Say Yes: A Homily for Advent 4

The Visitation, German c. 1444.

In calling me, the call does not leave me intact; it surges only by opening a space in me to be heard, and therefore by shattering something of what I was before I felt myself to be called.

— Jean-Louis Chrétien

In Mahler’s Third Symphony, the first movement is an eruption of massive orchestral sounds: horns, drums, fanfares and marches, a shaking of the foundations to make way for a new world to appear. And for the next four movements, the music rarely takes a breath. The adagio, the slow, contemplative movement which usually comes in the middle of a symphony, is delayed until the very end. And what an ending it is—23 minutes long!—taking us with unhurried solemnity ever deeper into the mystery of the world. Mahler called it “the higher form in which everything is resolved into quiet being. I could almost call the Third’s finale ‘What God tells me,’” he added, “in the sense that God can only be understood as love.” [i]

Advent is like that symphony, it seems to me. Over the first three Sundays, the prophets roar, the heavens shake, the voices cry. Repent! Make way! Stay awake! Cast away the works of darkness! Put on the armor of light! But on the Fourth Sunday, it’s suddenly quiet. No more cosmic thunder. No more urgent warnings. The Baptist’s big crowds have drifted on home. Advent’s adagio finale is a miniature: two pregnant women in a humble courtyard, having an intimate conversation. 

But what a conversation it is! “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” says Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” replies her cousin Mary. Their ecstatic words have been on our lips in worship ever since.[ii]

The cousins had a lot to process. One was carrying the last of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist. The other was carrying the founder and pioneer of a transformed humanity. They held creation’s future within them, ever since they had each said “Yes” to a story that was no longer their own. They now belonged to God, come what may. I imagine they both did a lot of laughing and crying that day.

The Rev. Mark Harris, a dear friend I first met in seminary a half-century ago, began last year’s challenging Advent by writing a poem about Mary’s consent. It’s called “Implications of Yes.”

The neighbors talked about it for a while,
How the young girl who was beginning to show 
Came back from meeting her cousin
And seemed kind of quiet,

How she was seen leaving her house 
Early one morning with a small sapling 
Bundled in rough cloth in one hand, 
And a shovel in the other.

Later she was seen coming back,
No sapling, the shovel over her shoulder, 
Her hands and dress smeared with dirt, 
Her eyes red and swollen.

Later, sitting with the others, she spoke 
Of her longing for a lost simplicity
And her preparations for realities 
that follow from her quiet Yes .

Years from now, she said, 
There will be need for this tree grown,
Just as there is need now 
for this Child that grows in me. 

The tree will bear the body of the Man, 
As I bear the Child.
We will each be ready in our turn
To do as the Holy One requires.

We will, with the Holy One we bear, 
Be broken by the bearing, 
And will give our lives
For the healing of the nations. [iii]

The poet gives us a stunning image here. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, plants the tree that will become his cross! Both mother and tree will, like Jesus, offer all that they have and all that they are for the healing of the nations, the repair of the world. That’s how the story goes in a fallen, broken world, and if you say ”Yes” to this story, it will cost no less than everything. 

When Mary said “Yes” to the angel of the Annunciation, it was neither the first nor the last time she would do so. Her whole life up to that point had been a series of consents that would prepare her to receive the Holy One into herself. And in the years that followed, she never renounced her acceptance of the story that would one day take her weeping to the foot of the cross. It is no light thing to say Yes to such a story.

We will each be ready in our turn
To do as the Holy One requires.

Mary was ready in her turn. But now it’s our turn. 

The Incarnation of the Divine Word was a singular event. Only Jesus could be who he was and do what he did as the unique conjunction of human and divine—God in the flesh. But in another sense, the Incarnation is a continuing event to the degree that we ourselves become open and receptive to the divine that wants to be born in us.

The Russian Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) put it this way: The purpose of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. In other words, our human destiny is to be filled with Divinity, to dwell in God and let God dwell in us. What did we ask in today’s collect-prayer? May our own souls and bodies become “a mansion prepared for Godself.”[iv] We weren’t kidding around. It’s our most serious Advent prayer, committing ourselves to becoming God-bearers. 

The first Christians made some strikingly bold claims for humanity’s potential for “divinization” (becoming like God). The Second Letter of Peter (1:4) says: “God has given you such precious and majestic promises, that you may become partakers of the divine nature.” The First Letter of John (3:2) says, “We know that when God appears, we shall be like God, because we shall see God as God is.” And St. Paul, in Second Corinthians 3:18, insists that “all of us, with faces unveiled, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” 

The two most famous summations of divinization as corollary to incarnation were made by Irenaeus in the second century and Athanasius in the fourth. “In God’s immense love,” said Irenaeus, “God became what we are, that he might make us what he is.” Athanasius was even more explicit: “The Divine Word became human that humans might become God.”

Now many have argued against this whole idea of divinization. There’s too great a gulf between Creator and creature, some say. Who can hope to cross that infinite abyss? Others say that humanity is simply not up to it. Just look at world history over the past century, or the last few years in America. On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2021, for example, did anyone see Christ’s glory being reflected from those tormented faces at our nation’s Capitol? [v]

But if we believe that the Divine Word was truly made flesh, and that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, then we must acknowledge the existence of an innate human capacity to receive and embody God. Absent that capacity, Mary could never have conceived our Lord and Savior. There is an integral part of our human makeup which is designed to answer when God calls. In other words, our humanity always contains a mansion prepared for Godself. That receptive capacity to say Yes to God may be buried beneath multiple layers of ego and sin, but it cannot be destroyed. It’s a feature, not a bug.

