Mary took a pound of costly perfume made out of pure nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him) said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” — John 12:3-5
Judas raises a troubling question for everyone who is not destitute. As long as there is human need, how dare we spend our money on anything else? And Jesus’ answer—“The poor are always with you”—might seem equally troubling, if taken to accept economic inequality as inevitable. But Jesus was never complacent about the status quo. In both word and deed he lifted up the lowly—the ones either ignored or shamed by their culture—declaring them worthy of blessing and honor. As Jesus himself put it, he came to bring good news to the poor: Injustice has no future. God’s kingdom of loving interdependence is at hand.
Here’s how I read this text: “You can help the destitute any time you want, Judas. If your concern is sincere, they’ll still be around after I’m gone. But I won’t be. So don’t be so quick to judge this woman. If you could only understand what’s going on here, it would save your life.”
So what is going on here? A woman, Mary of Bethany, whose brother Lazarus had recently been rescued from death by Jesus, pours very expensive oil over the feet of her Lord, and then wipes those feet with her hair. It’s an extravagant gesture of devotion, gratitude and love. The oil, worth a year’s wages for a common laborer, may have cost Mary most of her wealth, while letting down her hair to do the work of a towel was, in that culture, a shocking display of abasement and vulnerability. In other words, she was offering all that she had and all that she was to honor Jesus.
This act, both sensory and symbolic, overflowed with meanings. Anointing with oil was a way to mark the special vocation and identity of authoritative figures, whether powerful rulers or holy persons. It consecrates them as chosen and set apart. The title of “Messiah” or “Christ” means “the anointed one.” It was revolutionary to have a woman be the one to anoint Jesus as priest and ruler, but so was the kingdom he came to manifest and embody.
Anointing was also part of the culture’s preparation of a body for burial. Performed in the week before Jesus’ death, Mary’s gesture inaugurates the sequence of sacrificial acts culminating with her Lord’s burial in the stone-cold tomb. The feet she anoints will walk the Way of the Cross for the salvation of the world. This was his chosen destiny.
The story’s third meaning is in its foreshadowing of the foot-washing, when Jesus, on the night before he died, knelt at the feet of his friends to perform the work of a servant, surrendering his power for love’s sake. He was teaching by showing: This is how we must be with one another. This is exactly how God is with us. Just a few days before Jesus taught this explicit lesson at the Last Supper, Mary of Bethany had performed it instinctively, offering all she had, holding nothing back.
At the time, the disciples did not grasp the full significance of Mary’s act. Nor did Mary herself. How could they? As we like to say about Holy Week, the journey is how we know. The disciples had to follow Jesus all the way to the cross—and beyond—before they could begin to understand—through memory and reflection—what it was all about.
One of the strongest triggers for memory is our sense of smell. When John’s gospel tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” it sounds like a vivid personal memory. Recalling the fragrance, the disciples could revisit that moment to absorb all the meanings which had escaped them at the time.
As we make our own personal and communal journey through Holy Week, may we too immerse ourselves extravagantly in the sensory images and sounds of the Passion narratives and rituals, allowing them, by our faithful participation, to take us deeper and deeper into the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising in Christ.
As for Judas’ sour complaint, Sydney Carter’s Passion carol, “Said Judas to Mary,” nicely disposes of its false premise of either/or. Devotion to Jesus and loving service to “the least” of God’s family are not opposed. They are inseparable:
Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep, today you may do as you will. Tomorrow, you say, I am going away, but my body I leave with you still.”
“The poor of the world are my body,” he said, “to the end of the world they shall be. The bread and the blankets you give to the poor you’ll know you have given to me.”
Here is a lovely rendition of Carter’s Holy Week carol sung by Fiona Dunn:
Today is the feast day of George Herbert (1593-1633), one of my favorite poets. It is fitting that we remember him at the beginning of Lent, for his poems are imbued with the season’s themes of repentance and renewal. He was a student of what the Book of Common Prayer calls our “unruly wills and affections,” and could be brutally honest about his own need for divine grace.
The Herbert whom we meet in his poems is a person very much in process: unfinished, imperfect, always aspiring to something higher. He cared deeply about formation and growth – his own as well as that of his congregation. As poet and priest he used all possible art to move those with ears to hear.
