It isn’t really the Feast of the Holy Cross today – that will be tomorrow. But rather than focus on the two thousandth Sunday after Pentecost I thought it would be fun to anticipate just a bit. And since we are the Order of the Holy Cross, the Exaltation of the Cross is a fairly big deal.
I suppose that, as a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, the feast should be a totally happy one for me. But it isn’t. I have lots of mixed feelings about the feast.
There is much that is wonderful and glorious in the history of Christianity, but nobody will be shocked if I also say that there is much that is vile and wicked. Some of the very best in human nature has been drawn out, encouraged, and nurtured by the Church. And some of the very worst in human nature has, sadly, found encouragement in the Church as well. Our history is mixed. And the cross has stood in the middle of it all.
We have much to celebrate, but we also have much for which we can only hang our heads in shame.
The Gospel reading sounds a note of caution: “Now is the judgment of this world… the rulers of this world will be driven out…”
The discomfort that I feel hangs right on that bit of Gospel. When we celebrate exultant feasts, for me it takes on the flavor of this world. Our symbols and pageantry all seem dressed in things that human’s value: power, glory, bigness. Whereas Jesus talks about humility and meekness.
Yet at the same time, Jesus was very clear. We must celebrate as those at a wedding banquet must celebrate – a miserable, dour Christianity is just as dominated by this world as a Christianity that lacks introspection and remorse.
This is the conflict I carry into my thinking about the exaltation of the cross: It must be both a wedding banquet and a time for reflection and repentance.
It gives me great comfort that, as a member of the Order of the Holy Cross, I have another vast tradition to strengthen me – the Benedictine tradition. That tradition calls me to stability and to balance. Stability requires me, as uncomfortable as I may be, to stay and wrestle with my discomfort. And balance assures me that the tension between celebration and remorse is healthy and appropriate – to leave out either would be to lose balance.
Early Christians didn’t have the symbol of the cross in such a prominent place as we do. In their day we would have seen more fish than crosses. Seeing crosses as often as we do anesthetizes us, but the plain meaning of the cross is brutal and horrific.
We no longer use crucifixion as a means of killing those we wish, in the name of justice, to kill. Here in South Africa, Capital Punishment ended some time ago, but before that we might have seen Jesus hanged. In the US, where Executions still take place, Jesus would most likely have been injected with a lethal substance. I can’t help but think that it is only by circumstance that we have a cross instead of a noose or syringe as the symbol of our faith.
If we try to imagine any of these items, or any of our other methods of execution, above this altar, perhaps we get a glimpse of how the cross might have spoken to those early Christians. It is traumatic and discomforting.
In exalting the cross, we are taking something that is brutal, painful, deadly… and resurrecting it in a most hopeful and life-giving way… Of course, we don’t do that… God does that. The cross in human hands, our hands, is an abomination. Only through God’s redeeming love can it show love.
The story of the cross is the story of redemption being possible for the most evil of things. We lose a great deal if we let the true depth of that evil slip out of the picture. For we are no different than the crowds who called for Jesus to be nailed to the cross… no different than the public servants who executed that task.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow. But I have the sense that, starting perhaps with Emperor Constantine and continuing to my own life, too often we take up the cross and lead. On a feast like the Exaltation of the Cross it is easy to feel good about raising up the cross. Along with that comfortable, good feeling, comes the temptation to carry the cross in directions that feel good and comfortable… But Jesus does not lead us in feel-good, comfortable ways.
It is very easy, as humans, to beguile ourselves into thinking the cross is leading us exactly where we wanted to go in the first place… It is quite convenient. It is quite sinful.
We could develop a never-ending list of times when we have taken up our cross and gone exactly where we wanted to go following our own hearts and leaving Jesus on the Cross… in the dust.
That is half the story, and it must be faced. We do not exalt the cross if we do not bring to mind our failures and our frailty, if we do not confess and humbly repent.
From this point in history we can look at the Crusades and say that, however well intentioned, however faithful those who went, they were not following the Cross of Jesus. In our Anglican tradition, the reformers who brutally killed their opponents (and that includes all sides) were not following the Cross. In US history, when we more or less exterminated the Native Americans in the name of fulfilling God’s destiny for us, the Cross was left behind. The abandoning of the Cross in the name of Apartheid also comes to mind.
The other half of the story is the endless list of times when people, including each of us, did take up their cross and follow… often at great personal cost… even to the point of death. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhȍffer spring to mind. But as the example of Desmond Tutu tells us, we don’t have to die to be effective witnesses to the wonder and love of the Cross.
This is the transformation that we need, that I need in my heart – that I can die to this world and be resurrected to God’s Kingdom – not as some far off, fantastic, future thing, but here and now. Through God’s love it is possible.
The power of the cross is this: that something so loathsome and so detestable can be transformed by God into something so loving and so life giving. It is death and transformation through resurrection.
It has been a challenging winter at St Benedict’s Priory at Volmoed – cold, damp, and all that under the cloud of COVID-19. So, the signs of Spring are particularly welcome.
Our church customs mostly grew up in the Northern Hemisphere. The joining of Spring with the celebration of Easter is evidence of that. Seeing buds emerge from apparently dead plants or barren earth is a wonderful metaphor for Jesus rising from the tomb – new life is a moving sign of hope.
Here in the Southern Hemisphere, while Spring is upon us, Easter is a long way off. Yet lock-down has felt, in many ways, like a particularly long Lent – we’re ready for Easter. Indeed, every Sunday is meant to reflect Easter, so we don’t have to wait for months. Any Sunday will do.
Easter is emotionally complex – it is joy mixed with sorrow, life mixed with death, beauty mixed with ugliness. It is a time of dying to old and rising to new. Jesus emerged from that tomb in a form that his closes friends could hardly recognize. If COVID has been a sort of tomb, then our families, our churches, our social institutions will emerge from that tomb in a new way.
If we emerge from the devastation of COVID just as we were before, then we will have wasted a great deal of suffering. If we emerge from lockdown dedicated to rebuilding our world so that it is more just and fair, so that it more closely resembles God’s Kingdom, then God will be honored, just as God was honored through the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Of course, we’re not quite out of the tomb of COVID just yet – but we see light breaking over the horizon. Flowers are springing up at Volmoed and guests are returning in cautious numbers. The doors are being opened for corporate worship – also in careful and sensible ways. I can’t help but think Christ is Risen…
I am created in the image of God. This is something I have been told for as long as I remember. Sometimes told with words, but often told in images… Sunday School classrooms, church parlors, and acres of stained glass all told me the same thing: Jesus was blond haired, blue eyed, white, and male – just like me.
Part of the joy of living in the white privilege bubble is that this doesn’t seem odd – it seems normal. The fact that so many other kids who did not live in the bubble – they were not white, or not male, or not blond haired, or blue eyed – could not see the image of Jesus as the image of themselves really didn’t cross my mind. Those were happy and innocent days… or should I say blissfully ignorant…
Many of the things I learned were certainly not true. Jesus was not white, did not have blue eyes or blond hair, and really didn’t look like me much at all. He was male – so I get to keep something. I can be forgiven for lack of knowledge as a child, but what about the adults who painted those pictures or designed those windows?