One of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the last century, Sergius Bulgakov, insisted on the indispensable role of humanity in the Incarnation: 

Christ did not bring His human nature down from heaven, and He did not create it anew from the earth; rather, He took it from “the most pure flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary”… [T]he Incarnation of Christ is realized not in one Person but in two: in Christ and in the Virgin Mary. The icon of the Mother of God with Infant is therefore the true icon of the Incarnation.[vi]

To become fully human, the only-begotten of God did not destroy human nature, making it something it was not. Rather, Christ fulfilled human nature, manifesting our human potential to dance with God. But we need help to realize our full humanity. It’s not just that our wills are impaired by sin. The fact is that we are not made to function as autonomous beings at all. We are choral beings at heart. We need the full choir, the whole company of heaven and earth, in order to be our truest selves and exist not in isolation but in holy communion.  

So let us admit that Mary was capable of divinization. She could contain and give birth to the holy in our midst. But what about the rest of us? Are we capable of embodying divinity? Many Christians have said yes, absolutely! The great hymn writer Charles Wesley put it this way:

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.[vii]

That’s a high bar for sure. But it happens. The saints prove that every day. And we ourselves are here because we are engaged in the same transformational project.

Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

Less me, more God.

Our parish hosted a film series this Advent, and last week’s feature, Of Gods and Men (2010), told the true story of French Trappist monks who served an impoverished Muslim village in Algeria. Their monastery, Our Lady of Atlas, had been there since 1938, but in the decades after the end of French colonial rule in 1962, their community was threatened by civil unrest and a lingering suspicion of Europeans. In the 1990s, returning to France was clearly the safest choice, but the village leaders begged them to stay. They depended on the monks, not only for medical care, but for their stabilizing and loving presence.

On Christmas Eve, 1993, terrorists broke into the monastery and held the monks at gunpoint, making it clear that they were now in mortal danger. The terrorists eventually departed without incident (even apologizing for disturbing the holy feast of Jesus’ birth), and the monks celebrated Midnight Mass with special intensity. But the threat remained.

Two years later (March 1996), that Christmas Eve of both fear and deliverance was still reverberating in their hearts. Dom Christian, the prior, told the brothers in a Lenten reflection: 

… through that experience we felt invited to be born again. The life of a man goes forth from birth to birth … In our life there is always a child to be born; the child of God who each of us is … We have to be witnesses of the Emmanuel, that is, of “God with us.” There is a presence of “God among us” which we ourselves must assume.[viii]

A few weeks after Dom Christian wrote these lines about giving birth to God, the monks were taken hostage just before Holy Week. They would be martyred during Eastertide. If they had fled the country when they had the chance, they could have preserved their lives. But the brothers would not abandon the people they served. And their writings and their actions made it clear that they had already surrendered their lives long before, in both their baptismal vows and their monastic vows. They were people who knew what it meant to say yes when Jesus calls, come what may. 

Of Gods and Men (2010). The monks say yes to remaining in harm’s way.

If any of you still have doubts about the human capacity to embody divinity, listen to what Dom Christian wrote after that pivotal Christmas Eve, imagining what he would say to his future killer at the hour of his death: 

And also you, my friend of the last moment,
who will not have known what you are doing:
Yes, I want this thank you and this “a-dieu
to be for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves 
in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. 
Amen! In h’allah! [ix]

Who could write such a thing had God not filled him to the brim! Another monk, Fr. Christopher, wrote in his journal during that same Christmastide: “We are in a state of epiclesis.”[x] Epiclesis is a Greek term denoting the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic prayer, asking for the sanctification of our lives as well as the holy gifts on the altar. 

We are all in a state of epiclesis—the acquisition of Spirit. And indeed, it is God’s desire to give us more spirit, more grace, more love, more humanity and more divinity. All we need to do is say Yes



[i] Gustav Mahler, letter to Bruno Walter in 1896, the year he composed the Third Symphony.

[ii] Elizabeth’s words are part of the “Hail Mary” prayer used in the Rosary; Mary’s Magnificat (“Song of Mary”) is one of the oldest Christian hymns, and draws upon the Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and other Old Testament texts. This scene of the two cousins only appears in Luke 1:39-55.

[iii] Mark Harris is an Episcopal priest, poet and artist living in Lewes, Delaware. The poem, written December 1, 2020, is used by permission. 

[iv] The Collect for Advent 4 in the Book of Common Prayer reads: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

[v] January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world. It is a bitter irony that that date has now been corrupted by the violence, hate and delusion of the insurrection. A similar irony taints the Feast of the Transfiguration, when the brilliant light of Christ’s divinity must share August 6 with the incinerating explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. 

[vi] Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 200, 202.

[vii] Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Since the Son Hath Made Me Free.

[viii] Dom Christian de Chergé, Reflections for Lent (March 8, 1996), in Bernardo Olivera, How Far to Follow: The Martyrs of Atlas (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1997), 103, 99. 

[ix] Testament of Dom Christian, dated Dec. 1, 1993 & Jan. 1, 1994, opened, after his death, on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996, in Olivera, 127.

[x] Fr. Christopher Lebreton (January, 1994), in Olivera 111.

“I mean to be one too”: A Homily for All Saints

Procession of the Faithful from Baptism to Eucharist, Bamberg Commentaries, c. 1000.

There is only one sadness; it is the sadness of not being saints. 

— Leon Bloy [i]

In a 1998 New York Times interview, Gregory Peck reflected on the challenge of playing Ahab in Moby Dick. “I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale, more cruel to the crew,” he said, “and I think I’d have a better grasp now of what Melville was talking about. Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.” [ii]

When you hear the stories of the saints, do you say, “I mean to be one too!”—or do you feel you’re not quite ready for the part? Maybe you’re not crazy enough, not obsessive enough, not pure enough, not loving enough. You may think, “I don’t have it in me.” 

Well, you’re right. You don’t. But that’s the point. The saints don’t have it in them either. Saintliness comes from a source deeper than their own solitary selves. The true hero or heroine of a saint’s life is not the individual person, but the divine intention taking flesh in his or her story. As St. Paul said of his own life’s protagonist, “Not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20).

