Keeping Advent

by Paul Woodrum

I was in our local CVS a couple of days before Halloween and noticed that the next aisle over from the trick-or-treat candies was already stocked with Christmas decorations. Everyday our mailbox and e-mail are filled with catalogs and advertisements for that perfect gift or that perfect decoration, or that perfect outfit for the season. On the evening news are images of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree arriving in mid-town and announcements of which stores will be open 24/7 from Thanksgiving on and, refreshingly, even a couple that won’t be open Thanksgiving Day so their employees can have the day with their families.

While the rest of the world lights up for the mid-winter season’s crazy blend of commercialism, festival and cultural Christianity, most of our Episcopal Church’s remain externally dark, unadorned, and preciously uncontaminated by the happy secularism all around us.

But why? Of all places shouldn’t the church be the one manifesting some outward signs of its preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation? Something that says we are joyfully preparing the way and welcoming those who would join us on the pilgrimage to Bethlehem? Are we protesting the commercialism about which we can do little, or doing a futile exercise in liturgical purity? I’m not suggesting we put Santa Claus on the roof before Halloween. Just that, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, we do a little of our own welcoming decoration. Instead of shutting out the world, let’s go with the flow and invite the world in with our own outward signs of joyful preparation: ChristmasTraditionalWreathOnDoor.jpgwreaths on the doors, a tree lighting for that evergreen on the front lawn with folks gathered for Advent carols and hot chocolate, a lighted Christmas Crib, an outdoor Advent wreath marking the Sundays until Christmas, lighted evergreen around the doors, whatever seems suitable (and of course, tasteful) in the local situation.

Most of the signs of the season originated before Christianity, but the church adopted them, adapted them, reinterpreted them and preserved them through the centuries suggesting we shouldn’t be too proud to use them even if secular society has also claimed them. This season’s gift giving originated with the Roman’s Saturnalia that ended on the 25th of December with the feast of Sol Invictus. The Germanic tribes observed Yule, the imitative magic of burning a great log to urge the sun’s return. The Celts adorned their houses with evergreens as a sign of hope between growing seasons. Even the halos that frame Mary, Joseph and Jesus are derived from the symbols of the Egyptian sun deities, Isis and Ra.

Instead of shutting the world out, let’s go with the flow and invite the world in with our own outward signs like wreaths on the doors, a community tree lighting with Advent carols and hot chocolate featuring that pine on the front lawn, a lighted Christmas Crib, an outdoor Advent wreath, a sign inviting folks to join us in welcoming the Christ and preparing the way of the Lord, by embracing, rather than denying, the secular, seasonal joy. I’m not saying, “rush Christmas,” that we all know doesn’t really begin until its Eve on December 24, but at least let passersby know we are preparing for its coming even more than Macy’s, and welcome them to join us in celebrating God with us. Then keep the lights on and the decorations up through the First Sunday after Epiphany, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.

We do this inside. Flowers give way to simple evergreens, Advent candles are lit Sunday by Sunday, medieval blue increasingly replaces the 19th century Roman purple reserved for Lent where the plainer beige array isn’t used. We have wonderful Advent hymns that hint at the joy to come and the discipline not to sing Christmas songs and carols until that season arrives. If we can mark our Incarnation pilgrimage inside, why not a few visible signs outside to share the joy with the secular by inviting them in to share the joy of our faith and to extend the season to its conclusion?

The Rev. Paul Woodrum is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Brooklyn, NY, and supplies in the Dioceses of Long Island and New York. Since 1985 he and his husband, Victor Challenor, have been partners in Challwood Studio, designing and crafting contemporary liturgical vestments and ornaments.

Image by Spirtu, via Wikimedia Commons

Psalms for difficult days

by Maria Evans

Hold not your tongue, O God of my praise; *
for the mouth of the wicked,
the mouth of the deceitful, is opened against me.

They speak to me with a lying tongue; *
they encompass me with hateful words
and fight against me without a cause.

Despite my love, they accuse me; *
but as for me, I pray for them.

They repay evil for good, *
and hatred for my love.
​--Psalm 109:1-4 (Book of Common Prayer)

​​Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

--Prayer for Social Justice, p. 823 Book of Common Prayer

Link to US Census demographic data:

The small crowd that regularly attends Morning Prayer at my home parish on Wednesdays is an interesting bunch. Of most interest is the fact that the after-service chit-chat frequently lasts longer than it does to say the Office. That was certainly the case on a recent Wednesday in the Lectionary when Psalm 109 pops up. It's a Psalm that's really hard to hear and even harder to say. "Let his children be waifs and beggars?" Really? "Let the creditors seize everything he has?" Whoa!

That week, most of the after-service chit-chat was about Psalm 109, and the internal discomfort it causes from physically uttering its words. After a bit of discussion and a pause, I looked at the others and said, "You know...I've been THAT angry. There have been times I needed this psalm so I could say what I couldn't say to someone's face." Our vicar also added that this was a psalm about injustice, and the anger that comes from injustice. This discomfort we feel, has a purpose, she added.

As I watch the situation in Ferguson, MO unfold, part of that purpose is being revealed. People are THAT angry--and I believe this anger is justified. A quick check of US Census data shows that the city of Ferguson is 67.4% African-American--clearly the majority population. It's almost mind-boggling to realize that feelings and values and perceptions held by a MAJORITY of the citizens in a community have been able to remain beneath the surface as long as they have, even if they are just below the topsoil of the community. It reveals just how powerful unseen privilege is.

Part of our Anglican tradition is that when we devote ourselves to the Daily Office, we rotate through the entire Psalter several times a year--and we don't skip the icky Psalms, either. We say aloud the despair of Psalm 88, and declare the joy of Psalm 103. We cringe at the angry curses of Psalm 109, and we shout with joy all the blessings in Psalm 24. We get a break with the brevity of Psalm 117 (why, it's so short we can easily knock out three psalms that day!) and we return again and again to Psalm 119 over several days, wondering if we'll ever get through all of it (and we always do, somehow.) We sense our own panic in Psalm 69, and gain strength in Psalm 46.

We say all of them, and we listen to others say them alongside us, when we choose to recite them in community. It's how we begin to hear things differently when we choose to live into this tradition. It calls us, I believe, in the Episcopal Church, to seek out the places where the words are uncomfortable, hear those uncomfortable words being spoken aloud, and pray alongside of them. Not over them--the angry words, the fearful words--all the words and the emotions that accompany them--have value, and they must be spoken, just as we somehow stumble through saying and hearing those ickier Psalms. I'm heartened to hear several voices in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri who are encouraging all in Ferguson to remain in conversation with one another.

What Psalms do you hear emerging from the difficult and tense places in our nation and in our world?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

Dandelions for Easter

by Marshall Scott

Some who have read me before may recall that this time of year some of my time goes into gardening. I am, after all, Chief Assistant to the Lead Gardener and Steward of the Orchard of our parish. I know it's still Easter; but it is for our household the Garden Season.

But recently I felt the two coming together in an interesting way. As I was working on recovering the garden from last season - that is, cutting encroaching grass and routing errant weeds - I began to consider that we might think about a different flower for Easter season.

Not that I have anything much against lilies. I can't keep them around the house because they're not good for cats. But, they are pretty and they are seasonal. We have come to associate them with funerals and the promise of what comes after. They can even provide some sense of resurrection: when they fade you can cut them down and plant them and they will sprout and bloom again.

At the same time, I think there is a better flower to suggest. I want to offer the dandelion as the best flower for the Easter season. The more I have thought about it, the more points I see to recommend it.

First, the dandelion is certainly just as seasonal as the lily. If not as early as the first bulbs of spring, it isn’t far behind. On top of that, its color is just as appropriate for a celebratory season: gold instead of white.

300px-DandelionFlower.jpgMore to the point, nothing incarnates resurrection quite like a dandelion. Cut them down, and the next day they are back. Dig down to bring up the taproot, and still within a few days there it will be again. The hole may seem empty. There may be nothing to see; and yet it will return.

There are, of course, other parallels I could think of. The dandelion is nourishing in a way that the lily is not. That recalls the resurrection stories in which Jesus feeds the disciples (John 21: 9-14), and even eats himself (Luke 24: 41-43).

And then there are the stories we read from Acts during Eastertide. They remind us that the Jerusalem community grew wondrously in those early days, adding thousands after every public sermon and every witnessed miracle. Nothing better speaks to multiplying than the dandelion.

Indeed, it carries us to Pentecost and that mighty wind. The wind, like the Spirit, moves where it will, and we don’t see it. And when it moves, it carries those little, parasoled seeds, and everywhere new dandelions crop up. And, then, I hardly need mention that their ubiquity and persistence through the season can remind us that the resurrected Christ is with us everywhere and always.

So, perhaps we need to rethink: should our flower for Easter and Eastertide be the dandelion instead of the lily? I think the thought has its points, obviously. Of course, that may seem just too much of a change. Some might even think it silly. Perhaps. On the other hand, whether or not it changes how we decorate our churches, maybe it can do something else. Perhaps as we struggle for that pristine lawn or that managed garden we can also be reminded that all around us we can find reminders of our Easter story, not only as past but as present; not just as annual celebration but as daily experience.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in 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.

Street Theater and Gospel Presence

by Kathy Staudt

My Lenten season this year began and ended with participation in displays of religion out in the streets. This is not my usual mode: I tend to be introverted, to value careful, one-on-one or small group conversations about faith as well as prayer and public worship . But when my parish decided to participate in the “Ashes to Go” movement to begin Lent, I decided to take a shift as a lay minister, offering “Drive –through Ashes” in front of our parish church which stands at the edge of a busy intersection. It seemed hokey – we held our “Ashes to Go” sign and waved it and to my amazement people pulled up to receive ashes. Mothers driving carpools (one came back three times so that each of her kids could receive ashes), people on cell phones, interrupting their calls just long enough to “receive a blessing.” People parking, getting out of their cars, and bowing their heads so that I could say the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and adding a prayer of blessing. Why would people pull over to hear those apparently grim words? And yet over 150 people did that day. I’ve been mulling it over the whole 40 days – remembering the quiet, calm radiance on people’s faces as they heard those words about their mortality. But then I heard one of the people say into a cell phone.” Wait a minute: I have to stop and get my blessing.” And I realized that was what it was: people were experiencing our presence on that street corner as in some way a blessing – they may have been former churchgoers or unchurched, though probably with some kind of tradition of Ash Wednesday in their lives. Perhaps it was heard as blessing to have another human being say to you , “remember you are dust” – as we all are. And that’s OK: we don’t have to be more than human. We are who we are. And we are blessed.

Now I realize that for those of us committed to the life of the church Ash Wednesday means much more: that commitment to a season of penitence and self-examination is also profoundly an “insider” experience – perhaps not the first service you would take a seeker to visit. If we are already committed to the church, we are probably embracing the Lenten season as in some sense a blessing, if a hard one – as we do the rounds and cycles of the seasons that are the gift of the church year, and we each have our own ongoing struggles on the journey of faith. But for those outside, there was something about our presence, our availability to them, on Ash Wednesday, as Lent began, that seemed to speak. Somehow our presence communicated that they were welcome as they are. That we didn’t expect them to sign up or join. That God’s blessing is available, and that we were hoping it could come to them through us.

paris.jpgI ended Lent in Paris, where we happened to be traveling on Palm Sunday weekend, and I was delighted to join the procession of the American Episcopal Cathedral up the Avenue Georges V, near the Champs Elysees and in sight of the Eiffel tower. It was a lively, vibrant congregation from what I could observe – a number of younger adults, young families – most of them American or British expats. I felt thoroughly at home. We went up the street with red-veiled crosses, vestments and palms to the accompaniment of African drums. This was in Paris, where people are mostly pretty amazed that anyone practices any religion any more – probably we were seen as an American expat curiosity, but there were cameras, and delight, and a sense of holiday as we went by – again, in our way, we were a blessing to people’s Sunday morning in Paris, as we moved into our own more serious observance of Passiontide.

As I watched people in cafes snapping pictures of us I thought about what these public ceremonies might say about our continuing presence as Christians in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture. Is there a call to be in the midst of a world that is no longer culturally Christian, and claim that original call to Abraham, the call to “be a blessing” to the world, by our presence and our practice, and to cultivate a way of living that might “preach” in its own way? For us on Ash Wednesday, and on Palm Sunday, it was theater, and it wasn’t: we were out in the streets because of the importance of the season and the observance to us, and because of a desire to share, not so much the doctrine of it, as the blessing of it (One friend with whom I talked this over recalled the Celtic priests whose practice was to simply bless everything that they encountered in the pagan cultures they encountered: blessing wells and fountains, animals and families – whoever asked for a blessing – because that was what they did, as Christians).

As we walked up the Avenue Georges VI I also had a flashback to an earlier “street theater” experience from my young adulthood – the All Saints Day processions around the Yale campus in the late 1970s, when Rick Fabian and Don Schell, well known now for such fresh liturgical expressions, were chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale. On Halloween night the community would process around campus blessing various buildings and spots, following ancient liturgical forms, chanting, with incense and vestments. Members of the Yale community were following in our train, in Halloween costumes and to the tune of bagpipes, and it all had very much the feel of a medieval street festival in the heart of Christendom and yet this was a very decidedly post-Christian campus community, and I expect very few of those following thought that we were anything but part of the show. But at one point in the procession, as we paused for prayer, I overheard one onlooker, observing us at prayer, say to his friend in some amazement: “You know, I think these people are serious!”

And what if we are serious? A serious blessing. In all three of these examples, there was a sense of tremendous joy, presence and simple blessing. The church succeeded in simply being present in the world, and visible to those who might wonder what it might be like to be as “serious’ and joyful as we were about the blessing we carried. I believe that in our post-Christian era we’re likely to see more of these public liturgical expressions of faithfulness in community – and maybe it will invite folks to seek a blessing, and to wonder what it would be like to part of a community so joyful and so “serious” about our public presence and prayers. It’s a hope, at least: appropriate for us in this season as in the one just past, as we aspire to be an “Easter people”.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

Epiphany: a season of endings and beginnings

by Linda Ryan

I like Epiphany. After Advent, it's my very favorite season. Unlike Advent, though, or even Christmas, or Lent, it is a variable-length season consisting of four to nine Sundays between the date of Epiphany itself (January 6) and the beginning of Lent, which, this year, is March 30, ensuring a long Epiphany season. It celebrates the coming of the Magi to the Christ Child on the day and the manifestation of God in human flesh, the light lf Christ coming into the world throughout the season.

For me, a sad part of Epiphany is the darkening of the Christmas lights that made the December nights brighter and more hopeful. I admit to being a sucker for Christmas lights, even though I don't put any on my own house. Luckily, I have a neighbor who throws herself into the season whole-heartedly and decorates enough for both of us. They have been taken down now and put away for the next eleven months, but here and there on my way to work are still the odd houses with lights glowing. Without those little points of light, life seems a bit bleaker.

I don't have any studies to prove it, but my personal theory is that it is easier to be depressed in January than in just about any other month. People may argue for December because Christmas without all the trimmings (and the people) can be a lonely affair, but, at least in my eyes, the thought of a new year is like a stretch of Route 66 that was as straight as an arrow and went on for what seemed like half a million miles with absolutely nothing much in the way of scenery and the mountains that loomed in the distance never seeming to get any closer. It's easy to get depressed in January; all the parties and whoop-de-doo of Christmas are over, tax season approacheth, it's still winter and the turning of the calendar is a reminder that change is coming, whether we want it to or not. Babies will be born, elders (and often much beloved elders) will die, the economy and the state of the nation and the world will continue to wobble like an egg rolling downhill, and the heroes we raise today will be found tomorrow to have feet of very real clay.

But then there's Epiphany, the season. It's the spark of light that reminds us that just as everything has an ending, new things come along to engage us. Epiphanies are also sudden insights and flashes of Godlight that are like the V-8 commercial. They smack a person in the forehead. It's looking at something seemingly ordinary and plain and suddenly having the lenses change and the thing appears in a whole new light, a whole different way, a 180° turn. It's an idea that wasn't there a second ago but suddenly rocks a personal world with its suddenness and (potential) brilliance. It's seeing that homeless person hunched over a formerly abandoned grocery cart filled with bags and boxes that contain every single thing they own and suddenly seeing nail marks in their hands or a circlet of thorns instead of a watch cap on their heads. Things like that can happen all year but Epiphany is a reminder to be on the lookout for those new insights and changes of perspective.

The nights of the Epiphany season are still dark and cold but the nights are getting shorter, day by day, minute by minute. The green vestments and hangings of the church remind us that spring will be here -- whether sooner or later, it will come. We have celebrated the manifestation of God among us, but we can also carry the spark of new fire, new light, new hope and new insights. All we have to do is look.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Will you see the Messiah today?

by Win Bassett

We read that Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth. (Luke 2:22-40) The devout parents take their tiny baby there to follow the laws set forth in the Old Testament that require a mother to undergo a purification ritual because she birthed a child and that mandate that a firstborn baby’s parents present him to the Temple for redemption.(1)

We then read that the Holy Spirit assures Simeon—a man from Jerusalem and perhaps a priest—that he would not die before he saw the Messiah(2), the One who would come to save us all. We hear, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah(3).” None of us will.

And on February 2, forty days after Christmas, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, the Meeting of the Lord, and Candlemas, we celebrate, among many parts of this story from the Gospel of Luke, the truth that no one of us will die before we see the Lord.

No one of us will close our eyes—even before we fall asleep tonight—before we see the Messiah.


We aren’t the only one of God’s creatures waiting to see something today. Punxsutawney Phil hopes that he sees clouds. Yes, the groundhog who lives in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, pops out of his hole in the ground on the morning of February 2 each year and prays that the clouds in the sky prevent the sun from casting his shadow into his view. Or more accurately, we’re the ones doing the praying.

If Phil doesn’t see his shadow, the legend goes, we’ll see an early spring. If he does see his shadow, we’ll live through six more weeks of winter-like weather. Does this groundhog have anything to do with Candlemas?

Well, we can find the first documented American reference to Groundhog Day in a diary entry dated February 1841 from a storekeeper in Pennsylvania, which, mind you, was a popular destination for German immigrants. The entry reads, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate(4).” We also read in an old English poem that:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again (5).

At some point in history, it appears that Phil the groundhog replaces Candlemas in popular culture. But this displacement is in word only. Like Simeon’s seeing Christ in the Temple before he dies, Phil also sees the Messiah before he returns to his hole one day never to come aground again. “I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat(6),” God says to Moses in Leviticus. “Thick clouds enwrap him, so that he does not see, and he walks on the dome of heaven(7),” we read in Job. “Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!(8)” John writes in Revelation.

If, on the other hand, Phil sees his shadow, well, the Lord is there too. “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by,(9)” we read in the fifty-seventh Psalm.


This means that even if Phil sees his shadow and we’re to experience six more weeks of cold, dark winter weather, we’ll still see Jesus before we die. Marian Storm writes in her poem “Vigil at Candlemas”:

In the dead of winter, when the snow whispers,
When trees crack in the midnight and the cold goes deep,
Then I lie and think how the frozen earth houses many a
living sleeper,
For even to think of them is like a sleep(10).

“Many a living sleeper” —that’s us. That’s us before we see Christ. It’s Simeon before Mary and Joseph travel to the Temple with baby Jesus. It’s us before we realize we’re seeing the Messiah right now. Our hearts beat, but our eyes are closed.


There’s an old story about an abbot and a rabbi, and perhaps you’ve heard before(12).

A monastery had fallen on hard times. Its many buildings used to be filled with young monks, but now it was almost deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer, and only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters serving God with heavy hearts.

On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there, from time to time, to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.” And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.

One day the head monk—the abbot—decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heavy heart to him. So, after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, as if he had been awaiting the abbot's arrival, his arms outstretched in welcome. They embraced like long-lost brothers. The two entered the hut where, in the middle of the room, stood a wooden table with the Scriptures open on it.

“You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” the rabbi said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can repeat it only once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”

The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.” For a while, all was silent. The rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together in the chapter room. He told them he had received a teaching from the “rabbi who walks in the woods” and that the teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at the group of assembled brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”

The monks were startled by this saying. “What could it mean?” they asked themselves. “Is Brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Matthew or Brother Thomas? Am I the Messiah? What could all this mean?” They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching, but no one ever mentioned it again. As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a new and very special reverence. A gentle, warm-hearted, concern began to grow among them which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They began to live with each other as people who had finally found the special something they were looking for. When visitors came to the monastery, they found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Word spread, and before long people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and to experience the loving reverence in which they held each other.

Soon, other young men were asking, once again, to become a part of the community, and the community grew and prospered. In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. Yet somehow, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his wise and prayerful presence.


Take a look around. “[F]or my eyes have seen your salvation(13),” Simeon cries in the Temple after Mary and Joseph hand him the baby Jesus.


In a now famous 2007 article in The Washington Post entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell descended into the metro station in nondescript clothes and played with his open violin case at his feet for tips. The article begins,

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?(14)

From the time that you open your eyes each morning to the time that you close them in the evening, do you stop and see? Do you hurry past the day? Are you kind to other children of God just to be polite? Does your decision change if they’re not kind? Do you have time for beauty? What's the moral mathematics of the moment? Do you have time for beauty? I often don’t, and I often hurry past the days, and I more-than-often fail to show kindness and mercy to others.

A funny thing happened as I wrote the previous sentences of this sermon. As I was typing those words on my laptop on a train from New Haven, Connecticut, to Philadelphia, a gentleman sat directly across from me at a dining car table. He looked quite disheveled; his hair was all over the place; he wore more than one rather large coat, fingerless gloves, and gigantic boots. He had a speech impediment and perhaps social skills to which I wasn’t accustomed. He rattled my ear off about listening to music, and he showed me how every app on his iPod worked. I wanted badly to brush him off, to ignore him, and to tell him, albeit politely, that I was working.

And then I remembered the prayer of Simeon: “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.(15)” “[I]n the presence of all peoples.(16)” Poet Christian Wiman writes,

God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him—to find him—does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to come cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have long been absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.(17)

The dirty guy across the table from me, the man bothering me while I tried to write this sermon, is this irritating person. So I stopped. I made time for beauty, and I made time to see Christ in our presence at our dining car table.

Only one person recognized that famous violinist in the DC metro station. Most people didn’t stop, and the ones who did typically flipped only quarters into his open case. Did they have time for the Lord’s beauty?


Marian Storm, from the verse I quoted earlier, begins to see this beauty near the end of her poem. “I wake when I know that nested in mud as in down the / frogs are sleeping!(18)” she writes. “Sleep till the sun turns northward and the willow flowers, / Till the sod grows quick again. // O peace mysterious! Supreme compassion!(19)”

Pope Francis said last May—the time of the year when the “sod grows quick again”—"To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete. It means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus.(20)”

“It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.(21)” Let us stop being “living sleeper[s].(22)” Let us wake up from “our intense, self-enclosed sleep.(23)”

T.S. Eliot, in his well-known poem “A Song for Simeon,” writes, “Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word, / Grant Israel’s consolation / To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.(24)” We all have tomorrows, but Simeon thought that he didn’t. He thought he didn’t, that is, until the Holy Spirit told him that he would have more tomorrows until he saw the Messiah.

We read that Simeon then saw Jesus, a child who “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.(25)”

Let the favor of God be upon us all.

I pray that these words are in the name of the Living God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Preached on February 2, 2014 at All Saints Ashmont Episcopal Church, Dorchester, MA

Win Bassett is a writer, editor, and seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Follow him on Twitter: @winbassett.

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Christmas is Easter

by Sara Miles

I used to really love Christmas as a kid, and couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly be surly about it: sparkly stuff everywhere, shiny presents, fabulous blinking lights, way too much sugar, that bright turpentine smell of pine trees, even—at least where I grew up–– real snow. In my twenties, I realized, OK, there might be a few issues with, you know, capitalism. And families. People complained about depression, dysfunction, debt, the whole tacky Christmas-industrial complex…still, I thought the day was kind of fun. Lighten up! What’s wrong with a little tackiness? Have some eggnog!

But then, in middle age, I started going to church, and I got it: Christmas is just really disappointing, compared to, say, Easter. Holy Week, that’s the real thing. Christmas? It’s almost not a Christian holiday.

Or so I thought. But it turns out Christmas is like Easter. As my friend Gabe, who’s eight years old, explained to me a few days ago when we were discussing the similarities, “Both days are when Jesus comes alive.” Christmas is totally about resurrection.

Which means, of course, that Christmas is also about death.

The week before Christmas is the darkest of the year. Last Sunday, there was a lot of crying at church. People sobbed with the weight of their losses: a father in intensive care, a sister dead after terrible illness, a son in jail, beloved friends in hospice and hospital, a long-gone mother whose absence felt painfully vivid. I held one mourner in the kitchen, weeping with her, then walked home as the afternoon light was fading.

On Monday, I ran into one of the teachers from the elementary school across from my house, who was standing on the sidewalk watching parents pick up their kids. “I just miss my mom so much,” he told me, and pulled out a crumpled snapshot showing him, a 62-year old gay man with long black hair, stroking the face of a tiny little 90-year old Chinese lady in a bed jacket lying under a pile of quilts. “I took care of her as long as I could, dressing her, feeding her when she couldn’t feed herself,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I called her my baby at the end. Oh,” he said, “oh, I just don’t want to do Christmas this year without her.” The sun set by five that night.

On Tuesday evening, we sang evening prayer in the chapel, beginning with the O antiphon: O Dayspring, brightness of life everlasting, and sun of righteousness, come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. A bank of candles flickered in front of the icon of Mary, and we sat in darkness praying for a woman who had just died, leaving behind her wife and a six-year old boy.

On Wednesday, it was colder, and the sun set before five. At night, unexpectedly, the doorbell rang: it was a friend of ours who’d been at the bedside of a friend dying of brain cancer. He got weepy as he told us how she gathered the people she loved to say goodbye. “I’ve been so happy,” she told them, “to be alive. And now I’m just falling, falling into death.”

On Thursday, I woke up in the dark, hauled myself out of bed and went to work. A man came by the church who said he’d lost interest in living after his sister died four months earlier: he wanted to play me a message of her voice saying “Te quiero, I love you”, and then he leaned forward to whisper, “I know everyone dies, but my sister? This destroys me. I have some bad words for God: why would he take her?” Then in the evening another man came and told me about making Christmas bread from a recipe passed down from his grandmother to his mother, who’d died earlier this year, and how he started crying when he realized there was nobody alive left to call for help with the recipe. “Maybe I need fewer memories,” he said. By the time I got home, it had been dark for more than four hours.

On Friday the day was even colder and the dark more complete, and then it was Saturday, the solstice, the longest night of the year. I couldn’t sleep. I prayed: O Dayspring, brightness of light everlasting, and sun of righteousness, Come and enlighten us who sit in darkness, and the shadow of death.

Christmas is Easter. We wait for Jesus in Advent the way we wait for Jesus in Lent. And in both seasons, we have to pass through death in order to find him, blazingly alive, the sun of righteousness.

Death is a fact of life that happens all year long, in every time and place and circumstance. But the reason why Christmas and Easter are actually Christian holidays is because they tell us the truth beyond that fact, and reveal the wild, real promise at the heart of our faith. The promise that, as Gabe says, Jesus comes alive. That Jesus is born to us, dies for us, and rises from the dead, trampling down death by death, to pull us up from our graves, to bestow life.

At Christmas and Easter we get to see more clearly how God is always making light and life out of darkness and death. How life can spring from the womb of a humiliated girl on a winter night, how life can rise before dawn from the tomb of a crucified man. How death has no final power. Because at Christmas and Easter Immanuel appears to those who wait in darkness and the shadow of death: to share our suffering, and to share the love of God.

Last week, before the winter solstice, I had a hard time sleeping. I’d go to bed early and be woken with a start in the middle of the night by the brilliance of the nearly-full moon, its cool light pouring through my window and illuminating the whole room. I remembered how, when my daughter was young and I was working as a journalist far away from home, I’d call and tell her to look outside for the moon. “It’s the same moon,” I’d say, missing her terribly, “that I see where I am. Even when we’re not together, remember we’re both looking at the same moon.”

The moon that kept me close to my child is the same moon Mary saw as she waited, pregnant, in the dark; the same moon that Joseph saw when an angel awoke him from sleep. It’s the same moon that Jesus saw in his longest night on earth. For all humanity, the same moon can be a sign of Immanuel, meaning God is with us: we’re not alone.

Because the moon reflects the sun. Even when we can’t see the sun, we know by the light of the moon that it’s there. And even when I’m sleepless or troubled or grieving, I know that God–-the true sun of the world, ever more risen and never going down––is with us: and I can see God’s love reflected by other people, who shine with it and help illuminate the dark. Who hold me and pray with me and give me a Kleenex when I cry, whose bodies help comfort me through the night.

Today, even by a few minutes, the day will be longer. The sun will give a little more light, and the same moon will shine on all of us, reflecting the glory. Another child will be born today, and tomorrow, and on Christmas Eve, and on Good Friday, bringing resurrection, God’s new life to the world.

Arise, shine, for your light has come.

Sara Miles is the author of Take This Bread and Jesus Freak. Her new book is City of God (Jericho Books, February 2014.) Originally preached for Advent IV.

Re-thinking Advent: a zest for life

By George Clifford

Some years ago, a large poster outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London proclaimed, "Christ Is Coming!" Right below that poster another sign requested, "Please do not obstruct these gates."

Whether it's listening to an Advent sermon, responding during the Eucharist prayer that Christ will come again! or snickering at naïve fundamentalist Left Behind aficionados, the theme of Jesus' second coming is woven through much Christian theology, liturgy, and practice, especially during Advent. Yet most of us give little thought to what we believe about Jesus' returning, perhaps beyond harboring a suspicion that snickering at other Christians, no matter how misguided they may be, is probably unkind.

Generally, thinking about eschatology (the study of end times) divides into four camps. First, there are the alleged literalists. These Christians claim to accept Biblical teachings about the end of history at face value. God's word describes how, perhaps even when, God will bring history to its appointed destiny. Although this approach dominates popular thinking (as evidenced by Left Behind series' bestselling status), a literal reading is anything but simple or straightforward. For almost two millennia, predictions of when Jesus will return have formed a cottage industry among Christians. Literalists also vehemently debate how to understand the Bible's eschatological teachings among themselves – perhaps because few other people are interested!

Second, some Christians argue for a realized eschatology, i.e., Christians experience the future return of Christ (aka his second coming) in the sacraments and sacramentals. This view's popularity perhaps peaked in the first half of the twentieth century. Post-Holocaust theologians have challenged Christians who advocate a realized eschatology to explain how this interpretation provides justice for the victims of radical evil.

The third camp is the most common among Episcopalians. These Christians rarely think about Jesus' returning, mindlessly participate in the liturgy week after week without considering the words that they are saying, and view Advent as the inescapable annual prelude to the all-important, heavily secularized holy day of Christmas. This approach simply ignores the uncomfortable if perhaps incomprehensible Bible passages that may (or not, depending upon one's views) reference the culmination of time and Jesus' return.

The fourth camp consists of Christians who want to remain firmly grounded in science while taking the Biblical witness seriously and acknowledging the critical role of hope for energizing human endeavors. Creation – contrary to what many of us might wish – is dynamic, not static. Change is endemic, pervasive, and inescapable. If you share my belief that God created the cosmos, then we reasonably believe that creation's constant change is indeed evolution, not an unguided series of random events, of which there are certainly a great many, but also evolution, albeit slowly and unevenly, toward a new and better future. Unfortunately, we humans lack both the wisdom and knowledge to discern the specifics of that future, or the process by which it is coming into being. Believing that God is bringing (or luring, in the language of process theology) creation into the future of God's choosing honors the essence of the Biblical witness while recognizing that the Bible's human authors wrote from a very time and culturally bound point of view, using concepts, language, and symbolism appropriate to that context.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote:

Although we too often forget this, what we call evolution develops only in virtue of a certain internal preference for survival (or, if you prefer to put it so, self-survival) which in man takes on a markedly psychic appearance, in the form of a zest for life. Ultimately, it is that and that alone which underlies and supports the whole complex of biophysical energies whose operation, acting experimentally, conditions anthropogenesis.

In view of that fact, what would happen if one day we should see that the universe is so hermetically closed in upon itself that there is no possible way of our emerging from it – either because we are forced indefinitely to go round and round inside it, or (which comes to the same thing) because we are doomed to a total death? Immediately and without further ado, I believe – just like miners who find that the gallery is blocked ahead of them – we would lose the heart to act, and man's impetus would be radically checked and 'deflated' for ever, by this fundamental discouragement and loss of zest. (Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ, tr. by René Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 212-213 cited in John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 111)

Advent invites us to affirm and celebrate our zest for life.

The link between Advent and Christmas reminds us that God, working in and through the cosmos, acts in ways consistent with God's revelation in Jesus. Apocalypticists, millenarians, eschatologists, and all of the other Christians who assert that the Bible (as if it were a deck of Tarot cards!) reveals the details of God's impending acts err grievously when they portray Jesus returning to live by the sword that he had previously rejected:

Revelation is not portraying Jesus returning to earth in the future, having repented of his naive gospel ways and having converted to Caesar’s “realistic” Greco-Roman methods instead. He hasn’t gotten discouraged about Caesar seeming to get the upper hand after his resurrection and on that basis concluded that it’s best to live by the sword after all (Matt. 26:52). Jesus hasn’t abandoned the way of peace (Luke 19:42) and concluded the way of Pilate is better, mandating that his disciples should fight after all (John 18:36). He hasn’t had second thoughts about all that talk about forgiveness (Matt. 18:21–22) and concluded that on the 78th offense (or 491st, depending on interpretation), you should pull out your sword and hack off your offender’s head rather than turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). (Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p. 125)

So, in good faith I unabashedly affirm, in Advent and during the rest of the year, Christ will come again! I also hope that well-meaning but profoundly misguided Christians will stop blocking the gates, i.e., that they will discard their biblical ignorance, their naïve thinking that Jesus has already returned, and their liturgical and theological inattentiveness. The real hope of Advent is that God, in God's way and God's time, is bringing to completion what God began in Jesus, a hope that animates and empowers God's people with a genuine zest for life. So this Advent, please do not obstruct these gates; instead, let's proclaim the one who is life itself.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Across the Church, From Ghost to Ghost

by Eric Bonetti

Every evening, as night falls and darkness spreads its long, icy fingers across the land, silence descends like a pall upon the cathedrals, churches and graveyards of The Episcopal Church. Buildings that, only a few hours earlier, were bustling and full and life, stand empty in the dark.

Or do they?

Some say that our majestic houses of worship welcome not just the living, but the souls of the dead as well.

Why would the dead return? No one knows. Some say they seek to visit those they love. Others believe it is to attend to unfinished business, to right a wrong, or to seek solace among the living. Others say it is to check on the welfare of the church they loved deeply in life, and continue to love, even in death. Some even think that wraiths visit the church to express their dislike of changes in the church--an explanation that many will find all too plausible!

Whatever the reason, tales of hauntings abound in The Episcopal Church. Predictably enough, many of these tales come from the east coast, where the church dates back hundreds of years. At the same time, tales of ghostly activity exist all across the church, at churches both great and small, old and new, rural and urban.

Read on, and enjoy a brief, pre-Halloween visit with just a few of the ghosts of The Episcopal Church.

St. Mary's-in-Tuxedo, Tuxedo, NY

A gloriously beautiful church, one of the hallways in the building has been the source of reported ghostly sightings since at least the 1940's. Witnesses report that the phantom is that of a clergy person associated with the parish.

Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, NY

Home to breathtaking beautiful stained glass windows, the church is said to be the scene of numerous visits from the beyond, including shadows near the altar; the benign specter of an elderly and loving parishioner, now long gone; and even an irritated wraith, reportedly angry about changes to the building.

St. Paul's Chapel, New York, NY

Given its proximity to Broadway and the theater's long association with the supernatural, it is no surprise that the cemetery is said to be haunted by the headless ghost of an actor, who donated his head to science. Today, he is thought to wander the earth, seeking to have his skull reunited with his other earthly remains.

St. Andrew's, Staten Island, NY

The scene of a recent paranormal investigation, visitors are reported to have experienced loud, unexplained noises in the middle of the night, as well as heavy chimes that rang with no visible cause.

St. Stephens, Mullica Hill, NJ

Located in one of the most historic areas of New Jersey, the second floor is a favorite stop for those hoping to photograph unexplained activity, including eerie lights that are said to represent the souls of the departed.

Christ Church, Alexandria, VA

This beautiful church, where notables have worshipped including George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and Winston Churchill, is home to a cemetery bearing some of the oldest legible headstones in the area. Legends tell of ghostly activity in cemetery, including a recent instance of a ghostly face unexpectedly appearing in a photograph taken at the gate to the cemetery.

St. John's, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC

The so-called "church of the presidents," is home to a bell cast by the legendary Paul Revere, as well as a pew that, by tradition, is reserved for the president of the United States.

Over the years, many have reported that, when the bell tolls for the death of someone famous, six ghostly male apparitions appear briefly in the president's pew at midnight, only to quickly vanish.

Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA

This lovely stone church, built in an English country style (and home parish of this author) is said to be haunted by the apparition of a man in robes, seen in the hallway near the church library. Additionally, there are reports of loud footsteps in the third floor hallway late at night, after the building is secured. Upon investigation, no reasonable explanation for the heavy footfalls is ever found.

Aquia Episcopal Church, Stafford, VA

This church, which predates the civil war, is said to be haunted by the specter of a soldier killed during the war, with activity focused on the church tower. Others report that ghostly activity relates to a young woman who was murdered on the property. In any case, tales of unearthly lights and sounds in the church date back many years.

St. George's Church, Fredericksburg, VA

Another church with roots deep in history, St. George's is said to be visited by the ghost of a woman in white, who appears in the second-floor gallery. Indeed, some claim to have photographed this shadowy figure!

Old Trinity Episcopal, Mason, TN

This small, clapboard church, scene of vandalism in recent years, is said to be haunted by the souls of those whose final resting places have been disturbed. Numerous reports exist of eerie sights and sounds in the cemetery, as well as unexplained phenomena relating to a statue of the Virgin Mary located near the church.

St. Luke's, Cleveland, TN

Famous among local residents, the Craigmiles family mausoleum, located in the church cemetery, built of white marble, is reportedly streaked with red, reflecting various tragedies the family has suffered over the years. No explanation for these red streaks, or their return following various attempts to remove the ghastly markings, has ever be given.

St. Paul's, Key West, FL

Tales abound of ghostly presences in the church's graveyard, including an apparition dressed in clothes of many, many years ago. Visitors also report seeing the ghost of a long-dead sea captain, as well as those of several children. Recent visits also have resulted in unexplained phenomena in photographs taken at the site, including ghostly balls of light that manifest at night.

Chapel of the Cross, Mannsdale, MS

This beautiful gothic church, built around 1850, is said to be haunted by not one, but two, ghosts. One is believed to be the wraith of a governess who died years ago in a house fire; the other is said to be the inconsolable phantom of a young lady whose fiancee was killed in a duel and buried at the church.

St. Paul's, Leavenworth, KS

The first Episcopal church in the area,some report hearing other-worldly music coming from the church late at night, long after the church is empty.

Nashotah House, Nashotah, WI

Established in 1842, this seminary is said to be haunted by various phantoms, including a "black monk," thought to be the ghost of a priest who committed suicide on the grounds, and who now walks the grounds late at night.

St. Andrews, Nogales, AZ

Rumored to be built on the site of a Native American burial ground, this contemporary church building is said to be haunted, indeed. Tales abound of candles that light themselves, unexplained footprints in the building, and even a full apparition of a Native American, said to walk among the pews.

St. Mark's, Cheyenne, WY

Hauntings here are said to center on the bell tower, which allegedly has been the scene of mysterious noises including banging sounds and muffled voices. Legend has it that the phenomena are caused by the death of a stone mason, who fell to his death during construction.

Trinity Russian Hill, San Francisco, CA

Said to be visited by an ethereal figure in grey, the church also is said to be the site of inexplicable cold spots and mysterious noises.

Christ Church, Portola Valley, CA

The road near the church is said to be haunted by a ghost that appears in front of startled drivers, only to vanish without a trace. Tales of this haunting are of relatively recent origin.

Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Of course, no collection of ghostly tales would be complete without reference to the glorious Washington National Cathedral. Towering over the nation's capitol, the cathedral is one of the largest in the world, and home to not just scores of creepy gargoyles and a gloomy crypt, but supposedly the ghosts of both a president and an church employee as well.

Visitors report that Woodrow Wilson, the only US president interred at the Cathedral, rises at night to walk the cold marble floors, the cane he used in life making a gentle tapping sound as walks the deserted building.

Even more chilling is the library building, the site of a 1946 murder. While no reports of an apparition exist, it is said that some sense a restless soul lingering near the basement site of the homicide. Feelings of unease, as well as a sense of being watched by an unseen force, are thought to emanate from the shadowy corners of the basement.

Happy Halloween!

(editor's note - add your stories in the comments)

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

Passion, Eros, and Resurrection

by Donald Schell

“My Eros is crucified.”

Still now, forty-five years later, I remember how startled I was when I first read that use of “Eros” in Ignatius of Antioch’s early Second Century letters. I was just beginning seminary and was searching hard for something to replace the Atonement-by-Vicarious-Suffering-Evangelicalism that I’d grown up with. Would Ignatius’s use of THAT word “Eros” for a loving God point to another way of understanding Jesus’ cross and resurrection?

Ignatius wrote as a bishop under Roman guard; he was on his way to martyrdom, writing when the ink was barely dry on the four Gospels. As St. Paul had done before him, he wrote letters to churches in Asia Minor, offering a personal mix of news, theology, encouragement, direction, and reports on his own spirit as he walked toward certain death.

What startled me in his use of “Eros” after was his total disregard for the kinds of careful distinction C.S. Lewis made among four different Greek words for love. I’d read Lewis’s book and had heard those distinctions of different kinds of love in countless sermons and scripture commentaries. The Four Loves made a clear hierarchy and Eros came across so hungering, so desiring, so reaching toward as to be barely love. But Ignatius used “Eros” and not “Agape.” Did he mean Jesus’ death on the cross shows us the holy power of desire in Christ’s and the Father’s love? Could this be part of the way I was looking for, a way beyond moralizing, legalistic speculations about paying a price to satisfy divine justice?

Ignatius’ unexpected use of “Eros” sharpened my ear to hear new notes in the Bible itself.

With this fresh hearing, I began to hear Eros and God’s desire for us ringing through the Gospel resurrection stories (and St. Paul’s untimely encounter with Jesus as well). How had I not heard it before? When the Gospels show a resurrected Jesus comforting frightened who had abandoned and betrayed him,

- “Do not be afraid…”
- “Peace be with you…”

he speaks tender, embracing words of love.
When he breathes on them,
- “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

he stirs their hair like a mother or a lover.
When they’re hungry for hope and understanding,
- “Children, you have no fish, have you?”

he feeds them and eats with them,
- “Come and have breakfast.”

When he calls Mary Magdalene by name,
- “Mary”

the tender life in his voice provokes her to use an affectionate nickname –
- “Rabbuni”

And (though the word never appears in the New Testament) Eros, desiring love, flashes like lightning when he says to Mary Magdalene,
“Do not touch me.” Not now, not yet
As Eros dances through Jesus’ repeated questioning of Peter - -
“Peter, do you love me?”

In the resurrected Jesus we meet our Love again - that’s what I heard in Ignatius’s flash of vision; all of our erotic, tender, longing, desiring ways of loving do suffer and die with Jesus our Eros on the cross. And in the next moment, the same moment, our resurrected Eros invites us to live our passionate, desiring love as he did and does - with no fear of death.

If we’ve felt and seen the power in his life and presence and are moved by its power and beauty to follow him, our path, our race course, as followers of Jesus, is shaped by desiring love

“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” ~Hebrews 12:1b-2

“…for the sake of the joy that was set before him…”

Jesus’ desire transforms the story of his capture, torture, and brutally shaming execution into a startling story of freedom. For the Gospel writers and the earliest Christians, Jesus’ freedom drives the story that gives them life. Jesus’ freedom through the Passion guides us to recognize the Jesus we knew through all the Gospel stories in the healing, blessing, and forgiveness in his resurrection embrace.

Writing now in the great Fifty Days of Easter, I’m savoring this year’s Easter joy of preaching Christ Church, Los Altos’s Prayer Book Palm Sunday liturgy, their 100th anniversary and then at the other end of a formal/informal liturgical spectrum presiding at a handmade, partly unscripted Maundy Thursday Eucharistic supper and foot washing with Society of St. Polycarp, that extended New Orleans group of young friends – attorneys and teachers, social service workers, musicians, and actors meeting for the Great Three Days in Krewe de Vieux’s Mardi Gras warehouse. After my first evening presiding with them, I joined other musician song-leaders making passionate, unaccompanied music for their Good Friday and the Easter Vigil and Feast. From Palm Sunday through Easter, all the events formed a single whole, a celebration of fearless living and love that God would not abandon to death. Both ends of the week and both ends of the liturgical spectrum steadily dropped the fake solemnity of pretending we’d somehow not heard the whole story. Throughout this Holy Week, our practice and proclamation came together to discover Jesus’ freedom embracing us, facing our darkest fears and our most fragile hopes, and through it all blessing our desire with love.

What I’m grateful that didn’t hear in those services in California and Louisiana was our old habit of ignoring (or even denying) Jesus’ freedom and desire in the early parts of the one story. We didn’t reduce our telling of the Passion to a catastrophic tragedy. We didn’t try to make Jesus’ resurrection a surprise happy ending. I felt people responding with steady hope, a real stirring of faith, and most deeply with love. The alternate version of the story, the one I inherited and was looking to replace, the story of the inevitable destruction of Jesus’ faithful obedience (watching over our shoulders for the divine wrath that lurks in the background) makes God the enemy of our heart’s desire and Jesus our mentor in victimhood.

Another ancient Christian writer sensitized my ear to Jesus’ freedom through the arc of the Passion-Resurrection story. Only a few days after I first read Ignatius words, “My Eros is crucified,” I read Hippolytus of Rome’s second century Eucharistic Prayer. Hippolytus’s prayer with its insistence on Jesus’ freedom felt wonderfully and eerily consistent with Ignatius’s use of Eros. And like Ignatius, it pointed to the wholeness of God’s desiring love as Jesus walked the way to the cross -

To fulfill your will and win for himself a holy people, he [Jesus] stretched out his arms when he came to suffer, that by his death he might set free all who trusted you. [And the night when] he was handed over to death, a death he freely accepted he might bring to naught death, and break the bond of the devil, and tread hell under foot, and give light to the righteous and set up a covenant, and manifest his resurrection, he took bread…

Hippolytus insists that Jesus freely stretched out his arms to suffer death to destroy death’s power. He would do no less, because he loved to make us free.

After reading Ignatius and Hippolytus, I began to discover these themes of theirs in the Bible, as I wondered how, with all the scripture passages we’d memorized for Sunday School, in our Sword Drill practice of digging into scripture, in so many exegetical sermons, we’d never heard, "The Father loves me for this: that I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down freely. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again" (John 10:17-18).

The writer of the Gospel of John isn’t trying to make the crucifixion pretty. The writer is telling the story to get us to the dark transforming power of truth and beauty. The Evangelist knows we’ll miss the whole story unless we keep hearing that the Father’s unwavering love and desire for us simply IS the whole and consistent context of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. Jesus doesn’t bow to the Father’s will (like a devout serf acknowledging the holy power of the duke or prince who owns him), Jesus’ will and the Father’s are one as he chooses to enact the Father’s self-giving in his own free, self-giving love.

Yes, the civil and religious authorities did their determined best to reduce Jesus to a victim (as civil and religious authorities did and continue to do to those who step outside their system and order). And yes, Jesus was stripped of community and friends, stripped naked of his clothing, mocked, shamed, tortured and yes, they killed him. But he came to Jerusalem freely and he never consented to the legitimacy of the power he was facing down. The religious sacrificial system of appeasing a righteous God and the civil sacrificial system of sacrificing inconvenient people and vision for the sake the “peace” of the Empire both claimed their right and need to destroy him. And because Jesus sustained his loving freedom to the end, God’s resurrecting power is fully present even in Jesus’ death.

Taken together the four Gospels four different “final words” make four notes of a powerful chord. “It is finished,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel. And it’s the same word as the piercing cry in Mark’s Gospel and “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus freely sustains his desiring love into the darkness of death, and in that freedom, the God and father who seemed to have abandoned him reveals that Love is truly stronger than death. The resurrection is revelatory fulfillment of Jesus’ courageous, creative love.

With Jesus’ freedom in his Passion-Death-and-Resurrection before us, lives of generous witness (and sometimes death), shine with the presence of his Spirit – Gandhi, Maria Skobtsova, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Su Kyi. Yes, add your own names to that list. No, on my list they’re not all Christians, but how can we not see the Spirit in lives that shine with such freedom to love. St. Paul tells us, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Eros. My Eros is crucified. Come my way, my truth, my life.

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

Harrowing Hell

From the Diocese of Arizona-- reprise....

Holy Saturday: a point in time

by Linda Ryan

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

- W.H. Auden

Holy Saturday is one of those days when everything seems somewhat discombobulated in an odd way. After the forty days of Lent the end of the period of fasting, penitence and prayer are almost over, but not quite yet. The Altar Guild uses the morning to turn the church from stark and dark to brilliant with highly polished silver and brass and lots of flowers, and the scent of furniture polish faintly perfumes the air where the scent of the lilies have not yet reached. The place is a veritable beehive of activity, but then everyone goes home for the afternoon and the church waits, adorned like a bride for her wedding, awaiting the coming of the groom. Meanwhile the guests wait, doing their usual Saturday morning chores and running about, some of them still feeling the combined effect of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It's a day that seems to hold its breath, in a way. Like Auden put in his poem, it seems that "...nothing now can ever come to any good," yet we know that good will come, just not yet.

I sense in Auden's poem a feeling akin to the grief some of us experience when losing a friend or a loved one. It seems that the whole world should be mourning with us, a feeling that life has either stopped or is somehow wrapped in a fog, a wispy curtain that makes things blurry and unclear. How dare people laugh or go on as if there were nothing wrong? Can't they see that things are very wrong and may never be put right again?

With Holy Saturday, however, we have a hint (or, perhaps, a solid knowledge) that come the evening and then the next day, all will be made right again because the death that seemed so tragic and final just a day or so before has been roundly vanquished when the resurrection is discovered. But throughout the day the joy and elation of Easter is still just out of reach, as if through that veil that clouds our eyes with grief.

The Greek Orthodox, while observing Holy Saturday and Easter at a different time, nonetheless have something profound to tell us:

Today a tomb holds Him who holds the creation
in the hollow of His hand;
a stone covers Him who covered the heavens with glory.
Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from his bonds.
Glory to Thy dispensation, whereby Thou hast accomplished all things,
granting us an eternal Sabbath,
Thy most holy Resurrection from the dead.

It is interesting how Auden and the Greek Orthodox hymnographer see Holy Saturday so differently. Auden sees it through the eyes of Good Friday's grief while the hymnographer sees the reality of the grave that is the present but also to the future that is the promise of Easter. The balance between the two is what I believe is the crux of Holy Saturday. Even though every minute we live, breathe and move on this earth is the present moment between the past and the future, with Holy Saturday it is probably more apparent than most other times of the year. In the present we mourn the death of a man over 2000 years ago while we look for the future resurrection he has promised us through his own example.

I think today I will be more consciously aware of that point in time that is between times as I prepare to observe the yearly exuberance of Easter. While every moment is such a point between past and future, I think Holy Saturday's moments are probably among the most important and the most identifiable, if I choose to look at it that way. Auden's pessimistic "I thought that love would last forever" is, for me, swept away by the hymnographer's "Thou hast accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath," a promise that only love can fulfill, a promise that love has and will fulfill.

It's that simple.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter

Resurrection: my story

by Jocelyn Tichenor

George Carey, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1992, said that the resurrection is not an appendage to the Christian faith---it is the Christian faith.

This is my story of resurrection.

It all started September 27, 1979; I was born. I was born to two loving parents who wanted me to succeed in all aspects of life. They knew the re would be challenges for the three of us to go through, but nothing could pre pare them for the shock we all were about to receive.

Mom took me to the doctors for a check-up at eighteen months. At that point, I was not walking. My pediatrician suggested that my parents take me to a neurologist and make sure I was developing according to the way I should be. My parents thought nothing of it and assumed everything would be just fine. The doctor evaluated the way I grasped objects, how my eyes followed them and my overall coordination. He then stepped out of the room and consulted with another doctor. My parents were pleased at how well I had completed the tasks set before me. When the doctor returned, he told my parents that I had cerebral palsy.

This was quite a time of sadness for my parents as I was the firstborn and they did not know what to expect in terms of my development. And so, their perfect baby was to be different. They went through a mourning period as they adjusted to the news. Finding out that I had cerebral palsy was quite a difficult pill for them to swallow. To assist me in making up for lost time, I went to physical, occupational and speech therapies at various times in my young life.

At therapy I was requested to complete difficult tasks, such as buttoning a shirt, walking on a balance beam and trying to speak so that people could understand me. Even to this day, the letter "R" vexes me! I really struggled in the early days to have people understand me and even today people mistake me from originating from a European Country! This time I was the one with the hard pill to swallow! The therapists challenged me to complete tasks, which were tremendously difficult for me.

Cerebral palsy, like all other difficulties, has its good things as well as its "undesirable things". Cerebral palsy has given me a different perspective on life and I am more in tuned to people's feelings. In addition, I have met people that I might not have otherwise met due to my cerebral palsy. I am a patient person; always willing to help people if they need it. Having cerebral palsy has demanded that I have self-motivation and perseverance (although my parents claim some of the credit for themselves) all qualities which, I feel, are needed to be successful.

Accomplishments, though they may be small, are always appreciated a lot more because of the tremendous amounts of energy necessary to complete the task.

There are always two sides to every story. There are several not so good things about cerebral palsy. Because I have a competitive edge about me, I am always comparing myself to others in terms of physical tasks such as riding a bicycle or having two hands that work together instead of one being significantly better than the other. Those comparisons sparked a real sense of jealousy in me. I would get wrapped up in the trivial things of life and not worry so much about academics, because when we are young, athletics is valued so much more. Because of my slow rate of speech, people would comment and tease that I was mentally impaired. That was a major blow to me because I had really struggled to speak well and articulately. When activities looked easy to complete, they always found a sneaky way of turning in to being almost impossible, such as cutting a juicy piece of steak. It is even more frustrating when your mind has been set on that steak for days on end!

As we gather for this special Christian holiday, I am reminded of the suffering that Jesus went through when he was crucified on the cross. Gloriously three days later, he was resurrected. My life story and yours can be likened to that of Jesus. Each one of us has a Good Friday in our life, a day we discovered something was not the way we wanted it to be. For me it was finding out that I had cerebral palsy. Yes, there was a time of mourning and asking the all too popular question, "Why me?" but there was the promised resurrection which is the Easter for all of us. For me, it was discovering the things I excelled at, such as working with people and speaking publicly. We try to mimic the way Jesus led His life, the successes and failures He went through to make Him a stronger person. Discovering our resurrection means going through the ups and downs as Jesus did when He was here on earth. Let us go forth and not only celebrate Easter, but try and live it the way He would. Amen.

Jocelyn Tichenor, former Deputy to General Convention, lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2003, with a degree in Communications. She likes to travel and spend time at the beach. Jocelyn works in Washington, D.C., for the federal government. She is a member of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, in Washington, D.C

To whom is it Lent and for how long?

by Linda Ryan

There's an old joke about a newly married couple whose wedding night (and the next few) are not quite what the bride had envisioned. The groom explains that it is Lent. The bride's comeback is, "To whom is it lent and for how long?" With the coming of Lent beginning this week, it seems to me to be a more than appropriate question (even for a punch line).

The easy part is "how long." Answers range from "Ash Wednesday until Easter" to "A period of time before the first full moon following the vernal equinox." It is forty days -- excluding Sundays which are always little Easters, even during Lent, -- a season of penitence and reflection leading up to the glorious celebration of the resurrection at Easter itself. Many mark the Lenten season with the custom of giving up something like chocolates or desserts or the like. Others may instead take on something like extra church attendance, Bible reading or prayer instead of or, occasionally, in addition to, giving up some particularly enjoyed activity or food. It's supposed to remind us of what Jesus gave up for us and to identify in some very small way with Jesus in his suffering. We can't really identify with the depth of Jesus' suffering because we aren't Jesus, but the giving up of something is supposed to be a sort of martyrdom by pinpricks; we have little twinges of temptation to give it up and just eat that Cadbury Egg or drink that beer. Me, I've never had any success giving up Peeps during Lent (the only time REAL Peeps are sold) until last year, but that's another story.

As for "To whom is it lent," it seems to me that that's a much deeper line of thought. Of course, the obvious answer is "the church" or "Christians" but I think there's more to it. While we're meant to use the giving up as a sign of love for Jesus, one thing that isn't always stressed is that we are encouraged to take the money we'd normally spend on whatever delicacy we're giving up and either save it to make an Easter gift at the church, to a favorite charity or toward a particular need somewhere in the world. I usually have a problem just giving up something without remembering that second part of the equation.

But there's another thought going through my head. Lent, besides being the name of the season, is also the past tense of "lend" -- giving something with the expectation of having it returned at a future time. We voluntarily give up something with the full plan to dive back into it as soon as we hear the first "Alleluia!" We can say we're doing it for our spiritual growth, or maybe for our health's sake, or even just because it's easier to give up something when there are other people around also voluntarily offering to sacrifice a personal habit or indulgence. Mutual support makes the road easier, there's no doubt. But I wonder, is it just for us that we're doing this?

What if we thought of "to whom is it lent" as putting our endeavors in God's hands, "lending" them, as it were. As Christians we believe that all that we are and all that we have is God's anyway, even though we're given the stewardship over the things we are and have, much as the servants in the parable (Matthew 25:13-30, Luke 19:11-27) were given various amounts of money to care for during their master's absence. The expectation of the master was that the servants would use his money to make him even more money, and two of the servants did that, each roughly doubling the original amount given them. The third, though, gave the master exactly the amount the master had entrusted to him. Calling him lazy and unprofitable, the servant was punished for not taking a chance, not thinking that the money was lent for a purpose and not just to hang onto with clenched fist. I wonder, do we see the small sacrifices we make for Lent as giving God back a bit more of what has already been entrusted to us and with which we are supposed to show a profit? Peeps and beer seem like a pretty poor return on God's investment.

I know the story is usually more a stewardship-drive kind of scripture, but I think we're supposed to find epiphanies in whatever we read and whenever we read it. Yes, we are supposed to make regular returns to God from our life and labors, as the exhortation goes, and so we chuck in a check or some bills and coins when the alms basin goes around. We volunteer to help tidy up the church and grounds a couple of times a year or we go and help feed the hungry at the local soup kitchen on Christmas and Easter. Those are our returns on investment to God, but during Lent we're called to do a little more. God has lent to us our lives, what we lend to God are little habits and pleasures we think we can do without for forty days (excluding Sundays). Seems like a small return on investment, no matter how much we really want those Cadbury Eggs or that cup of coffee.

I ask myself, what am I lending to God this year? How much of a sacrifice will it be to my life, and how much benefit will I accrue from it? It's like a time-limited New Year's resolution -- can I really keep the promise I make to God about this one thing or these few things? How much will it hurt, but what will I learn as a result of it? I have a feeling the answer will be both surprising and enlightening.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter

How do the Magi receive revelation?

by Deirdre Good with help from Julian Sheffield

Today’s gospel for the feast of the Epiphany is Matthew’s account of the journey of the Magi to the house wherein Jesus was born. Led by a star, they travelled from further east to Jerusalem where they inquired of Herod, client king of Rome, “Where is the child born king of the Jews, for we have seen his star at it’s rising and have come to worship him?” (Matthew 2:2). Much of the chapter is about discernment: how do the Magi determine that following a star from their place of origin will lead them to a child born to be King? How does Herod determine the degree of threat posed by the existence of such a child? How do those in Herod’s realm respond to the quest of the Magi? How does Joseph manage the threat Herod poses against the child in his care? It’s a question that interests all religious people.

But through these questions lie larger ones about determining the significance of the child for the Magi, for Herod, for the kingdom of Judea, for Israel. Matthew does not describe the process of discernment each character in the narrative undergoes so much as the outcome: the Magi tenaciously follow the star over long distances in order to worship this child; Herod reacts in fear and then stealth, then anger and retaliation, as he copes with news of the child’s birth and the implications of the child; all Jerusalem reacts in much the same way as Herod to the query of the Magi; Joseph simply does what an angel tells him and thus saves the child and his mother by taking them to Egypt. Since the focus of Matthew’s narrative is on Herod and not the Magi, readers of Matthew see how a client king of Rome is undone by news of a potential rival’s birth. Herod is a king out of control, not one who rules by self-control. He is the anti-type of a self-possessed ruler of the age.

So what are the means of discernment the narrative ascribes to each character? The Magi follow a star. When it stops over the place where the child is born, they enter the house in great joy. They are also guided by dreams that warn them to depart for their own country another way and not return to Herod and his cruel intentions towards children. Herod’s chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem read prophetic scripture that indicates that the child will be born in Bethlehem. Herod seeks human advice: there is no suggestion that he has access to divine guidance. Joseph receives and heeds a warning dream from an angel.

There are three mediums for discerning divine revelation in Matthew 2 : a star, dreams and prophecy. Each medium is particular to the receiver: for the foreign Magi astronomy, not scripture, provides authoritative revelation; Herod's advisors consult their scriptures, not the heavens; while Joseph, a righteous man and a devout Jew, is visited with dreams bearing an angel. The stars, the scriptures, the dreams all speak joy, life and triumph for the child and his mother, to those who would receive that message. Herod, seeking his own security and power, receives from divine revelation fear, deceit, stealth and murderous rage.

Throughout its length, the Hebrew Bible demonstrates that God speaks to individuals and nations through dreams and prophetic scripture. Where Matthew breaks new ground is in asserting that the same God of Biblical revelation is also the source of astrological revelation to the Magi that brought them out from a different culture and civilization across many miles with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the child born King of the Jews. We don’t know what happens when they go home. We don’t know how they deal with knowledge of the child. But we do know that God works through their lives and the lives of those with whom they come into contact. This is the Epiphany of Matthew’s Magi for ancient and modern readers.

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. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage. Julian Sheffield is the business manager of Brooklyn Youth Chorus and
a cradle Episcopalian.

Elf on the shelf

by Torey Lightcap

Judging by photos and commentary, many of my Facebook friends’ homes appear to have been invaded by the Elf on the Shelf. Ours has, too.

For the uninitiated, Elf on the Shelf is a small “scout” elf with rosy plastic cheeks, long arms and legs made from felt, and cherubic eyes that are open to seeing everything. He comes in a box with a book that explains where he came from and what he does.

The story goes like this: you take the elf out of the box and name him, and then prop him up some place where he can be witness to the goings-on in your house. These activities, be they naughty or nice, are carefully noted by your elf, who flies to the North Pole each night in the run-up to Christmas and informs Santa about how the children are behaving. Santa may take these things into account in consideration of a whether and how to grant a child his or her Christmas list. The elf returns from the North Pole and reseats himself for another day’s observation prior to daybreak (at some houses selecting a new vantage point from which to see, judge, and report). The routine goes on from some time after Thanksgiving all the way to – what, Christmas Eve, I suppose.

When you break it down, the Elf on the Shelf just seems like classic behavior modification – the 2012 version of “You better watch out, you better not cry.” You want a little peace in the house, and incentives can powerfully work to achieve that end. My wife and I did think about that; we talked about it before we took our little elf out of the box and went through the routine of introducing him, naming him as a family (“Felly” is his name), reading the book about him, and placing him in a spot where his view would be good. After all, we have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old: if we can just keep the yelling down in our house for even a few weeks, it’s worth having Felly as a house guest, right?

But there’s a problem. I have come to recognize a key error in the thought process that drives the Elf on the Shelf, or indeed any form of Christmas related behavior modification.

Because I spend part of my sermon prep time each week with ELCA Lutherans (and I thank God for it), I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the myriad uses of the concepts law and grace. I am at best an armchair theologian with respect to these ideas, but I find them creeping into my usual thought process these days.

Would it be fair to say that the Elf on the Shelf is an instance of the common cultural law around Christmas – the simple idea that in the end, behaving well gets us closer to the material reward we wanted all along? If that’s a fair assumption, then wouldn’t it also be true that while we would all love for our children to act better, holding to the party line about “naughty or nice” in just about any form is also an enactment of the common cultural law of Christmas? What do we risk gaining or losing when rewards for good behavior and punishments for poor behavior are the main concern of the approach to Christmas morning?

By contrast, what if the Elf on the Shelf became something different – something more grace-filled? If he weren’t saddled with a perspective of law, or was somehow freed from it, what might the elf Felly of the Lightcap home come to represent?

I’d been pondering this some yesterday, in a mostly unconscious way, when we had a little evening dust-up. The kids were tired and easily irritated, and one of them decided to expend what was left of her energy on the other one in an annoying sort of way. When the explosion occurred, I found myself marching all parties to where Felly was perched and noiselessly pointing to him. Appealing to policy, in other words. Appealing to the law.

The implication: “Felly is watching, and what you just did is going to whittle away at your chances for good presents.” The response: a mournful “I forgot.”

The question immediately and shamefully arose: Why would I possibly want to turn something cool and magical into an act of accounting? When the presents have already been bought? When I’m not really planning to hold things back on Christmas morning anyway? Why?

That little thought landed like a splinter in my conscience. By morning it was a full-on hammer.

Christmas is about the manifestation and incarnation of a God who loves us beyond measure or reason. A God who longs to mercifully tabernacle within the creation and does so. Do we revere that incarnation and seek to emulate it in our lives with gracious living, or do we ruthlessly attempt to measure it out and hoard it for ourselves, for the sake of convenience? “The quality of mercy is not strained,” Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, and maybe that’s just another way of imaging Christmas.

[Mercy] droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest.

What I want to know today is, How is God going to use Felly to accomplish God’s good purposes in Advent? How will Felly help our family to further prepare a place within ourselves for God’s gracious presence to come and tabernacle and be announced? How will the Elf on the Shelf demand, cajole, invite us to deeper and deeper transformation and peace? What turns will we need to make in our family’s common life to see this graciousness at work?

Clearly, it’s a story yet to be completed. It will find itself in us and in our living the remainder of the season. I just know that I’m happy to suffer the inconvenience of the narrative having to be changed if it gets us all a little closer to the heart of Advent.