The inadequacy of blond haired-blue eyed Jesus becomes more obvious over time. If every person is created in the image and likeness of God, then each of us should be able to look at the images of God we create and see all the human species. So, it’s up to artists and window makers and others to find that image… Well perhaps I have some responsibility as well. I really think that any image that makes God look like a human being is not helpful.
I’ve recently been reading a reflection on Desmond Tutu’s theology by Michael Battle. These two are “deep end of the pool” theologians, while I’m “kiddy pool” but let me put my toes in the water.
Reading Tutu has caused me to rethink my whole notion that I am created in God’s image. Scripture tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God – that is beyond question. I’ve sort of understood this to mean that each of us is somehow a
miniature replica of God; each one of us is the image and likeness of God. But there is a bit of leap between “we are made…” and “I am made…” in the image.
Tutu and Battle shattered this muddled and comfortable delusion from my childhood. The writer of Genesis tells us that “God made man/mankind/humankind in [his] image, male and female after [his] image…” Does the writer have a single person, for example me, in mind? You really have to overlook much of the text to make a simple, linear, literal reading possible.
The socially implanted image of God as an “old, white haired man” is something most folks I know have long since rejected on an intellectual level. The challenge is to change the emotional level, where that old guy still hangs out. The problems with the “old, white guy” imagery are legion. But to rid myself of this old default, I need to implant some new, better image. I don’t know what that is, but Battle and Tutu may have given me some clues.
The big shift that Tutu brings to me is a realization that when Genesis tells us that humanity is made in God’s image, it may not be referring to each singular person but rather to all of humanity. I am not a miniature likeness. All of us together are the image and likeness. Collectively we look like God. Individually we look like something much smaller. Once I hear Genesis this way, I don’t suppose I can un-hear it. It is moving and mystical.
This understanding of God’s act of creating humanity as God’s image also brings a great sadness. If we collectively, as a whole, all together form the image of God, then the ways we have found to sort ourselves into little groups – tribes, families, languages, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Black, White, whatever, are ways that we find to be something less than God’s image.
Prisoners are part of the image. Prostitutes are part of the image. The deeply mentally ill
are part of the image. Lepers are part of the image. I think this is why Jesus is at such pains to tell us that how we treat the stranger, the outcast, the prisoner, the other, is critically important. When we cast “them” out, we diminish the image of God. When we make “them” invisible, we obscure the image of God. What a sorrow this must be to God.
What new vision of God might I conjure? Perhaps we might be something like pixels, the smallest unit in a digital image, in the grand display of God. We have our distinct color, our distinct brightness. None is more or less
important than another. By ourselves we don’t make an image. Together, side by side, in concert with each other, we can theoretically display the infinite.
I keep thinking there must be better, more resonant language than pixel… Something like stars… That each of us is like the light of a star scattered across the infinite backdrop of the universe. A single star is, by itself just a little speck of light, but cast across the night sky they are breathtaking. The reason I don’t think this works is stars don’t have the insignificance of individual pixels. This is not to say a pixel by itself is unimportant or meaningless, but it has almost no significance of its own. It needs all the other pixels to form an image – just as we need all our brothers and sisters be the image of God.
It’s tempting to think that we are nearly at the end of the Covid-19 odyssey. But that would be beyond optimistic. We might be toward the middle… or we may still be at the beginning. The truth is we can’t really know.
It is a frustrating and uncomfortable place to be – not knowing. In monastic circles this is referred to as “liminal space.” Things are not clear, not settled. The truth is that we were in liminal space before Covid-19 was ever heard of. Human life on planet earth is liminal. Most of the time we are comfortable in liminal space because it is familiar. This particular liminal space is unfamiliar and most of us are tired of it. We’re ready for something, anything, that seems like a return to more normal times.
While we may long for a return to something that feels “normal”, the truth is we can do better. Normal is not the same as good. In our normal world, there is much that is simply not good. Our familiar world is about to produce its first trillionaire. How many zeros does that even have? This means that one person will have more personal wealth than the GDP of entire nations, including South Africa. This is “normal”, but it is not “good”. Sadly, the US and South Africa (the two countries I identify with) lead the world in economic inequality.
I came across a TED Talk on the Good Country Index – an attempt to look at the world’s nations not by who has the most power, or the most money, or the best food, or most appealing tourist destinations. It seeks to sort countries by which does the most to promote the common good. What a good concept…
It is a non-competitive notion of good. We tend to have good as the entry level in “good/better/best” ratings, or good vs. bad. But this is not the right idea. Good doesn’t have the drama of “fantastic”, or the exclusivity of “best”. It is a big enough concept to hold us all – we can all be good. Nations, cities, churches, monastic communities can all choose to be as good as we can.
As life begins to ramp up – which means that lockdown is ramping down – we can choose to try to get back our old life, which may have felt very good, but I don’t really think things can go “back” to normal. We have to go forward into this new, liminal space. As we do, perhaps we can let the notion of good be our guiding principal. What will it mean to be a “good” Priory? Or a good Volmoed? A good South Africa? A good church?
We are brothers and sisters with all people and share our creator with all life. As Ecclesiastes tells us, all creatures breath the same breath – which is to say we are all of one Spirit, a notion all the more startling in this time of Covid-19 which travels on the breath. The concept of common good is not limited to our families and friends, our fellow Christians or those with whom we share nationality, or even our fellow human beings. The common good includes all the works of God’s hands – the birds of the air and fish of the sea and every living creature that creeps on the face of the earth. The common good is not something we achieve, it’s something we work toward by loving God and by loving all of God’s creation.
In various mythologiesthere is a recurring theme. Someonehas gone to sleep in one world and somehow awoken in another. I’m not thinking of a particularly traditional definition of myth, but rather the stories that we tell ourselves that help to form us and shape our culture. These stories are filled with archetypal situations, characters, and events.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gets knocked out in Kansas and wakes up in Oz. Rip Van Winkle, in The Legend of Rip Van Winkle, falls asleep in English Colonial America and somehow, twenty years later, awakens in a post-revolutionary upstate New York, USA, a nation born after he fell asleep. Ebeneezer Scrooge falls asleep for a restless night on Christmas Eve and awakens the next morning – really and truly awakens. Has he been to different worlds in his sleep? Who knows, but he wakes to a changedworld because he is a changed person. This notion of awakening to a different world has all sorts of symbolic meaning. And better still, it’s a great plot device. Some may resist identifying these stories as mythology, but these are stories that have a significant place in shaping our identity.
The story these days is not a fantasy. It’s all too real. COVID-19 is working its way through the planet and wreaking havoc on our health care systems, our social systems, our religious systems and our economic systems. (I’m tempted to digress into a discussion of why our economic and religious systems are, in significant ways, the same systems… but that is a thought for another time). The scale and scope of the tragedy are beyond our comprehension. When things exceed our rational capacity, it’s time to look to our mythology.