As Wendy Wright has written, saints “are people who have had the imagination and audacity to allow themselves to be remade slowly in the image of the living God, people who have so opened their hearts to God that God’s own story is in them once again … retold.” [iii] Every saint’s life is a unique retelling, shaped by the particulars of heredity, personality and environment, but down deep it’s always the same story, over and over again: the story of “love’s endeavor, love’s expense,”[iv] perpetually pouring itself out for the life of the world. 

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a gilt-edged copy of one the great classics of Christian devotion, Of the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. My father wrote in the front, “We hope that this book will bring you closer to the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love, Mom & Dad.”

Although not all of Thomas’ late medieval spirituality resonates today, much of it still hits home.

Blessed are the ears that catch the pulse of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the whisperings of this world … Blessed are they that prepare themselves more and more, by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God.[v]

O my friend, lose not thy confidence of making progress toward the things of the Spirit; still thou hast time, the hour is not yet past. Why wilt thou defer thy good purpose from day to day? Arise, and in this very instant begin, and say, Now is the time to be doing, now is the time to be striving, now is the fit time to be amending myself.[vi]

(Mom, Dad, I’m still working on it!)

Every saint’s life is an imitation of Christ. The very structure of Christian sacred biographies reflects this theological point. In the Book of Acts, the martyrdom of Stephen—the first biography of a Christian saint—deliberately mirrors the Passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen is an innocent killed by a world which refuses his message. Like Jesus, Stephen uses his final breaths to forgive his enemies and surrender his spirit to the divine. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prays at the end. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that Stephen was imitating Christ in his martyrdom. He was, in truth, repeating Christ, in the Pauline sense of “Christ in me.” We suggest the same sense of return and presence in the Words of Institution at every eucharist: Whenever you perform these actions, I am with you once again.

Eleven centuries after the death of Stephen, St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in the north of England, lay on his deathbed, eyes closed. His friend and fellow monk, Walter Daniel, leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Look on the cross; let your eye be where your heart is.” Aelred opened his eyes for just a moment, and spoke his last words: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Once again, the surrender of spirit by a dying saint echoes the last words of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:46. 

In fact, unlike Stephen’s paraphrase, it was a direct quote. Did Walter, Aelred’s biographer, insert the verse from Luke into his abbot’s mouth as a pious fiction, or had Aelred in fact repeated Christ’s words verbatim? In the genre of sacred biography, we don’t need to know the factual answer. Holy stories are always about more than what a camera or microphone can record. As narratives straddling the mysterious boundary between the human and the divine, their language dives beneath the empirical surface to explore the hidden depths. Hyperbole, metaphor, miracle—these are all rhetorical tools to convey the inherently mysterious nature of religious experience. 

As Thomas J. Heffernan points out in his seminal study of sacred biographies, “Walter would argue, and his monastic audience would agree, that Aelred’s death has become more memorable because it is now able to arouse in us the memory of another death, the death of Christ, which is the paradigm for the manner in which all Christian martyrs are meant to surrender to God.” [vii]

When it comes to saints, it is not in the historical particulars of their stories, however interesting, edifying, or inspiring, that the central meaning of their lives is to be found, but rather in the way their stories imitate, or repeat, the Christ event, as divine love takes place anew in the flesh of our human existence. As hymn writer Isaac Watts summarized this process:

“The image of Christ is transcribed upon our natures, we go from one degree of it to another, we are changed from glory into glory, from one degree of glorious holiness to another: thereby the gospel appears to have a fairer, brighter, and a stronger evidence.” [viii] We, having Christ in us, become the evidence for the truth of Christian faith.

In other words, saints are living icons, radiant with the light of heaven—even if they sometimes have messy and complicated lives.  Take, for example, Elizaveta Pilenko. Born to a wealthy Russian family in 1891, she was caught up in the revolutionary movement during her late teens. She briefly flirted with a plot to assassinate Trotsky (Russian politics were deadly even then). But at the same time, her Orthodox faith was beginning to deepen. She fled the Stalinist regime for Paris in the 1920s, by which time her second marriage, like her first, had failed, and a daughter had died of influenza. 

In her new home, she began a ministry to the poor, and her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun. She did so, receiving her religious name, Maria Skobtsova. She was permitted to continue to live and work among the people, and her rented Parisian house had an open door for refugees and lost souls. Her bishop called her faux monastery “the desert of human hearts.” 

She wasn’t exactly easy for her sister nuns. She wore odd clothes, and hung out in cafes and bars late into the night, counseling people on the brink of despair. She also missed many liturgies while off scrounging food for her soup kitchens in the markets of Las Halles. She’s been called the Orthodox Dorothy Day.

St. Mary of Paris (Maria Skobtsova).

When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Mother Maria sheltered many Jews, supplying them with baptismal certificates and assisting their escape. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo, she died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday, 1945. She was canonized as St. Mary of Paris in 2004.

Mother Maria was also a writer of poetry and theology. Listen to what she said about the Christian life as a continual self-emptying:  

“Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul hold nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ’s name to those who need it …That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our hearts is Love itself, Christ… Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves out completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering it to the full measure of God’s image which is contained in ourselves.” [ix]  

Now when we hear a prescription like that, we may worry, as Gregory Peck did over Melville’s Ahab, about our capacity to perform such a demanding role. What we need to remember is this: the subject of our life is not our individual, autonomous self, but the transcendent, empowering Christ who dwells within us. In a recent podcast, Mark Harris, one of my most eloquent priestly friends, made this point perfectly. “When I look at the heroes I have in terms of justice ministries,” he said, “they are people who live into this to the point of self-emptying. They get out of the way finally. It’s not about their being good; it’s about good being done. So it’s God’s justice that’s done, not them doing justice.” [x]

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

— Charles Wesley

Our own holiness practice may not entail the rigors or reach the heights of the greatest saints. Most of us are called to what Thérèse of Lisieux described as “the Little Way.” As a dreamy teenager, Thérèse thought it would be simply thrilling to be a saint:

“I would be a Martyr … I would be a Missionary. I would be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.” [xi]

Thérèse of Lisieux.

