The Christmas rant is over

By W. Christopher Evans

The Christmas rant is over again,
we’ve heard about the one true meaning,
not to be confused with holiday happenings
of home and hearth, of kith and kin.
But what if this is a sad division?
And I say it is. May it cease.

The Word, Wisdom, Sophia, Logos,
Reason, Pattern, Beginning, End,
through Whom all things were made
and are made and by whom you, I, we exist,
Who spoke and speaks into being all creation,
every little bit,
is ever since the first of time been at work
among us along with that Other Hand,
the Holy Spirit.

This Word invites us into lives of connection,
relatedness, fellowship, service, friendship,
though we slink back time and again
to selfishness, cruelty, certainty,
separateness, animosity.

Yes, there will be bickering and shovery
and maybe the family member or friend
who baits everyone with rude comments
racist, classist, rightist, leftist, centrist,
and maybe the one who finally comes out,
or tells of unexpected pregnancy,
or shares of beginning recovery:
Rejoice with them!

But this being-brought-together
in the midst of our imperfections
vulnerabilities, frailties, struggling
is precisely the Word become flesh,
Glad Tidings, Emmanuel, God-With-Us
happening, dwelling, showing
just a little bit, if not yet, the finish
in us.

Those who snarl at Christmas treats
before the time is come,
and who cringe at Christmas songs
too early sung,
who are more worried about a pure Advent
than a loving heart enthroning,
perhaps these too miss the Reason
Whose flesh embraces all that
and them.

Perhaps the One True Meaning
touches everyone, means many,
songs sung too early and reveling
bickering and even rants
point to One working to gather
everything within.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular


Embracing the metaphor of light

By George Clifford

A few months ago in Paris, I watched at sunset as the lights of the Eifel Tower were turned on. The Tower shimmered and sparkled, then the lights settled into a steady glow, a splash of light against a drab gray sky.

Light is a metaphor woven into the tapestry of Scripture:
• Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” a theme repeatedly voiced in John’s gospel.
• The first Epistle of John describes God as light and exhorts readers to walk in the light.
• God led Israel in the wilderness at night by the light of a pillar of fire.
• Job when depressed is in darkness; when God speaks, the light returns to Job’s personal world.
• The Psalmist implores God to let the light of God’s face on people.
• The Psalmist also describes God as the one who lights the way in the darkness.
• Additionally, the Psalmist portrays God as light and salvation.
• Isaiah spoke of the people on whom light has shined and that the light, the glory of the nations has come, a sentiment echoed in Matthew.
• Jesus describes his followers as the light of the world.
• The book of Acts, in several places, uses light to describe the life and mission of God’s people.
• The Pauline epistles use light as a metaphor for God, for the transformation that occurs when people encounter God, and for the mission of the Church.

Light, however, is a metaphor for God that has consistently taken a backseat to anthropomorphic (human images) metaphors. I wonder if perhaps the time has come to discard anthropomorphism in favor of light. Bishops John Shelby Spong and John A.T. Robinson have popularized the deconstruction of the antiquated, anachronistic, and anthropomorphic images of God. Those metaphors are well past their sell-by dates.

On the one hand, considerable psychological evidence exists that confirm philosophical suggestions that anthropomorphism represents human projections. The supernaturalism associated with anthropomorphism is increasingly problematic and rightly pilloried by atheists, especially following the helpful deconstruction of the death of God theologians.

On the other hand, no alternative metaphor for God has yet gained widespread traction or credibility, e.g., Tillich’s ground of being is remembered by few apart from academically trained theologians and clergy.

Perhaps light is an apt metaphor for God in the early twenty-first century.

Mike Higton, in his biography of Rowan Williams, Difficult Gospel, identifies light as the Archbishop’s dominant metaphor for God (p. 19). The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, instead of engaging in interminable internecine warfare, would do well to explore the metaphor of light as an image for God.

Light is not well-understood, which is certainly true of God. Light has properties of both waves and particles but does not fit into either category. Light has power. For example, human life is impossible without light and part from the light, people tend to become depressed, sometimes even to search for meaning. Light fills the darkness, which has no substance or being but is merely the absence of light. People tend to behave differently, better, in the light than in the darkness.

Light is a metaphor grounded in Scripture but not anthropomorphic, which opens the door to conversations with members of the other two great monotheisms, Islam and Judaism, about God’s nature. Light, as a metaphor for ultimate reality, may also represent a new beginning for conversations with other religious traditions.

Light is not personal in the sense of one human having a relationship with another human. Nevertheless, light is personal in that each person’s experience of light is uniquely his or her own, as is true for all perception. The same seems likely to be true for the light that is the life of the world. There is one light that is perceived in individually unique ways.

Unless the Church successfully articulates new metaphors for God that powerfully capture the imagination of moderns, offering transformative and life giving hope in a broken world, the Church itself is likely to be antiquated and anachronistic.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

The miracle doesn't end at the manger

By Sylvia Miller-Mutia

People love to tell you, when you're expecting your first child, all about how much becoming a parent is going to change you. About how your world is going to turn upside down, and you're never going to be the same again.

But I found that I changed far more, and learned far more (about myself and about God), with the birth of my second child, than with the birth of my first. It's hard to imagine how the birth of a second child could be as miraculous as the birth of a first. My sister was even a little worried as the birth of my second child—her second niece—approached. “Sylvia,” she confided, “I'm a little worried because I can't imagine how I could love another baby as much as I love Alexandra! I don't know if I have that much love!”

With my first child, I was predictably (if somewhat absurdly) in awe. She can smile! She can gurgle! Oh my gosh, she can roll over! She's a genius! With our second, I expected to be a little less awestruck. So she can sit up. Big deal...her big sister can do cartwheels. But it wasn't like that at all. I was surprised to discover just as much awe and delight in my younger daughter as she learned to smile, to sit, to speak. The miracles, I discovered, just multiplied. The love just multiplied, too (which my sister, who is herself a second child, was relieved to discover.)

Christmas steeps us in the miraculous birth of Jesus, this child, who was born, not of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God. This child whose birth made angels sing, and shepherds dance, and magi change their course to follow a star halfway across the world. This child whose birth brought joy to the world, and peace to God's people on earth. This child whose birth made heaven and nature sing.

But we miss out on the full extent of the miracle of the Christmas season if we think the miracle stops with the birth of a single baby in Bethlehem.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth, John writes.

When John’s Gospel writes of the “Father's only son”, the Greek word he uses is monogenes. Which doesn't signify “only” so much as it signifies “unique” or “one-of-a-kind”.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's one-of-a-kind son, full of grace and truth.

Any parent will tell you that every child is “one of a kind”. Despite the birth of her younger sister, Alexandra remains “monogenes”--completely unique and completely irreplaceable—but she is no longer my only child.

I don't want us to make too little of the “one of a kind-ness” of Jesus...the child of God so close to the Father's heart that he reveals to us the very face of God. But neither do I want us to make too much of it. Because if we make too much of the “one of a kind-ness” of Jesus we risk missing an important point in John’s prologue, and we fall short of embracing the full miracle of Christmas.

John tells us that “To all who received Jesus, he gave power to become children of God...born not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

That strange story of a child conceived and birthed through the mysterious cooperation of divine and human forces...that story doesn't just belong to Jesus. That can be our story, too.

Through this Christmas season we are not just celebrating the mystery of Jesus' birth. We are celebrating the mysterious possibility of our own birth as children of God.

You and I have been given the power to become the younger sisters and brothers of Jesus, God's first-born child. Like my younger daughter, Johanna, who ceaselessly watches and imitates her older sister, to the best of her ability, we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and do our best to imitate him.

Just as I delight in Johanna, so God delights in us. God isn't disappointed that we fall short of Jesus' example, like... “what's the big deal? You helped a stranger? Your big brother raises the dead.” God delights in every baby step we take, as we grow up as children of God.

If we dare to accept it, our birth as the children of God will make angels sing, and peasants dance, and wise people change their course. Our birth as the children of God will bring joy to the world and peace to God's people on earth. Our birth as children of God will make heaven and nature sing.

The miracle of Christmas began with the birth of child in Bethlehem, and it continues each day with our birth as children of God.

Through this Christmas season let us meditate on this mystery - what might it mean for you and for me to be born a child of God? And how might our birth as God's children bring joy to the world?

The Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia, is Youth and Family Minister at St. Gregory's, San Francisco. She is a dancer, teacher and recently ordained priest who just began her ministry at St. Gregory’s.

The holy innocents

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

Jesus is born

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Of labyrinths, wreaths, and Advent

By Richard E. Helmer

The week before Thanksgiving, I received an email from a self-proclaimed Christian labyrinth expert in Australia, who was inviting recipients to view a set of three YouTube videos on the history of the ancient symbol. As I watched the first installment, I realized pretty quickly that through a series of logical leaps buoyed by cherry-picked scriptural verses (including some from Revelation) he had concluded that the labyrinth had no place in Christianity. In fact, he claimed, it was a symbol of evil and death. I found this perspective profoundly sad, given the slow, steady trickle of faithful, prayerful pilgrims that come to walk our labyrinth at our parish, or that our children regularly circle around it on Sunday mornings to make music to God and pray together as Christ taught us. My experience, along with the experience of so many in our community, is that the labyrinth is a place to encounter God, to empty ourselves and reflect on our inner journey, to find God’s calling for each of us, to walk on a path that – like the path of all our lives – wanders inevitably by grace into God’s heart.