Herbert’s spiritual environment seems so alive with correspondences between visible things and deeper, invisible realities. The Mystery of the world is met in the humblest of circumstances. The burning bush flashes through the surface of the ordinary. Everyday phenomena are saturated with significance.
This year let us honor “the holy Mr. Herbert” (as his parishioners called him) by examining a single poem. Perhaps we will make this an annual tradition on February 27. For today, the poem is “Virtue.”
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright, The bridal of the earth and sky; The dew shall weep thy fall to-night, For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye; Thy root is ever in its grave, And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses, A box where sweets compacted lie; My music shows ye have your closes, And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul, Like season’d timber, never gives; But though the whole world turn to coal, Then chiefly lives.
The poem has been called “one of the purest lyrics in the language.” [i] The predominance of one-syllable words exemplifies its “fine poetic thrift.” [ii] The sixteen short lines, divided into four quatrains, overflow—almost miraculously—with diverse images, references and meanings. For example, “The bridal [wedding] of the earth and sky“ invokes the Easter Vigil’s Exultet: How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined. “Thy root is ever in its grave” describes the paradox of mortal life with stunning brevity: even at our liveliest, we are dying creatures. Or as we say on Ash Wednesday: Remember that you are dust.
The poem’s opening line establishes rhythmic beat of successive iambs (short-long): “Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright.” This pattern is more or less followed in the first three lines of the first three quatrains, but each fourth line slams on the brakes with its sober message of mortality, delivered in a series of strong beats like the striking of a drum or the tolling of a bell: Forthoumust die … And thou must die … And all must die.
Although an apocalyptic wisdom throughout the poem reminds us that days end, flowers wither, seasons pass and worlds burn (“turn to [char]coal”), the first three quatrains seem more celebratory than melancholy. The word “sweet” occurs six times. The inevitable terminations of temporal existence need not diminish whatever pleasures and joys we experience in the moment. However, as the poem’s conclusion insists, the “soul”—our innermost self or enduring identity—can partake of something deeper and more lasting, an essential and enduring stability at its core.
The governing images of the final quatrain, “season’d timber” and “turned to coal,” each call up a constellation of meanings. Timber suggests both the cedars of Lebanon and the cross. And the seasoning of wood represents the testing of the soul, which, by God’s grace, “never gives”—never gives in, never gives up. As Herbert scholar John Drury explains, “Timber is seasoned by being left to dehydrate out of doors undercover for several years, enduring, like the soul, the extremes of weather and the seasons. After that it is stable and strong.” [iii]
But wood is flammable, and the doomsday image of a world-ending fire takes us to the brink of ancient fears of annihilation. But Herbert deftly steers us instead into a place of hope and promise. Wood tested by fire can become a glowing ember, an image of liveliness. Likewise can the tested soul become “a quick [living] coal / of mortall fire,” as Herbert says in another poem, “Employment (II).” And even should the world’s last embers cool and turn to dust, the soul which belongs to God will “chiefly” live. “Chiefly” means particularly, or mostly, but it may also reference Christ, the Chief of history, in whom all are made alive.
Unlike the last line of the first three quatrains, with their percussive stresses hammering out our doom, the stresses of the very last line, reduced from four to three, seem gentler and, aided by the use of a two-syllable word, more lilting: “Thenchief-ly lives.” Try reading just the fourth line of each quatrain in succession, and notice the difference in tone at the last.
As it always is with God, life has the last word.
[i] Arnold Stein, George Herbert’s Lyrics (Johns Hopkins, 1968), cited in Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 81. I am indebebted to Professor Wilcox for her richly annotated collection of Herbert’s English poems, each of which also includes summaries of the best Herbert criticism over the years. Since his poetry can be difficult and many of his terms archaic, her book is indispensable.
[ii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2014), 59. A must-read if you want to go deeper.
True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.
— Jonathan Edwards
“After Thursday, I was like, okay, I’m going to go sleep. But [God] was like, ‘No, I have more for you.’”
— Lauren, Asbury University student
On February 8 the morning chapel service at Kentucky’s Asbury University concluded, as usual, with a spiritual song. Then most of the students filed out to go to class, but the band kept playing, and a few stayed behind to sing along around the altar. What happened next has startled the world.