In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, our world, dominated byPost-Industrial Finance Capitalism andespecially our social and financial systems, has effectively been placed in an induced coma. Social distancing is our new way of life – we are, in a sense, collectivelyasleep. Like Dorothy, Rip, Ebeneezer, and countless others, we will collectively wake up – the important question is how we will do that.
Things have been, we’d like to think, a certain way for a long time.We believe it is normal. We live in a world of permanence. Big and important institutions build massive edifices to assure us of their permanence. This is true of religious institutions, government institutions, financial institutions, and commercial institutions.
Some of us will remember the Pan Am building that towers over Grand
Central Terminal in New York – these two monuments assure us of two vital, powerful, fabulously wealthy, permanentcommercial institutions – Pan Am and the New York Central Railroad. The only thing is, while the buildings are still here, both Pan AM and NY Central are long gone. We have a near-infinite assortment of permanent monuments to things that are not permanent…things long outlasted by their monuments. Our notions of permanence areillusion.
Our marvelous, highly advance pinnacle of human achievement that we call modern civilization is no more permanent than any other created thing. Permanence and stability are dreams and illusions. When we awake from the dream, do we awake to a better reality, or deeper reality, or grim reality? Do we arise to Utopia or Dystopia? Or do we just go back to sleep? It’s worth considering this now because COVID-19 is highly likely to show us just how impermanent and unstable our society is. Ready or not, we are being awakened from our illusionary sleep.
The Great Awakening
What we wake up to will, in part, be driven by what we have been sleeping through before the arrival of COVID-19. That is ominous. We were comfortably sleeping through a society that choose to let many people go hungry while
there was plenty. We were sleeping through a society that recognizedthat our consumption of fossil fuels was pushing the very environment that we depend on to breath to the breaking point, yet we took no significant action. We were sleeping though a society that was willing to write off large blocks of peopleas somehow not valuable – perhaps because of their race, or color of their skin, or sexual identity, or age,or where they were born, or even for their political views. We were sleeping through dystopia, so that will certainly be something we have to wake up to.
We were also sleeping through a world that produced art of unspeakable beauty;
a world that found inventive ways to treat diseases of every sort; a world where, as The Rev Dr Martin Luther King dreamed, all God’s children could play together, maybe not all the time, but at least some of the time. This utopia through which we were sleeping is also something we will wake up to.
There are no instruction manuals to tell us the best way to awaken, but we might look at the formative myths of our society. What do they have to tell us?
I mentioned three myth-like works of fiction. While not exactly contemporary, these stories are written within a social context not too different from our present one and they have stood the test of time.
Washington Irving’s Legend of Rip Van Winkleappears to have little to say about waking up. Van Winkle falls asleep and then, twenty years later, awakes. Upon awakening, he makes his way back to town. The Revolutionary War has taken place. His house has been abandoned and fallen into ruin. Eventually hefinds a few people who remember him. His story becomes clear and, unlikelihood of the story notwithstanding, becomes accepted as true. His daughter takes him and the story ends. Irving, for all his imaginative genius, doesn’t seem to address any of the obvious elephants in the room, such as how Rip adjust to a post-revolutionary world.Washington Irving does all the work of setting up a marvelous opportunity and then walks away. Nothing changes in the story except the accidents of society. The essentials are as they were.This is one way to wake up in a myth – to effectively go back to sleep.
The Wizard of Oz (the movie, not the book) is more expansive in its story telling. But there is an interesting set of circumstances in the narrative. Dorothy is living a drab life in a drab house with a drab family in a drab corner of Kansas. Then a terrible tornado strikes and Dorothy, who has not made it to the safety of the storm cellar, is knocked unconscious. She “awakens” in Oz – a blazingly Techni–colorful world. But of course, this is not waking Dorothy. This is dreaming Dorothy. Eventually Dorothy is ready to return home – to wake up.The movie ends with Dorothy having chosen to go back to the black and white world she knew before. Is she transformed? Is anything changed? It appears that what Dorothy learned is that she should be happy with her world the way it is, not to want something more. This would be another way of waking from a myth – to revert.
Charles Dickens’A Christmas Carolprovides a different sort of outcome. Like Oz, most of A Christmas Carol takes place in the context of dreams. Ebeneezer is visited by three spirits and asked to truly look at his past, his present, and his future. When he awakens on Christmas morning, he is in the same world he has always known. He is a wealthy and miserly man living in a big, comfortable home. He has no friends, just employees. But having truly looked at his life and the world he has shaped, he is transformed. Hecannot go back to his old world because he is a new person. The world doesn’t change, he does.He flings open windows. He reaches out to employees. He helps those in need. He rekindles relationships with family. He becomes a beacon of hope and caring to all who know him. This is yet another way of waking within the mythological context.
I believe that these three stories point us tothree possible options for awakening. Dorothy chooses to go back to the way things were. Rip chooses, essentially, to stay asleep. And Ebeneezer moves in the direction of transformation.
Br Don Bisson, FMS, describes three decision-making paradigms that are prominent in religious communities. The community looks at the challenge and what needs to be done and a) agrees to do it and does it, or b) agrees not to take action, or c) agrees to do what needs to be done, but does not do it. Of course, these three modes are not unique to religious communities. They are, apparently, hard-wired into the human person.
It looks to me like EbeneezerScrooge takes option one – he looks at what needs to be done and does it. Dorothy, it seems, takes option two – she looks at what it would take to continue living in the Oz paradigm and she chooses to go back to the way things were. And Rip Van Winkle effectively chooses option three – a chaotic option that provides the illusion of change without any real change.
What path will our awakening from our COVID-19 coma follow?
Christian tradition has much to say about awakening. Starting in the early parts of Hebrew Scripture it is an important concept. Let’s consider the Prophet Isaiah. We can only guess at the cultural context of Isaiah. The actual dates and authorship are not certain, but for this purpose it is enough to know that the Nation of Israel had been held captive in Babylon for a long time and Isaiah, in the section we’re looking at, is writing around the time of the end of that exile. We might think of the exile/captivity as a coma of sorts and the end of that period as a collective awakening.
Isaiah 51: 1“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord!Look to the rock from which you were cut, to the quarry from which you were hewn. […]4 “Pay attention to me, my people! Listen to me, my nation!For instruction will go out from me, and my justice will become a light for the nations. [...] 7Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my instruction in their hearts. […]9“Awake! Awake! Clothe yourself with strength, you arm of the Lord!Awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of long ago.
Isaiah 52: 1Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city, for the [heathen] won’t enter you.2 Shake yourself from the dust and arise,and sit on your throne, O Jerusalem!Loosen the bonds from your neck,O captive daughter of Zion.
Isaiah provides a powerful set of instructions for awakening. First, look at who you are and who you are called to be. Look where you came from (the rock from which you were cut) and your identity (God’s nation and God’s people). You know righteousness and
God’s instructions. So awake. Clothe yourself in strength. Take control. And live in in God’s ways.
We might alsoconsider Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. The bones in the valley are not just sleeping, not just in a coma, but undeniably dead. Yet Ezekiel, at God’s direction, calls them to life, to wakefulness.
