Silence

Abbot Andrew’s application of Girardian theory to Shusaku Endo’s novel (and Martin Scorcese’s film) ‘Silence’. Reading this book after college, while the evangelical interpretation of my faith was beginning to deteriorate, was an important moment for me. Spoilers abound in the commentary, so beware. I highly recommend this book and am looking forward to seeing the film.

Imaginary Visions of True Peace

fumie Fumie

Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence has haunted, troubled, and uneasily edified many readers, me among them, since it was written. Scorsese’s film does the same, although the visual effects amplify the haunting, troubling and uneasy edification. The novel follows the book very closely. Very little, perhaps nothing, has been left out of the book by the movie. This review is primarily a response to the movie but it is a review of the book as well.

Certain dimensions of the novel/movie are brought out with the help of the French thinker René Girard. Girard discovered the anthropological trait of what he called “mimetic desire” in the greatest of Western novels, such as Don Quixote and Brothers Karamazov and in the plays of Shakespeare. Mimetic desire is imitating, not the actions of another, but the desires of another. Girard goes on to analyze ways that mimetic desire becomes conflictual and escalates…

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The Purpose of Contemplation

Dating God

alone-in-prayerThe purpose of contemplation is to change who we are by allowing God to shape and influence the way we see reality. This is something that Christians need to embrace and live out every day, not just on this or that occasion or in this or that way. The more we become contemplatives in the Franciscan tradition, the more we we can recognize those special moments of mystical encounter with our Creator. The result of living this way is, to quote a prayer that is so often associated with St. Francis, although he did not write it himself, that we are to become ambassadors of God’s peace. Where there is hatred, we can show love. Where there is injury, pardon; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

—from Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis (2012).

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Ecclesia Catholica, Semper Reformanda

Article by Fr. John Macquarrie on the Catholicity of the Anglican tradition

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No doubt all Christians participate, in greater or less degree, in Catholicity.  They have all maintained something of the classic form.  Vatican II recognized that Anglicans had done this in a quite distinct way, and we are glad to have this recognition from our Roman brethren—it is a tremendous step forward from the old “all or nothing” position of 1896—and I shall have something to say about this later.  But if we are to take this change of attitude seriously, then I must insist on changing the form of the question which stands at the head of this article.  Because both Romans and Anglicans (as well as some others) have been true to the classical shape of Catholic Christianity, the question for us is not, “What still separates us from the Catholic Church” but hat still separates Anglicans and Romans within the Catholic Church to which they both so visibly and manifestly belong?”

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This Little Light of Mine

Click here to read the service bulletin, including biblical texts.

In the liturgical season between Epiphany and Lent, one of the major themes is Light. Christ is revealed as the Light of the World.

Now, here’s the funny thing about light: you can’t see it. You only know it’s there because it allows you to see everything else when it’s around. Even if you look at a light bulb, you’re not really seeing light; you’re seeing little strips of metal that have been heated up by electricity. The heating process causes the metal strips to emit light into the room. You can see the strips glowing, but that’s not light itself, just the effect.

Today’s readings introduce us to the idea of Christ as Light. Isaiah says it first and Matthew quotes him later:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

The psalmist takes up the theme as well:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”

What does it mean to follow Christ the Light when we cannot see light itself?

My working theory is that we can experience the presence of Christ in the effect Christ has on the lives of people around him.

In today’s gospel, Christ encounters several people who will become his first disciples. We could say that he ‘illumines’ or even ‘enlightens’ them with his presence.

Let’s look at the text:

Where does Jesus first encounter Simon, Andrew, James, and John? On a beach.

And what are they doing as he walks up? Simon and Andrew are “casting a net into the sea.” James and John are “mending their nets.”

This starts off as a rather boring scene. These four people are only going about their daily routine. Christ meets them in the midst of everyday life.

This is important because it gives us a hint about where, when, and how we can expect to encounter Christ in our lives as well: in the mundane, boring, everyday stuff.