And yes, I do hope Felly’s watching that, too.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the adjunct staff of Episcopal Café.

Living Lenten Wisdom in the Greening Time: Fasting

by W. Christopher Evans

To hear the praises of Orcas, we may have to sail silently;

To smell the incense of Redwoods,
we may have to build without beams;

To see the majesty of Mountains,
we may have to relearn habits of sleep;

To taste the goodness of Salmon,
we may have to unstopper streams.

To touch the glory of Earthworms,
we may have to garden green.

To live as priests amid this world,
we may have to trust our dying—
alongside them.

Soon Pentecost will fall upon us again. And then a Sunday later, we will celebrate the ongoing work of the Holy Trinity to gather all things into communion to be followed by what Anglicans once called The Season after Trinity. And yet, I am still stuck on my insights about Lent.

I have a confession to make: Lent has been one of my least favorite seasons of the Church for a very long time. While words and images of the Crucified God, Jesus Christ, move my heart and mind and all my being, the practices of response to this One associated with Lent always filtered themselves through my own brokenness.

You see, I am prone to the disease we call perfectionism. Perfectionism is a disease, a brokenness, a sin that cannot deal with our mutability and vulnerability. Perfectionism is a profession of never measuring up, and trying to measure up anyway by means of oneself. At heart, perfectionism is about being God for oneself or earning God for oneself.

The irony is that the disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, intended to lead us deeper into God and deeper into life and designed to lead us out of ourselves toward God and for others, have tended to turn me in upon myself—what the mystic of the Theologia Germanica and Martin Luther define as sin or the self turned in upon the self. Lent became hell—where hell is our being completely turned in upon ourselves to the exclusion of God and all else. So I stopped doing Lent in all things but rite.

Something changed this year. I entered this Lent pre-nourished by the Psalms, gardening, poetry, and daily birdsong. I began putting together final chapters of a small work on the Psalms that included brief offices for morning and evening. And I began test-praying these Christocentric-Trinitiarian creation-oriented prayers.

Somewhere along the way of these practices, our being dust has become good news for me. Our being dust is profession of our need for God in each and every moment. And it is a profound profession of God’s love for human beings and all living beings of earth in all of our incompleteness and vulnerability—for we are given and share the breath of life.

To profess we are dust is to acknowledge our relatedness to and solidarity with all created beings—elemental, living, sentient, as fellow creatures created in and by and for Christ. To profess we are dust is, to paraphrase F.D. Maurice, to make praise of God’s relatedness to us and solidarity with us in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ. To profess we are dust is to remember our Baptism, our being freed in Christ to live and love as human creatures.

So to hear this news spoken to me and to have this news inscribed on my forehead with ashes and oil in the mark of the cross gave me pause. This mark, first given us in Baptism, is a reminder of our absolute dependence on God, of which death is the most final reminder. To be marked on the forehead by the cross in ashes and oil shifted how I think about and experience repentance and conversion.

At the heart of repentance is not a mere confession of these and those sins. Rather in confessing these and those sins, we find ourselves professing our need for and lack of God.
And in absolution, we are turned around to a world bathed in God’s love and embrace. To confess our sins is to confess our lack and need is to confess our utter dependence is to confess our being beloved. My Lent began on this insight into that form of praise we call confession.

I say form of praise because confession is its own profession of faith or trust in the God Who Is this way with us as revealed in Jesus Christ, namely steadfast love toward us—even unto death, death on a cross at human hands. God’s steadfast love and our trust are the movement of the Psalms be they praise, thanksgiving, confession, imprecatory, or lament.

To acknowledge our utter dependence on God has the paradoxical effect of opening our eyes to the needs of others and to our reliance on others to live. This effect pertains to how we are in our human social worlds as well as to how we are among all creatures and the whole of creation. We enter ecstasy, the going out of ourselves to be with and for others. And that leads us to embrace ourselves with humor and humility as creatures of clay. We can go with others and be for others because in Christ even death is become a sign of God’s faithfulness to us and a daily means of our being more fully alive, our being with and for others.

An old lens fell away, and I acquired a new Lenten lens this year that looks out through the purple, violet, pinkish hues to see shades of life in green.

But what does it mean to live Lent the rest of the year? After all, St. Benedict instructs us in his Rule to live all of life as Lent. I have always balked at his instruction given my proclivity to perfectionism. This year, I read his words afresh.

The Rule of Saint Benedict could just as easily be called A Small Catechism on Discipleship or A Manual of Christian Communal Wisdom. Rule in this case is closer to what our Jewish kin understand of Torah or Instruction. Rule is a Way of Living in response to God’s goodness and gifting. In my lectures on indigenous Christianities, I have noted time and again that communal ascetical practices are aimed toward our living and growing in harmony with God, one another, and creation. They are whole-making and life-giving responses to the God Who makes a gift of Godself to us as Jesus Christ. William Temple puts it this way,

Man is a part of the system of nature, whatever else he may be beside. He must study the ways of nature and follow them, for he is utterly dependent on the natural world. Consequently, he must not think of natural resources as there for him to exploit to his own immediate advantage, but must rather co-operate with the natural process and so, in the long run, gain a far greater advantage. This is of primary importance in relation to man’s treatment of the soil. Nature is man’s partner rather than his servant; he is dependent on it for the means of life. For the Christian this is recognized as a pact of creatureship. The treatment of the earth by man the exploiter is not only imprudent but sacrilegious. We are not likely to correct our hideous mistakes in this realm unless we recover the mystical sense of our one-ness with nature. I labour this precisely because many people think it fantastic; I think it is fundamental to sanity (Temple, The Hope of a New World, 67).
In this sense, discipleship and wisdom are two different ways of writing about a way of living in response to Christ. Somehow, I had not applied my own observations to St. Benedict’s instruction or to the Season of Lent. Now I do.

Wisdom is a peculiar social science. An openness exists in wisdom to be vulnerable, to learn from failures, to discover new things, to even learn from sins. Wisdom has a trial and error quality about it that over the long run becomes tradition, the accumulated learning of the community about the way, the store of life-giving and whole-making patterned responses to the Gospel, Jesus Christ.

Wisdom can be revisited, adapted, revised as new times call for new interpretations of instructions or even development of new practices. And in each age, distinct practices and interpretations of received wisdom will emerge to make Jesus known in this time and place and culture while always drawing up in themselves that which has been passed on to us from faithful ancestors.

And for our age, living Lenten wisdom in the greening time, the season devoted to the work of the Life-giving Spirit among us and the age in which the pilgrim Church finds ourselves, cannot avoid considering ecology and creation.

Take our patterns of consumption.

The practice that considers our patterns of consumption has a traditional term, “fasting.” And how quickly at Easter we throw aside any Lenten wisdom practice of this sort, no matter how meager our discipline, rather than reinvigorate it in light of the Resurrection, Ascension, and Sending of the Spirit. We moan about giving up chocolate or meat and rejoice when we can indulge incessantly again.

But fasting is about balance, harmony, and life. If we peel away the layers of this practice, century after century what emerges is not a body-hating, pleasure-hating orientation, but a concern for vulnerable others’ having life in a world of limited and finite capacities.

Limited and finite and vulnerable are dirty words for us in the overdeveloped world. We believe that growth and more and security are inevitable. This is the language of our economy. We like to hear about the abundance of God in Christ and translate that into attitudes and practices of abundance on the level of creatures that do not take into account the fullness of the Incarnation.

After all, the Second Person made himself limited and finite and vulnerable for us, not shirking our estate, but entering fully into our condition even to the point of being pinned to a tree like an insect. As St. Paul warns the Church in Corinth, Christ does not burst forth from this finitude in the Resurrection, so that we might fly or flee the bonds of earth. Christ bursts forth to lead us more deeply into embrace of and care for creaturehood. That is, embrace of and care for limits, finitude, and the vulnerable.

We do not want to hear about what limited and finite and vulnerability imply, namely, the possibility of scarcity because we do not experience scarcity. Yet, many on this earth do experience scarcity and our words of abundance to us and to them cannot mask that we as a society are living for ourselves and beyond the capacities of earth—even to the point of perverting the Gospel to justify our overuse.

But, we cannot escape facing our creaturehood. Even the capacity of the soil is limited and finite for the production of grains and vegetables and fruits. And we are poisoning and overworking the soil. The capacity for rivers to support salmon and trout and frogs is vulnerable. And we are poisoning and diverting the rivers. I could go on.

No, a truly Christian practice of the abundance of God’s Resurrection grace in a limited and finite and vulnerable world is not a practice of growth and more and security in the language of American economics, but a practice of enough and sharing, and yes, abstinence in the language of God’s Economy revealed in the Incarnation.

Fasting in every season is a way of living oriented toward our not taking more than need and a way of considering the needs of others. Such a practice considers the needs of other human beings as well as those of other elemental, living, and sentient beings. Unlike the practices of American economics, such a practice considers not only enough and sharing and abstinence, but also fragility, uniqueness, and beauty in any economic calculus precisely because the Creator became a creature in Christ Jesus. As William Temple reminds us,

Within human society we must aim at establishing that relation of the various functions or activities to one another which corresponds to their contribution to the general well-being. Thus a land-owner must not be allowed to develop his land for his own profit in a way which destroys its capacity to produce wealth or otherwise minister to the general good for generations to come. In this connexion, let us remember that natural beauty is a spiritual treasure; to convert it into ugliness for personal economic gain is wicked. (Temple, The Hope of a New World, 67).

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

The mockingbird is the Pentecost bird.

by Sam Candler

At Pentecost, when the Christian Church remembers the day on which the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4), I think of the mockingbird.

I have heard mockingbirds all my life, chortling in the morning dawn, in the heat of mid- day, and late into the night. The mockingbird song greets me everywhere, and what a song it is. Most of you have heard it, even if you cannot identify it. The mockingbird is the source of that incessant chattering, more chattering than the most obnoxious human gossip you know.

In fact, however, the mockingbird loves to imitate other songs. He sings what he hears. Some say that mature mockingbirds know over five hundred songs. He is not mocking those songs; he is just imitating them. He is miming; mimus polygottus is his biological name. The Spanish language has the bird named right: “centzontle,” they call it, “the bird of four hundred songs.”

I talked with a shop owner once who said that a mockingbird outside his store had learned to imitate the sound of the UPS truck backing up. Then, the bird learned to imitate all the various rings on people’s cell phones. Surely in the American south, there is no bird heard more incessantly and frequently. It is the state bird of Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi. Just like the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs, on the Feast of Pentecost.

What a pity that the mockingbird is named for mocking, for I believe the melody that winds its way through song after song is a song of praise. I believe the mockingbird is essentially a joyful bird (except maybe for that obnoxious crooner at night, looking for a mate). So, on Pentecost Sunday in the Church, I want to re-name the mockingbird, the Pentecost Bird.

The mockingbird is the Pentecost Bird. Not because of its colors (it wears no flaming wings of fire), but because of its song, its one song that is really a collection of songs. Listen to it wag this way, and then that. The mockingbird’s songs are the collected songs of the entire earth. They are babbling songs from Babel. Those collected songs are the voices, the languages, of everyone.

Imagine that you could hear, in one moment, all the incredible sounds occurring right now, on earth. It would sound much like the opening seconds of that tremendous movie, The Matrix. Even if you have not watched the entire movie, listen to those first seconds of The Matrix, when the sounds occurring all over the earth are heard at once. The cacophony is overwhelming, but also exhilarating. It is the glorious collected babble of ancient Babel.

Much of what happens in the church sounds like cacophony. Listen to all the voices that the church collects. Sobs wail out along with laughter. Praise and glory sing right alongside complaint and anxiety. Inquiry and wonder provide harmony to dogma and creed.

Ah! The church! It is the sound of the mockingbird at nine o’clock in the morning. To the outside ear, perhaps the untrained ear, the song sounds like a drunken chorus; the singers must be filled with new wine. Even if it were nine o’clock in the evening, the song would sound like some sort of intricate jazz number, with melodies and improvisations ricocheting all around us.

The miracle of Pentecost occurs when these sounds do not sound chaotic, but lovely. It is as if the rushing wind of a new morning has brought another listening chamber to us, perhaps another sanctuary, where all these voices and songs do not clatter and clash with one another; rather they dance together in a new reality. The miracle of Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. The miracle of Pentecost is the miracle that holds the church together; no matter what the language, we hear the power and grace of God.

We hear in the book of Acts that the folks on the outside sneered at the disciples. But the Greek word is not “sneered.” The King James Version of the bible gets the translation right; the outsiders were “mocking” the Christians. “They are drunk with new wine!” they mocked.

Oh, would that the church was drunk with new wine, chattering wildly about the praises of God. Not mocking. Mocking occurs when one does not trust the Spirit. To mock means to not believe the power of God’s Spirit. We are meant to be not the mockers, but the singers. We are meant to be not mockingbirds, but Pentecost Birds, singing wildly and jauntily.

Pentecost people are meant to imitate the songs of people praising God, no matter what language they may be speaking. For, ultimately, our baptism is about imitation; we are meant to be imitators of Christ. Will we imitate the songs of praise and glory? Or will we just imitate the clanging anxiety of a truck backing up? When we ring someone up on our cell phone, do we have something blessed to say?

On the Day of Pentecost, I want to sing good songs, songs that come from every language and voice and tradition of the world, but which say one thing: God is praised. God is blessed in all of creation. That is what the mockingbird sings every day. That is what Pentecost Birds sing every day. Let us join them.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Ascension to the Right Hand of God? Where?

by Donald Schell

To my surprise, a couple of events in the past week had me thinking freshly about the Ascension. And to write about them coherently I need to make a couple of confessions.
First - I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve read far enough to know I care about a novel to finish it, will read the end (same for a mystery). Then knowing where it’s going, I go back to my bookmark and watch the storyteller at work. It turns all narrative into a kind of remembering that in life only comes with retrospection. More on that one after…

My Second Confession - when I was a college student seeking ordination and planning to go to seminary, I got invited to preach the Sunday after the Ascension and I preached a “challenge” to the congregation based on the premise that a progressive, open-hearted reading of the New Testament still had to acknowledge as FACTS, fragments of narrative like Luke/Acts account of the Ascension. I said something like, “We may not like it, but if we claim we’re Christian, we need to believe that God actually could and did lift Jesus heavenward from a hilltop in Israel and that he disappeared into the clouds like a rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral.”

So, Ascension - why does this particular account from Luke trump the other three Gospels? Same for Annunciation and Pentecost? Why does Luke define our liturgical year so decisively? Luke’s birth story defines Christmas on the calendar. Matthew’s version gets squeezed in to Epiphany. Two Gospels choose to have no birth story. And why do we celebrate Pentecost fifty days after Easter (following Luke) instead of on Easter Day (following John)? Forty-five years of listening to colleagues preach Gospel narrative with grace have made me grateful that the one story of Jesus is emphatically NOT a coherent narrative, and I’m intrigued and moved to consider how oral tradition, preaching, teaching, and evangelism shaped the narratives we receive from the communities whose versions we’ve made canonical. But it’s a different story with the liturgical year. Ascension is a Lukan celebration, a story missing completely from the other Gospels and a prelude to Luke/Acts unique telling of the Pentecost.

Why is Luke given prominence in shaping our liturgical year?

I suspect the author’s declared purpose of creating a synthesis appeals to liberal literalists. Our church is full of liberal literalists, people (including clergy) whose hearts are in an open place pastorally, people who long for justice, people who listen to NPR, and people who read the Gospels as if they were an eyewitness accounts. I know we’re in trouble when I hear a preacher wonder what Jesus or Peter or someone in the narrative “must have felt when…”

Trial lawyers tell me that they know eyewitness testimony wins a case because juries believe eyewitness is as close to hearing the ‘the truth’ or ‘what really happened’ as you can get. And friends who are trial attorneys acknowledge research demonstrating that eyewitness is the least reliable form of evidence because it’s all based on memories patched together and reinterpreted to make sense of things. Luke admits he’s doing just that, collecting and synthesizing stories to make a whole. Luke declares to Theophilus (his real reader of an imagined “lover of God”) that he has deliberately gathered and compared the stories to create a coherent narrative. We have to surmise what case he’s arguing, but he means to offer us evidence and closing argument for a verdict. And his coherent narrative gives us our now assumed governing structure to think about all the stories and experience of the four Gospels and beyond, stories that entirely burst the boundaries of narrative. Luke’s imposed order encourages us (and the church year) to imagine we’re thinking or hearing ‘what really happened.’

To his credit, Luke also is very interested in the wild, unpredictable workings of the Holy Spirit, and the coherent narrative that he crafts repeatedly tells the story where the Spirit showing up changes everything. Luke’s distinctive ordering is genuinely graceful, and this reminder of the Spirit a note in scripture that I wish we valued more. But neither Luke nor the liturgical year offer us coherent historical narrative. And the other Gospels insistently remind us that there are other tellings of this mysterious story making the rounds of early communities.

So then, the next question – why does Luke come up with Jesus’ rocket-like ascent into the clouds?

Two of Luke’s problems crafting his coherent narrative push for the Ascension. First there’s the question of just where Jesus might be NOW. We’ve got the disciples (and Paul’s) experience of the Risen Jesus, and then this logical question – is he still around that way, how ever or whatever ‘that way’ or a visible, touchable risen Christ might have meant to any of these communities (or St. Paul)? And if we don’t see Jesus now, where is he? The other Gospels leave the question wholly unanswered. One mystery opens to another. But Luke comes up with an answer, pointing toward the clouds, Luke says – “He’s not here that way anymore. He’s up there. At the Right Hand of the Father.”

Conveniently “up there” helps with the second narrative problem. As the other Gospel-making communities seem to have done, at least sometimes, Luke partially reframes Jesus’ message of the radical presence of God’s reign NOW. The early communities, facing hardship and persecution, lay a future promise on top of Jesus’ urgent proclamation of the divine now. Whatever was less than God wanted and hoped for would be resolved when Jesus “came back from heaven.” The early communities supplied a Deus Ex Machina to make Jesus’ proclamation of radical blessing now work out. When I’m reading a mystery and skip ahead to find out “who done it,” I’m reading a finished book. Skipping to read life from “the end” doesn’t work because “the end” is hidden in darkness and the mystery of God’s unfolding creation.

We can actually only read our lives and the life of our community of faith as they unfold. But we seem to imagine that if we can promise ourselves an ending that will tie up all the loose ends, we can make more sense of the narrative we’re living. The earliest Christians took that apocalyptic impulse they’d inherited from one strand of first century Judaism, a bit like my reading the end of a mystery before finishing the book, and grafted it back into Jesus’ teaching. And Luke’s Ascension gives us a map of heaven and earth and imagines a second to the last chapter that together make Jesus’ return from heaven work.

Bishop Pike fretted that the 1967 Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, the earliest liturgy in Trial Use that led to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer introduced ‘strange and erroneous doctrine’ with its non-Episcopalian emphasis on the second coming, what we have now in “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” At the time I felt scornful of Pike for dismissing what was so evident in the Bible’s story, or thinking of Ascension in Acts and the angels’ reproach and promise in Acts 1, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” There it is, what goes up must come down, Luke’s schema for the Second Coming.

Over the years since reading Gospel scholars convinced me that Jesus was preaching a non-futurist re-visioning of the present action of God – a ‘kingdom of God’ that wasn’t just at hand (John the Baptist’s message) but here, now, among us.

Preaching that God’s power is fully present and realized among us now has all kinds of problems, and not just the problem of evil and suffering (consider how Luke fixes the problem of Jesus’ outrageous declaration of God’s blessing on the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and those who mourn. But it’s not just evil, there’s also the problem of any future at all. If God’s new life, the infinite holy possibility of the present is already here, what’s tomorrow? Memory and anticipation look like a workable answer. But consider what do we do with memory.

Daniel Simons at St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Wall Street preached a sermon that touched on memory. Preaching the ultimate fallibility of memory at the church that has been the pilgrim destination for 9/11 requires a certain courage, or at least ruthless clarity. Daniel was talking about what lasts, about the transformative and enduring power of love, the very thing that seems most fragile and ephemeral. And he quoted a saying (probably from the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition) about our final death, which is not the moment our hearts stop or the moment we’re consigned to a crematorium or buried in the earth, but the last time our name is spoken on earth.

If love is truly stronger than death and sin, it’s also got to be stronger than memory, because, as the Whiffenpoof song brutally reminds us, eventually, “we’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest.”

At St. Paul’s, backing up to Ground Zero and the World Trade Center site, you see constant crowds lined up to visit our most recent ‘eternal memory’ destination. Walking along the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan, I paused to read another, lesser memorial. It’s not even a plaque, but a laminated photograph and text marking the dock where the Carpathia docked delivering 700 survivors from the Titanic disaster to safety.

What makes us say we’ll ‘never forget’ those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or ‘never forget’ those who went down with the Titanic? What is our cultural investment in this lie of eternal remembering? I’m named for an uncle who died in World War II. I had a cousin who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I can tell you their names and some story, and my children can offer a smaller bit toward names and story, and what will their children know to tell?

Memory and forgetting, the power of love, and the power of death were all on my mind when I went through security at JFK’s terminal 2. I read the caption beneath a large American flag on the wall:

This Flag contains the names of those killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 Now and forever it will represent their immortality We shall never forget them.

Then I looked again and saw that the stars and stripes of the flag were all made of tiny print. The names of those killed, undoubtedly including my cousin’s name. It was a poignant reminder of a solidarity in death of a large, diverse group of people. The flag itself was moving. But the pious caption was simply and patently false.

Immortality? I recalled going to a reading and talk by Wallace Stegner with my daughter Maria. Stegner read and told stories and Maria leaned over to me and said, “Dad, it’s like listening to Mark Twain live.” I nodded. When Stegner invited questions from the audience, someone asked, “Mister Stegner, how does it feel to have earned a permanent place in the pantheon of American letters?” Wallace Stegner laughed. “I don’t think there is such a permanent pantheon. I love going to used bookstores and finding several copies of now forgotten treasures from ‘immortal’ writers fifty years back. We forget more than we remember. Finally we’ll all be forgotten. I hope I’ve contributed something to readers today. It would be wonderful if my books still speak in a generation, but who knows?”

The flag, like Luke’s Ascension story, hopes to shape our experience of the present, to project a memory (or a not forgetting) to a remote future and then read the narrative of our lives from knowing this is how the story will end. Gospel doesn’t offer that, it delivers us from it.

But the church calendar gives us the Ascension. Luke’s solution to where Jesus went and how he’ll come back gets celebrated every year, so what does commemorating the Ascension invite us to as preachers and lovers of Scripture?

In sacramental theology class, we learned that a distinction between Luther and Calvin’s understandings of Christ Presence in the Eucharist paralleled their two interpretations of the Ascension. Calvin didn’t, in fact, teach the Eucharistic was a ‘mere memorial.’ He insisted that Christ was SPIRITUALLY present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Present, because that was Christ’s promise and spiritual because Christ’s physical body and blood had ascended to the right hand of the father where he’d remain physically until the second coming. Luther, on the other hand, said that the Ascension taught us that the Risen Christ filled all creation, where else would you find the ‘the right hand of God.’ Not somewhere distant and above us, but inhering in all things, the presence and power that blessed all with life and possibility of holiness. So, we learned, Luther said taught knowing Christ present in the Eucharistic bread and wine we glimpsed the hidden fullness of Christ in everything. Here, now, and in all. For me that’s the Ascension worth celebrating.

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

Remember you are dust...

by Donald Schell

This year I’ve heard great stories from San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn and elsewhere of little bands of Episcopalians taking Ash Wednesday ashes to the streets. Sunday after Ash Wednesday, visiting at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, I heard the writer of the blog, Bleak Theology, telling his story of first meeting the congregation a year ago Ash Wednesday and this year joining in imposing ashes at the Union/Pacific Subway Station in Brooklyn.

The Lenten arc that “Remember you are dust” carries all the way to Good Friday. With the joy of ashes and mortality in mind, I’m noticing this Lent how Aikido helps me recover the pleasure of being dust.

Aikido is a 20th century martial art of reconciliation. “Reconciliation” is one translation of the Japanese word ‘AI’ in the art’s name. In practice reconciliation happens neutralizing an attack (a strike, a blow or a grab) and taking the attacker to the ground without harming the attacker.

I was thirty-five when I began regular Aikido practice thirty years ago.

The year before my wife and I had moved to San Francisco from Idaho where I’d stayed fit by running long distances on the “ditch banks” along the irrigation canals. Running was also how I kept sane when parish conflicts heated up. Those evenings I came home carrying frustration on my face and shoulders, my wife would send me out with, “Go for a run and come back human.” She knew I’d run my young priest’s frustrations and impatience.

When we moved to San Francisco, the only packed earth path I could find were a drive away. It had a difficult year until a new friend introduced me to Aikido. My wife remembers me coming home from watching an Aikido practice saying, “I must do this thing. I’m going to earn a black belt.” I believe her, but don’t remember saying that. What I’d seen captivated me, but also frightened me.

Practice partners took turns, one playing the attacker while the other practiced a neutralizing response to a set of repeated attacks, and then they’d switch. The attacker’s falls looked exhilaratingly out of control, especially the forward roll – at its fastest a mid-air rolling flip to a break fall, landing, so it appeared, flat on your back. How many people, I wondered, had broken their necks doing a forward roll. Though I longed to do what I’d seen, at night I dreamt those rolls. Sometimes I rolled directly to flight, safe and carefree like a bird. Sometimes my dreams had me flailing through a three-story free-fall toward a concrete sidewalk.

Much as I wanted to do this thing, it took me some months to find my courage to begin.

In my first days of practice, I met another new student named Mary, a woman in her fifties, eighteen or twenty years older than me. My own fear made me notice Mary’s courage taking on this practice on at such an advanced age (!) . Others who started practice that year fell by the wayside, but Mary and I persisted. Two decades later when our dojo was struggling to recruit enough new members to stay open, Mary and I were still practicing, though we hardly saw one another. I was a morning practice regular and she usually attended in the evening.

Our teacher had moved away and entrusted us black belts to lead collegially as ‘an academy.’ We didn’t work together that well and as teachers we needed the challenge of teachers more advanced than us. We noticed new dojo members joining with less and less frequency. Then there were none. Beginners and some intermediate practitioners drifted away. Leading the morning class several times each week I would find myself alone, doing an hour’s worth of warm-ups and practice falls.

I started visiting another dojo where some friends had practiced. Their teacher was an iconoclastic rock musician. While old dojo had silent practice, this new teacher talked, so it seemed to me, incessantly. But his Aikido was beautiful, clear, effortless, comprehensible and far beyond my imitation. He taught an energetic, spontaneous and flowing Aikido unlike the formalized choreographed Aikido Mary and I had learned.

I felt drawn to the new practice, eager to begin and afraid as I’d been at the beginning. But mornings no one showed up, I’d take advantage of the hour difference in schedule to go train at this new dojo. Finally, after about a year and a half of practicing both places, I made the hard choice, and settled into the new dojo and starting new years of practice that would lead me to re-test for black belt with a seventy-plus year old original student of Aikido’s founder, our teacher’s teacher from Japan. In the context of Aikido feeling like ‘my other religion,’ this black belt re-test felt a little like I was getting re-ordained by St. Peter, a direct apostle of the founder.

I’d been gone from the old dojo for more than a year when it finally closed. That’s when my dojo-colleague Mary appeared at the new dojo. Mary’s courage impressed me again, a slight woman, now approaching eighty joining this fast, vigorous practice. Her courage impressed me, but I was also a bit chagrinned when she, after joining the new dojo more than a year after me, completed successfully re-tested for black belt more than a year ahead of me. By this time, I was in my late 50’s, the age Mary had been when we first started.

In the new dojo, Mary and I were the anchors of morning practice, stalwarts who were there every weekday morning at 7:30 for an hour of falls and throws. Most of our dojo-mates (and some of our teachers) were under 35, and our lead teacher in his mid 40’s.

In the new dojo Mary and I became friends. I was impressed not just at Mary’s determination but at her ease in the new style of Aikido we were learning. I enjoyed watching as she won the respect and admiration of our younger dojo-mates. And in the new dojo I was compelled to admit that I’m a slow physical learner, a long ways from a natural athlete. Habits of posture and effortful forcing of moves still hold me back.

After she earned her black belt, Mary wrote her book – The Gift of Danger: Lessons from Aikido

I’ve given Mary’s book as a gift to friends who will never try Aikido, knowing they’d appreciate the spiritual and psychological depth of her experience and her wisdom of facing into danger, as life does. She also writes engagingly graceful prose. Cleaner and simpler than mine.

I drafted this essay on a Wednesday night, two before a special dojo practice and party to honor Mary’s retiring from practice. Our teacher has invited her to teach a last class and we’ll have a potluck in her honor. I do not expect to follow her into retirement any time soon, but grace of her Lenten departure reminds me that I am dust and returning to dust.

I guess we saw it coming. Over the last year, Mary began stepping through falls, counting on her partner not to put her into a forward roll. Several weeks ago she told me that she’d begun writing stories and added that mornings were her best time to write. And she said she had begun to find Tai Chi more congenial and harmonious for her body. Since that conversation I haven’t seen her in practice. Suddenly I’m the elder on the mat, not the best or the wisest, just the oldest.

For about three weeks, we’ve been missing Mary. Having her gone reminds me of practices over the past couple of years when she was unexpectedly not there. With a practice colleague in her 80’s it’s hard not to wonder and ask, “Is Mary all right? Does anyone know where she is?” I’m looking forward to seeing her again on Friday. And retirement potluck feels right for Lent, reminding us that we’re dust. Finite, aging, mortal.

The poet Wendell Berry concludes his “Mad Farmer’s Manifesto” with the startling, line, “Practice resurrection,” a line that brings Aikido to mind. My morning begins practicing resurrection. How? Not just falling, but also FAILING and in both falling and failing continuing to learn. Turning attack into play. Letting friends pretend to be enemies in order to enact and re-enact a reconciliation of all. Practicing techniques for the thousandth time. Falling and getting up again and again. Each bit hints at resurrection, that the love that made the earth and heavens continues to sustain us. That Jesus keeps drawing to fall into new life.
Unless we remember that we’re dust, there’s no resurrection practice.

Yesterday after Aikido practice I signed up for Medicare. I turn sixty-five in April. I hope that twenty years from now, I’ll still be practicing Aikido every morning. But I’m grateful to watch and learn from Mary’s witness.

If nothing intervenes but the passage of time, no death between now and twenty years from now, somewhere out there, I’ll retire from this practice that I love. My body will say, “enough.” If I’m lucky (blessed?) I’ll still be flexible enough and nimble enough of mind to switch over to Tai Chi.

But how ever it goes, the passage to dust is inevitable, whether it means letting go all at once or a little at a time, what began passing through a divine embrace and breath that gave us life and ends in the divine embrace and darkness where we meet the Mystery.

People who know Japanese have told me that Aikido translates more or less as “a way to reconcile the world” or maybe it’s “spirit/harmony path.” Sometimes as I begin practice with a bow toward a scroll with the three Japanese characters




I say a little prayer of thanks to Jesus, the Way of reconciling love. But sometimes I just give thanks that I’m dust and returning to dust.

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

Lent is for our sake, not Jesus'

by Deirdre Good and Julian Sheffield

The Lent that traditional observers experience today—the Lent of introspection and self-examination, of deprivation and penance—has almost nothing to do with Jesus.
Christians of the 3rd and 4th Century created the liturgical season of Lent by cobbling together the initiates' practice of fasting before their Easter baptism with bits of scripture that included Abraham's journey, Israel's sojourn in the wilderness, stories about Jesus' baptism and temptations for forty days, and predictions of suffering and death in a journey towards Jerusalem. Woven together over several centuries, these became a season in which Christians were encouraged, as we are now, “to make space for God” and prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

But Jesus' own experience of temptation was not ours. The collect for the first Sunday of Lent demonstrates this dissonance:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Jesus' experience of testing in the wilderness followed the baptism by John and the beginning of his ministry. The prayer avoids the challenge of Mark's Gospel wherein Jesus is “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. But the desert itself is nowhere near a journey and nowhere near Lent. It is the place out of which John the Baptist comes. It is the place of confrontation with Satan. It is where wild animals and angels exist and perhaps because of all these associations, it will be a place where Jesus prays. From the wilderness, Jesus embarks on a ministry in Galilee for several years well before journeying once to Jerusalem at the end of his life. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus' ministry is of even greater length after baptism, so the terminus of suffering and death in Jerusalem is even further off. Perhaps Jesus' time of testing in the desert is preparation.

In Lent when we talk of growth in virtue as a consequence of resisting temptations, we are not speaking about Jesus but about ourselves. Only Luke speaks about Jesus' advancement in wisdom and even then only in early childhood. Jesus' temptations were a clarification of what it meant to be God's son: to trust God for food and protection and to be obedient rather than self-reliant. In these respects we share dependence on God as children with Jesus: but the gospels' descriptions of Jesus' time in the wilderness depict a relationship with God of a completely different order from ours.

According to Matthew, the devil tempted Jesus on the basis of his abilities: to make bread from stones; to throw himself off the temple and be rescued by angels and to have dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. These are not abilities within our purview. We can extrapolate from them that we might want to solve the problem of world hunger, or that we need to learn to trust God for protection or that we desire to bring the world under the power of God but these are different issues from those that Jesus faced in his temptations. We might aspire to achieve these things: they were within the grasp of Jesus as Son of God only to be set aside in favor of obedience.
Prayer, fasting and acts of penance in Lent are ours not Jesus'. It is on our own sins not those of Jesus that we meditate. And tradition holds that Jesus didn't have any sins to do penance for. It is to us not to Jesus that the words are spoken: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted but modern observers of Lent decide how they're going to be tempted in advance. To say "I'm giving up alcohol for Lent" as someone might say, is to say "I'm going to determine the environment in which I will resist temptation." Facile attempts in Lenten prayers and sermons to connect our struggles with the temptations of Jesus are unhelpful. It is on our own journey of penance in Lent that we embark.

We can however consider –since Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness--involuntary Lent. (I leave aside here all other questions including these: why was Jesus driven by the Spirit into the wilderness? What Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness?)

We know, because they are us, those who might not observe Lent but who engage in self-reflection and self-denial for various reasons and those whose circumstances of life now place them in a season of stringency. Amongst those who do not observe Lent formally are other Christians, many of whom still might practice acts of charity, almsgiving, and taking on other disciplines in Lent. I talked with a member of the Salvation Army in New York City yesterday who confirmed these possibilities.
Those who might now be experiencing an involuntary Lent would include people who are ill and those without jobs or benefits. Going through chemotherapy was for me an involuntary Lent when I was being treated for colon cancer some years ago. What about parishes? One parish we know plans an Outreach Sunday during Lent in which parishioners break into groups and do outreach projects like cooking lunch for homeless, making sandwiches for homeless ministries and working on a construction project in church.

As we observe Lent voluntarily or involuntarily, let's just remember that we aren't doing it to imitate Jesus. Our sins are our own. Our temptations are not Jesus', but our own. Taking time for our prayer life or taking on additional good works is important in Lent but not because it makes us more like Jesus. Even in good company, keeping Lent is for our own sake.

Julian Sheffield is Business Manager of Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
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.

Lenten disciplines: spiritual exercises or ego trip

By Maria L. Evans

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed

--From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," by Wendell Berry

Last Lent, I did something that many of my friends thought absolutely, positively did not compute as a Lenten spiritual discipline--I fasted from my personal e-mail and Facebook for "a meal a day"--the eight hours between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., with Sundays off as feast days, of course, and one exception--I would work on the parish weekly e-newsletter every Thursday night.

Several of my friends and connections in the social networking and blogosphere thought I went absolutely, positively, stark raving mad. They know me (and rightly so) as a bit of a staple in those spheres. But it was such a successful Lenten practice I am repeating it for 2012.

Now, I admit, once upon a time I was all about "penitence" in Lent--and I still think penitence is an important aspect of Lent--but it's now merely an aspect rather than the aspect. I have come to discover, through the various Lenten practices I've engaged in over the years, that feelings of penitence--as well as feelings of awareness, openness to change, recognition of the sufferings of others, and a whole host of other feelings are supposed to evolve as a result of doing Lenten spiritual disciplines.

In my younger days--even when I was estranged from the institutional church--I still "gave up something for Lent." It was one of the threads I never seemed to cut from my two decades in the unchurched wilderness. In fact, I was doing it all wrong--I was using it as an ego thing. I would pat myself on the back for giving up things and being as Spartan as an Airborne Ranger about it, and pride myself for being more disciplined than "church people." It was part of the "Me and God and Jesus and I don't need anyone else" attitude I cultivated in those years.

When I returned to the church, this strange evolution began--the notion that my Lenten discipline ought to be equal parts of "empty" and "full." I would pick a spiritual discipline that had a sacrificial quality to it, but I would also pick its counterpart discipline, one that would add to my spiritual life.

So last year, I took a deep breath and announced I was going to be absent from my personal e-mail and social networking from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. on a regular basis, and instead I was going to work on more time connecting with my friends face to face locally, and over the phone for my more distant ones. My time in front of the computer started being replaced with walks and dinners with friends, and phone calls, and various loving gestures towards my friends. The responses were interesting. Some of my friends argued with me that it was impractical--that I had lived near my Amish neighbors too long. "Why don't you just shut the electricity off for 8 hours? It's just as dumb," one remarked. Some of my connections complained of their own social withdrawal--that I was isolating myself from them. I saw some of their own insecurities come out. A few even suggested I was suffering from depression.

As it turned out, though, there was also a small group that started postulating these and other ways to fast from technology...and a tiny cluster tried some variant of it themselves. I can't speak for what they learned, I can only speak for what I learned from my practice. I tend to be a bit of a loner anyway, so the "aloneness" of being unplugged for eight hours was not as big a thing for me as I thought it might be. Oh, I suffered a few twinges of "is anybody out there?" but it wasn't bothersome. What I discovered was it wasn't what I was without that changed me, as much as the things that I had never bothered to notice when I was regularly interrupting myself to answer an e-mail or comment on someone's status.

I found myself listening more and talking less with my friends on meals or walks. I caught myself focusing on the words in books I was reading without my self-interruption of looking up at my screen to see if anyone had sent an e-mail. I embarrassed a friend at dinner by saying, "Please don't think I'm sucking up to you, or coming on to you, but you know, I've never noticed what marvelous eyes you have. You have absolutely joyful eyes, and I am sorry I never noticed it until just now. I was wrong not to notice that." I learned that there were things in my yard I had never bothered to notice. I had thought I was actively practicing a "fast" at first, but instead uncovered the converse--that my attention to the cyber-world was causing me to fast from the small joys in life at times. More than once I found myself moved to tears over something mundane, or shouting with enthusiasm into the sky at how there really are fleeting moments of perfection in this broken world.

In short I discovered the last two words in the Wendell Berry poem I quoted above--"practice resurrection."

In that upside down, backwards and sideways path living the Gospel takes us, the real spiritual practice that cries out to be uncovered by our Lenten spiritual discipline, is that we are actually practicing resurrection. Resurrection demands stripping off layers of the varnish and polyurethane we've heaped upon ourselves over time, and exposing our natural grain. Resurrection insists on having us dig our own graves, crawl inside them, and look out at the sky a while, smelling the wet humus surrounding us, in the hopes that when we are lifted out, the light we've been exposed to all along, looks somehow just a little different. Resurrection gets in our faces during Lent like a red-faced baseball manager and an umpire, nose to nose, never laying a hand on us, but kicking dirt on our shoes. We strive to live in the stillness of Lent, to hear the thunder of Resurrection.

What are you doing this Lenten season, that does not compute, but yet helps you feel Resurrection burrowing beneath your feet?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


by Maria L. Evans

My heart is pounding, my strength has failed me,
And the brightness of my eyes is gone from me. ~Psalm 38:10 (BCP)

Psalm 38 seems to be one I hear in my parish's Morning Prayer service each Wednesday more than most. For some reason, as the Daily Office works its way through the Psalter, Psalm 38 often falls on a Wednesday. The main reason I notice is because I'm always on the lookout for verse 6--"I am utterly bowed down and prostrate..."--if I'm the least bit sleepy or distracted, I slip and say prostate instead of prostrate...and when I hear verse 10, I almost invariably think, "Hmmm. Sounds like anemia to me."

One of the constant medical truisms I try to pound into medical student, intern, and resident heads is that even though anemia has a diagnosis code in coding and billing systems, anemia is not a "diagnosis" in the true sense of the word. Anemia is a symptom. When we encounter anemia in patient, it's important to remember that it's a symptom of something else gone wrong, and try to figure out its underlying cause. Is someone anemic from iron, Vitamin B12, or folate deficiency? Is there a gastrointestinal bleed? Is the patient elderly and chronically ill, with an ever-dwindling functional bone marrow, simply because our functional bone marrow is replaced by fat as we age?

The other thing about anemia--particularly the more chronic, insidious forms of it--is when someone is chronically anemic, their body adjusts to some degree to the decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of the red blood cells. Chronically anemic people "get along just fine" if they live a sedentary life, at hemoglobin levels that would leave most of us dead dog tired and feeling terribly run-down. They don't even notice they are becoming more anemic until it is so severe they are short of breath and their heart rate is increased--and then they often think something more terrible is wrong.

I know there are two particular times in the liturgical year where I am prone to being spiritually anemic. One is in Time After Epiphany, and the other is in that draggy time of what I call "The long green season"--the tail end of Time After Pentecost.

For me, the first one is more of an acute anemia--like that caused by blood loss--where I think all the waiting of Advent, followed by hubbub and hoopla of Christmas and Epiphany, pitches me into a place where I know I'm tired, and need a nap, and I spiritually crash and snooze. A lot of times, I'll drop or get lazy about a spiritual practice. This scared me at first. I was afraid I'd drop a practice and then just push it aside. But over time, and with the work of a good spiritual director, I had this put in perspective. Just as I used to crash and sleep for hours post-call in the days of my clinical training, I have come to realize that's just a "post season" thing. It's a fact humans eat when they're hungry and sleep when they're tired, and relieve themselves when their bladders and colons are full. We probably do these things in our relationship with God, too. Lent becomes a time I "get back in spiritual shape."

The second one--that tail end of the "long green season"--for me is more of a chronic anemia. I have slowly "adjusted" into minimally unhealthy thoughts and occasionally find myself "zoning" through my prayer time and Scripture reading. I don't mean "zoning" like when I am in the deep prayer place--it's more like "I'm sleeping standing up." That is a type of anemia where it's dangerous for me to just think I'll nap and get over it on my own. I have come to learn that is the time I most need the interactions with my faith community, and need others to inspire and buoy me (and occasionally kick me in the shin and yell, "WAKE UP!")

The fact is, every person of faith goes through anemic times. Perhaps they cycle with the church year, as mine seem to do, or they are more insidious dry or plateau-type segments in our lives. It's important to understand that this is part of the cyclic nature of life, and not a failing or a pathology on our part. Anemia is not always a sign of loss or "drainage," or "deficiency." After all, people get anemic when they're pregnant, too.

It's more important to see anemia as an invitation to spiritual self-awareness, and to consider what we need to do (or not do!) when it comes upon us. It also begs the reverse question--when we are feeling spiritually robust, how are we available when someone else feels spiritually anemic? Are you called to be the transfusion someone else needs?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

A breath of air

by Donald Schell

Conquering kings their titles take
From the foes they captive make;
Jesus, by a nobler deed,
From the thousands he hath freed.

Yea, none other Name is giv’n
Unto any under heav’n
Whereby souls in mortal strife
Rise to gain eternal life.

Let us gladly for that Name
Bear the cross, endure the shame,
Suffer with him joyfully,
Death, through him, is victory.

Jesus, who dost condescend
To be called the sinner’s Friend,
Hear us, as to thee pray,
Glorying in thy Name today.

Nevers Breviary 1727, Hymnal Version, 1940

I had been a priest for fifteen months, and was visiting my old friend Joe Doss who’d just recently been made the rector at Grace Church. New Year’s Day 1974. He asked me to preach and preside at a New Year’s Day/Holy Name of Jesus liturgy in the Grace Church’s chapel. I was hurting and confused. My marriage was coming apart and in dark moments I counted myself a failure as a priest and as human being. So I was deeply grateful for my friend’s invitation to preside and preach.

We opened singing this wonderful old hymn with its older tune (Orientis Partibus, c. 1210), a gem that didn’t make it from the 1940 Hymnal to the 1982 Hymnal.

As I’ve often done since, I preached what I needed to hear myself. That day I preached that we were celebrating the name of Jesus, Yeshua, an ordinary enough Jewish name in First Century occupied Israel, but a name that carried an astonishing promise, “God saves.” “Saves from what?” I asked with probably too evident feeling.

-from whatever takes life from us.
-from all that makes us less than God means us to be.
-from our worst fears.

Preaching my own confusion and fear, I offered a list like that.

As I preached, a young woman began sobbing. There were only six or seven or us gathered. Her crying was very public, so she said to everyone, “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s all right. Really all right, just what I needed to hear.” She was smiling and nodding as she continued to cry. “It’s all right,” she said more quietly.

She came up to me right after the liturgy. Her husband had his arm around her. She was still crying a little, but smiling as she cried. “God saves. I know it. Yesterday, I was racing my boat on Lake Pontchartrain. The wind was really strong and the boat was pounding the chop on the lake. I was excited and pushing hard to overtake the lead boat, and then I was in the air as my boat capsized. I hit the water and plunged into the cold. I went completely under and came up with mainsail on top of me. Then I was flailing and couldn’t find the edge of the sail. “It’s over, “ I thought, but I prayed, just “Jesus!” and made one last, desperate reach and found the edge of the sail and pulled myself out from under and gasped the sweetest breath of air I’ve ever tested.” She paused in her telling, out of breath. “It didn’t have to end that way. I know that. But yes, God saves.”

So began my New Year. A moment of grace and touching a stranger’s life with joy and gratitude when I felt little hope and much failure in my own life. I felt a sprout of my own gratitude. She was so right, truer and more graced in her hearing than I’d been in my preaching. God saves. Jesus.

Hear us as to thee we pray, Glorying in thy Name today.

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

The light at the inn

by George Clifford

During the winter of 1926, Chicagoan Thelma Goldstein treated herself to her first real vacation, taking a trip to Florida. Being unfamiliar with south Florida, she wandered into a restricted hotel in North Miami.

"Excuse me," she said to the manager. "My name is Mrs. Goldstein, and I'd like a small room for two weeks."

"I'm awfully sorry," he replied, "but all of our rooms are occupied." Just as he said that, a man came down and checked out.

"What luck," said Mrs. Goldstein. "Now there's a room."

"Not so fast, Madam. I'm sorry, but this hotel is restricted. No Jews allowed."

"Jewish? Who's Jewish? I happen to be Catholic."

"I find that hard to believe. Let me ask you, who was the Son of God?"

"Jesus, Son of Mary."

"Where was he born?"

"In a stable."

"And why was he born in a stable?"

"Because a schmuck like you wouldn't let a Jew rent a room in his hotel!"

Seventeenth century Puritans emigrated from England to Massachusetts so that they could worship according to their beliefs. Among other issues, the Puritans objected to Christmas. They pointed to the Bible’s silence about the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Celebrating his birth on December 25 began in the 4th century; Clement of Alexandria, whose second century writings include the first mention of a specific date for Jesus’ birth, lists five different dates on which Christians then commemorated Jesus’ birth. Obviously, nobody knew the actual date.

The Puritans also objected to the Church celebrating Jesus’ birth on a pagan feast linked to the winter solstice. They denounced the bacchanalian festivities then associated with Christmas, including drunken carolers carousing through communities and demanding gifts from the wealthy, as thinly veiled paganism.

Even the very word Christmas offended Puritans because it literally denotes Christ's mass. The Puritans rejected the mass as a Roman perversion of the Lord’s Supper. So they outlawed Christmas.

Thank God, Episcopalians are Anglicans and not Puritans! Unlike the Puritans, we’re confident that God wants us to joyfully celebrate the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Celebrations require a date. Not only does no one know the day of Jesus’ birth, scholars even debate the year of his birth, proposing dates between 7 BC and 4 AD. But Jesus was born. Celebrating his birth on December 25 is a convenient tradition. The mystery surrounding the actual date helpfully reminds us of God's holiness, i.e., the mysterious, life-giving Creator who transcends the finite, created world we inhabit. In the words of 19th century poet Christina Rosetti,

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Casual observers might conclude that many Americans regard Christmas as an excuse for consumer excesses in Santa’s name – modern paganism – rather than as a religious observance of Jesus’ birth. A Turkish bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra, was the original Santa. After several European refractions, the poetry of Clement Clarke Moore crystallized the popular image of Santa. The son of New York’s second Episcopal bishop, Moore donated the land for the Episcopal Church’s General Seminary, and taught Biblical literature there. In 1822, Moore wrote “T’was the Night before Christmas.” His poem memorably depicted a sled with eight reindeer driven by a plump, jolly, old man who entered by a chimney and carried a bag of toys.

Meanwhile, in Spain’s northeastern corner, Catalonians follow a set of Christmas traditions that exclude Santa Claus. Instead, a royal mail carrier appears in December to learn what gifts children want. Then, on January 6, Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas, a sailing ship arrives bearing three kings with gifts.

Adopting Christianized pagan customs offers reassurance that God really can transform a broken, hurting, sinful, dying person into a whole, healed, forgiven, abundantly alive child of God. Trees, wreaths, Santas, Nativity sets, cards, greetings, and even people – God can transform them all. Furthermore, God has chosen diversity over homogenization. There’s room at the manger for young and old, male and female, straight and gay, every race, every nationality, and even the schmuck who told Mary and Joseph there was no room in the inn.

Sadly, like Mary – heavily pregnant, weary, and far from home – many people find Christmas emotionally difficult. Suicides, however, actually peak post-Christmas. People, inundated with an unrelenting and persuasive torrent of advertising, expect great things from Christmas: an easing of their depression, restoration of shattered relationships, and solutions to lots of other problems. When Christmas fails to satisfy those high expectations, people lose hope and sink further into caves that have no light and no hope.

Some years ago, a friend’s mother died unexpectedly; her funeral was scheduled for Christmas Eve in Jacksonville, Florida. My friend lived in the mid-West. He managed to book a flight from Chicago to Jacksonville on the evening of the 23rd. The day had been dark and dreary, matching his mood. A departure delay depressed him even further. Finally airborne, the plane broke through the clouds shortly after taking off from O’Hare. He could plainly see the moon, new fallen snow, and Christmas lights. The moment was transformative; he remembered the babe born in Bethlehem and God's love, lit the darkest corners of his life.

The Christian Church celebrates Christmas near the winter solstice, not only Christianizing a pagan feast, but also providentially because of the profoundly Christian message that the timing and customs symbolize. Light begins to overtake darkness as the days slowly lengthen. Light, even from a single candle, banishes fear and darkness, bringing life and hope. Evergreens emphasize God renewing life. Gifts remind us, in Archbishop Rowan Williams striking phrase, that God in a “small bundle of shivering flesh,” revealed a love so profound and complete that we, two thousand years later, still discern God’s continuing activity in the world. This is our thanksgiving and why we joyfully celebrate Christmas, the mass of Christ, our holy feast, the Eucharist.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

Changed by holiness

by Maria Evans

"If you wish to become a person of knowledge and moderation, and if you want not to be enslaved to the passion of self-conceit, always search among existent things (i.e., creation) for what is hidden from your knowledge, and finding many and varied things that have escaped your notice, you will be amazed at your ignorance and you will abase your presumption. And, coming to know yourself, you will understand many great and marvelous things, because to think to know does not lead to progress in knowing." --Maximos the Confessor

One of the things I really took to heart about Maximos' quote is that concept that we are changed in holiness by searching for hidden knowledge among already existing things. It's been my experience that most revelatory things I've discovered have been things that I came to realize, have been in front of my nose all along and simply had failed to notice them. I had an opportunity to experience those things in a new way one recent Sunday.

We have a member of our parish who has been physically unable to attend church for some time, because of her broken hip, and the fact that our building is physically inaccessible to her--so we have been taking turns bringing at least bits and pieces of the church to her. Our priest brings her the Sacraments, and several of us have taken turns accompanying her. On a recent week when it was my turn to go on this visit, I ended up with a rather large hunk of consecrated bread, because our priest was headed out of town, and we had more than enough in the tabernacle in reserve. So I was left with this daunting amount of the Body of Christ to consume, and not enough appetite to do it in one sitting. I ended up carefully wrapping it in Saran wrap and carrying it around in the pocket of my hoodie until I had enough appetite to finish it off. So to make a long story short, this piece of consecrated bread got to accompany me on several of my afternoon errands all around Kirksville and on my Sunday afternoon walk down and back on my dirt road that I usually take.

Even though at the time this was happening, we were still a month and a half before Advent, I found myself thinking some very Advent-y thoughts--because there I was, with the Body of Christ snuggled against my belly, going here and there and everywhere--literally the theotokos of Adair County.

Now, generally speaking, I am already a person who tends to want to be obedient to the rules and the customs of the church, so I did not really expect to be changed by this exercise. But as the afternoon played out, I kept noticing all the little things I was doing differently, simply because I was carrying a large wad of the Sacraments around. I thought about how just looking at me, people would not know what I had in my hoodie pocket. I found myself subconsciously keeping a hand on it, in my pocket, so it would not fall out. I didn't have my usual verbal outburst at the person who cut me off in traffic. Things just seemed unusually calm and peaceful that afternoon, even when I was dealing with the usual irritations of my life--and in a strange way, I felt...well...honored that I was entrusted to give the proper liturgical care to such a large remnant of our home Eucharist. I called a friend of mine and even told her about the experience.

Then, all of a sudden, a giant recognition slammed into my brain without warning. What I was being shown was a teeny-tiny glimpse of what Mary felt like when Gabriel told her the news that she was pregnant! I had even subconsciously recapitulated telling Elizabeth (although I'd called a friend, not my cousin.)

In Advent seasons past, I've frequently thought about how unbelievable Gabriel's visit to Mary must have seemed, and had been puzzled that she was merely "perplexed," according to Luke, as opposed to the outright fear most people in the Bible get when they encounter angels. I never understood why she was not full of disbelief, acting out, or even downright despair.

I sat there in my truck, I pulled out the bread, and stared at it in the Saran wrap, laughing to myself. "I GET it now!" Being told to take care of the bread by my priest was not a fearful thing, because I was pretty sure she trusted me with it and I was happy to honor that trust. I walked around the streets of Kirksville unnoticed, but quietly protecting a treasure inside my hoodie pocket that would not have appeared to be a treasure. I didn't feel the need to show it off because I did not want it to be mishandled or treated irreverently.

Suddenly for the first time I could identify with a Mary who understood somehow that Gabriel, an agent of God, trusted her on sight. I could imagine her, as the Christ Child grew inside of her, being protective of him, and being a little grateful that she was rather inconspicuous. It must have felt comforting to not have to deal with other people's projections of the unlikeliness of such a prospect. The attention of such a thing would have been uncomfortable and would have put both of them at risk. She would have told Elizabeth simply because she felt pretty good about the whole thing, and that's the kind of thing one only admits to folks one feels close enough to reveal such a thing.

When I finally got around to eating that bread, it was with gratitude to God for such a unique, yet ordinary way to come to that knowledge.

Advent is the time that we prepare for new births, new possibilities in our lives. The trouble is, our habit is to tend to imagine those things in grandiose, Cecil B. DeMille terms. The more likely possibility is that they exist in the tiny, mundane things of our existence. Are we open to being awake to that possibility?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Embracing Advent

by Marshall Scott

I am deep these days in the process of transition. The circumstances are good: I’ve taken a new position within the health care system in which I’ve served for a long time. I’m excited and scared, and certainly honored with the opportunity.

At the same time, I don’t like transition. My dislike is sufficient that I’ve found it hard to write about – or even to write at all.

It’s not that I don’t like change. In general I do. I like new restaurants and new food. I have a history, when I have some time, to wander down a new street, whether in the car or on foot, just to see what’s down there.

But, what I like is, having been in the old place, to feel settled in the new place. I like being here or there. I just don’t like being in the middle.

After all, the middle feels uncertain, insecure. I have left one office, and am not yet settled in another. I have confidence in the skills that brought me to this place. I’m just not sure yet of the skills I will need to do the new position justice. I have a learning curve for the new job, and some loose ends to settle from the old one. I trust, by God’s grace, that in due time I will feel as comfortable in the job I have taken as I did in the job I left. I trust – but I’m not there yet.

I don’t like transition, and I live among a people who don’t like transition. You might think we would become accustomed to it. We are a culture that seems always to embrace the new. We herald the innovators and the “early adopters.” Our Buddhist siblings have noted one thing that we all experience: change is a basic truth of life. We call our society “fast paced” and “forward thinking.” Of all people we ought to be used to change.

And yet we don’t. We don’t like that sense of unsettledness, of uncertainty. We don’t like having to acknowledge a sense of incompetence or uneasiness or unreadiness. We talk about embracing change, but many of us want to be one place or another. We don’t like transition, that place in between.

Perhaps that explains our society’s leap to over Advent to get to Christmas. We have long noted how all around us our society starts embracing the Nativity before the kids have recovered from the indigestion of Halloween. Indeed, a few stores and a few radio stations started their references to Christmas before Halloween. Now, we can be realistic about the importance of the holiday season for retail sales. We can bemoan the loss of religiosity in our wider society. I wonder, though, if it isn’t in some part about discomfort with transition.

After all, Advent is all about transition. After spending the better part of a year moving from the Nativity to the feast of Christ the King, in Advent we seem to reverse that process in four weeks. We return in our lessons to the unsettled time into which John the Baptizer strode, a time when the crowds sought hope in the midst of uncertainty. We focus in our proclamation on preparation, highlighting our own sense of a “learning curve” in being ready for Christ’s kingdom. We step toward the end into perhaps the most mysterious transition of all: the pregnancy of a young woman. Obviously, I’ve never been pregnant; but I’ve been involved in two, and have observed many more. I can’t imagine a time of transition more profound, and yet more uncertain and anxious. The new parents I’ve known – the new parent I’ve been! – have all imagined life with a new baby, rather than the day to day changes that are part and parcel of pregnancy. Is it any surprise that our society, shaped by a Christian history that is denied but not entirely dissolved, should also want to jump over the transition to look at the baby?

Which is all the more reason that we people of faith need to slow down and embrace Advent. If our preparation for the Kingdom, and for the Nativity with which it begins, is to be meaningful, it must include learning and training, and even unease. Any other important endeavor in our lives requires this. Our goals, whether personal or professional, athletic or artistic or economic, require exercise, discipline, and education. Can our preparation for the Kingdom require anything less?

I don’t enjoy transition, and yet if I’m to do well my new job, I need the steps and stages and discovery that transition is made of. We might rather celebrate the Reign of Christ, and then jump straight to the birth of Christ who will reign. We still need the time and the training and the discoveries that Advent is made of. We might find it uncomfortable. Some might at first find it pointless, a series of distracting details while they wait for the really important events. We know better: that it is the details and the stories and the discoveries of Advent that help us understand the Kingdom we seek, and help us welcome the King who will be born.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in 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.

'tis the season on Facebook

by Kristin Fontaine

'Tis the Season on Facebook™ for those "Keep CHRIST in Christmas" memes. These type of copy/paste postings annoy me for two reasons: the inevitable 'repost if you are not ashamed' or '96% of people won't repost' passive-aggressive guilt-tripping that is tagged onto the end of the message; and the lack of thought it takes to re-post them. If a person feels strongly about a topic, I would much rather hear about it in their own words with specific examples from their life than read a canned message that someone didn't even bother to proofread.

In that spirit I was inspired to think about why the "Keep CHRIST in Christmas message" provoked such a strong reaction in me. It was so strong I started writing a fairly rant-laden response to the person who posted originally. I thought better of that and posted my rant to my own Facebook page. A few hours later I was surprised to find that a number of people had responded in the comments—apparently I wasn't alone in my reaction to the "Keep CHRIST in Christmas" message.

Here is what I wrote (edited for clarity):

"Personally I think the best thing is to live Christmas while at the same time being respectful of other religions. Having a winter holiday celebration is not unique to Christianity and in many cases we (the Christian religion) poached a local religion's holy day when Christianity moved into certain areas.

The Christmas season has become a cultural holiday and many family traditions remain associated with it. I'm not ashamed of being a Christian but the best way I can show that is not by trying to 'defend' Christmas but to live in the way that Christ taught, 365 days a year. I also respect the choices friends and family have made to be atheists, taoists, agnostic, christian, and pagan. Many of them live in ways that are closer to Christ than what I see of 'Christians' in the media. "Christmas" is a holiday (and holy day) that humans made up. We don't know exactly when Christ was born, so now he is 'born' during the darkest time of the year (in the northern hemisphere) when the sun is just about to return.

Christmas is a creation of people and should not be the center of Christian worship. The season has been a secular tradition for a long time now. We co-opted other religions holy days and 'saints,' now it's our turn to have our holy days co-opted by the secular majority. It is perhaps an good exercise in eating humble pie and being reminded of how the first Christians started out with just bread, wine, and the word."

This still sums up my feels on the matter. Since the time I wrote this response there have been other, more pithy and more humorous takes on the situation. Jon Stewart riffed on it (and on what religious freedom really means) on the Dec 6th edition of the Daily Show and counter-memes have sprung up on Facebook.

I love Christmas. I set up my nativities starting the first Sunday of Advent (and move the holy family, shepherds, and wise men around as the events of Christmas play out in the readings). This year I'm breaking into my son's legos to make a protestant nativity. This is my way of living into the story of Christ. My pagan housemate loves setting up our 'Christmas' tree every year. She picks the tree, lights it, and pick the color scheme for our holiday decorations (she is a designer and it comes through in everything she does). I would never tell her she couldn't set up a tree and enjoy the holiday because she is not a Christian. Not only would it be the height of rudeness, but it does not do anything to share the message of Christ.

Back in 2005, I went to Norway to visit my relatives and practice my Norwegian (which I had spent the previous 3 years learning). I knew going in that they were religious and that the branch of the family I would be staying with were active missionaries. I was thrilled to have the chance to stay with them, but also nervous that they would not find me 'Christian' enough and would try to convert me to their specific dogma. Within the first 24 hours of my visit, I was relieved of that fear completely. They were religious, but they lived it rather than tried to tell me what to believe. We did have some discussions about religion but they were interesting and stimulating, not off-putting or conversion-oriented. I still remember a conversation about grace that their college-age daughter and I had, partly because it was in Norwegian and I was so pleased that I mostly understood a complex discussion that taxed the limits of my vocabulary. The visit was wonderful and they were lovely hosts and very supportive of me and my attempts to keep conversing in Norwegian even when I was struggling.

A year or so later, they were in Seattle for a day at the end of a visit to the US and I got to take them around and show off a bit of my home to them. I took them to the last day of Folklife (a huge, free, festival at Seattle Center). We toured around, listening to music and watching some dancing, before we stumbled across a Christian protest group. I don't remember what they were on about, but they had signs and were of the 'you're all going to hell if you don't convert' variety. Intrigued, my relatives went over to talk to them. I hung back and watched. A fairly animated conversation ensued (my relatives are fluent English speakers). When we got back together, my relative shook his head and said that he had explained to the leader of the group that their methods would likely not be an effective way to spread the gospel.

I found it fascinating—particularly since I had originally thought that my relatives would be much more like the protestors than they turned out to be.

From this encounter I learned the difference between living the gospel, and shouting about it. My calm, quiet, faithful family caused me think about Christ much more than any protestor every has (or will). My little nativity scenes (or Christian action figures) allow me to show the story of the birth of Christ to anyone who is interested. My son and I have had more conversations about religion as a result of him asking about why I hide the baby Jesus until December 25th, than from any sermon he has heard at church.

Sharing the story of Christ is something that should happen every day in the way a Christian lives. Telling people they 'should' do something in order to be saved, in order to celebrate a season 'correctly', or in order not to go to hell is never going to be as effective as living a Christian life in the open and letting others see Christ in you 365 days a year.

Kristin Fontaine blogs at Ceramic Episcopalian.

Prepare ye the way

by Maria Evans

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” --Isaiah 40:3-5

Not long ago, one of the most exciting things for me in my rather sleepy rural northeast Missouri lifestyle was the opening of the new US Highway 63 bypass near Kirksville. As a child, one of my secret pleasures was getting to ride on a new road the day it was opened. It always seemed futuristic, full of opportunity and promise. New roads almost always cut through a rather sparsely inhabited area, and with no billboards up yet, it always had a rather pristine quality to it. It was like seeing an unlimited future of potential sprawled in front of me.

So it should not surprise anyone I thought about the new bypass a lot. Really, it was overdue for decades. Making a left turn on US 63 had become impossible in Kirksville at certain times of the day, and many stoplights on the road could easily be filled from traffic light to traffic light.

Unfortunately, it only took me about a day to get around how this new road was going to change things that had become my routine for eleven years. Every day, for eleven years, I drove to work by getting on US 63 and driving for about six miles, turned right on Potter St., turned left on Osteopathy St., and taking Osteopathy to the hospital complex. Every afternoon was the reverse--Osteopathy to Potter, to 63. Suddenly my routine was changed to US 63, including the new bypass, turn right at Route P, continuing on Route P (which changes names to Northtown Road,) and then turning left on Osteopathy.

I had no trouble making these changes going TO work--it was coming home FROM work that was the trouble. Every day, for weeks, instead of crossing Potter St. to get to Northtown Road, I would instinctively turn right onto Potter and then left on what is now the "old" 63, and without fail I would forget to turn right at Route P. I would get past the P turnoff, and invariably forget, and be heading north on "old" 63. Unfortunately, the northernmost access point to the bypass is not finished, and the "old" 63 temporarily dead-ends. So day after day I would realize I had gone too far, turned around, and headed back to get on the bypass the way I was supposed to. I was always thinking about some leftover from work, and miss my turn flat. I would then spend the rest of my trip home berating myself over my stupidity.

The Revised Common Lectionary readings for the second week in Advent often have the theme of "repentance." In Biblical Hebrew, the words used for repentance literally mean "to change" and "to feel sorrow"--in Biblical Greek, "to change one's consciousness." My nightly error became a regularly repeating reminder that changing one's consciousness is not as easy as one would expect.

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly adaptable and flexible person, and quite frankly, a bit smarter than average. My chosen career rewards me for solving puzzles accurately and quickly (although not fast enough by some surgeons' standards, at times.) So this nightly gaffe became my latest exercise in sheer frustration. I would find myself cursing a blue streak at myself the moment I passed the P turnoff. Normally, my fifteen-to-twenty minute drive home is the treat of my day. It's a time I generally unwind and leave my work behind me and switch from the business of being the busy professional to the quirky hermit. Instead, I was ruining my evenings by fuming all the way home.