When I wrote back to the author asking him to take our office off his email list, I received a reply essentially telling me I was flouting God’s Word. The argument was clearly over before it started, but I couldn’t resist reminding him that Christians have a long, hallowed history of turning profane symbols sacred – from the basilica to the Christmas Tree, from the labyrinth to the cross: itself originally a symbol of shameful, imperial execution. His study had begun with the labyrinth that held the Minotaur of ancient Greek legend. Our Christian labyrinth, on the other hand, is empty. It is empty, it strikes me, for two principle reasons: to welcome what pilgrims bring to it, and to make room for our encounter with the divine.

The whole conversation brought home to me what happens during Advent. As we begin a new year on the Church calendar, our sacred world fills with symbols – many of them adopted by Christians over the centuries from non-Christian sources. The Advent Wreath, connected with indigenous religions of Northern Europe, reminds us of the cycle of the life, the turn of the seasons, and our anticipation of the coming of Christ: the Light of the World. This year, we host a giving tree in our parish, a Christmas Tree adorned with the wishes and needs of our sisters and brothers living on the edge of survival. We are each invited to take one of these wishes and offer a gift to fulfill the need. Meanwhile, we begin to recount the story in which the promised birth of the Messiah captures not only the attention of a temple priest and a young virgin in Nazareth, but pagan astrologers in distant lands, shepherds on the fringes of society, and otherworldly, angelic beings.

Br. Jude Hill, in a recent talk at our parish about Franciscan spirituality, told us that in classical Western Christianity, there is often depicted a divine “Plan A” and “Plan B” for the world. Plan A is traditionally regarded as the Garden of Eden. When we make a mess of paradise, God implements Plan B: the coming of Jesus for our sins, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.

But in Franciscan spirituality, there was never any Plan B. There was only one plan, and that was the Incarnation. God’s love for Creation and the human family was so great, the divine simply had to be born into it. . . to be with us, to be one of us. Sin is not undone by the satisfaction of a blood sacrifice to a wrathful God, but by a gracious God who embraces every failing in our human nature by becoming one of us and thereby lovingly transforming us – even the parts of us as horrifying, deadly, and painful as the cross – and making us utterly anew. And it was the Franciscans who introduced to us the living nativity scene, the root of our myriad annual Christmas pageants where the children dress up, recount the story, gather around the crèche and sing to the newborn Christ child. It is there we celebrate the Incarnation, the in-breaking of God’s reign for all times and places.

In one of our Eucharistic Prayers, we recount that God in Christ “yearned to draw all the world to himself,” the sense in which everything that we have been and are and will be, complete with our symbols both sacred and profane, are claimed by God in Christ and made anew in the Incarnation. Distant pagan wisdom journeys to mark the new reality. Shepherds are the first to hear of Emmanuel, God With Us. A peasant girl in a little-known Galilean village becomes the Mother of God. Labyrinths, rather than death traps for dangerous creatures, become life-giving opportunities to encounter God. Tribal symbols of darkness and light become reflections of the in-breaking of a God, the Light for all time and all peoples. All reality itself is undone and remade by God among us. This, to me, is the glory and hope of Advent and Christmastide, and so it remains among my favorite seasons of the Church Year.

Cluttered and busy it may be, but then it always has been. For God is not just busy reclaiming Christian souls, but the whole of the Cosmos. And that is a whole lot. . .a whole lot of Good News in a time where we need it now more than ever.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif., and a postulant in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs at Caught by the Light.

The poetry of Handel's Messiah

By Kathleen Staudt
This shopping season, I’ve already received two videos of “flash mobs” singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus in unexpected public places – a mall food court, at Macy’s in Philadelphia, to the accompaniment of the Wanamaker organ. (See them here and here In these videos no one seems to be offended by “Christian” content – there is wonder and delight in the music – in both cases performed by very able singers! Something hopeful and exciting has burst in on the mundane, and people seem to appreciate it. I think that these videos capture not only the fun of this kind of guerilla culture-event, but also the hopefulness that is carried in the words and music of that particular piece. And it has got me thinking of how important Handel’s Messiah as a whole has been to my own formation over the years.

A recording of Messiah was the first “adult” Christmas present I remember receiving. I was 16, and had sung a few choruses from Messiah in high school chorus. My parents gave me the Robert Shaw Chorale’s performance, my very own – probably the first classical album I owned, too. I cried when I opened it. I hadn’t realized how much I really wanted to be able to listen to this music.

Why did I like the Messiah so much as a young person? I think I was responding to the way that it uses the poetry of Scripture to tell a profound story, without insisting on belief or professions of faith. It was a time of my life when I was beginning to ask what it meant to be a Christian in a world where not everyone was Christian, and especially what it meant to be a thinking person who embraced Christian belief, and with it Christian hope?

I already knew the Bible pretty well from my Presbyterian Sunday school upbringing , and I was also a universalist (still am) in my thinking about the salvation on offer to us from a God whose mercy surpasses ours. . To me Messiah, performed in all kinds of secular contexts in the Easter and Christmas seasons, seemed to present Christian faith in a broad, nondenominational but deeply committed way. I still look forward to hearing the whole thing performed at least once a year. Familiar as it is, it is also poetic theology at its best. The music carries and interprets the words, and all the words are from the Bible. The text and music work together, revealing the radical hope that is the underlying thread of the Biblical story. And perhaps most strikingly, in this oratorio that tells the story of Jesus, the majority (not all, but the majority) of the texts are taken, not from the gospels but from Hebrew Scripture.

The librettist of Messiah was a Balliol educated Shakespeare scholar named Charles Jennens (1707-1773). He was a staunch Protestant but a “non-juror – i.e. he refused to recognize the Hanoverian dynasty that was ruling England. He was a huge admirer of Handel, and evidently a devout man, steeped in Scripture and in the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. Disillusioned with the earthly king, he seems to have placed his hope in the promise of God’s kingdom coming on earth. (and so in words most of us can sing: the text from Revelation: “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.”)

As a poetic text, the libretto of Messiah is both lyrical and distinctively “Anglican” in feel; like the Book of Common Prayer it stitches together pieces of Scripture in a way that creates a theologically grounded narrative. But this isn’t simply Christian triumphalism: these same Blblical texts, in their original context in Hebrew Scripture, invite us to a way of reading the whole of “salvation history” as told in Hebrew Scripture as an essential part of our ongoing story as Christians.

Within Hebrew Scripture (the “Old Testament”) the overall story is of a God who desires to redeem his people, and does so by calling them out to be a “chosen people”, bound by covenant and formed by joyful obedience to the law. In various ways, and at various points in history, they disobey, fall away from the promise, and terrible, hideous things happen. Sometimes they heed the call to return, but in the era of Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, 722- 520 BCE, the story is of their repeated failures to the messengers of God, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah especially, who warn them that the failure of rulers and people to live faithfully will ultimately result in disaster. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile in Babylon are understood as God’s righteous punishment of Israel, and the ultimate return from Babylon and rebuilding of the temple is seen as evidence of God’s abiding mercy and love for God’s people.

Underlying all of this is the theology of a Creator-God, a God of both Justice and Mercy, reliable and intimately engaged with history. The prophetic voice known as 2nd Isaiah (which begins at Chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah) dates from the time when exile is ending and those exiled from Judah are being called to return. Speaking to the remnant of Jerusalem, those who have stayed behind, the prophet predicts that there will be a path through the wilderness, leading back to Jerusalem, and the glory of the Lord will be restored to its rightful place in the Temple: “Comfort ye, my people.” He says on God’s behalf . . . “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. . . every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed (see Isaiah 40: 1-11). By beginning the whole oratorio with this text, Jennens/Handel remind us how central to all of Scripture is the story of Exile and Return – the recurring plot of a God who ultimately desires healing and restoration, despite human perversity. And following ancient Christian tradition, they imply that the coming of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.

The other theme from Hebrew Scripture, perhaps more alive for those in the 18th century than for us now, is the prophecy that the restoration of Jerusalem will involve the restoration of a thoroughly righteous king in the Davidic line: the Messiah. This is a tradition that viewed the reign of David as a golden age, when the king and people were faithful to God and lived in security and prosperity. They look forward to a ruler chosen by God and in intimate connection with God, who will preach peace. So the longing for Messiah joins with the postexilic theme that the chosen people are chosen to become a “light to the nations” – a beacon to all and a manifestation of God’s will for the world.

There are also apocalyptic themes but again couched in Messianic hope. Despite assaults by surrounding nations, despite world politics, as long as Jerusalem remains faithful to God, she will be preserved and will become ultimately the city of God, the place where God’s glory dwells. (In the later chapters of Isaiah and in postexilic prophets (Haggaie, Zephaniah, Micah), there is the expectation that after great trial, God’s kingdom will be restored, the temple purified, and the Anointed one will come.

