in the end.

But to what purpose? He has no particular interest in the greater good of his people. All he cares about is himself. He is driven by impulse, not thought. Revenge and lust shape his choices. Although we are told “he led Israel … for twenty years,” he shows no leadership skills, and generates considerable hostility among his own people. However, he does excel at destruction—what Robert Alter calls his “anarchic impulse”—so cruelly exhibited when he ties torches to the tails of three hundred foxes to set Philistine fields and vineyards ablaze.

Finally captured and blinded by his enemies, he refuses to admit defeat. If he has to go down, he’s going to take everyone else down with him. In a famously spectacular finish, he pushes “powerfully” against the pillars of their temple, and the great structure collapses, killing three thousand men and women, including himself. The narrator ends with a chilling summation: “And the dead that he killed in his death were more than he had killed in his life” (Judges 16:30).

As Alter notes, the Book of Judges goes on to relate further episodes of “unbridled lust, implacable hostility, and mutual mayhem,” not to mention “dishonesty and deception … venality and the ruthless pursuit of personal and tribal self-interest.”[v] It’s a disheartening book, whose final sentence conveys the total disintegration of social bonds and the common good: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Sound familiar? Three years ago, few of us imagined how fragile and corruptible our own political institutions would prove to be. As Barack Obama warns us, we are on the verge of losing our democracy—and so much more. The current president’s small hands are pushing hard against the pillars of America. He’d rather kill us all than be the only “loser.”

It’s a stressful time to be an American, even without a pandemic. To paraphrase Thoreau, the “remembrance of my country” is spoiling my summer. Serenity is a rare commodity these days. And that is perhaps how it must be until we expel the demons from White House and Senate. Keep our eyes on the prize and hold on!

In Thoreau’s essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” his dark thoughts about America’s sins are succeeded by the memory of a walk when he chances upon a white waterlily. The flower becomes a redemptive epiphany:

“It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth … What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower!”

So many moments in this week’s Democratic Convention have provided a confirmation of my own hopes: the determined voices of those who transform personal suffering and pain into commitment to the common good; the joyful spirits whose ideals still burn bright; the splendor of so many diverse and shining faces; a passionate yearning for beloved community; and the uplifting video segments which burst “so fair upon the eye.”

 

[i] H. D. Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Collected Essays and Poems (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 346.

[ii] The 44th President’s speech at the Democratic Convention (August 19, 2020).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election/donald-trump-qanon-conspiracy-2020-election-a9678946.html

[v] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Volume 2: Prophets (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019),

Walking on the Sea with Jesus: A Homily on Matthew 14:22-33

Gustave Brion, Jesus & Peter on the Water (1863).

This is the text of a homily preached from a kayak “on location” in Puget Sound, a stand-in for the Sea of Galilee where the gospel for this Sunday takes place. You can view the video below. 

“Get in the boat!” Jesus tells the disciples. “Get in the boat and go to the other side of the lake.” We don’t know the exact words Jesus used, or his tone of voice, but Matthew’s gospel is pretty clear about the forcefulness of his command. The original Greek words suggest that he had to force them or push them into the boat. They clearly were reluctant to go. But why?

They may have been hesitant to go anywhere without their trusted teacher. And certainly none of them would be eager to go to the other side. That’s where the Gentiles lived, those weird foreigners who were so disliked and feared. The other side, in the disciples’ eyes, was a bad neighborhood, infested by Roman rats.

But the scariest thing was the sea itself. Although the Sea of Galilee is only a large lake (about one-third the size of Lake Tahoe), its original Hebrew name, Yam, means “roar,” perhaps because of the tempestuous waves created by its infamous sudden storms. A few years ago, 80 swimmers in that lake had to be rescued when strong winds swept them out into deep waters.

I have only seen the Sea of Galilee in good weather. But almost without warning, it can become a wild and dangerous place. The fishermen disciples knew the risk of drifting too far from the shore, but here was Jesus making them cross its depths for five or six miles—that’s the distance between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. Would you want to do that in a small boat in a big storm?

For biblical people of the land, wild seas were not just physically dangerous. They conveyed a cosmic threat as well, manifesting the primal chaos which threatens to undo the harmonious stability of the world. Only the divine Creator can tame this chaos. As the Psalmist says,

You rule the raging of the sea.
When its waves roar, it is you who subdues them.
(Psalm 89:9)

Scriptures like that made the world seem safe, but when the winds kicked up and the waves began to wash over their little boat, Jesus’ disciples were probably thinking of another Psalm:

Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me. (Psalm 69:1-3)

Matthew tells us that “the wind was against them.” No matter how hard they tried, they could make no headway. When the sun went down, the storm continued to batter them in the dark. They became exhausted, disheartened, and afraid. Would the long and terrible night ever end?

This was the archetypal night-sea journey, where everything familiar and safe is left behind in a perilous passage through a formless sea of unknowing and unmaking which threatens to swallow the voyager.

We know something about that, don’t we? We are all on a night-sea journey now, in this strange and anxious time. Having left behind the shore of “normal” life, battered by the fierce waves of multiple crises, we are trying desperately to stay afloat in the darkness. But like those first disciples, we find ourselves against the wind.

So how does the gospel story end? In the darkest hour just before dawn, Jesus “came walking toward them on the sea.” It’s an extraordinary moment in the gospel narrative, but a few centuries ago it became something of an embarrassment. Empiricists declared it to be the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen, and authors of books with titles like Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) began to purge the gospels of anything “inconsistent with the Light of Nature, and the eternal Reason of Things.” [i]

Christian rationalists sought plausible explanations for gospel miracles. Healings were deemed psychosomatic, for example, and walking on water, if not dismissed altogether, was explained as Jesus wading in the shallows along the shore, or standing on a raft which disciples couldn’t see in the dark.

