My Soul Magnifies the Lord

The Annunciation John William Waterhous
The Annunciation
John William Waterhouse

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)

 Several years ago, my husband John and I had gas logs installed in our fire place. They are not quite the same as a wood fire – none of the crackling sounds or aromatic smoke, but also none of the struggle and mess. We simply press a button on a remote and we have a roaring fire so we can easily spend an evening reading and sipping wine surrounded by our cats snoozing in their favorite spots. Often I find myself simply staring at the cavorting flames, mesmerized by the brightness that cuts through the cold darkness of winter.

In Scripture fire is associated with the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost we celebrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to his followers. According to the account of that momentous event told in Acts, “…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:2-4)

In the first chapter of Luke we hear of an earlier encounter between the Holy Spirit and Mary. Images of the Annunciation found in art and music often depict this event as a sublimely peaceful moment. Mary is greeted by an unexpected visitor; the Angel Gabriel has come from God to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s son. Mary faithfully assents to do as God wills, and in the midst of this exchange Mary becomes pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Following this scene Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, a relative whose own pregnancy is miraculous due to her advanced age. Upon arriving, Mary expresses her immense joy in the song that begins “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

I have a vivid memory of learning about light refraction in an elementary school science class. On a bright sunny day I held a magnifying glass over a balled up piece of paper in a tin pan and positioned it till I had focused the sun’s image onto the paper. After a few moments there was smoke, and then, yes, little threads of orange began to appear creating a widening hole in the paper, and finally fire. The magnifying glass had focused the sunlight that was all around me into a concentrated spot on the paper and caused it to burst into flame.

“My soul magnifies the Lord”…..Mary’s act of saying yes to God transformed her soul in such a way that it could receive all that power of the Holy Spirit to create a spark that would become the Light of the World. It was a courageous act on Mary’s part. Her “yes,” put her on an unfamiliar path full of uncertainty. By saying “yes” she jeopardized her own future. She risked losing the man to whom she was engaged and living the rest of her life in disgrace. And yet her song of praise is a clear indication of the confident fulfillment she experiences by placing her trust in God’s ultimate goodness. In Mary’s encounter with the Holy Spirit we see that saying, “Yes” to God requires us to reject the fears and self-doubts that often blur our vision of God’s desires for us. Mary’s unwavering trust in God’s power and intention to overcome all adversity and achieve the most amazing and unexpected outcome enables her to move forward without hesitation.

Each Advent we return to a time of preparation for the birth of the Christ Child in a manger and once again begin that journey with him that will ultimately lead to the Cross and our redemption. That same Holy Spirit continues to guide us along the way inviting us to actively participate in Jesus’ ministry of healing and restoration in this world. We can only live into this calling if we learn to say, “Yes,” to God with same level of trust and obedience exemplified by Mary. Our “Yes,” means letting go of our own fears and insecurity. The courage to say, “Let it be with me according to your word,” can transform our very souls to gather the power of the Holy Spirit that surrounds us all the time like countless rays of sunshine.

First Sunday in Advent

smokey-mary-maryLast Sunday John and I worshipped in our “second favorite church,” St. Mary the Virgin located near New York’s Times Square. This church is a feast for the senses – when you enter you are struck by the expansive space, votive candles flickering at the feet of life-sized statues of saints, the lingering aroma and mists of incense, and the muffled voices and footsteps of visitors who come to explore this place or find a secluded spot to spend time in prayer.

During services, especially celebrations of the Solemn Mass, the cavernous building is filled with the sounds of exquisite organ music and the angelic voices of the choir drifting down from the balcony far above. Readings from Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel, the ring of Sanctus bells, and the chanting of liturgy reverberate all the way up to the azure vaulted ceiling adorned with gilt stars. Incense rolls in waves throughout the nave like a gently rising tide.

The doors of St. Mary’s remain open for 12 hours each day, and during this time the pews in the back of the church are occupied by homeless people, mostly men, who come in and find a safe place where they can stretch out and sleep, or just sit silently finding temporary respite from the chaos of life on the street. During services, they remain in their pews, still as the nearby saints, seeming to somehow absorb the myriad sights, sounds, and smells of the extravagant ritual celebration. How do the men on the back rows experience these magnificent services that eclipse the otherwise quiet hours here? Something calls them here – of course there is the safety and warmth of a church that ministers to its homeless neighbors, but somehow, I imagine they are also open to experience a unique in-breaking of God in this special place – whether the voices, the music, the mystical quality of the incense, or the retelling of the Good News of hope and healing offered by Jesus – something touches their hearts and calls them back.