However, such heroic drama would be denied her. After a brief and uneventful life hidden within a Carmelite cloister, she died from tuberculosis at 24. But her autobiography, detailing her efforts to respond to the smallest, most ordinary moments with a loving, patient and generous heart, would inspire countless faithful around the world.  “I am only a very little soul,” she said, “who can only offer very little things to the Lord.”

Fr. Alban Butler, who in the 18th century compiled the most extensive compendium of saintly lives in the English language, also made the point that sanctity can be a practical, everyday kind of holiness: 

“Perfection consists not in raptures and lofty contemplation; nor in austerities, or any extraordinary actions: for thus, it would have been above the reach of many. But God has placed it in what is easy, and in every one’s power. The rich and poor, the learned and unlearned may equally aim at perfection: for it requires only that we perform our daily actions in a spirit of true Christian virtue … we must be holy not by fits, but by habit … it is then our ordinary actions performed in a true spirit of virtue … which must sanctify our lives.” [xii]

We must be holy not by fits, but by habit, 
performing our ordinary actions in a true spirit of virtue.

Blessed are those who rise and shine.
Blessed are those who lend a hand. 
Blessed are those who listen.
Blessed are those who take the time.
Blessed are those who speak kindly.
Blessed are those who smile at strangers.
Blessed are those who plant.
Blessed are those who raise children.
Blessed are those who teach.
Blessed are those who provide our meals.
Blessed are those who do the hard things.
Blessed are those who look with compassion.
Blessed are those who do justice. 
Blessed are those who wonder.
Blessed are those who welcome.
Blessed are those who nurture.
Blessed are those who care. 
Blessed are those who struggle with failing bodies. 
Blessed are those who suffer.
Blessed are the broken.
Blessed are those who know loss. 
Blessed are those who persist.
Blessed are those who surrender.
Blessed are those who remember hope.
Blessed are those who practice resurrection. 

“To be a saint,” says Frederick Buechner, “is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness.” [xiii]  You see, it’s very simple to be a saint. Just open your hands, and your heart.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951).

The greatest cinematic depiction of sainthood is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, based on George Bernanos’ novel of the same name. The unnamed priest is rejected by many in his village, but it is clear to a few—and to the viewer—that Christ is truly in him. The priest experiences what he calls “the miracle of our empty hands!—that we may give what we do not possess!” Claude Laydu, the non-professional who played the part, threw himself into the role, living with working-class priests, adopting an austere diet, studying the novel throughout the shoot, and submitting without question to Bresson’s strict direction. As critic Tony Pipolo writes, “The very qualities this behavior manifests—obedience, obsessive concentration, a combination of fire and composure, and genuine dedication—were exactly those Bresson sought for his curé.”[xiv] But only after viewing the finished film would Laydu recognize the true nature of his role. “I didn’t know I was playing a saint,” he confessed. I think all the saints would say pretty much the same thing. 

I’ll give the last word to Buechner, who writes about saints as well as any. In a novel about Brendan of Ireland, his protagonist sums it up beautifully: 

“[God] wants each one of us to have a loving heart …
When all’s said and done, perhaps that’s the length and breadth of it.” [xv]



[i] Cited in Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71.

[ii] Gregory Peck New York Times interview in 1988, quoted in William Grimes’ New York Times obituary for Mr. Peck, June 13, 2003. 

[iii] Wendy Wright, “For all the saints,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (Vol. III, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1988), 17-18.

[iv] From W. H. Vanstone’s hymn, “Morning glory, starlit sky” (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585). The endeavor and expense are spelled out in verse 3: “Love that gives, gives evermore, / gives with zeal, with eager hands, / spares not, keeps not, all outpours, / ventures all, its all expends.”

[v] On the Imitation of Christ, Book 3, ch. I.

[vi] Ibid., Book 1, ch. XXII.

[vii] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford/New York): Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.

[viii] Isaac Watts (1674-1748), cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London, SPCK, 2008), 69.

[ix] Maria Skobtsova, in Michael Plekon, Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (Notre Dame 2002), 76.

[x] The Rev. Mark Harris, speaking about the Beatitudes on the video podcast, Circuosity .21https://youtu.be/6V6zGsX9yqA

[xi] Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), cited in Jill Haak Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 7.

[xii] Alban Butler (1710-1773), Meditations and Discourses, cited in Mursell, 36.

[xiii] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 119.

[xiv] Pipolo, op. cit., 71.

[xv] Buechner, Brendan (New York: Atheneum, 1987), 216.

All Souls Day: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

Gravestone, Peacham, Vermont.

Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.

— Martin Brokenleg [i]

We pray for the dead, believing that, as they are drawn nearer to God, they are enabled to grow in the knowledge and understanding of God, in the service of God, and in the joy and fulfillment of God’s renewing love. We do not pray for the dead as those without hope, but trusting that the faithfulness of God will bring them to the completion and bliss for which every human soul was created. 