So that’s the framework, the story as told in Hebrew Scripture. And I think Handel’s Messiah is sensitive to that poetry of exile, return, and ultimate hope.

While our Jewish neighbors are still waiting, we believe that Messiah has come, and that the era of the reign of God has begun, despite persistent human efforts to thwart it. We are waiting for the fulfillment of this (A Jewish friend once remarked, wisely, that the season of Advent is the time when the spirit of Jewish and Christian tradition are most closely connected—paradoxical as this seems.) What does it mean to believe, claim, proclaim this? I think that is the theological question that Handel’s Messiah is raising and exploring, for an audience that is mostly Anglican, highly educated, and wary of superstition and doctrine. So, arguably, he is somposing for a “modern” even secular, audience. Messiah carefully resists two common traps in Christian readings of the Old Testament throught the New. First, it is not dispensationalist (i.e. between the “old dispensation” ruled by an angry Old Testament God, and the “new dispensation” of grace and mercy, ruled by Jesus and excluding the Jews) No: Messiah presents the whole of Scripture as telling a continuous story of the divine mercy that longs to lead people out of darkness into light, out of death into life, to a final, confident Amen.

This is also not a piece that preaches Christian triumphalism: Many people listen to Messiah, whether they believe in the Christian story or not, and respond to the message of radical hope it carries. The emphasis of the story is apocalyptic, proclaiming the triumph of God and– a sense of the “fullness of time” -but it does not exalt a cultural and political Christianity trampling down more primitive faiths or knocking down the idols; it is not Constantinian or triumphalist. Rather, with a calm that belongs to the Age of Reason it demonstrates how the text of the Bible presents prophecy that is fulfilled in good time. It looks ahead to the reign of God – not to a human empire, but a time when human sinfulness is overcome and the reign of God is established (where Christ is, in the word’s of Revelation: “King of king and Lord of Lords) And he shall reign forever and ever.” Whether you believe it or not, it is a compelling story.

As for literary form, the basic approach in Messiah is juxtaposition: this is how we construct lyric poetry, as opposed to narrative or didactic poetry. Jennens had a narrative in mind – the story of salvation history. But he tells it by juxtaposing texts from Scripture. Isn’t this also how we do theology in our Anglican liturgical practice? Many of our most beloved services work through juxtaposition of Scriptural texts. Think of the readings at the Easter Vigil, or the beginning of the burial service, or , from the 20th century, the telling of the “whole story” in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

When we get New Testament texts in the first section of Messiah, they are usually juxtaposed to Old Testament texts, illuminating, interpreting them. So we have, for example, Isaiah 40: 11: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” alongside Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden. . . “ Each text interprets and validates the other. We have Jesus bringing in the New Covenant of grace – the theology is not explicit but it is expressed in the music, in the joyful chorus: “His yoke is easy, his burthen is light.”

Handel and Jennens could assume that their audience knew the Passion story, But whether you know the story or not, the poetry of the juxtaposed Scriptural passages carries it. The piece is not interested in any questions about personal belief or salvation or “who’s in and who’s out” . Rather it is interested in what “Kingdom of God” might look like –the fulfillment that has been promised all along. That is the focus of Parts 2 and 3 of Messiah, summed up for many in the music of the Hallelujah chorus -- very positive, focusing on coming of God’s kingdom on earth. The emphasis here is not on individual guilt or repentance, but more on divine suffering and victory for the sake of “us” – a universal human restoration. So the Passion story sings out as the fulfillment of the Chosen One’s calling using the prophet Isaiah’s descriptions of the Suffering Servant (He was despised and rejected. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”). Salvation has come. It is for all. And it has all been done for us. “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” – the Easter section begins – using a text from the book of Job. And it ends by giving life to the cryptic words from Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and the singing of an endless and cosmic chorus of Amen.

But the texts that stay with us most through the haunting familiar music of Messiah are from Second Isaiah . They tell of the hope of God’s people in the time of exile, as they awaited deliverance from exile and the return of a good king in the line of David. It is the hope we proclaim as Christians, believing that Messiah has come. It is ultimately, for the librettist of Messiah, a paradoxical, universal hope for all humanity: – rooted in ancient prophecies of exile and return: “Comfort ye, my people. . . . The People that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. . for unto us a child is born, . . . and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

The boundary walker: Nathan A. Scott, Jr.

By Frederick Quinn

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. died, four years ago this December, in Charlottesville, Va. He was one of the most significant Christian commentators on contemporary culture of the second half of the twentieth century and merits a place in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925, the only child of a 51 year old father and 41 year old mother, he was raised in Detroit, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan at age 19, from Union Theological Seminary at 21, and completed his Ph. D. from Columbia University at 24, while teaching religion at Howard University. A prolific author, Scott wrote seventeen books, edited nine others, and produced a steady stream of articles, book reviews, and essays. From 1955 to 1977 he taught at the University of Chicago and spent ten years as a canon of St. James’ Cathedral in Chicago, where he was a regular preacher and celebrant, and organized weekend seminars on spirituality and literature for Chicago clergy. In 1976 Scott and his wife, Charlotte A. Scott, became the first tenured black professors at the University of Virginia, she in business-economics, he in religion. He retired in 1990 and hoped to take a small Virginia parish, but by then lacked the stamina to do so.

Scott emerged as a leading Christian literary voice at a time when modern cultural criticism was turning toward Marxism, deconstructionism, new historicism, postcolonial, reader-response and a variety of other specialized schools of criticism. Drawing on the work of Paul Tillich, Scott staked bold claims – that religion gave culture its substance and that the great themes of alienation and the quest for unity central to writers as varied as Kafka, Camus, and Beckett were at heart religious issues. In a memorial sermon titled “The Boundary Walker” Samuel T. Lloyd III, a former graduate student of Scott’s at the University of Virginia, and now dean of Washington National Cathedral, recalled, “Nathan sought to articulate the Christian faith, within the language and thought forms of our time so that we can understand it in fresh ways. He believed that the faith conversation had to flow both ways. Secular thinkers had much to gain from recognizing the spiritual dimension at work in even the most non-religious works, and the church too had a great deal to gain from having its convictions tested and stretched in conversation with the spiritual quest of its time.” Lloyd, who Scott hoped would follow him in an academic-clerical career, described his mentor as a compelling preacher and lecturer. “He lived and wrote on the boundary between religion and literature, between the sacred and the secular, between the ancient and the modern, between theology and culture. But there were other boundaries he walked as well…As a black man from the North living out his climactic years in the heart of the Confederacy, he wrote eloquently about this crucial boundary divide in our culture.”

Despite making a substantial mark in his time, Scott is infrequently referred to now. Cultural criticism moved like a tornado in other directions during his professional lifetime. Scott called some of its trends “hermeneutical terrorism,” in a decade before such terminology had entered common usage. He was not a polemicist; his genius was in probing the depths of about forty key world authors over half a century, and relating them and their texts to biblical and contemporary issues. His collected sermons remain to be gathered and Scott awaits a biographer. His comments about himself were often guarded. But in a 1993 interview he reflected on the key influence of his father, who had been taught to read and write by the local postmaster in Laneville, Alabama, and who, after struggling to obtain an education, eventually became a lawyer in Detroit. “He had been taught Greek and Latin classics. By the time I was twelve years of age, he had taken me through the Latin text of Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars. I was the despair of my Latin teachers in junior and senior high school; they had noting to offer me. His daily devotional reading of the New Testament involved the koiné Greek text. He had an enormous passion for the Book. And when I was a small boy, he had already set me to reading the Fireside Poets (Greenleaf Whittier, Wadsworth Longfellow, and so on), as well as Browning and Tennyson. He had required me to commit to memory large blocks of this poetry by the time I was ten or eleven years of age. He contributed more to my formation than anybody else has ever done!”

The titles of some of Scott’s books suggest the range of his interests, Rehearsals of Discomposure: Alienation and Reconciliation in Modern Literature (1952), Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier (1958), Albert Camus (1962), Samuel Beckett (1957), The Climate of Faith in Modern Literature (1964), and The Wild Prayer of Longing (1971). Scott did not identify himself primarily as an African-American author, although he dedicated a book to his friends, Ralph and Fanny Ellison, and wrote a chapter on “Black Literature” in The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979). Some black authors felt he had sold out in writing about so many “dead white males,” a Jewish critic wrote in amazement in The New York Times Book Review that a black American should be writing about figures like Gerald Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Martin Heidegger. If a Jew had written about the same authors he did, Scott later reflected, it would not cause special comment. “Virtually no phase of American cultural enterprise is uninvaded by the racial animus that still ruinously indwells our national life, and I have not escaped its lashes,” he said in a 1993 essay, "A Ramble on a Road Taken", but added elsewhere, “American citizenship, for all of what is rotten in the country, is one of the great blessings in the world. And I believe it to be that.”