This isn’t the time to address the complex questions about biblical miracles, but let me say in passing that we should be careful about applying modernity’s criteria for what is possible to anything dealing with the transcendent. The gospel stories come from a different thought-world, and sometimes they describe realities not yet fully realized in our fallen and unfinished world. Those of us who have grown familiar with biblical texts can forget just how strange the stories really are, and how strange Jesus is.

In both Jesus’ day and our own, the powers-that-be tend to affirm and enforce a “reality” of suffering, cruelty, and violence. “It is what it is,” they tell us. But then Jesus invades this so-called reality and calls it into question. He not only preaches the impossible, he proves it: the blind see, the lame walk, prisoners go free, mourners dance, and the poor inherit the earth.

Make no mistake: Jesus leads us into a very different world, and that world, in comparison to the present state of things, can appear miraculous to inexperienced eyes.

As for the story of Jesus walking on water, the question of its historical plausibility is not a critical question for me. It’s not the kind of thing I expect to happen, but I won’t rule out the possibility of something uncanny and transcendent lying behind this enigmatic narrative.

Jesus was in but not of this world, and the mysterious is an inseparable element of his story. How much does it matter what we are able to make of the story’s strangeness? What really matters is what the story makes of us.

And the story, like the disciples’ boat, is built to transport us out into the sea of unknowing, to find something we will miss if we remain on shore. So get on board, little children, get on board. Even if you are reluctant to embrace the miraculous, get on board. The story wants to take us all to the other side.

And so we soon find ourselves far from shore, awash in the sea’s brawling swells, helpless against the wind, hearts breaking in the endless night, when suddenly we see something—someone—walking toward us, walking on the sea like the Maker of heaven and earth who once “trampled the waves of chaos” (Job 9:8).

How can this be! It’s a ghost! A phantasm. A figment of our imagination. Our fear is making us crazy. But then we hear that voice we know so well:

“Take heart, it is I;
do not be afraid.”

It’s still hard to make out what we’re seeing in the darkness, but Peter calls out, “Lord? Oh Lord, if it is really you, call me, and bid me come to you.” The voice answers, “Come.” And that’s what Peter does. He climbs out of the boat, and begins to walk toward Jesus, striding impetuously across the water as if it were solid ground.

His eyes see nothing but the gaze of his Master. But just before he reaches Jesus, he remembers the storm, the wind, the waves. He remembers his fear. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the raging water. Immediately he begins to sink, and the sea is swallowing him. “Lord, save me!” he cries. Jesus grabs his hand. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I like to think Jesus says this tenderly, with a smile.

And as soon as the two of them get into the boat, the wind ceases. The storm is over. The sea grows smooth and still. After so much turbulence and drama, this sudden calm may be the story’s greatest miracle, one we so desperately need today.

Buffeted on every side by so much danger, affliction, and loss, we have come to know the demons of anxiety and sadness. We’ve drifted too far from the shore, the wind is against us, and some of us are starting to sink. Who can even remember what it was like to be at peace in an uneventful time?

James Martin, a Jesuit author and teacher, wrote a book about Jesus based on his pilgrimage to the places where the gospels happened. At the Sea of Galilee, he recalls a time when he was deeply stressed by the relentless grind of nonstop speaking engagements. It felt like a ceaseless storm, and he was drowning. So he decided to pray about it with a visual meditation on Jesus and Peter on the sea.

“When I closed my eyes,” he says, “the first thing I saw in my mind’s eye was Jesus, clad in a light blue robe, standing silently on the sea, a glassy calm. He stretched out his hands as if to say, ‘Come.” But unlike Peter I didn’t feel the invitation to walk on the water, as if to prove something. Instead, he seemed to be saying, ‘Why not come into the calm?’ The wind whipped around his blue garments, with the sound of a flag in the wind, but both he and the sea remained calm.” [ii]

Why not come into the calm? What a precious and necessary gift this story wants to give us, inviting us into the calm. We all need that calm so very, very much. And I would be tempted to leave it at that, but I believe there is something else, equally important, we need to take from this story.

Last year, a minister in the United Church of Canada, Hilde J. Seal, was speaking with a parishioner at the door after worship. The woman thanked Seal for her sermon, and then she said, “I wish you would speak about racism.”

The preacher thought about that challenge for weeks, but she worried that the volatile subject might take her congregation, as she put it, into “troubled waters … Deep, murky, swirling, rushing, dashing water… exploding like a storm.” It’s not something a pastor does lightly.

But when it came time to preach on Matthew’s account of Jesus and Peter on the Sea of Galilee, she knew she had to go there, to address systemic racism in her country in the light of the gospel, because the middle of that storm, or any other, is exactly where the church needs to be if it wants to fulfill its vocation, trampling on the waves of sin and fear.

“Jesus calls us into the rough waters,” she said, “to meet the power of God’s presence within the storm. So let’s get out of the boat, to walk on the water toward Jesus. “But I warn you,” she added, “that once our toes are splashed by the swirling, rushing, dashing water… we might feel like we are about to drown.” [iii]

The wild sea, the storm-tossed boat,
the sinking disciple crying for help—
these are powerful and challenging images.
Most of us would rather remain on shore,
or at least inside the boat.
Who among us is prepared to step out into the deep?

That kind of courage doesn’t come naturally. British novelist Olaf Stapledon once described comfortable moderns as ill-suited for times of crisis.

“[A]ccustomed only to security and mildness,” he wrote, “[we] were fit only for a kindly world … We were adapted only to fair weather, for the practice of the friendly but not too difficult, not heroic virtues, in a society both secure and just. Instead, we found ourselves in an age of titanic conflict … when grave choices must be made in crisis after crisis, and no simple or familiar principles were adequate …” [iv]

Those words from 1937 could have been written yesterday. We are indeed better suited to fair weather and a kindly world. But that is not where we are right now, is it?

A 14th-century prayer, the Anima Christi, incorporates the powerful words that Peter shouted against the wind: O good Jesus, … call me and bid me come to you.

And faith knows how that prayer gets answered:
Come.
That’s what Jesus says to Peter,
and he says it to us as well:
Come.