“I was like, all right, we’re just going to be around here for one or two more songs, and we’re going to go to class,” said Lena, an Asbury student. “But there was like something in my soul that said no-no-no, we’ve just got to stay here. So I just stayed. A little while later I thought I had only been there like maybe an extra 20 minutes. It had been like 3 hours. It just started turning into something bigger and crazier.”
Word spread through the campus that people were still singing and praying in the chapel. Classrooms and dorms began to empty, and by the end of the day the 1500-seat worship space was packed with students and faculty, singing, praying, and testifying to the power of God in their lives. Two weeks later, it’s still happening, day and night without ceasing.
Live video on social media quickly went viral. People from all over North America began to converge on Asbury to join in. Still others flew in from faraway places like Finland, New Zealand, and Indonesia. University officials estimate that tens of thousands of pilgrims have shared in the experience. The line to get inside can be hours long.
It’s been called the Asbury Revival, but some are wary of this designation. Too many have been wounded or betrayed by manipulative gatherings and domineering evangelists in the name of “revival.” Some prefer to call it an “outpouring” (the university’s preference), a “renewal,” or an “awakening.” One student said she was switching from “revival” to “encounter” because the divine presence, not the internal experience of the worshipper, was the central meaning here.
Whatever is happening, the watchword has been “radical humility.” Student Asher Braughton says, “I truly believe that the revival has been built on humility; that this revival isn’t focused just on one person—not one worship leader, not one pastor, not one speaker, not one student. It’s focused solely and only on Jesus Christ.” Or as one of the event’s speakers put it: “The only celebrity in this house is Jesus.”
During the “Great Awakening” in the eighteenth-century, the emotional excesses of the revivals worried the church establishment. Was it sincere? Was it of God? Historian George M. Marsden summarizes the criticisms in vivid terms: “Using vulgar appeals to sentiment, they would generate mass hysteria that they encouraged people to regard as evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. Scores or even hundreds of people would shriek, swoon, or fall into fits.”
Although one student leader, mindful of the building’s aging fabric, had to announce that there would be “no jumping allowed in the balconies,” the tone in the room has been generally mellow. A youth minister described it as walking into “a holy hush.” There have been moments of exuberant cheering and clapping, but much of the music and prayer invites a tranquil surrender to the spiritual flow. Watching it online, I thought of Thomas Merton’s gently fervent plea: “Sink from your shallows, soul, into eternity.”
On the first day, Asbury professor Clint Baldwin was having lunch in the cafeteria when someone stopped at his table to say, “You know, the students are still in there, and they’re still worshipping the Lord. You should go over and see what’s happening. It’s a sweet, sweet thing.” Baldwin soon joined the awakening and saw that it was good. “This was just people saying we’re going to stay on and sit in the presence of the Lord and see what the Lord would have for us.”
Lauren, the student quoted in the epigraph, described the worship as all-consuming: “Nothing else matters anymore except being in the presence of Jesus and worshipping him for the rest of my life.” She acknowledged the hyperbole of this—she would of course continue with the life of a student—but her perspective on everything had been transformed. “Ways I have of viewing people negatively—it doesn’t matter anymore. Anxieties and worries that I have, it doesn’t even matter.… Whenever you can just let go and surrender and forgive, then, you’re just set free.”
The majority of worshippers are under 25. Living through a time of immense stress, they hunger for the healing peace of God. In spontaneous prayer groups around the chapel, or in testimonials from the stage, many have openly shared their deepest griefs and heaviest burdens. Their vulnerability has been met with tenderness and love. When a young woman shared her story of attempted suicide before the whole assembly, a multitude of women came forward to lay their hands on her. “An hour later she was dancing and smiling with a joy on her face that I had never seen before,” said one witness.
“God is moving through this generation that has been so affected by mental health,” says Asher. “Once this revival ends, we can carry this message of goodness and forgiveness … The chains of suicide, the chains of depression, the chains of anxiety can be broken in Jesus.” Many of the songs reflect this hope in their melodic repetitions of heartfelt cries:
Jesus, Jesus, you make the darkness tremble— your name is a light the shadows can’t deny … You’re never gonna let, you’re never gonna let me down … He is for you, He is for you, He is for you …
There are of course critics and skeptics. All religious experience is bewildering, even suspect, for those who stand outside it. It is a reality both given and received, not grasped or possessed. Its truth abides in its own domain of experience. You can’t judge it at a distance, as a spectator. You have to go inside it, open your heart to it, be in loving relationship with it. As the mystics testify, certainty is only found within the experience.