Then, one day, I remembered a frustration in my residency twenty years ago--learning to cut a frozen section. For the uninitiated, a frozen section is when the surgeon sends out a piece of fresh tissue from a surgical case and asks the pathologist, "What is it?" We freeze the tissue in a device called a cryostat, then cut the tissue in the cryostat on a device called a microtome, stain it, and render a diagnosis. The patient is asleep, and time matters. The answer may change the course of the surgery. In my residency, I remember how for ages I couldn't cut a slide to save my soul. I felt the weight of all the pressure of doing this in a timely fashion. Then one day, miraculously, I walked in and cut a frozen section like I had been doing it for decades. I simply had done it enough times that I could do it without thinking.

So, in like fashion, I quit putting pressure on myself. I decided that I'd simply laugh at my gaffe, turn around, and go home. Within a couple of days, my brain and body had made the switch. I was driving home the "new" way.

The problem with repentance is we have this tendency to think it's a one-time process, and that at the end of that one time we should have it all figured out, and we can move on. That's almost never the case. Our intent and our will is for it to be over and done with, and instead we find ourselves repeating the same misguided act or mentally dredging up what led us to repent in the first place...over and over...and over and over some more. We berate ourselves for our stupidity. We curse the darkness. We begin to place more and more pressure on ourselves to be "good," or tack an insanely short time frame goal for it to happen. Only until we accept our own humanity do we actually begin to repent, and only over time do we begin to take the new way home without thinking.

If only our Gospel accounts of John the Baptist had been written down--just once--with John saying, "Repent!...again...and again...and again some more...and don't plan on getting it right the first time." How much turmoil would we have saved from being schooled in this simple fact of the process of change?

Eucharistic Prayer C tells us that again and again God calls us to return. It only stands to reason that if we generally don't hear it the first time, we should not be surprised if we don't "get" it the first time when we respond to what we've heard--and the first part of "getting" it is being able to forgive ourselves and leave enough room to do it. If we do it enough times, something is bound to change. After all, we humans are creatures of habit.

When we prepare a highway for the Lord, we need to remember it wasn't built in a day--nor will we get used to it in a day.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Asking the hard questions

by Maria Evans

"The purpose of the Morbidity and Mortality (M and M) Conference is to provide a safe venue for physicians in all levels of training to identify areas of improvement, and promote professionalism, with ethical integrity and transparency by use of a case study. The conference assesses all aspects of the care given to the patient, as well as provides feedback in quality improvement. The M and M Conference also provides a forum to to foster a climate of openness and discussion about medical errors.

"This conference also promotes leadership, research, and scholarly activity, and is a learning opportunity for clinical medical students and residents to assess their own core clinical competencies." --Sample description of Morbidity and Mortality Conference from a large teaching hospital

One of the most vulnerable--and revealing--things I was exposed to in medical school and residency was the Morbidity and Mortality Conference, affectionately called "M and M." In medical schools, these are often held in large lecture halls and are quite well attended. Pathologists and radiologists can never escape them, as it's almost certain there will be radiology images, as well as gross and microscopic pathology, from the various diagnoses the "patient of the month" accumulated. I particularly remember Surgery M and M. It was held in the Surgery conference room, and there was one seat that was solely for the use of the Chief of Surgery--no one sat in that seat if he was absent, reminiscent of the Bishop's Chair on the chancel. Woe betide some unfortunate new medical student or intern who inadvertently plopped his or her behind in that seat!

In this conference, no stone is left unturned, and the physician presenting the case (often a senior resident) is very much on the spot and feeling quite drained at the end. Every lab is scrutinized, every physical finding cogitated upon, and every possible outcome change at every step in the patient's care is analyzed. The cases presented were not stories of modern medical miracles--they were almost certainly cases where the patient eventually died or ended up with some terrible outcome. But each step of the way, everyone involved with the care of that patient asks himself or herself two hard questions--"What would I have done differently if I had it to do over again at this point in the story of this patient?" and "How would it have changed the course of this patient or this patient's quality of life?"

Really, mostly, in M and M, we find that the outcome probably wouldn't have changed much for this patient--only the path to the outcome--but reflecting upon it might change something for the next patient. We do, however, find the humbling truth that we sometimes either delayed a diagnosis and cost the patient some degree of quality of life, or rushed to obtain a diagnosis in a frail patient that created a faster downward spiral in the patient's course. I still remember a very poignant day when I saw the Chief of Surgery (yep, the same one who sat in the special chair) give a big sigh and exhale, "You know, I should never have taken him to surgery that day. I was wrong." In the formative years of my training, M and M conference was a secular form of Ignatian spirituality--the examination of both conscience and of consciousness. Had I followed the norm of best practice for my specialty? Was I even aware what was developing at the time it was evolving? It was also striking to me that this needed to happen in a community setting--only going home and thinking about the cases on my own would not have been as beneficial. Revealing our vulnerability to a group engendered a sense of accountability to the patient.

In short, it's about asking ourselves what we did wrong even when we are pretty sure what ultimately happened was right.

Advent is a good season for doing that, and in a different way than in Lent/Easter. Lent, for me, tends to be with a steeper cycle, with deeper mood swings--much as how the mood of the disciples must have been during the reception of Jesus to Jerusalem, followed by the trial, the passion, and the crucifixion--followed by the most sudden and unexpected emotions that must have accompanied the Resurrection. Advent is gentler for me--steady upward movement from deep darkness, and the birth of new things inside us occurring without much pomp or fanfare. It's a good time to quietly ask the hard questions about our conscience and our consciousness in the dark spots in our lives. It's a time to believe that the things being made new in us are being knit together with all the marvelous detail of the tiny fingernails and toenails on a newborn.

It can also be a time to address the topic of reconciliation. The December holidays are often a time when families can either rise to a new level of understanding of one another, or sink to the depths of their dysfunction. It's a time for looking back at the things that had bad outcomes, and asking those same questions we always asked in M and M--"What would I do differently if I had it to do over again?" "How would I do it differently the next time a similar situation happened?" "How aware was I at the time?" "How can I be more aware next time?"

Advent seems to be a time that it's easier to ask these questions in the light of quiet hope and expectation, without all the tumult of Lent. It's the season for feeling quiet growth in the deep darkness, and understanding just how temporary the things that disquiet us really are--just as pregnant women endure the kicking, the indigestion caused by an active fetus, and the constant trips to the bathroom as their bladders get crowded out. Pregnant women know these things won't last forever.

The beauty of M and M conference is it occurs at a time remote enough from when the events take place, the team can look back at it with more clarity and objectivity, and look forward with hope and anticipation. What things will emerge from our dark spaces this Advent that we can look back at a little more objectively, and then look forward with the same hope and anticipation?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Origami saints

by Maria L. Evans

Sometimes the saint is loved not simply for his closeness to God but for his patent humanity. The saint has a temper, flies off the handle, loses his or her cool in pursuit of a great ideal. St. Jerome, the first translator of the Bible into Latin, was famously irascible, once writing that one of his detractors "walked like a tortoise." To take another example, St. Peter is beloved not only because he was a great apostle, but for his many flaws: denying Jesus three times before the crucifixion, among them. Holiness makes its home in humanity. That insight says, “They’re not perfect. Maybe I could aspire to this level of achievement.”

--James Martin

Nothing separates "The people who are good at crafts" from "The people who are ordinary at crafts" quite like an origami bird.

Now, at its most basic level, an origami bird is a rather simple thing. After all, children do origami all the time. But give some origami paper to adults, and it can suddenly morph from a child's fun pastime to a relentless exercise in self-browbeating.

One of the things we decided to do for All Saints Sunday was make strings of origami cranes that folks could write names of the departed "saints" in their lives and string the birds around the sanctuary, as if they were winging their way through the gap between Heaven and Earth.

Easy, right?

Two of my best friends in the parish decided to take on the task of folding the cranes. Now, they are both what we call "crafty women" in these parts. Not crafty like devious or sneaky, but they are really good at those little crafts that lots of women like to do. They take to that stuff like a duck to water (or should I say a crane to water?)

Well, one of them went out of town on vacation and the other one was feeling a little challenged by the number of cranes that needed to be made. Quintessential dummy me, I blurted out, "Oh, I made origami birds in grade school all the time! I know how to do that!" Next thing I knew, I was meeting her at the store to buy paper that met her approval, and was given a sheet of instructions and one made by the person who left town, to use as a model.

I gulped. Hers was perfect.

As I looked at that crane, I started feeling the weight of every flashback I could muster from grade school art class. Nothing I ever made in art class was ever "the best." I think only one time was any of my art ever shown in the display cases in the hall, and I think the art teacher felt sorry for me that time. When we had fundraisers at school using "kid art," no one bid on my creations (the fact my own family never bid on it, either, ought to have told me something.)

I realized I was doing this because of loyalty to my two friends, and possibly so that their slightly imperfect cranes would look "good enough" next to my definitely imperfect cranes. Mine looked fairly okay, but they chronically seemed to have a bill problem. Some of them could have passed for pelicans. Some of them, it looked like a cat had grazed their tails. I had some problems with blowing gently into them to "puff them up." I had to trash a few of them from blowing so hard their spines exploded.

It was another of those times I was reminded there was a reason I went into a medical specialty that the job was to take things apart rather than sew them together.

The other important thing I learned was "Don't make origami cranes when you're watching the Cardinals blow a lead in the fifth game of the World Series." My cranes met with a couple of casualties--a few got tossed at the TV, and one hapless, unfortunate member of my paper aviary got his little head ripped off. (Interestingly enough, I decapitated a red one. Coincidence? I think not.)

But after a while, I realized when I looked in my plastic bag of imperfect cranes and feeling a little grumpy that mine "were not as good," they looked back with quite a few colors. In my compulsion to make "perfect" cranes and setting unrealistically high expectations for myself, and over-obsessing about each and every little fold, I had neglected to notice that, subconsciously, I was choosing paper from every shade and hue of the rainbow.

Suddenly, another flashback came to me from those grade school art years. A long buried memory emerged--I used to love to try to use every color that was given to me in an art project.

Historically, on All Saints Day, we focus on the "perfection" of the saints--that they are models of holiness, and we feel we can never attain that kind of perfection. But the more I read about the lives of the saints, the more I recognize they were wildly, crazily IM-perfect. St. Ignatius of Loyola is my favorite case in point--he was on his way to kill a fellow for profaning the Blessed Virgin Mary, and had it not been for his mule taking a particular fork in the road, he would have been a murderer instead of a saint.

When we over-focus on that illusion of perfection in holiness, we miss the bigger and better message--the spectrum of hues and tones and bright and muted colors that make up the Company of Heaven. We forget to see the holiness within irascibility--incredible holiness, actually, because it is when the Light of Christ streams through the cracks and fissures of our caked-on layers of human irascibility that it is most noticeable and intense. We don't always want to believe that the saints, more often than not, are clothed in a robe with grease stains, wear rusty, crooked halos, and have muddy shoes. Those muddy shoes? Feet of clay--exactly like our own.

When we accept that possibility, the saints lose their two-dimensionality. They can no longer remain monochromatic. Much like the citizenry in the movie "Pleasantville," they gain the power of living color and depth, as the revealed truth washes over them. They truly become, as the old hymn proclaims, sacred people that you have met "in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea."

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

A theology of summer

By Greg Syler

“Are you getting any response to this program?” our parish administrator asked me the other day, referring to an offer we’ve been advertising in the weekly bulletin for weeks. I hadn’t heard a peep. At the same time, I realized, my email inbox is clogged, messages are waiting to be returned, and there are messages for which I’m awaiting a return. The to-do list is long, and calls have been made, and committee meetings have been arranged weeks in advance. But all in all not much is going on. That’s when it hit me: It’s summer.

You would think the blinding heat, or deliciously ripe local produce, or the absence of our Sunday regulars – and their pew replacement, the summer renters – would have tipped me off to the awareness of this seasonal shift earlier than mid-July. Or my own recent trips away to see family and friends or the fact that I’ve already given up the black wool trousers for a light cotton suit should have turned me on to the fact that we’re in a different season. It is summer, and we’re having lemonade on the lawn, not coffee hour inside; still others are out on the water, and at cookouts, and living pretty much in their sailboats or swimming pools. It is summer.

It’s been said that one of the principles of church growth is to not slow down programming during the summer, so as to teach people not to give up church during these glorious months of play. We all know churches who do different things in the summer months – change service times, combine services, suspend Sunday School, or in some cases cease corporate Sunday worship altogether. Whether those ideas are good or bad is, for me, up to someone else and, at the very least, up to that local congregation.

I’m just not sure that people are coming to our churches for our great and notable programs. At the same time I realized that my email inbox was full and that our parish administrator was not hearing a peep from anyone about our next great idea, I remembered how my Senior Warden has been urging me to get on his boat and go fishing, and that another family has invited my daughter and me untold times for dinner and swimming in their pool, and that I still haven’t gone kayaking with that other couple.

I remembered all the times in, say, November or February when so-and-so would ask me to go out to brunch following coffee hour or when I was invited to that family reunion and I wondered why I had turned down so many offers of genuine kindness. True, the job of a parish priest is sometimes ill-defined and the life is altogether busy and demanding – certainly so in the months of the so-called “program year”. But the idea of the Anglican priesthood, at least as I’ve come to understand it, centers on a robust theology of the Incarnation: the parish priest must be accessible, fully human, engaged, yes, embedded in a local community so as to mediate (not represent) Christ, who chose to live among us and, indeed, as one of us.

I’ve been having a wonderful exercise of my life and vocation this summer. I’ve gone swimming, sat on the edges of piers and drank wine, kayaked up an idyllic marsh-land creek to see a heron rookery, gone fishing, sat at dining room tables and on porches, headed over to the local restaurant to celebrate a birthday, and went to brunch at the local marina. All of this, of course, could be called work, but it’s so much more than that cheapened term – it’s a vocation, a lifestyle, an exercise of who we all are called to be. There will be plenty of paperwork and email ahead, and that time will come sooner than even I realize. In all of our lives, whether your vocation is a priest or an educator or a military contractor or a parent, there will be seasons of demands and production. And there will also be times of letting go, of enjoyment and delight. “To everything there is a season,” the wisdom of the scripture teaches.

It’s also more than a seasonal shift, much more. As often as I have expected and, unwittingly, demanded that people show up more regularly to the place where I live and work, I’ve had the opportunity to see the places where they, too, find joy and make meaning in their lives – their kitchens and boats, their decks and piers, their garages and favorite restaurants. We get some awful tunnel vision in the parish, and fret about average Sunday attendance and how many students are enrolled in Sunday School. It’s been healthy, for me, to walk out of the office and leave behind the familiar and comfortable rhythms of the sacristy and chancel. There is a great wealth of meaning beyond the walls we’ve constructed; God’s grandeur is robust in all of His creation.

Even Jesus seemed to recognize the need for this balance. It’s probably true that we most often think of Jesus as being out and about, a nomadic Rabbi who reminded his followers that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Mt.8:20). In recent weeks, the lectionary has led us through Matthew’s thirteenth chapter – the parable chapter – in which Jesus’ notoriety has become so great he has to go and stand on a boat in order for the crowd to amass on the beach and hear him. But Jesus also knew when to step back and recharge. Not as strikingly clear in Matthew 13, we see Jesus going in and out of “the house”(vv.1,36), presumably the place where only he and his select few gathered. Luke, in his gospel, teaches us that Jesus punctuated certain periods of his life and ministry by intentionally going away by himself to pray. Even as popular and public a figure as Jesus still understood the need for balance between programming and solitude, between time spent with the throngs and meaning gained by being with the inner circle.

It does seem to come down to balance. Congregations who are uncertain about their future will sometimes pit one good against another good, say, make outreach ministries the enemy of parish fellowship. Does charity begin at home, as some might argue? Or is there no such thing as charity without social justice? This is a false argument, of course, and it will get a Christian community nowhere but one whopping fight. Instead, balance. If we have stayed in “the house” too long, get out and meet the people where they are. God is there, too. God himself did precisely that, and we name that mystery Incarnation. If we are out of “the house” too often, get back and re-center. Our Creator did that, as well, and we celebrate that and call it Sabbath.

Greg Syler is the rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland.

Christianity from the outside: Easter among the Humanists

By Kathy Staudt

Sometimes it’s useful to move outside of my church-activities “bubble” and pay attention to ways that Christian faith -- my tradition” is perceived, described, characterized “from the outside,” by people who are not Christians.

Because of an illness in the family , I was away from my usual treasured liturgical observance of Holy Week and Easter. Also through family connections, I found myself at worship on Thursday and on Sunday with the Unitarians -- at First Parish in Concord, Massachussetts, a vibrant, welcoming and faithful community. There was a lot to like there -- celebrations of community, a commitment to spiritual practice and a desire to “make a difference in the world.” I recognized in this worshipping community attitudes that are shared widely in our culture: that really, you don’t need religion, that it only leads to dissension and controversy. (Two blocks away from First Parish is “Tri-Con” -- Trinity Congregational -- two identical white clapboard buildings, testimony to theological splits in New England in the 19th century). In fact it almost seemed petty of me, sometimes, to be clinging to more traditional, even “orthodox” Christian belief. The awareness of this disconnect has stayed with me ever since Easter, and I’m still mulling it over.

Among the Humanist members of First Parish UU, the observance of Maundy Thursday and Easter were offered mainly in a spirit of education and respect --solidarity, even, with Christians. Some members there would call themselves Christians; most would not. There was a respectful agenda for worship: “Here’s what Christians do at this time of year. Let’s experience some of what that is like, through our own worship, and see how that helps us to deepen spiritually in our own way, even if we don’t share their [somewhat archaic] beliefs.”

So on Thursday evening there was a “Mermorial” communion service, reminiscent of the Presbyterian worship I grew up with. Communion is celebrated once a year in this congregation, and it’s an important yearly event there. As the story of the Last Supper was retold, the emphasis was on Jesus gathering his friends. Almost anyone can relate to this part of the story. The congregation was invited to reflect on themselves as a community and to view this act of eating and drinking as a celebration of their life and history together in that place. So the meal on Maundy Thursday was a celebration of community, and a remembering of who we are and where we have been. Jesus’ example was a human example: this is something that people do. Little to disagree with there. But something left me restless.

Meanwhile, the choir sang (beautifully) a sampling of classic liturgical music belonging to the day, music that deeply touched me: Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” and Bach’s “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.” The story I deeply wanted to connect with and retell that night was carried in the music. There was really nothing here to object to, from a human point of view: Here was an assembly of good people, celebrating their common life and honoring some of the religious ideas of their neighbors -- including mine. It felt fussy and theologically petty for me to reflect too much on what was missing for me here. But there was a lot missing. It was the part about God sharing our humanity, and suffering with us, and calling us to a radical, mutual love for one another, grounded in divine love, expressed quite starkly in our liturgies of foot washing. That was missing. Not to member the entry into darkness, expressed in the stripping of the altar. I was seeing the stories and practices reinterpreted, through the lens of an enlightenment humanism. Something was definitely missing. A dimension of mystery -- and even of darkness.

Between hospital visits, I did treat myself to an Easter Vigil service at Trinity Episcopal in Concord - and it was a wonderful, familiar service, with people of all ages on board with the movement through darkness, to the lighting of the new fire and the declaration “The Lord is Risen indeed.” (If anyone from that parish reads this - I thank you!) I needed a chance to say that out loud, in public, with fellow believers, at Easter. At the hospital and around town, I was really moving in circles where that was an irrelevant idea. So I was grateful that the church was there for me, a visitor from out of town. And it was a gift to realize how deeply I desired to be part of that celebration - how real it was to me. The church felt like an island of mercy and welcome in the midst of a world that was mostly oblivious to the good news of Easter. That image has remained with me and I’m still pondering what it means to me.

Meanwhile, back at First Parish, Easter Day dawned, a wonderfully sunny, springtime celebration on a gorgeous New England spring day. The church was packed. I was curious about what an Easter Sunday service of worship would be without the proclamation of Resurrection. But the service started promisingly, for me, with the Easter gospel from Mark as the call to worship, and the singing, with trumpets, of Wesley’s Jesus Christ is Risen Today--though not the version that mentions the Cross.

The theme of the service was Jesus, and the children’s sermon a re-enactment of a parable of Jesus. And the adult sermon did invite people to think about resurrection as a metaphor in their lives, using imagery from the Christian tradtion. At one point, the preacher said, almost as an aside, something like “there is this observance of Good Friday, though how anyone could call it Good Friday is beyond me.”

"Right there!" I thought. That is what I’ve been missing -- and it may be a good way of naming what we as Christians are called to wrestle with, reflect on, embrace, and maybe explain better to the world-- the paradox at the heart of our faith. “Talk to a Christian,” I wanted to say to the preacher. “Talk to a Christian about that -- rather than describing us as if we were confused. See what that Christian might say to you about why we call that Friday Good. Because that is the heart of the matter -- the way of life that leads through the reality of human life, suffering, evil and death, and triumphs ultimately and transformatively. It’s a supernatural claim we make. There’s no getting around it. We do call this Friday good. I’m working on my “elevator speech” about that question. What is yours? Why do you call this Friday good?

All this was 3 months ago -- now we’re in a different liturgical season and a different place in church life, but I’ve been reflecting ever since about this weird sense of being a “topic” in a world that does not widely embrace or understand our Christian message and practices. Why do we call this Friday good? Why was it so important to me to be able to move through the darkness, in the company of fellow believers, to proclaim out loud “The Lord is Risen indeed.”? It is about all those good humanist goals. -- trying to be good people, deepen spiritually, make a difference in the world, Yes. But there is more at the heart of Christian faith. How can I own and name that, from where I stand in faith, and in language the world can understand? That’s the challenge I’ve been pondering lately. With no clear answer -- perhaps Café readers have pondered it, too. . . . .

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.

A common tongue

By Marshall Scott

One afternoon when I was in college I took my girlfriend to a matinee at the movies. While we waited outside to buy our tickets, I found myself in conversation with a woman. She told me that she had come into town by bus, and was headed home again. She came in to shop twice a year, and once home, wouldn’t be back until perhaps the Christmas season. She had a rather thick and distinctive accent, sort of an odd combination of the Yorkshire Dales and Cockney East London – sort of. Still, I didn’t have any trouble understanding her myself.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, didn’t understand. “Who was that woman?”

“Oh, she just wanted to talk. She’s come in today from out in the country to shop, something she only does twice a year. She’s waiting on the bus to start her trip home. Mostly we talked about what a nice day it is.”

“Why did she talk like that,” she asked.

“She lives in the mountains,” I answered. “There are still some places so remote that not even radio gets in. Back that far in the mountains, accents haven’t changed much since the folks immigrated 250 years ago.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m glad to know what that was about. When she first started talking, I thought she was touched in the head! And then you answered her!”

I’ve thought about that experience as I’ve reflected on Pentecost. We all know the story: driven by the Spirit, marked with tongues of fire, the disciples poured out into the streets of Jerusalem; and in that cosmopolitan city, visitors from across the known world heard the Gospel proclaimed in the various languages that they spoke at home. It was the first, but far from the last, experience of the translation of the Gospel.

We still pursue that same effort. Bible and missionary societies continue in that effort. Every now and then we still hear of a first translation into another language. I often think that the work of the Church, and especially the tasks of Biblical interpretation and of theology, are efforts at translation: translating the truths of the Gospel into the social and philosophical languages of each succeeding generation.

At the same time, as I remember that woman on that summer day, I am conscious that in small but meaningful ways each of us speaks a “different language.” We incorporate the nuances of our lives in ways that change how we talk. In a rather broad way, we encounter that in the hospital all the time. Even without differences of national languages, we face issues of translation between professionals on the one hand, and patients and their families on the other. We professionals have to remember (and this can be as much an issue for chaplains as for others) to speak the common tongue, and not “medical.” Professional jargon can be a temptation. Used among peers, it is so concise, so precise, and so clear. On the other hand, used with non-professionals, it does more harm than good.

More broadly, each of us does have his or her own “language.” It certainly includes the various jargons of our many vocations and avocations, our jobs and our hobbies. It also includes the distinctive characteristics of our histories, our families, and our communities. Each pet name, with all its history; each private joke from the shared experiences of spouses, families, and friends, helps shape a unique, individual “language.”

And we as Christians have a vocation to preach the Gospel in each of those individual languages. Much of that work, of course, we can do in the various shared languages of our daily commerce. At the same time, to truly bring the Gospel to life calls for us to learn and use the languages of each individual we encounter.

That requires, I think, that we listen well and carefully. How shall we learn these individual “languages,” unless we spend time listening carefully to these individuals?

But I also think it requires that we make the Gospel incarnate by demonstrating it. To St. Francis we attribute the saying, “Preach always; and when you must, use words.” We have been told from childhood, “Actions speak louder than words;” and often they can transcend the different nuances of our individual languages. Living out the Gospel day by day will reach more persons, and reach them more profoundly, than the sum total of even our best preaching.

On the feast of Pentecost we remembered the day when Spirit descended on the disciples, and began the ongoing process of translating the truth of the Gospel in to the many languages and cultures that we humans have cobbled together. Now we’re living in the time after Pentecost (both in the Church’s history and in the Church year), and the vocation of Pentecost still goes on. On one great day, the disciples were called and empowered to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of many peoples. And now we in our baptism are called and empowered to proclaim the Gospel by how we act toward and how we listen to the many individuals we encounter. We are called and filled with the Spirit to proclaim the love of God in Christ in each person’s individual, personal language.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in 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.

My unintentional Lent

By Ellen Painter Dollar

This Lent, after a difficult winter marked by bitter cold, too much snow, and taxing medical treatments, I just couldn’t bring myself to give up any of the things—sweets, novels, coffee, Law and Order reruns—that offer bright spots of pleasure in the midst of long days dominated by frantic activity on behalf of other people, especially my three children. So as Lent approached this year, I wasn’t sure what to do for a Lenten discipline.

One day, worn out by my children’s daily litany of wants (I want you to buy my favorite yogurts! I want the dress in this catalog! I want another Zhu Zhu pet! I want a play date with so-and-so! I want Mom to put me to bed tonight!), I suggested we banish the phrase “I want” from our conversations during Lent. The goal, I explained, was to spend less energy thinking about what we don’t have and more being grateful for what we do. I framed this as a family discipline, but really, I saw it as a way to get my kids to stop driving me crazy with their endless pleas for more, more, more. Having practiced conscious gratitude for many years (prayers of thanksgiving are the only prayers I say daily, without fail and with enthusiasm), I didn’t expect our Lenten discipline to be particularly enriching for me, beyond its potential to make me less annoyed with my children.

Did it work? Are my children less focused on what they want and more grateful for what they have? Not really. They learned to discipline their speech a bit. They would start saying, “I want…” and cut themselves off. They also figured out ways to get off on technicalities. They still circled favorite clothes in the Justice catalog, for example, even if they didn’t voice their desires out loud.

But I, who instigated this discipline primarily to teach my children something, ended up learning something myself. (You could see that coming, couldn’t you?)

Our banning of “I want” forced me to pay attention to how often I uttered that phrase, usually to myself (since in a family dominated by children’s needs, let’s face it, Mom’s wants don’t get much air time). Sometimes, my wants were material—new clothes, a faster computer, a remodeled kitchen, a clean floor that doesn’t grab at my shoes with its constellation of sticky spills. But I noticed how often, instead of wishing for things, I was wishing for a different, healthier body: “I want to wear my favorite jeans that have become a bit too tight for comfort,” “I want to be stronger,” “I want to feel better about my body,” “I want to take a walk without getting so winded.”

I have a physical disability that has left visible abnormalities—scars, crookedness, a limp. But I seldom thought things like, “I want to not have scars any more,” “I want to walk without a limp,” or “I want to be healed.” Rather, my wants were focused on traits I could actually change—strength, endurance, weight, muscle tone.

I decided to stop wanting and start doing. Midway through Lent, I started waking up at 4:15 on weekdays, with the help of our cat, for whom this is a favorite time to be outside hunting critters (there is no snooze button on a cat who is sitting my chest and staring into my face). Rising so early is not easy, particularly because I’m tuckered out by around 7 p.m., when I still have homework to supervise and children to bathe. But the benefits are worth the effort. I exercise using a workout DVD for 30 to 40 minutes, then have a cup of coffee and check my e-mail before my children get up—all of which makes me a much more cheerful mother than when I’m woken from a sound sleep by someone whining that they can’t find their favorite pants.

I also added additional exercise later in the morning—a walk or swim—two or three days a week, and started tracking my calorie intake on the free web site I have only lost a couple of pounds so far. But, dare I say it, my unintentional, unanticipated Lenten discipline of exercising regularly and tracking my diet are changes that are here to stay. Easter has come and gone, but I’m still getting up at 4:15 to exercise most days. When I don’t, I regret it, because I feel more sluggish. I love the slight soreness I have in my muscles almost all the time now, because it reminds me that I’m getting stronger. I love wearing yoga pants and tank tops not just because they’re cute and comfortable, but because I’m actually exercising in them. I love trading tips on exercise and athletic shoes with able-bodied friends. I love seeing the calorie counter on lop off 200 calories when I log an hour of exercise.

So thanks to my unplanned Lent disciplines, I’m getting stronger and (slowly) thinner. But what about God? Is it fair to even call these efforts Lenten disciplines? Or are they really more about self-improvement than a richer relationship with God?

I would be fooling myself (and lying to you) if I said my newfound enthusiasm for healthier living is untainted by covetousness, competitiveness, and a desire for accolades. I want to look like those other moms who can wear a clingy tank top without looking like a female version of the Michelin man. I want acquaintances who haven’t seen me in a while to exclaim, “Wow! You look terrific!”

But it’s not all about me and my selfish wants. My newfound enthusiasm for exercise and healthier eating reminds me that my body is one of God’s gifts that I am obligated to care for well. I am more closely following life’s underlying rhythm of work followed by rest and back to work again—a rhythm manifest in the world God created with its bright, busy days and dark, quiet nights. Collapsing into bed to watch Law and Order is way more satisfying, and much less guilt-inducing, after a day spent using and caring for my body well than after a day of couch-potatohood and mindless snacking. And as someone for whom a daily prayer practice has always been elusive, I find that walking and swimming provide excellent opportunities to pray without distraction (as long as I leave the iPod at home).

We live in a culture that often makes idols of healthy living, perfect bodies, and blameless diets. Just as laziness and gluttony do, devotion to healthy living carries some spiritual pitfalls, such as the temptation toward self-sufficiency and the fallacy that I can be in complete control of my life’s trajectory. No matter how hard I exercise or how well I eat, I am still mortal. A healthy lifestyle may lower the risk of sickness or death from heart disease, diabetes, or certain cancers, but I could still get hit by a bus.

Yet given how my unintentional Lenten discipline bubbled up when I wasn’t looking for it, and how it is helping me better care for the gift of my body and equipping me to fulfill my vocations as mother and writer with greater strength, focus, and energy, I’m going to trust that it came from God. Lent is over, and I’m still excited to get out of bed early each morning (OK, maybe not excited…willing?) so I can work toward getting stronger and using my God-given body, flaws and all, more fully. This Lent discipline—the one I wasn’t looking for, the one I started halfway through the season instead of on Ash Wednesday—may end up being the one that sticks.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

The experience of resurrection is not guaranteed

By Paul Fromberg

Two Wednesday evenings ago, I was sitting in a restaurant with my husband Grant. It was a nice place with good food and soft lighting; a short escape from the many, many tasks of Holy Week. I’d actually spent months getting ready for all of the liturgies: revising the words, thinking about the sermons, imagining the beauty of this space. Dinner was a short respite, a bit of a reward for a hard, long slog to the resurrection. Then he said it: “I hate to ruin the surprise, but you know how the story ends? Jesus always comes out of that tomb.” It was an offhand comment by my agnostic husband that balances the mystery of the faith and the mystery of our human situation.

We think we know how the story ends. Just like the three wayward women who went to the unremarkable tomb of Jesus. They certainly knew how the story ends. When the sun finally rose and they made their way through the hushed streets of Jerusalem, outside the walls of the city to a garden-tomb, they went to mourn their dead companion and leader. And, as with all of our mourning, it wasn’t just about the loss of their dead friend; it was also about the loss of their dead hope. The future that Jesus had spelled out for them – a future where least was first and master was servant and outsider was intimate – that imagined world of Jesus was surely dead too. They had come to complete the burial of Jesus, and to begin the burial of their dream. They knew how their story ended.

I looked across the table at Grant. Dinner was over and we split a dish of ice cream. I remembered the first time we shared a meal; it was at a Passover Seder, hosted by mutual friends. And there was this dazzling man who’s energy ignited the room. And I knew how the story would end. No love for me: too many tries and too many failures and too many regulations about Episcopal clergy dating people of their own gender. So I put the dazzling image behind me. And three years later, at the same Seder meal in the same home, it happened again – the energy and hope. And there I was a decade later sharing ice cream with the same man in a city on the edge of the world.

You see, every time we think that we know the way the story ends we have to come back to the way the world actually works. Nothing is certain. Not even death. The three women at the tomb discover that instead of a slightly decaying body it contains a young man dressed in white. It’s as if he is waiting for them to trouble their certitude about life and death. “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Do not be afraid.

But we are afraid. We’re afraid of so many things, and you know what you’re afraid of, don’t you? Maybe you’re afraid that there won’t be enough money or food or water or shelter to keep you safe. Or maybe you’re afraid that there is no love for you, no hope, no joy, no future. And all of that fear is real, it just is. But it isn’t the last word. The last word is always the word of that nameless young man, awaiting a mournful clutch of women, “He is not here.” It’s both good news and challenging news for the three women. Jesus has been raised, and he no longer needs a tomb. He no longer needs the comfort and certainty of death. Which means that we no longer have need for death.

That’s hard. It’s easier to rehearse what is known then it is to go chasing after life that expands beyond our control. Jesus is not here, not in the tomb, not in death. He has gone on ahead of you. And where he goes is a place on the edge of the world neither you nor I has any control over. We can’t contain or control the life that he carries with him. We can’t delegate it to the worthy or force it on the unready, because it is the life of God that fills every life. It is like the love of God: indiscriminate and unbounded. It is life that goes everywhere and changes the ending of every story.

So the surprise of Easter is that the experience of resurrection is not guaranteed. It doesn’t just come up and grab you by the shoulders and make itself known. We have to seek it out. We have to pay attention to the world with our eyes and hearts and minds open to see that the story isn’t over yet. Like those three women at the tomb, we have to go on ahead to the place that we do not know yet, to see the one who will be found; the one who promises that our seeking will not be in vain and our stories are not determined. I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you, but the life of God poured out in Jesus Christ is over all, and in all, and through all. And it is here. Now.
Where you go from the empty tomb is your business. The life that you will find is God’s business. That is the promise of this night. You will see signs of it here, this life that floods from the empty tomb. As we called down saints and strangers to join our celebration; in a meal of bread and wine; in endless dancing and delight, we saw signs of this life. But if you want to see it in your own story you’ll have to go on to that place that lies just ahead, where the risen Jesus waits to tell you what happens next.

The surprise will astonish you.

Paul Fromberg is the rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Ash Wednesday in the streets

By Sara Miles

The afternoon looked like rain; the skies were grey, and trembling. "Hey, did you know today is Ash Wednesday?" a white hipster shouted into his phone, as I led a procession of fifteen men and women dressed in black cassocks and carrying smoking thuribles into a plaza by the subway near my home in San Francisco’s Mission District. “Yeah, no shit.” 26880_375133213594_152978483594_3787729_2857604_n.jpg

It was a year ago. Bertie Pearson, a young priest who’d been a DJ in the Mission’s coolest nightspots, had set up a makeshift altar on a black-draped card table in front of the stairs to the subway. Duct-taped to a fence behind it were two handwritten signs: Life is Very, Very, Very Short said one, and another read More Forgiveness. Our impromptu group, assembled from various neighborhood Episcopal churches, looked around a little nervously. There were a couple of priests, and a few seminarians, but most of us weren’t used to stomping through the streets in long black robes. I put more incense on the coals in my thurible. It was copal, the yellowish resin used by the Aztecs to bless the four directions of the world, and it still filled Mexican Catholic churches with the smell of prayers more ancient than Jesus. “Ready?” I asked, and then we walked around the corners of the plaza, censing east and west, north and south with clouds of smoke.

We returned to the altar and fell on our knees. “O God,” began Bertie, chanting in a serious, thin voice only partly drowned out by the buses going by, “you made us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and hope...” He lifted the baby-food jars we’d brought with us. They held the ashes of burned-up palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, when we had gathered to hail Jesus as king on the way to his death. Now bystanders were edging nearer to see what we were doing, and a seminarian with long black hair addressed everyone. “Let us kneel before the God who made us,” she said.

I knelt and pressed my forehead to the dirty sidewalk, the whole rush of my neighborhood, its crazy beauty and apparent hopelessness filling my heart. I’d walked through this plaza the day two teenage kids were shot a block away; I’d seen someone OD in the subway entrance. I’d come here busy and distracted on the way to the library with my five-year old daughter; I’d eaten tacos, chatted with beggars and laughed with friends in this place. “Lord,” I whispered, “have mercy.”

We rose. I marked Bertie, dipping a thumb into the soot. “Remember you’re dust,” I said, pressing the sign of the cross on his forehead. “And to dust you shall return.” “Amen,” said Bertie, and then I bent my head to receive the ashes from him. A curious crowd was forming around us. The priests stayed in front of the altar, waiting for people to come to them, up the escalator.

The rest of us divided into pairs—one with ashes, one with incense—and took off through the plaza. We started touching complete strangers by the dozen, the score, the hundred. We put our hands on people's foreheads, repeating over and over, in English and Spanish, “Recuerdo que eres polvo, y al polvo volverá.” I grabbed Deb, a young woman from my parish who was swinging a thurible, and set off walking up and down Mission Street, into the dollar stores, the taquerias, the parking lots and beauty salons and restaurants, offering ashes to everyone we saw.

26880_375130103594_152978483594_3787691_3006936_n.jpg We touched the foreheads of commuters, and the gang kids on the corner, and little children, and a bunch of obnoxious drunks. I was pausing to impose ashes on an older lady when some guy pulled up in a truck, put on his blinkers, and threw open the door -- "Oh! can I have those? Wait, my mom is in the back seat, can you go give her some?" Deb led me into the library, and a librarian said "I saw your sign that said forgive more. That's what I need in my life right now. I need to forgive more." At the taqueria, a cook said, "Oh...did you come because you knew we couldn't get to church, so you came to us?" Deb was transfixed. “It’s so intense,” she told me. “Whenever your fingers touch the forehead, it’s like time stops, over and over and over.” Deb stood watching, her mouth open, in the Italian bakery, as a big woman in an apron, holding a three-layer birthday cake in her arms, leaned over the counter toward me. The woman closed her eyes and said, quietly, "Please." I told her she was dust.

We walked through an alley, where a teenaged drug dealer grinned at us and lifted his cap to show the cross already marked on his forehead. “I never thought I’d be walking along the street censing trash cans and storefronts,” Deb said. “and so many people would come toward it.” I know,” I said. “I think people might want a lot more church than we generally give them.”

McDonalds was crowded with teenagers and fry cooks and families buying cheap fast food, and people reached out to us eagerly, pulling us over. A Guatemalan woman unwrapped her tiny baby, who she told me was a week and a half old, and held him up. I crossed his forehead with ashes, and took a deep breath, and told the baby he was going to die. And then his mother, like every single person who leaned forward to receive that day, said the same words: thank you.

Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that your child is going to die? Because it's the truth. People say thank you to that hard blessing because finally, despite all the lies of our culture, it means nothing is hidden, or pretend, or made-up anymore.

The truth is that we all go down to the dust. And that we are loved: to the end, and beyond. We're not alone in life or in death. And when the face of God's truth is revealed in Christ Jesus, with all its terrible suffering and beauty, you can only say what our neighbors said on Ash Wednesday: Thank you.

Sara Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry, and Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.

Remember you are dust

By Donald Schell

When my twenty-three year old son said to me, “Dad, don’t you understand that we’re the first generation that has thought we may be living in the literal end of the world?” I reminded him how my world in junior high school stopped dead as the classroom P.A. systems broadcast moment-by-moment radio reports of the last stage of the Cuban Missile crisis, the confrontation at sea between Russian and U.S. warships. I told him how the silence around the radio voice deepened as we waited World War III was about to begin, and our astonishment at the moment the Russian ships, slowed, stopped and turned back. Teachers had been instructed to ready to ‘duck and cover,’ under our desks, away from windows, and “don’t look toward the blast.”

I reminded him of the assassinations of my high school and college years - John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. And I described living with the draft and the seemingly unending war in Viet Nam hanging over our heads, and recalled for myself the feeling the bitter astonishment of Kent State, when the National Guard turned their guns on peaceful student protest.

“Josh,” I replied to him after I’d offered my bit of history, “your mom and I certainly did know the fear it all could end soon when we were your age.”

The threats around and feeling everything so fragile made me love Shakespeare’s The Tempest when I first read that play in high school. Prospero’s god-like re-ordering of the storm of chaos and malice that had engulfed him and his daughter Miranda had a Gospel/Resurrection feel to me. When Prospero’s enemies (his brother and the King of Naples), who had tried to kill him, finally understand that they’ve fallen completely under Prospero’s power, they see what they’ve done, and though expecting and fearing the worst from Prospero, are astonished that he blesses them with mercy and the good hope of a peaceful future.

And as any good comedy should, The Tempest ends with the promise of a wedding and a long and happy life for Prospero’s daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, the King of Naples kind and loving son.

In so many ways, that play was just what I needed, but it bothered me terribly that, near the end of the play, when Prospero, the God-like wielder of justice making, reconciling magic said:

…this rough magic
I here abjure… I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.

And the magician who’d undone so much evil laid aside all magic powers forever; the restorations he has accomplished will mean leaving his enchanted island to sail to ordinary home in Milan, where from this point his:

“every third thought shall be my grave"

How I regretted those lines! Times like we were living needed benevolent magic and thoughts of hope, not death.

Recently watching Julie Taymor’s haunting film where Helen Mirren plays Prospero as Miranda’s mother Prospera--I noticed something new, not in those lines, but in me, this sixty-three year old lover of the play. Have I actually become grateful that Prospero puts aside his magic? I’ve certainly come to identify with his frequent gaze ahead toward death. And I find comfort in that gaze.

Something began to shift for me when I was working in a very conflicted mission church and finding my work almost unrelentingly stressful. I discovered I could stop my mind spinning its dread of what I’d done wrong and worry for all that was left undone by recollecting the comet or meteorite that might hit the earth as it had done ending the era of the dinosaurs.

Hearing, for example, from the bishop that he’d fended off another group from the church that had come to him to get me fired for ‘all those changes’ I’d brought like the New Prayer Book and communicating young children, I could stop my spiral into feeling sorry for myself (‘I’m doing what our church has done. I’m just the messenger!’) or toward relishing my self-righteous fury at my parishioners (‘Why are they going behind my back. Do they think I’m lying when I say I want us to talk and face change together?) by reminding myself that a comet like the one that killed all the dinosaurs could hit the earth at any moment. The comet invited restored me to patience and invited forgiveness toward frightened, angry parishioners. All they or I could ever do was our faithful best, mistakes, failures and all.

Though I had grown up haunted by the double threat of ‘Left behind’ nightmares (waking to an empty sounding house and fearing Christ has come and raptured everyone I loved and I’d been left behind!) and haunting visions of nuclear holocaust, imagining a comet colliding with earth and ending life as we know it seemed simply an end, a reminder that nothing is permanent, a sort of freeing Zen koan.

But this remembering our mortality and the possibility of a sudden end of all didn’t make grief easy to feel, to comfort, or to explain. When a parishioner’s young nephew was killed in a farming accident, I was glad I could go and sit with the family. They seemed to welcome that and need the sitting more than answers.

I certainly didn’t have answers when a superb physician - one of those parishioners clergy simply feel privileged to serve - died a slow, painful death from cancer in his 50’s. I’ve cherished his deathbed vision of divine welcome that he described to me a few days before he died, “I’ve seen the welcome waiting for me, and I’m eager. It’s beautiful.” But I didn’t preach that to the crowd at his funeral.

For the funeral sermon, I simply told stories I’d heard of our physician’s love and said that the heart for that kind of care was a gift from God.

Later one Ash Wednesday, as I was nearing forty, I had another small breakthrough. That morning of marking each person’s forehead with ashes and saying the Prayer Book’s words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,’ I felt God’s mercy in those stark words and a wave of tenderness for our fragile humanity. l was blessing the finitude of people God loved beyond measure. I’ve looked forward to Ash Wednesday ever since.

Though all Lent after I first learned that it was a mercy to remember we are dust, I thought and prayed into this sense that our mortality wasn’t only tragic. I couldn’t explain just how our God-given finitude (including our boundaries of birth and death) was a gracious gift, but since then, I’ve always heard “remember you are dust,” as genuine Good News.

A few years later, I knew I couldn’t grasp the mind of God or find blessing in the too early deaths of my wife’s parents, too young in their sixties and just three years apart. We found no answer except to feel the reality of their loss to us.

The more deeply we’re grieving, the less grace there seems to be in answers about afterlife or what it all means. So I’m also grateful for the ashes the Prayer Book gives us at the graveside:

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother ; and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.”

What is our Christian hope? Yes, I love that prayer and there’s obviously more to talk about and some specifically Christian hope to proclaim – whatever we mean by Jesus’ resurrection and whatever it’s got to do with our own death and resurrection. So, there’s plenty more to talk about, but for now, I hope others will write in response more simply

– just how do we live in hope? and
- where do we find grace in death or meet God in our mortality?

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

The Light of Imagination

By Bill Harkins

“The people who walked in the darkness have seen a great light.”
Isaiah 9:2

During Epiphany, the season of light, we hear the story of the Magi who, after seeing the Christ child, go home by another way. What does it mean to have taken a journey and looked at the face of God? What became of them when they returned to their homes? How were their lives different and how are our lives different, after we encounter the light of Christ? How might this stir our imaginations here, and now, in our ministries?

Images of light invite wonder. Epiphany occurs just as we observe the winter solstice, that point at which the earth’s axial tilt away from the sun begins to nod back in the direction of light, and warmth. In festivals all over the world people celebrate the return of light, and the harvest it will bring. Neuroscience tells us that the human eye is capable of detecting a single photon—the smallest unit of measurable light.

The evening after our recent winter solstice, my running buddies and I put on our headlamps for a night trail run. As we prepared to bear our lights into the darkness of the woods, I thought about how often in pastoral encounters we enter different kinds of spaces—sometimes spaces of darkness, pain, and ambiguity—and seek to be bearers of light. As we ran on familiar, yet mysterious trails, I found myself filled with anticipation and hope. It may be hope that leads us to seek the light, and bear it into the darkness, with imagination.

Donald Winnicott, the British psychiatrist, believed that the “potential space” between baby and primary caregivers expanded to include the space between child and family, individual and society, and finally the entire world. Within this “transitional” space we may engage in creative living. For Winnicott, the loss of imagination was a diagnostic marker, just as the restoration of the capacity to creatively engage the world indicated a return to wholeness—and to one’s “true self.” Winnicott referred to this potential space as “sacred.” Here one has a capacity to live as creative, “fully alive” human beings. Here, we have a sense of wonder about ourselves and the world.

Pastoral theologians expanded this to include that space between oneself and God. Ann Bedford Ulanov has suggested that the goal of life is to “play before God, as human beings fully alive and showing forth in their playfulness the glory of God.” We can bring to bear upon liturgy, preaching, mission, and pastoral care our imaginative engagement with whatever we find—and co-create, in those “potential spaces.”

T.S. Eliot’s’ poem “The Journey of the Magi” asks some of these same questions about “transitional spaces” and imagination. I find myself connecting with the very human side of their journey. “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,” Eliot writes, “But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”

Like the Magi, we cannot go back home the same way we came. No, nor is home as it was, because we have changed. The light becomes part of us. We, too, search for signs of hope and reconciliation and find that search to have led us to this place and time, amidst the ordinary and mundane. Similarly, W.H. Auden suggests that Epiphany has more to do with the confrontation of the emptiness in late winter than with holiday festivities in December. This seems a cautionary—and deeply honest—reading. Auden’s poem “For the Time Being,” “…evokes the period in which we all live…the flat stretches of our lives which never quite measures up to the Christian ideals or Hollywood portrayals.” Auden writes, “As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility, once again we have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant.”

On the night of our solstice run we were entranced by the mystery of familiar terrain, at an unfamiliar time, and by the simple act of bearing light into the darkness. The trail seemed transformed. In a way, so were we. Orion and the Pleiades whirled and blazed above us in the night sky. The ordinary seemed wonder-full, and the moon illuminated the forest of pine, oak, and beech. The trees seemed luminescent in the cove where we paused alongside a lovely singing stream. We ran in silence, the woods mysterious in the penumbral glow of our headlamps. Our sense of imagination was alive again. Suddenly, on an uphill stretch we saw first one, then two, then twenty other headlamp bearing runners, lighting the darkness—fellow sojourners on the trail, each bringing his or her light into the mystery of that night. This is so often how it goes. We think we are alone, and the new way home will be lonely, only to discover that following a star, in hope, has opened up a whole new world of community. Perhaps the other road home is as close by as our openness to imagination. As Gaston Bachelard said so well, “space seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space.”

It requires pastoral imagination to participate in the good work of redeeming today, with gratitude. In the everydayness of our lives the Word Made Flesh graces us. The self-deception that masks our anxiety and fear—just as it did for Herod—can be transcended by imagination. Finitude is precisely where God seeks us out and finds us, and the Incarnation reminds us that nothing human is alien to God. In the light of imagination we notice the gratitude in the eyes of a homeless woman as we serve her food; or the light in the tears of a loved one who can only mouth the words “thank you,” as you bathe and shave him; or the sadness mixed with hope as one anoints a dying man on a dark winter day. With imagination, we look for and pay attention to the light of Christ in the other, and ourselves. As the poet Mary Oliver said “Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, ‘Stay Awhile.’ The light flows from their branches. And they call out again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say ‘and you, too, have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.’” Epiphany blessings!

Bill Harkins lives in Atlanta, where he teaches pastoral theology at Columbia Seminary, and maintains a private practice in pastoral counseling and marriage and family therapy.. He is a priest associate at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip.

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On being too at home in the world

By Bill Carroll

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
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 testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

John 1:1-18

In the aftermath of our celebrations sacred and profane, I'll like to begin with some words from W.H. Auden's Christmas Oratorio:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

If there's a critique of the Episcopal Church that ought to worry us a bit, it's that we are far too at home in the moderate Aristotelian city of which Auden speaks. Auden writes as a Roman Catholic, but he is also an Englishman, and his words cut deep for any who espouse an earthy Incarnationalism with a strong dose of common sense. Later in the same poem, he even says that we are tempted to pray that God would "Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."

Too often, our ethics and worldview are determined by the surrounding culture, from which we borrow uncritically. Worldliness is both the glory and the shame of our tradition. We do believe--and ought to believe--that the Gospel is relevant to our workaday world. We rightly want to bring the whole of who we are into church, and we don't want ever to settle for the duplicity of believing one thing on Sunday and quite another the rest of the week. But do we really believe that the Word became flesh, simply to leave us as we are?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, reflecting on this very problem, insists that "There is in the Anglican identity a strong element of the tragic, of the dark night and the frustration of theory and order by the strangeness of God's work." [Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (Cowley, 2003), p. 6.]

Since the Second World War at least but beginning earlier (on the Continent this began earlier, in response to the First World War, but it arguably seeped into English-language theology more slowly), our theologians have struggled to come to terms with the darkness afoot in the world--to develop a theology of the Cross that complements our basic optimism about human nature grounded in the doctrine of the imago dei and the related mystery of the Incarnation. [See Arthur Michael Ramsey, An Era in Anglican Theology: From Gore to Temple (Scribner's, 1960)].

In more recent years, this has walked hand in hand with postmodern critiques of the easy optimism of the Enlightenment. No longer is it possible to believe that "we" stand at the summit of a long period of cultural evolution. Even those of us who refuse to buy in to the nihilism and relativism of some forms of the postmodern project are chastened by its critique. We are caught up short by an awareness of suppressed voices--women, minorities, the poor--that are only recently beginning to claim their rightful place in the conversation. And we have a much more complex relationship to the pre-modern past and forms of knowing and doing bound up with story, tradition, and ritual than seemed possible to many of us in so-called modern times.

And so we cannot assume--Could we ever?--that an easy harmony exists between Christ and culture. Or that culture itself is a harmonious whole [see Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture, Fortress Press, 1997]. The Logos may be one and the same wherever he is found, but we are called to have a more difficult and critical conversation [see David Tracy, especially The Analogical Imagination, Crossroad, 1981], to see what truth is being disclosed where.

This leaves open the possibility that the Word may come to us, as he did to our ancestors, as a prophetic and confrontational Word--or as a Word of promise we could never have anticipated or prepared for. We may participate fully in the joys and problems of the Aristotelian City but never on its own terms. For whatever provisional value the earthly City may have, and whatever truths our life there may reveal, our true home lies in Jerusalem. For the sake of the world, we have been called out as God's Covenant People.

And so today, we rejoice with the prophet. For we too have been clothed with the robes of righteousness and garments of salvation. And the dwelling of God is with mortals--indeed, it is in our very flesh.

From the beginning, God has been preparing creation for this joy. We were created for communion with God. And, though our constant disobedience and persistent rejection of God's mercy led us deeper and deeper into sin, God never abandoned his intention to dwell in our midst.

God did not, as with the angels and the prophets who came before, send a messenger. But God sent his own Son--God from God, light from light, true God from true God. God sent one and the same Word who lives forever in the bosom of the Father, to be born for us of Mary. And though the world he made did not receive him, to those who received him he gave power to become God's children.

In so doing, God took up the cause of lost and fallen humanity. [See Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1]. No longer does God present us with an impossible demand from the outside. Rather, God keeps the Covenant from within.

As we engage with the earthly City, having seen his glory and still aglow with his reflected light, we are "no longer at ease" with the poverty, hostility, and violence we find there.

For the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

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

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 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.

Christ, the king

By Bill Carroll

“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:11-20)

"They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed."

Words from a talking beaver in a children's story. The author of the story, Clive Staples Lewis, taught at Oxford and Cambridge and was a devout layman in the Church of England. He was perhaps the twentieth century's most popular Christian apologist. This year, the Church observed his feast day on the day after Christ the King Sunday.

The beaver, we are about to discover at this point in the story, is speaking of the coming King. In a climate of intimidation and fear, he dares to confess out loud the name of Aslan the lion, the true King and the Son of the Emperor beyond the sea. The magical world of Narnia has come under the spell of the white witch, who styles herself its queen and keeps it in bondage, so that it is always winter but never Christmas.

In the depth of this winter, the repeated refrain "Aslan is on the move" grows in power as a conspiratorial whisper of hope. Lewis goes on to describe the stirring effect these words have on the four children, who have travelled to Narnia through the wardrobe. One of them, Edmund, has already fallen under the witch's spell:

“And now a very curious thing happened.. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again.

“It was like that now. At the name Aslan, each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

Summer indeed! As the King and Savior draws nigh, the snow begins to melt. The long shadow over Narnia and its inhabitants, embodied in the figure of the white witch, begins to lose its fearsome power.

True, she still will have her hour. In her, all the hatred of the world will come to focus on Aslan, as he is sacrificed on the stone table. Later in the book, Aslan is bound and muzzled when hands himself over to be killed in Edmund's place. But then, gloriously rising from the dead, he dispels the darkness once and for all.

Now, it should be obvious enough that this is no mere children's story. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a clear allegory for the Gospel, with deep roots in the real world. The novel was written in 1949, and it begins with four English schoolchildren fleeing London during the Blitz. And it is not hard to see echoes of the Nazi occupation of much of Europe in the way in which the white queen's winter spreads like a cancer through the land. In the middle of the darkest night of human history, Lewis suggests, Christ remains the Lord of history, the one ruler of all. All things are created through him and for him. And, on the cross, he has triumphed over evil.

What would it mean, this coming Advent season, if we made today's collect our own, whispering it like the refrain from the story: "Aslan is on the move"? What if, in the depths of our hearts, we began to discern the distant rumblings of the coming King of Kings, the mighty Lion of the House of Judah? What if we believed with fervent hope that, even here and now, it is God's will to restore all things in Christ? What if we asked that he would mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, were set free and brought together under his most gracious rule?

We stand, brothers and sisters, on the threshold of the Church's season of preparation. Advent is a time to cleanse our hearts and realign them with God’s loving purpose. It's a time to confess the deep darkness that divides and enslaves us. But unlike Lent, that other penitential season, the accent here is on the hope that God has set before us and the mighty movement of God's sovereign mercy. For, just beyond the horizon, Christ has landed. And we have heard the rumor of an imminent liberation from all that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.

We see this at work whenever we baptize people into Christ’s Body the Church. In the liturgy of Holy Baptism, we witness the threefold renunciation of evil and the grace-filled turning to Jesus as Savior and Lord. We also renew the promises of our own baptism. What would it mean for these promises and this grace to take root in us today?

First, it would mean that, in a world ruled by violence, we become instruments of the peace of Christ. For since he prays for his enemies--and indeed dies for them— in Christ, we've already been set free from the hostility that reigns within us. Already, we’ve been set free from the long, sad legacy of Cain. Though it may be hard to see in a world still at war, Jesus has broken the cycle of violence.

Second, it would mean that in a world ruled by greed, where everything seems to have its price, we become agents of a boundless generosity measured by God's abundance and Christ's self-giving for the life of the world. Though it may be hard to see as we are at once battered by an economy beyond our control and seduced by its glittering, contrived fantasies, all sovereignty belongs to the poor and naked Savior, who hangs suffering between two thieves. Jesus has overcome the deadly power of Mammon.

And lastly, it would mean that in a world ruled by fear, we become vessels of his burning love. Love that believes all things, hopes all things, and dares all things for Christ the King. For, even here and now, the risen Lord is with us. And he has poured the Spirit of love into our hearts, casting out all fear. Jesus and his love have in fact won the final victory over death.

As we await his coming, may this love consume us.

For, yes indeed, Christ is on the move.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

John Henry Newman and the bending and shaping of church history

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week. This is the second of two articles on John Henry Newman.

By Benjamin King

When Pope Benedict XVI beatifies John Henry Newman on September 19, 2010, it will be the highest point to date in the rocky relationship of the nineteenth-century Englishman with the papacy.

Newman’s final elevation to sainthood is already in the works, only awaiting confirmation by the Vatican that a second miracle has occurred through his intercession. It is not my place to comment on the sanctification process, but I do know that Newman’s writings reveal a scholar who bent church history and reshaped his writings to please the popes of his own day.

Perhaps he was saintly, but Newman’s image and writings also were the work of his own careful manipulation. And he needed to manipulate them because he received such a frosty reception in his adopted Roman Catholic Church.

Newman in his youth was a major figure in the Church of England. He was the main leader of the Oxford Movement, where he and others articulated a renewed Catholicism, within the Church of England and across the Anglican Communion, founded upon the Church Fathers and High Church divines.

This new Anglo-Catholicism, as Newman called it, was violently anti-Rome. In fact, Newman’s fiery criticism of “Romanism” meant that, when he converted in 1845, he was disliked and distrusted by his adopted Church. Seminary professors in Rome, where he went to retrain for the priesthood, challenged his views of church doctrine. One Roman bishop in England charged him with heresy after Newman’s 1859 article “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” gave prominence to the laity, at the expense of bishops, in the job of upholding the orthodox faith.

Newman knew the pope and others in Rome were suspicious of him, so he shifted his views on doctrine to disarm them. One can trace this in Newman’s slippery use of the Alexandrian Fathers, the early Egyptian theologians who helped determine the content of the New Testament and the Creeds.

Newman quoted, re-quoted and even deliberately misquoted these early authorities of Christianity. By the 1870s Newman was interpreting the Alexandrian Fathers to say just what the new pope, Leo XIII, wanted to hear. It was Pope Leo who made the extraordinary gesture of elevating Newman from obscurity at the Birmingham Oratory in England to the position of cardinal in 1879.

The historian Sir John (later Lord) Acton was one Roman Catholic contemporary who saw what was happening to Newman. Shortly after Newman was made cardinal, Acton realized that Newman had become an “Ultramontane,” one who recognizes papal precedence over local church authority.

Acton’s accusation that Newman had lurched to the right, looking to Rome for leadership, upsets modern Catholics who claim Newman’s 1859 article “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” was a forerunner of the Church’s 1960s reforms at the Second Vatican Council. Acton was correct, though, for Newman put into the mouths of Church Fathers such as Athanasius words that would please prevailing papal views.

In the 1870s Newman re-edited his earlier works and removed words that might upset the authorities. Newman added a self-defense to “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” and clarified what exactly the history of the Alexandrian Church showed: “it was by the faithful people, under the lead of Athanasius and the Egyptian bishops, and in some places supported by their Bishops or priests, that the worst of heresies was withstood or stamped out of the sacred territory.”

In this heavily edited version of the 1859 article, bishops now “lead” the opposition to heresy – Newman learned that from experience when the Bishop of Newport had the article investigated for heresy! In the later version, priests were united with the laity and Newman omitted his quotation from St. Hilary of Poitiers that the ears of the laity were holier than the hearts of the priests!

Today Newman’s writings still present the pope with what he wants to hear, which is upsetting those Catholics who think the Church’s hierarchy is co-opting him for the conservative cause.

In spite of those who claim Newman was a democratizing figure within the Church – the great defender of individual conscience – the conservative Pope Benedict thinks “It was from Newman that we learned to understand the primacy of the Pope.” For when individual conscience cannot decide on doctrinal truth about God, Newman said the infallible Church was there to decide for him.

Newman’s beatification has led to a battle among English Roman Catholics today over what his legacy should be. Some even argue that Newman should not be beatified, in accordance with his own wishes. The historian John Cornwell has recently shown that Newman wanted to be buried in rich compost that would rapidly decompose his remains to prevent any possibility of a cult of his relics. Cornwell quotes Newman’s own words: “I have no tendency to be a saint – it is a sad thing to say so. Saints are not literary men...”

These words were typical of the convert Newman’s lack of self-confidence. As a Roman Catholic, Newman thought of himself as a literary man or as a historian rather than as a “theologian,” let alone a potential saint. Theologians were those learned in Latin methods; Newman did not think his years as an Anglican studying the primarily Greek doctrine of the Fathers qualified him.

He even turned down an invitation in 1870 to attend the First Vatican Council because, as he told his friend, “really and truly I am not a theologian.” Newman privately thought the First Vatican Council’s pronouncement of papal infallibility would set back the cause of Roman Catholicism in England. And when he wrote on the subject, he gave a minimalist account of the occasions in which popes spoke infallibly.

Fascinatingly, the bishop who arranged for his invitation to the Council was the same Bishop of Newport who accused him of heresy ten years earlier. Before the Council, Newman was also told that Pope Pius IX now thought favorably of his writings. What had changed the hierarchy’s mind?

Much had to do with the success of Newman’s autobiographical Apologia, first published in 1864 in reply to Charles Kingsley’s attack on his honesty. Newman garnered sympathy among the British public not only for himself but for Roman Catholicism too. The year 1867 also saw the end of Newman’s investigation for heresy. Rome was pleased at last.

But the Apologia is another of Newman’s artful constructions. In it he claimed that he was led to Roman Catholicism by following his conscience and by reading the Church Fathers. On the contrary, having been hounded out of the Church of England by those who saw him as a closet Roman, Newman looked to the Fathers for an after-the-fact justification for his conversion.

One can still be moved by the Apologia’s elegant prose and passionate defense of the faith handed down to us. But its reworking of Newman’s personal history is consonant with his manipulation of the Church’s history; in both instances the reward for his craft was the same – papal approval.

Those who see Newman as the Father of Vatican II can make a good case from “On Consulting the Faithful.” But an equally good case can be made for Newman’s trimming his sails to please the pope. Those who see him as a defender of conscience have cause, but so do those who see him as an upholder of papal magisterium.

Where Newman could control his self-presentation in life, he cannot control it in death. Given that he spoke with different voices during his life, it is no surprise the Roman Catholic Church is divided over his legacy in death. But these difficulties no longer concern Anglicans.

Benjamin King is Assistant Professor of Church History at the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee and author Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers (Oxford University Press). An extended version of this article will appear in the next Sewanee Theological Review.

Well, I do declare!

By Greg Jones

"I Do Declare." "Well, I declare." "Well, I do de-clay-uh.”

This is the stereotypical Southern phrase, no matter the exact parsing. Of course, in my many years in Virginia and North Carolina, I'm not sure I've actually heard anyone say it -- except for actors and folks pretending to talk 'Southern'.

On my favorite show The Office, the main character pretended to be a Southerner in one episode, and he said, "Well, I do Declayah" over and over again.

Of course, it's not just a stereotypical Southern phrase, it's British as well. For centuries, English priests, professors and government workers all had to swear allegiance and declare the supremacy of the English Crown in all matters.

The oath began ... "I do declare that no foreign prince, person, prelate, states or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm. So help me God, etc."

And this should come as no surprise, because the English concept of Kingdom was built upon belief not only in the divine right of kings, but in the sacred power of oaths -- of allegiance, loyalty, supremacy, and so on.

In the medieval mind, the bonds between lord and servant, between Crown and Mitre, between God and King, were all forged in the power of uttered promises. Sacred oaths.

These ideas predate the Middle Ages in fact, and, have survived into the present -- a good bit anyway. Our country was born in just such a declaration ... when the signers pledged to each other their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in solemnly publishing and declaring independence from the crown.

Yes, I still believe in oaths and promises and declarations.

I think when we say, “I do declare that…” or “I believe…” or “I will with God’s help…” we a bit of magic happens.

In my view the words we use in oaths and vows are life-changing, life-defining, and life-affirming; and those magic words have a life of their own.

A promise. An oath. A Declaration. These are not just words. These are logoi ... proclamations ... utterances ... made not of letters, but of souls.

In Acts, the Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus Christ gathered in his name. The sacred wind, the designing fire of the cosmos, lights them up, and they speak. Not murmur. Not hub-bub. Not babble. No, they speak ... in language ... about God.

They're declaring about who God is, and what God wants, and how God is going to speak through everybody to everybody.

This isn't talk-is-cheap-talk. No this is Utterance. As the literal translation of Acts 2.4 says, “They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

This word for utterance here in Greek is rare (only in the Bible three times total; and all in Acts.) The word has to do with speech that bursts forth from inside a volcano ... an eruption ... a declaration.