Sometimes that will mean seeking the place of calm in a stormy world; and sometimes it will mean consenting to leave our comfort zone for the wild sea, where our only stay against drowning will be the touch of the Master’s hand.

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.

O good Jesus, call me, call your church,
and bid us come to you –
wherever you are,
even when you are
in the heart of the storm.

 

 

[i] John Toland wrote Christianity Not Mysterious. The quote is from from Matthew Tindal’s Christianity As Old As the Creation (1730).

[ii] James Martin, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: Harper One, 2014), 237-238.

[iii] Hilde J. Seal is a minister at the United Churches of Langley, British Columbia. Her excellent homily, “With-in a Storm” (August 11, 2019), is online: https://www.unitedchurchesoflangley.ca/podcasts/sermons/2019-08-11-with-in-a-storm

[iv] Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) is a science-fiction classic admired by H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Doris Lessing, and Arthur C. Clarke. This passage is cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK, 2008), 509.

Come, Holy Spirit

Gerard David, Annunciation (detail), 1506

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the
life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

–– St. Macarius

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist––slack they may be––these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

––– Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Even in the midst of immense and alarming crises, we remember to celebrate the Holy Spirit, who even now––especially now––broods over “the bent world. . . with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” There is much more to be said, but for now, on this Whit Monday, let me simply share a video prayer I prepared for our parish Pentecost liturgy stream, combining the ancient supplication, Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit), with the biblical account (Acts 2:1-11) of a wondrous day when a power beyond all knowing dissolved the boundaries of separation and otherness, and a diverse crowd gathered in the streets experienced a oneness they had deemed impossible.

Easter Wings: An Ascension Homily

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first –
No new mile remaineth –
Far as Paradise –

 His sure foot preceding –
Tender Pioneer –
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture – now –

 –– Emily Dickinson, “Life is what we make it”

 

“He ascended into heaven. . .” We say this every time we recite the Creed. But what does it mean? Why do we say it, and what are we being asked to believe? Is it an embarrassing myth, a problematic metaphor, or an inexplicable fact? Many Christians would prefer to hurry past the doctrine of the Ascension, as if it were not something we should examine too closely. Nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving.

But maybe wondering what we do with the story isn’t the right question. What we really need to ask is: What is the story going to do with us?  Where does it want to take us? How might it change us?

John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, called the Ascension “one of the chiefest points of our faith.”[i] Really? Compared to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior’s disappearance into a cloud seems a relatively minor part of the story. How much does it matter for Christian faith and practice?

Let’s begin with three things that the Ascension is not. First of all, it is not the end of Jesus’ presence in the finite and temporal world, the world of human experience. In the sixth-century Ascension hymn by Romanos, the disciples express their anxiety about being abandoned:

Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?
You speak to us like someone going on a journey. . .
Do not take yourself far away from those who love you. [ii]

We know that feeling. In a secular age, sometimes is seems that all divinity has just up and left this world without a trace. But if the Ascension was the end of one kind of presence, it was the beginning of another. Jesus is still here, but in a different way.

Secondly, the Ascension is not the Incarnation in reverse, as though God was briefly one of us, and now he’s not. A human life is finite, vulnerable, dependent and particular. It’s radically different than being the infinite God of power and might. But when, as the Bible puts it, Jesus ascended to “the right hand of the Father,” he didn’t leave his humanity behind. He took it with him into the heart of God.

Finally, the Ascension is not just about Jesus.
It’s about us as well.
If we are in Christ, then wherever Jesus goes, we go too.

Let’s look at each of these themes more closely. First, the question of presence and absence. The unique particularity of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish male who lived and died like one of us, could only be experienced the way every finite existence is experienced: in its own place and time. If it’s here, it can’t be there. If it’s then, it can’t be now. Once Jesus was laid in the tomb, he could no longer be one object alongside all the other objects in the world. That physical walking-around-the-neighborhood Jesus was gone for good.

When Jesus rose from the dead, his identity and presence were no longer bound by the rules of time and space. His risen body could be both here and there. And the reason the resurrection stories lack the chronological realism of the Passion narratives is because they occur outside historical time. Encounters with the risen Christ were not additional chapters in the life and times of the earthly Jesus. They took place outside of history, at the border between our spatiotemporal world and whatever lies beyond it.

If Easter is not a historical narrative following the rules of space and time, then Ascension was not the next thing that happened after the resurrection appearances, because things don’t happen in sequence outside of time. So instead of thinking of the Ascension as another event in time, think of it as another dimension of resurrection. In his Easter appearances, the risen Jesus assured his friends that he would be with them always. In the Ascension, however, he made it clear that his presence would now have to be experienced in new ways and different forms. First there is Jesus. Then there is no Jesus. Then there is.

Ever since the resurrection,
seeing Jesus has required an act of recognition,
a moment in which we ask, “Jesus, it that you?”

Discerning the myriad forms of Christ’s presence is a fundamental practice for God’s friends in these latter days. We find Christ in sacrament and community, prayer and Scripture. We find Christ through forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and service, justicemaking and peacemaking. Christ meets us in our neighbor and in the stranger; in solitude and solidarity; in church and on the street. Christ hangs on every cross, and returns in every resurrection.

As Jesus said before he left,
“I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).

But if Christ now tends to appear incognito, quietly “as One unknown,”[iii] what do we make of the Ascension’s theology of exaltation, celebrating the Christ “whose glory fills the skies?”

Hail the day that sees him rise,
Glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Enters now the highest heaven. [iv]

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn is one of many envisioning the enthronement of Christ as the governor of the world. And we all appreciate the theological irony: the humiliated and rejected one turns out to wear the crown. But such a dramatic reversal risks undoing the Incarnation, as though the finite and vulnerable humanity of Jesus were only a temporary thing, given back after Easter like a rented costume. But that’s not what happened. The Incarnate word came to stay.

Yes, divine and human are radically different. Infinite and finite are radically incommensurate. Creator and creature can never be confused. And yet, without God ceasing to be God or Jesus of Nazareth ceasing to be human, heaven and earth have been joined in holy union, never to be put asunder.