— Jon Hart Olson [ii]     


 

On All Souls Day (November 2), we call the dead to mind with stories, mementos, photographs, and rituals. In some ways, the dead never leave us. We still use the language they invented, live in the houses they built, learn from their wisdom, pay for their sins. And we carry their DNA inside our bodies. Bill Holm, a Minnesota poet, has noted the strong resemblances between his own living and dead:

When Jona at sixty traveled 
to her father’s farm in Iceland, 
the relatives looked down
at bony knuckles, veins
popping up, said: “See!
She has the Josephson hands
even after a hundred years…”

Now, when I bellow at parties, 
or look down at my own hands;
knuckles growing, veins
rising as I age, I think:
I’ll be living with all 
these dead people inside me.
How will I ever feed them?
They taught me, dragging carcasses
a thousand winters across
the tundra inside their own bodies. [iii]

“How will I ever feed them?” We certainly contain and nurture the legacy of the dead in our culture, in our very bodies, but is there any form of continuing relation with the dead as discrete entities who remain other than ourselves? Do the dead still exist somewhere, and can we still be in relation with them? In both the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the hero descends to the underworld to speak with the dead and get their advice. However eerie, it was a sensible quest. The dead have “been there, done that.” They possess the voice of experience. Robert Pogue Harrison explains what Homer and Virgil were up to when they put words in the mouths of the shades in Hades: “We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld—address us, instruct us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world.” [iv]

As a person of faith, I believe this continuing presence to be more than the lingering effects of the departed on our bodies and our psyches. The communion of the living and the dead possesses an ontological dimension. The afterlife has an existence, a reality, outside our imagination. And it is not only in the past. It is part of our present, and our future. Whether we live or die, we all belong to a larger divine wholeness—“all the company of heaven”— from which we can never be separated. This wholeness, for which there are many names, is the Love that binds us all together. This interconnection, this “communion of saints,” cannot be broken, even by death.

Such radical sense of interdependence, where we all, as John Donne put it, “lie open to one another,” may not come naturally to people who value privacy and individuality and have the means to live without others. Among the world’s poor, however, survival depends on mutuality. People pool and share their resources, with no illusions that they can make it on their own. Community and family are absolutely necessary, and this solidarity is not broken by death. 

In her study of Mexico’s Días de los muertos, Juanita Garciagodoy writes that the poor do not regard the self as “atomistic, independent of the social body that constitutes its extended family and community. The physical body is not the private property of its owner with the array of rights to privacy and individualism and the independence from relations, friends, and neighbors the body of the typical “first worlder” claims. People are felt to be connected radically.” This connectedness includes the departed, as the Days of the Dead make clear. “Those people’s spirits are still part of the unit of the living. There is no question about their desert to be humored, fed, entertained, and regaled on dates of remembrance. Those who live with this understanding know that no one is an island.” [v]  

Dead or alive, we’re all in this together. The Mexican calaveras, cartoonish depictions of skeletons performing the activities of the living, make this point with comedic verve. I once saw a woodcut of three skeletons in festive dress, arms around each other, smiling and waving as they looked me in the eye. Below them, like a postcard greeting, were the words, Wish you were here!  

Gravestone, St. Peter’s churchyard, Lewes, Delaware.

My father died when I was 21. One of my best friends died when we were 30. But for the most part, death kept its distance in my younger days. Lately, however, the losses have begun to mount. The pandemic, tragically, has taken vast multitudes—“a huge number, impossible to count.”[vi] And on a personal level, the vanishing of loved ones grows way too frequent now that I’ve reached a certain age. In the past few years, I’ve addressed personal loss in my writing, and in honor of All Souls, my Day of the Dead “altar” will be a brief florilegium—flowers for the dead, if you will— from four of my requiem posts. 

When two of my most beloved elders, Joe and Phyllis Golowka, died within weeks of each other, I wrote (and preached) “You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

Bill Fisher, born five days earlier than I, was a close friend for 59 years. In his final days, after he slipped into unconsciousness, I gave him last rites, and his earthly companions sang him to rest. In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend, describes what happened next.

I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.

And I won’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise 

Another friend was taken suddenly early this year. In “When I begin the long work of rising”—A Tribute to David Fetcho, I quote one of his songs:

I want to go with you
to the other side of the light
where we’ll see
what the shadow reveals
will be such a relief …
time in its disguises 
won’t fool us anymore …

Days tumble on with minds of their own
they breathe in our lives, and make them their own
and time, time disappears
like the wind from a sail …
and every good day will be 
just another good day
of eternal life. [vii]

Anise Stevens, my sister’s child, left us far too soon at age 49. She died in the first minute of dawn on New Year’s Day, 2019. Through my tears, I preached “Trailing clouds of glory” at her requiem.

In her last weeks, Anise wondered about what lay ahead. That is the question. My sister Martha said to me before the funeral that her daughter is “on her way.” Then she recited Wordsworth’s evocative image of the next life as our native home to which we shall one day return:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; 
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, 
Hath had elsewhere its setting 
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness, 
And not in utter nakedness, 
But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
From God, who is our home. [viii]

The author lays California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth in St. Oswald’s churchyard, Grasmere, England (July 16, 1994).

I have always found Wordsworth’s hopeful and exuberant spirit an inspiration, so much so that I marked my fiftieth birthday with a pilgrimage to the poet’s grave. After nine miles of rambling through the Arcadian charms of English countryside, I arrived at dusk. I had brought along my copy of The Prelude, with two wildflowers from home, an orange California poppy and a pink Farewell-to-Spring, pressed within its pages. As a quarter moon set over the darkening hills beyond St. Oswald’s churchyard, I took out the flowers and laid them on the grassy grave. Then, in the fading light of a summer evening, I spoke the lines which epitomize my own trust in the providence and grace of the human journey:

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide 
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again! [ix]



[i] Martin Brokenleg, “Mitakuya owasin: You are all my relatives,” in The Witness, Vol. 76, No. 11 (Nov. 1993), p. 8. Brokenleg is an Episcopal priest and a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

[ii] Jon Hart Olson, newsletter of Christ Church, OntarIo, CA (Nov. 1994). Jon was an Episcopal priest, colleague, mentor and friend.

[iii] Bill Holm, “Genealogy,” in The Dead Get By with Everything (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1991) 14.

[iv] Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) 150-1.

[v] Juanita Garciagodoy, Digging the Days of the Dead (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 269.

[vi] Revelation 7:9, from the liturgical readings for All Saints Day.

[vii] David Fetcho, “Just Another Good Day.” You can listen to the song here: https://soundcloud.com/ds_feco/just-another-good-day

[viii] William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Chiidhood.”