The Spirit of God gave them utterance, so the truths of God could burst forth from within them to be testified and heard all around them.

Can you speak the Truth? Can I?

What are you talking about in your life? What sort of speaking are you doing? Is it all conversation? Or survival? Or fellowship? Or interrogative? Or rhetorical? That’s all well and good, the speech of everyday life is what it is.

Birds whistle, dogs bark, and people talk, talk, talk. But, let me ask you: Have you anything to declare? Is the Holy Spirit of God setting your brain and heart on fire with love for God and neighbor and self? Has the Spirit of God given you utterance? I think so.

I think the Spirit of God has been poured out on all of us who call on Jesus; and we have within us words which need to bubble out and forward and around.

These words, these declarations, make up our life together in community where God speaks to us and through us.

The Spirit of God is so real, friends, and this wise lady of Scripture does declare. What part of her declaration of independence from sin and death is bursting forth within you to be uttered?

What do you declare?

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

It's not easy being green

By Adam Thomas

Every February of my college years, the entire student body suffered from a mass case of seasonal affective disorder. The campus of Sewanee is one of the top five most beautiful spots on the planet, but the beauty of the Domain was difficult to appreciate during that dreadful month. What neophytes mistook for simple fog, veterans of Sewanee winters knew was in reality a low-hanging raincloud that hovered over the campus, sapping students of the will to do anything besides curl up under a blanket and nap. The weather lasted for weeks, and when the sun finally broke through the clinging barrier, we students discovered our vigor once again, as if by some sudden leap in evolution, we had developed the ability to photosynthesize.

A version of this same seasonal affective disorder hits Episcopalians every year within a few weeks of Pentecost. We look out over the vast expanse of the upcoming liturgical calendar, and we see nearly a month of Sundays with seemingly no variation, with nothing peculiar to distinguish one day from the next. It’s a sea of green, and without the concurrence of wedding season, the Altar Guild would forget where the paraments are stored.

We call it the season after Pentecost – even the designation gives it the sound of an afterthought. At first glance, those legendary church year framers seem to have measured the year wrong. They only programmed six months! What’s there to do with the rest, those twenty-odd Sundays after Pentecost that stretch on interminably during the dog days of summer and into the heart of autumn? Truly, we blanch at the long months and wonder if the Holy Spirit has enough juice in those Pentecost batteries to get us to the first Sunday of Advent.

The other liturgical seasons are nice and short; indeed, no other season creeps into double digits. Epiphany gets the closest, sometimes reaching as high as nine (watch out 2011!), but it can’t quite get there. And the short seasons always (and satisfyingly) lead somewhere: Advent moves to Christmas Day; Christmas season to the Epiphany; Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday; Lent to Easter Day; Easter season to Pentecost. Each season is like crossing a river or lake to the next feast or fast on the other side. But the season after Pentecost is an ocean, and Christ the King Sunday is in the next hemisphere.

So what do we do to combat the spiritual lethargy that can result from so many Sundays of unvarying green vestments? Well, we could try to split it into more liturgical seasons. So, starting with the Sunday after Pentecost, we’d have the season of the Trinity until mid-August. Then, beginning on August 15th, we’d have the season of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the end of September. Then, we’d have Michaelmas until Advent. There: three more manageable seasons for us modern people with our tweet-sized attention spans.

While this divvying up of the calendar has a certain appeal (especially to all the Anglo-Catholics reading this), I doubt the Church would go for it. So, where does that leave us? Our churches are still stuck in six months of monotonous green! The seasonal affective disorder will attack. Parishioners will fall away! (I know, I know – mostly because of summer holidays, but just go with me on this whole long liturgical season thing.)

Instead of lamenting the six months of green, let’s use the green season to our advantage. Don’t completely shut down program for the summer. Rather, take your cue from the liturgical color. Spend time each week or each month discussing how both the church and the individual can become more environmentally friendly. Devote education time to the intersection between theology and environmental sustainability. Set goals for the parish to meet by the end of the season after Pentecost to reduce consumption. Go paperless for the entire season to cut down on waste. Move service times to earlier in the day and turn off the A/C. Encourage people to bike to church or carpool. Have a light bulb changing party and replace all the lights with CFLs (the curlicue ones). Check out websites like for more ideas.

By taking positive steps to live into God’s pronouncement that we are stewards of creation and by staying active through the long days of the season after Pentecost, we can stave off that seasonal affective disorder. Even when the liturgical color hasn’t changed in four months, each Sunday is still a celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. Every Sunday we worship God, who through the Word brought all creation into being. The best way to praise God for that mighty creative act is by preserving it so countless generations to come can also praise God for God’s creation.

It’s a good thing the Green Season is so long. There sure is a lot to do.

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

Restoring the Rite of Sprinkling

By Derek Olsen

The season of Easter represents a liturgical season in full flower, often literally as well as figuratively. There are a number of special liturgical items that appear only in the Great Fifty Days. One of my favorites is one that didn’t make it into the Prayer Book—and I’ve never really understood why not.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer consistently highlights the place of Baptism within the Christian life. In comparison with prior prayer books and with earlier liturgical traditions, Baptism is restored to equality with Eucharist as the two great sacraments given to us by Christ in the Gospels, the two Dominical Sacraments. Given this focus, I’m mystified why we’ve never chosen to incorporate the Rite of Sprinkling, a standard feature of the western historic liturgy which, by means of the celebrant sprinkling the congregation with blessed water before the start of the service proper, serves as a reminder of Baptism at the beginning of a festal Eucharist.

During most of the year, the Rite of Sprinkling is accompanied by a chant known as the Asperges me (“Cleanse me”) which quotes Psalm 51, and makes reference to both our Baptismal cleansing and our on-going need for God’s cleansing grace. Within the Easter season, though, the proper chant is the Vidi aquam (“I saw water”)—and this is the text I’d like to turn to today.

The Vidi aquam is a brief chant that derives its power not just by what it says but where it comes from and from interconnections generally left unspoken. Like many of the traditional chants at Eucharist, it consists of an antiphon paired with a psalm verse:

Antiphon: I saw water proceeding out of the temple, from the right side thereof, alleluia;
And all people, wherever the waters shall come, shall be healed, and all shall say, alleluia, alleluia.
Ps 118:1: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and will be forever. Amen.
Antiphon (repeated): I saw water proceeding out of the temple, from the right side thereof, alleluia;
And all people, wherever the waters shall come, shall be healed, and all shall say, alleluia, alleluia.

The antiphon gives us one level of meaning because of where in Scripture it is drawn and the biblical events that it recalls. A second level of meaning is added when we consider the Church’s interpretation of the verse and its application to Christ. A third level appears as the antiphon interacts with the psalm. A fourth level of meaning—and the last I’ll discuss here but hardly the last level of meaning—occurs as this chant relates to the ritual action that occurs while it is being sung.

The antiphon text is a paraphrase that hits some key points in Ezekiel 47:1-12. I’ve always had a fantasy that Ezekiel was the major prophet who, when he was in high school, would have been voted “most likely to use hallucinogenic drugs.” In the words of one commentator, Ezekiel is characterized by “bizarre visions and equally bizarre behavior.” Given his strange behavior, his contemporaries may well have judged him prophetic by reason of insanity—if this were the case, however, the most likely cause would be post-traumatic stress due to the harrowing events through which he lived. Although Ezekiel was a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, his prophetic ministry took place far away in Babylon where he was taken after the first Babylonian capture of Jerusalem in 597 BC. Despite his religious and political warnings, a second revolt in 587 BC caused both Jerusalem and his beloved Temple to be burned to the ground and utterly destroyed by the vengeful armies of Babylon and its allies.

Ezekiel’s book falls rather neatly into three sections. Chapters 1-24 are generally prophecies of doom warning the inhabitants of Jerusalem what will happen if they don’t get their act together; clearly these date before the second disastrous revolt. Chapters 25-32 are oracles against foreign nations. Chapters 33-48 are from the period after the destruction of Jerusalem. Whereas the earlier prophecies were dire warnings, this section communicates God’s intention to save and restore the people of Israel. The capstone of this section is chapters 40-48 where an angel leads the prophet on a visionary tour of a newly restored and rebuilt Jerusalem dominated by a grander, rebuilt, Temple where the glory of the Lord once more settles. At the center of this vision is a stream of water that pours out of the Holy of Holies, flows out of the east side of the Temple, increasing as it goes, bringing life and flourishing to all it touches and—in a grand reversal of the natural state of things—turns the Dead Sea into a living sea filled with fish of all kinds and bounded by forests of fruiting trees and plants with supernatural powers of sustenance and healing. The water of the river of God recreates Eden in what was formerly desolate desert.

Theologically, Ezekiel’s vision is a prediction of the restoration of Israel as a religious community. More than that, though, it connects the restoration of the Temple to the restoration of the Land. Ezekiel’s vision may begin conceptually with a straightforward simile—the presence of God is like cleansing and life-giving water in the desert –but the vision creates a metaphor that, in its color and luster, transcends the banality of the simile, raising it to a new and more vibrant key. Recalling this stream, the antiphon then speaks with new freshness:

Antiphon: I saw water proceeding out of the temple, from the right side thereof, alleluia; And all people, wherever the waters shall come, shall be healed, and all shall say, alleluia, alleluia.

A second level of meaning is introduced, though, if we notice the choice of words in the antiphon. Ezekiel had been using a lot of architectural figures and language in his visionary tour, and states several times that the water comes from the east side. At one point there is a clarification on the water’s direction which is rendered by the Vulgate and the King James as proceeding from “the right side of the Temple” which most modern English versions choose to translate as “the south side of the Temple.” (The Hebrew word can take both meanings.) We tend to apply fixed-direction words like “south” to buildings while relative-direction words like “right” are dependent upon how a person stands. Or hangs.

Many times in the New Testament, Jesus—and the Church as his mystical Body—is identified with the New Temple (see Matt 26:61, John 2:19-22, 1 Cor 3:16, Rev 21:22, and that’s just a start). Given this identification, early Christian interpreters could not fail to find in Ezekiel’s vision a direct connection with John 19:34 where blood and water flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus. While John is not explicit about what this flow means, the same interpreters traditionally understood it sacramentally, most often connecting the blood and water to Baptism. (See, for example, the third verse of the Pange Lingua, hymn 165 and 166 in our hymnal.) Thus, the antiphon’s summary of Ezekiel can equally be understood as a reference to the sacramental healing flood that flowed from Christ himself on the cross.

When the words of the antiphon are overlaid with John’s story, the theological meaning deepens. The Christian interpretation asserts that Ezekiel’s vision has been fulfilled in the incarnation of Christ and that the religious community has been refigured in all those who have been given new life through God’s sacramental waters. Our Baptism has cleansed us and healed us. And the antiphon’s original Latin phrase for “be healed” (salvi facti sunt) can equally be translated as “be saved.” Truly, we are saved by God’s grace in our Baptism and incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ which is the Church. In Baptism, we become the people who shall say alleluia.

A third level of meaning is introduced by the psalm verse. This passage may come across as almost commonplace—but I suggest that’s part of the point. This phrase extolling the goodness of God, and especially its final refrain, “his mercy endures for ever” is one of the most repeated liturgical phrases in the Bible. However, it particularly appears at the dedications of temples: it punctuated worship at the Davidic establishment of the Tabernacle in Jerusalem (1 Chr 16:34), at the dedication of the first Temple (2 Chr 5:13), and at the laying of the foundation of the second Temple (Ezra 3:11). The implication by its use here is that each Christian gathering stands in continuity with the on-going worship of God. Just as God’s mercy endures for ever, so the community gathered in God’s sight endures as a by-product of that mercy. As the antiphon joins the psalm verse, the ideas of restoration, cleansing, salvation and the praise of God by the covenant community meld together:

Antiphon: I saw water proceeding out of the temple, from the right side thereof, alleluia;
And all people, wherever the waters shall come, shall be healed, and all shall say, alleluia, alleluia.

Ps 118:1: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.

A fourth level of meaning cements the sacramental image as the ritual act is combined with the chant. The priest uses water, either the very water blessed in Baptisms or water blessed with similar words, to sprinkle the congregation with a device called an aspergillium which looks a bit like an asparagus even though the words are etymologically unrelated. (Plant branches are sometimes used too; my fellow writer Sam Candler prefers Atlanta’s dogwood branches over the more traditional hyssop.) The relationship between the water flowing from the Temple, the water flowing from Christ, and the water flowing from the font are inextricably linked. In the hurled water droplets, the Vidi aquam becomes a tangible as well as an auditory reminder that Easter is our preeminent Baptismal season where we celebrate our own inclusion into the covenant community.

While the Rite of Sprinkling fails to appear in the present Book of Common Prayer, it is not without its fans in the Episcopal Church. Anglo-Catholics, of course, have continued its use for years but its connection with the church’s recovery of Baptismal theology has not gone unnoticed. Even that most Protestant of liturgical guides, Howard Galley’s Ceremonies of the Eucharist, commends its use during the Easter season. Whether your community chooses to use it or not, I commend the Vidi aquam to you in this season of Easter as a sacramental reminder of the enduring love of the God who invites us through Baptism to share in his own resurrection 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 name of the Day

By Christopher L. Webber

Years ago there was a retired priest in the parish I served who had strong opinions. Fr. T. T, Butler was a big man with a big voice with which to express his opinions and one subject on which he felt strongly was the phrase “Easter Sunday.” “It’s EASTER DAY!” he would roar; “What else would it be but Sunday?” I don’t know whether I had been aware before that of the fact that the Prayer Book title for the day is not the one commonly used in our society and that there is a reason for it. As the 1979 Prayer Book makes abundantly clear, Easter Day is not just a Sunday but rather THE DAY on which the whole year centers.

I thought of old Fr. Butler earlier this year when, in filling in the Annual Parochial Report, I noticed that it asked me to report attendance for “Easter Sunday.” What have we come to, I thought, when our National Office asks us to report on a day that isn’t in the Prayer Book? But I was busy, so I crossed out the “Sun” and filled in the number and sent it in. I doubt that anyone noticed.

More recently, I looked at the local paper in Holy Week and found display ads for six Episcopal churches in our area. Not one of them announced “Easter Day.” Five were planning a service for “Easter Sunday” and one for “Easter.” Fr. Butler’s roar echoed in my mind and I decided to see what shape the church is in. I checked out the fourteen churches of our local Deanery and found seven web sites with no information about their service schedule for Holy Week and Easter, three listings for Easter Sunday, three listing simply “Easter,” and only one for Easter Day.

Looking still further, I conducted a very unscientific analysis of 25 web sites, culled at random from 22 states and 25 dioceses ranging from Alaska to Alabama and Vermont to San Diego. A simply majority (13) would have offended Fr. Butler by listing services for “Easter Sunday,” while nine, a distinctly minority showing, conformed to the Prayer Book and T. T. Butler. Two said simply “Easter” and one used the scarce, alternative Prayer Book title, “The Sunday of the Resurrection.”

Fr. Butler, I am sure, would have deplored these findings, and surely it is a sadness that so many churches let pass the opportunity to stress the uniqueness of this central feast day. How is it that so many have failed to notice or conform to the Book of Common Prayer? “A minor technicality,” some may scoff; “Why waste time on trivia?” Ah, but wasn’t the church better off when we chose sides on such titles and trivia rather than whether to belong to the Episcopal Church at all?

The Rev. Christopher L. Webber, the author of a number of books about the Episcopal Church and Beyond Beowulf, the first-ever sequel to Beowulf, has recently become Vicar of St. Paul's Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

Some Musings on Psalm 51

By Kathleen Staudt

On most days in Lent this year my prayers have included Psalm 51, the penitential psalm, and various parts of it have been resonating for me. Some fresh insight seems to be coming as I pause over the verses late in the psalm:

Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, But you take no delight in burnt offerings The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51: 17-18)

I haven’t been sure what I meant, praying this psalm, by “sacrifice,” but an article I’ve run across just lately by Orthodox theologican Andrew Schmemann has opened this up to me in ways that will probably carry my meditations through much of the rest of Lent. Here are some directions that meditation is taking.

Schmemann resists the western notion of sacrifice as a legalistic “satisfaction” of an unpaid debt – something offered to make up for sins or to earn forgiveness – or to satisfy the anger of a sinned-against God. Instead he insists that “sacrifice” is “an ontology” – a way of being. The word literally means “to make holy.” When the people of Israel went up to Jerusalem and offered sacrifices they were responding to the holiness of God by offering back something from their own flocks, thus making holy the things from their daily lives; when they feasted on the meat of animals offered as “burnt offerings,” they saw themselves as sharing in a meal with the God to whom the sacrifice was offered, and so they, and their offerings, were “made holy.” And so the sacrifice also was one way that they responded to and renewed the Covenant – assented to God’s desire that ‘you will be my people and I will be your God” – the sacrifice is reciprocal, mutual. God was often delighted (though in the psalm the sacrifice demanded goes beyond burnt offering and into the human heart). Sin offerings work the same way: because we were made to be holy people, by a God who longs for us, acts of repentance or turning back to God, become celebrations of a feast of reconciliation – the feast ordered up by the prodigal son’s father because his the beloved has returned home. (I now see even more clearly why this image of the prodigal son figures so prominently in one of our rites for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (BCP p.450))

“Where there is no sacrifice there is no life,” Schmemann writes in his essay "The Energy of Life: Sacrifice and Worship.” “Sacrifice is rooted in the recognition of life as love: a giving up, not because I want more for myself, or to satisfy an objective justice, but because it is the only way of reaching the fulness that is possible for me.”

As we are made holy, through God’s loving invitation, we want more and more to offer ourselves, and all that we we have – and so Schmemann wisely suggests the opposite of sacrifice is ‘consumerism” – the belief that we own what we have and have control over it and need to own more and more. An ethic of sacrifice recognizes that growth toward God always requires a letting go and a receiving, a mutuality that is part of the divine nature, part of what we share in because we were made in the image of God.

Of course the divine invitation to a life of sacrifice – a life energized by the desire for greater communion with God – can be distorted by all kinds of power dynamics. Women for generations have been familiar with the expectation of “self-sacrifice” often before any mature sense of self has been built or affirmed, and this can be profoundly wounding—one of the sadder results of an authoritarian reading of the notion of “sacrifice.” But this is exactly to the notion of sacrifice that Schmemann refjects – “a legal transaction. . . a duty of the creation to the Creator, like an income tax”( Schmemann, p.142) -- the notion that our giving of self is a transaction, a condition that wins us the love we long for.

That is not how God works: the process of being “made holy” is one that invites a constant, willing giving over, giving up, of parts of ourselves we thought we controlled; and it also invites a practice of receiving with gratitude – a practice that we lose very easily! Because our deepest identity is that we are made by God and beloved by God, the process of sacrifice is ultimately a life-giving and freeing one: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) – Jesus is talking here about his own sacrifice and how it gives life. There is much more here for further meditation.

Repentance, sacrifice, being made holy, bearing much fruit – it is all part of the same process, a way of being that Schmeman calls “sacrificial living.” To return to the psalm: a “troubled spirit,” the sense of separation that comes when I truly examine my conscience in relation to the faithfulness of God, is a gift that “makes holy” – a returning to the One who loves me. If it hurts to look honestly at myself, I can rely on God to receive what I bring – a heart made a little bit more sincere by self-examination. Another small step toward the trust-filled returning, the self-offering that gives life.

I hadn’t realized before reading this Schmemann piece how much this psalm of contrition is also a psalm of celebration – an invitation to deeper connection, through deeper honesty, with the One who made us and calls us. For Schmemann the idea of sacrifice (making holy) is integrally connected to worship and to Eucharist and here too is much more food for meditation. But perhaps it is enough for now to observe that the same psalm contains these familiar words of worship:

“Open my lips, O God And my mouth shall show forth your praise.” (Ps 51:16)

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 tensions of Palm Sunday

By George Clifford

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 270)

As a Navy chaplain, I generally met few worshippers at Protestant services who were familiar with anything resembling a liturgical reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem comparable to the Liturgy of the Palms in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (pp. 270-272). Although few people complained about including the Liturgy of the Palms in Protestant services, I suspect that most attendees preferred quiescently sitting in a pew to parading around while waving palm branches.

Protestants are not the only people who feel that way. My current congregation annually participates the Liturgy of the Palms, but I cannot honestly say that many people appear to embrace it wholeheartedly.

Sitting in a pew offers a level of emotional comfort that exuberant processions lack. Pew sitting can engender feelings of familiarity, anonymity, and detachment. Conversely, participating in an exuberant procession can feel awkward, encourage physical and emotional interaction with others, and demand engagement. In other words, exuberant processions clash with the self-concept of many Episcopalians as God's frozen chosen.

Furthermore, being enthused about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is difficult when we know what follows, i.e., Jesus’ passion. The Liturgy of the Palms can almost feel like cheering as Jesus moves toward his inevitable and agonizing death. Just as most people prefer to cheer for a winning sports team, so it is perhaps difficult to muster enthusiasm for the lost cause of Jesus’ triumphal entry.

A good friend, who is a Methodist and was a member of one of my Navy congregations, in a feeble attempt at humor once suggested that I was lazy, reducing my workload by involving as many lay people as possible in leading worship. That, however, is central to our Anglican liturgical tradition. Palm Sunday’s parade represents one pinnacle of this tradition, involving the entire congregation in commemorating the hope for freedom from Roman oppression that poor Palestinian Jews thought Jesus represented.

Carefully scrutinizing our intercessory prayers may reveal a similar set of expectations about how God interacts with the world. We want God to make everything right (fair, just, loving, beautiful, perfect, etc.), especially for us and our loved ones, and we want God to do that now. We’re ready to cheer – as soon as God acts. We’re wary about cheering until God acts, even though we continue to pray that God will now do what God failed to do on the first Palm Sunday. If nothing else, our unexamined prayers reveal our desires. Our unexamined prayers may also reveal a failure to integrate sound theology into our spirituality.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossnan underscore the tension between the unfulfilled expectations of Jesus’ followers and the reality of Roman power in their book, The Last Week. They suggest that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem occurred as a concurrent counterdemonstration to Pilate’s arrival with troops to reinforce the Jerusalem garrison, preparatory to the large influx of crowds who came to Jerusalem for Passover.

I know that I do not want to applaud Pilate’s arrival with its stark emphasis on imperial power and loyalty to the state in the person of the emperor – nor any modern equivalent orchestrated by today’s domination system. I also find myself wanting to avoid the crowd that welcomed Jesus, knowing what lies ahead for him and that the crowd’s high hopes about what Jesus will do are misplaced. Yet I also do not want to be left on the sidelines, oblivious to the great events of the day. Where then should I stand?

Perhaps this points to what really makes Palm Sunday processionals so uncomfortable. The forced and generally artificial reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry by palm toting parishioners clashes not only with our culture but also with our spiritual selves. For when I look honestly at myself, I discover a fractured self: misplaced expectations of Jesus, false loyalties, and more apathy than I want to acknowledge. There is no safe high ground on which to stand. The truth is that God enters into our brokenness, not into our wholeness, into our imperfection and not into some false illusion of perfection.

We know the end, yet walk this way with song. With each step into the story the story permeates us.

This annual trudge to Calvary
the impulse to Jerusalem
no angel encouragement
no accompanying miracle.

We cluster like women who weep
recruited like unwilling Simon
offering our crooked consolations,
yet Christ took comfort from a thief.

Girls lift altar cloths aloft
borne in graceful arms like shrouds
or banners, woven in white linen
heralding this sacred way we walk.

Kathy Coffey, “Palm Sunday,” Theology Today, Vol. L, No. 4, January 1994, p. 595.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Hot cross buns

By Jean Fitzpatrick

It was an impulse buy. Spotting a tray of hot cross buns in the window of Junior's, the New York bakery famous for cheesecake, I popped inside and picked up two, one each for myself and my husband. Definitely not as divine as Junior's Brownie Marble Swirl, but to be fair, Junior's buns -- with a velvety yeast dough and not too sweet -- were better than many I remember. Wikipedia says hot cross buns are believed to predate Christianity, and most of the leaden ones I've eaten tasted at least that old.

So why did I buy these buns, you ask? I guess they remind me of my childhood. I don't mean they inspire an extended reverie, like the famous madeleine did for Proust. Instead, they bring me back to some of my earliest, somewhat perplexed theologizing. When I was growing up, back in the days of black and white television, we usually had Rice Krispies for breakfast. During Lent, which was -- as I understood it -- all about giving up things, the sweet, iced buns would inexplicably appear on our Formica kitchen table instead. A treat -- and yet, not entirely. No matter how recently they had arrived from the bakery, they always tasted stale. They were called "hot cross buns" but they were never (in those pre-microwave days) remotely warm. That, I reasoned, was why they were okay to eat during a season of gloom. And then there were all those raisins and candied fruit. Yuck. For years I figured hot cross buns were a Lenten cousin to the dreaded Christmas fruitcake. Like many aspects of religion, hot cross buns were full of paradoxes and were not as good as other people seemed to think they were but, by virtue of their annual reappearance, they managed to be somehow comforting.

I didn't know then that the buns have a long and complex history. Turns out buns marked with a cross were eaten by Saxons in honour of the goddess Eostre. The cross is thought to have symbolized the four quarters of the moon. ("Eostre," of course, is probably the origin of the name Easter.) According to the food writer Elizabeth David, Protestant English monarchs saw the buns as a dangerous hold-over of Catholic belief in England, since they were baked from the same dough used to make communion wafers. The monarchy tried to ban the buns altogether but they were too popular. Instead Elizabeth I passed a law allowing bakeries to sell them, but only at Easter and Christmas. (So maybe I was right about the fruitcake.)

These days in the UK hot cross buns are in demand long before Lent. The Brits are now selling hot cross buns as early as January, when they've hardly had time to digest their plum pudding. Warburtons, another UK baker, has invented a Hot Cross Bun Loaf, presliced and plastic-wrapped, and sold only during Lent. Such a delicacy this is, apparently, that there is now a Facebook group called A Plea to Warburtons to Make Hot Cross Bun Loaf All Year Round. Isn't it strange that in a country where religion has, by all reports, declined, hot cross buns are, well, a hot item?

In Australia and New Zealand chocolate-flavored varieties seem to be all the rage. (I wonder if they ship to North America.) One Australian bakery advertises that it prides itself on always using as much fruit as flour. (That sounds much less appealing.) According to the Daily Telegraph, the CEO of one British bakery chain whose sales of the buns were up 10 percent last year considers them "particularly appropriate to consumers in the current climate." I assume he means they are a snack whose penitential associations suit the world economic crisis better than, say, a jelly doughnut.

Actually, I think what I most like about hot cross buns is that are not particularly commercial, at least not here in the States. You can't, to my knowledge, buy them at McDonalds or Starbucks. As far as our big chains are concerned, they're under the radar.

And yet, for those of us who grew up with them, in all their raisin-filled semi-staleness the buns convey a somberness that people have connected with for a long time. They inhabit that ambiguous cultural realm of grassroots customs and practices that connect us to who we are and where we've come from. In their annual reappearance the buns tie us to the procession of ordinary mortals who came before us, and to everyone else who seeks them out.

I hear the ones at Amy's Bread on Ninth Avenue are really good. Must try.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

Ashes and water

By Ann Fontaine

As I was looking at resources for Ash Wednesday I came upon a website and saw in bold letters: WARNING - ashes and water do not mix - will cause burning!! And so it does. It makes a mixture that will burn skin. But the image captured my imagination and I thought it is even truer than the physical effects of mixing ash and water. Water and ashes are two of our most powerful symbols.

Water, used for Baptism where we are first marked with the sign of the cross representing birth, new life, renewal, and liberation from slavery. Ashes are used on Ash Wednesday when we are once again marked with the sign of the cross, which now represents our mortality, death, endings, and enslavement.

Burning symbolizes the power of the Spirit coming alive in our lives. It is the awareness of our finite time on this earth. The power of the resurrection lights the fire of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Ashes bring home the reality of death -- we are mortal, we will die. As we say in the imposition of ashes - "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." But that is not the end of the story. Easter tells us that there is not just death and endings. Easter comes to tell us that we are also to “remember that we are love and to love we will return.”

Lent is a journey from Ash Wednesday. We recognize our finite time here on earth, journeying to Easter and coming back to the awareness of the fullness of life as granted in our creation in the image of God.

The Ash Wednesday Gospel is odd for the imposition of Ashes. We hear that we should not practice our piety in public but perhaps we take this so seriously that we become afraid of practicing any piety before others.

The prophet, Joel, however, calls us to:

Sanctify a fast,
call a solemn assembly,
gather the people,
sanctify the congregation,
assemble the aged,
gather the children,
even infants at the breast and why --
so people will not ask
“where is their God?”

Let us show forth the holiness of our creator, with our ashes, so people will know that we are a holy people - committed to God and followers of Jesus Christ. How might we do this? I suggest we move beyond chocolate to declare our own fast and feast ---

Fast from judgment, Feast on compassion
Fast from greed, Feast on sharing
Fast from scarcity, Feast on abundance
Fast from fear, Feast on peace
Fast from lies, Feast on truth
Fast from gossip, Feast on praise
Fast from anxiety, Feast on patience
Fast from evil, Feast on kindness
Fast from apathy, Feast on engagement
Fast from discontent, Feast on gratitude
Fast from noise, Feast on silence
Fast from discouragement, Feast on hope
Fast from hatred, Feast on love

What will be your fast? What will be your feast?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Lent and joy. Yes, joy.

By Bill Carroll

A parishioner recently observed to me that the liturgical year does not provide enough room for joy. I don't know whether this is right or wrong, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. This year, the season after the Epiphany is particularly short, exacerbating the problem. Ready or not, Lent is right around the corner. The question I ask myself is: what does this season have to do with joy?

Lent is, of course, a penitential season. It is a time for self-examination, reflection, and discipline--even for sorrow. Lent is a time to clean house, as we open ourselves up and let God turn our lives around. It provides the occasion to be converted all over again, both to God and to our neighbor. Lent highlights the work of repentance that is always central to the Christian life. This need not be maudlin: it involves turning from sin by the grace of the Spirit, abiding in the mercy of Christ, and living toward God with joy.

This past weekend, I read a book by Archbishop Rowan Williams that I've been meaning to read for some time. It's based on a series of meditations that he offered in Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week of 2005. Williams gave the book the title Tokens of Trust, because he wished to highlight that the triune God described in the Creeds is the utterly trustworthy Creator and Savior of the world. The most interesting part to me concerns the death and resurrection of Jesus. It will certainly influence my Easter sermon this year. As we enter the season of Lent, however, I thought it would be useful to share some of the things he says about repentance in his final chapter on death and judgment:

...[A] Christian community doing its job is a community where people expect to be repenting quite a lot, and where the confident calling of others to repentance, which Christians enjoy so much, needs to be silenced by self-scrutiny and self-questioning before God.

But the miracle is that a repentant community, a community of people who are daily aware of their own untruthfulness and lack of love and are not afraid to face their failures, is a community that speaks profoundly of hope. The Church does not communicate good news by consistent success and virtue--as we have noticed--but in its willingness to point to God; and repentance, which says that you don't have to be paralysed by failure, is thus one of the most effective signs of the Church's appeal to something more than human competence and resource...

One of the oddest things in our culture is that we seem tolerant of all sorts of behavior, yet are deeply unforgiving... We shouldn't be misled by an easy-going atmosphere in manners and morals; under the surface there is a hardness that ought to worry us. And this means that when the Church in the Creed and (we hope) in its practice points us to the possibility of forgiveness, it is being pretty counter-cultural.

Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (Westminster/John Knox, 2007), pp. 151-152

Ash Wednesday is February 17. As we pray the long litany and receive the ashes as a sign of our mortality and penitence, may we rediscover the inexhaustible abundance of Christ's mercy and truth. May we rediscover that "something more" than our own competence or strength, which empowers us to be God's Church. We call it grace. It is the source, framework, and goal of our life in Christ.

Our Lenten journey is a gateway to Easter joy, a long fallow season that begins in ashes and tears and leads us, inexorably, through the narrow door of the Cross. Even during this season, however, the liturgy reminds us that we are to "prepare with joy for the paschal feast." The Good News is too irrepressibly good to remain hidden away. Even in Lent, the Easter fire remains burning, pervading creation and conveying Christ's risen life to us all.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Re-thinking Ash Wednesday

By Christopher L. Webber

The adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was, by intention, the inauguration of a new relationship between the church and its liturgy. No longer would we have an unchangeable liturgy handed down from past centuries, but we would become again a community like the early church in which innovation and enhancement would be encouraged and a frequently revised prayer book would draw on the best of this creative process to provide an evolving standard of excellence.

This process was disrupted first by the unexpected depth of the resistance and then by the emergence of the computer and internet, and the ease of desktop publishing--possibilities unimagined only thirty years ago. The Standing Commission on Liturgy has, nonetheless, continued to provide new resources, well used in some places and completely ignored in many others. What has been missing however, is a careful re-examination of the 1979 Prayer Book, to ask what was well done and has worn well on the one hand and, on the other hand, what was poorly done and needs to be reconsidered. Even typographical errors such as the inconsistency of capitalization of the word “Godparent/godparent” have gone uncorrected since to correct them requires action by two General Conventions and opens up the possibility of new wars that no one would willingly initiate at this time.

Nonetheless, there are weaknesses in the present book that need attention and the canonical authority of the bishop to authorize appropriate other forms for special purposes would seem to encourage experimentation at the local level.

To cite one specific example, the order for Ash Wednesday is awkwardly arranged and questionable in its theology. Why to take the simplest matter first, does the opening rubric tell us “On this day, the Celebrant begins the liturgy with the Salutation . . .” but not provide either the Salutation or even the page number for it? There’s plenty of blank space on the page to provide Salutations in both Rite I and Rite II, but instead the presider has to direct the people to another page for that one line and then tell them to turn back to the Ash Wednesday liturgy to find the opening collect after which they sit to hear readings which are the same every year but are not provided. If ever there were a need to hand out bulletins with the full text of the service, this is it!

Then we come to the Bidding which attempts to provide an explanation of the Lenten Season but, unfortunately, seems only to offer that quintessentially Anglican rationale: “we have always done it that way.”

“Dear People of God,” the Celebrant or Minister appointed is instructed to say, “The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting . . .” Yes, but was there a reason grounded in Scripture and in the nature of the Christian faith that undergirded this observation and custom? We are never told. This will not trouble those Episcopalians who are satisfied to carry on customs simply because they are customs, but does the annual reading of this exhortation perhaps reenforce the notion that custom indeed is king?

Consider also how the Ash Wednesday order ends with a long Litany expressing penitence and then asks the presider to read a statement which is not an absolution. It says the clergy are empowered to pronounce absolution – but doesn’t do it. Instead it offers a prayer for true repentance and renewal of life which is certainly appropriate, but wouldn't Ash Wednesday be a good time for a real absolution?

I asked a member of the Liturgical Commission some years ago why the order was framed in this way and was told “Well, there were members of the committee who wanted to save the pseudo-absolution from Morning Prayer in the 1928 Prayer Book and this seemed like a good place to put it.” One wonders why they didn’t just leave it in Morning Prayer Rite I!

I am not one to stray far from the strictest and most literal obedience to the Prayer Book, and I am frequently appalled by the freedom with which rubrics and customs are currently ignored. I don’t travel much, but when I do, I have encountered prayers and practices that would, to put it mildly, benefit from informed appraisal. At the least we would all benefit by exposing local variations to wider criticism. In that spirit, the following is offered as a possible improvement of the Bidding in the Ash Wednesday liturgy that might be used with the consent of the bishop. Comments and criticisms would be very welcome.

Dear People of God, The Holy Scriptures tell us of God’s loving purpose in creation: to raise up a holy people worthy of eternal life. Because we have fallen far away from that purpose, God has worked patiently to draw us back sending prophets and teachers to warn and to guide us and coming at last into this world in Jesus and sharing our human life and death so that we might know the full extent and power of God’s love and forgiveness. In the waters of Baptism and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has called men and women of every time and place into the Church, the Body of Christ, to offer worship and praise, to bear witness to God’s love, and to work with God for the healing of the nations.

Yet we continue to fall short of the holiness for which we were made and to turn aside to our own purposes, weakening our witness and failing to fulfill the ministries to which we are called. We stand in constant need of the forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed and which he commissioned the disciples to offer.

Therefore from very early times, the Church has set aside the season of Lent as a time when God’s people are called to repent their sins and to renew the promises made at their baptism. It is a time when we are called to examine our way of life, to put aside all luxuries and self-indulgence, and to live a life of greater discipline, centered again on our Baptismal covenant of faith and witness and our commitment to seek justice and peace for all people.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of this season of renewal, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

This is hardly a radical revision but it puts the emphasis on the Biblical witness to God’s purpose rather than church custom. Why not also, if this makes sense, print up the whole service and put the Salutation in place at the beginning and a proper absolution at the end of the Penitential Litany? And why not petition the Standing Liturgical Commission for a revised Order for Ash Wednesday the next time they want to enrich our worship?

The Rev. Christopher L. Webber, the author of a number of books about the Episcopal Church and Beyond Beowulf, the first-ever sequel to Beowulf, has recently become Vicar of St. Paul's Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

The Prayer of Manasseh: a little gem of devotion

By Derek Olsen

Candlemass has passed us now, devotions to Our Lady have shifted from the Alma Redemptoris Mater to the Ave Regina Caelorum, and—for those who keep them and for those who don’t but remember—the ‘gesimas are upon us. The signs of the seasons begin to turn our eyes toward Lent.

I’m ready for it. Lent is one of the seasons I look forward to each year. It’s a time of preparation and introspection that sets time aside for us to take stock of who and what we are. When we look closely, honestly, we find that—among other things—we are mortal, fallible, and frail. Our liturgies are part of this process of discovery and assessment, leading us to contemplate these truths more deeply. Elements appear that have been dormant in the other seasons of the year that help us focus our attention inward.

One of the best additions into the 1979 prayer book is a canticle hitherto unprayed in the Episcopal experience—one specifically intended for use in Lent: the Kyrie Pantokrator taken from the Prayer of Manasseh (canticle 14 in Morning Prayer, Rite II).

The prayer of who? From –what? Is that in the Bible?

Funny you should ask…and a little setup is required to answer this properly.

From the days of Paul at least, and likely earlier, the “Bible” of the first Christians was the Septuagint, the Pre-Christian translation of the Old Testament into Greek. As Christianity spread, and as the Western half of the Roman Empire became more parochial and lost its facility with Greek, a translation into Latin had to be made. St Jerome edited the version that would become official but made a strange choice—he decided to break with Church Tradition and to go back to the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Old Testament. This meant facing an issue of which the Church was aware but with which it hadn’t had to struggle: there were a set of books in the Old Testament that were composed in Greek and which did not appear in the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Scriptures.

What to do with these?

Jerome made a call that has been so decisive and influential that we find it quoted within our Anglican 39 Articles. After listing the Books of the Old Testament the article states: “And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…” In that list is “The Prayer of Manasses”. So—yes, in a proper Anglican Bible you find a section labeled “Apocrypha” and within that section you will find the Prayer of Manasseh. It’s short—just 15 verses—but a little gem of devotion.

Manasseh—who was he? If you took a wild guess and said the first-born son of Joseph who, with Ephraim, had a tribal section carved out for himself in the land of Israel you’d be right—sort of… That’s a Manasseh, but not the right one. This Manasseh was a king of Judah, reigning from (roughly) 687-642 BC. And, as far as 2 Kings 21 was concerned, he wins the Worst King of Judah EVER award. The shortlist is idolatry, sacrificing his own children, and widespread murder… The version that 2 Chronicles 33 tells has a twist, though; here he’s carried off to Babylon where he prays a great prayer of repentance, God forgives him, and he returns to try to reverse the evil he has done.

Neither 2 Chronicles nor history has seen fit to give us that prayer, but later tradition couldn’t let a great opening like that go.

Thus, we have our apocryphal book written probably in the 2nd century BC, most likely composed in Greek (though we don’t know for sure) that tries to present the kind of prayer that Manasseh must have prayed. And though it probably isn’t the original prayer, and though it probably wasn’t written by a king, it was most undoubtedly written by sinner, a person, and a poet who has given us words in which to find ourselves.

The language of the prayer is, to my ears at least, a bit hyperbolic and over the top, and yet opens for us a door into the psychology of repentance that is thoroughly steeped in biblical theology and transmitted through the vivid imagery so common to the songs and poems of this so-called Inter-testamental period. Our canticle is only a selection and, in the interest of space, leaves out some of the lovely imagery early in the prayer. (I’d encourage you to go back and read the whole thing—all fifteen verses of it; you can fit that into your schedule, right?)

The prayer begins with the poet’s eyes on God, recollecting the mighty acts of creation. The power and majesty of God are recounted by describing the vast energies of creation, and wonder at the God who can harness them. It then turns to the character of God. This almighty Creator nonetheless has care and concern for the sinner and the transgressor. There’s a turn at verse 8, at the middle of our canticle; the eyes of the poet shift from the external view of God to introspection. Suddenly “I” language appears. The poet confronts the reality of sin. Then, in a beautiful mixed metaphor, the poet “bends the knee of my heart,” not in excuses or self-justification, but in pure supplication. In these words there is absolute conviction of two things: first, the poet’s sinfulness; second, the character of God—that our God is the God who forgives. A final doxology rounds things out.

I’d encourage you to spend some time with this canticle this coming Lent. Whether you pray Morning Prayer regularly or not, I urge you to make this canticle part of your devotions as you contemplate what it is to be us: mortal, fallible, frail, yet truly the creation of One who loves us without end.

Dr. 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.

Of little things

By Marshall Scott

I was listening to the radio as I drove, and heard a report about a new satellite telescope. The purpose of the telescope is to find new planets revolving around other stars. It seems that in its first few weeks of operation, it’s already found several.

“Wow,” I thought. “In this day and age, would anyone follow a star?”

The word “epiphany,” and the season of Epiphany, are about manifestation, making public. It’s “revelation,” but with a strong theme of “publication,” even of “publicity.” It is about reaching out to the world and getting attention.

But, once again, in these “days of miracles and wonders,” as the song says, who would follow the star? To paraphrase another song, “how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen ‘Pandora?’”

It doesn’t really help, I suppose, that all the really big miracles in Scripture are in the Old Testament. Israel passed through the Red Sea, and the water stood up like walls. Joshua asked on the day of battle and the sun stopped. There’s virtually nothing on that scale in the New Testament, even in the works of Christ.

Yet, for all the attention we give them, perhaps the big, showy events are the least important. After all, quantum mechanics, the physics of the very small, reinforce for us that the universe is not only stranger than we do know, it's stranger than we can know.

I think it is the tiniest, the most intimate miracles that we find most moving and important. What event is more powerful for us, more filled with awe and hope and fear than the birth of a child? Or, how many events carry more promise for a family than a wedding; or for a community than a baptism? And how many of us have found our lives shaped profoundly by an important conversation with a teacher? These can seem small, personal events; and yet they can be much more meaningful than earthquake, fire, or storm.

These are the miracles of Epiphany, the events we hear in our Gospel lessons as we move from Incarnation to Manifestation: visitors in the nursery, a baptism, a wedding. These are intimate miracles from our God who has come to be intimate with us. These are wonders, so tiny and so personal, from our God who came among us as a person. In the season when we celebrate how Christ was revealed to the whole world, we note it in events the whole world can know: birth and marriage, rite of passage and meaningful conversation.

In this Epiphany season, let’s appreciate these little wonders. These intimate miracles of Epiphany can speak to us most clearly of how God has shown his glory: in Christ entering our world and our lives so that God might become intimate with us.

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.

Here is my servant

By Bill Carroll

Here is my servant, whom I uphold—my chosen in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.

The resurrection of Jesus led to an explosion of joy and a flurry of missionary activity. The apostolic generation knew no Bible but the Old Testament. Among their favorite texts were the four servant songs of Isaiah. They used these songs as they proclaimed Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, to India, Ethiopia, and China. Jesus was God’s suffering servant. Did he not suffer greatly when he died upon the cross? Was he not also the risen Lord who would establish God’s righteous rule on earth? Twice, Isaiah says that God’s servant will bring forth justice. Justice for the nations. Justice, in other words, for the Gentiles. By his resurrection, Jesus breaks open God’s covenant with Israel, so that all nations may enter the Kingdom of God.

In its original context, the figure of the servant probably meant God’s People Israel—or perhaps the prophet himself. God had called Israel, not for its own sake, but for that of the world. God chose this one nation in order to bless all nations. So too, the Word becomes flesh in one man—Jesus—so that all flesh may see the salvation of God. The Church is a particular people, called in Christ for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Here is my servant, says the Lord, whom I uphold. My chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice to the nations.

We are entering the season of Epiphany. From the beginning of the season, there is an emphasis on the universal mission of the Church. The three kings come from distant lands to worship the newborn Messiah. Epiphany means manifestation. In the Gospel readings for the season, we see the glory of God revealed in Jesus. Jesus is God’s gift for the whole world.

We begin with his baptism. Little has happened since Jesus was born. Then, one day, he shows up at the Jordan, appearing for the first time in public as an adult. He is one among many penitents who have come to be baptized by John. The crowd is so impressed with John that they wonder whether he is the Messiah. But John points to another—to one more powerful than himself, who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

At first, Jesus is anonymous, hidden in the crowds. It’s not obvious he’s anyone special. But after he is baptized and begins to pray, heaven is opened. The crowd sees the Spirit descending. A voice speaks: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God acknowledges Jesus, as if to say, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold…I have put my Spirit on him.”

This is a theophany, like God appearing in the burning bush. In his baptism, Jesus is revealed for who he is. The Baptist’s testimony, the descent of the Spirit, and the heavenly voice join together to say, “Here is the Son of God.” It’s significant that the revelation is Trinitarian. God’s voice says, “This is my beloved Son.” The Spirit rests upon Jesus. Here we see the one God, traditionally named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We see the other persons related to the Son, who has become human. In and through the historical moment, we catch a glimpse of the relationships among the three persons of the Trinity.

God is fully revealed in Jesus, who is God from God, light from light, true God from true God. But God is reveled in concealment. God comes to us hidden. Hidden in the flesh of Jesus. Hidden in our neighbor. Hidden in water, oil, bread, and wine. In the sacraments, the most ordinary things are transformed into sacred mysteries, vehicles for the saving presence of God. Mysteries aren’t just something we haven’t figured out yet. Mysteries evade our comprehension in principle, because they involve the living God. Even the Scriptures are a mystery. Without faith and the Holy Spirit, they are just dead words on a page. The words of Scripture, in all their tensions and contradictions, point to the Word—Jesus, the Word made flesh. He is the living center of the Scriptures. With water, oil, bread, and wine, they are a sacrament of Christ, just as he is the sacrament of the living God—God with us in flesh.

The self-manifestation of God is real, but it is the revelation of a holy mystery of goodness and love. God is both gift and mystery—really given, yet ever eluding our grasp. God is “ever greater” than we can imagine or conceive. We know God, and God is always with us. Yet we can find no adequate words for God. So we stutter along, as best we can.

We search the Scriptures. We participate in the sacraments. We confess the creeds. But we can never, ever comprehend God. Indeed, as Augustine teaches, the creeds “fence a mystery.” They show us where the mystery lies without taking it away. Ultimately the mystery is the Triune God—creating, judging, blessing, saving, and sanctifying the world. The Holy Scriptures are the story of God’s dealings with humanity. They are the Word of God for the People of God. Their proper context is the liturgy of the Word in the Holy Eucharist. We do not read them alone, but in community. They proclaim the gift and mystery of Jesus, which is summarized in the Catholic Creeds, and given to God’s People in the bread and wine.

There seems to be some embarrassment in all four Gospels about the baptism of Jesus. Does it mean that John the Baptist is his superior? Why does Jesus participate in a ritual washing if he’s really without sin? Various explanations are given in the Gospels and the Fathers. One is that Jesus allows himself to be baptized in order to give us an example of humility. We ought not to fear to confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness, because the Son of God was willing to assume the role of a penitent. Another explanation is that his baptism provides an occasion for God to make Jesus known to the crowd. A third explanation is given by Athanasius: Jesus is baptized in order to make the waters we are baptized in holy. Because Jesus is washed with water, water becomes the preeminent sign of his union and solidarity with us. Because of his baptism, water is forevermore a sign of his death and resurrection, of the forgiveness of sins, and of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Truly, when we are washed in the font, Jesus himself baptizes us, with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In Holy Baptism, we come to share in his relationship with God. We are taken up into the life of the Trinity. We become God’s beloved children. We share in the same Spirit who rests on Jesus. On all the baptismal feasts, we confess our faith in the Trinity as we renew our baptismal covenant, which begins with the Apostles' Creed.

Through baptism, we also share in Christ’s mission in the world. So we continue by renewing the vows that provide the framework for our mission. Like the Creeds, these vows “fence a mystery.” They point us to practices that frame our participation in the crucified and risen life of Jesus. They do not solve the mystery; they show us where it’s found.

According to Daniel Stevick, “Christian baptism is an action of a community, bringing an individual into the shared life of a people—a life as intimately bound up with the living Christ as one’s body is with one’s personhood and identity. There is no private relationship with Christ: to stand in relationship with Christ is at the same time to belong to his people.” (By Water and the Word: The Scriptures of Baptism. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1997, p. 287) The five promises of Holy Baptism show us what it means to belong to Christ and his people.

First, we promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” Gospel teaching is absolutely central to our life in Christ. So too is our regular participation in the life of the community, in the sacraments, and in common prayer. These are not something optional that we do only when it suits us. We are not consumers of religious services but disciples of the living Lord.

Second, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil” and to “repent and return to the Lord.” Life in Christ involves an ongoing struggle with sin, as well as trust in the mercy and forgiveness of God. All of us fall short in our discipleship. Day by day, we need to return to the Lord, remembering our baptism.

Third, we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Life in Christ involves sharing our faith with others, by what we say and do. It involves making disciples for Jesus and bringing others to the saving waters of baptism.

Fourth, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” Life in Christ means that God calls us to love all people—without exception. Our love extends even to our enemies and especially to those we find difficult to love. It goes without saying that this includes our fellow Christians. If we cannot love the members of our own family, how will we love strangers? We are called to do both, but we can’t do one without the other.

Fifth, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Life in Christ means that we are active peacemakers and that we join in the struggle for justice and dignity for all people. According to the prophets, this includes the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants, both in their own right, and as a sign of vulnerable and oppressed people everywhere. We are to embrace this aspect of our mission even if it means that we must suffer greatly. By our baptism, we have taken on the servant ministry of Jesus.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice to the nations.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Loving the Epiphany

By Derek Olsen

Epiphany has got to be one of my favorite feasts of the Church Year. In fact, it may well be my favorite. I love the way that it pulls together texts and concepts from across the Scriptures and unites them in a single celebration of the joining of heaven and earth, the human and divine, the creation and Creator. It’s a love I learned entirely from the liturgy.

Now we Anglicans are a people of biblical liturgy. When we use the great Gospel Canticles at Morning and Evening Prayer we grudgingly allow the use of antiphons—sentences read before and after the canticle—as long as these come from Scripture. I understand why; I get it. I’ve seen some of the florid oddities of the medieval sanctoral cycle and I understand this reformation legislation. And yet—Epiphany is the feast where I just can’t help myself. The old antiphons just lay it out better than any Epiphany sermon I’ve ever heard.

The antiphon for Vespers in the old Latin liturgy adorns the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. It’s a didactic little bit of liturgy that encapsulates how the Church has classically understood the Epiphany. These days we’re all about the kings. Traditionally, the kings were just one of the facets of the day. Here’s the antiphon:

We celebrate three miracles that adorn this holy day: today a star led the Magi to a manger; today wine was made from water at a wedding; today in the Jordan, Christ willed to be baptized by John that he might save us.

Several things are going on here. First, each of the events are references to Scripture passages. The first is the most obvious—the Magi bit refers to Matthew 2:1-12 which was the historic Gospel reading at Mass on this day. The water from wine refers to the wedding at Cana recounted in John 2:1-11. The third points once again to Matthew 3:13-17.

Second, all three of these are important manifestations. And that’s what the term “epiphany” means, after all: manifestations, showings-forth. In the first case, God’s manifestation was so public and clear that it brought pagan priests—for that is who and what “magi” are—to the Infant Christ’s crib. The second isn’t just an amazing sign of abundance, but a verse at the end of this section specifically identifies this miracle as “the first of his signs” (John 2:11). The third culminates with the heavens being torn upon and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending upon Jesus, complete with the voice from heaven identifying him as God’s Son. You don’t get much more “manifestation” than that!

As an aside, I’ll note that the Church didn’t stop at these three either. A hymn—possible by the pen of St Ambrose, possibly from a few decades later—also connects the feeding of the five thousand to this day and it is these four events that are recorded for posterity in the Golden Legend from the 1260’s that were to feed Christian imaginations for centuries to come.

We could stop there:

Epiphany is a feast that celebrates showings-forth. And the Church has consistently identified these three or four events as the points in the Gospel that most fully show forth the truth that Jesus is the Son of God.

Yeah—that’ll preach.

But the Church didn’t stop there.

(And this is where it starts to get really interesting.)

The antiphon for Lauds around the Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, takes these three events and starts twisting and turning them on their head, befuddling our chronological sense in the most mystical of means. In the words of the liturgy the Scriptural events intertwine and synergistically become something other and more than they were before:

Today the heavenly Bridegroom is joined to the Church, because in the Jordan, Christ has washed away her sins; the Magi run with gifts to the royal wedding , and from water-made-wine the guests are made glad, alleluia.

The Christmas season is the ultimate celebration of the Incarnation. The feast of Christmas proper is about the great joining of heaven and earth in the physical person of Jesus. The feast of Epiphany is about the great joining of heaven in earth in the mystical marriage between Christ and his Church. From disparate texts the Church has woven together the great wedding feast which is hinted numerous times in the New Testament and Old. Baptism, the joining of water and Spirit that gives birth to the Church is hallowed. The abundance of life in God is present in signs of free-flowing wine and blessed bread. Heaven and earth are joined in mystical union in the reconciliation of the ages through which we are hid with Christ in God.

And that is why I love Epiphany.

Dr. 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.

An annual surprise

By Greg Jones

Christmas comes as no surprise. At sunset on December 24th, every year, Christmas comes. Ready or not - here it is. And there it goes.

Kids of course love it, awaiting the day like none other. And grown ups love it too -- of course. But, you know, life takes its toll and those childhood joys of Christmas grow mixed. The gifted memories of joy grow mixed with other memories -- other packages -- other bundles -- some of grief, some of sorrow, some of 'who am I and what do I mean?'

Sometimes, when Christmas comes, there are some things in and around and under the family tree that are even too painful to open up again every year. And yet reopened they are.

But, either way, between happy and humbug, whether joyed or jaded, now, Christmas comes as no surprise. And in a way that is too bad.

It is too bad if Christmas comes as no surprise because we are so deeply used to its coming. So deeply entrenched in a culture that worships the 'holidays.' So deeply entrenched in a society that sings Christmas songs in October and confuses the deeply meaningful with the deeply meaningless every year in a vast feeding frenzy of consumption and sweets. It is too bad if Christmas comes as no surprise because we hear the word, celebrate the time, and then move right along as best we can.

It is too bad, because Christmas is about the most surprising thing that ever happened.

To us, today, these days, in a Christmas crazy culture -- and amidst all our baggage social, filial and mental -- too often Christmas comes as no surprise -- but it should.

It should feel like what it is. It should stir us deep to our souls. It should remind us every year of who we are, and what we mean, and why we can have hope no matter what. Christmas comes as no surprise -- but friends -- if we can for a moment receive and unwrap together the promise that God has come into the world to be with us, for us, in us, around us, among us, alive and well, and that this promise happened, and that this promise is happening, and that it changes everything -- that's a surprise like nothing else.

Now don't get me wrong -- when Jesus Christ was born -- Mary knew it was coming. It wasn't a factual surprise -- it wasn't unanticipated -- it wasn't as if the poor girl all of a sudden just had a baby and it turned out to be God himself.

No, no. Mary knew it was coming.

First of all -- pregnant women usually do know something's going on. And second of all -- God told her.

That's right. Indeed, long before Jesus was born, Mary knew. Mary knew. Mary knew because God had been preparing her -- all her life. Long before Gabriel announced to Mary that the love of God would come into the world as a living and breathing person through her -- Mary talked with God. Long before Jesus was born, or before she was engaged to Joseph, or before Ceasar Augustus, Emperor of Rome had ordered all to be counted so they might be taxed and controlled properly -- Mary talked and walked with God.

Ancient tradition says Mary was offered to God's service by her parents, Joachim and Anna, and that she was raised and educated in the Temple from age 3 to age 14. Tradition says Mary was raised to be a holy woman, a righteous one of Israel, taught the Scriptures, traditions, and yearnings of Israel, and trusting in the promises of God to his beloved people. Tradition says all her life Mary had an ongoing prayer life of conversation and listening to God's word.

And that's what it means when we hear that Mary was favorable to God -- she was a humble and righteous woman -- who didn't know everything but she knew how to say, "Here I am Lord, I'm waiting on you."

Mary knew that to know and love God is itself Good News.

Just like many women of Israel before her -- Miriam, or Deborah, or Hannah, or Judith -- Mary knew that to know and love God was the only way things would be right in this life for her and for anyone. So, when Gabriel told her she was going to bear the Messiah of God she was able to sing what only the faithful can sing -- that old, old song of hope and joy that God will make all things well. Yes, friends, Mary knew. She was the first person on Earth to know -- that the Good News of God was going to become totally and fully and presently real -- and she knew first.

But even still -- even for the one who knew God was coming into the world -- through her faithfulness -- Christmas came as a surprise to Mary. It came as a surprise, because it's one thing to hope or seek or prepare for a wonderful gift -- it's entirely something else to receive it. Especially when that gift is the presence of God. In the flesh. For real. For you.

Wouldn't you love that? To come down the stairs of life, in morning clothes made of wide-eyed be completely and utterly stunned by what you behold -- and then to cry out in joy with song and gladness? Wouldn't you love for Christmas to be a surprise again? To unwrap the gift that God has given to all flesh?

I think Mary and Joseph were able to be surprised by the foretold birth of Christ, because they were prepared to grasp it. Just as children who know the fun of being tickled beg and wait to be tickled again only to burst out laughing as if surprised when they are tickled -- the righteous always experience God's grace as a joyful surprise -- even when they believe it will come for them.

Do you want to be surprised by joy? Then get ready.

Mary dedicated her life to conversation with God; and when He gave the world the biggest gift of all time through her -- she was ready to be the first to receive and unwrap it.

That's what being a disciple is all about. We are preparing for grace, expecting grace, thankful for grace, and still surprised by it when it comes. Christmas comes as no surprise -- unless you believe. Prepare for the Lord my friends -- and get ready to be surprised.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Love came down at Christmas

by Kay Flores

A few weeks before Christmas, my friend Andrew asked what time our Christmas Day service was scheduled. I hated to say we didn’t have one scheduled – but it was true, we didn’t have one scheduled. Our small congregation had decided to focus our efforts on two special services: the Banging-of-the-pans-to-drive-away-the-dragons-of-darkness service (followed by Compline) held on December 21, and our Christmas Eve service, and there wasn’t much energy around another service on Christmas Day.

Andy then had a great idea: Let’s take Eucharist to our new rehabilitation hospital, where our friend Kay Rohde is hospitalized.

Kay, an Episcopal priest, and until recently the Wind and Wings youth coordinator in the Diocese of Wyoming, was told in late November that the numbness in her leg was caused by a tumor on her spinal cord. By early December she had the surgery to remove it. A few days later she was moved to Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital in Casper, and has been hard at work ever since as her body relearns the physical skills she needs.

I was excited about Andy’s idea, and immediately took it to Kay. She consulted with the administration at Elkhorn Valley. They enthusiastically agreed to host a 10:00 a.m. service, as long as we made it an ecumenical service. As part of her occupational therapy, Kay made and delivered flyers to the other patients. We agreed on a service from the Iona Community, and my friend, Temple, and I prepared the bulletins. Our altar guild packed a to-go box containing a chalice, paten, and wine. A neighboring church shared gluten free wafers.

Kay Rodhe tells the rest of the story.

Folks began to gather in the cafeteria. The altar was a bed side table, set with chalice and paten. St. Stephen’s had prepared the worship leaflets, and the two young people from St. Stephen’s, Elizabeth and Catherine Kerr, handed them to the patients as they began to arrive. The room was full of the Spirit as the 20 patients and 9 members of St. Stephen’s sang O Come All Ye Faithful. We read the Christmas story from Luke and reflected a bit on the wonder of Love coming down at Christmas, and that no matter what is going on in the world, Love always will risk to be present - based on a poem by Madeline L'Engle. I looked out at the congregation, most in wheelchairs, some not able to speak out loud, but God was there - in their eyes, in their smiles, in the Spirit of Love that connected all of us. We blessed the bread and the wine and as communion was distributed, we sang more Christmas carols. We thanked God for the meal and for sending Love down to dwell among us and closed with a rousing verse and chorus of Angels we Have Heard on High. For those of us there, Christmas had come once more - and the feeling spread down the halls as they returned to their rooms to get ready for Christmas Dinner -(served to us by the hospital staff).

The thing about ministry is that when you minister to someone else, you are being ministered to, also. That was certainly true for me today. With the help of St. Stephen’s, we were able to give those here in the hospital a gift - to be able to worship on Christmas, to hear the Gospel, to sing the carols, and for those who wished it, to receive Communion. But I received gifts also. I had been feeling a bit down last night - about the time that midnight services would be starting. I badly wanted to be there, to hear the O Come let us Adore Him, to hear the music and smell the pine boughs and feel that incredible sense of awe at being a part of the Christmas story. Today, celebrating in a rehab hospital cafeteria, no candles, no booming organ, no pine boughs or choirs, just a small group from a little church in Casper who were willing to share their worship with people they didn't even know and a hospital full of people in pain, just recovering from traumatic surgeries, people who are trying to relearn how to walk, people who may never walk again - that same awe was there. Love came down at Christmas and wrapped arms around each one of us - and you could feel it! And for me another gift: One of my rehab goals was to be able to continue to function as a priest - and I am!

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to war.
That time runs out and sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
in a land in the crushing grip of Rome:
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth
And by greed and pride the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

~~Madeleine L’Engle

Photos by Elizabeth Kerr, click to enlarge, more photos here

Kay Flores, St. Stephen's, Casper WY, is soon to be ordained transitional deacon in the church she serves. She is a mentor and trainer for EfM both face to face and online and is an unemployment judge for the State of Wyoming.

The Reach of our Comprehensiveness: Certainty, Ambiguity, or Sufficiency?

By Christopher Evans

As we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, the feast of the Incarnation par excellence, I find myself pondering the sheer wonder of the utterly unutterable: God become human in Jesus Christ. Y’eshua. God Saves!

Love dares speak His Name.

In recent Anglican disagreements, which are in part disagreements about identity, certainty and ambiguity have played off one another in a tug-of-war that to my mind fails this Holy Mystery of the Incarnation: Divine Person become human flesh, who founds and illumines the mystery of our own human personhood by means of Himself.

Awe before, and thus, reverence and respect for what cannot finally be only abstracted and wholly captured in language, that is Persons and persons, God and flesh, go missing in flipside ways. This failure is first Christological, and because Christological, then also anthropological. This failure is rooted in the sparring of two equally erroneous tendencies of present among Episcopalians: Certainty and ambiguity.

On the one hand, in our present disagreements certainty is brought to bear in such a way that all churchly and social traditions are of equal weight and truth without cause for reconsideration or evaluation of any no matter if their fruit bears goodness and mercy and love in the lives of each and all. Or that each word of Holy Writ is meant to bear forth its own truth without definitive reference and responsibility to the Living Truth, Jesus Christ, such that the words of the God become divorced from the Word of God who is Love, becoming a weapon to use against someone else rather than a proclamation of the Living Word by Whom to examine our own self.

The Church cannot err under such propositions of life together and tradition. Or Holy Writ becomes a rule book or a science textbook rather than those living words that point us to and draw us into communion with the Living God. In either case, humility about the things of earth and the ways of God goes absent.

The Personal check on Church and Scripture goes missing. And this, I find especially odd at the season of Advent. External critics, the vocal atheists and secularists, the scientists and those of other religions, then become a last ditch gift to us from God to call us to our senses, to call us to awe again. Which is another way of saying, that we are called again to get clear about language—it’s uses and limitations.

Certainty cannot become an excuse for denying the ongoing discovery of new knowledge of the things of earth, much less for refusing to consider previously unnoticed ways of grace among us. To do so is ultimately to deny the Incarnation Himself, who becomes not mere letters, but living flesh.

Somehow we have to live with a sense that Another more than ourselves will call us to account.

On the other hand, ambiguity has been used often to suggest that Episcopalians (and other Anglicans) do not have doctrinal claims. This often goes hand in hand with praising our lack of a singular theological voice, not to maintain the richness of our corrective tradition, but to deny that we (pro)claim anything at all. Ambiguity becomes an excuse for suggesting that we have no content at all regarding who God is with us. Thus, by doctrinal claims, I do not mean dry dead letters, but words (and images and means) that as proclaimed point us to and bear us into living relationship with the Living God. This is a liturgical understanding of doctrine, as in the earliest proper prefaces: The angels sing you their theologies: Holy, Holy, Holy, etc. In the proclaiming of this canticle, this psalm, this passage, this creed, we find ourselves upheld and in relationship with the God who is this way with and toward us.

Coupled with this is a sense that warranted or not, anything goes. Ambiguity becomes an excuse for even justification of licentiousness. The ways of grace cannot be discovered or distinguished from the ways of sin and what sin has wrought in us.

Ambiguity cannot become an excuse for denying any content about God at all. To do so is ultimately to deny the Incarnation Himself, who did not merely empty himself, but revealed himself in human flesh.

Somehow we have to name Him who calls us each to discipleship.

No doubt one of the beauties of Anglican tradition is that we can handle questioning, doubt, disbelief, and even error. Few Christian traditions can make room for the doubter and the agnostic, much less the atheist and the heretic. Yet, some of those with strongest faith have wandered through times of questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error. To make room for these among us is a sign of a mature tradition and of a generous trust. After all, to question and to doubt are very close to the wonder of mystics, to disbelieve and even err are very close to the idol-smashing of prophets.

We dare not cast away even the gift of others’ scorn.