The understanding of Christ as the divine Word, the shaping power of love through whom all things are created and sustained in their being, is not a theological footnote. It is key to the story of redemption that our Savior not only has the whole universe at his back, but that his way, the sacrificial way of self-diffusive love, is the very truth of God, and therefore the truth of how things are meant to go in the world which God has made. To be in Christ is to conform to the most fundamental reality, and the Ascension imagery of divine enthronement celebrates this crucial fact. Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Self-diffusive love is the law of the universe.

However, too much of this and we risk highlighting the divine at the expense of the human in the story of Jesus, as if more of one means less of the other. If we fully embrace our humanity, is there less room for God? Or if we are to be more like God, must we diminish or abandon our humanity because it is essentially incapable of receiving and containing divinity?

Jesus answers these two questions with “no” and “no.” In the self-emptying act of becoming flesh, God lost nothing of the divine nature, for the essence of God is love: the ceaseless mutuality of giving and receiving that constitutes the Holy Trinity. As for human beings, whose very existence is dependent upon, and constituted by, the reception of God’s gifts of life and breath and Spirit, our creaturely nature was never more itself than when Jesus managed to receive divine fullness with an open heart.

In other words, God was never more like God than in the act of giving Godself away. And humanity was never more perfectly realized than when Jesus exercised his created capacity to receive that gift in a finite way. Communion with God does not obliterate our humanity. It fulfills it.

Irenaeus, one of the first great theologians, said in the second century that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[v] And this fullness of creaturely life is attained, he said, not by “a casting away of the flesh, but by the imparting of the Spirit.”[vi] God loves us just the way God made us: finite, vulnerable, embedded in the absorbing and messy narratives  which comprise human be-ing. And what God desires is for us to live into our creaturely capacity to receive every gift, every blessing, and ascend into the divine communion which is our true and lasting home.

And this brings us to my final point. Ascension is not just about Jesus. It’s about us as well. As members of Christ’s body––with Christ and in Christ––we too are being drawn up to dwell in the vivifying presence of the Holy One––to enjoy God forever.

We call Jesus the Word made flesh because he showed, in the language of human flesh and earthly story, how the divine life could be translated into finite form as a life for others. From birth to death, Jesus was pro nobis: for us. And his Ascension was for us as well, to take us heavenward with him. Jesus did not abandon us. He went on ahead, as the “Tender Pioneer,”[vii] to prepare a place where we may join him.

John Calvin explained the Ascension’s shared, collective dimension in this way:

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in a private capacity, to dwell there alone, but rather that it might be the common inheritance of all the godly, and that in this He has also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for us to share in the divine presence [viii]. . . . “Ascension follows resurrection: hence if we are members of Christ we must ascend into heaven.” [ix]

If we are members of Christ, we must ascend. This is the pattern of the Christian life: moving Godward. When I walked the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims encouraged one another with a wonderful word for this Godward movement: Ultreia!, which means Beyond! We are all pilgrims to the Beyond. Growth is our vocation. Transformation is our vocation.

But we can only advance with Christ and in Christ. No wings of our own can defy the gravity of our situation. The sins of the world weigh us down––all that heavy baggage that Thomas Merton called “the contagion of [our] own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centered ambitions and delusions.”[x] And in a time of pandemic, fear, illness and grief pile on their own crushing load.

Only the rising and ascending Christ can deliver us from so much gravity. Only Christ can give us what Anglican poet-priest George Herbert called “Easter Wings.” In his poem of that name, in which the words on the page are arranged in the shape of angels’ wings, he admits he can only fly “if I imp thy wing on mine.” He borrowed that peculiar term from falconry: to “imp” means “to engraft feathers in a wing to restore or improve its power of flight.”[xi] In other words, if we want to ascend, we need the help of Christ’s own feathers. If we’re going to fly, we need Easter wings.

As Herbert prays,

With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories.

If you’ve ever heard an English lark, ascending high into the sky as it utters its ecstatic song, you will appreciate the charm of Herbert’s metaphor. A century after Herbert, hymnwriter Isaac Watts wrote my favorite Ascension lyric.

Thence he arose, ascended high,
to show our feet the way.
Up to the Lord our souls shall rise,
on the great rising day. [xii]

Of course, heaven is not susceptible to prepositions: “above,” “beyond,” or even “within” do not tell us where heaven is, since anything beyond space and time has no spatial dimension, and therefore no location. Neither heaven nor God are a place on any map. Still, by God’s grace we may discover their nearness even so, and breathe their atmosphere, in both this world and the next.

For physical and directional beings like ourselves, the imagery of ascending into the sky feels true enough. “Seek the things that are above,” St. Paul tells us (Col. 3:1). “Lift up your hearts,” says the priest at every mass. We don’t have to deny astronomy to know what these things mean. We feel the upward pull.

It’s not a matter of leaving creation behind, or shedding our bodies to become immaterial beings. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the Holy One. All things––not just our souls. The whole creation is being drawn higher and higher, further and further, deeper and deeper into God. Let everything that has breath shout “Glory!”

 

Related posts:

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Ascension Day “Charade”?––The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

 

[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 1:9, cited in Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), K1249 (The Kindle edition has no page numbers, so I use the Kindle location numbers). Canlis’ rich and thoughtful book is a great read, and has increased my appreciation of Calvin immensely. My other invaluable sources for this essay were Christ the Heart of Creation (Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury 2018) and The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of Incarnation (Ian A. McFarland, WJK 2019).

[ii] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension” in Kontakia: On the Life of Christ, trans. by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (Harper Collins, 1962).

[iii] This phrase is from a famous passage by Albert Schweitzer: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”

[iv] Charles Wesley, “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” (1739). The prolific 18th century writer composed over 6000 hymns, at least 10 of which are on the Ascension. However, his brother John, who gave some 40,000 sermons, never preached on the topic.