[ix] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, I.14-18. Wordsworth’s image is a happy reversal of Milton’s melancholy account of the Expulsion from Paradise, where the first humans’ outward journey has dimmer prospects: “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: / They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way” (Paradise Lost, 646-649).

Palm Sunday: The Triumphal Entry

Giotto di Bondone, Entry into Jerusalem (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, c. 1305)

Still louder ever rose the crowd’s
Hosanna in the highest!
‘O King,’ thought I, ‘I know not why
In all this joy thou sighest.’

The Merchants’ Carol

Where thy victorious feet, Great God, should tread,
In honor this green tapestry is spread;
And as all future things are past to thee,
The triumph here precedes the victory.

— Giambattista Marino, “Palm Sunday”

An anthem for Palm Sunday, “Ride on! ride on in majesty,” sung by the choir of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA, under the direction of Paul Roy, with the late Darden Burns on piano. Lyrics by Henry Hart Milman, music by Mark Shepperd. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is from “Day of Triumph” (1954) a feature film produced by my father, James K. Friedrich. The palm branches are from Taryn Elliott via Pexels. My footage of the Seattle viaduct, shot the day before its demolition began, imagines Jesus’ entry into our own cities, while the empty road in Montana recalls the spiritual, “Jesus walked that lonesome valley.” The one who rode among the cheering crowds must go alone to the cross. The sun directs its deathly gaze through the smoke of a forest fire in the Bitterroot Mountains. The irony of Palm Sunday’s “triumph” is seen in the video’s final image of Christ, now carrying the cross through a different kind of crowd (Lippo Memmi, Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Tuscany, c. 1340).

The Advent Collection (updated)

I’ve blogged about Advent—my favorite season—many times on “The Religious Imagineer” website. Click here for the updated list and links for all 15 Advent posts (2014-2020), covering theology, prayer practices, and innovative worship. I hope these words may be useful for your own Advent journey.

Coming next week: Praying the Hours (6): Vespers and Compline

“Hopes that pointed to the clouds” — A Sermon for Advent 1

Dawn at the church in Rabanal on the Camino de Santiago (May 2, 2014).

This is a sermon I preached for the First Sunday of Advent, 2020, in the streamed liturgy at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Below the video recording you will find the text with footnotes. Two corrections to the recording: Wordsworth’s account of crossing the Alps is in Book VI of The Prelude, and his celebrated line is: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” That’s exactly how I felt when I took the top photograph on my pilgrimage walk to Santiago, so I doubly regret the error in the recording!

The liturgical year is like a great story with many chapters, and every Advent we go back to the beginning and tell it all over again. But it’s an unusual story. It doesn’t begin with “Once upon a time …” No, it begins with “The End.” Whether the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, we always get the apocalyptic Jesus announcing the end of the world. The sun and moon will go dark, the stars will fall from the sky, reality itself will tremble and shake. 

It’s the ultimate disaster movie, and we usually absorb it as such. The apocalyptic images of destruction and chaos engage our fears while they’re up on the screen (or on the lips of the gospel reader), but when the lights come up and we head for the exit, we expect to find the same old safe and reliable world waiting for us outside the theater or the church. But in 2020, not so much!

The ending of worlds is far too real this year. COVID-19 has made us acutely conscious of our own impermanence, not only as individuals but as a species. Millions have seen their jobs disappear, education is in crisis, social gatherings are nearly extinct, and so many ordinary things, from restaurants to haircuts, not to mention liturgical assemblies, have vanished from daily experience. We’ve been shocked this year to discover how easily the stability of our democratic institutions can be assaulted and eroded, and we’ve been disheartened and unsettled by the fragility of our social bonds in the face of so much hatred, bigotry, demagoguery and violence. Truth itself has become an endangered species. And if all that isn’t enough, the climate apocalypse is well underway. 

“Signs of ending all around us,” says one of our Advent hymns. Then it wonders:

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?
Life from death, and from our rendings, realms of wholeness generate?[i]

How will the world end? Let me count the ways, says the apocalyptic Jesus. But Jesus isn’t trying to depress us. Jesus doesn’t want to paralyze us with despair. But he does want us to be clear about where our treasure is, where our hope lies. Put your faith in the things that endure, he says. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[ii]

I think what he’s getting at here is that our idolatries, our invented securities, will come to nothing in the long run. Only God endures. Only God’s Kingdom—the world of God—is built to last. So learn how to discern what lasts and what doesn’t, and how to remain faithful to the vision without getting discouraged by the obstacles and failures along the way.

A common misconception about the apocalypse is that it only comes once, at the end of history, when the broken will be made whole, all discords harmonized, all divisions reconciled. Christian faith indeed affirms that great vision of a perfected humanity and a restored creation. But our faith also calls us to make that future present wherever and whenever we can, and to notice how it’s already happening around us. At the same time, we need to recognize the ambiguities of historical existence. God and not-God are like the wheat and the weeds—hard to tell apart until the final harvest. Stay awake, Jesus says. Pay attention. Sometimes the Kingdom is where you least expect it. Sometimes it doesn’t look like anything you expected. And often it will come and go in the blink of an eye. Keep your eyes open!

Why must there be apocalypse? Why must so many things come to an end? In order for God’s future to take place now, some of what is present needs to get out of the way to make room for the new thing God wants to happen. That’s why we should speak about the end of the world not as a single, far-off event, but as the ending of worlds plural: the ending of all those things which need to pass away so we can get right with God. 

An economy where millions lose their jobs and millions go hungry while the assets of 600 billionaires increase by 1 trillion dollars during the pandemic—that’s got to go. The killing of people because they’re black—that’s got to go. The destruction of nature by greed and stupidity—that’s got to go. You get the idea. God wants a better world, and God asks us not only to pray for that world but to work for it, and, by God’s grace, to embody it and manifest it whenever and however we can. 

