Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: December 26, 2011

The Week after Christmas

One thing that really irks me about holidays is the way our culture marks them. We have an obsessive run-up and then they seem to disappear almost before they’re over. When I was working at churches in Los Angeles, I always noticed how the music stations would play Christmas music beginning around Halloween and then, as I was driving home from the Christmas Day service (at about noon), poof! Christmas would be declared over and they would start singing about New Year’s.

In our prevailing culture, the phrase “Christmas Season” usually describes the period between Black Friday morning and Christmas Day at noon. The church’s liturgical calendar, though, has a different way of understanding the time between late November and early January. The four weeks leading up to Christmas are called “Advent”, a time of hopeful, watchful preparation for the birth of Jesus. The Christmas season properly lasts from December 25 through January 5—otherwise known as the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. On January 6 we celebrate the Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus’s glory to the three magi. Taken together, the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany trimester gives us a time not only to prepare for the holiday but also time to enjoy it.

Once at a church meeting, a colleague of mine proposed that we establish a “rapid response” team so that our parish could quickly enlist in the service of whatever hot issue seemed important that day. Another colleague countered that what we really needed was a “pause and reflect” team instead. The suggestion was not well-received.

Somehow, perversely, we have turned Advent from a time of watchful waiting into a time of anxious preparation. And then we’ve taken the holiday we’re waiting and preparing for and cut it short before it even begins. In so doing, our culture has given us a perfect epitome of how it fretfully does things. Rather than bask in the beauty and wonder of Christmas for a full twelve days, we’re off to the next thing (New Year’s Eve, the parades and bowl games, resolutions) without ever pausing to take in what it is we’re experiencing in the first place.

Christmas is not really Jesus’s birthday. Nobody knows the date of his actual birth. It is something much bigger: an observance of his birth as a celebration of the wonder of the incarnation, Christianity’s proclamation and belief that God has come into human flesh and experience. The incarnation is a big idea, and it has gigantic consequences. It means that our life and experience matter because God participates in them. It means that the God we pray to is a God who knows what it is to be us. It means that every human person is precious because each one bears, uniquely, the human face of God.

One of the things I tried to do this Advent was actually to experience Advent, to listen to what its readings said about being in exile, (lost, alienated) and then to hear the slow dawning of the promise that some One was on the way to be with us in a new and hopeful way. One of the things I’m going to try to do this Christmas is actually to experience Christmas—not for a few hours on December 24 and 25, but all the way up to and including the Epiphany on January 6. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” says John’s Gospel, “full of grace and truth”. That’s a big, empowering, liberating fact to try to take in. I can only attempt to get it by making the space and time for it, giving myself over to it, and attending to what I hear and see and feel as I do so.

Now that the holiday frenzy is over, the time to pause and reflect has come. Take advantage of these twelve days to reflect on what Christmas can mean in your life and world. God has come into and blessed our experience. Who we are and what we do has meaning and purpose. The Word has become flesh and now lives among and within us. Merry Christmas, indeed!

Gary Hall

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Homily: December 24, 2011 [Christmas Eve]

December has been a busy time for us, so Kathy and I have not had a chance to see the new Muppet movie yet. But one night last week a cable channel showed the 1984 classic, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and we decided that we’d watch that to prepare ourselves for the newest film. It you remember The Muppets Take Manhattan you’ll recall that it ends with Kermit marrying Miss Piggy in a festive church wedding service. As the camera panned around at all the guest Muppets filling the church, you couldn’t help noticing the big gathering of Sesame Street characters at the back of the room. Suddenly, surprising even myself, I cried out to Kathy, “Look! Everybody’s there! Even Ernie and Bert!”
Kathy took my hand. “It’s only a movie, dear,” she said. I tell this story as an example of what this season does to people, even to bookish clerics like me. I am of course too old to have grown up with Sesame Street; Howdy Doody, Kookla Fran and Ollie, and Miss Frances were more my early childhood style. But Ernie, Bert, the Count, Oscar, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird were prominent in our house when our son was little, and seeing them again made me feel as if I was in the presence of old, loved friends. I might not have cried out in joy had this been the Fourth of July. But because I saw it in the days preceding Christmas, some childlike part of me felt free to express itself.
So Christmas brings out our childlike qualities. It shows what a real intellectual I am that, whenever I think of Christmas, the first image that comes to mind is Snoopy’s doghouse. If you remember another great cinematic classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ll recall that in that story Snoopy wins the neighborhood lights and display competition by decorating his doghouse with flashing lights, colorful ornaments, and a big red star. To Charlie Brown, Snoopy’s doghouse seems like a garish sell-out of the holiday. To me, that decorated doghouse has always served as a vibrant image of home—especially when Snoopy and Woodstock are asleep on the roof.
Home, in a sense, is what Christmas is really about. In Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, our scripture readings have been not about home but about its opposite. They’ve been about the absence of home, also known as exile. For the past few weeks in church we’ve heard stories of ancient Jews and early Christians expelled and adrift from all they love and hold sacred. Now tonight in the Gospel reading from Luke, Christmas arrives with the timeless, familiar story of Mary and Joseph, going themselves in a kind of exile from their home village of Nazareth in the north to their ancestral town of Bethlehem in the south to be enrolled in the Roman census. As Luke’s Gospel puts it,