[v] Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202), Adversus Haereses IV.20.7, cited in Canlis, K2246.

[vi] Adversus Haereses V.8.1, in Canlis, K1960.

[vii] Emily Dickinson, “Life – is what we make it.” I quote the last 2 stanzas in the epigraph.

[viii] Calvin, Commentary on John 14:2, in Canlis K1218.

[ix] Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 3:1, in Canlis K991.

[x] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 158, cited in Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11.

[xi] Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 148 n.19.

[xii] Isaac Watts, “Why do we mourn departing friends” (1707). Set to a shape note tune by Timothy Swan in 1801, it is #163b in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991). A powerful version from the 2nd Irish Shape Note Convention (2012) can be heard here: https://youtu.be/7mCFMKNJIAg

 

Lost at Sea: Retelling the Flood Story in a Pandemic

Row on, row on, another day
May shine with brighter light.
Ply, ply the oars, and pull away,
There’s dawn beyond the night.

–– Traditional sea shanty

 

At the Easter Vigil, we light a fire in the dark and tell our sacred stories. One of them is the saga of the Flood from the Book of Genesis. Tonight, as we stream the Vigil liturgy from our living room for our local parish, this is how it wants to be told. 

When we wonder about things, we tell stories.  One of our oldest stories describes a great flood that sweeps away everything in the world until there is nothing left but an endless sea. Some people say it’s a story about God getting fed up with the world’s violence and greed and wanting to start over. Others say the story is about everything being thrown out of balance by human sin––the harmonies break down, and God’s beautiful creation is swallowed up by chaos.

But tonight, when a new kind of flood is sweeping across the earth, washing away the world we know, maybe the story needs to be about the ark. We’re all in this boat together, hoping and praying we can survive the raging sea until the storms are over and we can anchor in some safe and peaceful harbor.

That’s where we are now, in the middle of the story––cooped up in this ark with a bad case of cabin fever, wondering if the flood is ever going to subside so things can get back to normal. It’s not easy, being stuck in this boat. It’s strange and stressful for us. Meanwhile, the sea gets rougher, the storms wilder.

It’s like that Psalm we say in Holy Week:

Save me, O God! The waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in a deep mire. The waves wash over me.
Do not let the flood swallow me up! (Psalm 69)

That’s how it feels, here in the middle of the story, in the middle of the flood. We have our fears. We have our doubts. We have our losses. And frankly, some of us are getting sick and tired of this stupid ark. Been in the storm so long, Lord! How long? Too long.

But this isn’t where the story ends, with us lost at sea, sinking into oblivion. The One who made us will not forget us. The One who loves us will not forsake us. Already, God is imagining a future for us. Maybe it will be something better.

God never said we won’t be afflicted.
God never said we won’t be disquieted.
God did say we shall not be overcome.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Jesus and the Woman at the Well: A Homily for Lent 3

Churches are shuttered here in Puget Sound, to maintain social distancing in the pandemic. If I were preaching on this Sunday’s gospel, it would go something like this. Meanwhile, dear reader, stay safe, be well, and pray for all who are suffering or fearful in this harrowing time.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman (12c Jruchi Gospels, Georgia)

If I were called in
to construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
to dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

–– Philip Larkin, “Water”

A glass of water might not strike you as sacred, unless you’ve been in the desert about three days without a drink. At that point, which is the longest humans can go without water, you would find that glass to be the most blessed of sacraments: the water of life indeed.

Desert people know the sacredness of water. When the ancient Jews wandered the wilderness of Sinai, thirst was their constant companion. They cried out to God with parched tongues. Not politely, like Episcopalians. They complained bitterly and their faith wavered, until God made water pour out of barren rock. Now maybe the Israelites simply found a seepage of brackish water coming out of a rocky cliff. But it was enough to supply their need. They recognized it as a miracle then, and they remembered it as miracle ever after:

God made streams come out of the rock,
and poured down water like rivers.   (Psalm 78:16)

And once the Jews reached the Promised Land and built the Temple, they would gather every autumn, just before the rains ended the summer drought, to remember how God had preserved them in their wanderings, and to re-imagine their future as a consummation of the Providential love which their ancestors had sipped from a rock in the desert’s deadly furnace.

At this festival, the words of the prophet Zechariah was recited:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication
on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem…

When that day comes,
a fountain will be opened for the house of David
and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
to wash sin and impurity away. (Zech. 12:10, 13:1)

And every morning of the seven-day festival, a procession descended to the Gihon spring at the foot of the Temple hill. The people carried festal plumes made of palm, myrtle and willow branches––trees which signal the presence of water in arid lands. And from the spring a priest would fill a golden pitcher as the choir sang a verse from Isaiah:

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. (Isaiah 12:3)

Then the procession ascended to the Temple through the Gate of the Waters to circle the altar chanting, “We beg you, Lord, save us! We beg you, Lord, give us good fortune!” Finally, the priest with the golden pitcher poured the water into a silver spout, draining it onto the surface of the altar.

And it was at this solemn moment, the gospel of John tells us, that Jesus suddenly cried out from the congregation, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink.”

It is a startling scene, and you can imagine the offense it caused––this country preacher from Galilee offering himself as the new Temple from which will flow the living waters of salvation. Who was he to claim the divine prerogative? Only God can satisfy the soul’s deepest thirst.

A few chapters earlier in John’s gospel (John 4:5-42), Jesus makes the same invitation in a very different setting––no crowds, no special occasion––just a quiet well in a small town. Jesus is sitting by himself in the noonday sun. A woman comes by to draw water.

The story of the woman at the well has sometimes been interpreted as an expose of the woman’s past: “WOMAN HAS 5 HUSBANDS––FILM AT 11.” But subtler readings have seen the husbands as metaphors for Samaritan apostasy. The Samaritans were the ones who abandoned the god of their ancestors and began to worship five different deities imported from other middle eastern cultures. They had been looking for love in all the wrong places, and until they renewed their covenant relationship with the God of the Exodus, they had, in the language of this metaphor, “no husband.”