But for reasons we are not given to understand as finite beings, the inbreaking of the Kingdom isn’t a story of steady and relentless progress. We are indeed visionary creatures, full of desire for better selves and better worlds, but we are also finite and fallible, complicated mixtures of mud and spirit. We have our limits. We don’t always know the right thing, or when we think we know, we don’t do it, or can’t do it. Or by the time we do, maybe it’s no longer the right thing. 

Good motives tend to produce mixed outcomes. And as for bad things, Scripture tells us that a creative God can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Historical existence is complicated. It’s messy. A lot of the time we’re just guessing. We have to learn not to fall in love with outcomes, or get too attached to our ideas of the best future. Our God is a God of surprises, and most of our maps to the Promised Land turn out to be illusions, or at least out of date. 

In the late 18th century, the French Revolution stirred the imagination of Europe with a sense of immense possibility. Looking back on 1789 twenty-five years later, French observer Thomas Noon Talfourd described the incredible excitement in the air:

“Every faculty of the mind was awakened,” he said, “every feeling raised to an intenseness of interest, every principle and passion called into superhuman exertions. At one moment, all was hope and joy and rapture; the corruption and iniquity of ages seemed to vanish like a dream; the unclouded heavens seemed once more to ring with the exulting chorus of peace on earth and good-will to men … The most brilliant hopes were cherished … and fresh prospects were daily opening which … filled us with painful delight and with giddy rapture.”[iii]

G.W.F. Hegel, the great German idealist, was 19 years old when that revolution happened. “It was a glorious dawn,” he recalled later. “All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of the epoch. A sublime emotion ruled that age, and enthusiasm of the spirit thrilled through the world, as though the time were now come of the actual reconciliation of God with the world.”[iv]

When the English poet William Wordsworth was a young man, he went to France to begin a walking tour in the summer of 1790, when revolutionary spirits were still high. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he wrote, “France standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again.”[v]

Those among us who came of age in the 1960s may remember the same exhilaration of being young and idealistic in a time of great upheaval and daring dreams. We had our “brilliant hopes” and “sublime emotion,” our visions of a new world emerging from the ruins of the old. 

But we would soon discover that a reborn humanity, reconciled to the purposes of God, was not so easily achieved. So too did the young Wordsworth grow disenchanted with the French Revolution’s dark side. The Kingdom of God may work through the movements of history, but it is not identical with them. To confuse God and history is idolatry. Misplaced hope is worship of the wrong thing.

Fifteen years after his tour of revolutionary France, Wordsworth wrote his epic poem, The Prelude, a spiritual biography of his generation of Romantics and idealists. In Book VI of The Prelude, he explored his personal struggle with hope and disillusionment through the narrative of his excursion through France to the Alps. Making his way south, he feasted and danced with happy revolutionaries, tasting the bliss of their new world. As he put it, he “found benevolence and blessedness / Spread like a fragrance everywhere, like Spring.”[vi]

But when he reached the Alps, he saw a troop of French soldiers plunder a peaceful mountain convent in the name of revolution and freedom from the oppression of religion. Actually, this desecration occurred two years later. But Wordsworth inserts it into his poem to dramatize with this single illustration his more gradual internal process of disappointment with the Revolution’s betrayal of his generation’s hopes.

In the poem, Wordsworth is shocked to witness the soldiers’ destruction of the convent and the expulsion of its “blameless inmates.” The revolutionary sword wields no justice in this act, only negation. The convent, a precious habitation of calm and spirit, set apart to remember eternity, perishes in a world gone mad.

As a disillusioned Wordsworth climbed higher in the Alps, he struggled with despair. He felt “inwardly oppress’d” by an “utter loss of hope itself, / And things to hope for.”[vii] (A loss of “things to hope for.” That is so 2020!) With the Revolution descending into the maelstrom of violence and naked power, where could he look for the true apocalypse that would break the power of the fallen world, renovate humanity, and restore the earthly paradise? 

The climb itself began to form an answer in his heart and mind. “For still,” he tells us, “[he] had hopes that pointed to the clouds.”[viii] He was a Romantic, after all, fluent in the language of Nature. The soaring peak of Mont Blanc, rising into the sky above, was an icon of Transcendent power far greater than revolutions or armies—or the countless dejections of history.  

We can imagine the music swelling here, as the poet approaches the summit to receive the grace of divine vision, reconciling in a flash all the contradictions of human existence. What actually happened was, Wordsworth got lost in the mist. Eventually, he ran into a peasant who told him that he’d already crested the pass and was in fact now going down other side. Though the poet’s hopes may have still pointed to the clouds, his body was on its way back to the complications of the world below. 

Wordsworth would find in this experience a metaphor for the life of faith. We don’t get the decisive apocalypse, the ultimate finale, in this life. God is too inventive to settle for our flawed approximations of a better world. There’s always going to be a mixture of good and ill, darkness and light, in our historical projects, as well as in the circuitous journey of every soul. Still, God has planted hope and desire deep in our hearts, and amid all the complications and setbacks of the human journey, we keep reaching for the clouds, and that in itself is something glorious. As Wordsworth put it:

And now, recovering, to my soul I say 
‘I recognize thy glory.’
… Our destiny, our nature, and our home
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.[ix]

150 years after Wordsworth crossed the Alps, another poet, W. H. Auden, articulated his own understanding of the dance between disappointment and hope. As a political idealist in the 1930s, he would face his own disillusionment at the end of that decade. Revolutionary hopes for a better world had withered, and humanity, as far from the earthly paradise as it had ever been, was plunging into the inferno of the Second World War.

We hoped, we waited for the day
The State would wither clean away,
Expecting the Millennium
That theory promised us would come,
It didn’t.

Like Wordsworth—and all of us at the end of 2020—Auden was forced to accept the limits of historical existence, and to discern, as he put it, “what / Is possible and what is not, / To what conditions we must bow / In building the Just City now.”  