Yet we can make room for questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error because what we pray in common continues to proclaim what the Church must about God revealed in the Second Person, Jesus Christ. That God became flesh, human being, and dwelt among us. Even so, we know that our poor words, no matter how well composed and beautifully crafted, point to and draw us into communion with this God without pretending that our words are absolute. Nevertheless, our official and public words, while never absolute—as if they could capture the Living God, are never less than enough. We may say more, we dare not say less. We may say it differently, but we dare not say other than that Jesus Christ is fully God, fully human.

Between certainty and ambiguity lays sufficiency. On the level of God, sufficiency allows us to proclaim the God who is with us this way—Jesus Christ. On the level of human beings, sufficiency allows us to discern the work of grace and the work of sin among us.

Sufficiency, then is another option, an option that Episcopalians have used to describe our approach to the core doctrines of our faith: Incarnation and Trinity. Sufficiency does not compel us down the road toward an arrogant defiance of discovery of any new insights or a willful denial of grace at work among us in ways we might have thought impossible. Sufficiency also does not deny claims to any content at all about our proclamation of God through a misuse of apophatic theologizing that finally empties any possibility of our knowing God at all.

Sufficiency respects the Mystery of the Person, Jesus Christ. Sufficiency recognizes that language of our official proclamations can never fully or finally capture wholly this Person, but rather provides gentle bounds within which to name and proclaim this Person, Jesus Christ, fully God fully human. And we dare do so because in the Incarnation, the Second Person has identified Himself with us to the utmost, including speaking to us in a means understanded by us—language.

Indeed, sufficiency is itself respectful of the full weight of God become flesh in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God identifies Himself totally with us, including that means understanded—language. In Christ, such identification is wonderous to behold, ultimately beyond comprehension, because Person in the flesh. Even words finally fail us. Language is broken open before the Living One. So the concept of sufficiency makes it possible for us to risk such naming while recognizing that our words are not ends unto themselves but lead us into communion with the Living God. Before such a One, language will always be but sufficient, and yet, only through language do we find ourselves come to awe by holy silence before God become human flesh. For finally, God in Christ speaks to us not only in words, but by means of Himself incarnate.

This reserve in sufficiency, minding our Scriptures to matters of salvation by means of the Creeds, I would suggest, is the scope of our comprehensiveness, a comprehensiveness that can make room for questioning and doubt, disbelief and even error because we dare to continue to risk naming and proclaiming God who is with us this way, Jesus Christ, by that means which we share in common: authorized public prayer.

Sufficiency gives us the middle ground between certainty and ambiguity to continue proclaiming nothing less than this God who is this way with us, Jesus Christ, while recognizing the broken-open-ness of our words. Sufficiency gives us the possibility of discovering more about the things of earth and the ways of this God at work in and among us for the healing of that which sin has wrought. Sufficiency gives us together the fortitude to proclaim, the space to discover, the room to err, and the grace to abide.

This same sufficiency in its care in “languaging” Persons and persons, begins with reverence and respect, rather than abstractions, ideologies, or totalizing captions. By Church and Writ, we are brought to encounter with the Living God, Jesus Christ, in common prayer. And just therein, we in turn encounter one another as living flesh, not as mere concepts, abstractions, or identity markers, but as members of Christ’s own Body.

Love dares speak His Name and ours. Amen.

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

Holy Innocents

By George Clifford

A decade ago when I lived in England, periodic confrontations between competing groups of contemporary Druids at Stonehenge surprised and then amused me. These modern adherents of the ancient Druid cult would converge on Stonehenge, especially at the summer and winter solstices. There they performed rituals that they believed their spiritual forebears had first performed around the ancient stone plinths.

The confusion that birthed intra-Druidic conflict arose because the early Druids left no written records of their liturgies and rituals. Present day Druid groups each claim that secret oral traditions purportedly passed down through the interceding millennia allow their sect to follow the ancient customs and traditions correctly. At times, verbal confrontations between competing groups of Druids actually became physical altercations, ending only when police imposed a truce on the warring groups. Christians are obviously not the only ones who find agreeing on liturgy and theology impossible.

The emergence of Christian (including Episcopalian) “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” has at least two possible meanings. First, these additional Christmas services constitute a helpful pastoral response to people for whom Christmas connotes anything but joy and good will.

Second, the “Longest Night” services perhaps return Christmas to its original date, the winter solstice (Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 85-112). Although the evidence yields no definitive answers, the date of Christmas may have coincided with the solstice based on dating Jesus’ birth by working backwards from the calculated date of his resurrection. Or, Christmas may have turned a pagan feast into a Christian celebration. In either case, Christians over time comfortably identified the birth of the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) with their commemoration of Jesus’ birth on the solstice. Discrepancies between the Julian calendar and solar year coupled with the subsequent shift from the Julian to Gregorian calendars explain why we now celebrate Christmas four days after the solstice.

Some fundamentalist Christians cite Christmas’ alleged pagan origins as justification for not celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. That’s not an issue that interests me. Jesus was born. I like to party. Parties are more fun when people party together. December 25 seems like a fine day to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Of course, if everyone agreed to move the party to December 21, or another day, I’d have no problems with that. If God can change people, God working through the Church can certainly transform pagan festivities and customs into Christian festivities and customs. Unlike the Druids, we Christians should be known by our love for one another, rather than allowing the trivial to divide us.

Concomitantly, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 receives too little attention. Biblical scholars question the historicity of the visit of the wise men and of the slaughter of all Bethlehem boy toddlers and infants under the age of two (Matthew 2:1-12). No historical evidence exists for either. Instead, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth seems constructed to parallel that of Moses’ birth. Both Moses and Jesus are born when all male Jewish children must die; both live in Egypt; both will deliver their people.

Even as God can transform pagan events, so can God transform probable fiction into myth through which the light of God's love infuses the world. Any historical basis for the wise men visiting or the slaughtering of male children in Bethlehem seems relatively unimportant for twenty-first century Christianity. Children are precious and vulnerable. Too many children are hungry, sick, homeless, abused, and unloved. Children die every day whose lives we could save for just pennies. The powers of this world have become Pharaoh/Herod, tacitly permitting if not indirectly ordering death by myopically focusing on their own interests rather than the well-being of the least among us.

Christmas is not about shopping, presents, or gala festivities. Christmas commemorates the birth of a precious, vulnerable child, a gift of love wrapped in swaddling clothes. To my amazement and profound appreciation, my parishioners have given animals through Episcopal Development and Relief in my honor, gifts of life itself to some of the most vulnerable. In their gifts, my parishioners re-enact Christmas’ real meaning. Their gifts mean more than any other gift could mean.

Thinking back over twenty centuries of Christian history, the majority of ecclesiastical and theological disputes that loomed so large in their own day now appear to be little more than chaff. Structure and organization are important; effectiveness and efficiency are vital attributes of good stewards and faithful servants. Language is important. Words create reality and can give life or bring death. Nevertheless, the heart of Christianity is our love for God and others expressed through the Jesus experience.

Modern Druids fight over who has the truth. I, and many in Great Britain, find ourselves amused. When we Christians fight, I wonder how many non-Christians laugh. Although we, unlike the Druids, have a written record (Scripture), few Christians and even fewer Anglicans contend that the written record is inerrant history. We openly acknowledge supplementing the written record with unfounded tradition, such as most western Christians celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. For the outsider observing Christianity, our fights quite likely seem as petty and childish as do the Druid disputes.

In the meantime, children are hungry, sick, homeless, abused, and unloved. The Feast of the Holy Innocents invites us to enter more fully into Christmas’ meaning, setting aside disagreements in praxis and theology to fully engage in helping all children to know truly that they are precious, secure in God's love manifest in us.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Glad tidings of great joy

Merry Christmas, from all of us at Episcopal Cafe. The Daily Episcopalian will be The Every Other Daily Episcopalian this week.

Luke 2:1-20

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.

Love, the guest is on the way

By Kathleen Staudt

For the past day I’ve been happily preparing for a party we’re giving for my husband’s co-workers, and humming as I go, the Advent hymn:

People look east, the time is near of the crowning of the year Make your house fair, as you are able Trim the hearth and set the table People look east, and sing today Love, the Guest is on the way

With two feet of snow on the ground, and our house on a cul de sac, it is now a little unclear when the party will actually happen – probably we’ll need to postpone it. But with the whole family home to chip in, and the house full of good smells and music, the time of preparation, surrounded by falling snow all day yesterday, has been a time of blessing – whenever the party may be. And out of it has come a Advent poem, which I’ll share here. Some readers of the café already know that my new book of poems, Waving Back: Poems of Mothering Life is now out and available on Amazon. This poem is in the same vein as many of those poems – but it’s brand new (and likely to be revised beyond this version). I offer it to all of you, on this snowy Advent IV in Washington, when we pray “that our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Make Your House Fair

By Kathleen Staudt

Today I will clean clutter out of rooms
Push sofas up against the wall
Begin the preparations for a feast.

The Christmas tree will glow
We will pull out the outgrown toys
To please our youngest guests

And friends from all over the world
Will fill our modest house
Loading the long table
With food that they will bring

Tomorrow, for a time, we will all be in one place
Greeting one another, noticing together
That once again, the festive time has come.

The darkness of the year is not dispelled
It lingers at the windows,
Weighs on hearts
For some there is no consolation here

But for me,
The welcome task today is to create
In this, our house, a place of warmth and light
To grow cramped space into a gathering place
Where for a time
In glow of fellowship, and whatever we believe
Together, we may celebrate
The crowning of another year of life.
Kathleen Henderson Staudt Advent 2009

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.

Looking toward Christmas

By Bill Carroll

Babies change us. The birth of a child brings with it the possibility of new life and new directions. In families, birth is one of the chief occasions, the others being marriage and death, when relationships can change in a fundamental way. When a child is born, the ties that bind us to other people become more fluid. We glimpse and sometimes choose new possibilities for life together.

Of course, we do not always seize the opportunity. We all know families that seem hell-bent on living out the biblical saying that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. By nature or nurture, we seem scripted to play certain roles in our significant relationships. Not all of these roles are destructive or sinful, though some clearly are. In either case, it can be disconcerting to be caught doing something in the same way that our parent or another relative did. Pagan writers, the Greeks in particular, displayed similar insight in their appeals to necessity and fate. Along with Paul, Augustine, and Luther, the tradition of tragedy from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and beyond forms an important counterpoint to the humanistic confidence of the West. As Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his critique of “American exceptionalism,” the doctrine of original sin is not only “empirically verifiable” but especially important for a young nation that tends to ignore the lessons of history through naïve faith in its own goodness that remains blind to the ambiguities and pitfalls of power.

As Christians, we tend also to believe in the reality of human freedom, though not all of us have stressed this equally. Historically, Anglicans have placed a premium on human potential and achievement. Indeed, our tradition has been described as a form of Christian humanism, a phrase that might seem self-contradictory to some of our brothers and sisters, for whom “humanism” is the great enemy of the Gospel. We believe in human dignity and freedom, since we are made in the image and likeness of God. This is damaged (not destroyed) by the fall. We still choose freely and sometimes rightly, even though we confront forces more powerful than we. The script may already be written. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, however, we are free to improvise (perhaps even rewrite) our lines.

It is for this reason that the Christian year begins with Advent promises of new beginnings. We ask Almighty God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,” because we know how we resist God’s grace in our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. We still bear a family resemblance to Adam that we find disturbing. The love of God does not come first for us, and we tend to see our brothers, sisters, and neighbors as hindrances to what we want rather than living, breathing sacraments of Christ. We need a season of prayer, preparation, and repentance to get ready for the coming Son of God.

At the end of the season, we meet the Christ Child. Tiny, vulnerable, and poor, he reaches out to us. In the baby Jesus, we come face to face with God. We do not feel worthy, nor are we. We seem to know from the moment we meet Jesus that we will let him down. And yet, in him, the rod of our oppressor has been broken. In him, our humanity is restored. In him, the mighty are brought low, and the humble raised up. And the Word of God becomes silent, as he gazes upon us in love.

Christmas is a time for new beginnings. Come, Lord Jesus, and make it so.

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Room by room

By Heidi Shott

After dropping my son off at school this morning, I stop for coffee at the bookstore in downtown Damariscotta. Sometimes I see friends or acquaintances there and stop for a bit to catch up, sometimes I splurge on a double latte, but today, with just a dollar in my pocket, I get a to-go cup and am out the door in a minute. As I stop to turn right on Main Street and head home, I look to my left and see a woman coming out of the Waltz’s Drugstore. She’s someone I worked with at the local newspaper years ago, and I know a small portion of her story: she wanted a baby but never got one, she stops each morning at a half dozen different places around town to buy lottery tickets. She often drinks coffee with the local guys at the soda fountain at Waltz’s.

“How are those boys?” she’ll call out when she sees me come in for a prescription or a greeting card.

“Great!” I chime. “How’re you doing?”

“Great!” she replies.

It’s easier now, but years ago when I’d be out and about with our twin boys, she would make a big deal of them. And I felt bad for the heartache seeing those boys must have caused her. I got two and she got zero, as though God cared which way our names are spelled, as people say around here.

With no cars barring my way, I turn right and see a man walking down the opposite sidewalk, head down, hands in coat pockets. My husband knows him better than I do, but I know him well enough to make small talk at parties. I know that last year he lost a wonderful and promising son in a car accident, and I can’t imagine such a loss.

As I make my turn and cross the bridge from Damariscotta into Newcastle, I pass a gas station and see a man at the pump. I remember ten years ago or so when his free-spirited wife left him and their young children for a biker. “You gotta be kidding me?” was the general response around town to that development. I remember getting my car inspected at the garage not long after and seeing his daughter sitting in the garage office watching a small TV with a powdered donut in hand. She smiled at me with her white mustache.

If I were to drive around town or go into Reny’s (small town Maine’s answer to Walmart) or stop at Yellowfront Market, I would no doubt see, in a matter of minutes, a dozen other people whose stories I know in part either first-hand or second. But there are many more people I pass around town whose faces I may recognize but whose stories I don’t know at all. How full God’s heart must be with all of our stories.

Each afternoon my favorite thing to do is to switch on the little lights we put in each window at this time of year. In our little part of town there are many 18th century colonials and capes clustered together and most of us do the “lights in the window” thing in December. It’s very lovely to look out and see the old houses twinkle. Our neighbors must be less cheap than I am because they’ve obviously invested in the lights that turn on automatically at dusk. Our little lights with the rotary switches that slide with a snap between your thumb and forefinger refuse to give up, so I can’t justify buying the new and improved variety.

But I like going from room to room and turning on the lights in this one season of the year where light is imbued with wonder and meaning.

As I move from room to room I sometimes imagine what it must look like to someone walking along the road toward our house. First the lower right comes on, then the lower left, then a pause before the upstairs bedrooms and the little room that connects the house to the upper part of the garage. These little candles don’t shed sufficient light to see everything inside our home but they give the passer-by, or the driver who turns to look, a glimpse into the face of our world.

What these lights don’t show is what’s happening at the back of the house: a disheveled boy grumbling over homework at the kitchen table, a woman unloading the dishwasher and wishing she were the type of person who always knew ahead of time what they were going to have for dinner, a man in an upstairs office playing a few decompressionary games of solitaire while sipping a shot of frozen lemon vodka, a blond-haired boy on the porch off the kitchen cocking his head to a jazz CD and working to match the notes on his saxophone.

The homework boy says, “Would you knock it off, I’m trying to work here!”

The saxophone boy says, “Idiot, I was here first!”

The woman says, “Would you guys please be nice to one another.”

Who would know what is true about the back of this house unless they knocked on the door and asked?

In his song “Laughter” Bruce Cockburn, sings, “I laugh for the dogs barking at our heels, they don’t know where we’ve been. I laugh for the dirty window panes, hiding the love within.”

Who can know? Who can know about anyone?

Perhaps this season of light, with its sense of expectation that even the most jaded among us feel, is one of the few times of year we’re granted the warrant to penetrate the darkness of unknowing that surrounds us on every side. Maybe it’s the time to knock on doors and ask, “How are you doing?”



As both an interviewer or a friend, I've found that when asked most people will answer. The desire to be known is so deeply found in each of us, because we know that to be truly known is to be loved. This season of light, this season of Advent, is about God caring about the details of our lives enough to enter into our midst and do something. Now we’re asked to be the face of God to one another: to walk down the road and knock on our neighbor’s door.

And it helps us to be brave when a light is on to greet us.

Heidi Shott is the canon for communications and social justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Food, namely herbs and stewed rabbit, for the journey

By Adam Thomas

The hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee arrive in a heather-strewn woodland between the River Anduin and the mountains that border the dreaded land of Mordor. After some walking around and griping about the knavish Gollum, who is their deranged hostage and guide, they sit down for a meal, as hobbits often do. They eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

I’m twelve years old, and I have made it nearly two-thirds of the way through The Lord of the Rings. But I can no longer bear it, and I shelve the book. It’s just so boring. All they do is walk! They start in one place, walk for a bit, meet someone and chat, and then walk some more! I just want them to get somewhere! I want to yell, “Get to your destination, Frodo – don’t stop to eat herbs and stewed rabbit, which the author has described in painstaking detail! Just get to the mountain and be done with the ring! Enough of this walking…”

A year later, I’m thirteen (a much wiser and more mature age), and once again I pick up The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this year, I’ll finish it. I begin at the beginning, and they walk and meet folks and chat and run away from enemies and Frodo and Samwise reach the heather-strewn woodland and eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

My wisdom and maturity are no match for the walking. Again, I stop reading. The quest is just too long and arduous and their destination is still on the other side of the mountains and several hundred pages away.

A year later, I’m fourteen, and I pick up The Lord of the Rings again. On page 641, Frodo and Samwise sit down for a dinner of herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I keep reading. They find themselves in the middle of an ambush, Sam sees an oliphaunt, the hobbits are captured by people who are supposed to be on their side, and the story goes on and on. A few days later, I finish it. And I’ve read it at least eight more times since.

Finally, at fourteen, I could appreciate the journey, and let the destination take care of itself. Tolkien understood that a destination is more than a physical place. A destination is the culmination of all the shaping events of the journey that brings you to that ultimate location.

Every year, after the tryptophan has worn off, we begin just such a journey in our walks with God. While secular Christmas disgorges itself out of shipping containers every year the day after Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to let Christmas happen only after the four weeks of Advent have run their course. Christmas is the destination. And Advent is about not arriving at your destination before you are shaped by the journey.

Have you ever had the soup du jour at a restaurant? It’s not some fancy French dish. It’s just the soup made for that particular day. Likewise, my journey happens every day. Every encounter, every decision, every road taken or not shapes me. The season of Advent gives me a dedicated four weeks to notice the shaping influence each day has on my journey with God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the psalmist pray, “ Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths…All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” (25:3, 9). This Advent, I’m adopting this prayer because I’ve always had trouble not skipping to the end of the story. Every year of my childhood, I wanted to open the windows of my Advent calendar all at once. I just couldn’t wait to open tomorrow’s window tomorrow. Now, at twenty-six (a much wiser and more mature age) I pray for God to give me the patience to notice each day’s impact on my life. When I ask God to “teach me your paths,” I’m not hoping for some inside knowledge about the destination. I’m simply asking for guidance along the road.

Some time ago, I heard this illustration (the origin of which no longer resides in my brain). Have you ever noticed that headlights only show you thirty or forty yards ahead of your car on a dark night? But they still get you to your destination. Likewise, God teaches me God’s path even as I am struggling to stay on it. As I walk towards Christmas on this particular Advent journey, Christ walks a few steps ahead of me, illumining the road to his own nativity, to his own unique and wonderful expression of love and faithfulness.

Despite my opening description, my love for Tolkien’s works of fiction is deep and abiding. They taught me the lesson of Advent: don’t arrive at your destination before being shaped by the journey. I pray that, during this season of Advent, God teaches us God’s paths, which are love and faithfulness. And I pray that we may meet someday on the road, about which Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins rhymes:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at

Guilty Advent pleasures

By Ann Fontaine

Only one week into Advent and the cry goes out to “keep Advent. ” Don’t let us hear any Christmas carols or start decorating. Don’t be like THOSE people who don’t know their liturgical seasons and have been decorating since the end of summer.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like the idea of the season of Advent. The idea of a quiet withdrawal into meditation on one’s relationship to Jesus the Christ, the incarnate God – to be born again at Christmas and in our lives – is lovely. I am not so fond of the doom and gloom end times pronouncements of some of the readings. The whole idea of quiet and retreat sounds lovely.

But the truth is I love the excitement of Christmas, the gaudy yard displays, the carols on the Musak™. I can’t get enough of it. I want it to last from Halloween/All Saints until Epiphany or maybe even Lent. It is my guilty secret when confronted by all the serious minded church folks admonishing me not to be lured into premature outbursts of song and merriment.

God born into our lives in Jesus is the reason for Christianity. It is the most amazing event in history. God, who could stay at a distance, chooses to enter into the messiness of our lives. Chooses to dance and party, live and die and live again, laugh and cry, heal and suffer just as we do. What could be better than to celebrate that as long as possible?

The mad frenzy of the season is like first love. Eventually it becomes exhausting and we need Lent to recover our balance, but why dampen down the enthusiasm now – as the dark is growing longer in the Northern hemisphere? Why not savor this time?

My favorite example of the season is the lighted yard displays that begin to appear around Thanksgiving. Slowly the neighbors string the lights around the house and all manner of objects appear on the lawn. The current favorites include inflatable Santas, snowmen and women, and huge snow globes with moving objects inside. Every TV special has a place – Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown. Each year brings new ideas of what or who should be added. One year it was The Lion King, another Pokemon and friends. What will it be this year?

In the midst of all the lights and figures, one finds a crèche. The Holy Family (often plastic with lights inside of them), Shepherds, Angels and Magi (oh no not before Epiphany – yes!). gather around the infant. This is so true to life – in the midst of the craziness of life – we find holiness. We shop, trying to find the right gifts for our beloveds – gifts that will show them how much we love them and how deeply we know them --only to fail in the enterprise. But as we shop perhaps someone holds the door for us and our burdens, or a friend offers us a cup of tea to restore us. Right there, that’s it, God is in our midst.

Christmas used to be a terrible time for me. Now I hope I have a more balanced view. I can multi-task – an Advent time of contemplation mixed with the joy of the coming Christmas. I can sing O Come O Come Emmanuel AND Joy To The World on the same day. I can delight in the preparations and music of Christmas while taking time to be still and let the silence calm my days.

Have Yourself a Dismal Little Advent
(An Advent Carol?)

Have yourself a dismal little Advent, Filled with guilt and gloom. You’ve got these four weeks to contemplate your doom. Turn down all those party invitations; Mustn’t celebrate; You should stay home fasting, and self-flagellate. Shun the lure of the shopping mall, Where they’ve decked the hall since May. Just recall it’s the eschaton You must focus on today. It’s no time for singing Christmas carols; That we can’t allow! Chant Psalm 51, if you remember how–
 And have yourself a dismal little Advent now!
Mary W. Cox
December 17, 1992

Hat tip to Scott Gunn

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

About that job...

We all are called for service to witness in God’s name.
Our ministries are diff’rent, our purpose is the same:
To touch the lives of others by God’s surprising grace,
So people of all nations may feel God’s warm embrace.

-Rusty Edwards, Hymn 778 (from Wonder, Love, and Praise)

By Richard Helmer

One of our parish leaders often reminds me that the implicit or unspoken messages we send as a community of faith are just as important – if not more so – than our explicit, spoken messages. In recent conversations, I’ve been reminded of the implicit messages we often send as a church about ministry. A great deal of our time is devoted to building up and supporting various ministries – the works of the saints – that further our worship and pastoral tasks as a Christian community and institution. And regularly, during the year, we commission and honor people in these ministries: from the vestry to the choir, the altar guild to our Sunday school teachers, our Eucharistic ministers to our teams devoted to outreach and social services.

The implicit message we send, however, by only lifting up these groups and leaders for ministry in our congregations, is that Christian ministry is always and only focused in and around the institutional Church. Even worse, we often imagine ministry means Christian activity with the clergy (“professional” ministers) at the center, and various groups of lay ministers in orbit, working with, for, and sometimes around the clergy! While our ministries in the church’s name and for the faith community’s well-being must remain vital, if we confine our definition of ministry to only these clergy-centered areas of our life in a faith community, we severely limit our vision for the Gospel’s potential to work through each of us in the wider world. We severely limit our roles as saints – that is, as Christ’s eyes, ears, and hands in the world.

In short, when you imagine ministry of all the baptized, do you first think of the few hours a week you spend in volunteering for your faith community or attending worship? That’s the trap I mean.

But what if you began to see ministry as part of your everyday, even moment-to-moment life? In the parish I serve, we have financiers and attorneys, artists and poets, contractors and artisans, physicians and nurses, office assistants, musicians, counselors, librarians, homemakers, students, entrepreneurs, volunteers, bookkeepers, scientists, teachers, architects, and realtors. During this season when we remember All Saints, it’s important to remember and value all of these vocations as critical to our baptismal life. We are reminded to think of our jobs as more than just jobs. They are our ministries. We must remember that Christ is at work when and where we are. And because of our baptism, we have invited Christ to work through us. We are a community constantly in ministry, whether we are on the church grounds or not, whether we are doing it in our congregation’s or denomination’s name or not! That, to me, is what sainthood is truly about.

Some of us these days are struggling with unemployment and underemployment. Just the other day, I dashed to the school office after dropping my son off for first grade. We had each been asked to put $20 in an envelope to help with the purchase of a birthday present for his teacher. I was hoping to get in and get out quickly so I could make it to the office on time for my “job” in ministry. But another parent was also putting money in at the same time, and she wondered aloud as she did if the few dollars plus change she could afford would be enough. Time seemed to stop as I paused to talk with her.

As a single mother presently struggling with unemployment, she was faced with the shame of not being able to make the ask. Frankly, my family couldn’t afford the full ask either, and I shared this with her. I think she found this a relief. I was honored by her willingness to share the perspective of her situation, reminding me that even in a seemingly affluent community like the one in which I serve, there are many who struggle alongside us every single day to make ends meet. It was a moment of ministry, and I didn’t have to go to the parish office to accomplish it. I wasn’t even wearing my collar.

As we parted company, I wondered about the gifts of the unemployed and underemployed in our midst. What do our own members bring to our shared life as they work for little or no pay or search between jobs? So I did some research – by posting the question on my Facebook page. From some friends, I got the standard “pray for the paycheck” response. Indeed we should pray for all those struggling to make ends meet at this time. But I also heard from other friends this remarkable list of gifts for ministry the unemployed and underemployed bring to all of us: hope, determination, loyalty, dedication, determination. Another response noted the gift of being off the tether of a contract – the freedom to find meaning in life without the constant demands of an employer. This is ministry, too, as gifts like finding life’s meaning are shared among us most of all by those struggling to seek the next paying job, the next career, the next vocation. As we struggle along with the un- and under-employed for economic justice, we also reap the gifts of the Spirit the struggle reveals among us.

Then there are the gifts of those who have retired – whose experience and wisdom can give rise to so much opportunity for ministry in their lives. There are the gifts and ministry of our children, as their wonder keeps the rest of us alive to fresh perspectives on God’s grace at work in our midst. There are the ministries of our youth, as their energy and new vision stir up what is old and begins to bring to fruition what is new. There are the gifts of parents who nurture the next generation; the ministries of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, partners, friends, and neighbors. None of these are “paying jobs,” but they get the job of ministry done in profound ways! These, too, are ministries of the saints.

The Christian “job” is to take on all our work, play, and struggle with what our spiritual tradition calls intention; that is, with prayer. With this action we cease to be working stiffs and our jobs cease to be mere generators of the almighty paycheck. Instead, they become ministries, and, indeed, vocations for all of God’s people, wherever and whenever we find ourselves. And that’s a message worthy, it seems to me, of a feast day like All Saints’.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Why is it so sad?

By W. Nicholas Knisely

A few years ago, because of some local political controversy, we offered a safe place to worship to a group of Latinos who no longer felt safe traveling to another part of Phoenix. That small group of ten or so souls has now grown to over 300 people with nearly 100 or so regularly gathering on Sunday mornings. I've learned a great deal from this experience. One of the most important things I've learned is that when Americanos and Latinos work to make common cause, it's less important to be bilingual than it is to be bicultural. (Full credit given to Canon Carmen Guerro for leading me into this understanding.)

Why bicultural? Because sometimes we Americanos do something with the best intentions and find out that we've misstepped. Consider this year's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observance at Trinity Cathedral here in Phoenix. We've tried to do something to mark this important folk celebration of All Soul's Day in Mexico and other Latin American countries given that there is a very large number of Latinos living in the neighborhoods around the Cathedral. Generally though we (Americanos) constructed a beautiful altar in the Art Gallery part of the Cathedral, collected important artistic works and thought we were doing bicultural ministry. The displays were very lovely and lots of folks from the Anglo congregation brought their friends by to see the exhibit.

But now that we have a vital Latino congregation it was important to me that we move away from an observance of the day and toward an authentic worship experience. So we decided together that the proper place to put this year's altar of the dead was not in the gallery but in the Columbium (which is where many of the beloved of the Cathedral congregation are interred). One of the priests on our staff, who has a real gift for design, was asked to put the altar together on Friday and Saturday in preparation.

He did a superb job. It was striking, sensitive and theologically rich. It sent a message of our Christian hope, founded in baptism, that in Christ our lives do not end, but that death brings our transformation. He created a three part altar, covered with beautiful black cloth, a display of marigolds, focused on a cross and pascal candle; all of which were dramatically lit. It was elegant, understated and just what I had hoped it would be. We were very pleased with ourselves.

Then on Saturday morning we had a group of parishioners and other friends come in to create decorated lamps that we were going to use in procession on Sunday night. Some of the women from the 12:30 (Spanish language) congregation wandered in to see the altar. It was not what they expected. I was upstairs in a Commission on Ministry meeting. I was sent a note that told me I needed to come downstairs as soon as possible. "It's very important."

The ladies had gone to Canon Guerro very concerned about the altar. "It's so sad!" What I had seen as elegant and understated, they saw as effectively communicating a message of restrained grief; not the exuberant celebration of joyful transformed lives that Dia de los Muertos proclaims.

So, with my "permission" the ladies set to making it a proper altar. They went out and bought candied skulls, crepe paper and lots of colored votive candle holders. And they spent a couple of hours making paper flowers, bunting and streamers. You can see part of the result in the picture on my personal blog, linked to in the comments below. (I'll post more there as soon as I have time to create a proper album.)

Where did we misstep biculturally? Well first, in my own sense that the beautiful altar was finished... Our staff priest actually designed the area to serve as liturgical "scaffolding" with the idea that it was going to be remade by the 12:30 congregation. But most of us, myself and the ladies of the 12:30 congregation included, didn't see that. It was so elegant that we didn't imagine that possibility. Where else did we misstep? It was in the idea that the ladies needed to get the permission of el Dean to make the altar their own. My understanding was that it was to be theirs from the beginning. But they could not imagine changing it without asking "The Man". Clearly we have some work to do to make them feel that they are full and vital members of the congregation, not people whom the rich Americanos tolerate out of some sort of noblesse oblige.

So, we have some work to do. But it's good work. I'm rather looking forward to it. Because, by pointing out my own misunderstanding of the basic nature of celebration rather than somber mourning surrounding Dia de los Muertos, I found myself rethinking my own relationship to my family members who have died. Particularly that to our youngest daughter.

The idea that she is attending an eternal fiesta in the presence of God held in the arms of her grandmothers and her namesake grandfather is a totally different way for me to envision her today, the 12th anniversary of her death. I like the idea of Fiesta much better. And so I'm grateful to the ladies of the 12:30 service for giving me a new set of lenses to see the world around me. I think our family just found a new folk custom that we shall keep all the days of our lives.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He served as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.

Come, Holy Spirit

By R. William Carroll

Few of us will ever experience the Holy Spirit in the same dramatic ways the first disciples did on the Day of Pentecost. Most of us will never exercise the same ecstatic gifts found in the Neo-Pentecostal movement.

Still, the Holy Spirit is the gift of Christ for all who believe. Episcopalians believe that the Spirit is given to each one of us in Holy Baptism, and that the Spirit is always, already present, even before we are baptized, leading us to the waters and preparing us to receive the Gospel.

In the Gospel appointed for Pentecost this year, Jesus says that the Spirit leads us into all truth. The Spirit is also the fullness of love. Romans 5:5, a verse Augustine loved to cite against the Pelagians, states that the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us. This love heals our wills and makes us whole. In Christianity, love and truth belong together. Christ is the embodiment of God’s love. Not the love that God has, but the love that God IS. Jesus is also, as he says in John 14, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Jesus also says that the Spirit declares to us the things that belong to him. It is no accident that the Spirit comes on the final day of Eastertide. The paschal candle remains lit on the Day of Pentecost, because the Spirit comes to unite us in the confession of resurrection faith and to equip us to share that faith with others. The candle is extinguished, because the light of Christ now burns in US. We are like the bush at Sinai, burning but not consumed. We share the paschal fire that burns at the heart of the Church by sharing the story, welcoming the stranger, and serving the neighbors God gives us. We share it also by bearing witness to the truth before the rulers of this age.

At the heart of the Church lies this Gift, who is him-/herself divine. The Spirit is another word for grace, what the scholastics called uncreated grace (see Karl Rahner’s brilliant essays on this subject). The Spirit unites us in a single faith, gathers us in a single Body, and sends us on a single mission.

The work of the Spirit is to make us holy. The Spirit is the anointing one. The Spirit is the one who unites us to Christ, the anointed. The Spirit, as Paul tells us in Romans 8, conforms us to the image of God’s Son, and makes us cry out (as he did) “Abba, Father.” The Spirit is the principle of our participation in the Paschal Mystery.

The Spirit is also the principle of freedom in the Church. He/She is God’s left hand, just as the Son is the right hand, the Logos, the principle of reason and order. The two are inseparable. But we ought not to forget that without the breath of the Spirit, the Word cannot be given voice. In the Church, we are given over to a tradition that precedes us (and which will be after us), and yet we are living beings and we ourselves contribute to that which is handed down to us. The Spirit is not safe. One of our beloved hymns (#296) tells us that “the Spirit shakes the Church of God.”

And yet, the Spirit’s mission, at its heart, is to drive us ever deeper into the mystery of Jesus. The Spirit’s presence makes him contemporary and present always (“even unto the end of the age”), just the Spirit was active in his conception, overshadowing Mary and working through her free consent, so that the New Creation might begin as the old one did, with the Spirit hovering over the waters.

Nothing that is ugly, false, or evil can withstand the Spirit’s power. The Spirit is the Lord God, who is all beauty, all truth, all goodness. God is supreme Love, without remainder. Hatred cannot withstand God’s relentless and powerful love. And, in the power of the Spirit, God is transfiguring the world, so that we come to share Christ’s crucified and risen glory. In the Spirit, we know love that endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things. In the Spirit, with Christ, we are “more than conquerors.” For even in dying, we are reborn to eternal life, through the Lord and Lifegiver.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we sigh “Thy Kingdom Come.” When God’s Kingdom does come, this too will be the ministry of the Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit, sweet living charity, Lord God. Come, we pray, and fill us with the fire of your love. And lead us now and always into truth.

The Rev. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog,and he also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

What happened at the Ascension?

By Ann Fontaine

Ascension is one of those church holy days that is a mystery to me. The whole idea of Jesus ascending through the air into heaven is hard for someone who has seen the pictures of earth from space taken by the Astronauts. Instead I think of Glinda in the movie The Wizard of Oz, rising up into the air in her bubble with all the Munchkins waving and shouting "Goodbye, Goodbye" in their little squeaky voices.

There are many artistic depictions of the Ascension. Salvador Dali shows Jesus from the disciples’ point of view and some androgynous heavenly being receiving him. There is an icon showing just Jesus feet as he goes into the clouds and leaving footprints on the rock below. If you use the image search on google you will find all sorts of conceptions of this event. The gospels also have varying accounts. At some time Jesus parted from his followers - there was a sense that they would not see him again in quite the same way. But as he left them it was as though the heavens opened again. As when Jesus was baptized, at the crucifixion when the veil of the temple was torn in two, so at this event the doorway to the full reality of God was wide open - it would never been seen as closed again.

I love the response of the angel in Acts - "why are you standing around looking up into heaven?" In another place they are told go to the city and wait for power from on high. Between his apparent disappearance and the coming of the power of the Holy Spirit, between Ascension and Pentecost, we have what John Westerhoff calls a time of impotence.

At Ascension the mission of Christ is all handed on to us. It takes another week or so before we get power to move out. I can see the women and men - with a sort of stunned look (gazing as it says) - uh - what now? They gather, pray, tell stories of the good old days - and then zap – Pentecost! Ascensiontide is a time when we can learn about waiting - not an easy thing for people in our time. We want “to learn patience and we want it now” as the old joke goes. The disciples gathered to pray, study and worship as they waited. It was a time of preparation for the ministry that would soon envelop them. Perhaps that is something for us too.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Resurrection faith

By Kathleen Staudt

In his book on Resurrection, Rowan Williams points to the strangeness of the Risen Christ. Though we have stories of Resurrection encounters, the risen Jesus is always at first unrecognized. Some fundamental transformation has happened, and that transformation testifies to an altogether new relationship between humanity and God. Everything has changed.

This is something that I think is not widely understood about Christian spirituality: People know, we know, that we are called to “follow Jesus,” to try to live as he lived, and we are often judged by the degree to which we fall short of his example and his teaching – and that is fair enough. We ask “What would Jesus do?” to guide our ethical thinking. But in fact, when Christians reflect on our relationship to “Jesus,” it isn’t really the historical Jesus we’re talking about, or even, completely, the Jesus we meet in the gospels. It is, more mysteriously, the Risen Christ, who belongs at once to our flesh-and-blood experience and to the transcendent mystery of God – who brings together, once and for all, our humanity and the God who reaches out to us, loves us, desires the restoration of our lives and our world.

This is a tough thing to get our minds around but I think it is the heart of the gospel, the heart of what it means to be a Christian. The resurrection proclaims the action of God in history and yet moves beyond history. We proclaim it in our Easter liturgies without always noting the extraordinariness of what we are proclaiming. Listen to our words: “On this day the Lord has acted/We will rejoice and be glad in it” is the Easter psalm. Or in the words of Brian Wren’s hymn, Christ is alive, let Christians sing:

Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine.
He comes to claim the here and now, and conquer every place and time. (Hymnal #182)

For Rowan Williams, the Resurrection removes Jesus from being simply an object on whom we project our fantasies, our woundedness, our desires – because he is in some ways, as utterly strange and unknowable, as God is . And yet he also invites us into relationship.

At the Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Md., we sing with gusto gospel hymns that actually teach us something quite profound about the relationship with the living God that Resurrection faith opens up to us.

“I serve a risen Saviour, he’s in the world today,” we sing. “He lives! He lives! From him I’ll never part. You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.” (Lift Every Voice and Sing, 42)

Or in another hymn that particularly moved me this year:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow;
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives. (LEVAS, 43)

These hymns are emotional rather than theological in focus, yet they help us experience the result of Resurrection faith, the conviction that the world actually IS in God’s hands, that the redemption of the world has happened, is being fulfilled, and we are called to participate the work of transformation that continues.

So when we think of Christian faith and life, the question to ask is not just “What would Jesus do?” (i.e. how can I best follow the example of the Jesus I meet in the gospels) but “What is Jesus doing?” How is the life of the Risen Lord shaping my life, and the life of the communities I participate in, in the here and now?

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) 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.

Salvation: what it isn't

By Derek Olsen

A year or so back, I was in a wonderful Sunday School class studying the Paul’s letter to the Romans. One of my comrades brought in a tract that he’d been handed or had been left on his car (I forget which) that asked in big bold letters on the front “What do you have to do to get to heaven?” The inside sheets were filled with possible answers like: be a good person, get baptized by sprinkling, get baptized by dunking, etc. If I recall correctly the tract’s intent was that all of these were wrong and that verbal confession of a special formula was the point a la Romans 10:10, a passage we’d been discussing. Needless to say, in a group of Episcopalians this tract made for some interesting discussion and for a while the class wrestled with how to answer the question. What jumped out at me the most wasn’t how they chose to answer, but the fact that we had let the tract set the question. And as far as I’m concerned it’s the wrong question.

Getting to heaven and what we have to do to get there is not the point of being a Christian.

“Getting to heaven” has become cultural shorthand for Christian salvation. But Christian salvation is fundamentally not about getting to heaven.

It’s Easter time which is the perfect time to re-orient and get a hold of ourselves and remember who we are and what we’re about. Easter is about life. It’s about the abundant life that flows from God and the divine love which is (as St John reminds us) an integral part of who and what God is. The creeds insist that on that Easter night Jesus rose, not just as a fond remembrance or a fuzzy memory, but as a physical body bursting with life, filled with the life of God. As the Easter Vigil hymn reminds so beautifully:

“This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave…How blessed is this night when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God…”

This hymn, the Exultet, is the dedication of the Paschal Candle, the first great symbol of the Risen Christ which is then directly connected through ritual word and act to the baptismal font—to which the service naturally flows. Because baptism is about life. Paul insists in Romans 6 that while we share in Christ’s death spiritually in baptism, drowning the old Adam, the new life we receive is actual. It’s the real thing.

Being a Christian isn’t about getting to heaven. Being a Christian is about participating in new life, in divine life, sharing in the very life of God. In baptism we have been—in my favorite phrase from Paul—“hid with Christ in God.”

This is both the point and the purpose of Christian salvation. It’s not about waiting around to go somewhere or existing in some state after we die; it’s about participating in the life of God both now and later. Life is the point. Opening our eyes to and taking hold of what God has done for us in creation, in incarnation, in the crucifixion and the resurrection—that’s the point. The purpose is no less clear. It’s to live that life and to share it, to help it expand to others.
It’s to live a life hid with God in Christ.

And I’d tell you exactly what that phrase means, except that I’m not sure myself.

Oh, I have some ideas. One revolves around how much the New Testament uses the word “abide” as an activity that God does with Jesus and Jesus does with God and that we do with Jesus and therefore we can do with God and so on and so forth. Abide. Sometimes I think it means just lying in the presence of God in prayer and sometimes I think it means walking in love as Christ loved us and sometimes I think those are just two small parts of the fullness of what it really means. I’ll keep working on abiding…

Another idea has to do with our good ol’ Anglican worship. It’s how certain moments catch me and throw me—sometimes in church or sometimes days later—and give me a taste, a moment, that I can put my finger on and say, “Wow—that definitely connects to the life of God.” Worship doesn’t just fit us for the life of God but gives us moments and examples with which to see the slow yet steady spread of the lushness of God’s life and God’s will into our life that twines around the pillars of our hearts and with its soft, seeking roots cracks through calcified compassion.

In short, I’d tell you—but I think it’s got to be lived not told.

This Easter enjoy life, embrace life, share life, and live out a life hid with Christ in God.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a 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.

Bound tight through blood

By Joy Caires

“the nails in his hands” (Jn 20:25)

They pushed fluids until they started to pour from her mouth, gave round after round of epinephran and took turns doing chest compressions for over two hours. They would get a pulse for a moment or two, just long enough to decide to keep going, before her heart would slow to a stop again. It was the longest I ever saw the medical team in the pediatric intensive care unit attempt resuscitation.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

She was eight years old. After she arrived I stood outside the door of her hospital room room as the clinical team worked. As team members shouted orders for items from the crash cart, I prayed; with each bump on the monitors, I prayed; as numbers fell and rose, I prayed. After what seemed an interminable time, but was really less than 40 minutes, the parents arrived. I met them at the door of the intensive care unit and their eyes opened wide as they took in my black shirt and white collar.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26).

At that point I told them exactly what I knew—their daughter was still alive but barely, that the medical staff was fighting for her, that she had been intubated and that they continued to do chest compressions. I could not tell them that she would “make it”, and I couldn’t tell them that she wouldn’t. I huddled with the parents on the sleeper couch in the child’s hospital room as the team continued to struggle. I read the faces of the staff I knew so well and I knew that their heads had given up hope but their hearts and hands would continue to struggle to exact a miracle from the improbable.

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (Jn 20:27)

They went beyond the point of possibility and shortly before they stopped, her head lolled to the side and I saw her eyes and I knew she was gone. Her parents kept praying and, after a momentary pause, I prayed as well—for a miracle I was certain would not come. But, just as the medical staffs hearts and hands fought on, my heart and mouth continued to pray for the improbable. For this child the difference between the declarative of a flat line and hope was the pounding of hands upon her chest.

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? “ (Lk 24:38)

By 2pm it was all over. The air in the unit was thick with tension and unspent grief. Another little girl whose family had been preparing for her death for months had slipped away and another child had entered Hospice care—all while we had tried to pound life into a lifeless chest. The medical staff huddled in small groups—two of the children had clear diagnoses, but the third would be a coroner’s case. The parents spent time with the children’s bodies and eventually left. The mortician made his appearance—even he was shaken by the magnitude of the death that day. And, we all kept working—other patients and families needed to be attended to and we were all conscious of the need to keep moving.

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (Jn 20:19)

Then word came, the attending physician had ordered pizza for the staff on the unit. As we were able, we used our identification cards to let ourselves into the locked staff room. It was quiet in the room and the locked door made me feel safe, safe from pain, safe from inexplicable death, safe... I don’t remember any conversation beyond the running commentary about the sauce and toppings—to an outsider we would have seemed callous. But, the current of the unspoken ran through us. While the words would not be uttered, love was truly in that place. Our bond as a team had grown as tight as that of blood brothers—but the blood we shared was not our own. Our souls had been bound by the blood of an innocent.

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16)

I wonder what choices had brought us there? I wonder, what fruit we bore that day? Perhaps it was the peace that came from having shared in the washing and dressing of the child’s body; of giving a family an image that was less that of the violent cross and more that of the quiet tomb; or, the knowledge that we had given a child her last and best chance at life. We all went home later that evening, it was hard to leave and we clung to each other—finding excuses to stay a bit later, work a bit longer. We, regardless of beliefs, had chosen to dwell in the valley of the shadow of death and we needed each other—we needed to bear the fruit of hope even as we ate the fruit of misery. Blood and pizza became our sacraments whilst death lurked.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:15)

The outward signs of devastation and recollection and the insistence of living in the face of death—we eat because we are alive, we gather because we need to see life in each other. Each week we, the Christian faithful, gather around a feast of the body and blood. Each week we are joined with those who gather in mourning--bound together by a shared participation in the bloody death of an innocent. We will live despite death, we will feast in the shadow of the cross and we will love throughout time.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (Jn 20:29)

I have seen too much. My hands have touched the wounded side and my ears have heard the final breath. I have not seen…but I still hope. I hope for the resurrection, I hope for the loving embrace of God and I hope, for each innocent, peace beyond that of my own understanding. The irony for us Easter people is that it was Christ who conquered death and eternal life is on the other side of a flat line.

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

How do bodies mean?

By Donald Schell

My dad was born in 1921, delivered by C-section two months premature because his mother was dying of a brain tumor. The one time my grandmother held her newborn son she asked, ‘Is he beautiful?’ The brain tumor had already taken her sight. She died two weeks later. My grandfather, a physician grieving his twenty-six year old wife of less than a year, wrote to Gerber baby foods urgently asking what to feed his pre-term son. Somehow Dad survived and grew, though while still quite young he contracted scarlet fever, damaging a heart valve and giving him a life-long heart murmur.

‘How our bodies mean?’ is an Easter question, actually a Good Friday/Easter question. What we know of bodies, of living and of dying helps us hear resurrection proclamation.

When he was preaching Good Friday or Easter my friend and colleague Rick Fabian regularly referenced John Dominic Crossan’s claim that Jesus’ body was almost certainly taken down from the cross and thrown on the city garbage heap to be devoured by dogs. After the cruel death, Romans meant their denial of burial to shame the crucified criminal and his family.

Year by year Rick and I took turns preaching Holy Week and Easter through thirty-one years of shared pastoral leadership. Two preachers couldn’t tell the story more differently. When parishioners didn’t hear Rick draw on Crossan’s conclusions, they often heard me say that I think that the Shroud of Turin is Jesus’ burial cloth, the cloth John’s Gospel says Peter and the other disciple discovered in the empty tomb. Part of our Easter proclamation was irreconcilable stories and a mystery – one preaching from Jesus’ empty tomb and the other Jesus’ body savaged on the garbage heap. What we both preached was thanksgiving for Jesus’ living presence with us in the community that gathers to share his body and blood in bread and wine, God’s love that was stronger than death.

It’s Jesus alive and with us that makes us Christian. The ‘how’ of the mystery of resurrection matters because it points toward Jesus and also makes us talk as well as we can, as much as we understand about bodies and selves, the incarnational demand of finding words to preach Jesus’ ‘resurrection from the dead’ and the promise of our own resurrection.

The Boston Women’s Health Collective 1973 book title Our Bodies, Ourselves is closer to the ancient Christian creeds than easy talk of “our immortal souls.” We can’t go very far talking Christian faith without talking about how bodies mean and how persons are embodied. Touching another’s living flesh or even taking a breath is personal.

Here at the Episcopal Café in Holy Week Ann Fontaine posted four series of Stations of the Cross. The Salvadoran stations in that series are charcoal drawings of naked bodies, some tortured and still living, but many dead. These Stations join Christ’s fearless suffering for us to horrific memories and untold stories of the tortures and executions of El Salvador’s bitter civil war. I was glad such brutal drawings were in black and white.

The artist didn’t ask to look suffering “in the face.” Most of the bodies were drawn facing away from us, presenting us not with suffering faces, but with wounded backs and buttocks and thighs. Picturing damaged and lifeless flesh, the artist invited us to see how death squads brutalizing human bodies are really attacking personhood.

In a 2002 my son Peter worked in El Salvador for a year between university and seminary, serving as lay assistant to a recently ordained priest who had been a banker during the war. Like many Salvadorans, Peter’s mentor had family and friends on both sides of the conflict. Fr. Ramiro took us on pilgrimage to the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed while saying mass. We saw his bloodstained chasuble shot-through with bullet holes. Then we drove to the memorial shrine and museum at the University of San Salvador where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter had been slain. We stood speechless before a glass case containing a relic of one of the teacher-theologians martyred that night– a copy of Moltmann’s Crucified God punctured with bullet holes and soaked with the blood.

I think I’d baptized Sara Miles about a year before our trip to El Salvador. In her book Take This Bread, A Radical Conversion. Sara describes her long evening conversations in the Jesuit residence with Ignacio Martin-Baro just six months before he was killed. Sara laughs when I use the church’s official word from baptismal instruction, “catechesis” to describe her frustrated, impassioned late-night theological and political conversations with her Jesuit friend, but his patient hearing and fearless encouragement of all her questions when she was still an atheist war correspondent did start Sara on the road to baptism.

How do bodies mean? These are all hints -
– a father’s premature birth and a grandmother’s death at twenty-six
– a young University graduate making his home in a garden shed to work with the poor in El Salvador,
– political assassinations
– martyrdom
– old blood on a ruined book
– my hand pouring water from a rock font over my friend’s head in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The naked bodies of the Salvadoran Stations were emphatically not “nudes.” A painter friend of mine says every painter must return again and again to life drawing class where the joy of drawing and painting the human figure keeps revealing how ‘all bodies are beautiful.’ Beyond carrying out execution orders, the soldiers who did the violence these Stations of the Cross portray disfigured, punctured and tore people’s bodies in the killing and after it. Witnessing to beauty destroyed, the artist shows how violence depersonalizes people’s bodies. Even in death, these bodies cry out for respect and tenderness, promising beauty’s return.

When poet-theologian Janet Morley’s imagines Mary Magdalene speaking of Good Friday her words point to something similar -

It was unfinished
We stayed there, fixed, until the end,
women waiting for the body that we loved;
and then it was unfinished.
There was no time to cherish, cleanse, anoint;
no time to handle him with love,
no farewell.
Since then, my hands have waited,
aching to touch even his deadness,
smoothe oil into bruises that no longer hurt,
offer his silent flesh my finished act of love.
(Janet Morley, All Desires Known)

Morley’s poem feels like Passion Sunday at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles this year. Watching three vested laypeople carried Jesus’ cross through the congregation, I wanted to hold and comfort my Lord Jesus so he wouldn’t be ‘naked and cold in death’ as the Orthodox Good Friday hymn laments.

Love is part of how our bodies mean. Our desire to touch tenderly is part of the ‘how’ of resurrection. Remembering Jesus, feeling the shattering death of our Friend, I thought of my dad dying in his sleep six months ago when I was 3000 miles away. Since my dad’s death, mother talks about the silence of the night and dad’s empty space in her bed.

At home drifting off to sleep after Holy Week liturgies and the Easter Vigil, I listened to Ellen’s breathing and thought of the first times we’d touched thirty-five years ago, and the many, many moments of tenderness, comfort, passion, and peace we’d shared since. Ellen’s parents died young – in their sixties. I’m sixty-two. I pray for more years. I want to know that ‘love stronger than death,’ but wanting won’t make it so. Partly because it was Holy Week, as I lay so close to her achingly beautiful warmth and smoothness, I wondered which of us would die first.

In our joyful Easter phone calls to the children, the distance was palpable. Our son the priest is a continent away from San Francisco in Washington, D.C.; his oldest sister is even further, a continent and an ocean away in Spain. Phone calls can join us mind-to-mind and soul-to-soul, but I wanted to be close enough to feel their breath, to see them in the flesh, to touch them.

This Good Friday when we joined our whole congregation touching and kissing the burial icon of Christ on the altar and mounding flowers around it, my fingers tingled with the memory of touching my dad’s face after the burial society had laid him out and ‘arranged the features’ of his face to an expression none of us had ever seen. When I touched dad’s face, that touch, my living finger touching his dead forehead, joined the body before me with the father I’d known and loved.

In 1944 my dad enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Did the army physician pretend not to hear his heart murmur? He passed the physical, got through flight school and got his wings, and until the war ended flew a B-17 bomber in daylight raids out from England, over the North Sea to bomb German munitions factories. He came home from the war saying he’d seen and done more than enough killing for a lifetime. The war changed his course vocationally, and he went to medical school to become a physician like my grandfather. He became a healer, touching people with hope, saving lives. In 1980, a few years younger than I am now, his heart valve was giving out and he had open-heart surgery to replace it. Then in his mid-70’s he’d worn out the replacement valve and had open-heart surgery again to put in a new one. When he died just short of his 87th birthday, my wife (a nurse like dad’s mother had been) said, ‘Your dad cheated death again and again to live an amazing long life.’ Of course she was right, but until the last year, his body always seemed as substantial and strong a presence as any living thing could be.

Love, we hear in the Song of Songs, is stronger than death, and in Easter we feel that living power in Christ who lives with and in us. Sometimes. And when we don’t he lives in our aching and hoping to feel it. Easter afternoon, basking in the sun after a glorious Easter Vigil the previous night, “Christ is Risen from the Dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life,” reverberating in my memory and every cell of my body, I wanted to hug my dad again.

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

The modern apostle

By Marshall Scott

I’ve always had a certain affection for Thomas.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a research-oriented household. My father has a Ph.D, and during my formative years he was completing it. He worked in a research setting, and that certainly affected our family’s social circle. In my household we discussed hard topics at the dinner table, and a child was allowed an opinion, but it had to be backed up with facts and reasons.

Perhaps it’s because I spend so much of my time in an environment shaped by research. Virtually everything that happens in a hospital is shaped by research, whether by clinical trials or by patient satisfaction surveys. Even chaplains are concerned that we are providing "evidence-based practice."

Perhaps it’s because I live in the Show Me State. I’m don't really think my neighbors and I are more rationalistic than the larger society (much less more rational!). At the same time, among my neighbors (in the widest sense) the call to "Show me!" comes up again and again.
Whatever the reason, I have always had a certain affection for Thomas. Tradition has labeled him "the Doubter," the one whose faith wasn’t quite sufficient, wasn’t quite right. Some in the tradition have labeled doubt as a problem in and of itself, and have suggested that if we experience doubt, something is wrong with our faith, too.

I prefer to think that Thomas was the first modern apostle. He is such a powerful and troubling model for us because he is one with whom we might so readily identify. He seems again and again, and especially at Easter, to think as we might have thought.

That is, in its way, a blessing and a concern in the Easter story. Thomas isn’t present the evening of that first Easter Sunday. So, when he does speak with those who were present, and they tell him the Jesus was there, he’s skeptical.

Indeed, in any other circumstances we would call it a healthy skepticism. I think we do a disservice to our spiritual ancestors if we assume that they didn’t understand what we mean by "a fact." This is not to argue for the historicity of everything in Scripture. Rather, it’s to argue for the reasonable intelligence and common humanity that they share with us. In both Torah and in Roman law there were standards of evidence, standards that were based on the idea that two or more people in the same situation would see basically the same event – which is the basic understanding we have of "a fact."

They also had a pretty well developed concept, I think, of what we would call, "wishful thinking." After all, prophet after prophet had called Israel to rethink and repent. Prophet after prophet said, "You think your ritual observance is enough to please God; but God wants from you something different, something more." Thomas had often heard Jesus say just the same thing. He would certainly have understood what we would call "wishful thinking."

Therefore, Thomas and those around him would certainly understand that death is a fact. They were much closer to death than we are today. Deaths and wakes and funerals took place in family living rooms. We have, by and large, removed them to clean, controlled, and altogether separate circumstances. Too, the miracles of modern medicine, not to mention how those miracles get portrayed in the media, have given us the opportunity for the false impression that death can be overcome. The fact is – the fact is – that until the Kingdom comes, the mortality rate is 100%. Thomas and those around him would have understood that death, and the finality of death, were facts. They would have understood the wishful thinking, the desire that the facts were different, that was and is part of grief. That wouldn’t have changed what they knew about the fact of death.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone, and especially to us, that Thomas, that first modern Apostle, reacted pretty much as we would. A report that fantastic, that Jesus was not dead but alive, that Jesus was not gone but present, would require proof, and perhaps a higher than usual standard of proof. "Unless I can touch him myself; unless I can put my fingers to the nail holes, my hand to the spear wound;" isn’t that just what we 21st Century Christians would have said ourselves?

That makes it all the more important, and especially important for us, that Thomas was there the next week and had the opportunity for his experiment. Thomas was there, and Jesus was there. "Here, Thomas," Jesus said. "Here are the holes: touch them. Here is the wound: feel it. Believe."

Did he reach, did he actually touch? We don't know. But, we do know he believed. "My Lord!" he said; "My God." And Jesus answered, in words we have cherished ever since: "Now you believe, now because you’ve seen? Blessed are those who have believed without seeing."
And we think, "That’s us! Those words are about us!" Because, of course, we weren’t there. We weren't in that room that second Sunday of Easter, any more than Thomas was there on the first. We are among those who "have not seen, and yet have come to believe."

I think, though, that this is one of those moments where, if we are to live in good faith, we have to consider who we would be in this story. This is not unlike that moment in the Passion narrative when we have to confront ourselves, realizing that, as much as we would hate to admit it, we would have been in that angry, ugly, shouting crowd. So, in this case, we have, I think, to admit that we, bathed as we are in our "Show me!" culture, would have been like Thomas: skeptical, and feeling justified in our skepticism.

And we face a world that is skeptical. You could almost sustain a "Book of the Month Club" devoted just to books questioning the contents or the underpinnings of the Christian faith.
In that light, Thomas' skepticism and his experiment are critical for us. We trust in the witness of John and the other Gospels just because of moments like this: bread broken at a dinner table; a breakfast of grilled fish; and those words, "Here I am. Touch and believe." We are able to believe without seeing in no small part because of those who did, those who were not different from us, not smarter or holier or more worthy. We are able to believe through our own skepticism precisely because Thomas couldn't believe through his. And because we understand why he would have to have this experience, we can trust in it. He did just what we would; and so we can trust his report of what he saw.

And so we give thanks for Thomas, the modern Apostle. He took his skepticism, and our skepticism with it, to Jesus. On our behalf he had the opportunity to test, to see, to touch. And in our place he heard those words, "Now you believe, now because you’ve seen? Blessed are those who have believed without seeing." We do cherish those words, because we know they apply to us. But, they wouldn't be ours if it weren’t for the familiar human skepticism, that doubt that we don't have to face precisely because Thomas did.

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.

Wounds that don't heal

By Martin L. Smith

I will be celebrating Easter in Sydney this year, and no doubt the aromas of early fall down under will be different from the springtime scents of the northern hemisphere. But I expect there will be Easter lilies there somehow. I was recalling their fragrance the other day, and very particular feelings it has evoked in me ever since Holy Saturday, 1989.

I was arranging Easter lilies in a little chapel, not very well, so it is no wonder that I got distracted by one of the old magazines I was using to protect the floor. I glanced down and was shocked to read the title, “Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don’t Heal.” I knelt down and began to read the damp page with a strange feeling of apprehension; I felt on the verge of breaking a taboo. I was abandoned by a parent when I was a child, and endured the divorce that followed. And I was forbidden to grieve. I internalized the ban so thoroughly that for most of my life all sorts of upbeat interpretations of my experience sprang instinctively to my lips: “Well, it was hard, of course, but maybe it was all for the best… Everything worked out OK in the end. My parents weren’t a good fit for each other. We were resilient…” etc. etc.

This was the passage that struck me from Judith Wallerstein’s article, one anecdote from her research with kids who have undergone the divorce of their parents. A 6-year-old boy came to the research center. He wouldn’t talk about his parents’ break up, but he made a beeline for the array of dolls and toys that the therapists used. “When he found a good number of them, he stood the baby dolls firmly on their feet and placed the miniature tables, chairs, beds and, eventually, all the playhouse furniture on top of them. He looked at me satisfied. The babies were supporting a great deal. Then, wordlessly, he placed all the mother and father dolls in precarious positions on the steep roof of the doll house. As a father doll slid off the roof, the boy caught him and, looking up at me, said, ‘He might die.’ Soon all the mother and father dolls began sliding off the roof. He caught them gently, one by one. ‘The babies are holding up the world,’ he said.”

The devastating simplicity of that little boy’s words and the piercing eloquence of the scene he had created with the toys struck me to the core. “The babies are holding up the world.” That’s how it had felt! This unjust reversal of roles, this burden of protecting parents from their pain, this huge sense of responsibility… Kneeling among the disarray of Easter lilies, I felt knots beginning to loosen. It wasn’t too late, then, to feel the healing that comes when one’s pain is acknowledged as absolutely real. The burden of having to obey the protocols of denial begins to be lifted away.

Self-pity is such a horrible phrase that its associations can prevent us from feeling something that is different and wholly good—self-compassion. I felt tender compassion for the child I had been, and I put my finger on the wounds that suppressed grief had inflicted, wounds I had been taught to pretend weren’t there. I somehow managed to arrange the flowers though my vision was blurred by tears—good tears that seemed like the harbingers of integration and blessing.

Was it merely coincidental that this moment of truth happened on Holy Saturday? Perhaps not. After all, wouldn’t “Wounds that don’t heal” be an accurate title for an Easter sermon? I’m not alone in finding this single detail found in the stories of Jesus’ Easter appearances—that the Risen Christ has open wounds—to be the key that convinces me that the resurrection did occur. A made-up story would have had the wounds healed and an imaginary Christ as a figure of sheer glory. But no: the resurrection as it actually happened is God’s savage rebuke of all human tendency to cover up pain, all cosmetic smoothing over, all letting bygones be bygones, all conspiracies of silence, and phony cover-ups masquerading as reconciliation. “He showed them his hand and his side.”

Yet the resurrection of the wounded one is also the supreme gesture by God that bestows irrevocable permission for all time on those who have suffered to acknowledge their suffering as genuine, however others deny or minimize it. In the resurrection of the crucified, as the crucified, sufferers meet the Son of God as the one who keeps them company in the worst that can befall us. Through this meeting, we can find the redemption of what we endured, and delve into possibilities of grace in which buds of life and creativity can germinate just where injury and loss have done their worst.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

'Why do you seek the living among the dead?'

By Deirdre Good

Luke 24:1-10

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, 'Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.' Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.

We have just taken part in a journey. One of the most extraordinary journeys ever.

We have walked together with a group of grief-stricken women toward the tomb of the one in whom they had found their greatest hope, the person to whom they had entrusted their lives.

For the last two days Jesus' body had lain in this cave, robbed of its youthful, vigorous life by a horrible death, a death carried out by the state in its most brutal form of capital punishment.

We journey to make the final preparations for permanent burial.

We are bringing closure to lives spent with Jesus.

We go as most mourners do, with tears for ourselves as well as for the deceased.

We imaging ourselves embarking on a year of magical thinking including:

Grief, denial, anger over the life that had been stolen from us

and fearful of the lonely days and years that now lie ahead.

What began as a journey is one that many of us, in one form or another, have known all too well.

The steps we take toward that tomb are bathed in tears of our own bitter sorrows.

But then, suddenly, the story takes a radically new and different course.

It is at the tomb itself--at the place where we went to confront the reality of that death--that a whole new journey really begins. And when it does, the course of all life is re-directed, and the world itself is reborn.

To these women, caught up-as we often are-in a culture of death, the tomb looked like a place of solace, a focal point for their own bereavement and sense of loss. All four Gospels speak of the physical tomb of that Easter Day. All four Gospels portray it as a place of pilgrimage for Jesus' disciples seeking solace and release. And all four Gospels record that it was empty. The burial shroud is all that remains, left lying there.

What the women find, instead, are what Luke identifies only as "two men." Other accounts call them "angels." They are messengers who have been sent, not to call them inside the tomb, but to send them out from it.

They do it by means of a question: 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?' they ask.

It is this question that turns our lives around. This question is the pivot of our search for Jesus. It's the question that resonates through song and liturgy for 2000 years:

"Why have you come?"

"Why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" says the gardener to Mary Magdalene.

"Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, O followers of Christ?"

People sought Jesus all his life for various reasons. In Luke's gospel, Jesus' mother queries her teenage son: "Your father and I have been anxiously seeking you" (2:48); crowds seek to touch him (6:19); Herod and Zacchaeus seek to see him (9:9; 19:3); Judas seeks an opportunity to betray him (22:6).

Responding to these searches, Jesus doesn't say: "Here I am!" the object of your search.

No, Jesus always points the searcher away from himself to God, God's realm, or something else.

To his mother he says: Why are you seeking me? Don't you know that I must be about the things of my father?

To followers, he announces: The Son of Man comes to seek and save the lost (19:10).

"Seek and you will find," says Jesus (11:9); but not "seek and you will find me."

"Seek first the kingdom," (12:31) he says to followers, and "whoever will seek to save their life will loose it and whoever will loose their life shall preserve it" (17:33). To Judas and those who arrest him he declares: "This is your hour and the power of darkness!"

How do we move from the search for Jesus to the search away from Jesus to the living? Luke points us out of the tomb, from the introspection of Lent and on into the journey through the world where we next encounter a stranger who turns out to be Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The focus isn't on us-it's on the journey, on the stranger transformed in --perhaps even by--our gaze.