But Jesus is not there to condemn the woman––or her people. He is there to give her something. He doesn’t demean her as a woman, a Samaritan, or a serial divorcee. He treats her with respect, as does the gospel writer. It’s the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels. The woman is bright and assertive, fully capable of following Jesus as he leads her from what she knows to what she doesn’t know, drawing her closer and closer to the wellspring of salvation.

The meeting place is significant. As John’s original audience would know, the well is a place where future spouses meet. Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s bride at a well. And it was at a well that Jacob met Rachel and Moses met Zipporah. So the setting, as well as the dialogue, is charged with marital imagery. There is a candor and intimacy to their playful banter, and you could say that Jesus is wooing the woman––wooing her into a covenant relationship with God, a relationship that is intimate and life-giving, a relationship that involves a full partnership in the divine task of transforming and redeeming the world.

 It was one of those moments when deep calls to deep.

It joined us together, the well,
the well led me into you…   (Karol Wojtyla)

There was a dawn I remember
when my soul heard something
from your soul. I drank water
from your spring and felt
the current take me.    (Rumi)

Deep calls to deep. Something in the woman responds to something in Jesus. Her own longing, her own thirst, leads her toward the source of life. The fountain of grace constantly draws to itself all those who thirst, said Gregory of Nyssa. He was a fourth century theologian who saw thirst as a gift from God, because it was a built-in mechanism to prevent us from walling ourselves up within the prison of self-sufficiency.

God has created our tendency to thirst and to move toward the divine by a command that is constant and perpetual. . . The one who is rising towards God constantly experiences this continual incitement toward further progress.

In other words, thirst reminds us that we need something beyond ourselves.
Thirst draws us toward God.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2)

And if we aren’t in touch with our thirst, we are in serious trouble. Thirty years ago I was in the Sinai desert with a group of pilgrims. Each of us had a partner, and each pair was responsible for reminding each other to drink some water every fifteen or twenty minutes. In the desert, the air is so dry that you can become unaware that you are sweating, and it is possible to become seriously dehydrated before you feel thirsty. So we all had to remind each other not to forget to drink. We helped each other stay in touch with our thirst.

Water isn’t just a metaphor for an ethereal idea. Water is a very practical, everyday miracle and divine gift, as many still know in parts of our world where you can’t just turn on the tap.

Gail Ramshaw writes about such places: “Twice a day, women walk the distance to the local well, to carry back on heads or shoulders the pots of water needed to live. To drink, cook, wash vessels, wash clothes, wash themselves, bathe wounds, clean the house, water the animals…Whether washing off the newborn, washing off the corpse, washing out her monthly rags, or wiping up the family vomit, it is the woman in many societies who aches for a source of endlessly flowing water, a fountain of pure water filling every need.”

What is your thirst?
What is your need?
Where do you go to find living water?
Is the water a gift we receive from outside ourselves,
or is the well to be found in our innermost heart?

As the Church began to explore this question over the centuries, both answers were given. The Latin west emphasized the water’s origins outside ourselves. Jesus is the Source, bestowing God’s Spirit upon us. Blood and water flowed from his side at the cross, and all the baptized have bathed in that precious stream.

But the Byzantine east looked to the Source within us. As Jesus says, Whoever believes in me, from within them shall flow rivers of living water. Once we have found Jesus and received the Spirit, we have within us a fountain that never fails, a well that never runs dry.

Gregory of Nyssa, taking his imagery from the Song of Songs, says that “the bride embraces and holds what flows into the well of her soul, and thus she becomes a storehouse of that living water that flows, or rather rushes down, from Lebanon.” The Source of living water may be far off, way up in those snowy mountains of Lebanon or in the eternal being of God, but it is making its way down through the divine watershed until it bubbles up within the well of our own heart, our own soul.

Has this been true for you? Sometimes you are a well which contains only the water which has come in from outside, and you are very conscious of your own emptiness, your own dryness, and you know that you are receiving a gift not of your own making. You are dry as dust and ashes, waiting to be drenched with Easter water.

And sometimes you are a spring whose water gushes up from your deepest places, and you are aware that a gift is being given through you that will quench the thirst of others, and you are surprised and grateful to be part of love’s graceful dance.

What’s it going to be for you today? Are you here to drink from the well of life? Or is this your day to become, like Jesus, the water-giver for some stranger who just happens to be sitting next to you? Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.

Now the gospel isn’t just about satisfying our own thirst.
Living water is meant to be passed around.
Water that stops moving becomes stagnant.

After the Samaritan woman reaches the point in the conversation when she begins to grasp what Jesus is offering, what does she do? She runs off to tell her neighbors about this amazing water she has found. She doesn’t hoard that water for herself, after her own needs have been met. She keeps the gift moving. And soon her neighbors find the water of life welling up in them.

Did you notice in the story what happens to her jar? Like the fisherman leaving their nets, she leaves her jar behind, so joyous the message, so urgent the task, to help her friends taste living water for themselves.

She won’t need that jar, by the way.
Living water will flow wherever she goes,
as long as she remains in God.
Just strike the rock, and streams will gush.

I find it encouraging, to see the woman run off like that, so eager to share the gospel before she herself fully grasps it. That means that you and I don’t have to wait until we get it all figured out. We can start right now to share the living water. Even beginners can do Love’s work and manifest Love’s joy.

One final point. I love the line, “He told me everything I have ever done!” He knows everything about me, and he’s still interested.  There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more than God already does. We know this, don’t we? God is infinite love. We can’t earn God’s love, because it is freely given. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more.

But––equally important––we can do to make God love us less. Sometimes we forget this important truth. God knows my whole story––even the messy parts––and I am still God’s beloved.