And like Wordsworth, Auden finds himself on a mountain: Dante’s Mount Purgatory, where the Earthly Paradise at the top is a distant goal, for which there are no shortcuts. 

The purgatorial hill we climb,
Where any skyline we attain
Reveals a higher ridge again.
Yet since, however much we grumble,
However painfully we stumble,
Such mountaineering all the same
Is, it would seem, the only game …

We have no cause to look dejected
When, wakened from a dream of glory,
We find ourselves in Purgatory,
Back on the same old mountain side
With only guessing for a guide …

O once again let us set out,
Our faith well balanced by our doubt,
Admitting that every step we take
Will certainly be a mistake,
But still believing we can climb
A little higher every time …[x]

We’re all on that mountain with the poet, still climbing, sheltering our hope like a candle in the winds of doubt, stumbling our way onward. Sometimes we lose the path, and go astray. And if we do attain a summit, a higher one still looms before us.

And all those apocalypses along the way, all those endings great and small, the vanishings of good things and bad things alike, turn out not to be last judgments or final judgments, bringing our story to a close. They are more like doors, where we pass from a tired world into a new reality.

As long as we are creatures of time and history, that reality will never be fixed or final. And with a God who is utterly free and endlessly inventive, who can describe what is to come? But if I may switch metaphors and poets, let me give you one of my favorite Advent images.

In her poem, “Rowing,” Anne Sexton imagines herself rowing toward an island called God. 

I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.

Sexton knows she’s not there yet, she is still in the Advent space of waiting and hoping. And, like Auden, she is aware of what is possible and what is not, and to what conditions she must bow as a flawed and finite being in search of Grace.

“This story,” she says, “ends with me still rowing.”[xi]

This, dear people of God, is where we begin the Advent journey. On the sea of faith, still rowing. Or maybe back on the same old mountain side, with only guessing for a guide. But always holding fast to hope that can never die, as we wait and watch for “something evermore about to be.”

“This story ends with me still rowing.”




[i] Dean W. Nelson,“Signs of endings all around us,” # 721 in Wonder, Love, and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Pension Fund).

[ii] The Gospel for Advent 1 (Year B) is Mark 13:24-37.

[iii] Thomas Noon Talfourd, The Poetical Talent of the Present Age, 1815), cited in M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 329-330.

[iv] In Abrams, 352.

[v] William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathsn Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, Stephen Gill (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), X, 692 (1805), VI, 353-4 (1805). All citations from The Prelude are from this Norton Critical Edition.

[vi] The Prelude, VI, 368-369 (1805).

[vii] The Prelude, XI, 506 (1805).

[viii] The Prelude, VI, 587 (1850).

[ix] The Prelude, VI, 531-532, 538-542 (1805).

[x] W. H. Auden, “New Year Letter (January 1, 1940),” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976). We hoped (175); what is possible (190); the purgatorial hill (178-179).

[xi] Anne Sexton, “Rowing,” in The Awful Rowing Toward God (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1975). This is the first poem in the book. In the last, “The Rowing Endeth,” she finally reaches the island. God invites her to play poker. They both win, because that’s how it goes with God. The text of “Rowing is here: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/rowing/ … “The Rowing Endeth” is here: https://opreach.org/2013/02/26/the-rowing-endeth/

I want to be in that number

Jan and Hubert van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb (detail), Ghent Altarpiece (1432).

In this time of exile from gathered community, the All Saints images of countless saints singing “around the throne in sweet accord” fill me with longing for the day when we will join our hearts and voices in person once again. Meanwhile, memory and hope (and Zoom) will have to do.

The van Eyck image of saints in procession reminds me of a 1965 photograph of 600 activists, led by 25-year-old John Lewis, marching across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

John Lewis and friends march through the valley of the shadow toward the land of promise (Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965).

They would be met on the other side by state troopers, whose violence was so shockingly brutal that the day is remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Those troopers are gone, John Lewis is gone, but God’s friends continue the march toward a better day. And all those saints and martyrs who have gone before—the “great cloud of witnesses—now cheer us on from above.

In this perilous historical moment, may we too keep on keeping on, keep marching in the light of God, encouraged by the many saints who have shown us how.

Further posts for All Saints Day:

For All the Saints

Applauding the Saints

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

 

“Thus times do shift”: A Poem for Candlemas

Augustina Woodgate, National Times (2016/2019) at the Whitney Biennial 2019.

February already! How the year hurries on. I tear January from my calendar with a sigh. The new year’s fresh supply of months is being consumed at an alarming rate. A few weeks ago there seemed time enough for everything, but now . . .

Candlemas (February 2) is the last of the Nativity celebrations. You can read more about its meaning and customs in last year’s post, Consumed by Love. For me it is a day to remember the preciousness of the time we are given. Like the people’s candles traditionally blessed in the Candlemas rite, the days to come are made to be used up. As I wrote last year, “a candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing.”

For Robert Herrick, 17th-century poet and priest, our temporal condition was a recurring theme. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is his best-known line, but his poem for Candlemas Eve is my favorite. The changing of seasonal decorations in houses and churches is an emblem of the human condition: Thus times do shift . . . new things succeed, as former things grow old.

       DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
           Down with the misletoe ;
       Instead of holly, now up-raise
           The greener box (for show).

       The holly hitherto did sway ;
           Let box now domineer
       Until the dancing Easter day,
           Or Easter’s eve appear.

       Then youthful box which now hath grace
           Your houses to renew ;
       Grown old, surrender must his place
           Unto the crisped yew.

       When yew is out, then birch comes in,
           And many flowers beside ;
       Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
           To honour Whitsuntide.

       Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
           With cooler oaken boughs,
       Come in for comely ornaments
           To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

Herrick’s poem was set to a Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Here is a lovely version of it by English folksinger Kate Rusby.