Jesus leaves the tomb to assert and show the meaning of the new life not just for himself, but for all the world. The resurrection is, ultimately, not about what happened to Jesus. It is about what has, through him, now happened to us all. The resurrection is about us as community, us as family to each other and all our world. And it is about how that changes the entire way we look at and experience our lives today. Resurrected life is not life the way it has always been, worn down and weakened by the world's struggles and challenges until it slips away through attrition and fatigue. Resurrected life is life as God intended it from the very beginning of creation, filled with the vibrancy and zest and promise of God's love, shared with and through each other. It is following Jesus on a new road, living, growing, loving, and reaching out to others with Christ's compassion, mercy, and grace. This is our new journey into the life of perfect witness and service. It is our affirmation of the true life we now find in him. Through that affirmation, we can feed the hungry in body, mind, and spirit; we can welcome the stranger; clothe the naked; comfort, strengthen, and heal the sick, raise up the despondent; and love the unlovable. In the Easter ministry and witness to which we have now been called, we can truly turn the crosses that assault and burden this world into life lived in light of the resurrection.

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. Her blog is On Not Being a Sausage.

Funerals in Lent

By Kathleen Staudt

A character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels, talking about what the various denominations believe, concludes wryly by saying, "and Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the Burial Service.”

There's something to that, I've thought during this Lenten season, when on 3 out of the 5 weekends in Lent I have had a funeral to attend. None were for close family members, but all were services I couldn’t miss. All used the same basic liturgy. All were beautiful and fitting. Two of the services had been carefully designed by friends as they were dying, enshrining something of themselves in eloquent readings and uncannily appropriate music. A third was bare-bones and beautiful, following the sudden death of a member of the church choir, who had been there singing with us the Sunday before. All three services somehow managed to bring together for us the life of an ordinary, beloved person and the quiet hope of Resurrection faith.

Funerals are always disorienting, coming as they do in the midst of life. But a funeral during Lent, if we are observing the season aright, is jarring in ways that go beyond words, and into the heart of our faith. On the Sundays and other days in Lent, the cloth on and behind the altar is purple, as are the stoles the priests wear. Our local custom replaces the bronze altar cross with a simple wooden one; floral arrangements are replaced by budding branches or sparse greenery. We don't say "Alleluias." And we commit to whatever practices help us to be aware of our need for God's mercy and love, our desire to repent, return, be restored. Much is taken away, deliberately, during Lent, to make us available to transformation.

And then we arrive at a funeral in mid-Lent and find ourselves suddenly kicked out of Lent into Easter: "I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. . . . I know that my Redeemer liveth. . . whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's.” There are flowers in the church and the altar hangings and vestments are white. The paschal candle burns, and we sing an Easter hymn. Lent or no Lent, “even at the grave, we make our song, ‘Alleluia.’” A funeral in Lent takes us to the unnameable heart of our faith, which is not about any one of us, our worthiness or unworthiness, but about the unfathomable grace and power of a Risen Saviour who calls us to himself, and gathers us together to receive the promise. But the way to this place of promise is through the loss and the grief that are a part of our human condition.

This year the liturgical season is reminding me of how much the observance of Lent grounds me in the spiritual journey, reminding me of the need simply to be in a "between-time" -- with glimpses of Easter, but only through the lens of grief and death, on this side of the Cross. I found it almost a relief, the Sunday after a Saturday funeral, to return to the sombre purple of Lent. I was back to a place I knew how to be in. It is a time we move through, each year, a pilgrimage- time, between the life we're used to and the mystery of transformation and life eternal. It is hard to find words for this, frustrating to me since I am a word-person; but the visual and liturgical cues of Lenten observance - and of our paradoxical, beautiful burial service, provide an experience of the mystery that I am cherishing this year.

I suppose what I am experience is the truth that we are ultimately and always an Easter people - but our whole life's journey and beyond is about figuring out what that means, and each Lenten season invites a new beginning in that direction. I feel closer to the mystery this year, because of these Lenten funerals. They have been disturbing, disorienting, paradoxical. But a blessing, nonetheless.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) 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.

Gran Torino and Good Friday

A Good Friday sermon

By Sam Candler

Good Friday is a story that we have heard before. But even if we have heard it before, it saves us when we hear it again and again.

Today, I want to present another story. It is the story from the most powerful movie I have seen in recent years. I realize that only a few of you have seen the movie. I realize that if I reveal the movie story today, somebody might accuse me of spoiling it for you. “Don’t give away the plot!” is what they tell all the movie critics and reviewers.

But it does not matter if I give away the plot. A good story describes something that is true no matter when you hear it – like the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus that we have just heard. We know what happens. We have heard the entire story before. But we are still moved, and touched, and saved by its power.

The movie I present to you today is called Gran Torino. It may be the last movie that the seventy-eight year old actor, Clint Eastwood, will ever act in. And it’s important, in this movie, that Clint Eastwood plays the main character.

Clint Eastwood, in case you do not know, has become popular almost always playing only one type of character. First, he was the quintessential bounty hunter in the old western frontier movies. Somehow or another, his character always went after the bad guy -- with the same skill and strength of the bad guy. Only, Clint Eastwood’s character was better at it. He could outdraw the outlaw and kill him in the street. Clint Eastwood has always seemed to play a decent man who accomplished the good by being better at violence. Consider The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More. In each of those movies, he was “the man with no name.”

As a boy, and as a man, I have always loved Clint Eastwood movies. The good guys win, and they do so with God, guns, and guts. They win with testosterone and bravado. They win by being stronger. It’s an easy lesson.

Clint Eastwood went from the bounty hunter frontier figure to the same type of character in modern law enforcement. The next set of movies began with Dirty Harry. Remember Eastwood as “Dirty Harry,” who took San Francisco law enforcement into his own hands and began such violent vigilante work? That movie had four sequels: Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, The Dead Pool!

“Go ahead, make my day,” Dirty Harry says. He enjoys doing good by killing the bad guy. Yes, Clint Eastwood has made many, many other movies; and he has even been involved in politics. But, for many of us, he is Dirty Harry, and he is the laconic “Man with No Name” in western films.

This background was critical to me when I saw Clint Eastwood playing Walt Kowalski in last year’s movie, Gran Torino.

The character Walt Kowalski is an old veteran of the Korean War. He saw things he shouldn’t have had to see in that war, and he did things he should not have had to do; but he also learned to be very good at what he had to do. He shot people. He killed people, for the greater good.

Kowalski then became a line worker in the automobile industry, and he lived in a tidy, modest house in a lovely Detroit neighborhood. He was very good at what he did.

However, when the movie, Gran Torino, opens, Walt Kowalski has just suffered the death of his wife. He is a lonely and bitter man. His children have raised rather spoiled grandchildren, or at least rude grandchildren who have no idea of the values that Kowalski stands for.

In fact, he stands for decency, honor, and hard work, in a world that seems to have abandoned all those things. His next door neighbors are Hmong, and they look very much like the people he faced in the war. As an initiation rite into a local gang, one of his young neighbors tries to steal his old car, a Gran Torino, in mint condition.

The boy’s older Hmong sister, Sue, is just as direct and forceful as Kowalski is. When Kowalski stands up against local gang members, the sister and her family want the neighborhood to know of the honorable deed. Kowalski is befriended by his foreign neighbors, and he gradually begins to discover, in them, the same honorable values that he knows.

But the movie, Gran Torino, is violent. It is set in an area of Detroit that has fallen into serious crime and abandonment. Thugs and gangs of every ethnic identity show up. Kowalski scowls and curses at them all. He drinks beer, all alone on his front porch, and scowls at the Hmong grandmother he hates next door.

He stands for his notion of the good, when it looks like the whole world has turned bad. The lyrics to the title song, Gran Torino, include the line: “Engines hum and bitter dreams grow, a heart locked in a Gran Torino, it beats a lonely rhythm all night long.” Kowalski is lonely and bitter.

But as the story develops, Kowalski discovers friendship and honor in the next door Hmong family. He takes a liking to the very boy, named Thao, who had tried to steal his car. He becomes a father to the teen-ager, and he realizes that the boy doesn’t have a chance defending himself against the local gangs.

Ultimately, and tragically, Kowalski realizes that he cannot save his young friend. At least, he cannot save the boy by his usual means. His usual means are power and violence. He has threatened the gang already with a gun, and they know he means business.

The story becomes more violent, and then even more violent. The bright and attractive sister is assaulted by the gang, and Kowalski realizes that the younger brother, his young friend, is about to seek vengeance with a gun he does not know how to use. Kowalski tricks the boy and locks him safely in a basement.

Then, it is Kowalski who appears at the house of the local gang. He stands in the street, just like a western gunfighter, calling out the five gang members. He forms his hand into a fake pistol and takes fake shots at the gang members, just like Dirty Harry taunting his prey; “Go ahead, make my day.”

By this time, all the neighbors are watching through their windows. A cloud of witnesses has appeared. Then, knowing completely what he is doing, Kowalski reaches into the inner pocket of his jacket. Will he pull a gun? The gang members think so. They shoot him with more bullets than Bonnie and Clyde seemed to have taken.

The movie story ends there. We see what Kowalski had in his hand: not a gun at all, but an old cigarette lighter. His body lies in the form of a cross on the street. The police do arrive this time, and a cloud of witnesses can attest that he Kowalski was killed innocently. The structure of justice will prevail. The young boy will be saved after all, but not in the usual manner.

Kowalski’s body lies in the form of a cross. Kowalski has saved the boy, not by using more violence, but by abolishing that small circle of violence.

Today, the Gran Torino story is a Good Friday story. On Good Friday, many of us ponder just what this violent story of Jesus is all about. The movie, Gran Torino helps to explain it. What Walt Kowalski does for his neighborhood, is what Jesus Christ has done for the whole world.

“My kingdom,” Jesus said before Pilate, “is not of this world.” If the kingdom of Jesus were of this world, he would be victorious by using the same methods of this world. He would call down angelic superpowers and win with swords and bombs. But the world’s violence will never be overcome by more violence. The violence and death of the world is overcome by the witness and truth of Jesus Christ. An innocent Jesus gives his life, gives it openly and freely, and thereby shows us the emptiness of violence and death.

We still have a long way to go, in making this saving truth of Jesus Christ known to the world. There are still gangs and thugs, and there are still innocent people succumbing to violence. Three young members of our own Christian community, in South Atlanta, were victims of that violence last Sunday night.

But today, the witness of the Christian Church is to lift up this Jesus as Savior of this world. He is an innocent victim, yes, but he is a divine and saving victim. In Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski learns that we are not saved by the God of guns and guts. We are saved by the God of giving and love.

When we cling to the cross today, when we lift up the cross today, we are clinging to a godly kingdom. We are lifting up the One who loves us so much that he gave. God loved the world so much that he gave. Jesus loves the world so much that he gives. We walk the way of that love today, the way of a powerful love that overcomes violence and death.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Lent. What is it for?

By Peter M. Carey

Entering Lent each year I tend to hear people at church (including myself) say that we should “give something up,” or (more recently) “take something on”. Giving up chocolate, or alcohol, or negativity are some choices that I have heard about. Taking on such things as praying daily, reading the Bible, or tending to one’s spiritual life can be wonderful disciplines. Often, however, I get focused on the obstacles. I get focused on (and obsessed with?) the thing I’ve tried to “give up,” or I find myself focusing on the thing that I’ve “taken on.” This is the wrong focus, perhaps like a hurdler focusing on the hurdles so much that she hits every hurdle and crashes. Obviously, the hurdles are not the focus of the race. Focusing on the obstacles can obscure the goal. I imagine this may be true of others as well.

This year, I have tried to really consider the question of the reason that we observe Lent at all. What is the reason to “give up” or “take on.” There are probably tons of reasons, but, for me, as someone with a busy house of three children under 6, and a busy ministry of serving as a chaplain to a large and complex school, the main reason to observe Lent at all has been to give some time to remember God. I have attempted to focus on God, rather than the things I’ve given up (Facebook), and rather than the things I’ve taken on (reading the Bible and theology daily with greater focus).

As simple as it sounds, the practice of giving time back to God, so that I might remember the ever present reality of God, can become difficult. Sometimes, it is helpful to push out from the comfort of our lives, to find someway to interrupt the spinning top of our schedules, and contemplate God.

For me to fully remember the fact that my life is contingent upon God, and God’s prevenient Grace (ever present Grace) it took a recent experience quite a few miles from chapel, and from my Bible.

About a week before Lent began, I found myself 45 feet in the air, clutching a plastic wall resembling a cliff, with two of my students providing the only safety against the relentless force of gravity. For a few split seconds I looked down and wondered whether those slightly built adolescents could really provide enough ballast and support, just in case my hands or feet slipped, or tired. After the moment passed, I looked back to the plastic “rock wall” and somehow pulled myself up to the top. However, there was a moment of fear, the healthy and appropriate fear of heights, and the somewhat less appropriate fear that two trained climbers would not fulfill their obligations and prevent me from falling.

For anyone who rock climbs regularly, these fears, and the minor anxieties of the sport, probably recede. However, for me, as a chaperone on the junior class “leadership retreat,” I had only one previous experience of climbing, and that one was several years ago. When the opportunity arose to get out of the seven-period-day grind of school, and spend some time with students outside the four walls of the classrooms, I jumped at it. It wasn’t until that moment, when I realized that I was quite literally putting my life into the hands of adolescents, that I had to surrender my need for control and realize that I was quite literally fully dependent on others.

So also my experience of Lent this year: stepping out beyond the four familiar walls, in order to contemplate my own dependence upon God. Stepping away from the comfortable, and the spinning top of our busy schedules may offer us the deep sense that God is there, holding the rope. We don’t have to fear. Remembering God may take some discipline, but we are offered the deep and abiding reward that we feel God’s grace, and God’s support, even as we scale the sometimes rocky and fearful path.

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

Pharisees and Tax Collectors

By Luiz Coelho

A couple days ago, I was overhearing a conversation (yes, I do that) between two women on “churches” and “religion.” Basically, one of them made a comment about being a Reform Jew and finding it very hard to deal with the Conservative Jewish school where she was working as an intern. The other woman, then, told a little bit about her experience as a child of a Southern Baptist father and an Episcopalian mother, and of being raised in the Episcopal Church.

Believe me, I am not the “gossipy” kind of person, but that conversation did attract my attention, after all, it was about the Episcopal Church. And when the Jewish woman mentioned that in Reform Judaism they had the freedom to question while in Conservative Judaism things were much stricter, the other one replied “Yes, I imagine it is just like being Episcopalian as opposed to being Southern Baptist.” I chuckled. I had to!

I have to admit that sometimes I succumb to the dangers of “episcolatry.” Let me explain. Not rarely we are taught, in the Episcopal Church (and, to a certain degree, in other Anglican Provinces), that we have freedom of thought, that we use reason, that we practice inclusion, that we are fighting for a change, and that we are not “fundamentalists” (a word that has been used both by Liberals and Conservatives at times, with no clear boundaries), among many other great things. Nevertheless, the pride that emerges from all of that often consumes me and not rarely I catch myself bearing a silly sense of superiority, almost as if I had find the “True” Church.

Lent has just started and it might be a bit cliché to revisit all the basics about this season, in a sort of Lent 101 course. But I believe, however, that in many cases we grasp much less than we should about this season of fasting and repentance. I tend to focus more on fasts. In fact, I was probably born on a diet, because I recall doing them since I was a child. So, it is not extremely hard for me to give up on edible temptations for a while. It is the repentance part that drives me crazy, and by reflecting upon some of the daily Lenten readings, I realized that I am most likely still far away from the ideal Jesus shows in the Gospels.

This is probably why I chuckled to the conversation I mentioned before. It is not a problem to understand that all of our struggles and achievements as a Church draw us near to the Gospel. The problem lies when we question why the “uncool fundamentalists” (among others) claim to sit at Christ's table. I have to admit that, not rarely, I have acted as the pharisees who criticize Jesus for having a meal with tax collectors. Yes, this passage, which for years was used to justify the inclusion of those seen by the Church as impure (usually liberal-minded Christians), ended up being used by me in a rather curious opposite direction. In the midst of cyber-wars and name-calling, I might say that several times I felt tempted to look down on people who, regardless of opinions or attitudes towards any of the hot topics or people en vogue, are marked as Christ's own and are just like myself: sinners in need of God's grace.

Lent might be, therefore, an appropriate period to repent from a fake sense of superiority that does us no good and in fact diverts our attention from what we are really called to do. Episcopalians or not, there is plenty of Christian ministry to be done around us. There are mouths to be fed, souls to be nurtured, people to be reached, gifts to be used and a life of service waiting for each one of us, whenever we are. Not rarely we will be criticized for claiming to be the sinners who sit at Christ's table, but that is far better than being the ones who feel “superior and clean,” and in no need of repentance. I still believe it is possible to speak with integrity and not succumb to such temptations. And this is what I have taken as my Lenten discipline. I know it is hard, and have no idea if it will work, but I am giving it a try.

So, my prayer is that, during this period of Lent, while we try to discern better what God's call in our life is, we can see every single person that we interact with as God's beloved child, and also as a potential brother or sister in Christ, in need of care, prayer and repentance.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

And a virgin shall conceive

By Ann Fontaine

Today, March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation. It is the day when the church remembers Gabriel’s visit to Mary and reveals to her that she will be the mother of Jesus who will become the Christ. The power of the Holy Spirit will fill her and cause her to conceive. The annunciation is one of the most popular topics of art, especially in Medieval and Renaissance art – often depicting her as conceiving through her ear. The mystery of it has confounded many – with some turning to worship Mary as Theotokos, the God Bearer, and others turning away in disgust at such blatant mythology.

My early life in the Episcopal Church was one that rejected any sort of talk of Mary as anything other than the mother of Jesus. Mary, meek and mild, was as far as our minister (never call him a priest) would go. I was thoroughly steeped in anti-Mary thinking. However, our neighborhood was near a Roman Catholic grade school and many of my playmates were Catholic. They would write JMJ at the top of their schoolwork, which until corrected by one boy, I thought were the initials of a girlfriend. The effect of my church’s and my playmates’ very different beliefs about Mary left me with a sense that there was something forbidden about Mary.

When I returned to the church in my 30s, I found that the creed was problematic for me. I could not really say the part “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” without mentally crossing my fingers. I just did not believe it. However, I began to accept the creed as a statement across time and in community. I decided I could say it because we said “we” and I thought someone in the community and in the history of the church believed it. I was stuck at that point of my journey with Mary when I became friends with a person who prayed regularly to Mary and found that a much more satisfying connection with God than all the male imagery. Her passion for God and her deep prayer life affected me. I began to explore the place of Mary in my life.

The first book I read was Herbert O’Driscoll’s Portrait of a Woman: meditations on the Mother of Our Lord. The next one was Ann Johnson’s Miryam of Nazareth: woman of strength and wisdom. Suddenly, I was confronted by a powerful woman who lived fully into her faith and answered God’s call by choice. I had never considered any image other than “meek and mild.” I learned that her name, Mary – Miryam – has a root meaning of rebellion. Johnson’s research revealed itself in her poetry, each poem written in the form she calls a Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). I was amazed that I had missed this Mary in my education and formation in the church.

The current stage of my life with Mary began when I was teaching a class on the creeds. We were using Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief as a basis for the study. I was facilitating the discussion and reading along with the class when we came to the chapter on “virgin birth.” Rather than explore the modern science or pre-scientific ideas about conception, Chittister spoke about the amazing story the creed tells about who are worthy to bear Christ into the world.

As I understand what she is saying, the fact that Mary was a young woman, a virgin when God called her to bear Jesus shows us the nature of God’s relationship to us. In Mary’s day she was seen as property. She was vulnerable in a culture that did not value women and especially not girls. Their value came from their connection to a man, first to their fathers and then to their husbands and their ability to bear sons. Today young girls are still at risk in many countries to be sold or bartered away. Even in the United States they are easily dismissed as less than anyone else. Although changes have been made – movies, popular music and media off all sorts views females as objects and not agents of their own lives.

This is why the creed’s affirmation of Mary is so amazing. God chooses the least in the social hierarchy to be the one to bear God into the world. It is a statement by the church of the worth of the individual in the face of cultures who say “not worthy.”

As to Mary as a vehicle for our prayers, I love having Our Lady of Guadalupe and other images of her around. I currently experience Mary as a companion rather than an object of worship. I see her as priest, the first person to offer the broken body of Christ up to the world. I understand the need for a feminine face of the Holy and how that emerges no matter the suppression of that aspect of God. The book of Proverbs speaks of Wisdom who companioned God from the beginning of creation. The feminine face of God who created both female and male in the image of God, continues to surface in our worship and in our dreams and even in humor:

Michelangelo was up on the scaffolding in the Sistine, a little bored, a little tired. He looks down, sees an old lady kneeling in prayer, and decides to have some fun. His voice echoes through the Sistine. "This is Jesus. How may I help you?"
The woman showed no sign of hearing him.
He said again, "This is Jesus; how may I help you?"
Still no response
So he tried one more time. "This is Jesus. How may I help you?"
The woman looked up at heaven and said,
"Shut up—Can’t you see I'm talking to your mama!

I am not quite sure where my journey with Mary will end. I still have more questions than answers. Recently I received this poem from a friend and it opens up all sorts of new thinking about Mary. Perhaps this is a good thing for the Feast of the Annunciation.

It seems I must have been more fertile than most
to have taken that wind-blown
thistledown softly-spoken word
into my body and grown big-bellied with it.
Nor was I the first: there had been
rumours of such goings-on before my turn
came - tales of swansdown. Mine
had no wings or feathers actually
but it was hopeless trying to convince them.
They like to think it was a mystical
encounter, although they must know
I am not of that fibre - and to say I was
'troubled' is laughable.
What I do remember is a great rejoicing,
my body's arch and flow, the awe,
and the ringing and singing in my ears -
and then the world stopped for a little while.
But still they will keep on about the Word,
which is their name for it, even though I've
told them that is definitely
not how I would put it.
I should have known they'd try to take
possession of my ecstasy and
swaddle it in their portentous terminology.
I should have kept it hidden in the dark
web of my veins...
Though this child grows in me -
not unwanted certainly, but
not intended on my part; the risk
did not concern me at the time, naturally.
I must be simple to have told them anything.
Just because I stressed the miracle of it
they've rumoured it about the place that I'm
immaculate - but then they always were afraid
of female sexuality.
I've pondered these things lately in my mind.
If they should canonise me
(setting me up as chaste and meek and mild)
God only knows what nonsense
they'll visit on the child.

Sylvia Kantaris From Dirty Washing, Bloodaxe 1989. ©Sylvia Kantaris Used by permission

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Prayer in the desert

By R. William Carroll

As is true with other portions of his Gospel, Mark’s account of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert is remarkable for its brevity. Mark’s is a simple, punchy story, filled with movement. An incident is recorded, often in very few words, and then, boom, the camera cuts to the next scene. Mark knows nothing of the devil’s three famous questions or the three equally famous replies of our Lord. Instead, he inserts just two short verses between the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry. Still dripping wet with the waters of Jordan, Jesus is plunged into the wilderness and tested. Listen to what Mark says: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In early Christianity, as for Jesus himself, the desert is a place of temptation and prayer. Early monks withdrew from inhabited places, such as Alexandria in Egypt, so that they could face their demons and discover the mercy of God. This week I’ve been having an online discussion with a small group of friends around the world. We’ve been talking about prayer. How do we pray? Why do we pray? What, if anything, do we ask for? Do we use words? Or do we pray better through our desires and actions? What is going on in our hearts? These are questions that can become the focus of reflection for each one of us in Lent.

In the course of our conversation, a friend of mine named Ted Mellor observed that he finds that “when words fail, it can be an invitation to move beyond the kind of praying we've been doing, full of words, words, words, about our plans for ourselves (and for others!). A chance to move into a wordless reliance on the Word, an utter dependence on the wisdom and love of God.” Ted went on to tell a story about one of the desert Christians of ancient times. “Abba Macarius was asked, 'How should one pray?' The old man said 'There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one's hands and say, 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer say, 'Lord, help!'"

Brothers and sisters, it should not surprise us if we find ourselves in desert places this Lent. The Christian life is filled with temptations. In fact, it may only be in the context of Christ’s calling to holiness that we can name our temptations for what they are. Our lives in the early twenty-first century are filled with things that are killing us but have come to seem normal.

Whatever temptations and dangers we face, our Lord knew them first. For he chose to live and die as one of us. The path from the waters of baptism to the joys of the Kingdom runs straight through the wilderness. Christianity is not safe. It is not all sweetness and light. If we are to find God and discover our true lives, we will often walk on wilderness paths. Forty years, the People of Israel wandered in the desert. Forty days, our Lord fasted and prayed. The saints have always returned here, year after year. The disciplines of Lent are meant to remind us of the desert, which, if we are honest, is where we often find ourselves. Even the inhabited places—our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches—can become so many deserts for us. Do we dare to hope that we may also discover here the half-remembered promise of freedom? The flight from the world can also be a flight into real community with others. Our most pressing temptations involve sins against love.

On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our “blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.” We also confessed our “false judgments,” “uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors,” and “our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.” It is these sins among others—sins that are deeply ingrained in us—which have helped transform paradise into a dry and barren land. Our greed and malice have turned the manifold gifts of God into so many things to clutch—into so many weapons to hurt each other with. The desert is a place we go to be disarmed—to rediscover our radical dependence on God and our interdependence with one another. On Ash Wednesday, one of the possible Old Testament readings comes from Isaiah. In it, the prophet calls us to a fast that involves housing the homeless poor, feeding and remembering our own kin.

This Lent, we intentionally journey into the wilderness, but we do not go alone. We go, first and foremost, with Christ, who shows us the way. We go also in the presence of our brothers and sisters. Even the desert hermits came to one another for counsel and strength. Hence, the brothers went to Abba Macarius to ask him how to pray. His answer is profound, and it comes straight from the Gospel. There is no need for so many words. What we do need is a direct appeal to Christ for mercy. We are to raise our hands up and say, “'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.'” And if our conflict grows fiercer, we are to cry out, “Lord, help!”

True prayer finds its power in a simple confidence in God’s goodness, as well as the depth of our own need. All prayer, moreover, is the work of the Spirit within us becoming our very own. As Christians, we believe that even now, the Holy Spirit, the Lord and lifegiver, is at work in the world. The Spirit is an outpouring of God’s mercy and love, who is always moistening our dry places and preparing us for new graces. The Spirit does so, even when we have no idea God is there.

This Lent, may we rediscover what one great spiritual teacher (Karl Rahner) called the “need and blessing of prayer.” May we be delivered from every temptation by the never failing presence of Christ. May we be caught up in the wordless presence of the Word. And, if we should find ourselves moved to speak at all, may our hearts cry out continually to God for mercy, in these or other words: “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.”

Like those who sought wisdom on the subject from Abba Macarius, the disciples of Jesus also asked him how to pray. His answer still forms the heart of our prayer in the Eucharist. There is some evidence that it was the original form of the Eucharistic Prayer and that all the other words we pray are but an elaboration of it. Recently, I encountered a tradition that goes back at least to Saint Augustine, according to which each of the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is a request for one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Whatever we make of this tradition, the Our Father draws us into the prayer of Jesus. It involves crying out for God’s mercy and our daily bread in power of the Holy Spirit.

I commend it to you, along with the simple prayer of Abba Macarius and the wordless prayer of the heart. These are powerful tools as we confront our ancient enemy and “every power that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.” As we walk along desert paths, may God make speed to save us.

“Lord, help us!”

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a member pf the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Hope, spring, baseball...Lent

By Sam Candler

It’s time for baseball again.

This is the time of year I make my formal apology to non-sports fans everywhere, as I take the time to rejoice in the ritual of baseball’s spring training. I suppose I must also apologize to the fans of other sports, those sports which are ever so noble but regrettably inferior to baseball.

As our winter takes another chilly turn, baseball players gather in Florida and Arizona for spring training. Seasoned veterans and raw rookies all have hope in their veins. They will make the team this year, after years of “almost.” All the batters believe that batting .300 is achievable. All the pitchers believe 15 wins or 20 saves is achievable. Everyone’s home team has a chance to win the pennant. All baseball fans, from the wisest newspaper writers to the most naïve local fans, take a renewed interest in the home team. Baseball in the spring is the very definition of “hope springs eternal.”

Hope and endurance are the foundations of success in baseball. Baseball is the sport for those who can endure, and hope is source of that endurance. Baseball is the sport of endurance. First off, of course, is the sheer length of its incessant schedule. Even the worst professional team will play 162 games this year. The difference between a first place team and a second place may turn out to be one game among those 162.

Baseball is the sport of humble aspirations. By “humble,” I mean down-to-earth. There will be no such thing as a team that wins every game, or even a batter who gets a hit in every game. In fact, the expectations are much more “down-to-earth,” “humble.” A successful batter needs to get a hit only 30% of the time. A player’s inner hope and emotional endurance will inspire him to return to the batters’ box after he has made seven outs in a row. After all, three successive hits in a row would then give him that ongoing .300 batting average.

Baseball will test the endurance of fans, too. It takes a lot of time to appreciate and enjoy the art of baseball. Fewer and fewer of us tend to devote much time to anything these days. We prefer the quick e-mail message, the short phone call, the casual glance at the newspaper or the television news. The game of baseball introduces long periods of no action into the game. A play itself lasts only twenty seconds; and then we all wait two or three minutes for the next play. By then, many of us have changed the channel.

But the art of baseball lies in appreciating those moments between the actual plays. For the game of baseball is the thinking and strategizing over how that play will develop. How do the fielders position themselves? What pitch does the pitcher throw? What will the batter anticipate? Who is scheduled to bat next inning? Who is warming up in the bullpen? The play itself is quick; the art—the discipline—takes a lifetime.

I could go on, just like baseball goes on and on. But if you’ve read this far, you deserve the closing Christian analogy. The analogy is that we all need Spring Training. We all need to get our muscles and training routines back into shape. We all need a review of techniques and strategies. We all need to work on what we are supposed to meditate on “between plays,” or between crises. We all need to renew our hope and our endurance.

In the church, we have another name for this Spring Training. We call it Lent. It’s time to get our aching prayer routines back into shape. It’s time to renew our hope. It’s time to focus on what God really wants us to do in this life. We call it Lent. It is the intentional training of our spiritual lives, so that we can succeed in the long season of resurrection life.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

The Daily Office: The perfect Lenten observance

By Derek Olsen

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a widely used psychological modeling tool. That is, it uses four sets of dichotomies to help a person make sense of who they are and how they relate to the world. I find it and the categories that it gives one of many helpful tools as I approach understanding myself and helping other people think through themselves and their spirituality.

The last of the Myers-Briggs dichotomies is “Lifestyle” and the official names for the two ends of the spectrum are “Judging” and “Perceiving”. Now, I don’t find these terms particularly helpful. I mean, how can anything labeled “judging” possibly give you a neutral sense about it? As I’ve experienced the test, as I’ve worked with people who taken it, as I’ve worked with people who use it professionally, this last index seems to measure organization, time and space management, and a general tolerance (or lack thereof) for spontaneity. So in my head, “J” stands for organized, regimented, controlled, and planned; “P” stands for spontaneous, free-form, disorganized.

Me—I’m a P. No, like—I’m seriously a P. But despite my natural tendencies and inherent inclinations, I keep getting called back time and again to a rather J spirituality. It even drew me into the Episcopal Church.

As an earnest first-year seminarian I discovered a group who met together before the start of classes who did a thing called “morning prayer.” It wasn’t long before I was hooked. I can’t say I was there every morning—but I managed to get there more often than not. The more I learned and explored, I discovered that this “morning prayer” thing was one bit of a whole cycle called the Daily Office. Learning about and seeking out modern forms of the Daily Office was one of the things that led me as a Lutheran to begin studying the Book of Common Prayer.

Now, I consider the Daily Office to be a pretty J kind of spirituality. It’s ordered. It’s regimented. It has a set structure. The structure changes in certain, set, predictable ways at the change of days, weeks, seasons, and years. Rather than being repelled by the J-ness of this way of prayer I fund it nourishing—grounding. Like the rhythm of the waves on the beach it afforded me with something constant, something that didn’t vary with nor depend upon my whims or fancies.

It’s been almost a decade and a half since I encountered the Daily Office, and it’s my spiritual home. It was one of the main factors that led me from the Lutherans to the Episcopalians. It’s one of the great treasures of our prayer book. And so it both astounds me and pains me to meet so many Episcopalians who have never encountered this way of praying, this way of being—or who think that it was something that we replaced with the coming of the ’79 prayer book and its move to making the Eucharist the normative Sunday morning service.

We’re right on the cusp of Lent here—and I’d like to offer a suggestion. If you’re looking for a discipline to help you take Lent seriously this year, I’d like to recommend the Daily Office—or at least a portion thereof.

Let me give you a quick orientation to what we’ve got here. The prayer book has two basic forms of the Daily Office, one in traditional language (Rite I) and one in contemporary language (Rite II). The traditional language one offers the two classical parts that have been in every Book of Common Prayer stretching back to 1549—a service of Morning Prayer (p. 37) and a service of Evening Prayer (p. 61). The contemporary language one is a bit more expansive. It has Morning Prayer (p. 75), a short Noonday Prayer (p. 103), Evening Prayer (p. 115), and Compline—a short prayer office for the close of the day (p. 127). There’s also another bit, Order of Worship in the Evening (p. 108) but it’s intended primarily to be done in church whereas the others are suitable for doing with family or by yourself.

Speaking of families—there’s also a section of really short self-contained versions of the Daily Office that are especially suitable for families called the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families (p. 136). These are one-page prayer sets for use at Morning (p. 137), Noon (p. 138), Early Evening (p. 139), and Close of Day (p. 140) and are short enough to hold even a toddler’s attention. I speak here from experience—this is what we use with our two girls.

Now—the major offices are the ones for Morning (p. 37 or 75) and Evening (p. 61 or 115). There are three other parts of the prayer book that you’ll need to make these work: the Psalms (p. 585), the Collects (p. 159 for Rite I; p. 211 for Rite II), and the Daily Office Lectionary (p. 934) which gives you three readings—one from the Old Testament, one from the New, and one from a gospel—that you can divide up as you choose.

I’ll warn you right now—there are some options, choices and decisions to be made as you learn to pray the Office. It can be tricky when you first start out. In order to help you out, let me recommend some trustworthy guides.

First, there are some great resources on the web that give you the Daily Office intact with no book juggling or page flipping required. The top two that use the current American Book of Common Prayer that I’m aware of are:

The Daily Office blog
Mission St. Clare

Second, if you think you’re not quite up to a full-on Office experience but think you’d like to dip your toe in, or if you’re looking for something that you can do with your kids, here’s a lightly Lent-ified version of the Morning and Early Evening prayer sets from the Daily Devotions section of the prayer book.

Third, if you think you’re ready to tackle the Offices out of your prayer book, then grab your prayer book, a Bible, and one of these handy guides. The first is a quick reference guide to the Rite II (contemporary) Office. It’s an anonymous composition that I found on the web a few years back—I don’t know who put it together, but it’s a great source for helping people learn the Office. In the spirit of that reference, I put together an introduction to the Rite I Office from an Anglo-Catholic perspective.

Fourth, talk to your priests! If nothing else, they learned about the Offices in seminary and if it makes them go back to the books and get a quick refresher, well, so much the better.
The Daily Office is a habit. It’s a discipline. Even if you’re not, well, disciplined. And that’s where its J and my P start tangling—and where yours might too. Some people I know fear the Office because they’re afraid they won’t get it right, that they won’t do it enough, that they’ll miss a time or two and then they just won’t measure up. I understand. I’ve been there—and it’s ok. A house with kids is nothing like a monastery. Four offices a day each and every day is a goal—not a starting place. Start with whatever makes sense for you. And if you slip up and miss a day (or even a week…) then it’s time to enact another Lenten discipline: repent, receive forgiveness, and give it another shot.

So if you’re looking for a holy habit this Lent, something spiritual, something classic, something Anglican, look no farther than the Daily Office. Try it for a season—relax in the ebb and flow of the psalms and canticles and give it a chance to speak to you the way it does me.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a 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.

Ashes and wine

By Sam Candler

About 350 miles west of Morocco and about 550 miles southwest of Lisbon, there lies a verdant island, lush with greenery and life. Scientists now recognize the island as having been formed by an ancient volcanic explosion. The island was discovered in the year 1418 by one Captain Joao Zarco, sailing under orders from Prince Henry the Navigator. He found it virtually impenetrable, so thick was the forest and growth.

Because the forest was so dense, Captain Zarco named the island for the Portuguese word for "wood." That word is "madeira." Then, Captain Zarco set about clearing the land. It was hard work. Deciding that the only way to clear the entire island was to use fire, he and his men burned the whole island.

The island of Madeira burned for seven years. When the fire was out, the entire place was covered with a fine wood ash. That ash dissolved into the volcanic ground, combined with the clay and calcium already there, and an incredibly rich soil resulted, even more fertile than the previous soil. In fact, this became the same sort of soil which was conducive to fine wine.

So, people began to grow grapes in the soil! Thus was the beginning of a fine wine named Madeira. By 1495, it was being produced. It became, in Europe, the after-dinner drink of choice. George Washington is said to have drunk a pint a day. Thomas Jefferson toasted the Declaration of Independence with madeira.

Madeira -- a fine wine, born of burnt ashes in the soil.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians put ashes on our foreheads. In doing so, we are following one of the oldest of Christian customs. At one time, not everyone in the Christian congregation placed ashes on their head, but only those who were acknowledging and confessing egregious sins. They made public their confession with these ashes. But in the Middle Ages, it became the practice for every Christian to submit to the ashes. The season of Lent became a time of public penitence for the entire church.

Today, the ashes mean these things, but many more. The ashes are a reminder of our origin from the earth. “Remember,” we say, “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are not the self-assured, comfortable, live-forever people that we try so often to look like. We are going to die, all of us; we know that. Ashes are a sign of that ultimate reality.

The ashes are also, of course, a sign of sin. We are tainted, stained, by our constant falsehoods and wrong actions. We are a people who know better, but who make wrong choices. It was not someone else who made us do it. It was not the fault of Satan. We were not possessed by demons. It was not the fault of our parents. It was not the fault of society. It was not our peer group or the culture around us.

It was us. We are responsible. We have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

But today, I propose another meaning for these ashes. Out of these ashes, these signs of our mortal nature, comes something else. Once we recognize our own responsibility for wrongdoing, once we acknowledge our mortal and dusty nature, the ashes also become a sign of fertility.

If we are truly repentant, and truly cleansed, and open to the reality of God around us, then we are also fertile, ready to give growth to greatness.

Out of seven years worth of ashes on the island of Madeira came one of the finest wines of that time. There is no way the wine could have been produced without the burning, without the ashes. In fact, it was the burning that cleared the ground in the first place.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are, likewise, the burning and clearing of our Christian lives. We enter a time for confession, for penitence, for realization of our earthly nature. But this is also a fertile day, a time for self-examination and self-preparation. Today is getting us ready for something.

Just as ground is prepared in the Spring for luscious growth, today the ground of our lives, the soil of our souls, is being prepared. Maybe through our confession and mortal acknowledgement, we are emptied, opened, made ready for something. We will mark our lives with ashes, but they are ashes of fertility and rich preparation.

In fact, we are preparing our souls for the presence of God. The dense forest of our complicated lives is too thick. It is time to burn it away and make ready the fields for new growth.

Our God awaits our openness, our fertile ground. God comes into our lives with forgiveness, with deep love – and with the smooth glory of a fine wine. Yes, Christians receive that wine, too, on Ash Wednesday. Christians walk to the altar twice. We receive both ashes and wine, the fine wine of Christ. We receive the sign of our mortal nature, but we also receive the sign of fertile and abundant life.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Seasons out of synch

By Luiz Coelho

Many of you might be enjoying this cold day, drinking a cup of hot tea, and resting at home with the heat on and the fireplace burning. Snow might be falling outside, and surely Christmastide and this Epiphanytide have been cold as well. Easter, on the contrary, will signalize the beginning of warmer times, and the blossoming of flowers and new life coming. Fields that are covered with snow right now will be full of joy to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord. And next year, the same cycle will start over again.

However, I have lived most of my life in the Southern Hemisphere, and holidays and seasons have been very different to me. Christmas, to us, is at the beginning of Summer, and in some places is followed by temperatures that are close to 100 F degrees. Easter, on the contrary, marks the beginning of Fall, and therefore is always followed by the retraction of nature as it prepares itself to the upcoming winter. On the other side of the planet, and to a large number of believers, none of the environmental metaphors associated with Christian holidays match.

And yet, those feasts mean to us as much as they mean to those who live in Northern lands, to a point that new habits were created to situate them in time and space. To me, for example, it is very awkward to think about Christmas without the warm weather, open windows and outdoor parties. Epiphany is never the same without processions and the reenactment of Kings' parties under the hot sun. And Easter always presupposes the coming of Fall, and its gentle weather after months of a torrid Summer.

Nevertheless, we were impacted both by cultural aspects brought by immigrants (mostly from Europe) and also by recent globalization. So, even though sometimes our Christmas carols were deliberately changed to substitute elements such as "snow" by "bells" and other more neutral words, we still deal in a supposedly contradictory yet surprisingly harmonic way with Christmas trees covered by fake snow, Santa Claus, exuberant Easter flower arrangements and other elements that could easily be misunderstood as cultural imperialism in these times of political correctness. Yet, they are cherished by us and have their special place in this symbolic world that do not necessarily need to make any sense.

An English friend, now a missionary in Rio de Janeiro, was impressed by how all those elements that seem so contradictory actually work together. It was still weird to him to spend Christmas without the cold weather and specificities of his own cultural and religious traditions, even though he was surrounded by references to them, adapted to a tropical summer. "It's all about the Incarnation" - he finally settled. Surely it is, and I would expand that idea even more... It is all about a God whose mysteries are so greater than any references to space and time that, regardless of where we are, or who we are, His message will be always fresh and anew.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

Christmas blues, Epiphany light

By Richard Helmer

One of our five-year-old’s favorite Christmas gifts this year was a racing track made in China (where else?) with a little wind-up car. The track itself consists of soft plastic with sharp edges and tight junctions, requiring fifteen minutes plentiful parental sweat – we hope with minimal swearing – to assemble. All this effort is just so the car can zoom around the loops in under three seconds. Daniel remains interested in the zooming car for about five minutes and then walks away, leaving the hunk of plastic languishing in our living room.

For me, the racing track offers a metaphor of our commercialized Christmas, with all of the effort, sweat, and even blood that we pour out year and after year, just so the culture can walk away from the festival the day after; so the country can get back to its routine with all of the bad news, frustrations, and anxieties. Our families and individual lives are much the same way. Back to the frustrations of the “routine” whatever is routine these days, with all of the rawness of the holidays still to cope with. If your family and circle of friends is a bit like mine, you’ll recognize that the five-year-old leaving the hunk of plastic on the living room floor, metaphorically or literally, is a major potential source of conflict needing to be re-negotiated. Christmas left us with more sore-spots, sometimes, than we started with – raw material for New Year resolutions, perhaps.

Well, the whole thing is a recipe for the Christmas blues, if you ask me – and I always have a few of those in the first few weeks after Christmas, where the carols and the garlands and the greens have started to lose their crispness. Sunday attendance is low, and some folk are already taking down the Christmas lights or tossing out the tree. Cardboard is piling up outside the recycling bins and children and adults are already getting bored with their new toys. Put in Christian theological terms: Jesus needs changing, the shepherds have returned to the grunt and grime of the fields, and the wise men are packing up to leave. There is even the sinister story remembered the week after Christmas of Herod’s horrific slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and Mary and Joseph fleeing with the Jesus into Egypt.

I don’t know about you, but there’s an idealist in me somewhere that expected the world to be permanently altered after Christmas – filled with light from the little town of Bethlehem and harbingers of peace and transformation for the new year. Instead, the Gaza strip and portions of Israel are under bombardment, and hundreds of people are losing their lives. Closer to home things are thankfully not so violent, but the checking account still needs balancing after a December binge and, with the recession looming large, planning for the New Year is anything but rosy for most, if not all of us.

As we turn to Epiphany, I take heart from the perennially uplifting passage from the prologue of John: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

It sums up the hope we are to take away from Christmas and into Epiphany – hope that we nurture and hold in the darkness for ourselves and even more importantly for one another. The author of John, with rough-hewn Greek dispensing profound theological ideas insists on seeing our lives, the world, and all of creation through God’s eyes: a God who called us good before we saw the daylight; a God who birthed galaxies and quarks; a God who still looks at the world with all of its darkness, haunted by old hurts, and still calls it good. And we receive this light to carry: the newborn Christ, the newborn hope that is ours for the taking. Sometimes, like Mary and Joseph, we take him and flee the violence of the world. At other times, we cradle and shield him like a vulnerable, flickering flame in the darkness of a grimy stable.

Once our son forgets he ever had a plastic racing track made in China, there will still be this light shining in the darkness for him. And, for me, that’s good news for Christmas blues, shining in the darkness with Epiphany light, waiting for the next chapter of God’s redeeming grace to unfold.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Stars and dreams

By Ann Fontaine

“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

Kenny Rogers sang these lyrics about a gambler but in this season of Epiphany they seem to apply as well to Joseph. Joseph held ‘em when he listened to the angel in his dream and kept Mary from disgrace and death, giving space in time for Jesus’ birth. He knew when to run when he heard the angel’s warning about Herod. He walked away from the danger to the child and took his family to Egypt and safety.

The lyrics also apply to the Magi, the stargazing strangers from the East who held 'em as they followed a star to find a gift beyond their imagining - a gift that made their gold, incense and myrrh pale in comparison. They walked away, seeking something worth holding and protecting it from the evil of empire as they took “another way” home from their journey.

The whole world seems to be wondering, is now the time to hold ‘em or fold ‘em, stay, walk or run? Most of our fears revolve around how to make a future for ourselves and our children. From the war in the Holy Land where each side is trying to make space for its children to live and thrive to a local family who could not keep their 3-year-old alive with all the privileges of money and medical care - the world wonders. Since the stars are unclear in their message to me, I just want to pull the covers over my head and go back to dreaming.

The theme of the recent US election was hope. The candidate who won capitalized most on this theme. In some parts of the world, coups have taken place, with each winner offering hope of a different life for people. In other places wars are being fought with the promise of new life out of the death and destruction necessary to make it happen. Will any of these really bring the life about which we dream? Are any of them a star worth following? Can we really know when it is time to hold ‘em or time to fold ‘em?

The Magi and Joseph had angels and dreams and stars for guidance. We see that they made the right choices as we read their stories. We don’t usually have these angels and dreams and stars for guidance as we journey. Sometimes we don’t even have any choice in much of life. When we do have the power to decide, we later see where choices we thought were correct turned out to be the worst things we could choose. We can see some things that seemed iffy that turned out for the best. Life is funny that way.

There is the story of the priest who always wanted to be a chaplain to an Episcopal school. He took all the right courses in his training. He interned with school programs. He received excellent recommendations. He applied for position after position, but never attained his desire. He went to work as an assistant in a large parish and worked with success in various ministries. One day he received two letters – one was an offer to become a chaplain, and the other was an offer to become the rector of a larger parish. He was torn; by this time, he wanted to be a rector as much as he wanted to be a chaplain. He lay down in front of the altar and prayed for a sign to show him which position he should accept. He prayed and prayed. Suddenly it came to him, in a dream or a voice or who knows: it does not matter which you choose – just be faithful.

Faithfulness is what is required. Life will prove the correctness of our decisions and, if we go off the rails, repentance will put us back on the right track. That is the cycle of redemption. Paul, in Romans 5 and 6, struggles with this idea of sin and grace. He does not seem to resolve it very satisfactorily. For me Thomas Merton says it best:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your Will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death. I will not fear,
for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

When we hear about Joseph and the Magi now, they seem so sure. I think they too wondered if they really heard the voice of an angel or were following the right star. A gambler always believes he will know when to hold his cards or when to fold and walk away. Our lives, however, are not a gamble. They are a sure thing for as long or short as they may be. Hopefully our stories will prove that we made the right choices in our journey with God, but if not we are assured that God promises to be with us. Immanuel.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine lives in Wyoming and keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

A few words on Christmas as it passes

By George Clifford

My recent reading Wendell Berry’s 1985 essay, “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” prompted some thoughts about public discourse and Christmas. Berry noted that environmentalists who identified Abbey as a fellow environmentalist had authored many of the published reviews of Abbey’s writings. Consequently, Berry remarked, these environmentalists thought that they had “a right to expect [Abbey] to perform as their tool.” When Abbey deviated from his reviewers’ expectations, the reviewers objected vociferously. Berry preferred to characterize Abbey as an autobiographer, a person whose writings reflected not the expectations of others but Abbey’s individuality and unique thoughts.

Based on my two-year experience in the blogosphere and three plus decades of ministry, many participants in twenty-first century public discourse might beneficially reflect on Berry’s observations. Narrow, single-issue agendas pursued with an unrelenting passion distort much contemporary discourse into the practical equivalent of a monologue, a chorus – small or large – of voices that strive to shout down or otherwise to exclude an honest diversity of opinion. This chorus finds only endlessly cloned thought acceptable, dismissing inherently distinctive autobiography as uninformed or obstructive. So many advocates of “political correctness” subscribed to this genre of discourse that for several years comics frequently parodied them.

Stereotyping people makes quick work of putative public discourse, especially helpful in a stressed-out world perpetually functioning in information overload. Affirm those with whom one agrees; reject, perhaps even condemn those with whom one disagrees. We have the truth; it has made us free to judge without fear. This obviates any time-wasting and potentially energy-draining need for real dialogue or conversation. In other words, objectify others: make them as involuntary extensions of one’s self or reduce them to non-entities.

No known first century Jew anticipated the long-awaited Messiah being born in Nazareth, living as a peasant, and dying as a criminal. The vast majority of Jews (as is the vast majority of humanity) were blind to everything but what they wanted, a Messiah who would give them political freedom and economic prosperity. When God did something fresh, something unexpected, a very few people, mostly Jews who managed to see past their misguided expectations, experienced God moving in a new way through Jesus.

As the handful of individuals who had experienced God moving anew in Jesus began to carry that message around the Mediterranean, they invariably found a mostly unhearing audience. Images of St. Paul as a successful church planter depend upon a rewriting of history. In fact, all of the congregations that Paul helped to start failed to thrive. Not until people repackaged Jesus into a domesticated promoter of political stability and economic prosperity did Christianity begin its rapid spread. That repackaging predated but resulted in Constantine’s purported vision of a symbolic and triumphant cross over the Milvian Bridge in the year 312.

In our post-modern American Christmases constructed out of fake glitz, gifts “Made in China,” and glutinous emotional schlock, I find the vision of God moving in fresh and unexpected ways to be almost totally obscured. In Holy Baptism, we received the name of a peasant who died as a criminal. Yet we, like most who preceded us, insistently demand an exclusionary Messiah who will serve as guardian angel for us and our loved ones, protect our political system from terrorists, and rapidly restore economic prosperity.

Those of us who actively participate in public discourse – conversation, sermons, lectures, blogs, other writing, etc. – would do well to listen and to watch more in 2009, seeking to hear and to see the message that other participants in those public discourses wish to convey. Adopting this practice will at the very least make us more civil – no bad thing. Adopting this practice may also help to unstop our ears and to clear our vision, enabling us to discern God continuing to act in surprising and unanticipated ways in our lives and in the world. The wonder, mystery, and love that accompany the birth of a child will be ours as we discover the new world God is creating within and around us. Perhaps this, more than vainly attempting to recreate the mythical idyll portrayed in a Currier and Ives or Norman Rockwell Christmas print, will lead us into the real Christmas.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Hesitation before the holy

By Andrew Gerns

As I write this, I am finishing up my annual Advent & Christmas trip around boundaries of the parish. Like many priests and deacons in all kinds of places, I have been going around bringing communion to the home-bound members of the parish. The Sunday after Christmas, lay people will fan out across this same parish taking with them the poinsettias that at the moment adorn our chancel.

There is a strange dance that happens in preparation for this trek: some people eagerly welcome my arrival, some resist; some are glad, some are hesitant. I have been here long enough to know which person will welcome my call, who will be polite, and who will call the ‘morning of’ and tell me that they cannot receive me and that they will call me when they can.

Here is the funny part: they will gladly accept the flower and, like the disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs, the people who bring them will come back chattering excitedly at having been received and how appreciated the flowers were and what a wonderful conversation they had. It is a strange dance. I will accept the plant but not the sacrament. I will welcome a mom and her daughter bearing a poinsettia but not the priest, deacon or lay Eucharistic minister bringing the sacrament.

As the Orthodox might say: It is a Great Holy Mystery!

It’s a mystery I’ve contemplated my whole ordained ministry both in parishes and as a chaplain. In the hospital world, it was a constant battle to get admissions registrars to routinely ask patients for the “religious preference” of patients. (This always struck me as a strange way to phrase it. All I can think is ‘Well right now I am mad at the Episcopal Church so today I prefer….Buddhist…or some profitable cult.’ Why not simply ask “Do you go to a church, synagogue or mosque? Would you like us to call them?”) When they did ask ‘the question’, usually about 33% of patients would offer “no preference” or if they had one would not permit us to tell their pastors that they were in the hospital. And yet….when we chaplains would visit these same people, we found that not only was there an often rich spiritual story and that very many of them were, at least tangentially, connected to a community of faith. Often they would tell us that just didn’t want to “bother” the pastor.

The mystery, my dear Watson, is this: why is there such a disconnect between the initial question and ultimate response? The answer is elemental but not simple.
I am not sure how, but I think that this pattern is connected to another pattern that we chaplains could nearly always count on: that the really good conversations rarely began until after the “closing” prayer has been said. Sometimes this occurred because of the need of the patient and chaplain to clear away the religious agenda. That having been done, real relationship can happen.

More often, though, I have come to believe that prayer is a more effective opening of the heart than mere conversation. The pastors, clergy, lay visitors and chaplains who come in solely to dispense a sacrament or a ritual or a scripted word of comfort and then leave as soon as their token is confected are missing out on something: that the strange combination of silence, listening and symbols have power to unlock a person’s soul. One only needs to be quiet and wait.

People are protective of their souls. And well they should be. There are thousands of reasons why a person may not want to open, or even be conscious of, what’s going on in there. It may feel like something rolling and sloshing inside us that we can barely contain. If we open up that space, even for a second, then who knows what may come out?

It is not good to pester people even in the guise of being pastoral. I believe that pastoral caregivers should respect a person’s choice to receive or not receive pastoral care, and that is true both in the parish as well as in the hospital. I also don’t believe that we should paint ourselves into corners.

My personal inclination to take people at their word when they say “not now.” But then the task becomes listening around the edges for the other ways they communicate their concern. Like the other day, a person going through a particularly rough out-patient course of treatment is pretty evasive when I want to initiate a visit, but she always manages to “drop in” at the office on some kind of errand and just happens to mention to the parish secretary what is going on in her treatment. And when that happens, I have learned to smile, nod and then about 24 hours later make a phone call that sounds like a check in but is subtitled “Roger, tower, message received.” The trick is not to get anxious about either their choices or the possibility of my inaccurate perception. Checking in every now and then may be all that’s required.

It may be that the initial hesitation may be nothing more than a bushel covering a light. Here’s the challenge: it is usually not for me to rip away the bushel because in my impatience I might snuff out the candle. Maybe it is enough that the person tips back their own bushel just enough to let me see the light leak out just for a second. Not all of us are ready to turn those bushels into lamp-stands.

Which brings me back to the Great Holy Mystery. Why is it that the average person, the average believer, doesn’t tell the admissions clerk about their faith community? Why do some shut-ins and sick parishioners hide their ailments from their priests and deacons? Why do parishes search committees insist on calling “pastoral” priests, as long as they are “pastoral” with someone else? I believe it is because they are, on some non-verbal level, deeply aware of what’s going on—and are terrified to go there. It is all we can do to manage this physical ailment, the personal problem or whatever it is that’s pre-occupying us right now. Let’s not complicate things, okay?
So why persist? Why bother calling a person to ask them if they would like my visit and Christmas (or Easter or just “plain old”) Communion when I know they will say “let me call you when I am ready” and seem never to be ready? Well, for one thing, the request itself is holy. It is a small, momentary reminder that God and God’s people have not forgotten this person and even if the request doesn’t go anywhere, it is good to be remembered. And that’s why it’s okay that people might take the plant and not the priest, because something holy is happening there, too.

Maybe they want to just see me and not my communion kit. Maybe just checking in is enough.

Besides, you never know, they might say “yes.” Something might cause them to break through their functional fear and put aside their hesitation. If they do accept the invitation and if everything goes right and if God shows up (and God always does) then maybe something good will happen. Something mysterious. Something holy.

The Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns is Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania, chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and keeper of the blog “AndrewPlus: Fun ‘n’ Games in the Kingdom of God.”

The Christmas pageant

The Daily Episcopalian will be the Somewhat-Less-Frequent Episcopalian during the Christmas holidays.

By Peter Carey

Growing up in the church, I found one that one of the most powerful times in the year were these seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. While Easter may be the more central feast of our faith, for me, the present seasons had more weight. Perhaps it was the sense of anticipation, the sense that while we know that Christ has come, we also have a deep sense that the fullness of that gift has not yet been fully realized. Perhaps it was the way that the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament readings wove together the sense of longing for the Messiah. Perhaps also it was the tangible reminders of the Advent Wreath, the colors of the vestments, and, yes, even the garish Christmas decorations of the stores.

I think, however that the richness of this season was dependent upon that wonderful, and yet so chaotic, practice of putting on the Christmas pageant. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury, Vermont was and is a vibrant church in a small college town where the Christmas pageant was a big deal. The pageant had the whole cast, from Mary to the wise men, to scads of shepherds to angels, to scores of sheep, to a donkey and a cow. The readings of the Christmas stories from Luke and Matthew alternated with the traditional hymns of Christmas. The pageant was fun for kids, and was (as I now appreciate) a ton of work for the adults in the church, and was a set- up for all kinds of chaos. In my own experience, in that first pageant, I had a hot and smelly paper mache donkey mask on my head, and struggled to see the “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes”. Each year, I was able to try on a different role, progressing through being a shepherd, to a wise man, and finally Joseph.

Beyond the cuteness and the fun, what the pageant offered was a space for us to experience the story of Christmas. Whether it was as a donkey nearby Mary and Joseph, or as an Angel proclaiming, “Fear Not,” the pageant carved a place within this holy narrative even for the likes of us. While the costumes sometimes smelled, and were uncomfortable or ill-fitting, they jump-started our imagination. In the midst of the holy chaos of those Christmas pageants spaces were opened for us to see and experience the Christmas story in a real and tangible way, and spaces were opened for us to experience God in our midst.

As I have experienced a couple dozen Christmases since then, I remember the smell of the paper mache, sitting on hand and knee as we sang “Away in a Manger,” and my own imagination was lit with the Holy Spirit in that pageant. Whether we have the chance to dress up as a character in one of these holy plays, we still have the chance to pray for the gift of imagination as we reflect upon the gift of the Incarnation, not as some far-off experience or something that only happens to those blessed people. God has opened up a space even for us, even in our own chaotic and busy lives, in these holy, and yet sometimes difficult seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. May we have the eyes to see, and the ears to hear, and the imagination to experience the gifts that been lovingly and freely given to us.

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

Advent anxiety

By Richard Helmer

December 1st hit with an unusual intensity this Advent, as the beginning of the season coincided with the secular realization that Christmas was coming, the economic woe was deepening, and the apocalyptic messages deep in our tradition were stepping forward. In the days since, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking people down from climbing walls, while watching and listening to them exercise the anxieties that have become too many to number.

It’s tempting to grump about the general state of people right before Christmas – the greater clamor of car horns, impatient traffic, exasperated shoppers, shallow commercialism, overly-exuberant holiday lovers, and children who melt down before their exhausted parents in store aisles and on street corners. Unresolved family dynamics show up at the table – whether God’s or our dining room’s. Some people around us who have been on edge all year go over at this time. Many of us working in or otherwise connected to the Church get to see all this happen and more in all its dramatic Technicolor. And then we are asked or expected to help pick up the pieces.

Even the Church itself seems to be suffering from an overly developed Advent anxiety this year. In early December, enormous attention turned to a small group of schismatic Anglicans who declared themselves the new province in North America. It’s a new province only because they say it is. Yet that’s enough to garner international headlines and worry some (yet again) that The Episcopal Church, if not the Anglican Communion, is at last collapsing.

As I watch the angst-ridden scampering and posturing, I keep returning in my prayers to that prescient phrase from the Night Prayer in A New Zealand Prayer Book:
“It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.”

This defines not only what’s been going recently in ecclesiastical circles, but in the greater world of markets and global economics. That world is now becoming thread-bare, revealing underneath it the deeper threads of Advent: the recognition that things as we have known them are coming to an end. John the Baptist is calling us into the spooky wilderness across the Jordan. We are like Mary as an angel shows up in our chamber to announce we will carry impending judgment in the form of a tiny child. We are like Joseph when we are confronted with righteous plans shattered by inescapable scandal, and then we must try to make a compassionate decision.

It took me until this Advent to realize that anxiety – far from being a perennial nuisance – is an essential part of this season. It coincides with all the world collapsing, the failure of sound reason, the growing darkness, and all our best-made plans falling to pieces. Advent anxiety connects with our most profound fears that we don’t really have it figured out, whatever “it” is. Advent anxiety unwinds our sorry identity with our work or our success or our overinflated sense of virtue and self-righteousness. And it reveals the bread of anxiety we have been eating quietly and thoughtlessly all this year.

In our parish, our petitions each Sunday begin with these words: “As we wait. . .” Not even “As we prepare. . .” seems quite right, for anxiety paralyzes some of us spirituality this time of year. We can barely pray our way out of the gloom, let alone exalt the valleys and lay the mountains low. There are many ways to wait, after all, and one of them is with great anxiety.

But I wonder at the bread of anxiety, as it courses through us individually and as a community, leaving us necessarily empty and hollow. It shakes loose all of the indigestible and half-baked idolatries that have consumed and filled us to his point. It breaks our hearts open and creates a yawning chasm of need for true comfort and reassurance. It gives free reign to our skepticism, doubts, and bewilderment and reveals the carefully hidden shadows in and among us for all the world and even God to see and perhaps heal.

In a deep way, Advent anxiety opens up a womb among us for the Christ-child to enter. So far from rejecting it, we must move through it, if we are to embrace the peace of Christmas and the new life that it promises for a world of endings all around us.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

The Baptist could tell it

By Greg Jones

Maya Angelou tells a funny story about a woman in a call-and-response style African-American church service, who had an interesting response to the Word of God - if only I could remember in which book she does. I'm getting older. But as I remember the story, one Sunday a large woman with a flower hat and a big white purse sat up front in church. As the preacher got going, she began to respond to his words with "Mmm-Hmm's," and by saying out loud: "Tell it!" As the sermon progressed her "Tell Its" got louder. Pretty soon, she was standing up, waving her hands, and crying out, "Tell It!" When she got so worked up she could no longer stay in place, for she was so connected to the sermon, she approached the preacher, and with a final "Tell It" she swung her arms wildly, and knocked him over.

Well there is something about John the Baptist which just "Tells It" too. Here was a man who took his work for the Lord one-hundred percent seriously. A prophet whose whole being was like a trumpet that the News of the Kingdom came blowing right through. A man who cared neither for his appearance nor his diet. A man who said what he was called to say, no matter what the consequence. A man who was loud and raw, and without interest in personal wealth or honor.

The Bible says that John the Baptist prepared the Way of the Lord in the Wilderness. He's the one Isaiah said would come and would identify the Messiah. John the Baptist was the great pointer to Jesus, the one who baptized him and said, "you are the One."

Here was a man who preached the Truth, and made even his enemies say, "Tell It." What he told was that God was coming into the World as the savior.

What about us? Can we ever "Tell it"? Do we ever even try? Part of Advent is waiting and watching, but I believe another part is trying to tell the Good News of the coming of the Lord.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at

Christmas and the ethics of celebration

By Lauren R. Stanley

New York City is a lovely place to be this time of year. Decorations everywhere, lights, lights and more lights, big, colorful signs, special displays in store windows (and special areas set aside on the sidewalks so you can move slowly from window to window) …

It’s fascinating and delightful and designed to bring a smile to your face.

And, like so much else about America, it’s overwhelming and comes with completely unintended consequences.

I love the decorations, truly. I love driving down streets in Virginia and seeing them; coming to New York City at the height of the season is a special treat.

But every time I see the lights, the decorations and the special window displays, that one part of me that is grounded in dirt-poor, dirty Sudan rebels. I wonder at all the money that is spent, all the electricity that is being used (do stores have to put special money in their budgets to cover the added electricity for all those beautiful lights?).

Every time I have this feeling, I realize how much I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to be one of those people who live overseas in poor lands who rant and rage at all the excess that is America. After all, I am an American. I’ve lived the majority of my life in this country. I’ve put up the lights and decorations myself; granted, never to the extreme I am seeing on this little trip to New York, but still … this is part of my heritage, my culture, my history.

I remember stringing the lights myself. I recall wonderful nights spent trimming Christmas trees. I’ve decorated my own home and the homes of others. This is part of who I am.

But now my circumstances are different and I live in a small town in South Sudan, where we only have electricity a few hours a day at most, and would never dream of using it for tiny colored lights flashing on and off, changing colors …

Never mind the fact that I am an Episcopal priest, with a current theological focus on Advent, not Christmas. I’m not ready for Christmas yet, because I need this time to move through this season of waiting and watching faithfully.

So in the middle of the wonderful, bright, flashy displays that I see while walking the streets of New York, I struggle. I want to find a place within myself to enjoy that which I see, the gifts that are being offered to me, without forgetting the other part of my life, the one grounded in serving Christ in a faraway place where we don’t have enough of anything, much less the extra needed to decorate lavishly.

Alas, I haven’t yet figured out how to find the balance I seek. I still don’t know how to feel the joy of the season, accelerated as it is by this society, without feeling the angst at the wasted money that, to be honest, we all know could be put to better use.

It’s not that I don’t want to figure this out. I really do want to go Christmas shopping for the children in my family and in my friends’ families, wee ones who expect to get something and for whom a “donation has been made in your name” card isn’t going to cut it. I want to search out the toys, the books, the gift cards for music, and wrap up those gifts nicely and see the joy on the kids’ faces when they find that something special under the tree.