“He told me everything I have ever done!” And the way that Christ tells the story of the woman––as well as the story you and the story of me––is that every step of the way, however halting or circuitous, turns out in the end to be a journey to the well.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down, and drink, and live!”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that lifegiving stream;
My thirst was quenched,
My soul revived,
and now I live in him.   (Horatius Bonar)

Lorraine Coleman, an African-American writer, tells of the first time her mother took her to town in the South. She ran toward the drinking fountains, hurrying right past the one labeled “white” to turn on the one marked “colored”. She was so disappointed. The water was clear. She had expected a rainbow of colors.

Let us run to the waters with that kind of eagerness, that kind of expectation. We will not be disappointed. The fountain of God will not let us down. In it we will find the rainbow; we will find the light that darkness cannot overcome; we will find the streams of mercy.

Then the angel showed me the river of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come! . . . Let everyone who is thirsty, come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Rev 22:1, 17)

If we really want it, it’s there for the taking. In her poem, “Like the Samaritan Woman by the Well,” Benedictine nun Hae-in Lee describes the beatitude of such a gift to such a seeker:

My long stagnant sorrow and thirst
like drops of water in my jar
have risen up to dance, all smiling now.

Let all who are thirsty, come.

 

“I Once Was Lost”: Rethinking Jesus’ Most Beloved Parable

Alexander Sokurov, “Lc. 15:11-32” (Prodigal Son installation, 2019). Sculptures by Vladimir Brodarsky & Katya Pilnikova.

 Life is a dialectic of dwelling and wayfaring, in the world yet not of it.

––– Erazim Kohák

I once was lost, but now I’m found.

––– John Newton

 

Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is the Bible’s preeminent tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. The welcoming father’s embrace of his foolish and errant son is a vividly concise summary of the gospel message: We can never be so lost that we cannot be found. We can never be so wrong that we cannot be loved.

Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, would be one of his final works. He was bankrupt, his style no longer in vogue. His wife and three of their children were long dead, and he would have to sell his wife’s grave to pay his debts. His only surviving son Titus, age 27, died of the plague even as the parable’s “lost son” was taking form on canvas. As Rembrandt struggled with his own sadness and despair, he created the most indelible image of mercy in the history of art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1167-1669).

Father and son emerge from a world of shadows, for compassion is the light of the world which no darkness can comprehend. The arch formed by the father’s welcoming arms is echoed by the arched doorway in the background, showing love to be the true way home. And unlike most other artistic depictions of this scene, there is no happy glance between the reunited pair. The prodigal’s repentant posture delays the moment when their eyes will meet.

Kierkegaard wrote at length about the “infinite qualitative abyss” between God and humanity, a condition due not only to the uncrossable difference between finite and infinite, but also to the profound estrangement from the holy wrought by human sin. Given the magnitude of the gulf between ourselves and the divine, how could we ever be in relation with One who is so totally other? “The danger,” said Kierkegaard, “is that God becomes so dreadfully and irreconcilably Other to the self that one is swallowed up by the horror of this infinite qualitative abyss.” [1]

The modern solution to the gulf between human and divine has been to ignore (or forget entirely) the Holy Other and concentrate on the human situation in solely human terms, permanently severing the problem of earthly existence from the problem of God. How well that works is a matter of some debate, but for the faithful, such a strategy omits far too much of value. Exiling God from the world is not a solution for our own condition of exile.

The Prodigal Son under the melancholy gaze of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman” (1654) in Sokurov’s installation.

We all long to go home, to find the place where we are loved and known and welcomed, the place where all wanderings cease, and we can finally know what it means to dwell. But with the longing comes doubt. Is there such a place? Can we ever get there? And how will the journey change us?

For the unbeliever, human life concludes with annihilation. After our last breath––nothing. But the future of the believer may also be described as a kind of annihilation. As we draw near the absolute center of all that is, the egocentric self can no longer maintain its pretentious fictions. The really Real exposes our own unreality. The gaze of God is fatal to our illusions.

When Moses asked to see God’s face, God told him that “no human may look upon Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This crucial Hebrew text reflects an ancient fear of direct contact with the divine, whose infinite voltage could fry the circuits of finite beings. But the biblical God posed an additional, even greater threat: the penetrating gaze which sees us for what we are.

Day of wrath! . . .
What a great tremor there will be,
when the Judge is to come,
who will examine all things strictly  . . .
I groan, as if accused;
my face blushes because of my fault . . . [2]

Who among us is ready to have every story told, every failure examined, every blemish known? Therapeutic honesty is hard and painful work. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal that “to see yourself is to die, to die to all illusions and all hypocrisy––it takes great courage to look at yourself.” And, he added, this “can only take place in the mirror of the Word.” [3]

The Christian goals of illumination and divine union must be preceded by confession and purgation. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Even the saints are not exempt; the best of them are brutally honest about their own incompleteness. St. John of the Cross, speaking from personal experience, said that the journey of faith “does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.” [4]

This annihilation of self––“the living death of the cross”––is not morbid self-hatred (fixating on my sin is just another form of ego), but the abandonment of everything false or misshapen as the necessary prelude to profound transformation. The death of self becomes the beginning of Self.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies. [5]

In Rembrandt’s painting, the Prodigal Son presses his face against his father’s comforting body. He is still in the confessional stage, kneeling with downcast eyes, not yet daring to stand face-to-face with the one he has hurt so deeply. But consciousness of his fault is overcome by grace––the leap of faith which accepts the “impossible possibility” of being forgiven. Only by knowing ourselves as sinners needing mercy can we become aware of forgiveness. The eyes which were cast down by shame will soon be raised up to see the welcoming father face-to-face. “By surrendering its despair before God, the self becomes open to forgiveness: the gift from the divine which is the impossible possibility of coming to know oneself as one is known by God.” [6]

The Kierkegaardian surrender of existential despair in order to receive the gift of mercy applies perfectly to Rembrandt’s painting:

“Justice looks judgingly at a person, and the sinner cannot endure its gaze; but love, when it looks at him––yes, even if he avoids its gaze, looks down, he nevertheless does perceive that it is looking at him, because love penetrates far more inwardly into life, deep inside life, in there where life emanates, than justice does, which repellingly establishes a chiasmic abyss between the sinner and itself, whereas love is on his side, does not accuse, does not judge, but pardons and forgives.” [7]

The Return of the Prodigal Son, acquired by St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum over 250 years ago, has long haunted the imagination of Russian visual artists. In his metaphysical sci-fi film Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky returns his cosmonaut protagonist from the “far country” of outer space to the door of his childhood house, where he is embraced like Rembrandt’s prodigal. But his father, we have learned, is deceased, and his son remains somewhere out in space, light years from earth. Tarkovsky’s moving image of ultimate reunion with both parent and planet earth turns out to be only memory or dream. It is in fact “impossible”––which only deepens the desire to make it so.