Among believers, there is certainly a proper concern about delusion and self-deception. “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). But religious experience can be tested by its fruits. Asbury’s president, Kevin J. Brown, is an encouraging witness to the Outpouring’s authenticity:
“Since the first day, there have been countless expressions and demonstrations of radical humility, compassion, confession, consecration, and surrender unto the Lord. We are witnessing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Some may worry that the strongly personal nature of the Asbury Outpouring excludes concerns beyond the self like racism, social justice, global conflict, and the fate of the planet. However, nothing I have seen or read so far suggests that these young people disconnect personal transformation from social change. Surrendering to God is inseparable from a lifetime of service to neighbor and world. One’s own soul is too small a kingdom for the Lord of history. The collective witness and shared compassion of the Outpouring bears witness to that truth.
As for the abundance of deep feeling, vulnerability, open-heartedness, and the ecstatic willingness to be swept away, we need more, not less of that in the Christian life. Those kids are singing and praying and testifying as if their lives depend on it; as if God matters more than anything; as if Jesus will wipe away the tears from every eye; as if a new reality is breaking through the cracks of our broken world.
But can it last? The particular happening in Asbury’s chapel is winding down this week. The university needs to resume its institutional mission, and the town of Wilmore, hospitable as it has been, can’t handle the crowds forever. “It is not ours to hold alone,” Brown says. “We are not the keepers of this movement … Pray that what is happening here will spread.”
Although it seems a bit sad that this foretaste of heaven—singing around the throne for all eternity—must come to an end in the temporal world, the Holy Spirit blows where it will. Outbreaks of public Christian fervor and collective spiritual passion may turn up elsewhere, take new forms, or return to a dormant state until the next eruption. Revelation, not longevity, is the point of epiphanies. They have their moment and vanish, but their impact—and the truth they manifest—endures in hearts and minds and communities.
I have no doubt that many of those who are living through this experience will be forever changed by it, as will the worlds they inhabit and the people they touch. Professor Baldwin, recalling similar revivals at Asbury in the 1950s and 1970s, notes that “people still talk about those [past] moments in revival that shaped the trajectory of how they chose to live for the sake of the Lord onward from that. That’s a hope that we would have for this.”
Even watching online from afar, I have found myself deeply moved by the Spirit-filled assembly. I especially love the heartfelt singing and the manifestation of shared joy. One of my favorite parts was today’s invitation for people to come forward and recite their favorite verses from Scripture. When a small African-American boy read from the prophet Joel (2:28), delivering that luminous text with his boyish voice—innocent as Eden—I was blown away:
Then I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old ones shall dream dreams, and your young ones shall see visions …
Joel’s prophecy has taken flesh at Asbury, day after day since the eighth of February—all those beautiful young faces, shining with God’s future. Like the rest of us, they will lose it and find it again and again. But they have set their feet upon the sacred Way. God bless them.
The words of Clint Baldwin, Asher Braughton, Lauren, Lena and Kyle (the youth minister) are taken from a February 12 conversation with Shane Claiborne on his YouTube channel, Red Letter Christians: “Update from the Asbury University Revival”
The words of Asbury President Kevin J. Brown can be found at the Outpouring link above.
The first day of February is Candlemas Eve, and the second is Candlemas Day. As the fortieth day after the Nativity, Candlemas marks the final event in the Infancy narratives, when, in accordance with Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph presented the baby Jesus to be blessed in the Jerusalem temple. You can find a reflection on that gospel story in my 2019 post, “Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas.”
In medieval Europe, people would bring a candle to the church to be blessed on Candlemas. Then they would make a communal candlelight procession in honor of the Christ, whom Simeon, in the Presentation narrative, called “a light to enlighten the nations” (Luke 2:32). A Candlemas prayer beseeches the Light of the world “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”
In the northern hemisphere, this celebration of light coincides with the lengthening of days. We’ve all begun to rejoice that the days are starting a little earlier, lasting a little longer. Sceptics who dismiss Christian festivals as hostile takeovers of pagan celebrations miss the point. The truth of the Incarnate Logos as the deep structure of creation does not compete with the patterns and rhythms of nature; it completes them. In Old English, sunne(“sun”) and sunu (“son”) are nearly identical, allowing a perfect theological pun: Christ is both sodfaesta sunnan leoma (“radiance of the true sun”) and sunu soþan fæder (“Son of the true Father”).