Ezekiel, like Isaiah, was at work around the time of the Babylonian exile of Israel. This was a tumultuous time, to say the least. Everything about being Jewish had come into question during the exile – identity was being lost. The people of Israel could simply have faded away, folded into the people of Babylon. In a sense, the nation of Israel was being placed in a coma. It is from this deep sleep that the prophets are calling the people to wakefulness.
The prophets call the people to remember their identity and their heritage as people of God. This is never a call to turn back time, to restore things to the old days. It is a call to bring Godly justice into a new world.
In the Christian New Testament, there are also instances of people being called to
wakefulness. Joseph, in Mathew’s telling of the Gospel, is awakened twice by angels. First, he is told to marry Mary, even though she is already pregnant. And then he is awakened and told to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. These could be literal awakenings, but there is a certain symbolic layer as well.
Joseph is resistant to marrying Mary because it goes against custom and tradition. The “right and decent” thing would be to quietly cut off the relationship. But Joseph is called to a radically different action. He is awakened from “right and decent” to Godly. The flight to Egypt was also a radical choice. He was protecting his family and fleeing a predicted danger, but he was also making a risky and complicated journey, made even more so because Mary has just given birth and Jesus was a fully dependent infant. This notion of awakening is not a safe one.
The Epistles also have instances of us being called from sleep.
Ephesians 5: 8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. […],14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore […] “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”15Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time…”
This letter – whoever and whenever it was written – gives remarkable advice on how we may wake up from our present crisis. Open our eyes and see what is good and just. Live with care and make the most of our time. Stand in the light of Christ.
It is hard to hear a phrase like “Sleepers Awake” without an echo of Bach’s Cantata 140 sounding in our ears (at least for me and my “choral” friends this is true). The text is not scriptural, but rather a hymn text by Philip Nicholai.
Wachet auf, ruftuns die stimmeis most directly translated into English as “Wake up, the voice calls us.” Is that the voice of God? Could there be other, ungodly voices calling? Obviously, the answer is yes to both.
As we look to awake in the aftermath of COVID-19 we will have options, just as Dorothy, Rip, and Ebeneezer had options. We can listen and hear what voices call us – and know that God’s voice will be there, but that it won’t be the only voice. The choices we make, individually and collectively, will likely determine the shape and future of our lives and of our world.
Things to do
I’m drawn to Joseph. He is awakened twice with things to do – and he does them. Does he act in love? In faith? Does he just do what he is told without question? We don’t get many details on Joseph’s process. For whatever reasons, his actions are ultimately not onlyfaithful, they change the world. His part may seem minimal – all he does is wake up. But the impact is magnificent. And in some sense, all we will have to do is wake up.
After our COVID COMA we will have opportunities, minimal and massive, for action. We need to have a sense of who we are and where we come from. We need to have a clear understanding of what God calls us to do – I’d say keep the Beatitudes in mind. And we need to have some sort of vision of where and how we want to live. The world may seem changed, but it will, for the most part, be the same world. We mustbe the transformed and transforming element.
Ebeneezer in his dreams already understood how he wanted to awaken. And in those confused awakening moments he clarified that vision. He applied himself with vigor and conviction. He set aside his pride and arrogance, making amends and embracing other people. Fear was certainly part of Ebeneezer’s transformation, but it is not his primary motivator once he is awake. The part of Ebeneezer that is most awake is the loving part.
My reflection has been from my perspective as a faithful Christian, but I certainly don’t believe that awakening to a transformation will be limited to the followers of Jesus, or the Abrahamic religions. We can play a catalyzing role in this process for folks of all traditions. I suspect that it may be easier to work with folks of other traditions or no tradition than to work with some parts of the Christian tradition. If we believe, as some Christians clearly do, that God is on our side, rather than that we are on God’s side, then the ability to truly awaken is greatly inhibited. The vision we need for a better world is not our own vision. It must be larger and more collective and inclusive. All of humanity has something to bring to the table.
The Dystopian Alternative
In the last few decades, a new form of dystopian fiction has taken shape. While dystopian visions (the opposite of Utopian) are nothing new (the apocalyptic writing that makes an exciting contribution to Scripture is arguably dystopian, as is Dante’s Inferno), there is a new twist on dystopian thinking in my view. Dystopian material used to serve a cautionary function – live properly or face consequences like this. Modern dystopian fantasy does not seem to be warning us against terrible consequences. It seems to be assuring us that this dystopian future is inevitable.
In Mad Max or The Hunger Games we are stuck in this terrible world without escape not as a consequence of previous choices, but, more or less, as a given world condition. As in Job, where the kindly neighbors all wonder what evil thing Job has done to earn his terrible, dystopian lot, the answer is itsrandom – just God and Satan having a lark at Job’s expense.
The thing lacking from this current dystopian material is any sort of lesson or learning. Survival is the best you can hope for. For example, in The 100 the chosen lot (100 youthful prisoners from a space stationcircling the ruined Earth) are sent to the ground in order to reduce the overpopulation of the dying station. They are expected to die. On the bright side they don’t die. But they do learn that the ruined earth extremely hostile. Survival is a constant and thankless struggle. “Abandon hope” seems to be posted over the door…
One exploration of this genre that I think is worth exploring here is 28 Days Laterby filmmaker Danny Boyle. The story explores life in the UK after a deadly virus have been released from a lab at Cambridge University. A group of well intention but misguided animal rights activistsbreak into a lab to free the animals. In this act they also release a virus that is extremely contagious and fast acting – people are infected instantlyand turned into rage-filled killing machines.
Meanwhile, just before the virus is set free, a mild-manneredbicycle messenger, Jim, is knocked unconscious in an accident and taken to the hospital. Before he wakes up some 28 days later (hence the title), society is destroyed and nearly everyone is infected by the released virus. When he awakes, Jim finds himself in a deserted hospital in a deserted London.He finds his way into a church that appears to be quite full of dead bodies. But not everyone is dead. To Jim’s horror he attracts the attention of the few remaining living beings– all infected. He escapes the church and, thankfully, meets two people who are not infected. They rush him to safety and the plot unfolds from there.
A little gang of four survivors manages to form and, for the sake of survival, they set off to a destination near Manchester, lured by the promise of safety in the form of the military, and of the answer to infection. By answer our little cluster (now down to three) is expecting a cure, but what they learn is that the answer is to wait until the infected have all died and then start society over. This is when dystopian reality really comes crashing down – this military unit is all male and so, to have any hope of starting over, they need women. Two of our band of three are women (well – one is just a schoolgirl).Forcible rape will be the price of safety.
Our band of three decide this is not a price they will pay and so escape is the only option – from this protected but hostile world to the larger, unsafe and hostile world. They do escape, but in that process, Jim is once again knocked unconscious. He awakens again, another 28 days later. This time the three have managed to escape to a secluded little croft in the Lake District. It is bucolic and secluded. Here the dystopian adventure ends when they are discovered by a military aircraft flying over. It is hard to fashion a happy ending when seeminglyall of the UK has been depopulated, but that is what happens.