And now on this Sunday, the first day in Advent we who are gathered in this place begin our journey of preparation for the birth of Jesus who we will recognize as God’s anointed one, God’s real presence in the world, who has come to reconcile God with God’s people. Yet the Gospel reading for this first Sunday is not anticipating Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem but rather pointing to the second coming of Christ. This end-times narrative can feel jarring, evoking a sense of anxiety at odds with the reflective serenity we hope to find during Advent.

It will be another week before we hear about John the Baptist’s prophecies proclaiming that God’s kingdom is coming near so we can begin in earnest to ready ourselves for the promise of the Nativity. For now, the lectionary proposes we spend some time exploring how we prepare for the second coming. The Gospel gives us some guidelines – we cannot know when this will occur, and should therefore remain awake, watchful and alert. And do what? Matthew is not very expansive on this point.

Paul’s words to the Romans help answer the question of how we go about preparation. The present moment is not a pause between the birth of Jesus and the return of Christ where God’s actions in the world have temporarily ceased. The inbreaking of God into our world continues uninterrupted, and we are called to participate in this ongoing activity.[i] Paul describes the nature of this action in the verses leading up to what we hear in today’s lesson, “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[ii]

Paul Achtemeier, professor emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary, asserts that the concept of love as used here should be understood as an action and not an emotion. He explains, “God loves us by doing something for our benefit, namely sending His Son to remove our sins. We know God loves us, therefore, not because of how he feels about us, but because of what he has done for us in Christ…. To love someone is actively to pursue that person’s good, however we may feel about him or her emotionally.”[iii]

In his letter, Paul goes on to encourage the Romans to choose to live in the light, as our loving God intends for us – actively sharing this love, this desire to do good for others through intentional engagement, and to shun the types of activities he associates with the darkness that produce strife and estrangement among people instead of fostering relationship.[iv]

In this time of preparation, we put on the armor of light – the Lord Jesus Christ himself -learning to love one another as he loved us and as we would like to be loved. We are to use the gift that Jesus gives to us when he lived among us and taught us that it is by loving each other that we live as God desires.

The reality is that loving our neighbors as ourselves can be extremely difficult, especially when we do not happen to like our neighbor very much. Christians have been struggling with living fully into this love of neighbor for two thousand years and we remain unable to love as fully and unconditionally as Christ loves us. But we have a God who offers us seemingly unlimited second chances, and Advent comes to us each year so that we can begin again the transformative work of learning to open our hearts more fully to one other.

Paul and Matthew share a sense of urgency in their directives – our preparation should commence now, not at some convenient point in the future when our schedules settle down and we find ourselves less distracted. There is something uniquely sublime in the season of Advent that keeps calling us to this very task of opening our hearts a little wider than the year before. If we can do this, we might be surprised by the beauty that surrounds us – the people whose paths we cross, generally without taking notice, the joy of watching children at play, the surprising response of a passerby when we smile and say “hello” to them, or the gratitude of a stranger struggling with packages in a busy parking lot whom we stop and assist.

Perhaps we can consider how to nurture within ourselves an inner sanctuary where we find respite from the chaos of our own lives. By resting here, we may become better able to absorb our experience of the in-breaking of God’s infinite love that we receive and share it abundantly with others in our midst, in this place, at this moment.

[i] Joanna M. Adams, “First Sunday of Advent Year A, Romans 13:11-14, Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year A: Volume 1 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 15, 17.

[ii] Romans 13: 8-10 NRSV

[iii] Paul J. Achtemeier, “First Sunday of Advent Year A, Romans 13:11-14, Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year A: Volume 1 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 17.

[iv] Patrick J. Howell, “First Sunday of Advent Year A, Romans 13:11-14, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year A: Volume 1 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 18.

 

Politics and wedding cakes

wedding-cakeThis is the time of year when change is in the air. We marvel as leaves take on brilliant hues, we remember our school days when we see yellow buses on the road, we recall our favorite Halloween treats as pumpkins appear on doorsteps, and we recoil in terror as yard signs spring up reminding us of the presidential election swirling around us. Now don’t worry, I am not going to talk about the candidates so you can take a deep breath and relax. I do want to explore how we respond to one another in such a polarized political climate, but first I want to tell you about a wedding cake.