Scott’s manner was formal. An attentive listener, he could be initially guarded in conversation, then capable of exploding in laughter. He knew and interacted with almost all of the cultural greats of his time, but was equally engaged with college students as he was with Jacques Barzun or Lionel Trilling. Lloyd, who began his ministry at Scott’s old parish of St. Paul and the Redeemer in Hyde Park, Illinois, recalled evenings of generous hospitality in the spacious living room of the Scott’s Charlottesville home. Its walls contained original African and American art and its bookcases were overflowing. Gustav Mahler or Samuel Barber might be playing on the hi fi, avant-garde selections in that era. Nearby stood Nathan. welcoming guests and encouraging conversation, with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

If he wrote of tragedy and disruption in the human condition, his was at heart an incarnational theology, affirming of life and creation. Lloyd recalls his pointing a finger toward the congregation in one sermon and urging them to cherish “such things as fine linen and good crystal.”

Cautiously accepting of the Prayer Book revisions of the 1980s, Scott was glad that the excesses of penitential material and the morose vision of the Cranmer era had been removed, but cautioned that its “language is not a language calculated to convey to us a sense of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” Scott was optimistic about the future of the Episcopal Church, yet sounded a note of alarm about the way the Religious Right had entered the political arena “to make an enormous amount of mischief on the American scene.” “The conspiratorial posture of the Religious Right in this country is ever so bothering. But so far as our mainline Reformation churches are concerned, and so far as the Roman Catholic communion is concerned, though these are imperfect affairs, I don’t have any sense of great looming crisis.”

As a leading writer and teacher on Christian culture for over four decades, a university professor and chaplain, and parish priest and Cathedral canon, Scott was a leading voice for a hopeful Christian message in a torn world. His many achievements make him an admirable candidate for the Episcopal Church’s calendar of exemplary witnesses.

Frederick Quinn is an Episcopal priest, holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, and has written books about law, history, and religion.

Monastic values: reflections of a warden in budget season

By Kathleen Staudt
Since I’m currently serving as Rector’s Warden/Senior warden at my home parish, I am very aware of November/December as “budget season” and of course these are challenging times, with high anxiety around financial matters. From a spiritual point of view, this time of year raises for me deep questions about the way we do church, whether it’s sustainable, faithful to the gospel and how we measure that. So much of what we receive from congregational development experts seems aimed at figuring out what people need and giving it to them, attracting more members to sustain what we have built evangelism as marketing (which it is to some degree) – but a model very much attuned to the culture around us.

And at the same time I’m rereading Esther de Waal’s writings about monastic spirituality for our time, and remembering that monasticism began with people who felt that the values of the church and the values of the surrounding culture were getting blended together to a point of great confusion. When Benedict established his rule in the fifth century, he was building what I think turns out to be an abiding “counter cultural” tradition of Christian living, preserving what he understood to be the central values of the gospel.

These values are not really developed in response or reaction to the culture; they simply offer themselves as guides. And so as I prepared for the November vestry meeting, I spent some time reflecting on the three vows that monks take, the vows of “Obedience”, “Stability” and “Conversatio” or “conversion of heart.” Unpacking these ideas has been helpful to me – and was helpful to the vestry, meeting about the budget in November. So I thought I’d share some thoughts about them here.

First, “Obedience,” which de Waal reminds us comes from the the Latin for “to listen.” Looking at parish life and our own lives, how do we listen for God’s guidance/ What practices orient us toward discernment rather than simply the pushing and defending of competing agendas. Where in our common life are there opportunities for study and prayer together, especially for leaders? How do we pay attention to Scripture? Listening to each other – giving each person around the table an opportunity and invitation to speak, practicing “appreciative inquiry” and other ways of discernment that help us hear one another: all of these practices, I think, fulfill the spirit of the vow of obedience. We can move toward healing if we also pay attention to the ways in which we are “not listening” in our pairhs life – to the neighborhood around us – to the needs of the world at the moment (not so much for marketing purposes as for mission and ministry). We need to pray for a deepening ability to listen. A symbol for this kind of obedience might be the Rublev icon, with what one writer has called the “listening eyes” of its three figures attentive each to the other – or another image might be building blocks, shared by a community of leaders. In her book Seeking God, Esther de Waal writes:

The Christian and monastic model for discerning God’s will in a given situation is not that of finding the solution of a crossword puzzle . . . where the answer must be exactly right, fitted to some preconceived plan. A better model is that we are given building blocks and have to see what can be done with them, using in the task all our intelligence, sensitivity and love (p. 49)
Not a solution, but a process of listening: putting gifts and ideas together and seeing what new thing comes out of that process. I like this as a model for a leadership team. Even a vestry!

The second vow, which I find fascinating despite the challenging term, is “Stability.”(Perhaps a better word for us would be “commitment” – but let’s hold the two together). – in our “cafeteria-Christianity” culture, this is the value that calls us to seek ways of staying together: not by silencing difference but by hearing and receiving the diversity of our views. . It is the vow a monk makes to stay with the same community –and let himself be formed by its challenges. The call to stability is of course a great challenge in the Anglican Communion just now but it helps me to name it in that way – not a call to “unity at any cost” where a dominant voice “wins” – it’s not a call to put up with abuse -- but it is a call to stay at the table, stay in conversation stay in relationship– not to leave—or at least not to consider leaving and going elsewhere as our first option. In parishes, “stability is a deeper value than giving everyone what they want or keeping things the same. it is an invitation to commit to being together and worshipping God in this place, to stay on rather than move on, when leadership changes. It is the value that fuels sustainable stewardship, care for one another in crisis and in conflict. It requires faith and endurance. I’d like to see leaders in congregations reflecting more on what stability looks like for them – what the challenges are, what the obstacles and rewards. The symbol we have for the value of stability is the symbol of our faith: the Cross, which tells of endurance through suffering, for the sake of the whole Body. Joan Chittister says this about the Cross and stability:

The cross is not a dark aspect of religion. It is, on the contrary, the one hope we have that our own lives can move through difficulty to triumph. It’s the one thing that enables us to hang on and not give up when hanging on seems impossible and giving up seems imperative. . . . The cross says that we can rise if we can only endure (Wisdom from the Daily, p. 148)

The call to stability might sound like a call to stuck-ness or to doormat-like acquiescence if it were not balanced by the third vow of conversatio or openness to change – the most famously challenging value for congregations. The symbols or this are the water of Baptism and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Ours is a faith that is about transformation, and as leaders we serve people best when we lead them toward this kind of openness. I like what de Esther de Waal writes about this in Seeking God:

If the vow of stability is the recognition of God’s complete faithfulness and dependability then the vow of conversatio is a recognition of God’s unpredictability, which confronts our own love of cosiness or safety. It means that we have to live provisionally, ready to respond to the new whenever and however that might appear. There is no security here, no clinging to past certainties. Rater, we must expect to see our chosen idols successively broken. It means a constant letting go. (Seeking God, p. 70)
Meditating on these vows has kept me going in this “budget-season,” and as our parish’s annual meeting, always in Advent, approaches. The reason to be in the church is to be shaped into a counter-cultural community – and I think it is a wonderfully creative challenge to look at our life together in the light of these Benedictine values of listening, stability/commitment and openness to change.

The White Light Festival

By Deirdre Good

When the applause died down and the lights went up, I sat in my seat at the center of the front row spellbound by the performance of Judith I had just seen. I'd heard her anxiety, her prayers, and her courage. I'd heard the words of the dying Holofernes. But how? The biblical text doesn't record them. So what was it I'd heard? Was it opera combining biblical text with midrash? Medieval passion play? Hagiography? Literary epic? Political manifesto? All of the above?

To unpack layers doesn't convey the piece's dynamism. But it’s a place to start. Rhymes of the Croatian poet Marko Marulic sung as improvised chant retell the ancient story as one of Croatian liberation. The top layer includes interpolations of the performer Katarina Livljanic as thoughts of Judith and Holofernes. A conversation between mind and spirit is put on Judith's lips just before she kills Holofernes and another in Holofernes' mind as he lies dying. Ms Livljanic found the words of a 16th Century Croatian manuscript in a Harvard Library written by a priest-peasant.

The interpolations are for her the nucleus of the story. They give the piece psychological heft. Judith asks, "Why are you sad, my soul, and why are you confusing me?" Her prayer for courage becomes the voice of oppressed people everywhere. And the dying Holofernes says something like lines from Borges' sonnets quoted in the program:

How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wineglasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.
Ms Livljanic explains the interpolations: “I think this is really entering the interior universe of the two characters, when we can see their soul and mind or soul and body speaking…So I find this festival a very natural frame for this story," she adds.

People I spoke with after the Judith performance found it extraordinary and some said it was the best part of the festival so far. For me, the musical performance and visual enactment enhances a reading of Judith's interior life. She vacillates between doubts and despair. Faced with a dead drunk Holofernes, she crouches down in anguish and dejection ("My soul, you are not helping me"); she kneels in supplication for courage; she takes her sword and decapitates Holofernes and finally, she sings in wonderment at her triumph ("Behold, the head that threatened to destroy us!"). The people respond ("the incense spread, the priest chanted and the walls echoed back, and the people knelt before the Lord"). This is a gripping musical rendition of a woman's terror transformed by courage through religious faith.