So, what might this tell us about waking up after COVID-19? There is a somewhat friendly moment soon after the three have arrived at the military location – before the evil has been unmasked. Everyone is gathered, soldiers and civilians, and are sharing a meal of sorts. The question comes up (as it does in the present crisis as well): when will things return to normal? Some of the diners believe that normal is not far away, that there is a government or military waiting to sweep in. Others believe that they will not live to see normal as clearly the only solution to the infection is to hold the UK in quarantine until all have died. But the commanding officer observes that in the 28 days since infection he has observed people killing people. And in the 28 days before that he observed people killing people. And before that and before that… He concludes that the world IS back to normal.
This sort of waking up means coming to grips with the reality that we live in a dystopian world – it’s as good as it gets. We went to sleep in a dystopia and that is exactly where we will awaken.
Modern dystopian writing can be quite fatalistic. Nonetheless, 28 Days Later seems to
hold the hope that we can awake to a different world. In this instance the world has been irreparably changed – but more importantly so have our three main characters. They are not visionaries at the start. Jim is a nice, if unambitious guy. Selina (the adult female) is interested in her own survival – she believes that is as good as it gets. And Hannah is a schoolgirl, interested in seeing her family, however changed it is, stay together. By the end of the movie they have developed a much greater vision which includes a new knowledge of the power of love.
One fact cannot be escaped. There is no way to look at our path through COVID-19 without the realization that a horrible tragedy has occurred. By now already tens of thousands have died and that number is rising quickly. So, no matter what else happens, we will awaken in a very broken and wounded world. Comfort and healing emotionally will be extremely important.
Dorothy could afford the “go back to the way things were” option because she was not really living in a dystopia. This is a bit ironic because the world that first watched this movie was dystopic. The Dustbowl was raging in the plains, including Kansas. The Depression was raging across the world. And World War II was coming up over the horizon. In that context escapist fantasy was wanted – and that’s what The Wizard of Oz provides. We live in a world with strongly dystopian and utopian elements. But if we choose escapist fantasy antruly ignore the dystopian elements, the dystopian elements will become our world. Diseases like COVID-19 will likely emerge from an ever more crowded and degraded planet. Should we choose escape, we will in fact be condemning ourselves.
Carl Jung said “Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside awakens.” This is exactly what Ebeneezer Scrooge does. The specters in his dreams cause him to look at his history, his present, and consider his future – he looks within. When he can’t bear what he sees, he resolves to change. And this is what he does when he truly awakens. In this paused time of COVID-19 control, we have the chance to look within – and with fewer distractions than normal.
There is a notion of inevitability to all this – that this virus appeared, and we have just gone along for a powerless ride. That is not true. Choices that we have made collectively and individually have all helped in the setting up of this great calamity. Profligate waste of resources and pollution clearly play a part in fueling this. The astounding poverty that we tolerate in our world clearly creates a context in which a virus such as COVID-19 can develop and flourish. We live with the values of nationalism, which may have made some sense a long time ago, but when international travel means anyone can get just about anywhere in a day, national boundaries are a sentimental fiction and ordering our world as though this were not true creates a very fertile field for a virus, such as COVID-19, since viruses, like all of nature, has no sentimentality. We are not like Job. We are not here as innocents. Repentance, in the proper sense of that word, is certainly in order.
We must be conscious of our process. Keeping in mind Br Don’s observation that looking at what needs to be done, agreeing to do it, and then failing to take action is a very likely human approach, we have to either do what we say we will, or simply give up. Either is a valid choice, but the dishonesty of promised action followed by inaction is an invalid and deadly choice.
As faithful people (and I consider this a very broad category – surely Secular Humanists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, whatever, can be faithful just as devout Christians can) we must model behavior and speak truth. Some would have that as speak truth to power, but I think that doesn’t go far enough. We must simply speak the truth when we can and to whom we can in ways that can be heard.
Finally – I think we must coach ourselves and others to wake up – truly wake up. Introspection, repentance, and amendment of life are what Ebeneezerr Scrooge models. We must model them too. And, like Ebeneezer, we must do so in love, not in judgement.
Soon enough we’ll hear somebody say, “Christ is Risen!” and we will respond, “The Lord is Risen Indeed!” This happens each Easter and has for centuries. But this Easter will be unlike any in modern memory. This Easter an unwanted guest, COVID-19, has joined us.
With this virus comes a whole raft of fears and health measures, none of which seem likely to enhance our experience of the Risen Lord.
At the same time, COVID-19 certainly has no power over Jesus, over resurrection. Things on the surface may be very different, but somewhere deep, Easter will be Easter.
Every crisis is an opportunity, so you never want to waste a crisis. COVID-19 is a crisis. So is Easter. During Holy Week we remember a series of terrible events in which Jesus is betrayed by those closest to him, abandoned, even denied by those who love him best. Eventually he is not just killed but killed in the most horrible way that human minds could devise. Our annual keeping of Holy Week and Easter is, in part, a way for us not to waste a crisis. Perhaps in the spirit of Easter we can find a way not to waste the crisis of COVID-19.
It is understandable that many of us wish that everything would just go back to normal… the way it used to be… For those of us who live with a fair amount of comfort and privilege, this is a reasonable desire. Our lives were better, and we’d like that back. But for those who were living in miserable conditions, in starvation, in desperate poverty, in despair, there can’t be the same desire for things to go back to normal.
The truth is that “normal” seems to include a great deal of injustice. “Normal” can include a staggering degree of greed and hoarding, while tolerating a shameful degree of suffering. “Normal” appears to assume that it is OK to use vast amounts of resources for the comfort and pleasure of some while leaving others with nothing and severely degrading the planet for those who come after us. Jesus calls us to live in love with our brothers and sisters, but honestly, that is not “normal”.
The message of Easter does not call us to return to normal, to the way things were before the crucifixion. Easter calls us to be transformed, to be made new. Jesus is transformed by death and resurrection so that the disciples have a hard time recognizing him. We are not, most of us, called to endure what Jesus endured. But we are called to be transformed by this Easter event.
I find myself thinking that COVID-19, which has brought our modern world to its knees, is offering an opportunity for transformation as well. This will not be easy or fun, just as
the events of Holy Week are not easy or fun. But this present moment in time is challenging us to consider what is truly important. That is very different from what we find appealing or desirable. This present moment reminds us that our mighty engines of commerce have very little power over something as tiny as a virus. In this moment can we learn something about humility and compassion?
This virus will have its time and then it will pass. What it will leave in its wake we do not yet know. But it is a crisis, and with God’s help, this crisis can transform us and our society to be more just and loving. This will be a truly blessed Easter.
Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, was the official start of the Season of Lent. Lent and Advent have a similar function in the calendar – they both provide a season of contemplation and reflection leading up to the defining events of Christian life, the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus.
By tradition, there are two primary intentions for Lent. In the first half we are called to reflect and repent. In the second, our focus is directed to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem – to crucifixion… and resurrection.
It is a somber, penitential season. It goes against our modern culture. Of course, standing apart from culture is just where we should want to be as followers of Jesus.
I want to start by considering what the Rule of Benedict says about Lent:
The life of a monk (for the purposes of this sermon we are all monks…) ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.
