Friday, December 30, 2011


An article for the All Souls Weekly, January 1, 2012.

When I think about resolutions for a New Year, I remember words offered by Brother Douglas Brown some years ago at an Ash Wednesday retreat.  A monk from Holy Cross Monastery, Douglas had a wonderful way of speaking about spiritual things in earthy and realistic terms.  He was talking about Lenten resolutions, those various spiritual disciplines some of us endeavor to take up as we prepare for Easter.  He said something to the effect of, “The only time God is interested in our resolutions is when we fail.  If we could do it all ourselves, then we’d simply be involved in an exercise in self-improvement.  God gets interested when we realize that we need him and ask for help.”

Some people simply don’t bother with resolutions.  They’ve given up. Perhaps they’ve become discouraged after having failed in the past.  Making a plan or a promise (they feel) simply sets them up for failure, and then they end up feeling worse in the end.  But if we were to make resolutions with a good dose of humility thrown in, we might begin to understand that failure can be a part of the process.  Failure can lead to growth and the movement forward, especially if it causes us to fall upon God’s help again and again.  If we ask for help, it’s amazing what God can send our way:  energy, hope, faith, new resources in friends, in teachers or advisors, and in community.  

A prayer for the New Year from the Church of England’s Common Worship seems like a good one as we ask for God’s help with whatever might be our hopes or resolutions:

O God, by whose command the order of time runs its course: forgive our impatience, perfect our faith and, while we wait for the fulfillment of your promises, grant us to have a good hope because of your word; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Especially in this New Year, may God accept our prayers and resolutions and surround us with all that encourages us and helps us to be faithful.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thanks be to God for being VAST

Cultivating the Cosmic Tree by Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century

A sermon for Christmas Day 2011.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 52:7-10 , Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) , John 1:1-14 , and Psalm 98.

Last night’s Gospel reading was the familiar Christmas Story:  Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem.  There is no room for them in the inn, so they find space in a barn.  Jesus is born (God is born) as a tiny, struggling, vulnerable, and dependent baby.  The shepherds come and the angels sing.  The drama unfolds all around a small child.  My reflections last night had to do with what I would call “the smallness of God,” meaning, the way of God to show up in a small child, and then keep showing up in our lives in tiny ways that, at first, might seem completely insignificant. 

But since last night, God has grown up.  Well, that’s not quite right.  What I mean, is that if last night’s story was intimate and personal, about God who comes in small ways; today’s story is about God the majestic, God the Creator of the Universe, and God the mysterious and all-powerful, all-knowing Spirit that hovered over the beginnings of time and will breathe blessing over the end of all time.  It’s the same story.  It’s still the story of God’s Incarnation, God’s coming into the world in the form of a human being, Jesus of Nazareth.  But today’s Gospel, from John, comes from a different perspective.

Richard Burridge gets at some of this perspective when he suggests that “if the other gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] are like symphonies or operas, [then] John is like a great conductor, totally absorbed in his music and straining to ensure that every theme is heard by his audience.” [Four Gospels, One Jesus? p. 134]

The traditional symbol for the Gospel of John is the eagle.  As I’ve mentioned before, our lancet windows in the back of the church symbolize the four Gospel writers, the evangelists.  Their symbols are also on the carpet at the altar.  Luke is represented with an ox. On the other side of the baptismal font, Mark is represented with a Lion. On the far side there is a human being who may look like an angels because of his angel wings:  this is Matthew.  But there, right by the entrance to the church is John, represented by the eagle. 

The eagle suits John because the eagle is high-flying.  It’s perspective is different because it sees more.  It sees farther.  It can put things together in a way that someone or something on the ground in just one place could not possibly put together.  And so it is with John’s perspective of who Jesus Christ is, why Jesus Christ is, how God-in-Christ moves among us, and what it means for our lives.  John’s invitation for us is to have faith.  Simply have faith in Jesus Christ.  Have faith in God. 

The perspective of the eagle (the perspective of John) invites us to let our questions rest for a bit.  Put aside our arguments and suppose—just suppose—that there might be more to the Big Picture than we can currently take in.  That’s all faith asks, really.  As a friend of mine puts it pretty bluntly:  All I need to know about God is that I’m not IT.  God is something beyond me.  God is something greater than me.  God is something more than me. 