An early Anglo-Saxon poem on the winter solstice, beautifully translated by medieval scholar Eleanor Parker, celebrates the return of the light as Christological:
As you, God born of God long ago, Son of the true Father, eternally existed without beginning in the glory of heaven, so your own creation cries with confidence to you now for their needs, that you send that bright sun to us, and come yourself to lighten those who long have lived surrounded by shadows and darkness, here in everlasting night, who, shrouded by sins, have had to endure death’s dark shadow. 
Winter’s cold and dark are not quickly undone. Poised midway between winter solstice and vernal equinox, Candlemas is a transitional feast—the last of winter, the first of spring. It will take time for spring to come: now still contends with not yet. “How long the winter has lasted,” lamented New England poet Jane Kenyon, “—like a Mahler / symphony, or an hour in the dentist’s chair.” My friends in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska echo this seasonal weariness in their Facebook posts. But for those who are faithful and alert, Candlemas marks the turning point, reawakening the hope that spring is on its way.
Long-term weather forecasts in early February have been going on for centuries, but they always hedge their bets. A sunny Candlemas is but a brief glimpse of future glory, more of a promise than a gift in hand. If the groundhog or the bear emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, back it goes into hibernation, for spring is still six weeks away. Hope’s object will not be rushed, as traditional wisdom reminds us:
If Candlemas Day is fair and clear, There’ll be two winters in one year. (Scotland)
If Candlemas Day be sunny and warm, Ye may mend yer auld mittens and look for a storm. (Cumbria)
In other words, as T. S. Eliot put it, “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” But for Ukrainians shivering in the shadow of war; for the homeless huddled in our frigid cities; for the abused and the outcast suffering storms of violence; for African-Americans terrorized by a nation that walks in darkness—Spring can never come soon enough.
Let us keep the feast: Light a candle; Trust the radiance; Become the Spring.
The Menologium, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker in her fascinating and poetic book, Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2022), 88-89. The “five nights” refers to the Anglo-Saxon reckoning of February 6 as the last day of winter before it is “carried out” to make room for spring.
 Jane Kenyon, “Walking Alone in Late Winter,” in Collected Poems (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 77. Personally, I will take Mahler over the dentist every time.
 Charles Kightly, The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopedia of Living Traditions (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 66.
 T.S. Eliot, “East Coker, III” in Four Quartets (1943). The poet goes on to say, “Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” Until it fully arrives, God’s future exceeds adequate description and cannot be grasped. The reader will note that this essay’s title is a positive reversal of the opening line of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”
Gaudete! Gaudete! Christus est natus Ex Maria Virgine. Gaudete!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary. Rejoice!
So goes the joyful refrain of a late medieval carol, and even though the celebration of the Divine Birth is still two weeks away, the note of rejoicing (Gaudete! Gaudete!) is already beginning to dispute the wintry gloom in our Scripture readings, our hymns, and our expectant hearts.
For many centuries, the Third Sunday of Advent has been called Gaudete Sunday—Rejoice Sunday. In the Advent wreath, the somber blue is replaced by a brighter, warmer shade of rose. Churches lucky enough to have rose vestments will be using them today. And in the Common Lectionary cycle of readings, the word “rejoice” turns up in each of the three years.
In Year C, the prophet Zephaniah exhorts his disheartened people, “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem” (Zephaniah 3:14). And St. Paul, overflowing with the Spirit, urges the first Christians to make joy a constant spiritual practice: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he said. “Again I will say, Rejoice (Philippians 4:4)
In Year B, Isaiah tells us, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10), while Mary’s heart pours out the Magnificat’s ode to joy: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1:47).
And now, in Year A, Isaiah promises that even the most barren and forsaken places will become a paradise in God’s future: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom,” he assures us. “God’s ransomed exiles shall return …Gladness and joy shall come upon them, while sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).
Such hopeful refrains lift up our hearts and light a bright candle in the dark. But we also heed the voice of St. James, who curbs our enthusiasm with his “Not so fast! The Kingdom doesn’t come all at once. We’ve got to be patient” (James 5:7).