During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to Holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing – Everyone should, however, make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with the abbot’s prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot’s approval.
When I was in 5th grade (about 10 years old), a Roman Catholic classmate of mine announced at about this time of the year that she was giving up coffee for Lent. It was rather ingenious. She was required to report something she was giving up to the priest. And since she did not, in fact, drink coffee, she could meet the requirement with no particular inconvenience. When you are ten years old, it seems like a pretty good answer…
She even met the spirit of Benedict’s caution. She did not have an abbot to tell, but she was telling the appropriate spiritual authority – her priest. What I have never known is the outcome – I will forever wonder what the priest may have said to her in response.
St Benedict, and my 5th grade classmate, have something to tell us about what we do for Lent – in some way they are telling us the same thing… We have developed, in our tradition, the belief that to be really effective, a spiritual practice has to be heroic, perhaps even draconian.
What that intelligent 5th grader was engaging in was a practice of minimal, rather than maximal displacement. OK – her particular plan may have been sub-minimal… it asked absolutely nothing of her… but erring on the side of minimal may be of more spiritual benefit than we think.
Benedict’s counsel guides us in the same direction. “Let each deny him or her-self some food, drink, etc.” I’m not in 5th grade and I do drink coffee. If I were to implement my classmate’s plan in accordance with the rule of Benedict, I might be looking to give up one cup of coffee a day, or to not drink coffee one day of the week… to give up some, not all.
Benedict is clear in purpose: We will add something by way of private prayer and take away something from food or drink, so that we will have something additional to offer God.
A heroic form of fasting too easily becomes a spiritual destination rather than a spiritual
tool. If I give up chocolate for Lent, then chocolate, or at least that empty space where chocolate used to be, becomes the focus of my Lenten practice. What strange kind of offering is that?
I love Benedict’s particularly moderate approach. He has a list: food, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting. Only talking and jesting get qualifiers, but you don’t need to know a great deal about St Benedict to know that he never encourages anybody to go entirely without food or sleep. As we say, we’re Benedictines, not Franciscans… Benedict doesn’t need to qualify those because we know the rule still calls us to meals and to bed each day. Needless talk and idle jesting imply that there is still room for purposeful talk and perhaps even some jesting – as long as it’s not idle…
The danger lies in presumption and vainglory. They are spiritually deadly. Presumption puts me, myself, before God. A particularly severe observance of Lent encourages me to presume that I can, or have, achieved something important… something especially pleasing to God. That is vainglory – empty boasting. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of justice and love… Heroic deprivation does not advance either.
We need to step into Lent, not leap into it, making little adjustments in order to free ourselves from worldly attachments. Massive dislocations and heroic deprivations just change the nature of our enslavement. We substitute a positive attachment – I need another cup of coffee… for a negative attachment – I will not drink coffee at all under any circumstances… no matter how much I’d love a cup of coffee… We’re just as attached, just to the absence rather than the presence.
On Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. This is a perspective that allows little space for presumption and vainglory. There is no point in attachment, in storing up the treasures of this earth. There is no value in a big and grand show of piety. I am still just dust.
We are to love one another as God loves us. The less preoccupied I am with indulging and comforting myself, the more able I am to love others and to love God. And just to be clear, loving God is loving others.
Repentance, our focus in this beginning of Lent, is worth some exploration. In English, and in languages that have their toes resting on Latin, the notion of repentance includes sorrow and regret. Our toughest prisons in the US are called Penitentiaries. Inmates are meant to contemplate their wickedness, repent, and amend their lives.
In reality, these institutions do not help people amend their lives but rather turn life into
punishment. A place where we are confronted daily with our horrible sinfulness does not reconcile with the boundless love and forgiveness of God. Such a place denies the grace that Jesus bestows on us. Jesus does not want to lock us up. Jesus wants to set us free.
What our culture believes about penitence may not be spiritually healthy at all. So, let’s consider what Jesus may have meant.
Jesus, contrary to some popular beliefs, didn’t speak Latin. He didn’t speak English either. As for Jesus speaking Afrikaans, who can say. But when Jesus spoke of repentance, he most likely used the word “metanoia” – a Greek word that means something like turning around or changing direction. It is a thoughtful and reflective process. In our tradition it is quite literally the turning from following my own heart to following Jesus.
Repentance isn’t about feeling bad. It’s about giving our selves over to the uninhibited and seemingly reckless love that is God. The more I allow myself to live into God’s love, the more I am able to love God’s children and all of God’s wonderful creation. That is the work of repentance… the work of Lent… the giving up of my carefully guarded and metered love for the unbound generosity of God’s love.
Do I get there all at once? Do I even get there in the span of my life? Probably not. And that’s OK. Jesus calls us to follow, not to arrive.
As I do the work of reflection that Lent calls for it will surely be distressing. I fall short – a lot… I’d love to say that I am a pure and holy monk with never an impure or evil thought, let alone deed. And if you believe that then, as we say in the US, I’ve got a bridge I’ll sell you…
If it starts to feel hopeless – then I will try to remember to remind myself that I’m in a process. I’m following Jesus as best I can. And I can take great comfort in the lives of those early followers – Thomas who was filled with doubt… Peter who denied any knowledge of Jesus at all… Judas who betrayed Jesus… The whole drowsy bunch who couldn’t stay awake with Jesus in Gethsemane. I fit right in. Thankfully Jesus calls us as we are to follow.
Repentance, the turning of my life to follow Jesus, is work that I can do at each step of the journey. And if I get a step wrong, that is OK. It’s just another opportunity to repent – to turn and change direction.
If we were more like our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we would encounter the Beatitudes, those readings that begin with “blessed are those who…”, almost as often as we encounter the Lord’s Prayers. They consider it one of the most essential elements in the formation of Christian life. Almost everything you need to know about following Jesus is contained in this small section of the Bible.
So, what might the beatitudes be saying to us in this day? What have others found in
these marvelous sayings?
Well – to be honest – some of what folks find is disturbing. To me, the most disturbing is the notion that the Beatitudes tell us what awaits us in heaven… so we can just be patient until we get there. The poor, the downtrodden, the victims of injustice… all will be made right in God’s Kingdom. In fact, the worse you have it here, the better you’ll have it there… Or as we say in the US – you’ll get pie in the sky when you die…
It’s not exactly wrong. We look forward to God’s Kingdom just as Isaiah did – a land where justice flows like a mighty river and covers the whole earth. But to suggest that Jesus is promoting the notion of suffering now for some far-off reward misses the entire message of the Gospel. It certainly misunderstands the Beatitudes.
Part of the difficulty is we don’t encounter the Beatitudes, or for that matter any scripture, in its original language. In South Africa, I believe, people are more aware of the limitations of translation. In the US, we tend to assume that translation means turning something “foreign” into English. Here I think there is a richer understanding that translation is trying to say in one language something that is conceived in a different language.
It sounds like it shouldn’t be that hard, but languages are more than just words. They are ways of thinking.