But what is the festival of which it is a part? Built around the theme of spirituality, it "seeks to offer remarkable and transcendent musical experiences" so as "to expand our interior lives…to help us feel the strength offered by our connection to our larger selves and to our community of fellow listeners," Jane Moss, Vice President for programming at Lincoln center and the White Light Festival explains. The name for the festival comes from a quote by the composer Arvo Pärt, which says that music is transformed from white light into color through the prism of the listener. “To me the ultimate success, I suppose, would be that you, the listener, fall in love the way I do every day of my life,” she said. “If I were able to give that to people — that, ‘Oh my God, this music makes me feel whole,’ for maybe only two hours — that would feel good to be able to do that.”

The festival abounds with listening opportunities. It opened with free presentations of unmediated music. Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “The Forty-Part Motet,” located at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, presents the16th century English composer Thomas Tallis' “Spem in Alium” (“I have hope in none other than Thee, O Lord”) by recording each voice on a separate channel. More diverse than any surround sound, listeners wander between the freestanding speakers to hear each individual voice and then the whole motet. They encounter "a piece of music as a changing construct,” Cardiff explains. “I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.” Giving direct access to one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written is a unique sound experience for me.

I attended a concert given by Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Collegium Vocale Ghent and I Solisti del Vento (woodwind and brass) singing music by Brahms and Cornelius. But the highlight was a performance of Anton Bruckner's Mass in E Minor. The beautiful Collegium voices were well balanced by the musicians while warm acoustics of Alice Tully Hall bathed us in pristine sound. The piece was composed for the dedication of the Votive Chapel in Linz Cathedral. Although there are moments of intensity in the Credo, for example, Bruckner's use of traditional polyphony (apparently the Bishop was fond of the style of Palestrina) and counterpoint conveys a transcendent sense of peace and joy, which is presumably an expression of his faith. Here are more listening opportunities

After every festival event, audience and musicians gather over complimentary sparkling water or prosecco to converse and reflect on what we'd seen. On this occasion, I met my wife who'd come from a performance of Sutra, the only dance at the festival. She was enraptured. Sutra was an hour-long piece by 17 monks from the Shaolin Temple in China. They danced to music performed live by a Polish composer Szymon Brzoska on piano, percussion and strings. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui choreographed Sutra.

The Shaolin monks are disciplined in the arts of person-to-person conflict and they see this as their path to achieve union with heaven. The conflict encompasses Chinese bare fist fighting, and other martial arts. The set, which consisted of about 24 oblong wooden boxes about the size of a human but with one wall open, was an integral part of the performance. As the stage opens, the boxes form a solid block in the center of the stage and over to the left a man and a child sit at opposite ends of what appears to be a metal table, and on the table between the child and the man is a wooden block in small scale. The dance progresses with a series of movements in which it is hard to determine, as the massive block breaks up, whether a pattern of individual monks causes or mirrors the movement of the large blocks. Watching the whole calls to mind the life of heaven in the Hebrew Scriptures where what is happening on earth images and echoes what is happening in heaven. The monks use the realms of the miniature blocks as a patterning framework and props. The world of the man and child and the tiny blocks interpenetrates the world of the Shaolin monks and the worlds mingle with dance-like martial movements as we wonder about the correlation between them. Gradually the two worlds separate and the child moves the blocks to which the world of the monks conforms.

Antony Gormley contributed the visual design, consisting primarily of 21 coffin-like wooden boxes.

Sublime and ordinary: there were more than two hours of white light transformed into color by our listening every night. After all, as Meredith Monk, a festival performer says, "Drinking a cup of coffee is spiritual, if you're in the moment." Thank you, Jane Moss. Looking forward to the next White Light Festival.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Lessons from church architecture

By George Clifford

British author and historian Richard Taylor wrote and narrated the six-hour BBC series, “Learning to Read Churches.” People who appreciate church architecture and the Anglican heritage will find this series enjoyable and informative. I found the links that Taylor draws between social history and church architecture of particular interest.

Taylor comments that the Georgians shifted away from medieval religious themes in the décor of their churches by introducing the Royal coat of arms; concomitantly, the “squirearchy” followed suit, portraying themselves in their funerary memorials as ancient Romans, lending authority and importance to their roles in sustaining the empire. Culture had conquered Christ, further aligning the Church of England (CofE) with state and commerce, alienating most downtrodden or marginalized English people. The clergy, privileged and highly visible representatives of the Church, lived by and adhered to largely upper-class values.

Victorians, especially through the influence of the Oxford movement, returned to medieval religious themes in art and architecture, seeking to restore the centrality of Christ and the Eucharist in their worship. This move came too late, failing to convince most strata of English society that the CofE belonged to the gentry and nobility. This became Christ above culture.

The single contemporary congregation Taylor visited was a “happy-clappy” evangelical congregation in a purpose built facility that resembled an auditorium, seated 1200, and appeared to be full of people in their twenties or thirties. The architecturally and historically significant churches that filled the rest of the six hour show were all filmed when empty, probably because worship attendance in England, by almost any standard, is abysmal. My reading and conversations in England and the States consistently echo Taylor’s implicit point that evangelicalism offers both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church (TEC) their best chance for a bright future in their struggle to retain significance and members.

Yet perhaps evangelicalism is not the answer for either Church. Michael Spencer, a writer and communicator living in a Christian community in Kentucky, wrote an excellent column last month in the Christian Science Monitor, highlighted in the Café’s Lead, “The coming evangelical collapse.” Among the seven reasons Spencer identifies why evangelicalism in the U.S. will collapse within two decades are: a dead end alignment with political conservatives; consumer driven mega-churches that will realign or collapse when money dries up; a pending collision between evangelical core beliefs and basic secular values; and the failure to effectively pass the orthodox Christian faith to the next generation.

Spencer writes as an evangelical Christian. I find his analysis cogent and persuasive but would add an eighth reason for the pending collapse: evangelicalism, like the Oxford Movement, represents a futile attempt to recreate a non-existent prior “Golden Age” in which orthodox Christianity flourished in a way not bound by time or culture. The “Golden Age” to which evangelicalism hopes to return is that of the reformers, whether an early one such as Luther or a latter one such as Wesley. If only we, like they, would hold fast to the deposit of faith revealed in the Christian Holy Scriptures and Creeds, all would be well with the Church.

The truth of the matter is that we can access our treasure, the way of life that we call Christianity, bottled only in earthen vessels. No “Golden Age” ever existed. Medieval Christians and the Reformers created pots whose beauty has waned and whose utility has diminished over time. The necessity to create new earthen vessels with which to try to pass along our treasure to others is ever with us; Paul Tillich expressed this idea when he articulated the Protestant principle. As a non-evangelical, perhaps it is easier for me to recognize the dual Babylonian captivity of evangelicals, ensnared by alignment with political conservatives while catering to consumers in their unrelenting, self-imposed requirement to report ever-increasing numbers. (Incidentally, as a self-avowed liberal, I wonder at what point(s) I am enmeshed in my own Babylonian captivity.)

I personally find old church buildings, in England and in the United States, fascinating windows into the faith of prior generations. These earthen vessels speak of a faith that once was, a testimony to Christianity’s diversity, permanence, and constantly changing face. However, I am thankful that I am not responsible for leading a twenty-first century congregation housed in one of those buildings. I might find myself among the many who succumb to the very real temptation to escape into the past, to pretend that by being good stewards of an old earthen vessel, by repeating the time-worn theological formulas of a prior generation, we are being faithful to the truth that no earthen vessel can contain.

For the Church, buildings are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Yet, too often the Church acts as if the opposite were true. New congregations yearn for the day when they will have their own building with the sense of permanence, perception of credibility, and ease of accommodation it offers. Congregations of longer standing cherish their building as a testimony to the faith of prior generations. And in our litigious twenty-first century America, the Church spends significant sums fighting over building ownership. I suspect Jesus might comment that it is not the building that hallows the people but the people who hallow the building.

When historians look back on ecclesial architecture of this age, what will they say?

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Doesn’t Jesus want good people like us for friends?

Just before Advent, Donald Schell and Amber Evans sent us some reflections from their preaching group. We published the first of these on Thursday, and the second today.

By Donald Schell

From the beginning Christians, even those who gathered Jesus’ sayings and wrote the Gospels, were puzzled to make sense of just HOW he was a ‘friend of sinners.’ They seemed to be as frightened as we are sometimes that someone might get the idea that Jesus condoned sin (or unjust or unrighteous behavior). How often, reading John 8 together, (the woman taken in adultery) do we find ourselves discussing (or even arguing) whether the story reaches its resolution when Jesus says, “Where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn you.” It seems as though there’s always someone to insist that the moment of not condemning is only prelude to Jesus’ real conclusion, “Go and sin no more.” But doesn’t that line contradict the story? Could it be an early editorial ‘fix?’

To my ear “sin no more” in this story echoes of catch-phrases most of us heard growing up like, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” “a man is known by the company he keeps,” or “birds of a feather flock together.” Such folk “wisdom” poses a problem for us – though Jesus made himself of ‘no reputation,’ we, his followers, teach one another that reputation is everything. In effect we caution each other NOT to follow Jesus’ example.