And we know he’s right. We still abide in a severely damaged history which seems to repeat itself rather than make real progress toward the horizon of God’s future. We have been shocked in recent years to see such seemingly outdated sins as overt racism and anti-Semitism come roaring back, like the alarming return of “conquered” diseases like polio and measles.
The French thinker Jean Baudrillard wrote about the myth of human progress just before the Millennium, critiquing the optimistic talk of a New World Order by reminding us that humanity continues to have a serious waste disposal problem (theologians would call this Original Sin, the persistent flaw that burdens and bedevils every human endeavor).
As Baudrillard put it, “The problem becomes one of waste. It is not just material substances, including nuclear ones, which pose a waste problem but also the defunct ideologies, bygone utopias, dead concepts and fossilized ideas which continue to pollute our mental space. Historical and intellectual refuse pose an even more serious problem than industrial waste. Who will rid us of the sediment of centuries of stupidity?” [i]
I ask that question every day when I see the news! But the genius of Advent is its ability to perform the difficult dance of honesty and hope. It doesn’t deny the darkness, but it also refuses to accept the black hole of unredeemed history as an inescapable fate. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,” we pray, “and put on the armor of light”—not just in some distant utopian future, but “now, in the time of this mortal life.”
Now, now, now. But also not yet. Gaudete, but also Kyrie eleison. Rowan Williams, borrowing an image from Diadochus, a fifth-century bishop, describes Advent spirituality as the practice of “looking east in winter.”
“Looking east in winter we feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, while still sensing an icy chill at our backs. Our divided and distorted awareness of the world is not healed instantly. But we are not looking at the phenomenon from a distance: we do truly sense the sun on our faces; and we have good reason to think that the climate and landscape of our humanity can indeed be warmed and transfigured.” [ii]
The next time there is a sunny morning, go stand somewhere on our island’s eastern shore. Feel the chill at your back, and the warming sunlight on your face. Do it without words. Let those contrary sensations of cold and warmth be your Advent prayer.
Not every morning brings a bright sun, of course. Sometimes the warmth of hope is a matter of faith, not immediate experience. Yet even when we can’t feel it, God is redeeming the time and preparing the dawn. And when we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us,” the Holy One is listening.
“Stir up your power” is such a striking prayer, a bold cry of the heart to the One who saves. [iii] And because it is always the Collect-prayer for this day, Gaudete Sunday is also known as “Stir up” Sunday. But what do we mean when we call upon divine power? What does the power of God look like in the world we inhabit?
Well, it looks a lot like what happened when Jesus arrived: “The blind see, the lame dance, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news” (Matthew 11:5). It’s not a violent head-on clash with the powers of this world—meeting them on their own bloody terms—but the liberation of the faithful into a new form of being, enabling the friends of God to “plant the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [iv]
In Roberto Rossellini’s film, Europe ‘51 (1952), Ingrid Bergman plays a wealthy woman who gives up all her privilege to serve the poor and vulnerable. Rossellini, who had made a joyful film about St. Francis two years earlier, wanted to explore what would happen if someone behaved like St. Francis in the contemporary world. As it turns out in Europe ‘51, Irene (Bergman’s character) is judged to be insane by her husband, her social class, her doctors, and her Church, and the film ends with her locked away in an asylum. The powers-that-be have decided that there is no place in the world for the impracticality of unconditional love.
But even as Irene suffers this sad fate, we see her continue to be who she is, embodying God’s compassion for her fellow inmates. Like the incarnate God enclosed within the finite space of the Virgin’s womb, she can still practice heaven within the confines of the asylum. As she comforts a despairing woman who has tried to commit suicide, we see Irene, in a close-up reminiscent of an icon, speaking the words of Christ: “You are not alone. Don’t worry. I am with you. I will not leave you.” She becomes, in that moment, what we are all invited to become: an image of Christ for others.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. But God’s idea of “great might” is not the way the world understands it. No lightning bolts. No legions of angels. Just a babe in a manger, a tortured man on a cross, a disciple locked in an asylum. As W. H. Auden said in the Advent portion of his Christmas Oratorio: “The Real is what will strike you as really absurd.” Or as an old carol puts it, “Weakness shall the strong confound.” [v]
In another of his poems, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden suggests that poetry operates much like divine power. Poetry “makes nothing happen,” he says. In other words, poetry doesn’t force its will upon the world, but in offering an alternate perspective for engaging reality, it makes the world different nonetheless. Auden describes poetry as if it were a stream, making its own way through the landscape.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.