If last night was about the giggles of children, the braying of donkeys in stables, and the off-key carols of angels giddy from the heights of heaven… if last night was about God’s speaking through what is small—then today, it seems to me, invites us to rest in OUR smallness and to let God be God. The day invites us to a place of simple faith where we can perhaps allow that “God is,” and leave it at that.  Behind God is mystery, is love, and still silence.  T.S. Eliot reflects of this aspect of God and draws on images from John when he writes
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.    [Ash Wednesday]
Even when unspoken.  Even when unheard.  Even when unobserved or unrecognized or un-believed, God is. 

And in that simple statement there is freedom for us. If God is, then I don’t always have to be.  I don’t have to be in charge.  I don’t have to be right.  I don’t have to understand.  I don’t have to as good as I’d like to be, or as perfect, or as generous.  I’m still whirling—still growing (falling and getting up again, all through prayer), but our God is big enough to handle me (and you) even when we’re at our smallest. 

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  Thanks be to God for being vast.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Thanks be to God for being small

A sermon for Christmas Eve 2011.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:2-7 , Titus 2:11-14 , Luke 2:1--20 , and Psalm 96.

Miss Rhoda Harting is a young woman who plans to celebrate Christmas by herself.  A character in a short story by Stella Gibbons, Rhoda finds just the right little cottage and begins to gather together everything she needs for a perfect Christmas:  a small chicken all to herself, and a little tree with candles.  She puts her tree in a pot, fastens on a few tiny candles and ornaments, and can’t resist lighting the candles to make sure it looks just right.  She blows out the candles and turns in for the night.

The next day is Christmas, and this being 1940 in Buckinghamshire, England, it snows and everything is beautiful.  On Christmas morning Rhoda hears a knock at her door.  When she opens it she’s surprised to find three small children.  The leader of the three tells a story of a wicked stepmother and asks for shelter.  Rhoda takes the children in and proceeds to feed them and share her Christmas with them. 

Later, there is another knock at the door.  It turns out to be the father, looking for his precocious children.  When the kids realize they have been caught in their made-up story, Judy, their leader blurts out, “Don’t tell! . . . I made it up.  I made it all up . . . [about the wicked stepmother and the whole thing] We saw your little tree all lit up in the window last night…We wanted to see your little tree.  We’ve never had a little tree at home.  Everything’s so big.  It’s horrid…”  (p. 14-15)

The children are drawn to what is small.  While most children today don’t use the word “horrid,” I think it would be easy to find kids who might pass by a large, loud, impressive Christmas tree in favor of a smaller one.  There might be children (and maybe even a few adults) who feel lost in a giant house with lots of people, and would seek out a little cottage.  And now, as in every age, what is loud and grand and dramatic sometimes gives way to what is quiet and small and insignificant.  Whenever that happens, we should pay attention.  Because God moves in the downward, lesser, quieter way.  God is found in what is small.

If we think of God’s self-revelation in scripture, we can see places where God has shown a preferential option for the small.  The men and women God raises up as leaders are usually not the high and mighty.  David who becomes King is the least likely in terms of toughness and world-readiness.  Rahab is a harlot made into a heroine.  The prophets are mostly oddballs, misfits, and outsiders to the people they’re called to serve. Even God’s chosen community is weak and vulnerable. 

Our first scripture reading tonight comes from the part of Isaiah in which the people of God are in trouble.  Assyria, the great power to the north, is a threat not to be toyed with, Isaiah warns.  And yet, Isaiah also offers hope.  He sees hope in a descendant to the throne of David.  “A child has been born for us.”  Biblical scholars argue over exactly who Isaiah imagined that child would be—whether someone closer to his own situation and time period—or the Messiah of the future. 
But what is clear is that in Isaiah’s words, God is reaching out—reaching for the small, the faithful, the just who are willing to listen and to try to follow God. In that Isaiah’s words move quickly from describing a child who is to come, to describing a mighty savior in all-too-human, political, and cultural terms, we see a paradox in our faith:  That what is great, enormous, and indescribably big news actually comes in a small, quiet, almost secret way. 