At the same time, I want to make sure I raise enough money to help those in need in Sudan, to take care of my “family” there, to be able to buy medicine for the sick and food for the hungry and clean water for as many people as possible.

But the balance that allows me to enjoy as well as serve – to serve as well as enjoy – still eludes me.

This feeling of being out of balance isn’t limited to New York or Christmas lights, either. It pervades all portions of my life, and is among the biggest struggles I have.

Recently, I watched a TV show in which a doctor/humanitarian in Africa returned to the United States and fell ill. He was ranting and raging about how we actually have all the money we need to care for the sick overseas, how we have the medicines stockpiled in this country, but won’t share them at a cost that poor Africans can afford. When this character took ill, he used his illness to call attention to the poor and needy overseas. He was grandstanding, and knew he was grandstanding, and he was willing to do whatever it took for this cause in which he believed so passionately. Even I was at least a little bit offended by his tactics. He was, I thought, going too far, turning himself into too much of a celebrity.

But part of me worried as well: Am I like that? Do I push too hard (this character truly engaged in ethical emotivisim to make people do what he wanted them to do)? Am I perceived as too “one-track,” unable to see the need elsewhere in this country and around the world?

By the end of the show, I decided that I wasn’t quite like this character, that I have a bit more balance, that I talk more about hope than despair – that I am not “just like him.” That was a comforting thought, but I realize I may have come to that conclusion simply to salve my conscience. Perhaps I am avoiding truths I don’t want to look at too closely.

All these thoughts swirl through my head as I wander the streets of New York these days. I see the displays and smile in wonderment, both at their beauty and at the complete waste of resources that could be much better used for those in tremendous need. And I wonder, too, at how to balance my need for beauty and joy in my life with my need to help those in greater need. I have no answer for this dilemma, not yet.

If nothing else, I do know this: My emotional struggle isn’t going away any time soon.

Which might not be a bad thing after all.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Get ready

By R. William Carroll

At my parish's Alternative campus and young adult ministry on Friday nights, we often sing both sacred and secular music. On the sacred side, we sing a variety of hymns from the hymnal, some Taize chants, and an occasional piece of praise music. On the secular side, James Taylor and Cat Stevens come to mind.

I mention the mix of musics, because I’ve had some very different melodies running through my head all week as I’ve pondered our reading from Isaiah. The fortieth chapter is one of the most beautiful in the whole book. Martin Luther was surely correct when he commented that from this point on, the prophet begins to do nothing but preach the Gospel.

The sacred music this chapter calls to mind is obvious enough. I can hear the string section now. It’s a couple of portions of Handel’s Messiah. Namely, “Comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” And “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” There are some other verses from our reading that Handel also set to music, but these are the two I’ve got stuck in my head. Meditating with Handel on these texts puts me in an Advent frame of mind. It brings me to that state of expectancy that I mentioned last Sunday, the one where we wait for the Lord in an active, vigilant manner. When we listen to music like this, we can come right up to the threshold of Christmas, without actually stepping in. By the way, if anyone has cheated and put his or her foot in the door, the “Advent police” would like to speak to you after the service.

Now, in the second week of Advent, our waiting becomes still more active, as the Baptist appears on the banks of Jordan with his piercing cry: “Repent,” he says, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” As he does in all the Gospels, John is quoting from Isaiah to explain his ministry as a forerunner. He does not negotiate with us. He does not ask us. He comes in God’s name and speaks the word of the Lord to us. It came to Isaiah before him and has now come to John himself. “Repent,” he orders us. “Turn your lives around." “Prepare the way,” he shouts. “Christ is coming soon.”

In their original context, these words had to do with the return of God’s People from their exile in Babylon. So many of them had been dragged away from their homes, when the Babylonians came and conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC. In the aftermath of defeat and exile, the prophet’s words announce what God is going to do. The People may be fickle and inconstant. They are like the grass which withers away. But the Lord God is coming with might. The living GOD is about to act.

Whether the People do their part or not, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be brought low. Whether they prepare the way or not, they shall soon be going home. Whether they are found worthy or not, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. Why? Because the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

As Isaiah describes the Lord’s Advent, he uses images that combine strength and gentleness. The stark imperatives of the prophet’s preaching and the certainty that God’s words will come to pass are juxtaposed with the injunction to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem” about the forgiveness of sins and the vision of God the shepherd feeding the flock. On the royal highway, God will gather the scattered lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom. God will gently lead the mother sheep and bring the whole flock safely home.

Nearly six hundred years later, John the Baptist applies Isaiah’s preaching to a new situation. Though they are back in the Promised Land, the People of Israel are again mourning in exile. They share the condition of lost and fallen humanity. They are in need, once more, of redemption and liberation. Pagan armies are once more in the land, as the Romans occupy Judea. The promise about a shepherd is the promise of a king. It concerns the Son of David. God is about to answer the People’s yearning by sending them the Messiah. John is aware of his unworthiness. He is not worthy to untie the shoes of the One who is coming. And yet he has come before Jesus, to prepare the way. Although he has been sent to baptize with water, the Lord himself is coming soon. And he will baptize with the Holy Spirit—the mighty, life-giving Spirit of God.

Last week, I mentioned that the waiting to which God calls us is like that of an expectant mother, longing for the birth of her child. It is also like that of an expectant couple, waiting to consummate their marriage. Both images fuse passion and tender love. Pregnancy, and especially labor, can evoke fierceness in women. But, when the child is born, the fierceness often gives way to an indescribable tenderness. The desire for physical union can involve the strongest and most unruly of passions, and yet at its best it unites us in enduring bonds of love.

That brings me to the secular music that I’ve not been able to get out of my head all week. It’s from Motown actually. Maybe that’s because, like so many Americans, I’ve got Detroit on my mind. I’d like us to imagine this song in the way medieval mystics interpreted the Song of Songs, as if God were one of the lovers and humanity the other. If anyone is offended, let me just say that I’ve toned the sermon down. The first version I wrote appealed to Marvin Gaye. The song I have in mind doesn’t have too much in common with Isaiah except perhaps the sense that Someone is coming, ready or not. Though they didn’t write it, the most famous version of the song is perhaps the one by the Temptations:

I never met a girl who makes me feel the way that you do. (You're alright) Whenever I'm asked who makes my dreams real, I say that you do. (You're outta sight) So, fee-fi-fo-fum Look out baby, 'cause here I come.

And I'm bringing you a love that's true.
So get ready, so get ready.
I'm gonna try to make you love me too.
So get ready, so get ready 'cause here I come.

At Christmas, the longing of a thousand generations is finally satisfied, as God comes among us in mercy. In the Incarnation, the union of God and humanity is consummated, as God (who has longed for us and sought us out for countless ages) at long last becomes bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. And we, who have given our hearts to many others, are united with the one and only Lover who’s faithful and true. God is the persistent Lover of us all. And God is indescribably beautiful—confident, attractive, tender, and strong. Advent is a pivotal point in the love story between God and humanity. It’s all about the courtship of the human race with our one true Love—the one Love in whom all our other loves become lovely. Like any courtship, this one aims at transformative union—one far more intimate than marriage.
There is much joy in our union with God. So much joy that, if we really think about it, we can hardly wait. Even now, the Church’s heart is racing. And the faces of the saints are flushed with anticipation.

So look out baby, here God comes. Get ready.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson, and his sermons appear on his parish blog.

Advent anticipation

By Derek Olsen

One day at the beginning of a new semester a student caught me after my class on the Church Year. She came from a non-liturgical Black Church tradition and found the discussions of the liturgical year and its practices fascinating, but still a bit foreign.

“So, the Resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit are at the heart of our faith, right? Why cram them into one little season? I mean, we celebrate them every single Sunday—why wouldn’t you?”

“You’re absolutely right,” I responded, “That the Resurrection and the Spirit are too important for just one season. And I’d add in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion as well. These are at the heart of our faith and we’d be misunderstanding it if we weren’t keeping them central all through the year. Actually, in the Episcopal prayer book,” I said, gesturing to my ’79 Book of Common Prayer, “Every Sunday is kept as a feast of the resurrection and every Friday is kept as a memorial of the Crucifixion.”

“Okay—then how exactly do the seasons fit in then?” she asked.

“Think of the seasons as lenses,” I said. “We always proclaim the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and the sending of the Spirit, but as the year progresses, we look at all four through the lenses that the seasons give us. It gives us different and more rounded perspectives when we can look at the Resurrection through the lens of Advent—that is, seeing it from a position of waiting and expectation. It means something else to look at the Incarnation through the lens of Lent—knowing that in the midst of our limitations, finitude, and sin that we have a Lord who was willing to take on limitation and death on our behalf. So looking at them through the whole year we get a better sense of the wonder of each of them.”

I think about that exchange often when we change liturgical seasons. It reminds me of the work that I need to do as we pass from one liturgical time to another. Every season I need to take my own advice to her and spend some time pondering what the seasons reveal about the whole of our faith when we take the time to connect the dots.

I love Advent. It’s our great season of eschatology, the season when we contemplate and await the in-breaking of divine power into our little worlds in a way that prefigures the great consummation in which we are fully joined into God’s reality. We consider the historical moments that have given us glimpses—the Annunciation and the Incarnation. We consider the poetry of promise in the words of the prophets who proclaimed the terrifying presence of God and the immanence of his coming in oracles and visions. We consider the promised Second Coming and the consummation of Christ’s victory. We consider our readiness to be a people who dwell in the very presence of God. And all of these considerations—pointed primarily towards Christmas and the Incarnation, yes—give us new eyes to see not only the Incarnation but the rest of God’s redemptive action as well.

One of the ways that the prayer book has helped us to do this is with the collect for Advent. In the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the First Sunday of Advent is appointed to be read after the Collect of the Day throughout the season. Every day at Morning and Evening Prayer, every Sunday through the four Sundays of Advent, this prayer would be read to keep Advent before our eyes. While our prayer book doesn’t do this, it’s an admirable custom that I’ve found profitable. Here’s the collect:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Neatly weaving together images from Romans 13:11-14 (the Epistle used on this date for over a thousand years) and Luke 21:25-31 (the Gospel for the Second Sunday) with the themes of both the Incarnation and the Last Judgment, this collect stands as one of Cranmer’s greatest compositions. In the space of a few words, it captures the essence of the season and directs our spiritual course for the time—reflecting on the darkness that we put into action and praying for the grace that will change our darkness into light to be ready for Christ at his coming—as a baby at Bethlehem, as Judge on the last day, and as Savior into our waiting hearts.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) 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.

Homecoming Sunday

By Kathy Staudt

For my church’s 50th anniversary celebration we held a “homecoming” party recently, inviting back former clergy and active members who had moved away, for an evening of food, wine and mingling, a wonderful slide show of our history, a hymn-sing and some remarks from former clergy. The program for the evening was deliberately loose and simple. The point was to come together and to enjoy seeing one another again.

And the evening was full of the usual family-reunion exclamations: “How are you! Look at you! How you’ve grown! You haven’t changed! Wow! Here you are! Here we are! And, since this was across generations: “If only x (not here) could see us now! I really want you to meet x! It’s hard to believe you’ve never met, you’ve both been so important to me!” And of course, the greeting heard most commonly, that evening “It is so good to see you!”

“It is good to see you!” The experience of being together belongs to something that goes even deeper than the conversational details of questions like “How has your week been?” “What are the children up to?” “How’s work/what do you do for a living?” Even without specific personal information, there is something holy about the presence we are for each other when we gather for church. The familiar faces, and companions in worship, tell us something about who we are and what we belong to. I believe it is our way of expressing and experiencing a growing culture of ubuntu that concept that has been held up as a model in our conversations about the Anglican Communion. Ubuntu is the awareness, essential to African culture, that “I am because we are.” In his book God Has a Dream, Archbishop Tutu writes, “The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation. . . ubuntu is “the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours.” (God Has a Dream, p. 25)

“It is good to see you” It is good to be together, because each of us is shaped by what the other brings. Ubuntu, I have come to believe, is an experience, rather than a theological concept; I have learned most about it simply by worshiping with people from various parts of Africa, who make up a large proportion of our congregation now though we started life, 50 years ago, as a suburban “white-flight” congregation like many others in the suburban DC area. At our festival celebration, Bishop John Chane described our congregation today as “ the face of the Anglican Communion,” and this rings true. The welcome we gave each other at our homecoming weekend stretched across generations, cultures and races, reflecting the increasingly multicultural history of this congregation and of the larger church we belong to. It reminded me, repeatedly, about God’s dream for us and who we are called to be as church, both locally and internationally.

“It is so good to see you!” When we say the to each other on Sundays, or at a reunion, we are not just making conversation. “I see you” is in fact an African greeting. To see each other, gathered for church, is to see who we are in God’s presence. We sing together, with great enthusiasm and expressiveness; we gather at the altar, and we recognize in these experiences glimpses of who God calls us to be as a human family. Even though there is little we fully agree on, even though we have our conflicts, anxieties, financial issues and prejudices, there is at the heart of our common life an awareness that being together has shaped us, each of us and all of us, in our journey with God We are learning, slowly, that church is about welcoming one another and being transformed, sometimes radically, by each other’s experience. We are learning that what draws us together, in song and prayer, worship and common mission, is greater than the differences between us.

“This is what heaven will be like!” one old friend remarked, as more and more familiar faces appeared at the homecoming party. But even more moving for me was the simple joy of being together at this event. It offered a glimpse of how we live into the Dream of God in this life. At the hymn-sing, full of old favorites, we sang the truth about ourselves in God’s eyes: “O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,” we sang. “Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known,” we sang -- “we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground. . , to” the beautiful city of God.” We’re not there yet, but we are on the journey together, and we continue to grow from being together. It is good to celebrate that, each Sunday, as at our home-coming -- good to be together, Good to see everyone again!

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) 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.

Blue Christmas--reprise

This essay by Ann Fontaine originally appeared on the Café last December, early enough for us to note the growth of "Blue Christmas" ministries, but not early enough for our readers to consider whether their parishes should offer such a service. We are re-publishing it now so that the idea will be fresh in people's minds as Advent approaches.

By Ann Fontaine

Cries of “Merry Christmas!” and non-stop caroling contrast with the feelings of many people at this time of year. For those suffering from the recent or impending death of loved ones and for those whose families are in crisis, it can be a very isolated and dreary time. Every greeting and every song reminds the grief-stricken of how unhappy life is at this moment.

Many churches have begun to recognize that Festivals of Lessons and Carols, celebrations of Christmas, and children’s pageants do not meet everyone’s needs. To fill this gap churches offer a Blue Christmas service, a Service of Solace or Longest Night. People who are not having a very merry Christmas and friends who support them are invited to come and sit with one another in a liturgy that speaks of the love of God for the grieving.

Many of the worshipers who gathered for our Service of Solace at St. John’s in Jackson Hole, Wyoming during the week before Christmas did not have a church home. Christmas vacationers who came to ski or snowmobile were attracted to the silence and space apart from their days on the mountain. We offered a variety of music and silence interspersed with readings from Scripture and prayers of solace and hope. Each person was encouraged to bring readings to share, photos or objects of remembrance

Sitting together in the warm log church in the midst of the deep star spangled dark of the Rocky Mountains we gained a greater knowledge of the One who loves us in sorrow and joy. We learned that even strangers can share life and love. We discovered we are not alone.

A closing prayer from Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace:

O God of all seasons and senses, grant us the sense of your timing to submit gracefully and rejoice quietly in the turn of the seasons.

In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of endings;
children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying,
grieving over,
grudges over,
blaming over,
excuses over.

O God, grant us a sense of your timing.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of beginnings;
that such waitings and endings may be the starting place,
a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born—
something right and just and different,
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love—
in the fullness of your time.

O God, grant us the sense of your timing.

Liturgies for a Service of Solace, Longest Night or Blue Christmas can be found at The Text This Week.

An example of a liturgy and a story of the experience is here at The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton's blog.

Compassionate Friends is a resource for those whose children (of any age) have died.

Many hospice organizations offer bereavement groups at all times of the year.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Communicating the reality of divine Motherhood

By Martin L. Smith

I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing remarks an elderly couple were making as they wandered round the collection of Old Masters in the Atlanta art gallery. I particularly remember the husband’s brief comment, almost a growl it sounded so hurt: “So many pictures of her…”

We all know who he was referring to—Mary, the subject to which Christian art endlessly returns. Probably an evangelical brought up to suspect all visual representations of the sacred and to rely on words, words with a masculine ring to them, he could only respond with some bafflement and resentment. Why her face?

Perhaps it isn’t too early to prepare for Christmas by considering why Mary’s face is so central to the visual world of Christianity. Helen of Troy’s face only launched a thousand ships. Mary’s face is found in thousands of art galleries, tens of thousands of churches and millions of homes. However secularized the so called ‘Holidays’ are becoming, the mail that will soon be pouring into mailboxes will certainly contain some cards showing her gazing out at us, or returning the smile of her baby son. Let’s prepare to receive them with fresh insight.

We need to revisit in our imaginations the early months of a baby’s growth. For the first three months babies explore the world through their mouths. They lick and suck and stick things into their mouths. Then at three months there is an amazing shift. Babies start orientating themselves towards a person present. They seek and learn to respond to the presence of a human face. And they smile. They’ll even smile back at a balloon with a face sketched on it. The smile is born in the presence of the Face experienced as loving presence. This is what we mean by primal human experience, so utterly human and basic that it is foundational for all that comes next, something we never leave behind. And it is surely the experience in which all religious experience is rooted. In seeking God, we are seeking the Face turned towards us in love, and it was our mother’s gaze that first evoked the smile we want to give back to our Creator. The primal language of our religion recalls this gazing and smiling. In ancient Israel, worship itself was referred to as seeing God’s face. “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” (Ps. 27) “Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80)

There are so many pictures of her—Mary, the mother of Jesus—because her face represents everything about God’s love that the face of an old Man isn’t as good at conveying. God can let wisdom shine through the face of motherly tenderness, and nurture the reality of divine Motherhood that masculine imagery is less effective at communicating. If much of our verbal imagery about the divine draws on our experience of powerful males, how appropriate that we should cherish visual imagery that complements and corrects it by conveying divine power in feminine terms. Luke’s gospel itself represents Mary as recognizing the power of her motherhood and pointing to the tremendous resonance it was going to have in the hearts of God’s faithful. “All generations will call me blessed.”

Now the world of spirituality has a very healthy awareness of our tendency to live in our heads, and this isn’t a topic for argument, but for experiment. How in practice do we react to the contemplation of icons and religious artworks that represent Mary? Have you ever allowed yourself to be touched, moved, addressed at a gut level in quiet exposure to Mary’s loving gaze? If you have been put off by bad, conventional statuary and trashy cards, have you gotten over it and given attention to truly beautiful examples?

There are many Episcopalians who have never prayed with an icon of Mary, or ever cherished or meditated on her face. Many might dismiss it out of hand as a deviation into Roman Catholic practices. But that might be a matter of spiritual avoidance rather than theological principle. There is vulnerability in contemplating the face which represents tenderness, nurture, the flame of a mother’s passionate commitment, willingness to suffer for love’s sake, beauty. Many of us, certainly many men, are armored against this. This represents a world of meaning that challenges our habitual stances of control. It returns us to this fundamental level of trusting that emerged when we were scarcely three months old. But as every spiritual director will tell you, there is tremendous potential for healing and conversion in risking a personal return in prayer to this basic level of our humanity. “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” (Ps. 131)

The Rev. Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

All Hallows

By Derek Olsen

A cold wind flaps my coat-tails and whirls a cloud of dead leaves about my feet as I walk my elder daughter to the bus stop. They rasp voicelessly on the concrete and my thoughts finds them a flock with words, warnings, pleas, spoken—but not understood. A passage of Homer flickers to mind: Odysseus, sword drawn, keeping the rustling flock of shades at bay from the invigorating blood of the black sheep that gives back voice to a fallen comrade, to an ancient prophet, to the hero’s mother—strangers joined only in death. For the dead have been on my mind.

It’s only natural, I suppose—in the most literal kind of way. As the sun rounds another corner, the hours of night overtake the day; the vibrant star’s light dims to watery wintry shadow and, harvest passing, the fields fall fallow—corn stubble awaiting a blanket of snow. The signs of the earth turn to sleep or death. With signals like these it’s only natural my pagan precursors identified the passage from day’s supremacy to night’s to be a passage between worlds, a time when the dead souls return to be blown about our lands toothlessly muttering words, warnings, pleas to the living. With the coming of Christ to the British Isles, the soul cakes were offered to wandering strangers rather than the family dead; flickering faces lit visitors rather than turning away spiteful spirits. For All Hallows’ Eve and All Hallows and All Souls replaced and displaced the former pagan feast.

All Hallows—or All Saints as we know it now (the Latin “saints” replacing the Saxon with the same sense)—is something of a confusion in these latter days. Who we remember, what we remember, and why has been blurred: sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose. All Saints, All Souls, and the difference between them lie at the intersection of the Church’s musings on Scripture, on the Church Expectant, the Church Triumphant, and the overarching principle of the baptized dead knit into the living Christ.

All Hallows is for the Church Triumphant, those spirits and souls of the righteous who already rejoice in the ineffable splendor of the appearance of the glory of God. For these are those who already harmonize in the great chorus and who unceasingly lay down their petitions before the Throne, praying for we who yet linger here.

All Souls is for the Church Expectant who rest from their labors, who sleep in the earth awaiting the last trumpet when the earth shall flee away, the sky roll like a scroll, and our great company shall throng to the judgment seat.

Images fill my mind, of the Great Judgment, the Last Day, snatches of songs, paintings half- remembered from medieval books on penitence and prayer. Pre-modern in aspect, pre-modern in assumptions, a pervading truth permeates the scenes. It shall not be as they envisioned, it shall not be as I envision and yet…

And yet…

My mind turns to the font and the flood for this is the center of this belief that yea, though they die, yet shall they live, knit to the marrow, the sinew, the bone, knit in the body of the Living Christ. Held in the mind of God, held in the heart of God, whatever our state of wake or rest we are hid with Christ in God.

Today we walked amongst the dead.

As sunlight filtered through fallen lives, my girls and I sat with gravestones.

Walnuts lay thick their husks and shells, and we sat and filled bags—much to the squirrels’ chagrin. Down on my knees, I dug out the walnuts, cleared them away with the rest of the parish volunteers. My flirtatious five-year old finding a friend, laughed and skipped as she gathered the shells, laughter pealing like little bells over mossy stones and markers. The other, tired, threw herself upon a marble slab and stared at the sunlit sky. At first I tried to hush and shush them, to remind them of the reverence due this place, and then I thought of the music of voices and of how they rang in this silent space and remembered that we walked among friends. And a trumpet sounded its clarion call, the sound drifting over the waiting stones, but it came from the organ inside of the church that lay at the center of the stones—tuning for the day’s second service. St. Paul’s words then came to my mind: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

No Homeric scene this with the blood of goats and shades that mutter and warn. There is blood, it gives life—but not as the old poet sang. For the cup that we share and the loaf that we break is a sharing in the life of our God. And here in the church-yard we gather as one—those on high, those in sleep, those awake—and we gather at the table that is an altar and a tomb and we share in the mysteries of God. For the communion we share links the living and dead, finds all those knit together in Christ, and invites us to share in the promise of that place, a life hid together in God.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. 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 dad appear at Haligweorc.

What Halloween means to me

By Matthew Fontaine

My yard is decorated with terrible things. There are skulls and skeletons. There is a menacing jack o’lantern. There is a zombie poking his head and one arm above the ground. An illuminated, flashing heart dangles from his hand. There is even a severed head jammed on a bamboo pole.

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. Partly, it’s because I love candy. Mostly, it’s because I love monsters, human and otherwise. I’ve seen all the most notorious horror movies—and their sequels—many of them several times, some several dozen times. I’ve even made my own horrifying entertainment, writing and directing plays and musicals featuring cannibals, mad killers, and monsters from beyond the fabric of space and time.

I’ve thought a lot about why I have chosen to spend so much of my life immersed in scary stuff. Some are obvious—being scared is fun. Fear happens in your guts. It’s an experience of the body, not the mind or soul. That is one of the reasons that many people—such as Mr. Amadio, the sixth grade teacher who was furious at my possession and display of Fangoria magazine on school grounds—see horror as a form of pornography. Both stimulate the basest, most irrational parts of us. They recall the uncomfortable truth that the person we think of as “I” may not be in control. To experience fear in a controlled fashion is thrilling.

On a deeper level, controlled fear reassures us that real fear—and the chaos that drives it— is controllable.

Few reading this will be unable to recall horror stories from the Bible: God’s monstrous floods and pestilences, Jael nailing Sisera’s head to the ground, Job’s ashy wounds, Christ’s mortification and death. In one sense, the horrors of Scripture are just news—they’re things that actually happened in one sense or another. In another, they are part of good storytelling, helping to stick a story fast in the reader’s memory. In a deeper sense, they share with the most pedestrian horror film a paradoxical desire to experience the sublime and control over the sublime. The Flood is a horror stamped into myths from before we could speak. After our horror at its mindless magnitude, we posit wickedness as its cause. We attribute to ourselves a lineage free from that particular strain of wickedness. We wonder at the flood’s horror and construct a myth to protect ourselves from it.

For many decades, few mainstream horror films failed to follow the old-testament formula. They enumerated reasons why victims deserved to die—promiscuity, drunkenness, whatever—showed us their deaths, and provided us with a hero free of sin who conquered the evil and lived on. (Not coincidentally, the villains typically have the ability to bend reality and are more or less immortal.)

Today, most horror films revel in an even more cynical view of existence. They posit a lack of any form of justice, even the severe and capriciously applied justice of YHWH. They’re like the story of Job, only the director’s cut—without the ending obviously tacked on to make it more palatable to a mass audience. Full-blown horror creeps into the most unlikely places. Contrast the psychopathic violence of The Dark Knight—a massive, global hit—with Adam West’s candy-colored batcave.

In a culture where we enjoy outrageous material abundance, distant from day-to-day death, sheltered as effectively as possible from grinding poverty and suffering, we revel in a carnival of horrors. Is it a symptom of decadence or a talisman against the Flood? Are we Job’s interrogators, attempting to understand a pain we cannot possibly fathom? Maybe that’s why we need bowls of candy, tasting sweetness before winter darkness falls and the brooding questions of existence tap at our doors.

Maybe we’d best not lift the mask.

Happy Halloween!

Matt Fontaine is a freelance copywriter living in Seattle. He is currently trying to write 100 songs about horror movies. Listen at (100 Songs About Horror Movies)

The vocation of all saints

By Kathleen Staudt

Once again, teaching my class on the Call to Discipleship at Virginia Seminary’s Evening School, I am struck by the Reformers’ insight that vocation is actually where we experience the grace of God. Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are clear on this: Our calling is the expression of God’s grace in our lives; obedience to God’s call is our faithful response to that grace – not something we have to earn or even fully understand, not even something that makes us “better people,” though technically it is what makes us “saints.” This is hard to grasp but it is a beautiful mystery. Vocation is ultimately less about “what shall I do with my life” than it is about “how shall I respond to the relationship with God that I’m already in, perhaps without knowing it? The stirrings and restlessness that come with that experience of call are really already responses to God’s grace, active in us and in our world and relationships. This is what makes reflection on vocation something different from simply career counseling or self-awareness, even though our feelings and yearnings about work and our understanding of our identity help us in discernment. But vocation is the good news that God invites us to participate in the divine work of transformation in the world. So our honest questions about where our real work and our real heart’s desire lies are a form of prayer, really, “responding to God,” as the prayer book has it.

These thoughts about the grace of call and vocation seem particularly appropriate to me as All Saints Day approaches, a day that used to strike me as one of our most “Catholic” celebrations in the Episcopal Church. My first invitation into the Episcopal Church, many years ago, came in a children’s sermon offered by the Rev. Robert Denig (later bishop of Western Massachusetts) at St. John’s, Northampton MA, where he invited the children, whenever they hear the communion prayers, to “remember the company” – the company of heaven who surround us and have gone before us. Raised as a Presbyterian with the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers, I found it a natural and beautiful transition to embrace this idea of the mystical body of the church and to understand participation in the life of the church as a calling for all God’s people, rooted in baptism. “The saints of God are just folk like me,” we sing in that silly and beloved hymn, “And I mean to be one, too.” And the grace of God makes that possible – as Luther and all the saints have known and taught.

There are several different emphases in our celebrations of All Saints Day. Often we combine All Saints and All Souls, and/or the “dia de los muertos,” praying for the faithful departed and loved ones, and embracing the hope of eternal life that is implicit in the idea of the Communion of Saints. I suppose that’s the “catholic” dimension of our Anglican tradition. But it’s also appropriate that the BCP calls for baptisms to happen on All Saints Day, because that stresses the Reformers’ emphasis on God’s grace expressed in our baptismal identity and calling us, right from that moment onwards, to faithful discipleship and membership in Christ’s “eternal priesthood.” It seems to me to be a day when we celebrate the experience of vocation as the center of our relationship to God, regardless of the particular callings that we discern.

“They loved their Lord so dear. . . and His love made them strong.” What the “saints of the Church” know, and what they show us, is that God is active in human affairs and that we come to know God as we discern the divine invitation, always there, to participate in what God is already doing. Baptism begins a life of companionship with those who have known and know this, a life that goes on beyond the boundaries of life and death, but begins here and now, each moment that we say “yes” to this call to participation, to faithful discipleship empowered by grace. This opportunity for recommitment, together with the celebration of the Mystical Body, continue to make All Saints Day a highlight of the church year for me.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park.

No "Ordinary" time

By Melody Wilson Shobe

Well, here we are. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter are all behind us. We’ve walked together from the mountain top of Christ’s birth, to the valley of death, and back up again to the pinnacle of the Resurrection. We have seen the colors of the church change from blue to white to celebration to purple to white to red, a rainbow of color as we pass from one important season to the next. And now all of that is over, and all that we can see stretching ahead of us is a sea of green. Out on the horizon lies week after week of “the Season after Pentecost” coming in an endless succession until we reach the next year in the church and begin the cycle again.

How silly it is that this time in the church doesn’t have its own name; it is merely called “the season after Pentecost.” The time itself is not given the importance of being named, but instead is marked only in relation to Pentecost, a day of actual importance. And this lengthy, unnamed, seemingly unimportant season is often also called “Ordinary Time.” Rather than meaning “common” or “mundane,” this term comes from the word “ordinal,” which simply means “counted time,” because we number the Sundays from here on out in order from the First Sunday after Pentecost, all the way up to the Last Sunday after Pentecost, twenty eight Sundays from now. That’s right; twenty eight weeks of this church year will be spent in Ordinary Time.

And in some ways, it might be right to think of this time as common or mundane. Because this is the usual time in the church, the time that is not marked by a constant stream of high points and low points, ups and downs, but is instead the normal, day-in, day-out life of the church. This time is a time to grapple with the nuts and bolts of our faith, not coasting on the joy and elation of Christmas, or wallowing in the penitential feel of Lent, but instead just being exactly where we are, and trying to live our faith in that moment.

Traditionally the color for this season of “Ordinary Time” has been green, and it is a fitting choice. Green has long been associated with new life and growth. Even in Hebrew in the Old Testament, the same word for the color “green” also means “young.” The green of this season speaks to us as a reminder that it is in the midst of ordinary time that we are given the opportunity to grow. Only when the hustle and bustle of Advent, Easter, and Lent has calmed down can we really focus on what it means to live and grow as Christians in this ordinary time in this ordinary world. It is a time to nurture our faith with opportunities for fellowship and reflection. It is a time to feed and water our faith with chances for education and personal study. It is a time to weed and prune our faith, cutting off the parts that may be dead and leaving them behind. And we have a lot of growing to do, so God has given us most of the church year in which to do it.

The very fact that the church has a time called “Ordinary” is a profound theological statement. It is a reminder of the presence of God in and through the most mundane and ordinary seasons of our lives. God is not only on the mountaintop or in the valley, but walking alongside each of us when the flat road stretches interminably into the horizon. In fact, the gospel reading for one of the first Sundays in ordinary time reminds us of this very fact. In Matthew 6:24-34, Jesus tells us to remember the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. They are ordinary and seemingly insignificant parts of the natural world, small and unimportant compared to us. And yet God remembers and cares for each of them. It is a reminder that when God came and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ, he experienced the same ordinary reality that we all experience. And that God, in Christ, offered us the opportunity to transform the most ordinary, mundane experiences into extraordinary events infused with the presence of God. God is there, present in the midst of the ordinary, just waiting for us to recognize it.

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

Trinity Sunday reflection

By Greg Jones

What is god but Creator? What is creating but reaching out? What is reaching out but connecting beyond self? What is connecting beyond self but loving others?

Creating, reaching, connecting, loving -- these are what the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all about. It's what God is. It's who God is. It's how God is. It's what God does, and why. The three-in-oneness of God is how the followers of Jesus describe what we experience about God - to describe how God creates, reaches, connects and loves us.

What Jesus teaches his followers is that by following Him under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: we will create – within and beyond; we will reach – within and beyond; we will connect – within and beyond; we will love – within and beyond, and that's how we'll follow Him into unity with God.

That's how we become members, joined members, connected parts, of the one being that is God whose will is to be one in all. That's the mystery of the faith expressed by Trinity. We mean that in God's wholeness – in God's own identity and self – there is an aspect of community – an aspect of family – an aspect of loving mutual relationship

Or to put it another way – in the Kingdom of God – where we are joined in loving relationships – where we are joined in gracious, merciful and committed relationships where we quite literally lose ourselves in order to find ourselves – where we become one with our neighbors and the whole world we're living in – that's where we are most like God.

What Jesus Christ said and did – was to say: God is like a family – and it's an open family. God, through Christ by the power of the Spirit, has invited us into himself. Indeed – this is the heart of the Christian message since the birth of the Church.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He blogs at

Rethinking Ascension

By George Clifford

Luke’s gospel ends with an unidentified force or actor carrying Jesus up into heaven (Luke 24:51); in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his impending ascension (John 20:17), and the book of Acts begins with a retelling of Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9). Based on those New Testament passages, the Church annually commemorates Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. This year, the feast fell on May 1.

From a scientific perspective, the concept of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as depicted in Scripture is nonsensical. If Jesus ascended into heaven, then given the right information an aerospace engineer could calculate heaven’s direction, but not its distance, from earth. The accurate data needed for that calculation includes the geographic point at which the ascension occurred, the hour and minute, day of the year, and year in which the ascension occurred, Jesus’ trajectory into the sky, and the relative location of the solar system and universe within the cosmos at the time of the ascension.

Some might ridicule a literal reading, contending that heaven – the place where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father – surrounds the cosmos, lying outside space and time. Yet the New Testament ascension narratives presume a flat, three-tiered cosmos consisting of heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell below. Before dismissing my claim that the New Testament presumes a three-story cosmology as wrong, remember the words of the Nicene Creed we Episcopalians (like many other Christians) often say at Holy Eucharist, “he [Jesus] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Those who have personally circumnavigated the world know that the earth is round. For others, video and photographic evidence from outer space provides convincing evidence that the earth is spherical. In other words, a basic presumption of the New Testament versions of the ascension is scientifically wrong.

Presupposing that one rejects a literal interpretation of Jesus’ ascension, what better options do twenty-first century Christians have for understanding Jesus’ ascension?

The first option, already mentioned, consists of spiritualizing the ascension, postulating the existence of a spiritual realm that lies outside the space-time continuum. Increasing numbers of people, however, find the idea of a supernatural deity, a deity who exists not only in but beyond the cosmos, unbelievable. Scholars and spiritual leaders like Bishops John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and John Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious) have helpfully articulated why such a belief seems incompatible with other elements of our modern worldview.

A second option is to ignore Jesus’ ascension and hope that others do so as well, an approach that Ascension always falling on Thursday aids. After all, Christianity emphasizes God's presence not absence in the world. Historically, one of the important functions of the ascension was to explain Jesus’ physical absence to people who believed in a physically empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The New Testament specifies that Jesus appeared amongst his disciples for forty days after rising from the dead. When people stopped encountering Jesus, what had happened to him? Novelists and others have imaginatively answered that question, producing a wealth of material. Jesus went to India; he disappeared unknown among peasants elsewhere; etc. Those explanations typically undercut Christianity’s premise that Jesus was not resuscitated but resurrected, receiving a qualitatively new form of life. Thankfully, the feast of Pentecost quickly follows Ascension and ecclesial attention shifts from the absent Jesus to the now present Holy Spirit. This overly facile and dishonest option describes what many contemporary Christians do, especially in Churches without a liturgical calendar or lectionary that forces one to pay at least annual lip service to the ascension.

A third option, my preference, begins by acknowledging the theological difficulties that Jesus’ ascension poses and then re-examines the data. Biblical numerology provides a helpful starting point. The Bible – Old and New Testament alike – associates the number forty with a theologically significant period of extended duration. For example, rain fell for forty days and nights while Noah was in the ark (Genesis 7:4). The Israelites who fled Egypt ate manna for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was forty when he visited his Israelite relatives (Acts 7:23) and then sojourned in the wilderness forty years before his experience of the burning bush (Acts 7:30). Moses spent forty days and nights on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Deuteronomy 9:11). Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). Perhaps the forty days the risen Jesus spent with his disciples points to an indefinite but considerable period of time following Jesus’ crucifixion in which the disciples experienced Jesus’ presence with them. They experienced Jesus in a new, radically different manner, a manner that the disciples did not know how to describe, a manner that transformed their despair over his death into the hope that built the Church. So the disciples grasped the metaphor of resurrection as a way to speak about their new experience of Jesus (see my earlier Episcopal Café essay, “Resurrection, Not Resuscitation”). In time, the disciples’ experiences of Jesus in this new way diminished in frequency and dimmed in intensity. Ascension became the accepted metaphor for explaining why that had happened.

Metaphors and other figures of speech are the only way in which humans can speak of God because our language, by definition, is human language and God is not human. Our perspective as humans is perhaps equally or even more limited than language. Twenty-first century Christians need offer no apologies for finding first century metaphors highly problematic. The first century metaphor of resurrection presumes a worldview in which gods often have or assume human form, an idea common to both the Greek and Roman pantheons. Similarly, the three-storied cosmos ascension presumes was intrinsic to the dominant first century worldview.

The note that I hear most clearly and loudly in the New Testament ascension narratives is that the disciples, post-resurrection, were utterly convinced that the Jesus story had not yet reached its end. They believed that God would write at least one more chapter in the Jesus story. Our Eucharistic prayers affirm this belief in a story for which the conclusion has yet to be written with some form of the proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

Life, and more

By Greg Jones

With the birth of our third girl this month, surprisingly early, we were able to experience the miracle of life at close hand again. We believe that the birth of a child is testimony to the Glory of God and a sign of God's marvelous handiwork in creation.

Seeing the hand of God in nature is hardly some new-fangled thing of course. John Calvin said that there is "by natural instinct, a sense of divinity." Indeed, Scripture itself proclaims that God may be perceived in nature. As the Psalmist says, "the heavens are telling the glory of God." Paul writes: "Since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made."

Life itself is a wondrous thing of course, and you don't even need to believe in God to agree. Popular author Richard Dawkins – a convinced atheist – upholds biology as the most complex and fascinating of all sciences. Before Dawkins, George Gaylord Simpson, the famous paleontologist and evolutionary scientist, argued that biology alone "stands at the center of all science, and it is here, in the field where all principles of all the sciences are embodied, that science can truly become unified." Simpson recognized, studied and reveled in the majesty of life in all its diversity – yet he didn't believe in God.

For Christians who believe in a particular story (that God is creator of all things visible and invisible who loves His Creation and especially His children – and who has become one with Creation through the incarnation – and who has faced all we face as mortal beings – and who has defeated death in resurrection) we must careful. For seeing God in nature is fine – but seeing nature as God is not.

Consider the Easter 'holiday' as it now exists in the English speaking world. Like Christmas, Easter has taken on a number of symbols which have a lot to do with fertility and nature – but not necessarily anything to do with God in Christ. The word Easter – first of all – derives from the name of a pagan goddess associated with the rising of the sun. In ancient Britain, the pre-Christian folks of Northumbria venerated this goddess ('Eastre') at the vernal equinox.

Yes, life is important – supremely so – whether one believes in Jesus Christ or not. For those of us who do, it is even more important that we make sure not to see life as the same as God or in the place of God. For those of us who believe, life is not God, but rather the gift of God. Life is not in the place of God, but is rather the place where God pours out his love most fully and completely. Life is not to be worshipped, but rather God who gives life is to be worshipped and adored.

In the Fourth Gospel 'life' is central to the Johannine vocabulary. More than any other book in the New Testament, John talks about 'life'. And it takes on a double meaning. The word 'life' means not only life as you and I normally speak of it. It refers to the indwelling presence of God in the universe – it refers to the presence of the living God in our midst – it refers to the fact that God is not the same as us, but God is with us, and in us, and around us. It refers not only to biological life – as amazing as that is – but also to eternal, spiritual, divine life. Quite plainly, it refers to Resurrection life – the life which includes but goes beyond fleshly life – and extends eternally in full communion with the God of all. Interestingly enough, the Greek word for resurrection does not appear in John's gospel very much. But, in its place, the Greek word for 'life' appears many times as a synonym for resurrection.

What I'm saying – what I've learned from John – is that Easter is not just about the miracle of natural life. It is not really about Spring, and fertility, and eggs, and hatchlings, and sweet little babies. No, it is about those things, and infinitely more. Easter – or Christian Passover – or the Feast of the Resurrection – is about the kind of new life that only Jesus Christ can offer. It is about resurrection life – eternal life – life beyond biology and its undeniable but limited majesty.

This Easter season – remember – that Christ died for you, and rose from the dead, and took on the fullest possible kind of life in his resurrection. It is that kind of life that you and I are called to share, and have begun to share, for when we died with Him in our baptism, we have been given that kind of life to put on – from now on and forever.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C.. He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. Rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), he blogs at

The wages of fear

By Donald Schell

The Easter Gospels (like the Christmas Gospels) are shot through with fear. Why do angels keep telling us not to be afraid? Don’t they know there’s danger out there?

In the early darkness after San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake, my wife and I stood on the roof of our house looking out over the Marina district. Our son and daughter huddled against us. We were very quiet, and the city was in blackness. The power had failed. In the darkness we watched a five storey apartment building explode and collapse in on itself. Huge flames from the fire lit the dark evening. Just as in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, where wildfire destroyed much more of the city than the earthquake had, broken water lines rendered fire hydrants useless. Old photos of San Francisco’s ashes after 1906 haunted me.

We sighed our relief when an arc of water shot up from a fire truck. High-arching plumes sparkled red in the firelight. Generator-driven searchlights lit the building and the water. From our battery-powered emergency radio we heard that firefighters had run hoses from a fireboat ashore to a pumper truck. The newsman said this was what they’d done in 1906, but confidently claimed that this time the seawater would make it easy for the firefighters to beat the fire. We watched and listened. As the newscaster’s calm voice assured us the Marina fire was under control, the arc of water faltered and stopped. The searchlights went dark. Flames surged higher. For a few minutes the newsman talked on of other disaster response areas.

Abruptly he stopped what he was reporting; perhaps someone had handed him a note. We heard his tight, measured voice say, “The Marina fire appears to be out of control again.” Twice, then three times, we heard the same premature announcement and each time the resurgent fire’s threat felt bigger.

Our nine-year old son, until that moment the bravest and most stubbornly independent kid I’d ever known, leaned into me for safety and took my hand. “Dad, is the fire going to come this way?”

“I don’t know.” I answered. I didn’t know. It was a still evening, a moment of dead calm in our windy city. But the weather could change quickly. What else could I say? “We’ll watch after you’re in bed. If the fire stays out of control, mom and I will take turns, and if we even think it might spread and come this way, we’ll get us out of here.”

“Will the house burn down?”

“It could.”

We watched quietly for an hour as firefighters got the fireboat to truck connection working. Gradually with plenty of water, they really did contain the fire. We couldn’t see flames any longer, just a glow from where the building had been. It finally seemed safe enough to kiss the children good-night, to hope for another day, to sleep in the stillness and listen for the Spirit telling us that we were not alone.

In the long nightmare after 9/11 we didn’t know how to stand together as leaders’ voices told us how very alone we were, that our lives and homes and way of life were all in danger, that we could lose everything and needed to be afraid. To hold fear at bay, our country needed to unleash carpet bombing on Afghan and Iraqi villages, we sent over thousands of American troops and have now lost more Americans fighting the war than were killed in the terrorist attacks, and we’re not counting Iraqi dead. Our safety has been the rationale for using torture to gather intelligence of coming terror threats from all those frightening places outside our borders where people hate us and want to destroy our way of life.

By 2008 Franklin Roosevelt starts to sound like a theologian or a prophet, ‘We have nothing to fear except fear itself.’ In fact Roosevelt’s words make a decent summary of the Resurrection Gospel. The resurrected Jesus returns to deliver us from our double addiction to fear and to safety.

A day or so after 9/11, an Israeli friend who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area said several people asked him how he managed to make his commute across the Bay Bridge – didn’t he know that it might be the next target? My friend’s simple answer? “I grew up in Jerusalem.”

My friend had it right. After 9/11, I heard familiar Bible texts challenging us in a new way. They were inviting us all to grow up in Jerusalem. Jerusalem of two millennia ago, like today’s Jerusalem, was a loved holy place with constant threats, fears, and frequent experience of death. After 9/11, bald, brazen voices of the prophets assured the people that life was more than death, pillage and famine. The prophets spoke their hard comfort to people who had lost everything and wondered where God was, to frightened people who had survived imperial armies’ raping and murdering rage, to survivors who had seen their homes and fields burned, their livestock slaughtered and left to rot -- people who had lost everything and wondered where God was.

The prophets’ message was beyond politics. They saw the threat to their nation and called the people and rulers to justice, to care for the poor, to loving mercy and to walking humbly with God. Our leaders (like the royal leaders of ancient Israel) caution us that safety comes at an inevitable cost: in extraordinary times our historic commitments to freedom and human dignity demand holding prisoners indefinitely without charges and torturing suspects to protect us from terrorist threats. Then they assure us that without their leadership terrible things would have happened. It’s no stretch to hear biblical prophets (who rejected the power of chariots to keep people safe) jeering at metal detectors and border walls, just as they would have ridiculed President Clinton for insisting after the Oklahoma City bombing that we should, ‘tell the children of America that this will never happen again.’

Denial and wishful thinking aren’t what we need to hear. Angels and Jesus don’t tell us “Do not be afraid because nothing bad will ever happen again.” Our Easter Jesus appears to disciples hiding in a locked room in fear for their lives. After he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’ the world was still dangerous, but Jesus sent his friends into that dangerous world to preach and share forgiveness. Like the prophets, like my friend who grew up in Jerusalem, like the disciples, can we listen for a simpler promise? God stands by people, unwaveringly faithful, still blessing life. Jesus says to his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity, building community through music, and making liturgical architecture a win/win for building and congregation. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

Risen, indeed

By R. William Carroll

This year, our junior warden made a wooden cross with some chicken wire for our children to decorate with flowers. That’s an Easter tradition that always moves me to tears, and I’m glad we were able to start it in our parish. Take a minute to think about what it means. The cross, an instrument of death, has become for us a thing of beauty—a sign of new life and forgiveness. So too, God renews the earth each spring, as everything comes into bloom. As we sing in one of our hymns, “Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain.” Christ is that grain. He is the seed that dies to give life and bread to us all. Another symbol, much beloved to our ancestors, was that of Christ shattering the gates of hell and leading Adam and Eve by the hand into paradise, with the whole human race in tow. We can use these images and others from our liturgy as we wrestle with the meaning of Easter.

Several primal symbols come together as we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ. We must also contend with the story itself, which comes to us broken and fragmented, both in the chaos of mob-violence and the unthinkable joy of Jesus alive. Symbols and stories are important. They help us to find our bearings in a confusing world. They convey truth that cannot be given in any other way. They say and show more than we can ever comprehend. The best symbols and stories, “classics,” have what David Tracy calls a “permanent excess of meaning.” And they give rise to a never-ending process of interpretation.

I say this, not because I doubt the truth of the Easter story. Rather, I say it because of the kind of story it is. The Gospel redefines us, as well as our world and our God. I believe the tomb was empty. I believe that Jesus appeared to his friends. I also happen to believe that this story creates as many problems as it solves.

Like any story worth reading, the Easter Gospel defies definitive interpretation. As Christians we stake our lives on this tale of earth-shattering terror and joy. Its subject is Jesus himself, one of the faceless thousands the Romans tortured and crucified, who irrupts onto the historical stage proclaimed as Savior and Lord. (Both titles, incidentally, were claimed by Caesar.) Jesus is the victim who won’t stay dead, but returns to judge and forgive us all.

The four Gospels tell us many versions of this story. They conflict in detail, but it’s not worth the effort—and is, in any case, beside the point—to try to harmonize them. It’s as if we’ve stumbled upon a crime scene, or the aftermath of some tremendous battle or natural disaster. And now we have to reconstruct what happened—from the accounts of witnesses and traces the event itself has left behind.

It’s not just that Jesus was dead and now is alive. He is the Living One, who forever conquers death and sets creation free. Easter is the beginning of God’s new world—a world still struggling to be born. None of the Gospels records the resurrection itself. That lies shrouded in the depths of the earth, until the stone is rolled away. All we have is stories about an empty tomb and of Jesus appearing—ALIVE. Sometimes, when he shows up, his friends touch him. Or he eats and drinks with them. The point here is that he still has a body. Jesus is no ghost. Other times, his risen body is clearly free from the limitations of time and space. On the Sunday after Easter Day, we hear how he came to his disciples through locked doors. That’s a good thing too, because it means we can meet still meet Jesus today. There’s no wall anyone can build to keep him at a safe distance. Jesus is free to show himself to us whenever he chooses, wherever we may be.

In many of the stories, when Jesus first appears, no one can tell it’s him. Then he intervenes, revealing himself, and his disciples believe in him. Finally, he commissions them for service, and sends them to tell others—often the whole world. Thus, on the road to Emmaus, a stranger explains to the disciples what the Old Testament says about Christ. But only when the stranger breaks the bread are their eyes opened to recognize him. Before that, grief and shock blind them to his identity. After all, with their own eyes, they have seen him put on trial, tortured, and crucified.

Something similar is going on this morning with Mary Magdalene. Early on the first day of the week, she arrives at the tomb, while it’s still dark. She finds the stone rolled away and is perplexed. She calls Peter and John, but they can’t help. So, numb with grief, she stands outside and weeps. And, while she does this, Jesus comes to her. Now, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even suspects he may have stolen the body. And she begs him, if he knows where it is, to show her, so she can take care of Jesus and give him a proper burial. Only when Jesus calls her by name does she recognize him. Then she turns around to face him. Jesus reaches out to Mary, and she is converted. As he says in another place, “the hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and live.”

Many of us have been there. We have been among the living dead. Often, the Gospel makes sense to us only when we are at the end of our rope. When the last tear has been shed, and we find no strength to go on. Maybe we have experienced loss or betrayal. Maybe we are frustrated by our own weakness or moral failings. Or perhaps our hopes for the future have been crushed by forces beyond our control. Maybe it’s the economy…maybe it’s the failure of those whom we love to change. Perhaps we are feeling worthless, or the chains of memory and anger have us stuck and unable to move forward. At these moments, Christ comes to each one of us and calls us by name. For he is the stone that the builders rejected. And, if we but turn around, we discover new life in him.

Without denying the brokenness and violence we suffer (How could he, after what he’s been through?) Jesus comes to us, forgives us, and makes us whole. The things that silence and imprison us are real, yet in his presence they lose their power. He gives us life, because he’s tasted death and broken its dominion forever. He gives us hope by showing us how love conquers evil. He sets us free, by making us servants of one another.

And so today, we gather, celebrate, and sing songs of freedom. With all the music, flowers, and feasting—with all the light, joy, and laughter we can muster, we tell the story of Easter. Brothers and sisters, may we be filled with joy this happy morning. For, in the ancient words of John Chrysostom:

Christ is risen, and death is overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Happy Easter! The Lord is risen indeed.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson and blogs at Anglican Resistance. He is a novice in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Silence, grief, wonderment

By Ann Fontaine

Today the word is Silence. All the chaos and noise of Holy Week is stilled. Palm Sunday with its hosanna-ing where even the rocks cry out in praise is past. Tenebrae is over with--an earthquake of sounds in its last crashing cymbal. Maundy Thursday’s slopping of water on bare feet of resistant Peter, and its sharing a meal ended with the betraying Judas leaving in a flurry of shame. Good Friday has come and gone with its whipping and wailing and pounding of nails and last words. The sounds of the week resound through our souls. And now – silence.

Holy Saturday brings a Sabbath from noise. We sit in the stillness of grief wondering. Where has he gone? What has happened? How can this be?

Is it a time of rest as the Holy Saturday collect from the Book of Common Prayer proclaims?

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Or is the Holy One working in Hell as the Apostle’s Creed states:

suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.

Is Jesus harrowing hell as it is sometimes called? Was he freeing those who died in slavery of mind, body, or spirit?

Holy Saturday is my favorite day in Holy Week. It is like a walk on the Oregon coastal beaches in early Spring or late Winter, a time of solitude. All the people are gone. The tides and waves are fierce and dangerous. The detritus of storms is scattered on the sand as high as the floods can rise. I walk in the rain and wind. Mostly it is gray and more gray – gray sand, gray clouds. The beach tells its own story of love and loss. The ocean called the Pacific is rarely safe. Sudden sneaker waves can sweep the unwary off their feet or worse. Once in a rare moment a flash of blue green glass proclaims a glass fishing float. It has traveled for years across the ocean from Japan. A glass ball blown by its maker years and miles ago reveals life beyond my little bit of beach.

This is Holy Saturday – a silent yet wild and fierce day of unknowing with hints of what has been and what is yet to come.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Good Friday

By Sara Miles

Every Sunday, at my church, I carry a plate full of fresh bread, the body of Christ, to feed the crowd around the altar. Every Friday, around the same altar, I run a food pantry that offers free groceries––bread, spinach, potatoes, oranges, Cheerios, beans and rice––to about 500 hungry families. Both gatherings are matter-of-factly open to everyone: on both days, we feed people without asking them what they believe, how much money they make, or if they’re “good.”

The food pantry, especially, can feel almost trippily Biblical. Every week there are hundreds of people milling about; women working and arguing and feeding each other; men embracing; someone singing, someone crying, someone washing dishes. It isn't hushed and pious; it's loud and holy.

But on Good Friday––a day in Christian churches that’s traditionally been devoted to private penitence and collective binges of anti-Semitism––everything falls quiet. The church is stripped of ornament, and hung with black; at night the congregation gathers to chant a funeral liturgy, laying flowers on an icon of Jesus’ tomb and leaving in silence, taking hot cross buns to break their fasts.

As evening fell, Paul Fromberg, our priest, was setting up for services. A long-haired homeless guy, kind of sweaty and intense, strolled in looking for groceries, and Paul explained to him that the food pantry was closed for Good Friday.

“But don’t you have anything to eat?” the stranger asked.

Paul turned and saw the trays of hot cross buns on the stove, and handed him a couple. The man paused and lifted them up.

Baruch attah Adonai...” he said. “Baruch attah Adonai eloheinu.... oh, man, it's been a long time since my bar mitzvah.” He was saying the Hebrew blessing for bread: 'Blessed are thou, Lord God, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.'

Paul stood there in his black cassock trying to recite the prayer, as the homeless guy smiled and took a big bite of the first bun. "Baruch attah Adonai eloheinu melek ha-alom....” Paul began. He couldn't remember it all either.

"Well, bless this bread," Paul said.

The stranger nodded, took another bun, and walked out. "OK," he said. "Thanks. Good Shabbas."

Or, as we say in church, Amen.

Sara Miles is the author of Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion. She is the founder of the food pantry at St. Gregory's of Nyssa in San Francisco.

Our fast is their feast

By Luiz Coelho

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner...” This Bible passage has always been one of the most striking to me in my whole life. I recall not receiving communion several times, when I felt not able (or willing) to allow God to free myself from a certain sin, whether it was a personal one or even a collective one. And I know this might be a very countercultural behavior, especially at a time sin has been apparently forgotten by many, and confession has become a rare event in peoples' lives.

However, it is my firm belief that there is no other way of behaving with respect to the magnificent care expressed by Jesus on that night right before he was betrayed, than with utmost respect and awe for his unconditional love towards us.

Acts of love are usually enhanced by unpredictable circumstances under which they happen, and the events that happened on that Thursday night were no different from that. The first of them was the washing of the feet. I imagine how shocked the disciples were to see their master, the Messiah, humbly washing their feet. Yes, the one who had taught them so much, was acting as if he were a simple servant. What they did not know, however, was that Jesus, on that night, was teaching them the most important lesson of all... a new commandment that resumed and consolidated his message so far.

“Love one another as I love you.” The strength of such a commandment goes far beyond our typical understanding of love. Jesus' love is so deep that it reaches even the one who would betray him hours later. His humility is so impressive that he does not care to wash tired and dirty feet, probably full of wounds and scars. Are we really following Jesus' new commandment and this new vision of love? It is easy for us to say that we love our neighbor, and in fact, many of us repeat those verses every Sunday. It is easy to strike our chests and claim we have given a certain amount of our money to the local shelter, a hospice in Guatemala or even for the Millenium Development Goals, but would we be willing to leave the ease of modern life and share all we have with the miserable? Would we live a simple life and truly be brothers and sisters of those who have no more than rice and beans to eat? Would we go to the slums and proclaim the Gospel to those for whom life has become a source of constant pain? Would we reach those who we should hate (and who hate us), whomever they are, and yet tell them we love them as Jesus loves all of us?

No, we would not. During Lent, we were theoretically called to fast, and give up on simple things that are important to us. However, how many times have we caught ourselves complaining about how hard it is to do that. How many times have we almost failed? It is difficult, it is very difficult to leave our comfort zone and realize that, for many people around the globe, our lenten fast is much fancier than what they will have in their whole lives. Do we really care? Do we really manifest this love Jesus has commanded us to show?

The apex of this love is expressed in the simple meal Jesus shared with his disciples shortly after he washed their feet. More than a memorial supper of bread and wine, more than a simple act of thanksgiving, the institution of the Holy Eucharist became a way through which Jesus' disciples could recapitulate his final act of self giving love for humankind. By giving his body and blood, he offered himself in sacrifice for us, and made us part of his own body. He shared our pain, and even in spite of all the suffering that was about to come, he was still able to love unconditionally.

The Eucharist should mean more to us than a weekly ceremony. It is the spiritual food that nourishes us and prepares us truly to be Jesus' disciples. When we take part of Jesus' body and blood, we commit ourselves to follow him with all our heart, live according to his commandment and flood this world with Christ's love. The same meal he instituted that night is a continuous reminder that, even not being perfect, we ought to struggle to be worthy of such unconditional love.

Maundy Thursday, more than a simple ceremony or a light meal, is a calling. As we remember Jesus' last moments with his disciples before his arrest, we are called to be worthy of such a wondrous love. We are called to truly love all humankind, sacrificing our own selfish desires for the common good. We are called to go to the slums and proclaim Jesus' message to the outcasts of society. We are called to embrace our enemies and to love them with all our heart. We are called to love the sick, the hungry and the needy. We are called to make a difference, and show to the world what Christ's love is about.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

A rediscovery of love

By Derek Olsen

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I wasn’t focusing on the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy as closely as I could have. Rather, I was trying to keep an energetic toddler from bouncing up and down the aisles of the cathedral, shrieking joyfully, at one of the more somber moments of the Christian year. We returned to the narthex after the imposition of ashes to color and have snacks. Then, after her sister and I joined in the Eucharistic prayer from there, we once again braved the central aisle, the sisters walking hand-in-hand. The smaller one was awed by the approach to the high altar where we communed, but the moment passed and we beat a hasty retreat to the parking lot before more gleeful yelps sounded, trailing collects as we went. With that, my Lent was off to a distracted start.

The whole family rose early on the morning of the First Sunday in Lent for we were all trekking out to the western edge of the diocese to hear my wife chant the Great Litany at her parish, one of our favorite Lenten traditions. My right foot hurt; I figured I’d kicked something in a nocturnal ramble. By Sunday evening, my foot was swollen a bit and there was a short dark mark on one edge I thought might be a bruise or a blood blister. Rising in the night for a drink, I found my foot would no longer support my weight. The next morning, my wife noticed that my foot had swollen to an angry red and was marked by a rash that headed up my leg. By the time we were seen at the urgent care clinic, the rash was up both legs. By the time I left the clinic by ambulance, the rash had spread to my chest and back, and my body was in sepsis—toxic shock—giving me a roughly 50-50 chance of survival.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The season of Lent calls us to do something that none of us likes to do willingly—to consider the fact of our mortality. Humans have never liked considering it, and I believe that modern American culture has taken this avoidance to a whole new level, insulating us whenever possible from the realities of life and death. St. Benedict’s monastic culture took the opposite approach and, as one of the ramifications of the monastic life as a perpetual Lent, Benedict exhorted his monastics to keep death daily before their eyes.

Me, I’m not so good at that. I find I prefer to focus on the acknowledgment and amendment of my sins in Lent and let the mortality issue slide. But this year, that was not an option: what I had mistaken for a minor foot trauma had been the bite of a poisonous brown recluse spider that had injected an aggressive bacterial infection into my bloodstream. I had not yet taken up the Lenten call to contemplate my death when I found myself staring into its very face.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Two and a half days in the intensive care unit of the local hospital as they struggled to stabilize my vitals and hold down my soaring fever followed by another five days on a medical floor as I received course after course of antibiotics gave me some hard time to think about what I had been through and what it all meant. Of course, I have no pat answers—and would be concerned if I did—but do have a couple of initial thoughts and reflections.

Every time I think about what has happened, my initial response is gratitude: I’m grateful that I was the one in the house that the spider found. Had it been either of my daughters, the story would have been shorter, more tragic, ending with a too-small coffin and that archetypical affront to the natural order: parents burying their child. Too, had the creature found my petite wife with the proclivity to ignore injuries and ailments to the last possible moment, I fear the story might have ended with another grave. So I am grateful. For though still sick, I live—and so too does the rest of my family.

I think the most important thing my brush with death granted me was a rediscovery of love—in an entirely practical sense. Thanks to flexible daycare arrangements, an understanding rector willing to give my wife time to be with me, and a few local friends who could take the girls overnight, my wife and I were able to spend much of my time in the hospital together—and I found that a treasure beyond compare. Instead of the insidious cycles of sniping and second-guessing, competing demands of work, housework, child care, and personal time that inevitably build up over eight and a half years of marriage, we simply rejoiced in each other’s presence. In the death-shadowed room the scales fell from my eyes and I encountered again the woman I love. And I marvel at how easy it is for the daily grind to efface the important—the truth of that love—by means of the merely urgent. Is that not death-in-life? To be surrounded with the promise and potential of love yet to get so trapped in our own games that we refuse to see and experience it?

Death has taught me of life, and reminded me of the love that lies at the heart of life. Now, I find myself wondering, having once lost this simple insight, how not to lose it again. Perhaps keeping death daily before my eyes is not an exercise in morbidity but a reminder that everyday I have the opportunity to choose love over pettiness, strife, and selfishness. I resolve to heed the words of the Preacher: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which God has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” (Eccl 9:9).

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

When I step outside of myself and examine my thoughts in connection with this brush with death, I find myself bemused. My encounter didn’t focus me on my sinfulness—although I’m certainly aware of that truth—nor on my immeasurable need for God’s grace—also entirely beyond dispute. Rather, I find that my experience with death has caused me to contemplate the importance of life and the simple joys that lie so close at hand—my wife, my daughters, and our wider family of friends. I am dust and I shall return to the dust. But for now, I am dust at dance within a shimmering, sunlit, cloud of dust, interacting with hundreds and thousands of other frail beings on the same trajectory as mine. St Augustine once reminded us that we are called to love all people but, since sheer volume makes the practical acts of love for all impossible, to care for those most closely bound to us by place, time, or opportunity. I have been reminded not to overlook those who dwell in the same house with me.

This Lent I continue to contemplate death and the facts of my own mortality. The spread of the infection into my bones reminds me that my apparent improvement may prove illusory and that I may again stare into death’s face sooner than I think. I continue to work on contemplating and getting in touch with my feelings surrounding these issues. But a primary task is to hold onto the gift that death has given me, the secret of her weakness, a weakness we shall celebrate come Easter: Love is stronger than death (Song 8:6) and the promise of the resurrection is that love, not death, will have the final word.

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable preschool girls and his wife, a priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, is complicated by his day-jobs as a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc. Haligweorc.

Speed, noise and Lent

By Peter Pearson

Over the last few days I have been one busy priest. The deanery in which I serve has held meetings for its delegates, for its priests and yesterday we had a liturgical workshop. I attended each of these along with leading the Sunday worship and vestry meeting at my parish, visiting some folks who can’t get out, doing some necessary paperwork, attending our mid-week evening prayer and discussion, connecting with the folks who were responsible for some of the parts of our Lenten observances, answering phone calls, meeting with my spiritual director, walking the dog, chatting with friends on the phone, attending my own 12-Step meeting schedule, talking to my sponsor, and hitting the gym when possible. (Please feel free to add the hyperventilating sound effects for added punch.)

Like you, I’m a busy Christian. For some reason, this morning I thought of Linus Mundy’s statement in his book A Retreat with Desert Mystics: Thirsting for the Reign of God about how the Desert Fathers and Mothers recognized that the greatest enemies of leading a spiritual life are: speed and noise. Perhaps I thought about it because this is the first day in a week that I haven’t over-booked, over-extended, over-done, and, as a result, I am completely over myself. I have no one to blame here; I ‘m nobody’s victim. It’s me. The problem is me.

Maybe this momentary slowing down began when I got home last evening and got a message about the lunar eclipse that was happening through the evening. I grabbed my binoculars, ones given to me by someone I love and admire who died last year, and went out to watch. Did you ever notice how s-l-o-w lunar eclipses are? It was especially apparent because it was pretty cold last night up here in Pennsylvania. Maybe it began when I built a fire in the wood stove and lay on the couch with my dog to warm up and found myself delighting in the dance of the flames. Maybe I helped it along when I turned the phone off before heading to bed so I would get a good night’s sleep. And maybe I am missing Lent along with lots of other wonderful moments in my life due to the rapid fire speed at which I live. Maybe I should slow down.