In his analysis of this poem, John Burnside notes that poetry’s work is “to survive—not in some dogged but enfeebled fashion, hanging on, though barely noticed, in an indifferent world, but actively, on its own terms—that is, ‘in the valley of its own making.’” The ‘executives’—the powers-that-be—take no notice. It means nothing to them. But “poetry flows on, through and away from ‘the busy griefs’ and the ‘raw towns that we believe in and die in,’ its business is more fundamental, its true nature more elemental” than the ‘executives’ can imagine.[vi]
And just so does the power of God flow through the world. Not to force anything to happen in a blunt cause-and-effect way, but to exist, like the waters of baptism, as an inviting and life-giving reality: “It survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
We find this same image of the flowing, living water in today’s passage from Isaiah: “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sands shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isaiah 35:6-7).
The concluding words of Auden’s stanza, “a mouth,” may strike our ears jarringly after the metaphor of a quietly flowing stream, but both poetry and God are given to speech: In the beginning was the Word.
And in the same way that the “Stir up” prayer beseeches the God who saves, Auden’s poem, written on the eve of World War II, calls upon the poet to speak a word against all the dark sorrows of the world:
In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate …
Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice … [vii]
There’s that word again: rejoice. We have prayed for a word of power today, and what we are given is: Gaudete! Rejoice! God’s power will never compel us to rejoice, or to hope, or to love. But it will always seek to persuade us, until the end of time.
[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 26
[ii] Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter:Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), 8.
[iii] The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”
[iv] I can’t locate the source of this quote from an old homily, but it may be from either Paul Evdokimov or Olivier Clément.
[v] Auden’s line is from “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (Collected Poems, Random House, 1976, p. 274). The carol line is from Gabriel’s Message (trans. J. M. Neale). Like Gaudete, it is in the famous Piae Cantiones collection of 1582.
[vi] John Burnside, The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 23.
[vii] W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (Collected Poems, 197-198).
Praise, praise! I croak. Praise God for all that’s holy, cold, and dark. Praise him for all we lose, for all the river of the years bears off. Praise him for the stillness in the wake of pain. Praise him for emptiness … Praise him for dying and the peace of death.
Frederick Buechner, one of the greatest of contemporary Christian writers, has departed this life. Born July 11, 1926, he died on August 15, 2022. Buechner pursued a life of faith in an age of doubt, and his wrestling with the language and content of belief in books, sermons and lectures has inspired, instructed, and delighted countless believers and seekers.
My first encounter with his striking words and novel images was during my senior year in college. On the last Sunday of Advent, 1965, my father, James K. Friedrich, a priest and film producer, staged a dramatic reading of Buechner’s imaginative rendering of the Nativity story at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. Before a packed congregation, three distinguished Hollywood actors, two of whom were members of that parish, played the roles of Shepherd, Innkeeper, and Wise Man, each recalling his own experience on that strange night in Bethlehem.
Edward G. Robinson—whose original given name was Emmanuel—registered the Shepherd’s amazement with his familiar dusky growl:
“The air wasn’t just emptiness any more. It was alive. Brightness everywhere, dipping and wheeling like a flock of birds. And what you always thought was silence stopped being silent and turned into the beating of wings, thousands and thousands of them. Only not wings, as you came to more, but voices—high, wild, like trumpets. The words I could never remember later, but something like what I’d yelled with my mouth full of bread, ‘By God, it’s good, brothers! The crust. The mud. Everything. Everything.’”
Frederic Worlock, a veteran character actor in dozens of films from How Green Was My Valley to 101 Dalmations, sounded the Innkeeper’s lament with his distinctive British voice:
“All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come – we all of us do – our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.”
And the formidable Raymond Massey lent a patrician aura to the Wise Man’s melancholy reflection on his brief encounter with the Real.
“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the new-born child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.”