The story of God’s coming, of a child who is born for us happens off-stage from the major events of its time.  Joseph and Mary are not married.  They don’t travel with their family.  They journey to register for the census and have to find space to sleep in a barn.  Though St. Luke imagines choirs of angels directing the traffic for shepherds and providing a heavenly chorus, even the angels describe the birth in simple terms:  “a baby wrapped in rags, lying in a feeding trough.”  The light of a star is needed to supplement the faint light of a poor person’s lantern.  Later, the visiting magi will bring incense, which will come in handy for covring up the smell of animals and dung, of sweat and stink and poverty.

Throughout his life, people will be surprised by the everyday, ordinary quality of Jesus.  He’s from Galilee.  His parents are locals.  He is uneducated.  He hangs out with common people, with rough people, with sinful people.  From the standpoint of the sophisticated and cultured Romans, Jesus is simply one of the “little people” to be ignored, or when creating problems, to be gotten rid of. 

To see God in small things runs counter-culture and meets with resistance.  In the 1980s Peter Gabriel put words to what has been a large part of the American dream:  to use big words to get to a big, big city, to be a big noise among the big boys, to pray to a big god and to kneel in a big church. (Big Time, 1986) 

While some might argue that evolution favors the big—the strong over the weak, the large over the small, evolution also shows that those that are too large do not survive.  Whether they be dinosaurs, empires, multinational corporations, or people--- growth beyond means eventually turns to weakness and decay.  Better to be small.  Where vulnerability can lead to collaboration and weakness can promote reliance upon others. 

Here and there, in the history of faith, small voices emerge.  Once place was near the end of the 14th century.  The church in England was busy being “big” in most ways intertwined with the power of royals and nobles.  But in a small room attached to a small church in Norwich, a woman named Julian reflected on her bit of experience with God.  God came in a series of visions to Julian, and then she prayed about those visions and wrote about them.  This was quiet work, out-of-the-way work, largely ignored work, until almost 500 years later. But in one vision Julian imagines that God places something in her hand.
“The Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand . . . and it was as round as a ball. . . I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. In this little thing I saw . . that God made it, . . . that God loves it, . . . [and] that God preserves it . . . God is the Creator and the Protector and the Lover.” (Showings, p.183)
Julian saw God in small things, and so can we. God comes into the world at Christmas in a tiny way.  God becomes incarnate in a little baby.  God takes on flesh in all of its weakness and smallness.  The Incarnation continues to be felt and seen and heard in small things – a word here, a look there, a hand held, a wrong forgiven, an honest word said out loud, a just word shared. 

Especially on Christmas, may the light of a single star illumine us.  May the smile of a child reach us. And may we know the touch of God, as small as a baby’s finger, held out for us to enclose our hand around, for us to receive, for us to cradle, and for us to embrace.  Thanks be to God for being small.  Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Seeing Jesus from a New Point of View

From the All Souls Weekly, December 25, 2011

Last weekend I was at a holiday gathering where there was a young woman who is expecting a baby next month.  A friend saw us talking and said, “Show them the sonogram.”  And then to us, “You’ve got to see this.”  At that, the expectant mother took out her iphone and brought up a picture of her baby in utero.  There on the little screen appeared a sonogram image in 3-D.

Though it was a little startling to be shown a three dimensional picture of a developing baby in the midst of cookies, cakes and seasonal silliness, I’ve been thinking that our friend gave me a great gift in sharing the image of her child.  She reminded me that as familiar as I may be with the scripture, the theology, the carols, and all the other aspects of celebrating Christmas, God might be inviting me to see some new aspect of Jesus this season. God always adds a new dimension.

Whenever I decorate for Christmas there are certain things I want to go in just the right place.  The wooden nativity set my father made goes on the coffee table in my office and has to be placed on a particular piece of fabric.  A candle is placed in front, not behind.  At home, the Christmas tree goes in one particular corner of the room—nowhere else. Bows on wreaths go on the bottom, not on the top. On and on goes my “Customary for Christmas,” and while there is tremendous comfort in tradition and repetition, I hope I’ll be alert to whatever new insight God might bring this season.  Perhaps the tree in a different place might help me see something new.  Perhaps a change in my routine can add a new experience of God’s grace and presence. 