John and I recently celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary. We met in 1994 just two years after Bill Clinton became president defeating incumbent George H. W. Bush in what was then considered a highly charged political campaign season. John and I had voted differently in that election, and we held strong and quite different political perspectives. These differences became the basis of some lively conversations as our relationship blossomed. There were of course other things that drew us together, shared interests, cats, and a growing sense that we were meant to be together. So, we decided to marry, and because our political differences had become a source of amusement among our family and friends we adorned our wedding cake with a donkey and an elephant. Our ideologically diverse wedding guests loved it and our cake was probably photographed as much as we were.

I can’t help wondering how this story would have unfolded if John and I had met each other in an ideological atmosphere more like today’s. Political discourse has devolved into hurtful spewing of angry rhetoric. Facebook and other social media are overflowing with broad generalizations demeaning everybody who aligns with one party or the other, and many people are already dreading the prospect of holiday dinners with politically divergent family members. If John and I were planning our wedding in this context, I suspect we would go with a different cake topper. But would we even be meeting at the altar? Would we still find our ideological differences amusing and appealing or would we have fallen prey to today’s demonizing approach to political rhetoric? I fervently believe we would have ended up together regardless but wonder how many potentially rewarding friendships have been stymied by the alarming level of political enmity that is present in our current culture?

Last week I attended a clergy retreat at Shrine Mont facilitated by two brothers from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. During one of his reflections Brother Curtis Almquist talked about our need to accept that we are all creatures with limitations. Fortunately, God sees past our flaws to the essence he created within each of us. We need to see ourselves and others as God sees us – beyond the flaws that life layers upon us. He suggested that when we do not have a heart of mercy for certain kinds of people we probably do not know enough about them. Mercy occurs as we move from judgement, to compassion for others, and ultimately identification with other people as children of God.[1]

In today’s Gospel we meet two men who go to the Temple to pray. The first is a Pharisee who lifts up a prayer that begins, “God I thank you…” – a good start, but then he quickly devolves into a rant about people who are unlike him. His gratitude is fueled by his belief in his superiority over those he disdains. Clearly this Pharisee is firmly stuck in a place of judgement and a long way from comprehending mercy.

The tax collector prays in words of contrition. He recognizes that he has sinned, and cannot look toward heaven, perhaps feeling that he does not deserve to be noticed. Yet he is noticed. Jesus says that he is justified – God grants mercy to this man in response to his sincere humility in acknowledging his brokenness.[2] We are not told what crisis has brought this man such despair over his sinfulness, leading him to come before God in the Temple, nor can we know for sure what he does after he departs. But we know that he leaves with God’s mercy, and we know that God’s mercy is always transformative.

In the Letter to Timothy, Paul also lifts up a prayer of thanksgiving in which he cites his hard work in sharing the Gospel and his assurance that he will realize the “crown of righteousness.” Paul’s optimism is not due to the merits of his own work but rather God’s mercy bestowed on all those who have humbly accepted this freely offered gift.[3] Paul mentions his own accomplishments with gratitude for the opportunity to bring others to this knowledge of God’s love for everyone. This recalls Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” If Paul were writing today he might add, “there is no longer republican or democrat.”

So what are we called to do in this climate of growing divisiveness and polarization, where we are bombarded with vitriolic aspersions cast at those whose ideologies differ from one another? Well, first we should all vote – though some of us may be weary of this campaign season, voting is a precious right granted to us, and we should exercise this right informed by our faith. The way we respond and relate to one another in these contentious times must also be informed by our faith in our shared identity as children of God – brothers and sisters in Jesus. Underlying much of the acrimony and animosity around us is fear, and as the Body of Christ we have much to offer the world in the way of hope.

Bishop Shannon announced at clergy retreat a diocesan-wide prayer vigil beginning at noon on November 6 through 8 pm November 8. Everyone is encouraged to participate in this vigil and at St. Andrew’s we can explore ways in which we might engage as community during this time frame. St. Andrew’s will hold an Election Day Communion as we did four years ago at 7:00 pm Tuesday November 8. This is an opportunity to come together on a day potentially filled with rancor and anxiety to celebrate the love of God freely offered to every one of us. It will be a time when we bear witness that it is our common faith that truly defines and sustains us. Standing together at the Lord’s Table we are a body that offers healing to a wounded world where the gifts of friendship and community can overcome the sorrows of judgement and division.

[1] Brother Curtis Almquist. SSJE, Reflection 3a Optional Session, Shrine Mont Retreat Center, http://dovmedia.org/annual-fall-clergy-retreats/2016-fall-retreat

 

[2] Laura Sugg, “Proper 25 Year C, Luke 18:9-14, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year C: Volume 4 ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Taylor Brown, (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 214.

 

[3] Sugg, 216.