The son returns home (in his imagination), from the closing scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972).

Another Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, included Rembrandt’s actual painting in Russian Ark (2002), a meditation on Russia’s troubled history filmed entirely inside the Hermitage in a single 87-minute shot, with the camera moving through the galleries to encounter both paintings and people from different centuries. The pensive French aristocrat we follow from room to room stops for a long time in front of Rembrandt’s great canvas, silently paying homage to its power. For the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sokurov himself returns to the painting, rethinking its themes with sculpture, video, music, lighting, a mirror, and various objects from an artist’s studio. His installation is called “Lc. 15:11-32,” after the biblical citation for Luke’s telling of the parable.

The sorrowful father in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”

In the first of two dark rooms, father and son stand far apart in the gloom. It is not clear whether they even see each other across the black abyss that separates them. Behind the father are two large video projections representing a world gone wrong. One shows a blurred image of a city dissolving in flames, like an apocalypse by Hieronymus Bosch. The other shows Christ sitting in a desert as soldiers enter with flame throwers to fill the screen with fire and smoke. We realize that not just the son, but the whole world has gone astray. Not even a divine father can fix it. Grace and redemption remain an impossibility in this terrifying darkness.

Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872).

The Christ in the video image is taken from a nineteenth-century Russian painting, Christ in the Wilderness (1872), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, whose humanized Jesus, unlike the serenely transcendent Savior of Orthodox iconography, reflected the revolutionary and questioning mood of the painter’s generation. In an age of religious doubt, traditional understandings seemed out of touch with experience. For Kromskoy, a self-assured Christ radiant with divinity was too detached from human suffering. “My God––Christ––is the greatest of atheists,” he said, “a person who has destroyed God in the universe and shifted him directly to the center of the human spirit and who, therefore, goes calmly to his death.” [8]

One of the video projections in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”.

But how calm can such a Christ really be, sitting now, according to Sokurov, amid the flames and smoke of our endless desert wars? He may be the “fellow sufferer who understands,”[9] but he appears to be as lost as the Prodigal Son, exiled to the far country of human sin. His inheritance of divine power has been squandered by incarnation. He may share our griefs––does he also share our helplessness?

In the vast first room of Sokurov’s installation, estrangement is absolute and unchanging. But beyond it lies a second room, like a small cave, where the abyss of sin and separation is overcome at last. In a sculpted restaging of Rembrandt’s painting, the lost son comes home to the father’s compassionate embrace.

In the second room of Sokurov’s installation, father and son are reunited.

Behind the figures there is a large mirror, whose reflected image repeats the scene, reminding us that every retelling of the parable is but a version of an original which cannot be grasped directly, but only experienced in the second-hand reflections of Luke, Rembrandt, Sokurov, and all the rest of us who engage Jesus’ story. The mirror’s surface is slightly wavy, and it sways slowly back and forth, producing a continuously distorted image, suggesting the instability and uncertainty of every interpretation.

The figures are reflected in a distorting mirror.

The mirror also includes the viewer, allowing each of us to know ourselves as witnesses to the impossible mystery of divine mercy. But such seeing does not always come naturally. While I stood transfixed in this cave of revelation, two young women entered. After a brief glance at the sculpture, they became absorbed with photographing their own misshapen reflections in the mirror, giggling at the funhouse gag.

In my mind, I judged their heedless frivolity, and the moment I did so I became equally blind to the meaning of The Return. I forgot my own prodigal culpability, my own need to kneel with downcast eyes. I forgot the unconditional nature of the father’s embrace. I had become the elder brother.

No matter, says the parable. The prodigal, the proud, the penitent, the foolish––we’ll all be gathered in eventually. And the conclusion of all our wandering stories will be a home of abiding welcome. The door is open. The feast is ready. Love is waiting. Come.

 

 

 

Related Posts:

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Venice Biennale 2019: “A wound in a dance with love”

 

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Simon D. Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), 8.

[2] Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), a thirteenth-century Latin poem about the Last Judgment and our collective plea for forgiveness. It became a traditional part of requiem masses, but its vivid images of doom and “wrath” sound jarring to modern ears accustomed to a kinder and gentler eschatology. However, when we consider the moral and apocalyptic implications of climate change, the notion of a “day of reckoning” when “nothing will remain unpunished” and “even the just can scarcely be secure” seems uncomfortably apt, as does the poem’s anguished cry for rescue and “the gift of forgiveness.”

[3] Kierkegaard Journal, cited in Podmore, 155.

[4] John of the Cross, cited in Hans Boersma, The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 184.

[5] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” cited in Boersma, 178.

[6] Podmore, 179.

[7] Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Podmore, 173-174.

[8] Ivan Kromskoy in a letter to a friend, quoted in Walther K. Lang, “The ‘Atheism’ of Jesus in Russian Art: Representations of Christ by Ivan Kromskoy, Vasily Polenov, and Nikolai Ghe,” I recommend the entire article for those interested in art and faith. It is found on the website Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn03/272-the-qatheismq-of-jesus-in-russian-art-representations-of-christ-by-ivan-nikolevich-kramskoy-vasily-polenov-and-nikolai-ghe

[9] Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of God has provided a moving and influential image of a divinity deeply affected by human suffering, a God who takes our pain into Godself. Critics of such theology wonder whether too much divine power has been relinquished. Can a vulnerable God still save us?