God brings all kinds of new things into our lives this season—many good, others more challenging. Some of the people we loved and held close last year are no longer with us and their absence will be felt strongly.  Sometimes economic changes cause us to adjust our celebrations or change our old patterns.  The Good News is that just as God was with Mary and Joseph—in their confusion, their fear, their worries, and their poverty—God is with us, eager to be known in new ways.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

St. Thomas: From Suspicion to Sainthood

The Reredos at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue

Thoughts for the Low Mass on December 21, 2011, the feast day for St. Thomas the Apostle. The lectionary readings are Habakkuk 2:1-4 , Hebrews 10:35-11-1 , John 20:24-29 , and Psalm 126.

One of my favorite churches in New York City is the famous Episcopal church on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street named for St. Thomas the Apostle. When you go inside, the first thing you see is an enormous reredos over the High Altar. It’s made up of a multitude of saints, and just over the altar is a carving of St. Thomas with Jesus. One architectural description of the carving explains it as St. Thomas “kneeling before Christ, his doubt gone.

I’m not so sure about that.

I wonder if St. Thomas’s doubt ever truly left him. For me, anyway, the great power of St. Thomas’s witness is that he doubts, and the story of his doubt has been handed down through the ages. Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself.

The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas. Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th Century. A father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, Thomas continues to inspire. It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene.

It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus. Thomas’s faith came more stubbornly, and had to take into consideration more information. His faith was different from theirs. What appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas— simply was his faith. It was his way of faith: A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, to move forward.

St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those of us whose faith does not always come easily. Thomas stands with those of us whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, and maybe even a little cynicism. It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for Thomas (and countless others) suspicion leads to sainthood.

Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to come to us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

With Mary in Mind

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2011.  The lectionary readings are 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16,   Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16: 25-27, and Luke 1: 26-38.

For many Christians, the Virgin Mary moves in for her close-up this season. She is invoked in music, personified in Christmas pageants, and even used as a tastefully generic holiday image on a postal stamp. And yet, for some more Protestant Christmas, once the decorations are put away, so is any thought of Mary. Roman Catholics tend to make more room for Mary, but too often religious practice falls into superstition, and theology doesn’t exactly find its way into everyday faith.

And as Anglicans, as the Episcopal Church that seeks a “middle way” in most things, when it comes to the Virgin Mary, we are often [surprise!] ambivalent. We mention her from time to time. We might even have a statue or image of her here or there. At All Souls, we even have named our little chapel for her, but what does she matter for our own faith? What does she matter for our relationship with Jesus Christ? And does God mind if we forget about Mary?

I think she matters quite a lot. She matters for our relationship with Jesus Christ, and God “minds” Mary literally, since Mary has been in the mind of God from the beginning. Today’s scriptures provide pointers as to how this all happens.

In our first lesson (2 Samuel 7:1-1,16) there’s a lot of restlessness. King David is in his new house and he wants the same for his God. David wants to build a temple for God. “Here I am living in a great house of cedar, but the Lord God, Creator of the Universe, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, has to camp out in a tent.” And indeed, this is the way God has been moving around. Symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments) has moved around with the people of God with great care

God doesn’t want a house—not yet, anyway. God’s not ready. God says, “No David, I’ve got something else in mind.” “I’ve not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” I will appoint a place, a place where they’ll never be disturbed or hurt. I will give you rest. I will make YOU a house, a dwelling to last forever.” 

The word translated as tabernacle can mean several different things. It means “dwelling” and “residence.” Later, when Solomon does build a house for God, a temple, the tabernacle is a special part of that temple, in the sanctuary. The aumbry, the little cabinet in the wall of our Mary Chapel is our tabernacle—it’s the place where the Holy Sacrament is reserved when we are not celebrating Holy Communion. It’s one dwelling place for God, but it’s not the only one. Even when a physical temple is built, the sense that God pitches a tent with his people is never lost.