If they were construction workers, he would have met them on a job site. If they were doctors, he would be sitting in the waiting room. If they were students, he would be sitting next to them in class. If they were dialysis patients, he would be hooked up to the machine next to them. Wherever we happen to find ourselves is the place where Christ meets us.

This runs counter to the idea that one can only have spiritual experiences in spiritual places, or that one can only meet God in godly places.

If they had been drug dealers, Christ would have met them on the corner where they sell their dope. If they had been strippers, Christ would have met them at the club.

Religious people tend to have a hard time with this reality. We think that Christ only shows up when someone has sufficiently prepared themselves for the encounter, but Scripture plainly and repeatedly shows us that Jesus is not interested in such distinctions. Christ is everywhere. The only thing spirituality does is prepare us to see him whenever and wherever he meets us. In this case, it was on a beach with a bunch of uneducated, working-class fishermen.

The next thing Jesus does is even more interesting: he approaches Simon and Andrew and says:

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

He doesn’t say, “I will make you stop fishing.” Nor does he say, “What are you doing, wasting your time with this stuff?” He begins by affirming what they already know.

Just like light, Christ does not change the essential nature of the ones he shines upon. They don’t cease to be themselves. They are fishermen now, and so they will remain in God’s plan for their life.

Many people come to the Church because they want to be (or pretend to be) something other than what they are. But Christ doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t take fishermen and make them into saints; he makes them into saintly fishermen.

The light shines on us as we are, but it also helps us to see what we are more clearly. If I wake up before dawn, I can stumble around the room, looking for my clothes. Or I can turn on the light to look for them. Turning on the light doesn’t change the location of my clothes, it just lets me see where they already are.

When Christ the Light shines more brightly in our lives, we remain ourselves, but we come to see ourselves more clearly. Jesus saw something in Simon and Andrew that they had not yet seen in themselves. They were meant for bigger things than what they were already doing. Jesus helped them to see the deeper meaning of their lives and the calling that God had in store for them. They would remain fishermen, but they would be “fishing for people,” according to Jesus.

This is how Christ the Light shines in our lives today. We come to church, read the Bible, receive the sacraments, and discover that we are changing from the inside out. We do not cease to be who we have always been, but the deeper nature of our lives is revealed. We are like the elements of the Eucharist, which remain bread and wine in a physical sense, but are transformed spiritually into the Body and Blood of Christ.

I once heard a story about a woman who worked at a post office. When a new acquaintance asked her what she did for a living, she wisely responded, “I am a servant of the living God, cleverly disguised as a postal worker.”

When we look at ourselves in the mirror, or look at our lives, we see the disguise we have built for ourselves (or the disguise that was given to us by society). We see race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, education, employment, or criminal record. We come to falsely identify ourselves with these things because they are obvious and visible.

But the real truth of our lives lies beneath the surface of those accidental qualities. None of them fully captures the essence of who we really are. When Christ the Light shines upon us, our true selves are revealed. We, and others, begin to see more clearly the divine image we bear. Christ met fishermen and revealed the apostles in each of them.

Christ sees you and draws out the saint or mystic that lives just beneath the surface of your life. Maybe you just didn’t see it clearly before now. But that’s okay, because the lights have been turned on over you and the real you can now be seen and loved for who you really are.

So, go out into the world today as your true self, deepened and revealed by the light of Christ. With that light as your guide, see in yourself and others the beauty and dignity of Christ, whose image you bear. Be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today, and “let your light shine before all people, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”

By Unknown - http://fos-kastoria.blogspot.bg/2015_01_01_archive.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45766613

A God’s-Eye View

Click here to read the service bulletin, including biblical texts.

Introduction

Think about a time when you felt misjudged or misunderstood. How did it feel? Who was involved? What was it that you wanted them to realize about you? What do you wish you had said to make that person understand?

Most of us have memories like that. The pain of the memory can sometimes cause us to seethe with anger at the injustice, even years after the fact.