So, we encounter the Beatitudes in English today, but they were conceived in Mathew’s Gospel in Greek. But Jesus most likely spoke them in Aramaic. What may have gotten lost along the way? We really can’t know, except that something will have gotten lost.
At the same time, some things will have crept in – the Pie in the Sky notion for example. What we can do now is try to discern what the Spirit is saying to us – we can’t really know what Jesus may have said two millennia ago to a crowd gathered on a hill near Galilee. Nonetheless, I think we can trust our Orthodox friends – this is an important encounter. After all – Jesus speaks.
The Beatitudes, as we receive them, are structured in a very particular way. Blessed is X, because Y. This is not something new that Jesus dreamed up. The Wisdom literature in our tradition has plenty of “beatitudes”. The Psalms, for example, include well-loved beatitudes such as “Blessed is the one who has not sat in the seat of the scornful” and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Beatitudes have a particular purpose. They don’t tell us to do something. There is no imperative or command. Rather they tell us who we are.
The Beatitudes draw their structure from ancient Hebrew which does not confine itself to orderly events – one after another. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” could also be rendered “blessed are you pursuing righteousness – for you are the Kingdom of God.”
That is true in all the Beatitudes – the meek are already children of God and, therefore, inheritors. Those who have pure hearts already see God. This is not pie in the sky when we die… this is pie today… right now.
Another subtle point is that in these statements, Jesus is not addressing individuals; Jesus is addressing the whole gathered assembly. He doesn’t say those among you who are poor will inherit the earth.
Rather Jesus addresses a collective. And this makes sense if you remember that Jesus was
interested in community, in collective. Following Jesus is not something we are meant to do on our own. It is something are called to do in a group – which is why we are here now, in a group, in the great congregation.
The group includes the attributes Jesus describes – the poor, the sorrowful, those who hunger for justice, those who make peace. We are the mystical body of Jesus – one body. So, when some in our group includes these attributes, then we all do. We make peace not on our own, but as members of the body of Jesus. We do not mourn alone, but in the collective.
This is, to me, a great relief. I’d like to think that I am really good at hungering and thirsting for justice. But, to be honest, sometimes I hunger and thirst for comfort and privilege. But it’s not my hunger… it’s our hunger.
I would like to be able to proclaim with a straight face that I am pure in heart… I’m a monk after all! But much of the time what is in my heart is anything but pure – or perhaps it is pure… pure evil. If I have to be pure in heart before I can see God, then we better put on some coffee – it’s going to be a long wait… But this is forcing a new understanding of what it means to be pure of heart onto an old Beatitude. In Jewish thinking at the time, being “pure” of heart meant having a heart that was purified of other gods. They did live in a richly polytheistic time.
We, on the other hand, don’t live in an age and culture filled with many gods… or do we? What gods compete for space in my heart? The god of wealth, the god of safety, the god of power, the god of celebrity, the god of comfort. And perhaps the lesser gods of cell phones and Netflix… There are many gods who take up space in our hearts. Purifying our hearts begins with acknowledging them.
So, if the Beatitudes are not injunctions… be a peace maker, be mournful, be a worker for justice, but observations, then what do we do with them? How do we live them?
To say that these are descriptions of qualities that Jesus’ followers had is hard to swallow. He looks at a crowd and says blessed are the meek. But I really doubt he is describing very many in the crowd. Blessed are the poor in spirit. I’d like to think the crowd was more likely to be rich in spirit – they were after all in Jesus’ presence.
Here again, a little liberation from English might be helpful. English is a language that
loves binary things: good or bad, rich or poor, up or down, on or off. That extends nicely into the world of computers – where 0 or 1 are the only options. God is not binary. English loves things to be linear: this happened before that, or this happened because of that. God, who is and was and is to come, is not linear.
We can seek peace and pursue it in a very imperfect, that is to say human, way. Success and failure are binary – not Godly. Our imperfection is not failure.
I can seek to purify my heart and get it right… and get it wrong. Seeking is more important than succeeding.
John Wesley, a great hero of mine, spent a fair amount of time thinking about sanctified living. In his time there was still a hot debate about salvation either through grace alone or through good works. Wesley sort of dismissed the debate. Salvation is. We are recipients of it just as the meek are inheritors of the earth. Sanctified living was the response to God’s grace. Sanctified living, for Wesley, was the joyful outpouring of a grateful heart, not the means of purchasing grace.
The Beatitudes tell us who we are. We are the hungry for justice. We are the mournful. We are the merciful. Sure – we fall short some of the time. We are comforted. We see God. We inherit the earth. And we do this, and we did this, and we will do this. Even as we pursue these things, in some Godly way they are already accomplished.
Blessed are we who follow Jesus, for our joy will overflow from grateful hearts.
Here we are – coming to the end of the Christmas story – the Kings, who had so much farther than everyone else to travel, have finally arrived. As a child I used to wonder, if these “wise men” were so wise, why didn’t they start earlier…
As is our monastery custom, the kings have taken their place alongside shepherds and
various animals looking at the holy family at the creche. And we can feel a vague sense of Anglican superiority because our kings have made the journey and arrived on the correct day: Epiphany.
Of course we can only feel vaguely superior for a few moments, because if we stop to think about it, we have to realize that the kings, or whatever they may have been, never arrive at that stable and never take their place alongside those shepherds and the sweet little animals.
The problem with the Christmas Story is that there is not one story, but two. In our minds they quite easily mush together. But when we trust our memories, some important details get dropped. Most of what we know as “the Christmas story” comes to us from Luke. Luke has shepherds. His telling of the story is particularly good for a very merry Christmas.
But this Feast of the Epiphany, this arrival of the Magi, directs us to Matthew – the “other” Christmas story. Luke gives us the warm and fuzzies; Matthew turns up the dark.
Matthew spares us lots of detail… Before their marriage, Mary is found to be pregnant, so Joseph is going to quietly end the engagement. But an angel, the first character to speak, gives Joseph the full story. And so, Joseph takes Mary to his home and Jesus is born – at home. No muss, no fuss, no long journey, no stable… I haven’t shortened it much because there isn’t much to shorten… It’s hard to imagine the Hallmark Holiday Special built on Mathew…
That brings us up to today’s feast – wise men, or magi, or astrologers, or kings appear in Jerusalem from “the east” – wherever that may be… They were following a star, but they somehow seem to have lost sight of it. They have but one seemingly innocent question: “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”
Ooops. In the paranoid stew that was Jerusalem at that time, this is an incendiary question.
Herod, King of the Paranoid, gets wind of it and, like any truly insecure despot, he begins to fight. Just imagine if there had been Twitter back then… Herod learns from his minions that Jesus is to be found in Bethlehem. And so, in a touch of irony, it is Herod that puts the wise me back on the right path. Star back in sight off they go to meet Jesus. And this is the epiphany – the manifestation: God in human flesh is revealed.
The wise men, while they’re there, open their treasure chests and give gifts to the baby – gold, frankincense, and myrrh… notoriously inappropriate baby gifts… I tend to assume that the giving of the gifts was the point of the journey – “bearing gifts we traverse afar” as the hymn says… But in Matthew’s actual telling, it is worship that is the first purpose of the wise men. The gifts come almost as an afterthought.