We can see from God’s conversation with King David that God has a special place in mind. People thought then and (sometimes) now that God meant a physical place—a building, or a city, or country. But God means a person. God has Mary in mind as a tabernacle, a dwelling place, a home from which other homes will also be born.

Patristic scholars and theologians who think a lot about the Virgin Mary would suggest that God has Mary in mind even in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve represent us at our very best and most pure. They are us when we are at our very best selves, but they are us especially when we’re at our best, and before we know it, we’ve been tricked and we stumble. Whether by pride, or lust, or greed, or anything else—we have a tendency to stumble and fall. We fall with Adam and Eve right out of the garden.

But Jesus (in the theology of St. Paul and others) is a new Adam, a chance to re-do things. Jesus is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. As the old Eve says “No” to God. “I’ll go my own way, thank you very much.” The New Eve, Mary, says “Yes.” “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”

Karl Barth was a Reformed Theologian of the first order. He had no place for superstition or much place for mysticism, either. There was not a “woo-woo” spirit that ever entered his soul. But Barth, of all people, puts it this way:
God conceived humanity as his covenant partner. He purposed to do this by assuming humanity [in Jesus Christ] and tabernacling [dwelling with, camping out with, getting alongside] with his people. [God] must then also have purposed to bring the human race to that moment in its history when it had been so cleared of sin and sanctified by grace that it would be ready to receive the gift of the incarnate divine life. That moment in the history of mankind is Mary. [Church Dogmatics, II/2]

That moment is Mary.  That moment is extended and reflected upon in today’s Gospel. God chooses Mary as the new temple, the place to be born, to live and grow. This happens not so that Jesus can be good guy, touch people for a few years, and then die a criminal’s death on the cross. God moves through the cross and brings Jesus to new life, continuing the story of salvation through the power of the cross. The cross redeems Adam and Eve. The cross raises Jesus, and redeems Mary the New Eve, and in so doing the cross creates a way for us.

Though we may cringe at the old phrase of “accepting Jesus in our heart”—too often it smacks of evangelical coercion and religious bigotry—“accepting Jesus in our heart” is really what Christianity is all about. It’s about allowing God to be born in each one of us. Becoming a Christian involves allowing God to make a home in our heart, to dwell with us, to camp with us.

Not only is there a way is made for us to live eternally, but also here, in this life, we are made more. By allowing God to live in us, our hearts grow larger and more generous. As fear falls away, we grow in faith. We grow in forgiveness and acceptance and mercy. We grow in God.

The Good News of this day and this season is that God had Mary in mind. (From the beginning, through the Wisdom literature, with the prophets, in exile and in deliverance, in the Gospel, even on Calvary, and also on Easter Day.)

But the Good News is that God had and has us in mind, too. We are not accidents. We did not “just happen.” Since the beginning of time, God has imagined you, and desired you, and loved you. God wants to be born anew in you and me and all the world, that the angels may have even more to sing about.

St. Ambrose, the 8th century bishop of Milan, in a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, urges us to
Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God . . . [Our soul] proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.
One of my favorite images of Mary is known as the Virgin Hodegetria, the Greek word for “she who shows the way.” In this classic image of Mary, she’s shown holding the baby Jesus and very subtle pointing to him. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the life. In that image, Mary models what is means for us to have Christ born in our hearts—simply to point to him with our lives. We might do this boldly and loudly. Or we might do it more quietly and reserved.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is full of grace so that we might be too. The Virgin Mary is blessed so that we might be too. Our Mother Mary is made holy so that we might be holy too. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, God has Mary in mind. And God has us in mind too.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent Expectations

A friend of mine sometimes counsels “expectations lead to resentment.” It’s his way of warning me not to get my hopes up about something or to expect too much. While I recognize the wisdom in that warning, I also think expectations can lead to spiritual growth. I can learn from my expectations and grow through them.

In the Gospel reading for Thursday in the Third Week of Advent we hear Jesus ask the followers of John the Baptist, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? What did you go out to see?” (Luke 7:24) Jesus asks them to reflect on their expectations. He asks this because their expectations of John and of the Messiah-to-come are blinding some of them to the fact that the Messiah, the long-awaited and hoped for savior, is standing right in front of them in the form of Jesus. Expectations have caused them to miss what God is doing in their midst.