Less common and less visceral are memories of times when we have discovered ourselves to be the ones misjudging others. Psychologists have discovered a reason for this: they call it “the fundamental attribution error.” What it means is that people tend to name external circumstances as the cause of their own faults, while simultaneously blaming other peoples’ faults on defects of character.

Here’s an example: You are at a stoplight and cut across a lane of traffic to turn right in order to not be late for work, cutting another driver off in the process. You think to yourself, “Sorry about that, but I can’t be late for work!” Now, if you’re the driver in the other car, and you see this happen in front of you, and are forced to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident, you think, “What a jerk! They must not know how to drive!” That’s the fundamental attribution error in action. The first driver chalks the mistake up to circumstances, while the second driver chalks it up to the other person’s character.

People do this. In the story of our own lives, we tend to cast ourselves in the role of the hero or the victim, almost never as the bad guy. The role of villain is given to others. The funny thing is that the “bad guys” in each of our stories also think of themselves as the “good guys,” while we ourselves play the role of the villain in their stories.

The world loves to divide people into categories: us and them, good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. We pass judgment on one another and react, rather than respond, when circumstances turn inconvenient. In time, we learn how to impose those categories on whole groups of people: black and white, straight and gay, men and women, American and Russian, Republican and Democrat. It’s as though each of us is in the process of writing our own superhero comic book, fighting like mad to ensure that the good guys win in the end.

The problem is that, when we do this, we aren’t relating to each other as whole people, each with their own complex challenges of circumstance and character. Life is complicated. People are complicated. And at the end of the day, there are no good guys or bad guys, just people.

Exegesis

In today’s gospel, we get to see an example of a time when one person was able to look at another and see the truth beneath the surface of that person.

Last week, we looked at the relationship between Jesus and St. John the Baptist as a door that opens us up to the relational nature of reality in the Trinity. Today, we are going to look at that same relationship from the opposite direction: we are going to see how one’s relationship with the Triune God opens a door for us to see our relationships with our neighbors differently.

When St. John the Baptist looked at Jesus, he saw past the categories that other people used to put on him. John saw Jesus for who he truly is: the Son of God and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus was no stranger to being categorized by other people. We read about this time and again in the gospels. His hometown neighbors listened to his first sermon and couldn’t get past the mental categories in which they had placed him, as the son of Joseph the carpenter. The clergy and theologians couldn’t get past the fact that Jesus sounded like a heretic to them, calling into question centuries of religious tradition. The political authorities had him pegged as a dangerous radical. Even his own family came to believe that Jesus had lost his mind. All of these made their judgments about Jesus and tucked him away in their mental categories as a way of dismissing him and his message. But John the Baptist doesn’t do that. John sees Jesus with a different set of eyes.

The gospel calls John a “prophet”, who was “sent from God” as “a witness to the light.” Whatever else this may mean, we can at least say that it means this: John the Baptist saw the world at large, and Jesus specifically, from a spiritually-centered point-of-view. He saw Jesus clearly, with spiritual eyes.

John was able to this, most basically, because of the gifts and calling that God had placed on his life. God wanted John to see Jesus in this way. But, along with that, I tend to believe that John was able to sharpen and hone this gift of God by his spiritual practices.

We know that John lived simply, out in the desert. He had few possessions and sustained himself, as the text of the Bible tells us, on “locusts and wild honey.” As far as we can tell, he was unmarried. He was given to prayer and the preaching spiritual renewal in baptism. In many ways, his life resembles that of an Old Testament Nazirite, a holy person dedicated to God and separated from the world. Traditionally, they refrained from alcohol, haircuts, and funerals. Other famous Nazirites from the Old Testament include the prophet Samuel and the hero Samson.

Although John is not specifically named as a Nazirite, his life resembles that of one, being wholly dedicated to the service of God. In modern terms, we might think of him like a hermit or monk.

John’s spiritual practices give him the ability to see the world differently from the way most people see it, and when Jesus arrives on the scene, John is ready to see him differently too. Where some saw just another crazy person or heretic, John saw Jesus as the Son of God, upon whom the Holy Spirit had descended, and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. John saw Jesus’ true self, beyond the categories imposed on him by the world.