Only in retrospect would the Magus realize that “to live without him is the real death … to die with him is the only life.” [ii]
You can hear a 23-minute recording of the 1965 performance, “A Christmas Triptych,” here:
Searching for the Holy One in our midst is a core theme of Buechner’s work. His vivid description of a papal mass on Christmas Eve, when the writer was in his early thirties, is one of my favorite moments in all his writings. When Pius XII, carried on a golden throne by Swiss guards, passed among the throng in St. Peter’s that night, his glasses “glittering in the candlelight,” he was “peering into the crowd with extraordinary intensity,” as though he were “looking for someone in particular.”
It was Christ he was looking for, thought Buechner, and a theologian might insist that the holy face was already “visible, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night.” For the old pope that wasn’t enough. There was intense longing in his face, but Buechner also detected a “madness”—as if the pope were straining to exceed any settled account of reality.
And it is the madness that has haunted me through the years. Madness because I suspect he hoped that Christ himself had come back that night as more than just the deepest humanity of everyone’s humanity, that Impossibility itself stood there resplendent in that impossible place. [iii]
All of Buechner’s work is an attempt to put that Impossibility into words, that we might see and grasp its invitation to new life. His nine years as chaplain to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire were formative for him. The student body was a diverse and youthfully cynical lot, and Buechner’s challenge as a preacher was how to connect with the unwilling and the unbelieving. I attended an Episcopal school with compulsory chapel in the same years Buechner was at Exeter, and much later I would preach a sermon at Groton, Franklin Roosevelt’s Episcopal prep school. I know how daunting a roomful of resistant and dubious faces can be. For Buechner, the experience was a refiner’s fire. He learned how to make the case for faith in a fresh and accessible tongue. He did it with a remarkable gift for narrative and phrasing. “It’s on the house,” for example, was his translation of “divine grace.” But he also gained credibility by taking doubt seriously.
In our culture of disbelief, where the awareness of divine presence does not come naturally, even believers must live with persistent doubts. There is no way to prove there’s anything beyond the visible world, that our choices have an ultimate dimension, or that our heart’s desire has an abiding home.
Buechner never denied the validity of doubt. The only thing certain about faith is that it may not be true. “How could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?” he said. “If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. [iv] But it’s always “a fifty-fifty chance” between faith and doubt.[v] You have to choose—not between specific linguistic formulations, which even at their best cannot encompass the Real—but between saying Yes or No when Love invites you to dance.
“To be a saint,” Buechner wrote, “is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.” [vi]
In Buechner’s Nativity dialogues cited above, the Divine Mystery has appeared in the world. The Shepherd embraces it. The Innkeeper fails to notice. The Wise Man, reckoning the cost to himself, refuses the offer. Those remain our options as well. And in a lifetime of extraordinary writings, Frederick Buechner explored the urgency of the choices set before us. We can choose life; we can choose death. We can say Yes; we can say No. Or we can simply ignore the big questions and opt for the unexamined life.
One of Buechner’s great influences was the Scottish writer George MacDonald, who, like himself, was an ordained minister. In 1990, I heard Buechner conclude a lecture with lines from MacDonald’s novel, Thomas Wingfold, Curate. Published in 1876, it posited faith as a brave rejection of the depressing sway of Victorian doubt. The way of faith may not be provable, argues MacDonald’s fictional curate, but it will always be more beautiful—and more “true”—than the alternative. No wonder Buechner loved this passage:
Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths, and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further … and say, I would rather die for evermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those that deny him.
Buechner died at 96. When my mother died at the same age in 2010, I happened to find a quote from his novel Godric among her papers. I put those words on the cover of her requiem bulletin, below a Byzantine image of Christ rescuing the dead from their tombs:
I see a star, said Godric, at the age of 100 and more. Sometimes this star is still, sometimes she dances. Within that little pool of Wear she winks at me. I wink at her. The secret that we share I cannot tell in full. But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. [vii]
[i] Frederick Buechner, Godric (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1980/1983), 96.
[ii] The performance of the text as “A Christmas Triptych” was in December, 1965.Buechner’s text would be published the next year in The Magnificent Defeat (Seabury Press, 1966)..
[iii] Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1969/1985).
[iv] Ibid., The Alphabet of Grace (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1970/1989), 47.
[v] Ibid., The Book of Bebb (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 143. In the novel, Bebb is asked what he believes. “I believe in everything.” “You make it sound easy,” the other says, and Bebb replies, “It’s hard as hell.”