When our expectations aren’t met we can get angry, hurt, or resentful. But if we pause for a moment and live in the space between the expectations we had, and the reality in front of us, we can learn. If I notice the difference between what I am actually seeing in a given moment and still remember what I was expecting to see, perhaps God can be in that moment of recognition. I may laugh or I may cry, but I notice. Those moments of recognition are what we are given in the season of Advent.

In these final days leading to Christmas, we surely have expectations for parties, dinners, presents, family reunions, phone calls, musical events, worship services, and more. In some cases a sense of foreboding might be mixed with what we expect. In other cases, our hopes might be based on previous experiences or heightened hopes for the future. A question for us to live into is this: Where is God in our expectations? Is God inviting us to pause and look closely at what is around us? Are we noticing the lights, the laughter, and the love already present? Or when there is a lack of such things, do we have the courage and faith to face the emptiness and welcome God even into our disappointments and resentments? Expectations can lead to grace and--this season and always--can lead us into the arms of God.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Even on the darkest night

Thoughts for the feast day of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), December 14.

December 14 is the feast day for St. John of the Cross. John lived during brutal times. Christian practice in Spain at the time typified much of the superstition, exploitation, and meanness that led to religious reformation in other parts of the world and eventually to reform in Spain. Teresa of Avila was a frontrunner in reform, cleaning up and establishing new Carmelite communities of religious, both men and women. Soon after being ordained a priest, Juan de Yepes joined one of Theresa’s houses of friars. John was a gifted priest, spiritual guide, theologian, and poet. For his mysticism, simplicity of life, and for being friendly to religious reform, he was often mistreated and persecuted by religious officials.

John is famous in popular religious culture for his “dark night of the soul,” which is sometimes trivialized. John’s “dark night” was not just a bad day. Nor was it a tendency to be moody or negative. The dark night is not what we would understand as depression, which can be treated with therapy and medicine.

Instead, John’s “dark night of the soul” is a place of spiritual crisis in which one has no sense that God is listening any more. Prayer, worship, sacraments—all the tools that a person of faith might employ, seem to fail. John described the dark night in a poem and then reflected upon it in a more extended way. He suggests that the dark night can be a place of purgation, a place in which one is stripped of all that usually helps. Though it may feel like abandonment, God is still there. God has not abandoned us. It may be dark out, but the stars are still there.

John’s poem describes the darkness and night as being the bond with the beloved. Through the darkness, longing moves one closer into the love of God.

O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
A lover and loved one moved in unison.

(Translation by Loreena McKennitt. Full poem here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lightening Up and Lightening Out with St. Lucy

St. Lucy window, All Saints Church, Speke, Liverpool, UK

December 13 is St. Lucy’s Day. Though not much is known about her, from the fourth century onward, stories were circulated among Christians about Lucy, her faith, and her death which came about because of her faith. From early on, especially in Scandinavian countries, Lucy’s feast day took place during the annual celebration of the winter solstice, a time of heightened appreciation for the powers of light over darkness. Candles and light play a large part in celebrations of St. Lucy’s Day.

During the season of Advent, the church has been hearing the words of John the Baptist, who “came as a witness to testify to the light…He himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” (John 1:6-8) Christians believe that Jesus is this light, the light that enlightens, strengthens, heals, forgives, and loves all. Jesus is an all-consuming light, who chases away any darkness that threatens to damage us or do us in.

Like St. Lucy, we can help others see, appreciate, and bask in the light of Christ. We can “lighten up” with gratitude when we realize that we are not the light. We don’t have to be the light ourselves. When we act in loving ways, when we show mercy or kindness to others, when we speak up for what is right, or work for justice, we are pointing to the light of Christ.

We lighten up when we acknowledge that Christ is the Light. We “lighten out” as we point to him and try to follow him, and especially when we (like St. Lucy) put God before every other thing in our lives. May the light of Christ and the faith of St. Lucy guide us.


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