Any of us who preach on such parables as the Unjust Judge, the Dishonest Steward, the Talents, and even favorites like the ‘Good’ Samaritan, and the Prodigal Son gets caught in this bind, and those of us who listen attentively to sermons will hear preachers doing exegetical handstands and somersaults to find ‘the moral’ of these quirky stories, or otherwise explain why Jesus would offer such contradictory and downright unsavory characters as some kind of likeness to God. Whatever we say between the reading and the conclusion, we seem to know we’ve got to reach the point of exhorting people to try harder to be “good.”

Unfortunately (or maybe by the Grace of God) if we stick close reading these parables patiently or come back to them again and again, finding their “moral” seems harder and harder. Gospel scholars tell us this preaching dilemma is even older than the written Gospels. Our bewilderment at the little sayings tacked on to the end of these problematic stories pushes us to accept that we may be hearing a saying of Jesus on another subject and from another context, and sometimes we’re hearing the Gospel editor and compiler putting someone else’s (troubled) explanation of the parable in Jesus’ mouth.

For almost thirty years I’ve guided volunteers through improvised Gospel enactments, sometimes of stories of Jesus, but also, sometimes of these parables. Working with groups as diverse as a family camp, 8-12 year olds at a kids’ camp, and associates of one of our church’s women’s religious orders away on retreat, I’ve found some of these stories demand a playful, comic telling as we get close to their stark tension and danger. Comedy reassures us until Jesus’ unsavory protagonist does something wholly unexpected.

Jesus draws people by surprise because his stories are of characters his listeners wouldn’t want to hear about. But my hunch as a writer, storyteller, and ‘theater director’ in these improvisations I’ve seen is that Jesus crafted stories about characters he liked.

The ‘good’ Samaritan offers a stark example of this. For Jesus’ listeners (far more immediately than for us), someone they would identify with lies near death by the roadside. The listeners know how dangerous the roads can be and they know the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is particularly dangerous. They also know that trouble is coming when Jesus introduces their Samaritan enemy coming down the road. Even in a story it’s a moment to catch your breath. What outrage would this hated enemy perpetrate on you or me if we lay helpless by the roadside? But then our Storyteller has the hated Samaritan quite inexplicably (and against the listeners’ inevitable ethnic profiling) do an expensive, hands-on, time-consuming act of mercy.

“The Samaritans - - - helps him? Jesus! We don’t get it!”

In this year’s lectionary run of these parables, while I was preparing to preach on the Unjust Judge, the guy who finally gives the stubborn suppliant widow what she says the law and justice owe her - - - because she just won’t stop hassling him - I remembered Belai the Cannibal.

The grotesque figure of Belai shows up regularly in Ethiopian churches, a nightmare character with a knife in his hand eating a large slice of raw flesh. The contrast with the warmth and folk art eloquence of surrounding icon scenes of Mary holding the infant Jesus, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and other Biblical stories couldn’t be greater.

Now don’t bother to check a concordance - Belai isn’t in the Bible. He’s a character from a religious folktale, the story of a VERY BAD man. Belai was a voracious cannibal. When Belai appeared at the gates of heaven, the deeds for which he’d be judged included the deaths of seventy-two people he’d killed and eaten - including members of his own family. St. Peter seems to know what the outcome will be, but for justice sake, he puts what remained of the corpses of the seventy-two on one side of the scale and asks Belai if he brings any good deeds at all. Belai can only offer one good deed. Once, as he was looking around for someone to eat, an unappetizing leper begged him, “in the name of God” for a cup of water. Belai protested that he neither knew nor honored that name. So then the leper implored him in the name of Saint Mary, and in some dark corner of his memory Belai remembered that name, and impatient to get on with looking for an appetizing victim, he gave the leper a cup of water.

“All right,” St. Peter says, and puts Belai’s ONLY good deed in his whole life, the cup of water, on the other side of the balance. St. Mary watches as the scale the weight of Belai’s seventy-two victims lifts the cup high in the balance, and she asks St. Peter if the good deed done in her name counts for so little. “Just look at the scale,” St. Peter replies. So St. Mary leans forward and lets her shadow fall on the side of the cup of water, and the glorious weight of her holy shadow tips the scale the other way. “All right,” St. Peter says with astonishment, “It appears Belai must receive God’s mercy.”

Dostoyevsky has Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov tell a similar story. A very wicked old peasant woman dies and her guardian angel intervenes with God. The only good deed the angel can offer is the one time the old woman gave a poor beggar an onion. “All right,” God tells the guardian angel, “lower the onion down to the burning lake and tell the old woman to grab hold. If the onion is strong enough for you to pull her out, she’s free to come to Paradise.”

And the angel lifts, and draws the old woman slowly from the lake of fire. As everyone else in the lake sees what’s happening, they seize the woman’s legs and ankles, and the angel is drawing everyone out of hell by the one onion. And still the onion holds until the wicked woman panics and screams, “It’s MY onion!” and as she writhes and kicks her feet to break free of those about to escape with her, her writhing and struggling breaks the onion and all fall back into the fiery lake.

Grushenka’s story and the Ethiopian folk-tale of Belai shouldn’t startle Anglicans too much, at least not if we remember from Rite I and the old Book of Common Prayer that God’s “property is always to have mercy.” We sort of get it. But we also may not like it too well. Something in us protests - Belai is so NOT like us! Who cares about his single cup of water or that old woman giving a beggar an onion? An onion? So what! Anyone could do that!

Unintended, trivial kindness? Except when we need it ourselves, God’s mercy is just t-o-o much.

So this year preparing to preach on the Unjust Judge, I remembered Belai’s and the old peasant woman’s accidental good deeds. The Judge responds to the woman’s pleas because he’s annoyed. He gives the mercy he’d always had the power to give and he gives it quite reluctantly.

In fact Jesus’ selfish, opportunistic, wicked heroes in his parables all act like that. They do something kind or helpful or even life saving for no evident good reason at all. Or they do the right thing for a bad reason. The Unjust Judge, like the Samaritan, like the Unjust Steward, acts mercifully for no good reason. In fact the judge’s reason, to spare himself further annoyance, makes clear that he cares not a whit for justice. Unless you hassle him without rest, he never gives “justice” without a bribe.

Now, as a writer and storyteller and lover of fiction, I’m going to offer something I feel strongly but can’t prove. Jesus seems to genuinely like the bad characters in his troubling stories. Like the reputation he had for keeping bad table company, Jesus’ parables show his affection for people that ‘good people’ like us ought not like at all. And he repeatedly tells stories where his protagonists do good despite themselves, with no evident motivation, as often Jesus even declares that they’re doing it for the WRONG reason.

Moralizing these parables silences our teacher’s voice. His stories don’t tell us how to be good. They push us over the edge toward Godly mercy-practice. He’s inviting us into a kind of deliciously guilty pleasure celebrating people whom we don’t think we ought to or even want to like.

Here’s what I mean by mercy practice - “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you.” (Luke 6:36-37) And yes, Jesus wants people just like us for his friends, not good people, flawed people who stumble into goodness and mercy even for the wrong reasons.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Why even bother being good?

Just before Advent, Donald Schell and Amber Evans sent us some reflections from their preaching group. We publish the first of these today, and will publish the second on Saturday.

By Amber Evans and Donald Schell

Donald: For the past three years we’ve met monthly to talk and think together about the work of preaching. We’ve been four or five priests, and two lay preachers. I guess I’m the oldest in the group. The youngest, Amber Evans, was in seminary with my son.

Sometimes we read or listen to a sermon one of us has preached. Sometimes we talk about a reading that’s coming up or someone will raise an issue in mission or Christian formation and wonder how to explore it in preaching. I love the give and take of the group, the way we work to hold one another accountable for real, honest experience, the way we keep asking how we’re hearing Good News ourselves even when texts are difficult.

Recently the lectionary had us, like a lot of preachers, struggling with some of Jesus’ most challenging parables, difficult parables like the corrupt steward and the unjust judge. Our passionate, energetic conversations kept taking us deeper into uneasiness and uncertainty. And we kept preaching and reporting back to the group what we were learning.

I’d nearly completed a piece on those parables for the Café when I read Amber describing some powerful discoveries she’d made about these parables in her work with kids. Amber and I traded our explorations back and forth, both intrigued at how our discoveries flowed from recent conversations in the group and, beyond that, from ways the group has shaped us both over some years now. What each of us was beginning to see interpreted and enlarged the other’s discoveries.

We’re offering both of our voices here, Amber’s first, and mine in the piece that follows. We hope that preachers and anyone listening to this recent string of difficult parables will be inspired to join us wrestling with these parables. Do comment and speak up!

Amber asks the question these parables leave hanging, “Why even bother being good?” My piece that follows wonders why Jesus evidently enjoyed telling stories about such unsavory characters and whether he really wants good people like us for friends.

Here’s Amber - - -

As chaplain in an Episcopal Day School, I’m responsible for teaching religion to Preschoolers through Eighth graders. Right now I’m teaching parables with my fourth grade class, and they are really bothered by the injustice of God’s love and mercy. It makes them crazy to contemplate that even though they try to be good, God loves someone bad just as much. Fairness is the highest value to kids that age, and to imagine that God isn’t fair—that’s just too much. They begin to wonder, “why even bother being good?”