Along with all my business, I have loads of noise in my life too. First, there’s the cell phone and you already know how that goes. I can be reached anytime, anywhere, by anyone and it all seems urgent. When I am not on the phone, I am at the computer (like I am now) getting all the news and weather and commentary about all sorts of vital things. When I am in the car, I like to listen to public radio or books on tape so I can keep up with the whole Hillary vs. Obama thing and The New York Times’ picks of good books to read or listen to. Oddly, I don’t have a television and wear that fact as a badge of honor around my poor, unenlightened friends who watch mindless things like “Project Runway” and “Survivor” and talk about these programs like they’re important. Funny but I seldom realize how mindless my noise can be at times. Still, have you ever really listened to a deep, thick silence? I have and I loved it but somehow I forget that fact every time I reach for the phone, the radio, the ear phones, or the computer. I guess you could say there’s a great deal of noise in my life.

Reflecting on the amount of speed and noise in my life makes it apparent that I am not as attentive to my spiritual life as I sometimes think I am. Heck, I’m not even good at just being still and silent whether it’s a spiritual thing or not. I suppose I could go to town beating myself up for what I am NOT doing here but it just occurred to me that even the simple fact that I am attending to and reflecting on my need to slow down and be quiet is itself a beginning. Years ago my therapist said that, “Problems are seen leaving.” Let’s hope she’s right.

So, if you find that you can relate to my life, my insane addiction to speed and noise, perhaps you can just spend some time honestly looking at the truth of your life and see the insanity of it all. Breathe it in and sit quietly for a few moments. That’s a beginning.

Just breathe.

The Rev. Peter Pearson is priest in charge at Saint Philip’s Church in New Hope, Pa. He is a former Benedictine monk and icon painter.

Just one thing

By Peter M. Carey

“It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
and I feel fine….(time I had some time alone).”

REM, It’s the End of the World as We Know It

As I enter this Lent, the pounding beat and the prophetic words of the REM song “It’s the end of the world as we know it” run through my mind. I yearn to cultivate a Holy Lent, but there is much to do, and many to-do lists seem to stand in the way. However, listening carefully to the song, one hears the reply, “and I feel fine” and then, very quietly, toward the end of the song, “time I had some time alone.” There is a hope in the song that even in the midst of a busy life that feels like the end of the world, one can find solace; perhaps finding a bit of time alone is a key to unlock the door to a Holy Lent.

And then I say, “If only I could get through all this “stuff,” then I could have a Holy Lent! I could pray more, read more, take a class, go to church more, be more holy, give up caffeine and sweets, and meditate more. If only I could get through my to-do list, if only I had not so many commitments, maybe I could lead a Holy Lent!”

I wonder, if we are already feeling overwhelmed with projects, could Lent be a time when we just try to do one thing?

I have used this concept of “one thing” in my life as a teacher and coach and found it to work pretty well when people are feeling overwhelmed. In the midst of coaching a junior varsity soccer team after a terrible first half, when we were already down 3-0, I asked my team to agree to one thing that we would do better in the second half. I asked them to think of only one thing to concentrate on, such as communication, or movement off the ball, or pushing hard forward on the counter-attack. One thing—we had something to find unity around, and we had a goal on which to concentrate as we crawled out of a deep hole. In that case, we found a way to struggle back into the game, which ended in a tie that felt like a Super Bowl victory.

For this Lent, for those of us who are in the midst of multi-tasking, email flooding, blackberry buzzing, children running, bosses calling, grocery shopping, doctor visiting, there may be just one thing that we can do.

For that one thing, I would suggest “attention”.

That one thing is to strive to be attentive to the now and the here of our lives. If we have the courage to be where we are, we can cultivate awareness, we can cultivate attention. Attention to what, one might ask. Well I would make the claim that when we cultivate attention, when we turn aside from our to-do lists, from our cell phones, from our multitasking, even for a moment or two, several times a day, we are offered the gift of knowing God’s presence. God does not “come to us” only in times of calm reflection, but is ever present, what theologians call “prevenient grace.” God is with us always, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I take wisdom from the words of the deranged prophet figure in the 1984 film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai across the 8th Dimension: “Wherever you go, there you are.” And, so, here we are. It is here and now that God breaks into our lives, not in some other place or time. It is here that God is, not only in mountaintop experiences, not only when we go away on retreat, not only in the midst of nature, not only in the midst of a concert hall, not only in the exhilarating rush of endorphins when we exercise. One of the Desert Fathers said: “Your cell will teach you all you need to know.” This does not mean that we all have to become monks. For the monk, the cell was his everyday place; it was his place of work. This going to one’s cell was not a retreat from the work of the monk, but was encouragement for the monk to go to his place, to seek God in the everyday place.

Rowan Williams claims in his book, The Trial of Christ, that “hardest place to be is where we are,” for if we want to turn our selves toward God, we must first work to be fully present, which can be hard when our minds leap forward and back, and we multitask ourselves away from where we sit. Cultivating attention may offer us a deeper sense of beauty, if we have eyes to see. As Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hahn claims, “The present moment is a beautiful moment.” And if we truly embraced the present moment, we might, indeed see the beauty of this place, and even see God.

So in the midst of the messiness of raising three children under 5, God is there. In the balancing of the checkbook, God is there. In the waiting room of the hospital, God is there. In the boring meeting, God is there. In the frustrating traffic jam, God is there. Lent might be a time when even in the rush of our appointments and commuting and to do lists we can be attentive to the place where we are, and attentive to God.

As we cultivate a greater sense of attention, we might experience frustration, we might have to acknowledge our fears and our anxieties, we might be confronted with thoughts of the past, and our worries for the future. However, taking the time to turn and cultivate attention may give us eyes to see the beauty of nature, the wondrous diversity of people, and God’s presence even in those interruptions.

To be where we are, in the present moment, means that we cannot deny the cries of the outcast, that we cannot ignore economic injustices, that we cannot ignore the sin of racism that not only surrounds us but is also within us. And it is our practices of being where we are, and in the present moment, that move us to take on the challenge of the brokenness and sinfulness of the world, as it is, in this place, in our own time. We are empowered by Jesus Christ to be agents of reconciliation, to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. We are given the strength to be reconciled with each other, to seek peace.

However, before we take on all of these projects, we can claim the gift of attention to the here and the now of our lives. God is with us always, so we do not need to recover some past glory, or hope for some future rest. God is with us where we are, so enormous journeys are not needed to know God in our lives. In the messiness of the stuff of our lives, in the feeling of “the end of the world as we know it,” we can find “some time alone,” and cultivate attention to this moment, to this place, for this is a beautiful time and place. Do we have eyes to see it?

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

Guilt, fear and other obstacles

By Jean Fitzpatrick

You'd think by now I'd have recovered from the Lent of my childhood. The problem wasn't about fasting or giving up chocolate; it was bigger than that. Ordinarily I liked most things about church -- the gleaming vestments and the stained glass and the soaring music -- but during Lent the whole place turned weird. On Ash Wednesday, I was somehow convinced, the priest rubbed the charred remains of dead people on our foreheads. I'm sure no one had ever told me that, but it seemed to fit in with the big, gloomy picture: Jesus was dead, everything was draped in purple, and it was all our fault. During the Stations of the Cross, O Sacred Head droned through the sanctuary, where the incense fog was so thick I'd get woozy. Head between my knees in the pew, not sure whether I was about to throw up or pass out, I wondered where God had gone and why he was letting all these crazy things happen in his church.

Those days are over, you're saying. We don't teach Lent that way now. And it's true that I've talked to various clergy and read a variety of spiritual writers who have done their best to convey a more grace-filled understanding. The season's not dreary for the sake of being dreary, they say; it's an opportunity for contemplation or intentional action. In my own parish the Sunday school kids join the rector in the churchyard and burn the palms from Palm Sunday to produce Ash Wednesday's ashes, which should eliminate any macabre confusion.

Sadly, though, there are others who still don't get it. I'm thinking of the priest who proudly told me how she brings her parish children down into the church basement and rubs an iron nail into their palms. And then there's the one who surprised a group of teens with a full-on mock crucifixion: he blindfolded them, scratched their palms with a nail, and pressed a vinegar-soaked sponge to their lips. I wonder how this approach differs from the Halloween hell houses organized in denominations we like to think of as less compassionate than our own. Why don't people recognize that kids have much more vivid imaginations than your average adult Muggle? That children learn through their senses before they can think theologically is one of the great blessings of their spirituality, but it leaves them impressionable; they need our protection, our care. Certain activities are better left to consenting adults. In a culture where kids are already inundated with violent images in videogames and films, we need to be sure our most vivid lessons -- even during Lent -- convey that we are on the side of the angels.

After all, God doesn't observe Lent, or impose it on us. Lent is for people. As religious educators of children or adults, our role is to offer the tools and traditions that will help them experience the season as a time for reflection, as both somber and life-giving. I'm certainly a fan of the carbon fast posted on this site, for example. I've done some experimenting of my own, gone from giving up Lent altogether to trying a hands-on approach that included baking hot cross buns for my family.

Recently I've settled on praying the news and then taking a small step toward change. As I write these words I read the headlines on "Six dead as gunman 'goes to war' with Missouri city," "CIA director: Waterboarding necessary, but potentially illegal," and "Violations of 'Islamic teachings' take deadly toll on Iraqi women." For a few minutes I close my eyes. And then I open my checkbook and write a donation to a new charity and to the Presidential candidate of my choice. For this year, anyway, that's the rhythm of my daily Lenten practice.

How are you observing Lent? What are you teaching the adults and children in your congregation?

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

Galileo, Darwin and Lent

By Sam Candler

This week, I will be glad to remember the birthdays of Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei, Darwin born on February 12 (1809), and Galileo born on February 15 (1564). It so happens that their birthdays occur during the Christian season of Lent this year. We all know how much controversy their work caused the Christian Church (and society!), but Christians should be forever grateful for their courage and their wisdom. In fact, Galileo, Darwin, and Lent have something in common.

Both Galileo and Darwin actually set out to be friends of the Christian Church. Educated in an Italian monastery, Galileo intended to join the Camaldolese Order of the Church; but his father had already decided that he would be a medical doctor. Galileo’s interests, of course, turned from medicine to mathematics and the natural world. With the use of the newly developed telescope, Galileo recorded wonders of the natural world – the stars and the heavens—that no one had ever seen. Of course, these were the observations and interpretations that would also change the world.

Galileo would finally be charged with heresy, for adopting the Copernican view that the earth revolved around the sun. After all, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 all say something like "the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved." Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that "the sun rises and sets and returns to its place, etc." Was Galileo denying the Bible? Galileo apparently believed in some form of biblical inerrancy, but he struggled with interpretation. He wrote to a friend that the Bible should always be interpreted in the light of what science had shown to be true.

Charles Darwin, at one time, studied to become an Anglican priest. He, too, was in love with the natural world and was convinced at one time in the naturalist William Paley’s argument that design in nature proved the existence of God. Later Christians objected to several elements of On the Origin of Species; the book refuted the notion that creatures had been individually designed by God, it claimed that the Earth was much older than the literal biblical account, and in claiming a common ancestor for apes and human, it denied a certain uniqueness to humanity.

How strangely ironic that many in the Church should be blinded to the truth that these two gentlemen showed the world. For, in essence, both Galileo and Darwin were using science to claim that humankind is not at the center of everything. Our earth is not at the center of God’s creation, and our species is not at the center of God’s creation.

Isn’t this what Lent is supposed to teach us? “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” many of us heard on Ash Wednesday. Lent is supposed to remind us of humility. The opposite of humility is hubris, to be so self-obsessed as to think we are at the center of everything.

Galileo, Darwin, and Lent all teach us about truth and humility. A holy Lent is about acknowledging the truth of ourselves, and the truth of this beautiful world, no matter how uncomfortable that truth might be. A holy Lent is also about acknowledging our own humility. No matter who we are, we are not at the center of everything, and we are not at the beginning of everything. May God bless the memories of both Galileo and Darwin, and all who lead us in the paths of truth and humility this Lent.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Of boundaries, growth, and Lent

By Marshall Scott

"Good fences make good neighbors," so we say. "My rights stop at the end of your nose," we say, or at least we used to. From clinical practice to business practice, from the grand scale of diplomacy to the intimacy of personal relationships, we extol the values and importance of good boundaries.

Boundaries protect us, of course. That's usually the first reason we appeal for them. In current difficulties, there are dioceses that have tried to set boundaries to exclude the Episcopal Church. There are aspects of their lives they seek to protect; not least the sense of control to perpetuate themselves, to raise up bishops and other clergy carrying forward their particular perspective on the faith. In consequence, of course, the Episcopal Church has had to respond, asserting the established boundaries, and defending the integrity of Constitution and Canons and General Convention.

But if boundaries might protect us, they will certainly shape us in other ways. If we feel safer with them, we will also feel limited by them. That's not always a bad thing. In Lent we realize our limitations - both those we choose and those that confront us when our choices fail. Our limits are real, and we can grow from recognizing them.

Or not. In anxious times it’s all too easy to choose the limitations in the interest of safety. But, when we do that we run the risk of defining our boundaries ever more tightly, and erecting new ones whenever there is a problem.

When I was a schoolchild, we lived on (what I think of, at least, as) a typical suburban block. It was long and more or less rectangular. Various configurations of ranch and split level homes looked across modest front lawns to one another’s front doors, separated by quiet streets.

But in back, it was quite different. In back the lawns were large and open. There were no fences, or almost none. Within the large boundaries all the lawns were connected. It was, for a small schoolchild, a vast kingdom – almost large enough to stretch beyond the sound of mother’s voice. And between the vast kingdom and the boundaries of the streets were the resources: houses, and parents in them who could safely monitor us, carry us beyond the boundaries when needed, and evaluate and license our own liberty along those boundaries as we grew. Granted, all parents weren’t equally available, or even interested. However, the assumption was clear (at least in my house): children had largely unlimited access within the kingdom, and all parents were to be respected at the boundaries.

Now, the boundaries were real: nothing brought out parental wrath like playing in the street. And, as the various parents frequently knew one another’s children better than they knew one another, the reality of the resource was pretty solid. But the boundaries were relatively few; and the expectation was that we would indeed take them on and, as we grew, cross them and eventually use them as means to go beyond.

We can grow from recognizing our limitations if we’re also willing to step up to them, look beyond them, and engage whatever, whoever is beyond them. We can grow if we see the anxiety involved in our limitations as opportunities and challenges to grow. If instead we see them as defenses for our vulnerabilities, our limits will in fact grow smaller, and we will grow smaller with them.

In a way, I think this is what can happen in Lent, this growing by facing and challenging our limitations. Many of us take on or add to disciplines of life. We choose to abstain from this, or to take on that. The intent is in fact to make us mindful of our limitations, and of our need for God. That happens, I think, in two ways. The first is the additional effort involved. That incremental change, that measure of extra effort keeps our attention, and calls us to focus that attention on our relationship with and our accountability to God. If we take on discipline, we can’t help but notice; and if we don’t notice, just what did we really take on?

The second and more important way that we can grow from our limitations is precisely when we fail. What can convict us of our limits more profoundly than running into them and falling down? While the extra effort may focus us to some extent on our relationship with God, it is our failure that focuses us on our need for a relationship with God. It is in failing that we fall over the boundaries of our sufficiency, and realize we are in fact dependent, contingent. We cannot will ourselves to perfection, much less to salvation; and when we try we fail. That is when we realize our need for our Parent, for our resource who will indeed challenge us, but will also love us, evaluate us, and encourage us to grow so as to open and expand our boundaries and discover in them pathways to new freedom.

It is entirely possible to misunderstand and to fail to grow from our limitations in Lent. It is possible to take on the challenges of Lent in a spirit of defensiveness and fear. Is the extra effort taken on to focus on God, or to make us look good to ourselves or someone else? When we fail, do we ask that God strengthen us to try again, or just that God not condemn us outright? In either case the latter attitude is more about protecting ourselves within our limits than about discovering what might be beyond them. And in those attitudes we will be shaped by our limitations rather than our relationship with God, and we will grow smaller in consequence.

We are struggling now within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion with issues of limits and boundaries. We are struggling now within ourselves with our own limits, and how we can find God at them and in God grow beyond them. I pray that both within and without we may see our limits, our boundaries, not as constraints that make us smaller but as challenges to move beyond with God’s help. I pray that in both spheres we will trust first in God to strengthen us to face our limits, evaluate us as we struggle, love us as we fail, and call us to rise again to discover wider boundaries and pathways to freedom.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Resolution or Rule?

By Kit Carlson

When Lent comes around, it is tempting to think of it as a season of self-improvement, as a chance to lose weight, or stop smoking, or ease up on a treasured habit that is not so helpful, really. Give up one or more of those "bad" things, we think, and we will become better people. So in much the same way that we make a New Year's resolution, we boldly enter Lent committed to give up caffeine or alcohol or chocolate for six weeks ... or, as with most resolutions, until our willpower fails and we give in to the temptation.

Lent, however, is not about resolutions. It is about making a "rule" in the same way that monastics follow a Rule of Life. A Rule orders one's desires and attentions away from the self and toward God, not so that we might be better people, but so that we might draw closer to God. Fasting has been a part of this practice for millennia, not to get us slimmer or more fit, but so that we might experience emptiness and our need of God. Spiritual reading has been part of this practice as well -- again, not to make us wiser or more intelligent, but to open our hearts and minds to God. Prayer has also been part of a Rule -- not so that we can check off our Spirituality Box each day, but so that we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings with God. Rest and refreshment have also been part of a Rule, to remind us that even God knows how to take a break (and surely we cannot be more busy and more important than God).

As I enter Lent this year, I am trying to not just make a resolution. Rather, I hope to make a Rule. I have been asking myself: what is lacking in my relationship with God? Or: how am I failing to honor myself as the person God created me to be? Or: what practice would make me more mindful of the presence of God? Or: what is standing in the way of my being able to love God and love my neighbor?

These are hard questions, and as I have started asking them, my inability to answer them has astounded me. So I have decided that just asking these questions every day for six weeks is going to be my Lenten Rule. Just to ask, day after day, and see what answers emerge.

I think this will be far more challenging for me than just giving up chocolate. I may not end up doing anything that is better for myself spiritually or physically or emotionally, but I may come up with a direction that leads me not just through the annual season of self-denial, but into a deeper and more authentic relationship with God.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and was associate and interim rector at the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Md., for seven years.

A Lenten discipline for word people

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

For the next 6 weeks or so I’ll be teaching a seminary course I call “Contemplative Writing.” This year’s run coincides almost exactly with the season of Lent. It teaches a discipline that can help us “word-people” – teachers, preachers, bloggers -- to let our words take us beyond words, and center our lives more fully in God.

My working definition of contemplative writing is “writing that is for no audience but yourself and God.” That is the hardest part for word-people, since so much of what we think about is how to make our ideas available to a particular audience of readers or listeners. But how do we write when no one else will read what we’re writing? What happens when we say to God: “these words are for me and You only.” They may be “me talking to myself in the presence of God” or they may be words to God. But there is no other audience. The title poem of Mary Oliver’s wonderful recent volume Thirst gives us a glimpse of the contemplative writing experience as we overhear the poet speaking to God: “Love for you and love for the earth are having such a long conversation in my heart,” she writes. Contemplative writing uses words to ground those “long conversations” that go on in our hearts, in the listening presence of God.

I like to distinguish contemplative writing from other kinds of writing that we do in “not for publication” mode especially journaling, creative writing, and now, blogging.

Most of us writers probably practice journaling/freewriting/prewriting in some form. Journaling is “reflective" writing: the audience for it is myself -- I write so as to see myself more clearly, reflected back. This can be an important tool in the spiritual life, but ultimately, self-understanding is not the goal of contemplation, however important it may be as a step toward honesty with God (what the spiritual tradition calls “purgation"). Contemplation in the spiritual life is ultimately contemplation of God, not of oneself. Journaling melds into contemplative writing when we move away from talking to ourselves and find ourselves saying “You” to our God.

Contemplative writing is also not “creative writing.” Again, it’s about audience. Creative writing encourages people to release and explore their intuitive, imaginative side, to see things in a new way, to approach life creatively -- and to shape these experiences into literary form, for a particular audience. The best creative writing shows real respect for the disciplines of poetic form, the properties of language itself as a material, and the best creative writers submit themselves to the disciplines and challenges posed by their materials, uncovering new richness in words that embody and show imaginative insights. Contemplative writing can become “creative writing”—occasionally something will emerge that calls out to be shared. But the disciplines are different.

Some people now use blogging as another way of engaging the spiritual life with words: An online blog, of course, has an implicit audience, but I’ve known of people who blog on a website offline just to have a place to put their private thoughts, and the fluidity of the keyboard-to-screen medium can be freeing. I find, however, that there is a kind of “body prayer” involved in the exercise of putting pen to paper – a groundedness that we lose at the computer keyboard. The very clunkiness and messiness of pen and paper slows us down and forces pause, as the speed of electronic media does not.

The discipline I commend to my students is one that I also intend to take on, this Lenten season: Spend some time every day writing in a journal. Begin by placing yourself intentionally in the presence of God, and attending to what you see, hear, perceive around you – or to whatever conversation is going on in your heart. Let whatever comes, come: fill 3 pages, or spend 20 minutes – whichever frame fits your life better –but write in the presence of God, where whatever you write is acceptable, and spelling doesn’t count. Most important, leave some time after your writing time simply to rest in that loving Presence. On good days you may find that this practice of writing has become a preparatio for prayer: a doorway into the presence of the One who loves us, and always calls us deeper into that loving presence, in every moment of our lives.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

A carbon fast for Lent

By James Jones

Traditionally people have given up things for Lent. Last year in the Diocese of Liverpool many parishes took part in a Carbon Fast. Through it we were able to focus on God’s Earth and its poorest people in whom, Jesus said, we were to find him.

This year, in Lent 2008, we invite as many as can to join us in a Carbon Fast (For details, click Read More at the end of this entry.)

Over the years I’ve been able to visit some of the countries most affected by the changing climate. I’ve sat with village elders in Africa, India and Central America and asked the simple question, “Has the weather changed in your lifetime?” With the answer “yes” has come stories of cyclones, rivers drying up, harvests failing and flooding.

Whatever is happening to the planet there’s no disputing that we’re putting more carbon into the atmosphere than ever before and that this is adding to the blanket that’s trapping the heat around the earth.

On World Environment Day, I was in Tromso in the Arctic Circle for a service in the Ice Cathedral. Desmond Tutu was preaching next to a block of ice that had fallen away from a melting Ice Cap, and reinforcing our responsibility for God’s creation.

St. Paul tells us everything has come into being through and for Christ. This doctrine gives us the ethics of caring for the earth. It is Christ’s environment, not ours. He stands at the centre of all creation – as both creator and redeemer.

As the climate changes and impacts the earth it is clear that the poor are already suffering. The tragedy is that those with the power to do something about it are least affected and those who are most affected are powerless to bring about any change. That’s why there’s a moral imperative on those of use who emit more than our fair share of carbon to rein in our consumption.

It’s estimated that in the U.K. we emit 9.5 tons of carbon per person per year whereas in Ethiopia the average is 0.067 tons and in Bangladesh 0.24. Apparently the earth can sustain 0.8 per person! Reducing our carbon footprint is therefore a matter of justice.

When Jesus fasted in the wilderness he kept company with wild beasts and with angels who ministered to him. He came out of that experience with a clear sense of the Kingdom of God which he preached with passion.

As we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it’s done in Heaven, the Carbon Fast will be a practical step towards a fairer world, a sustainable planet and the earthing of Heaven.

The Rt. Rev. James Jones is Bishop of Liverpool.

Read more »

Ash Wednesday

By Sara Miles

Remember you’re dust, I say to the girl, and press my thumb hard into her smooth forehead. She doesn’t blink. I exhale, turn to the man beside me, and hand him a small ceramic bowl of ashes. “You’re dust,” he says. “Remember you’re dust, and to dust you will return.”

Ash Wednesday begins Lent, the forty days before Easter that many Christians mark with fasting, prayer and penitence. Americans tend to personalize the season with pious gestures of “giving up.” But at the church in San Francisco where I’m a lay pastor, and where I run the city’s largest food pantry, Lent stares into those bare facts of dust and flesh in order to connect our bodies. We mark each other’s foreheads with ashes and admit our common mortality: the kneeling girl, the crackhead who helps me sweep the floor, the stranger at the door. And maybe because I work so much with food––serving bread and wine on Sundays, then groceries from the same altar at the pantry––I think of Lent as an opportunity to admit our hungers.

At the food pantry, those hungers are wrapped in language and in waxed cardboard, as vividly metaphorical as the Psalms and as material as a plate of chicken and dumplings.

“I just want something fresh,” says a woman who lives in one small, airless room and cuts up some raw cabbage for a snack. “Something real.” Another wants the buttery mashed potatoes we cook for lunch, an abundant pile of softness and comfort. A restless twelve-year old wants a cup of coffee, so he can swallow the hot black magic that will turn him into a powerful man instead of a frightened kid. A woman far from home wants mangoes to remind her of the tropics; an aspiring immigrant wants American cereal, a junkie wants more and sweeter sweets. But I crave salt, and bitterness.Fromberg2.jpg

I remember a Lent fifteen years ago, when I cooked for my friend Bo until he couldn’t eat anymore, then gave him sips of ginger ale until he couldn’t drink, then watched as the breath went out of his AIDS-wasted body. His mother and I carried Bo’s ashes to Land’s End, where sweet alyssum was blooming on the cliffside and the blue waters crashed and broke far below our weeping group of friends. I reached into the container and tossed him into the sky, and the ashes blew back into my open mouth. They tasted slightly of salt, and of dust.

They made me hungry.

There are moments so purely present-tense, and yet so laden with remembrance, that they become a conversation with God. I look around sometimes during the food pantry, and think about all our bodies, the living and the dead ones, and all the food we’ve shared. There’s a plate of fragrant, cut-up oranges on the altar and suddenly, as the last afternoon light pours into the church, my mouth waters.

Artwork by Paul Fromberg after Andrei Rublev's icon, The Trinity

Sara Miles is the author of "Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion," now available in paperback with a readers' guide.

Fasting 102

Second of two parts. Part One.

By Derek Olsen

Yesterday we began talking about fasting, the pre-eminent spiritual discipline recommended by the prayer book for Lent. We got as far as the externals, the nuts and bolts of the discipline. Now we’ll take a step deeper and look into the theology, spirit, and purpose that animates the practice, connects it to Lent, and empowers it as a tool for the Gospel.

Reading what any of the authors of the Early Church wrote about fasting will quickly dispel any illusion you might have that the discipline of fasting is fundamentally about food. Leo the Great proposes that the food should be primarily a symbol of a deeper kind of renunciation. Fasting for him is a whole-person endeavor where we abstain in mind and spirit as well as body. Indeed, the bodily abstaining from food is a reminder that we should be abstaining from a whole lot more. Like what? In a word: sin—and from the habits that give it comfort and growth. The act of abstaining from food reminds us that we should be abstaining from other behaviors as well.

Fasting jolts us out of our regular patterns. As a result, Leo enjoins, it gives us an opportunity to take a step back from business-as-usual. If we’re going to take care about what we eat, why not take care about how we live, think, and talk? Don’t just refrain from food, Leo counsels; refrain from some of your bad behaviors too. (See Leo's Sermon XLII.)

In offering this advice, Leo is doing nothing more than reiterating and recasting the words of the prophet Isaiah whose voice thunders down through the centuries:

Is such a day the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
(Isaiah 58:5-7)

John Cassian who introduced monasticism to Gaul gives deep advice as well that builds on Leo's. He tells us to always keep before our eyes the goal, the whole point of the exercise. Fasting, he reminds us, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If we ever lose sight of the end, then it’s time to end the practice and to consider some other ways to go after the real goal. He writes:

For the sake of this [purity of heart], then, everything is to be done and desired. For its sake solitude is to be pursued; for its sake we know that we must undertake fasts, vigils, labors, bodily deprivation, readings, and other virtuous things . . . so that by taking these steps we may be able to ascend to the perfection of love.

These observances do not exist for themselves . . . what is gained by fasting is less than what is spent on anger, the fruit that is obtained from reading is not so great as the loss that is incurred by contempt for one's brother. It behooves us, then, to carry out the things that are secondary—namely fasts, vigils, the solitary life, and meditation on Scripture—for the sake of the principle scopos (goal), which is purity of heart or love, than for their sake to neglect this principle virtue . . . (Conf. 1.7.1-2)

Acts of piety like fasting are entirely secondary to the real goal which is, for Christians, always the cultivation of love towards God and neighbor. They are means to the end and never the end in themselves—as Jesus himself reminds us in his words on the subject:

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt 6:16-18)

Jesus—and Matthew who records these words—evidently saw no need to explain to the people why they would want to fast; for them it was self-evident. For us, it's not so clear.

In the Bible, fasting is mentioned any number of times. It's particularly prevalent in the Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi) that we know all too often as the biblical equivalent of “fly-over territory.” Preeminently fasting appears as a sign of repentance and sorrow for sins—and here’s our Lenten connection. Whenever I consider the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, the words from my Lutheran youth ring in my ears: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return; repent, and believe in the Good News.” This one line collects the two major themes of the day and of Lent: remembrance of our mortality and our need for repentance to hear again God's word of grace. We fast, following the example of the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs, to feel in our flesh the pangs of hunger—reminders of our embodied-ness and signs of our mortality—and as a sign of contrition for those things done and left undone.

This Lent, I urge you to take seriously Ash Wednesday's invitation—to consider the state of your life and soul in the face of ultimate realities—and to embrace some form of fasting and self-denial. It needn't be something heroic (indeed, it's probably better for your humility if it's not), but I urge you to make it something worthwhile. Furthermore, I commend to you not just refraining from something but embracing the full discipline of the church: restraint coupled with almsgiving and prayer. As Christ fasted these forty days in the wilderness let us persevere in his company. Watching, waiting, hoping, praying, may these days fit us for the joyful Easter morn when we rise to greet that Sun who shall never go down.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

Fasting 101

First of two parts.

By Derek Olsen

This year, the coming of February brings with it the coming of Lent. The prayer book tells us that we are to observe the days of Lent with special acts of dedication; specifically the “Invitation to a Holy Lent” commends to us the “fasting and self-denial.” I think most Episcopalians aren’t very clear on the practices of fasting. We know what this word means, but there is quite a bit of uncertainty about its boundaries as an actual practice: what is it, why should we do it, and what—if anything—does it have to do with Lent?

Let me begin by clearing up the biggest major fallacy about fasting: Not eating is not fasting. Oh sure, if you look in the dictionary you’ll find that as one of the definitions. Likewise that’s what your doctor means if he orders a fasting blood test, but simply not eating is not a spiritual discipline—and that’s what we’re talking about here, a spiritual discipline. Some folks who want to try fasting fall into trouble because they assume it just means not eating, and that’s not always safe. As a discipline, the Church has historically put strictures around who should and shouldn’t that sound like something at the end of a pharmaceutical ad: it’s not for children; it’s not for women who are pregnant or nursing; it’s not for the elderly, the weak, or the sick. And, in thinking of the maladies of our day, it’s not for those with eating disorders either; there’s nothing holy about self-starvation. For those who cannot or should not fast, an alternative is what we commonly know as “giving something up for Lent.” While I’ll focus on fasting here, both the practices and the theology behind it can easily be applied to whatever you choose to give up during Lent whether that falls into the realms of food, entertainment, or something else that makes sense in your life.

Throughout the scope of Christian history, the practice of fasting has, indeed, involved the regulation of one’s diet. However, another major fallacy is that there’s one right way to regulate it that counts—and that other variations don’t. Again, not true. Christians have used different standards across time and space often modulating between degrees of fasting and abstinence, that is, not eating or reducing food intake (fasting) versus abstaining from certain kinds of foods (abstinence). The Eastern Orthodox, for instance, limit particular kinds of food on certain kinds of days. Their pre-Lenten period includes a gradual paring away of food categories so that by the time Lent arrives, the diet is almost entirely vegan with no animal products in it whatsoever. Some Western early medieval sources speak of similar regimentation. For monks following the Rule of Benedict, Lenten fasting meant no food at all before the ninth hour (around 3 o’clock) and what they received then was sparse. In other times and places fasting meant not eating anything until sundown and, in others, simply not eating solid food at all.

The generally accepted standard that emerged in the Western Church, though, was this: fasting means eating half of what is normally consumed for two meals, then for the third a regular amount of food is prepared, but simply. That is, fasting from breakfast and lunch isn’t to provide room for lobster and truffles later on; think, rather, of hearty soups with simple crusty bread instead. The point of the meal is sustenance rather than titillation of the palate. In no way does this mean the food shouldn’t be enjoyed; rather, its chief virtue should be in the simplicity of wholesome ingredients.

If these standards seem a bit much, abstinence from meat or other classes of foods are also historic acts of self-denial suitable for Lent, especially for those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with fasting.

In case you’re keeping track, I haven’t said anything yet that you can’t find in a diet book or being promoted by your neighborhood locally-grown organic food market (which, come to think of it, is not a bad place for Lenten food shopping…). We’re still not to the level of a spiritual discipline, but that brings us to our last major fallacy: that fasting (or abstaining from something else, remember) is fundamentally about food. It’s not.

Instead, the act of abstinence is only one part of a three-part discipline. The full scope of the discipline includes fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. It is incomplete without these. Furthermore, they are interconnected. The reduction of food logically means that you will be spending less money on your grocery bill. According to the discipline, this doesn’t mean more money in your pocket—instead, this is money to be given to the poor. You forgo food in order that others may eat, to share your bounty with your brothers and sisters. Your solidarity with their hunger provides their very sustenance. (See, for example, Leo the Great's Sermon XII)

How you give the alms is up to you, of course. One way to make it happen is simply to take your personal weekly food bill, subtract the difference from your usual bill and each week send that difference to an organization like the Heifer Project, Meals on Wheels, or our own Episcopal Relief and Development. Another option is to go beyond writing checks; deliver your donation to your local food pantry or soup kitchen in person and take a turn cooking, serving, or cleaning.

Prayer, then—our spiritual food—replaces physical food at mealtimes. The other half of the two lesser meals, the time allotted for food now shared, is spent in prayer and intercession. Furthermore, tummy rumblings throughout the day serve as a reminder to pray even if it’s a short little breath prayer like “O God make speed to save me; O Lord make haste to help me” from the psalms or the Jesus prayer of the Orthodox: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner” both of which can be prayed in a single cycle of inhalation and exhalation.

These, then, are the practices; these are the externals of the discipline. In fact, we’ve talked so much about the externals that you could be forgiven for thinking that this is an outward, showy thing with a high potential for devolving into legalism or, worse, the one-upmanship that threatens any practice through which individuals and communities can make measurements and judgments about the spiritual fitness of others. These things have no place within any of the spiritual disciplines and are contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and the message of Christ—and that is what this exercise is really about. Tomorrow we shall take up the more important part: the internals of the practice—the theology, the spirit, and the purpose of the discipline of fasting.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

Find a new way home

By Greg Jones

Only two of the four gospels talk about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus – Matthew and Luke. Luke talks about angels and shepherds and all of what happened regarding an inn and a manger, etc. Matthew skips all of that – and talks about the arrival of some Magi from the east – following a star – and bearing gifts.

Contrary to legend, we don't know where the Magi came from, what their names were, or how many of them there were. Only tradition tells us these things. And tradition varies. In the West, their names are Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In the Ethiopian Church they call them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

In Armenia, its Kagbha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas.

Chinese Christians believe that one of the wise ones was from China – perhaps his name was Liu Shang, chief astrologer in the Han dynasty, from the time Jesus was born. Liu Shang discovered a new star the Chinese call the "King Star." Notably, Liu Shang disappered from the emperor's court for two years after he discovered the King Star. Chinese Christians argue that he took the Silk Road west to Bethlehem. Marco Polo claims to have seen the tomb of the magi in the Persian city of Saba in 1270.

Who knows. But, the Gospel story we read on the feast of the Epiphany is not so much about the Magi as it is about all seekers after God from everywhere on Earth.

We don't know who the magi really were, but we know who they represent: you and me. We are seekers after God too – right? And I believe that like them, you and I have been made to know by Grace where the King of Love is – and he's in our midst. Christ is born by all who bear him – and Christ is within us as we are within him.

Which is why once we've been led to Christ, we just can't go back to the same old ways. We just can't go back to Herod.

Just as Herod represents the vile, the corrupt and the captive to sin and its power – let us not go back to him once we've had a glimpse of Jesus. Let's not say our prayers, worship, receive communion, enjoy Christian fellowship – all means of Grace – all ways to connect with the eternal plan of God – and then, go back to Herod.

In the earliest days of the Church, there was a common way of teaching seekers about holiness. They used an approach called 'the Two Ways.' One was the Way of Light. The other -- the Way of Darkness.

And I believe we do have to choose as best we can between those ways in this life. For I believe with the wise ones who first saw Christ that in this World there is an eternal plan – and that God is working toward the healing and unity of all in Christ. I believe this is the free, gracious and expansive plan of God, which seeks to include all people in the Kindgom.

I believe with the wise ones who first saw Christ that in this world there is another plan too. That plan is about conquest, ownership, worldy power – and finally – the annihilation of creation by the One who loves it NOT.

The powers and principalities of this world – according to Paul – don't love God or His Creation and they seek to ruin it. And friends that is what Herod represents. And that Herod – that power and principality – is not just a long ago character out of the bible. That Herod is a part of our lives even now.

For the light has come into the darkness – and in Him God was pleased to dwell. If you call Jesus Lord – then the Grace of God is also in your life – even now. If Jesus is in your life – even now – then don't go back to Herod.

This year, I invite you to examine in what ways you are 'going back to Herod' on a seven day a week, real life in the world kind of way – and how you can find a new road home – to the kingdom.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He is the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at

New Year's resolution

By Derek Olsen

The secular New Year has come and gone—and that means it’s time for resolutions for the year that will be 2008. Like many Americans, I’m making a resolution to do something about my physical health. Now, I could just resolve to “be healthy” but something that vague and general will never translate into actions, something that vague and general will never be formed into habits. And that’s what we’re really talking about, right?—habits, dedicated ways of being.

I’m not just resolving to “be healthy”, I’m resolving some specific things: to buy organic food whenever possible, to buy local food whenever possible, to eat my five servings of fruits and veggies daily, and to exercise at least three times a week.

So far so good, but now—what about my spiritual health? Doesn’t it require just as much nurture as my physical health? And again, what sort of resolution should I make? Let me give you a hint: if “be healthy” didn’t cut it, neither will “be holy”… Just like the physical goals, we need something that we can be accountable for. As a Scripture scholar, I’m always partial to the goal “read more Scripture” but even that’s too vague and general to form a habit.

One option is to select a plan that reads through the whole Bible in a year. Some folks may be wary of such a thing…as if it weren’t properly Anglican or something...but let me assure you, nothing could be farther from the truth! As it turns out, the earliest one-year Bible reading plan that I know is thoroughly catholic. It’s a set of instructions from the 8th century that lays out the cycle of readings for the monastic Night Office. Biblical books were read straight-through in patterns that coincided with the liturgical seasons: for instance Exodus was read in Lent, Isaiah in Advent, Acts and Revelation in Easter, etc. It was a plan with staying power, too—I’ve seen versions with minor edits and tweaks from the 11th century and we can even find references to it in the very first Book of Common Prayer.

In the preface to the 1549 BCP, Archbishop Cranmer (following the work of the Spanish liturgist Cardinal Quiñonez) laments the loss of this yearly reading system and goes on to present a new version of it in the body of the prayer book. No longer restricted to the Night Office for monastics and clergy alone, Cranmer incorporated it into reworking of the monastic liturgies that we know today as the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer. This revised system offered two readings per service for a total of four daily that read sequentially through the Old Testament (except for some bits of Leviticus, Chronicles, and Ezekiel) once every year—and through the New Testament (except for Revelation) three times every year. This system remained in place until sometime after the authorization of the 1662 prayer book. In short, a one-year Bible reading plan is about as Anglican as you can get!

If a one-year plan sounds like a little much, another terrific option to work on your spiritual health is to move to the modern two-year plan. Cranmer’s one-year system eventually gave way to longer versions with shorter readings. The Daily Office lectionary in the back of our current prayer book stands in direct continuity with these. It reads through most of Scripture with three readings a day stretched over two years. Perhaps taking up the discipline of the Daily Office and utilizing this Scripture reading plan might be a good option for you.

While either of these plans appears daunting at first glance, remember that we’re talking about habits here, not one-time—or even one-year—events. If you want to start reading through Scripture or praying the Daily Office, approach it with the same strategies as you would a physical exercise plan. Find some buddies to help out! You don’t have to read or pray together—though it may help—but checking in and being accountable to others is often a great motivator. Also, commit to reading your Bible or doing either Morning or Evening Prayer a certain number of times each week and increase it as you are able. If you pick a sequential plan and you miss a few days or even a week, show yourself a little grace; don’t beat yourself up or even try to make up what you missed—just continue on with your plan. After all, it’s a cycle—you’ll catch it the next time around!

Click here for a copy of Cranmer’s original reading plan and here for online and downloadable resources to help you get started with the Daily Office.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

Who were the Magi?

By Deirdre Good

Who knew that Christmas cards could be so subversive? In December last year, Simon Mayo engaged the Archbishop of Canterbury in a conversation that surprised many about Christmas card scenes. Asked about "the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and Myrrh - with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason" the Archbishop responded, "Well Matthew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend." And this side of the pond, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Fort Worth questions publicly the choice of Christmas card the Presiding Bishop sent to Bishop Iker on the grounds that its depiction of the Magi as three women of color "reinterprets scripture to exclude masculine images."

For a new book, I've been looking at depictions of biblical figures and themes in the Christian East and West. It will come as a surprise to no one that the Nativity is often portrayed. Given interest in how the Magi are represented, I thought I'd look at examples in the on-line collection of the British Library at A goodly number appear on Christmas cards.

The BL describes their on-line collection thus: "Images Online gives you instant access to thousands of the greatest images from the British Library's collections which include manuscripts, rare books, musical texts and maps spanning almost 3000 years. The range of images available includes illustrations, drawings, paintings and photographs." Additions to the on-line collection are being made daily. You have to register to use their collections. Selecting "Religion and Belief" then "Christianity," I entered the terms "magi" in the search box. The result was 47 images, 44 of which are titled "Journey of the Magi, "Magi Before Herod," "Adoration of the Magi" or something similar. Three are nothing to do with the topic. By, the way, you get the same results by entering "wise men" in the search box.

Three of the 44 images are titled "The Three Magi." Now the titles have probably been given to the pieces of art by catalogers at the British Library sometimes on the basis of the text and sometimes not. I myself take the titles of pieces of art with a grain of salt. In the on-line collection of Jewish Art at the British Library for example, there are sometimes no descriptions of the images at all. Only the manuscript and its place of origin is identified. Of course, there are fewer images in this collection. But even to someone like me who has no training in art history, its obvious that Jewish illustrators in the Middle Ages are depicting biblical episodes. Why they haven't all been titled and classified in the same way as the collection "Christianity" is a mystery.

Back to images of the Magi. Of the 44 images under various titles, some images depict three Magi alone while others in the same category may be showing three Magi but since the Magi have large retinues and the paintings or illustrations are small, it is hard to tell exactly where a Magi ends and a member of the retinue begins, particularly if the Magi and their retinues are coming into the scene from one side or the other. After all, the focus of the depiction is Mary and Jesus. Other images show more than three Magi: some clearly four.

From this, we learn that on-line images of the Magi in Nativity scenes from the British Library's collection of Christian art depict them as three, four, or more figures, some or all of which may be black, or Armenian, or Persian, or a non-white ethnic group. I suppose if you were predisposed to see the Magi only as three white men, you could still do so but in that case you would have to ignore just under half of the 44 images.

We might ask why there are three or four or more Magi of different ethnic extraction at Jesus' birth? Because the text of Matthew's gospel, whence the story comes, identifies the Magi by a plural designation only. And this plurality permits Christian interpretation in art and tradition to reflect the fundamental ambiguity of the text: the masculine Greek plural "magoi" of Matthew 2:1 means only that the Magi are plural in number and that one of that number is a man. There might have been three or four or a hundred Magi at Jesus' birth in Matthew's account. And Christian tradition of the east and west elaborates this ambiguity by naming three or four or dozens of Magi, as Bruce Metzger explains in an article, "Names for the Nameless in the New Testament: A Study in the Growth of Christian Tradition", in Kyriakon. (Festschrift Johannes Quasten, ed. Patrick Granfield & Josef A. Jungmann, vol. I, Münster: Aschendorff, 1970, p.79-99.) Giving names to the Magi seems to have begun in the 6th Century CE.

Now this business of using a plural noun to describe a group of people including men and women can be seen elsewhere in Matthew. Jesus identifies a masculine plural group of his disciples as brother, sister and mother, that is, as kin: "For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (12:49-50). Matthew counts only 5000 men in the Feeding of the Five Thousand (14:21) but Jesus may have reckoned differently.

The Magi are not explicitly masculine in Matthew. Diverse depictions of the Magi in Christian and Muslim art, tradition, and Christmas cards as three or four or more; as black, Persian or Eurasian, as male and female, accurately reflects the ambiguity of Matthew's scripture.

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. She blogs at On Not Being a Sausage.

Joseph's dream

By Roger Ferlo

In the big Catholic church I attended when I was young, there were two larger than life statues of Mary and Joseph opposite each other on walls flanking the sanctuary, each presiding benevolently over its own side altar. Although the two statues were the same size, and given equal prominence (the church’s designers paid ample homage to the gods of symmetry), Mary’s statue was where the action was. She always had more candles lit in front of her than Joseph did. Brides left their bouquets on her altar before departing down the aisle. And to top things off, every year on the first of May someone built steps high enough for a little girl in a white communion dress to climb up and crown Our Lady with a wreath of plastic roses. Joseph never turned his head during any of this, staring straight ahead, holding a very intelligent-looking toddler Jesus in the crook of his arm.

Given how little attention anyone paid to him, you had to wonder what Joseph was doing there at all. The sculptor depicted him as relatively young, a thirty-something or so. An unusual choice, as most artists through the centuries (perhaps as a way of coping with the strange notion of a virgin birth) have depicted him as old enough to be Mary’s grandfather. In most nativity scenes I’ve seen he’s usually two steps back from the action, sometimes even asleep at his post. And even when awake, you most often see him holding on to his staff for dear life, perhaps still wondering what hit him.

Years later, living in New York City, I encountered an image of this neglected Joseph more complicated than the one that quietly presided over my catholic childhood. Around Christmastime I took the long subway ride uptown to the Cloisters to visit Robert Campin’s fifteenth-century master painting of the Annunciation—Gabriel’s unlikely announcement to Mary that she would bear a son without Joseph, so to speak, anywhere in the picture. The work consists of three panels The large central one depicts the main event as Luke describes it and this fifteenth-century Flemish painter imagined it—a ravishing angel, his wings shimmering in the exquisite layers of color of which the Netherlandish painters were masters, invading the quiet space of a courtly lady’s bedroom. Campin paints Mary at just the moment before she turns to face the angel (in effect, Campin allows us to see Gabriel before Mary does). In an instant, in the next breath, she will turn and see God’s ravishing messenger face to face, the way Moses saw God on the mountain. But where Moses comes away from the mountain bearing God’s word carved on tablets of stone, Mary would quietly leave this cloistered chamber bearing the silent Word encrypted in her very womb.

Once again, in this painting as in the church of my childhood, Mary is where the action is, in the full and shining Technicolor of this central panel. The panel to the left is much drabber, depicting the artist’s patrons looking in from the outside, as well a mysterious figure that may be a portrait of the artist himself, hovering at the courtyard gate. And, in the panel on the right, there is yet another clueless Joseph, hard at work in his carpenter shop, busily crafting mousetraps to catch Satan in. As usual, he is slightly out-of-it, painted facing away from the action in the central panel, totally absorbed in his task, oblivious to the great scene unfolding in the panel to his right.

I find myself again sympathizing with Joseph. Compared to Mary’s, Joseph’s encounters with God in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew is the only gospel writer who takes any interest in him) are played out in a minor key, more like our own. As Luke tells the story, Mary encounters the angel of God when she is fully awake, fully aware, in the broad daylight of a thrilling revelation. But Matthew’s Joseph encounters the angel only in the dark of night, deep in a dream, that ancient, shadowy passageway connecting divine wisdom to human understanding.

Dreams are a form of chaos, most of the time, and one would think that Joseph’s dream would reflect in some distorted and frightening way the chaos of his own life—a young woman pregnant, and not by him; the fear of public disgrace; a need to keep everything quiet; the urge to hide his shame in a darkened room, devising paltry mousetraps to ward off the Evil One. And yet, in the midst of chaos comes this startling dream—startling because it clarifies rather than confuses, but clarifies the chaos by paradoxically deepening it. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…” The writer of this gospel must have known that this was not the first time someone named Joseph would be forced to trace his way through a landscape of dreams. That first Joseph, Jacob’s son, dreamed his way out of exile in Egypt to lead his undeserving brothers into a world reconciled and restored. And so too this second Joseph will dream his way into exile in Egypt and back (“Go, take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt”) carrying with him in the crook of his arm a second Moses, a second Joshua, a second Adam to redeem our chaos and make our pathways straight.

We latter-day Josephs, men and women both, know a lot about chaos these days. Endless wars and bombing and fears of dying; melt-downs of public conversation; a politics poisoned by bigotry and xenophobia; God’s own earth poisoned by our own greed and unmindfulness. But it is not just the outer world’s chaos that haunts us in this Christmas season. It is also the chaos of what an artist like Campin would understand as our inner worlds—our deepest desires at cross-purposes with each other. We feel it when we want at the same time to embrace our families and to escape them; when we harbor private griefs or grievances in the midst of public joy; when in spite of the holiday, or because of it, we seek to escape to a darkened room, to banish all semblance of dreams, to sleep in blankness. And yet, as with Joseph, the dream will come however much we try to block it, making of our mixed desires and the world’s distress the stuff of revelation. If there is any hope left in a season so bedeviled by endless consumption and endless desire, it lies in Joseph’s dream: that deep in Mary’s womb is buried not the sign of our shame and guilt but the sign of our salvation.

The Rev. Dr. Roger Felo is Professor of Religion and Culture, Associate Dean and director of the Institute for Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Hurrying Christmas

By John Bryson Chane

Whatever happened to Christmas? Once Halloween is over it seems as if every shopping mall and airport concourse are decorated with the politically correct “Happy Holidays” message.

And what’s with the demise of Christmas trees? Now they’re called Holiday trees. My brother lives in a small Massachusetts town where public commons predate the Revolutionary War. Last year he phoned me, ready to power up a chain saw and march down to the common to defoliate what, for the first time in the history of that town, was called the “holiday tree.” I entreated him to write a letter to the editor at the local paper instead, and to save his chain saw for something less physically taxing. It worked! The letter provoked an outcry from the old timers in town who said: “Enough of this foolishness. We’ll have a Christmas tree and a Menorah on the common, and that’s that.” No doubt someone will sue the town, if not this year then next, about the use of public property for religious purposes, but “come on now, get a life.”

And Santa Claus, that veritable survivor, now appears on television shilling Coke products, and handcrafting Mercedes Benz automobiles with his own personal welding torch. Santa and his elves still hang out in big department stores like they did when I was a boy, but now son or daughter can get a personalized, digitalized photo with the “big guy” for $5. I even heard rumors that the Actors Guild was thinking of unionizing department store and mall Santas.

Whatever happened to Christmas? I’d like to try and answer that. We have been at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan for too long. Some say the total cost will eventually come out to more than a trillion dollars. Too many of our young servicemen and women and our older guardsmen have paid the ultimate price with their lives, and others will forever wear the scars of their sacrifices for all of us to see.

Stateside, the cost of living continues to increase, with prices for heating oil, gasoline and natural gas hitting all-time highs. Forty-eight million Americans live with no health insurance. Economists debate whether we are in stagflation or inflation. And the dollar is tanking faster than a falling barometer before an approaching hurricane. Public confidence in key elements of our American democracy – namely the U.S. Congress and the White House – are polling at near all-time lows.

The mortgage and foreclosure disaster produced by the unbridled greed of lenders and the hope of many to live the American dream of owning their own home has created a massive financial crisis. No one really knows how much of this iceberg is still hidden from view, but what is for sure is that lots of good folks have lost their homes and others struggle each month to hang on to them.

The Middle East continues to dominate our world view, and beyond Iraq and Afghanistan lies an emerging political crisis in Pakistan. Iran continues to present itself as a potential threat and a Persian puzzle our country has yet to decipher. Syria was recently caught “red handed” developing a nuclear enrichment facility with the apparent support of North Korean technology. And as we gather on Christmas Eve to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, the truth is that Palestinian Christians and other Christian pilgrims are an endangered species in the Holy Land. On this Christmas, as on so many other Christmases past, many are not able to enter Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, because of a terribly flawed Israel/Palestine policy supported by the United States.

As I think about what happened to Christmas, I have one possible answer. All the commercial hype, the earlier timetable for decorating and the passion to engage with that “jolly old elf” is rooted in our understanding that regardless of how well we seem to have our life together, we are being buffeted by changes. Whether we are looking at the draining of the American treasury because of the war, the falling dollar, foreclosures, global warming or the horribly complex instability of the Middle East, there is, I believe, a question on everyone’s mind. What will the future look like? Will we ever again be what we once were, or thought we were, as a people and nation? Will our children have a harder time than we had growing up? Will they have the resources to survive a rapidly changing world and economy?

I believe this triggers the need for folks to rally around a time of the year when the expectation of giving and receiving gifts becomes something more than just a commercial enterprise. There is the caring for another, the cementing of a relationship, the expression of affection and love, and the hope that what one gives will be received with the spirit and meaning for which it was given.

I think we are jumping so much faster into getting our Christmas decorations up, our department stores stocked with Christmas “must haves,” because we are now in greater need than ever of seeking the hopeful in what seem to be almost hopeless times. Fear and the loss of what used to be have rapidly bred a deep human yearning for security and the assurance of the known.

At the very heart of the Christmas story is the annual retelling of a miracle, the birth of Jesus, the incarnation of God living and breathing among us in human form. And Jesus taught that no one has to be held captive by the unknown or imprisoned by fear. Christmas is the promise that through the miracle of Jesus’ birth, all things can be made new. And right now more than ever, the world and each one of us needs to be reminded of this great truth.

And so, “Whatever happened to Christmas?” Nothing, other than that we desperately want to be reminded of the power of its message and that we want it to become a greater part of our lives – more so than just on Dec. 25. We want to be reminded that miracles do happen, that the powerful message of Christmas needs to become a much larger part of our lives and that with God, all things are possible. Who knows, maybe decorations will go up after Labor Day next year!

The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane is bishop of the Diocese of Washington (D. C.).

Blue Christmas

By Ann Fontaine

Cries of “Merry Christmas!” and non-stop caroling contrast with the feelings of many people at this time of year. For those suffering from the recent or impending death of loved ones and for those whose families are in crisis, it can be a very isolated and dreary time. Every greeting and every song reminds the grief-stricken of how unhappy life is at this moment.

Many churches have begun to recognize that Festivals of Lessons and Carols, celebrations of Christmas, and children’s pageants do not meet everyone’s needs. To fill this gap churches offer a Blue Christmas service, a Service of Solace or Longest Night. People who are not having a very merry Christmas and friends who support them are invited to come and sit with one another in a liturgy that speaks of the love of God for the grieving.

Many of the worshipers who gathered for our Service of Solace at St. John’s in Jackson Hole, Wyoming during the week before Christmas did not have a church home. Christmas vacationers who came to ski or snowmobile were attracted to the silence and space apart from their days on the mountain. We offered a variety of music and silence interspersed with readings from Scripture and prayers of solace and hope. Each person was encouraged to bring readings to share, photos or objects of remembrance

Sitting together in the warm log church in the midst of the deep star spangled dark of the Rocky Mountains we gained a greater knowledge of the One who loves us in sorrow and joy. We learned that even strangers can share life and love. We discovered we are not alone.

A closing prayer from Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace:

O God of all seasons and senses, grant us the sense of your timing to submit gracefully and rejoice quietly in the turn of the seasons.

In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of endings;
children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying,
grieving over,
grudges over,
blaming over,
excuses over.

O God, grant us a sense of your timing.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of beginnings;
that such waitings and endings may be the starting place,
a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born—
something right and just and different,
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love—
in the fullness of your time.

O God, grant us the sense of your timing.

Liturgies for a Service of Solace, Longest Night or Blue Christmas can be found at The Text This Week.

Compassionate Friends is a resource for those whose children (of any age) have died.

Many hospice organizations offer bereavement groups at all times of the year.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Sapientia-tide: The Great O Antiphons

By Derek Olsen

I doubt you've heard of Sapientia-tide—but I'll bet you know “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The liturgical obscurity and the popular hymn are both vestiges of an ancient tradition that celebrates the Incarnation of Christ: The Great “O” Antiphons. The intentional liturgical communities of the Middle Ages—the monastic houses and cathedrals—always sang the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, as part of their Evening Prayer (Vespers). To further their meditation upon the various mysteries of Christ made present in the liturgical cycles, one-line antiphons drawn from biblical or traditional sources were interwoven with Mary's canticle. The verses we now know as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are versions of the antiphons traditionally sung on the seven nights leading up to Christmas Eve. These antiphons are worthy of our attention as we enter this time before Christmas for both their spiritual riches and for their place in our Anglican heritage.

(Meditations on the O Antiphons will be featured on the Speaking to the Soul blog, December 16-24.)

A curious entry appears in the December liturgical calendar of English Books of Common Prayer. The year 1561 brought an influx of minor saints from the Roman cycle back into the calendar of the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer by way of the Latin Book of Common Prayer used in college chapels—places where Latin was expected to be “a tongue understanded of the people.” But among this number came an entry that was not the name of a saint or martyr. December 16th bears the legend: O Sapienta—O Wisdom. Formally ratified by its inclusion in the calendar of the 1662 Prayer Book—still the official prayer-book of the Church of England and often considered the liturgical norm for the Anglican Communion—this entry holds an indisputable place in our history grounding the “O” Antiphons in the Anglican tradition although they have never yet appeared in an authorized prayer book. The Roman Catholic Church has retained these antiphons as well, but their course begins on December 17th—meaning that the Anglican tradition retains an antiphon no longer used by Rome. Ironically, the missing antiphon is the one addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Jumping back a thousand years, the deep roots of the antiphons in the English tradition may be seen in the leaves of the Exeter Book, a collection of poetic texts and riddles from the tenth century written in Old English. The opening lines—only partially preserved—are poetic paraphrases of not seven but twelve “O” antiphons that ponder the Advent, the time of waiting, the Incarnation, and its implications for fallen humanity. The choice of these antiphons is not happenstance—rather these texts are rich with spiritual and doctrinal content that beg for further expansion, explanation, and appreciation. I feel this urge today as surely as it was felt over a millennium ago.

The antiphons are a mosaic of Scriptural citations and allusions. As Advent privileges the writings of the prophets, so the central image of each antiphon is drawn from a prophet nugget. Since the Book of Revelation was composed in a similar fashion—always in conversation with the prophets and the psalms—many of the antiphons have multiple Scriptural sources. We hear the words of the prophets not only from their own time and place but through the lens of New Testament's use of them as well. In the scriptural cloud that surrounds each core image, some links are obvious—others are less so, drawing on the interpretive methods and decisions of the Church Fathers.

Each antiphon begins with a metaphor, a title for Christ, most evoking not just a passage but whole swathes of Scripture. This metaphor is expanded by ancillary images and references that add depth and dimension to the Scriptural stories. Last, an imperative beseeches Christ to come and liberate us from sin, death, and darkness. As we take the words and images of the prophets in our mouths, we join their cry for the coming of the babe of Bethlehem. And speaking our own future, we call for the Coming King who will consummate the redemption of all creation. And—furthermore—we cry Christ into our own hearts, asking that the birth of the divine child be not only in history of distant days or future consummation but that we see, we experience, his redemptive resurrection power in our own flesh.

Dec 17th:* O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end [of the heavens] to another, and dost mightily and sweetly order all things: come to teach us the way of prudence!

Dec 18th: O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai: come to redeem us with outstretched arm!

Dec 19th: O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom the kings shall shut their mouths, unto whom the Gentiles shall seek: come to deliver us, make no tarrying!

Dec 20th: O Key of Davd and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest and no man shutteth; and shuttest and no man openeth: come to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death!

Dec 21st: O Day-spring Brightness of the everlasting Light, Sun of Righteousness: come to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death!

Dec 22nd: O King of the Gentiles, yea, and Desire thereof, O Cornerstone that makest of twain [two] one: come to save man, whom Thou hast made of the dust of the earth!

Dec 23rd: O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and Salvation thereof: come to save us, O Lord our God!

(If the missing optional antiphon is used, it should be used on the 23rd and the others moved back one day: O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? That which ye behold is a divine mystery.)

* English texts from the public domain The Roman Breviary, translated by John, Marquis of Bute (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1908), p. 244.

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

Affluent beggars

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Leafing through this week's classifieds in New York magazine, I came across the following ad in the real estate section:

WE NEED HELP BUYING AN APT on the UWS (editor's note: that's Upper West Side), 3bd2bath. YOU are a philanthropic, wealthy person who would not miss a million bucks and would be interested in donating (or even investing) in a highly targeted manner: to my family. WE are a wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community, is entrenched, happy and desperately wants to remain on the UWS (lest the city lose yet another wonderful family to the burbs). We can afford 600-700k, so you see the predicament. Can you help us??

Well, I thought, here are some grown-ups who believe in Santa Claus. So this is what Manhattan real estate prices have come to, that people who can afford to pay more than half a million for an apartment are looking for handouts. There's an absurd Little Match Girl tone to the whole ad: urban Mom, Dad, and kids standing on the sidewalk outside the Upper West Side's elegant prewar buildings, filled with longing, fingers numb in the cold. In a borough where many pay exorbitant sums to live in apartments not much bigger than a sectional sofa, the ad's Manhattan real estate envy is familiar to most of us, writ large. Now, there's something to be said for the idea that not every condo and coop in the city should end up owned by Wall Street people or international real estate investors. And with the richest two percent of people on earth owning more than half of the household wealth, maybe it's inevitable these days that middle-class people will feel poor. Maybe soon we'll be seeing similar requests from people asking for a Sub Zero kitchen ("WE are fabulous cooks!") or a Bose stereo ("WE only listen to classical music played on authentic period instruments!") or a $4,000 Capresso cappuccino maker ("WE only brew coffee with whole, fair-trade beans!").

I couldn't help noticing the theology here. In explaining their "predicament," the ad's writers appeal to the good old Protestant work ethic: they are a "wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community." It's the word "wonderful" that got to me. Here's a chance, during this Advent season, to consider the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus. We are brought up to believe that if we're good boys and girls, we'll get everything on our Christmas list. Most of us recognize, by the time we reach adulthood, that life just doesn't add up that way. "Wonderful" people, we discover, experience suffering, disappointment, and loss. There are "wonderful" people living in cities and suburbs -- in New York and all over the world -- who who go to bed hungry, lack basic health care, and have no roof at all over their heads, let alone a home with two bathrooms. Talk about predicaments.

No wonder the story of a holy child born in a filthy manger touches us so deeply. We are invited to imagine, in the midst of so much hardship, the presence of joy. We're reminded that we can avoid experiencing a kind of envy that is not only unappealing, but painful, if we turn our gaze to people who have less than we do and focus on reaching out with prayers and help. And in doing so we feel blessed -- no matter where we live.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst, is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

Christmas, Christian style

By Peter Pearson

The Mother of God of Peace, by Peter Pearson.
For years now, people have been complaining that Christmas is too commercial, too hectic, too expensive, and too secular. The carols and decorations appear some-time near Halloween and the television commercials now urge us to give diamonds and Cadillac SUV’s instead of embroidered handkerchiefs and home-made fudge. It’s just out of control. Unfortunately not many folks have gotten around to doing something about it.

Living in a Benedictine monastery taught me many valuable lessons. One of those was how to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ in a way that does not insult the homeless Child of Bethlehem nor supports the lie that our lives have meaning only in terms of the national economy. The only real excess at Christmas need be the recognition of God’s extravagant love for us in giving Jesus to a broken world so that it might be made whole again.

So what do you and yours want? I mean REALLY want from one another. It’s entirely possible that the gift of time and attention is the very thing that we all long for the most. Stuff is nice, but it’s a shabby substitute for love. Besides, most of us have more things than we need and then some. It’s amazing that we can still find items we can’t live without considering that each of us owns more stuff than almost any village in the third world.

So remember the old adage that says: “If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got.” It’s time to try something different. Here are some suggestions:

• Give the gift of your time and attention to one another: call someone and just chat for an hour or so, pop in for a visit, or invite someone to tea.
• Buy children’s books and donate them to the local public library or plant a tree in honor of those you love.
• Give dog food and treats to the local SPCA or Humane Society.
• Spend the evening at home in front of the fire playing board games---NO cell phones, no TV, and no excuses.
• Donate to the Vicar’s Discretionary Fund so that your parish can make a difference in the lives of others in your area.
• Buy and give fair trade items or shop at places like Ten Thousand Villages so that others might benefit from your spending too.

Or try any of these ideas which are offered by Marty Seligman in his work Good Consumerism:
• Give a bridge line (an inexpensive telephone conference call) for a once a month call for the next six months to your widely scattered family.
• Fund a visit for a friend to see someone she loves but has not seen in years.
• Adopt a family you know to be in need and give them Safeway and Target gift certificates.
• Donate bees, goats, llamas to friends through the Heifer Project or Episcopal Relief and Development's Gifts for Life catalog.
• Make a “treasure chest” for your child, with coupons redeemable for one reading hour with you, one trip to a ball game with Dad, two games of Monopoly with Mom.
• Give a bird feeder to a friend and mount it in a place that will brighten her day every day. Giving pots of herbs and berries or hundreds of daffodil bulbs works well also.
• Give your child a complex Lego set that requires building over weeks with you.
• Give dance lessons or musical instrument lessons to people you love who do not dance or play music.
• Tape a Harry Potter volume in your own voice and give it to a young child to listen to (or tape a radio show from a 1940’s script for someone who loves drama).
• Make the gifts yourself (e.g., cookies) and make the cards yourself. It’s time consuming, personal, and it gives the people you care about the most precious gift of all—your time.

As Christians, we are called to give OURSELVES away in love to make a better world. This Christmas might be a good place and time to begin. Whatever you decide, I hope your decisions about how to celebrate Christmas will be ones that feed your soul and those of your loved ones.

The Rev. Peter Pearson is priest in charge at Saint Philip’s Church in New Hope, Pa. He is a former Benedictine monk and icon painter, whose work is featured at

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