Application

I don’t think this ability is unique to St. John the Baptist himself.

First of all, I think we get a glimpse, in John’s vision, of the way God sees each and every one of us. When we are misunderstood or misjudged, there is another who sees and loves us as we truly are. God looks at us and sees past the shell of worldly categories to the treasure beneath the surface of our lives. That treasure is there in your life because God wants it to be there and placed it there himself. Even better, God wants us to see that treasure too, so that we can share it with others. Whenever our dignity is maligned by our neighbors (or even ourselves), God is working quietly behind the scenes to bring prophets like John into our lives who will see and draw out the divine treasure that is in us.

Second, I believe that John’s gift of spiritual insight is available to all of us, if we choose to make use of it. Like John, we can make use of spiritual practices to sharpen and focus the way we look at the world and people around us. Studying the Word and celebrating the Sacraments keep us connected to the core beliefs and values that tell us there is inherent dignity in every human life, no matter what categories people may try to impose on it. We read in the Bible that our neighbors are reflections of God’s image, members of the Body of Christ, and living stones in the temple of the Holy Spirit. In the Sacraments, we all pass through the waters of Baptism and partake of the bread and cup of the Eucharist as members of the one Body of Christ. We are part of each other, precisely because we are part of Christ. This is how St. Paul is able to say, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor. 12:21)

In prayer and meditation, we connect the joys and concerns of daily living to our divine life in God. Even secular psychologists have come to admit in recent years that the practice of meditation is good for human relationships. When we meditate, we lower our stress levels and become better able to respond to crisis from a place of peace, rather than react out of anger. Meditation helps us develop empathy and detachment, so that we can see past the hard categories we impose on each other. Spiritually centered people don’t see “good guys” and “bad guys,” but instead just see “people.” They don’t think in terms of “us” and “them,” but think instead of “We.”

God sees each of us as beloved sons and daughters. People learning to see the world from God’s point-of-view begin to see their neighbors in that same way.

That’s how John saw Jesus. That’s how God sees us. My prayer this morning is that we too will learn, day by day, by Word and Sacrament, by prayer and meditation, how to see each other in this way. When we do, we will be seeing one another with the eyes of God.

God is a Relationship

Click here to read the bulletin, including Scripture readings

Whatever else we want to say about God, we can at least say this:

God is all about relationships.

We can see that in the natural universe:

The relationship between our planet and our star is so finely tuned. If the earth were just a little closer to or farther out from the sun, or if it was just tilted a little more on its axis, life as we know it would be impossible.

The biosphere is so delicately balanced, the extinction of just a few species from the food chain can upset an entire ecosystem. A pastor friend tells me that, if bees continue to disappear (as they have been doing), we humans have only two years of life left.

We humans can share a special relationship with each other, when two people can come together in a special, intimate way that actually creates life.

We can see that God is all about relationships by looking at our Scriptures as well.

We can see it in today’s gospel: in the relationship between Christ and St. John the Baptist.

In the very first sentence of this reading, we see that Christ takes the initiative:

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan”

And then the text says that John, after a brief conversation, gives his consent. This is very important because real relationships can only exist where consent is freely offered between two parties.

After that, the baptism takes place and something amazing happens:

“just as [Jesus] came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him”

I take this to mean that Christ could see into eternity, into the heart of everything; he could see how it all hangs together. And in that vision, Jesus sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove and hears a voice say, “This is my Son, the beloved”.

Note the three figures in this vision: First, there is Jesus, the Son of God. Then there is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. Finally, there is the voice (presumably God the Father), saying, “This is my Son”. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the first place in Scripture where the Holy Trinity appears.

For Christians, the Trinity is our core concept of God. The word itself never appears in Scripture (that was worked out a few centuries later by the Church Fathers and Mothers), but here is where we see the three persons together for the first time. We believe in one God who is three Persons. Not three Gods, not one God known in three ways, but one God in three Persons. The relationship between John and Christ actually opens a window, through which we can see the relational, Triune nature of God.