Teachers who applied parable-style justice in a classroom or parents to a conflict between siblings would have mutiny on their hands. It makes sense to us that our children’s world is structured around consistency, fairness, and incentives to be good, because we hope that they will learn through that structure to want to be good, that it’s its own reward. But fourth grade is a good age to pierce the bubble a little bit. Some of them have thoroughly embraced a “good guys/bad guys” view of the universe. And maybe that has to happen before they can consider the complex idea that though they try to be good, they still make mistakes, so if they want God’s mercy, mercy must also be available to people who have made even more mistakes.

Jesus uses the parables to shock and challenge US out of good guys/bad guys thinking—especially out of our presumption that we are the good guys. Through his parables, Jesus is revealing a deeper structure to the world than the provisional one we create for children (and ourselves). As adults we know how inconsistent and unfair the world can be, and we don’t expect to see good behavior rewarded. Through his parables, Jesus shows us this is actually good news: The world God made is not divided up between good and evil. Before there was ever good and evil, there was God’s unconditional love for all of creation.

With my first graders, I have been using Godly Play to teach the first stories in the Bible. Godly Play is a Montessori-style Sunday School curriculum created by Jerome Berryman. Teachers tell a bible story they’ve memorized by heart, using beautiful, tactile figures to illustrate the story. We’ve done the Seven Days of Creation; Adam, Eve and The Snake; Noah’s Ark and last week we did the Tower of Babel. Now the students are very proud that they know all the stories at the beginning of the Bible. Even though the youngest can’t read, they can look at the Bibles in the classroom and recognize the story through the pictures.

The children are fascinated by the darkness and the gravity of the stories. These are stories about the beginning of everything, why the world is the way it is, human disobedience of God and it’s consequences. It’s serious stuff and the kids feel taken seriously when you talk about it with them.

The Godly Play story about Adam and Eve is a new story and it’s not actually recommended for kids as young as first grade. That’s probably because you could do a Ph.D. dissertation analyzing the postmodern influences in this narrative. I think Jacques Derrida, the great French deconstructionist, might have secretly written this story before he died. The Godly Play version reveals some of the deep theology to the story and I think my first graders get it, or at least, like us, they partly get it.

There are two trees in the Garden of Eden. There is the Forever Tree, whose fruit holds eternal life. And there is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or as the Godly Play story says, “The Tree of Differences.” The sneaky snake tricks Eve and Adam into eating fruit from that tree. At first, everything in the garden was unified—people, and God and creation were all together without differences. But when they eat the fruit, suddenly it all comes apart at the seams, creation falls apart.

Then Adam and Eve know they are different from God and they feel ashamed, and they hide and cover themselves up. And then they’ve left the garden to live in a world where there is good and evil. And so do we… They can’t go back, and they have to find a new way of living and a new way of being with God.

It makes me wonder…what was the world like before there was good and evil?

The Godly Play story describes a kind of unity and intimacy between God and creation. I imagine, not that nothing bad ever happened, but that when it did, it was a matter of grief rather than moral judgment. Death, loss and sadness still happened, but were experienced in a context of total, universal love.

In the hardest times, when we face frightening obstacles, impossible decisions, suffering that feels like it won’t end, when we are reminded that the world is not really the world we create for children …we sometimes get a glimpse of the world that is deeper than good and evil. I have, haven’t you? I’ve been consoled by the image of the Garden of Eden, of an intimate love of God that precedes good and evil. God’s love in that unity isn’t lost to us, just harder to see because now that we know about good and evil; we can’t help but see divisions everywhere, we can’t help but compare ourselves and measure our goodness, and wonder if we somehow deserve the bad things that happen to us.

The parables we’ve been hearing read and preached on in church for many weeks are the antidote to the falling apart in Eden, they’re the remedy that Jesus offers to help us see deeper than good and evil. They tell the story of God’s universal love, they tell us that God loves the righteous and unrighteous, that God loves the good and the bad alike, and there is no reason to hide from God no matter how naked we feel.

God loves the tax collector as much as the faithful observer of the law, the Prodigal Son as much as the responsible son, The Good Shepherd knows all his sheep by name and would give his life to protect any of the sheep (not just the good ones). The parables are good news for bad guys and good guys alike, although if we are too invested in our goodness, they don’t really feel like good news.

Seminary was kind of a competitive place. We’d been told jobs were scarce, so we eyed each other trying to measure up who was smart, who was charismatic, and who was good. Not exactly the Garden of Eden! When I went to work as a priest at The Church of the Epiphany, Gail, the rector, mentored me in a way that freed me from the need to prove myself. She never compared herself to me, but just supported me when my work went well and when I screwed up. Pastorally, she felt love and compassion for the most difficult people in the parish perhaps more than the easy ones—although she could be firm if she needed to be. In three short years of working with Gail, I was practically cured of my competitiveness (at least at work—my husband still won’t play board games with me). Now I am free to do my best, without worrying “is it good enough?”

Parables don’t tell us not to bother being good, they just tell us it doesn’t make us more lovable than others. It’s still true what we teach children: Being Good is it’s own reward. But deeper than that—We can live guided by God’s universal love. Love that doesn’t judge us and doesn’t judge others. We don’t have to compare ourselves to others. And when we face something difficult--frightening obstacles, impossible decisions, suffering that feels like it won’t end-- we are freer if we remember that deeper than good and evil, deeper than “good guys and bad guys” is the love God feels for all of creation without judgment.

The Rev. Amber Evans is a priest serving as Chaplain at St. Matthew's Episcopal Day School in San Mateo, California.

For the peace of Jerusalem

By Lauren R. Stanley

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls.’”

That prayer from Psalm 122 always resonates deeply within me, because I pray for peace in the Middle East on a daily basis. I do love Jerusalem, and I do want peace with her walls. But my prayers don’t stop there; this psalm leads me on a journey that circles the world, touching down in other places, especially those I know and love, where strife threatens the peace and prosperity of their peoples.

On the first Sunday of Advent, my prayers turned specifically to two nations in desperate need: Sudan, with a vote looming in January that will decide the future of that war-torn nation, and Haiti, which held national elections on Sunday that were disputed even before the polls had closed.

Both nations have suffered for seemingly forever. Both are plagued by problems that seem overwhelming. Both are plagued by those who do not care, or care enough, about the people, by those who fear peace because they would lose their power, their riches, their exalted places.

Sudan’s situation is desperate because the referendum in January could lead to renewed warfare. The South will be voting on whether to become an independent nation, which the North does not want. The military on both sides is armed and ready. Already, there has been violence. The people, who want to be left alone to live in peace, who would love to experience even a smidgeon of prosperity, know how precarious their situation. But their difficulties have not stopped them from dreaming of a new, different and better future for their children. They pray – and work – for peace every single day.

In Haiti, the national elections held on Sunday have resulted only in confusion and accusations. The people have been oppressed and maltreated for their entire history on that island. Cholera, which hasn’t been documented there in decades, is ripping through the country; 1,600 already are dead, tens of thousands are affected, and up to 200,000 more may become ill. Fifteen percent of the country – more than 1.5 million people – still lives in the tent cities and camps that sprang up after the devastating earthquake last January. The government has failed to provide leadership, the rubble still remains in the streets, and the country has barely begun to recover. Yet there, too, the people pray – and work – for peace every single day.

Often, when I talk with people here about what is happening in those countries, about how we have to pray for peace within their walls as we pray for peace within Jerusalem’s, I am met with deep sighs, resigned shrugs and defeated attitudes.

Sigh. Shrug. “Will they ever stop fighting?” Sigh. Shrug. “Is it ever going to get better?”

I admit, I get frustrated with those sighs, shrugs and attitudes even as I understand them. I don’t have the answers people want to hear; I don’t have a “plan” that will solve the problems, a “vision” that will miraculously end the strife. I, too, often want to sigh, to shrug, to admit defeat.

But when I think of the people in both lands, people I love and respect, I realize that simply because the situations are difficult beyond compare, I can’t walk away from them. And I certainly can’t stop praying for them.

The people in both lands would not be criticized for giving up. Yet they refuse to do so.

And because they don’t, I won’t. So I lift my prayers for peace daily, and use those prayers to guide me as I do what I can to help turn those prayers into reality.

That’s what prayer does, at least for me. First, it takes me on a journey, from person to person, place to place. Then, it helps clarify for me what I need to do.

With Sudan and Haiti, my prayers lead me to continue to tell the stories of these long-suffering people, to make sure they are not forgotten, to make sure that we, who live so far away in such different and vastly better circumstances, do not let the people of either land disappear from the front pages of our hearts.

Yes, the Sudanese have been fighting for decades; yes, Haiti is a mess, all across the board. But the people of both lands are doing their best; they are being faithful; they are filled with hope. Their prayers are not centered on having too much, but rather, enough. Enough peace so they can live without fear. Enough peace so that they can have a tad of prosperity.

So every day, I pray: For the peace of Jerusalem. For the peace of Sudan. For the peace of Haiti. That those who love them will prosper.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is a priest of the Diocese of Virginia. Her web site is www.gointotheworld.net.

Writing lives

By Derek Olsen

I was swaddled in the fourth century again last week. Eyes filled with the detritus of the early monastic movement, we were moving through the feast of that western monastic pioneer Martin of Tours when I was struck forcefully by a basic reflection on the ways they thought and wrote about what they did. One of the strongest strains of the early monastic literature is the life. Not the treatise, not the argument.