The wise men go home, and the story gets darker. In our calendar the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents has already come and gone, but its proper place in the sequence of things
it has just been triggered. Herod, in paranoid rage and unsure which baby is the infant contender for his crown opts to protect his position by simply having all the little boys in Bethlehem slaughtered.
Mysterious, cold, paranoid, violent… these are the kinds of adjectives that Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus brings to my mind. No cattle lowing… no shepherds proclaiming glory to God… no peace on earth… little if any goodwill toward anyone.
Matthew is so sparse with details that over the centuries we have had to invent them. So first these mysterious visitors acquire a sex – they become wise men; an occupation – they are astrologers or magicians; a number – there are three of them (because there
were 3 gifts); upward social mobility – they are kings; they get names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar; and perhaps most surprising – they acquire race, or least one does – one of them is black.
The story of Amahl and the Night Visitors is, for me, one of the most moving Christmas stories the Bible never told. As the kings, the night visitors of the title, make their way to Bethlehem, they stop at the home of Amahl – a physically disabled child. Amahl lives with his poor, widowed mother (who has no name). They are destitute… hardly able to feed themselves. They are in no position to entertain royalty. And yet it is their home in which Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar take shelter for the night.
Amahl emerges from the imagination of Gian Carlo Menotti. It was a made-for-television opera – back in the day when television had aspirations. And what do you know? When I dismissed Matthew as fodder for a Hallmark Christmas special, I was wrong – Amahl and the Night Visitors was, in fact, the very first Hallmark Christmas Special… way back in 1951. It’s not exactly Matthew. To be honest it’s not Matthew at all. But it is surely inspired by Matthew…
Amahl and the Night Visitors finds Menotti at his most romantic – the score is lush, the music beautiful. But one moment stands out in a particularly poignant way. When the kings have their first moment alone with the mother they ask if she has seen the child they seek (listen here). They describe him: His skin is the color of wheat, the color of dawn, his eyes are mild, and his hands are those of a king, as king he was born… And she answers yes, she has seen this child. It is her own child: Amahl. And then she laments that nobody will bring her child gifts, though he is sick, and poor, and hungry and cold…
I find that out of a made-for-television Hallmark special, a glimpse appears to me of what
Matthew may be telling me in his hard-to-warm-up-to Christmas story.
The kings are looking so hard for the Jesus they expect, that Jesus, in the form of Amahl, stands right in front of them and they cannot see him.
The good news for these mysterious wise travelers from a far is not that their journey was easy or direct, or that they were such gifted detectives – they needed the help of Herod after all. The good news is that they persevered until they saw God in human flesh.
It’s quite fun and heartwarming to locate ourselves in Luke’s Christmas story – we can be shepherds or cattle and sheep. For the lucky few perhaps Joseph or Mary.
Locating ourselves in Matthew’s Christmas story is more heart chilling, but a good exercise, nonetheless. I can find myself among the magi who wander and get so lost that they turn up in Luke… I can find myself among the greedy minions who cling to Herod for power, even when it calls for committing atrocities. And if I’m feeling very brave, I am Herod – who would rather commit unspeakable acts than tolerate Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, God with me.
Luke reminds us of how much we want Jesus in our lives. Matthew reminds us of how
far we will go to keep Jesus out. The revealing, the uncloaking, the epiphany is something we both desperately long for and furiously work to confound.
Herod is brutal and blunt in trying to keep Jesus out of his life. These days I’d like to say we are less brutal and more clever, though with events at our southern border, or in the townships of South Africa, or at any number of places around the globe where refugees are refused care, where strangers are rejected, I’m not sure we’ve come any distance at all from Herod.
Remember, it is in the face of those strangers that we are to meet Jesus, that we are to have our own Epiphany.
The joyful good news, the Gospel, is not that I’m prepared for Jesus in my life or that our world is in such a good place that Jesus will feel like he’s still in heaven.
The good news is that Jesus is revealed in our world just surely as Jesus was revealed to the Magi in the toxic, paranoid world of Herod. Jesus comes because of our need, not because of our desire and not because of our merit. Our world is often dark, unjust, cruel, and wicked… just the sort of world that needs Jesus.
And so, we pray come Lord Jesus, be revealed to us today because our need is as great as ever.
As the brothers of St Benedict’s Priory settle into Volmoed, part of that process is getting used to things. We desire to know Volmoed and its various communities and the Volmoed Community desires to know the Benedictine community in its midst. A little reflection on what monks might bring to Advent and Christmas may help.
Is there any difference in the way monks keep Christmas compared to other Christians? No and yes… No, in that monks are not more devout, or “better” in any way. And yes, in
that monks have the luxury of time for contemplation. While many struggle to find time for worship and prayer, we have it the other way round – we struggle to find time for cooking and laundry in a life filled with prayer and worship.
In the monastic worship tradition, the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings when she learns that she is to bear Christ into the world, is included in our evening worship – the service of Vespers. It is always there. Those familiar with the Anglican tradition of Evening Prayer or Choral Evensong will know that the Magnificat is a fixture there as well – because the Anglican Prayer Book tradition is built on the foundation of Benedictine worship.
Part of the fun of Monastic worship is the way pieces are introduced. We don’t just sing a psalm; it is introduced by an antiphon. In the same way, the Magnificat is introduced by an antiphon. The antiphon both sets up the music and provides some very brief reflection on the text.
In the season of Advent, as we long for the coming of Jesus, Mary’s song is particularly poignant. So over time monks developed seven particularly poignant antiphons for the Magnificat to lead up to Christmas; known as the Great O Antiphons. The larger church still shares these antiphons in the well-known hymn O Come Emanuel (which I see is even translated into Afrikaans). When we encounter these antiphons in hymn form, it is wonderful, but a few things get lost.
First, each of the antiphons gives one name used in Hebrew scripture to point to the
coming of Messiah. The antiphons use the references that the Jews used – Wisdom, Adonai (Lord), Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of all people, Emanuel. This comes through in the hymn, but monks (with apparently a lot of time to contemplate) had set these antiphons in an acrostic puzzle. The first letter of the God-reference in each antiphon, looked at backward, spells (in Latin) Ero Cras (tomorrow I come). This does not survive translation, but knowing it is there at some level adds greater urgency to these antiphons, and to our waiting.
Second, by parceling out these names day by day, we are given time to reflect on the significance of each. Each of these names has profound characteristics of God encoded within. Because these names are archetypes, each person can find multiple meanings and no two people need be the same. Just as God sees each of us as an individual, so each of these antiphons invites us deeper into our own relationship with God. But the monastic tradition that goes with this does not call us into private relationship, but personal relationship within the context of community.
What wisdom might this monastic expression bring to the Volmoed community? Let Advent do its work. As those faithful Jews waited and longed for the coming of Messiah, of Emanuel, so we wait and long for the coming of Jesus, God with us. What names do we give to this Jesus? What are we waiting for? And keep in mind that the God we want may differ from the God who comes to dwell with us. Blessings for Advent from the brothers at St Benedict’s Priory at Volmoed