I know this sounds rather abstract, but let me bring it down to earth: God is a relationship. As St. John the Beloved put it in his first epistle, “God is love”. Relationships matter to God because God is a relationship. God is love itself.

This is good news for us in this world, where our relationships are in such trouble. Our broken relationships, at the personal and political levels, are often characterized by exploitation, manipulation, oppression, poverty, and violence.

There is nothing new about this. We can see it plainly on the news and in many of our families. It didn’t begin with Twitter, or the internet, or television, or the 1960s, or the sexual revolution. It began all the way back at the beginning, when our relational God created us to be in relationship with God and each other. But we withheld our consent. We broke relationship with God, and soon our relationships with each other began to break down as well.

But God never broke relationship with us. God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem the world and restore us to right relationship with God and each other.

That is why the Church today, as Christ’s Body on earth, calls Christians to tend to our relationships with family, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. We are called to live the truth that relationships matter because God is a relationship.

God is love. This is why Jesus sums up all the commandments of the Bible in a single word: Love. Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Likewise, St. Paul writes, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

St. John again:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)

In other words, where there is love, there is God.

Whenever we swallow our pride and say “I’m sorry” to the spouse we’ve been fighting with, that is an act of worship to God. Whenever we are at a restaurant, and the waiter comes by with a refill, and we look up to meet that person’s eyes and say “thank you”, that is an act of worship. Whenever we march for justice and listen to the voices of the poor and oppressed, that is an act of worship.

Whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or visit the sick and incarcerated, we are not just serving our neighbors, but Christ himself. Christ was very explicit about this:

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

God is a relationship, therefore relationships matter. God is love, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. This is the truth that Christ and St. John the Baptist are driving home to us, through their relationship, in today’s gospel.

May we be the Christians who honor our relationship with God by honoring our relationships with each other in the world.

Outsmarted by Babies and Dreams

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I was leading a Bible study earlier this week where one of the participants asked why God doesn’t just part the heavens and come down, saying, “Hey everybody, I’m here! This is absolute proof, so you’d better believe in me!”

I thought this was a great question. Why doesn’t God do that? It would certainly make some things easier. We wouldn’t have to wrestle so much with our faith. When refuted, we could simply point back to the absolute proof and blow our opponents’ arguments out of the water. Everything would become totally clear.

But I also wonder: What would be the cost of such certainty? We already know we live in a world where the strong dominate the weak, where history is written by the winners, and where winners often win by violence and manipulation. We lament this sad state of affairs, but fail to imagine any viable alternative.

Could things ever be any different?

At least one person has imagined so.

The poet in our psalm this morning spends his/her time imagining a different kind of ruler from the ones who tend to seize power on the global scene. The psalmist dreams instead of a ruler who governs by the power of gentleness and divine justice, rooted in the natural ebb and flow of creation itself. This dream is voiced as a prayer for the king:

“May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.”

That is a very gentle, life-giving image. It makes me think of sitting on my back porch in the spring time, watching the rain fall and the flowers beginning to sprout up after a long winter. Could that be a model for sound government?

The psalmist thinks so:

“May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”

That might sound like a utopian pipe-dream, bound to end in disappointment, but the psalmist sees a different kind of outcome:

“May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”

In a world governed by the power of violence, this dream might seem unattainable, but we Christians, who accept these words as sacred Scripture, are duty-bound to take them seriously as part of God’s Word. In God’s universe, it is right that makes might, not the other way around. If we really believed otherwise, why would we bother coming to church on Sunday?

This is no utopian pipe-dream or abstract principle for us Christians. We believe that this idea took on flesh and came to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul refers to this as “the mystery of Christ” in today’s epistle:

“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

In Paul’s vision, God wins the victory, not by dominating or destroying Gentile enemies, but by including them as friends in the redemption that Christ won for the world. This, in Paul’s mind, subverts the dominant paradigm of the powers-that-be.