The life.

Martin of Tours is a perfect case in point. We have nothing that he wrote. He left behind no rule of life. We receive Martin in stories about how he lived. Sulpicius Severus should be reckoned as one of the major ascetic theologians of fourth century Gaul but he rarely is—because we know him chiefly as Martin’s biographer. But, actually, isn’t that the point? Sulpicius could have written treatises, could have written arguments, but instead wrote of lives. Even his most argumentative piece, the dialogues is a comparison of lifestyles—how the faithful lived, believed, and acted in the Christian East and West.

Even St. Jerome the Cantankerous, one not above a sharp-tongued sarcastic treatise when the mood moved him, wrote his best words on the monastic life not as sets of instructions—though he produced those—but as reflections on the lives of friends who had died, remembering them and their examples to their loved ones.

Some of our most precious and most important theological writing is the biography, the hagiography, the theologically infused and understood account of people in the world who point to it, through it, and beyond it.

It hardly need be said—we have no treatises from Jesus. We have gospels.

That’s not to say that we don’t need Paul; it’s not to say we don’t need Augustine or Aquinas. It is fair to say, however, that the treatise may be incomplete without the life. Rational, consistent thought is balanced and born from the messiness, the inconsistency, and fragility of life lived in clay vessels.

The religious life of the Middle Ages produced theologically laden lives as stories of the saints and warnings of the fallen. The Office of Chapter—originally the monastic business meeting—became an opportunity for reading and reflection on the Martyrology, the lives of the holy dead.
How now do we reflect upon our holy dead? Where now do we hear narratives of faith as theologically significant compositions?

Athanasius, Jerome, and Bede—all theologians of the greatest weight—wrote life as theology in addition to their letters, tractates, and commentaries. Who now writes the holy life?

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

The pews in the north transept: a remembrance

By Adam Thomas

There were a couple of pews in the north transept of the chapel. They were set perpendicular to the main body of pews and a bit apart from the others. Only one corner of these pews had a view of the altar, while the whitewashed wall that marked the beginning of the chancel blocked those sitting in the rest from witnessing the consecration of Holy Communion. A set of upperclassmen always sat in those sideways pews. If we had been in high school rather than seminary, they would have been the aloof, cool kids who wore t-shirts adorned with the names of bands you had never heard of and who only participated in school-spirit building events ironically.

It wasn’t until the second semester of my first year that I decided to try to sit in one of those pews, too. Some vestige of high school social dynamics must have awakened in me to prompt me to sit there: I would be cool and aloof by association if I planted myself in one of those sideways pews. I finally stocked up enough courage to try, and, much to my surprise, the upperclassmen had no problem with me sitting in close proximity to them. Apparently, they were cool and aloof enough to allow my greenness and exuberance for chapel services to invade their territory. At least, that’s what I thought at first. It turns out that those upperclassmen were just nice, welcoming Episcopalians with perhaps more than their share of the liturgical equivalent of gallows humor.

They ushered me, a lowly first year seminarian, into their pews. Pretty soon, I was the upperclassman sharing the pew with new folks starting their turn in the never-ending three-year cycle of Episcopal seminary. From that pew in the corner, I participated in several hundred worship services, mostly Morning Prayer and Eucharist, with an ordination thrown in here and there.

I remember one Tuesday morning during Lent when we hunkered down in those pews for another epic recitation of the Great Litany. Much to the joy of our attention spans, however, the student who was leading the Litany didn’t realize that only a small portion of it appears in the Hymnal 1982. Needless to say, we got out of chapel much earlier than we expected that morning.

I remember a sermon delivered by a beloved Old Testament professor, who had recently become the proud father of a beautiful little girl adopted from China. He preached about how his daughter toddled along next to him as he mowed the lawn, all the while pushing a plastic lawnmower of her own. We are like my little girl, he said. God allows us to push the lawnmower, but really God does the work.

I remember my only sermon in the chapel’s pulpit – five minutes on Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. I had seen the pulpit shake and sway when particularly rotund and fiery preachers tested its structural integrity. I had no such worry, being neither very heavy nor very fiery.

I remember the first time I stood up behind the chapel’s altar, the table that I could barely see from my chosen pew. I stood there in that place of mystery, while my liturgics practicum professor led us through how to celebrate the Eucharist. Never do something with only one hand, he said. Pray with the authentic voice that God gave you. If you have glasses, make sure the book is at the right height. His practical advice took away none of the mystery; rather, it gave me the ability to share the mystery with others. Still, on the day of my first Eucharist, I was so flustered that I couldn’t tell which cruet held the wine and which held the water.

I remember being proud of my own austerity when I eschewed the kneeler cushions, thus proving I had no idea what the concept of kneeling was all about. I remember putting on my crisp new cassock and surplice for my first Sunday in the choir. I remember playing the guitar at Evening Prayer. I remember practicing baptism on a cabbage patch kid.

Mostly, though, I remember the air in the chapel. It was heavy air, full of stained glass light and the comforting residue of the prayers of thousands of students who came before. That air hit me the first time I entered the chapel as a prospective student on a chilly January morning in 2005. I breathed in the substance of the holy, communal life that the seminary desired for each student – the life made up of words and bread and wine and water and song and, yes, mistakes. For three years, I added the breath of my prayers to that airy substance. And from that pew in the corner, I sat and knelt and stood, while God continually breathed life into me, making me the person God yearned for me to become.

A month ago, the chapel burned down. A friend called me about forty-five minutes after the blaze began to tell me the sad, shocking news. I’ve seen pictures of the charred, unstable structure that still remains. I’ve seen the news stories online. I’ve read the Facebook comments of dozens of seminary friends, who each changed their profile pictures to an image of the east wall of the chapel – the wall that famously read: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” All of these things tell me that the chapel is gone. But I don’t think that reality will truly hit me until I visit the holy hill of the Virginia Theological Seminary and see for myself the place where the conflagration released the residue of all those prayers into the sky.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

The movement of Advent

By Marshall Scott

Before I moved to the heart of America, I worked for a number of years in Detroit. I lived in a suburb and drove downtown to the hospital.

Commuting in Detroit was a bit of a challenge. The normal commuting speed was somewhere around 70 miles an hour. There’s nothing quite like flying down the highway at that speed bumper to bumper.

So, one day I’m on my way to the hospital, and I see this bumper sticker: “In the event of the rapture this car will be unmanned.” My reaction was, “Well, this is a heck of a note. If the rapture comes and I’m not taken, not only will I have the frustration of being left behind, but I’ll be dodging all those driverless cars!”

Of course, I was reflecting on the all-American theological concept of the Rapture. It is a well-known and much popularized understanding of some of the events related to the coming of the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. It has not been a teaching of the Episcopal Church or other churches of the Anglican Communion, because its Scriptural roots are arguable, and it’s not spoken of by the early Church Fathers. (That’s not to say that there aren’t some Episcopalians who believe it; but then there’s hardly a perspective in the Christian tradition that you can’t find some Episcopalian believing.)

Which is not to say that we don’t believe that the Kingdom is coming. We do believe that Christ will bring in the Kingdom in all its glory. We wrestle with some of the Scriptural references and descriptions – are they literal or metaphorical? Do they refer to events in history or in the future? – but we do trust in the promise of the Kingdom. Jesus said it would happen, and so we trust that something will happen.

Indeed, it is the focus of these first weeks of Advent. In its way it seems an odd time in the church’s year. We spent the last weeks of the last year preparing for the coming of the Kingdom, culminating in the last Sunday of the year. We speak of it as the Feast of Christ the King, but it’s also the Feast of Christ’s Kingdom. And then with the first Sunday of Advent, suddenly we’re speaking again of expectation rather than consummation.

But, expectation is the nature of things. We trust that the Kingdom is coming, but we can’t know the day or the hour. As Jesus said, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Not that we haven’t tried over the centuries. Many times someone has tried to discern, to predict, when Christ would return and the Kingdom would come. It’s just that it isn’t ours to figure out.

And so we live in expectation. One Sunday we celebrate what we await, and the next Sunday we return to waiting.

And we wait in hope. Having waited in hope for the end, we wait again in hope for the beginning. For the Kingdom we await, the Kingdom we have so recently celebrated, has its foundation in the birth of a child. Its boundaries are set in creation – indeed, they encompass creation. Its footings are dug in the proclamations of the prophets. But the anchor for the Kingdom, the chief corner stone, comes to us in the birth of a child. This brings a change to our waiting. We have been waiting for the Kingdom in its fullness, that which we have yet to see. Now we wait for the Kingdom in its foundation, for the beginning that we have seen and known and touched.

So, as the church year begins anew, we return to waiting, and continue to wait in hope. And in the best sense of things, we return to our foundations, awaiting the foundation of the Kingdom.

This is the movement of Advent. It can seem at first an odd season – starting in the waiting that ended with the King in glory, and ending in the excitement of the celebration of the King newborn. In fact it is a season all about the Kingdom; for as the season begins we look forward to our place in it, and as it ends we hail him in whom we are citizens of it.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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