The way of God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to the powers of the world, like King Herod, who we read about in today’s gospel.

Herod vies for power, using all the means at his disposal. When he perceives a threat to his power, he gathers the scholars and clergy as part of his military and political intelligence program. He manipulates people with lies and fake displays of piety. When, at last, he is outsmarted by babies and dreams, he unleashes the full force of the military in a campaign deliberately designed to destroy innocent lives in the interest of maintaining his position.

The good news is that his plan fails miserably. God intervenes through unorthodox means, using pagan philosophers to subvert the diabolical schemes of this tyrant. Jesus, the one child Herod sought to kill, escapes unharmed and grows up to become the greatest personality in human history, not to mention the central figure in God’s plan to redeem the world.

The good news for us in this is that the ancient dreams of poets and prophets are coming true. There is a deeper justice in the universe that trumps the demonic schemes of powerful people. “Survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” do not have the last word in the order of life. By contrast, God seems to be saying to us in these texts that history is written by the losers, the weak ones, and the vulnerable, because history’s last word is written by the God who chose to become vulnerable in the infant Christ.

Sure, God could have parted the heavens and come down with irrefutable evidence to demand faith and obedience from the human race, but this would have been at odds with God’s actual plan for the world. In point of fact, God did come to earth, not as a ruler, but as a baby. God does not force the divine will upon us from without, like any other human tyrant, but influences us from within, respecting our freedom and inviting us to cooperate with the way of gentleness and vulnerability.

St. Teresa of Calcutta famously taught us that “Not everyone can do great things, but everyone can do small things with great love.” This is the way of God’s will in the world. It is the way that Christ invites us to follow.

The power of Jesus resides, not in inflicting pain, but in offering healing; not in pronouncing judgment, but in forgiveness; not in threatening deprivation, but in feeding hungry people with abundance; not in dealing death, but by rising to new life from the grave.

King Herod was not the last ruler who felt his power being threatened by Jesus. At the end of his life, Jesus stood before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who seemed to succeed where Herod had failed. He handed Jesus over to be tortured and crucified for crimes he did not commit.

They thought Jesus was a terrorist, plotting to overthrow the Roman government. Little did they know, Jesus’ real goal was far more dangerous: he was (and still is) plotting the overthrow of the entire world system of power based on endless cycles of violence.

Jesus brought those cycles to an end in himself by absorbing the violence of this world without retaliating. He allowed himself to bear the weight of our sin and be dragged into hell. But then, on the third day, he demonstrated the gentle power of God by tearing open the gates of hell and emerging victorious from the tomb. He undid the power of violence by showing it to be futile in the end.

We Christians are invited to share in this victory by walking in this world as Jesus walked. St. Paul tells us, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). We are the members of Christ’s body, his hands and feet on earth today.

In times such as these, the greatest temptation is for Christians to give in to the demonic spirits of despair and cynicism. We think that violence of word or sword is the only way to guarantee peace and justice in life. We “study war” in our political and personal lives. We mistakenly come to believe that the only way to get ahead is by stepping on the backs of our neighbors and enemies.

Friends, I would humbly suggest to you today that there is another way. It is the way of gentleness and forgiveness, the way Jesus and the cross. While it is true that this way is likely to lead to crucifixion and death, it is also true that it leads even further into resurrection and the eternal life abundant that Christ promises for all who trust in him and walk in his ways.

Praying the Monastic Office (Reblog)

Article by Sr. Cintra Pemberton OSH originally posted by the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas (CAROA).

Psalm 62 says: “For God alone my soul in silence waits; from God comes my salvation.” This is the prayer in my heart, said over and over, as I sit in the darkened chapel each morning before Matins. The time seems to fly by some days and drag by on others, but it’s essential life-giving time nevertheless. As I sit alone in the silence, sometimes I feel the presence of the angels. I can hear them singing in some faraway place, calling me to join my voice with theirs, and when the time comes later in the day, I will try to do just that…

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Christmas Victor

Click here to read the biblical text.

As we gather here this morning to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation in Word and Sacrament, we are also nearing the end of 2016. And there are many among who say, “Good riddance!”

It is only too easy for those of us who follow current events to hang our heads in despair at the state of things in the world. We hear of “wars and rumors of wars” at home and abroad. Our hearts break at the plight of refugees crossing our borders, break again as members of the powerful elite use these families as scapegoats for their politics of fear, and then break yet again as an act of terrorism in Berlin seems to lend momentary credibility to the argument that compassion is foolish.

Looking at the world on this Christmas morning, it appears that the cosmic forces of darkness and chaos are winning. We few who gather in church to tell stories, sing songs, and break bread appear to be the most pitiful of fools. Given the facts at hand, it is only understandable if we find ourselves asking the questions: Are just “whistling in the dark” after all? Are we really alone in a universe that came about as a random accident? Is the faith we proclaim nothing more than a charming tale we tell ourselves in order to sleep easier at night?

The modern world would answer “Yes” to all of the above. It would add: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there; you’ve got to look out for number one; money talks; might makes right.” The world says that the only truth is facts, and the facts say that we are on our own. I say the world is lying.

The Church tells a very different story in today’s gospel. We say:

“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 we mean by this is that the world belongs to God, who made it.

Christians believe in one God as Trinity: Three persons in relationship (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). For us, God is a relationship. Based on this, we understand the universe to be a network of relationships (galaxies, solar systems, ecosystems, nations, and families) existing within the larger relationship of the Trinity, as a baby grows in her mother’s womb.

But here’s the thing about relationships between persons: they have to be freely chosen. And we humans chose to break relationship with God our creator.

John’s gospel says it like this:

“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.”

Once we had broken relationship with God, our relationships with each other began to deteriorate as well. In seeking to become masters of the universe, we became slaves in bondage to each other, to corrupt systems, our own desires, and the powers of darkness and chaos beyond our control.

The good news is that our Creator was not content to leave us in this sad state of affairs. Even though we had broken relationship with God, God never broke relationship with us. God came to live among us in the person of Jesus Christ. John says:

“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.”

As the only-begotten Son of God the Father, Jesus is the fullest expression of the divine image in a human face. Living among us, Jesus loved us: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving sinners, welcoming strangers, and raising the dead.

But we sinful humans could not stand to look at such holiness. Through the powers of religion and politics, we betrayed, denied, mocked, rejected, tortured, and killed the Son of God by crucifixion: anything just to shut him up and make him go away.

But God wasn’t having any of that nonsense. Like the tired mother of a toddler throwing a temper-tantrum, God rejected our rejection, raising Jesus from the dead and proving, once and for all, that God’s love is stronger than the power of death itself.

“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.”

Through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the door has been opened for us to freely re-enter a harmonious relationship with the Triune God and each other. John says it like this:

“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.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence that began with the incarnation. Christmas marks the beginning of a revolution that will never end until the entire universe is restored to right relationship with God.

The Church, far from an institution of civil religion that upholds the societal status quo, is an underground movement that preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ as an alternative orthodoxy to the lies of this world system.

We are unashamed to speak the truth that the emperor wears no clothes. We are unafraid to expose the dark powers:

  • of tyranny, oppression, injustice, stigma, exploitation, violence;
  • of racism, sexism, ableism, classism;
  • of xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia;
  • and every other -phobia and –ism that plagues the human heart.

We are not afraid to name these lies and exorcise these demons from our midst.

The Church of Jesus Christ is a revolutionary movement:

  • The Bible is our manifesto, the Sacraments are our weapons of peace, and the Cross is our only flag.
  • Our only aim is the final reconciliation of the entire universe with the justice and mercy of God.
  • The resurrection is our decisive victory, and the incarnation is our beachhead.

For this reason, let the dark powers of this broken world tremble with fear when they hear us utter the words, “Merry Christmas!”

Preaching Nativity

On Monday, I received the following from a Presbyterian ministerial intern in Indiana:

(It bears noting that I am neither trained, certified, nor practicing as a spiritual director, although I am considering a move into that area of ministry for the future. I am a fellow pastor plodding along through the swamp of ministry, making it up as I go along. Nevertheless, I am flattered that my colleague thinks of me in this capacity. Perhaps it was a providential misnomer for me to file away for discernment purposes?)

So as a spiritual director I could use some advice. Looking at preaching Christmas Day, what should be a very happy holy day, I feel so drained. Between the election, the evil in Aleppo, Russian aggression and expansion, hate crimes, etc. this year seems so dark and I find myself wondering if a baby in a manger was enough, was God made flesh enough or should he have come as conquerer? Where is the good news that God will come again, and how can God reconcile all those innocent who will suffer in this world how can God really bring justice to all this that satisfies those persecuted? Any thoughts on how to pray or seek God’s wisdom or hope in Christmas Day? Hopefully this isn’t heresy.

Here is my response:

Been thinking about this one since yesterday. If it’s heresy, then you’d better save me a seat in hell… preferably one by the bar, where we can hear the good bands.

The gospel says Christ was born in a stable. Have you ever smelled a stable? It ain’t pretty.

If Christmas can’t be celebrated in the midst of shit, then it shouldn’t be celebrated at all. If the mystery of the Incarnation doesn’t matter in the midst of a world that has gone to shit, then it doesn’t matter.

St. Augustine of Hippo was big on the idea that the Fall was the ruining of a perfect paradise. But I much prefer the earlier interpretation of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who saw Eden as the raw material from which God would shape the future, in cooperation with us. According to Genesis, humanity is basically just mud that was slopped together until God breathed into (“in-spired”) it with the breath of life.

When the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary the Theotokos at the Annunciation, she gave her whole human nature to the Christ: and not just hers, but all of human history, glory and gore alike. (This, by the way, is why I can’t sign on with the Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary… what Christ did not become, he did not redeem.)

Divinity came screaming into the world like an animal, in a stable that smelled like shit, as the unexpected pregnancy of a scandalized, working class, unwed, teenage-mom refugee in a backwater hick-town of a riotous occupied country.

Because of that, I can never make it through this line of the Christmas hymn by Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks without choking up:
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Was that enough? No, of course not.

That’s why the baby had grow up, get lost in Jerusalem at his Bar Mitzvah and mouth off to his parents, almost get thrown off a cliff by his home synagogue after his first sermon for preaching inclusion of the goyim, build an underground movement of hookers and thugs, undermine traditional religious values and the authority of the political establishment, and ultimately be executed as a terrorist.

He simultaneously exposed and endured the violence inherent in the system. If they realized what he was really trying to do, they would have crucified him twice.

And after all that, he committed the most revolutionary act of all by tearing open the gates of hell and making death itself come unraveled.

After the Resurrection, God stood face-to-face with faithless disciples and breathed on them once again, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was Genesis all over again, a new creation. “Behold, I am making all things new.”

These Apostles were then sent out into the world, where they passed that Spirit on by laying their hands on the heads of bishops, who in turn passed her on, by the power of touch again, to priests, who stretched out their hands to call that same Spirit upon water, bread, and wine in order to baptize and feed people with the Body and Blood of Christ, making them “partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter wrote. And these Christians were then blessed and sent out to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations.

And so it went on, for two thousand years, until you came along. The Holy water hit your head, God’s Blood started flowing in your veins, and your cells began to metabolize the Body of Christ. But the irony is that he is the one who is digesting you.

So then, on Christmas morning, bombs will be falling on Aleppo, Russia will be beginning military maneuvers on the Polish border, and Klansmen will be screaming, “Heil Trump!” And Christ will step out of the stable and into the pulpit, and she will open her mouth and say… ?

Answering that final question, my interlocutor replied:

“Be not afraid.”

[All statements have been shared with the permission of the author.]