All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. [Luke 2.3-7]

There are many reasons this story always speaks so directly to us, but chief among them, I believe, is the way it plays on our notions of home. Mary and Joseph are on the road. When the time comes for Mary to give birth, she and Joseph go first to an inn and then to the inn’s outbuildings where she gives birth and lays the child Jesus in a manger. The beauty of the scene, of course, comes from the way Mary and Joseph manage to make a home in the barn with the new baby and the attending shepherds. We respond year after year to this story because it figures for us the picture of what we all really long for: we all long for home, for the security of the mother, the father, the infant together under one (even if modest) roof. The manger scene figures for us the perfect picture of human security. It is our shared ideal image of what it means to belong. It is our epitome of home.
If Christmas is about anything, it is about home. And by “home” I mean neither our houses nor our nuclear families—though they too can give us authentic intimations of home. Instead, by “home” I mean where we all deeply, finally belong. And if there are any people who need a home, it is those of us who live in the consumerist, materialist, individualistic world of the 21st century. The values that drive this world are not the values of the manger scene. So to the extent we respond to the values of the stable in Bethlehem, we are aliens in our own world. We are all in exile, whether we admit it or not. Exile is a biblical metaphor that speaks to people of faith in every moment. We, like the ancient Israelites and early Christians, live in rocky, uncertain, hard-hearted times. We, like the ancient Israelites and early Christians, respond to and long for God’s values of peace and justice and humility and compassion—values that are honored in public discourse but seem to be missing from our actual experience of life.
But if the image of exile speaks to us, so do God’s promises of restoration and renewal. As did the ancient Israelites and early Christians, so have we also felt the touch of the miraculous vision of life’s possibilities that God offers us in the Christmas story. To be a person of faith or a seeker is, in the 21st century, to be an exile in one’s own native territory. But it’s also to claim the hope for dimensions and possibilities to our life more joyous and hopeful than anything our culture has to offer. To come to church on Christmas Eve is to declare that each of us here deeply longs to connect with the source of our being, to return home. To come to church tonight is also to proclaim that we see something in the manger scene which tells us that life can give us more than the “wearisome possibilities” [Walter Brueggemann’s phrase in Cadences of Home] the world usually has to offer.
Christmas is about home, and it’s about the new possibilities for living that God tonight holds out to us. Frederick Buechner says, “We carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us. “[Fredrick Buechner, The Longing for Home, p. 110] That wholeness is most perfectly shown in the life and ministry of Jesus. The child whose birth we celebrate tonight will become the man, Jesus of Nazareth, a healer, preacher, and teacher whose life will be dedicated to proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He makes that proclamation to his fellow exiles: to the poor, the sick, the lonely, the mourners, the oppressed, the outcast. Jesus heals people. He gathers them around his table. He opposes the killing structures of his day by saying that everybody, regardless of social distinction, has a place in his community. Jesus builds around him a disparate group of people who, together, can be at home with each other in the new world of possibility that Jesus’s presence creates. The things that Jesus does look to the world outside his presence like impossibilities, and so they are called miracles: healing the sick, feeding the 5,000, raising Lazarus from the dead, casting out demons, restoring the sight of a man born blind. To those inside this new home of his presence, what Jesus does is make God’s “impossibilities” for life, joy, and wholeness possible and available. When you step into the Kingdom of God, you step into a new world of hope and freedom and joy, and you step out of dependence on the bad ideas or false allegiances our culture usually wraps in tinsel expecting our grateful thanks.
I believe that all of us here tonight have come because this picture of a woman, a child, a man gathered around a manger says something true to our shared deep, exilic longing for home. At bottom, each of us knows that what we want for Christmas is not yet another thing. At bottom, each of us knows that what we really want for Christmas is a sense of being at home, a sense that we are living life in alignment with that “vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us”. The home we see realized in the Bethlehem stable is the true home that will abide.
Time passes: not even Kermit’s and Miss Piggy’s marriage could last. We are all mortal and fragile, so even Snoopy’s doghouse will finally fall silent and Woodstock will fly away. For Christians home is never, finally, about preserving an ideal moment or recovering the past. Our true home lies not behind but ahead of us. Our true home is the place we are going with God, each other and Jesus, and we experience our true home now whenever we refuse the “wearisome possibilities” on offer around us and say yes to the life-changing blessings made real in the ministry and resurrection of Jesus then and now in the community that gathers in his name.
Whoever you are, wherever you are in your life and faith; whatever losses you have experienced; whatever longings you feel: tonight, in this place, you and I are here, together, home. What makes this our home is not that it's an institutional church or a beautiful building. What makes this our home is the story of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus gathered together, brought out of exile and into the warmth of a sheltering stable. We, with them, are open and alive to the miraculous possibilities for love and blessing and life and hope that God offers us always, and especially tonight. This Eucharistic meal we share together is the sign that what we long for is within our reach, that we can experience it as we gather around this table in God’s loving embrace and are fed with the bread and wine of thanksgiving and hope. Exile is over. You really can come home. In fact, you’re already here. Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: December 19, 2011

Mary: Exemplary Christian

One of the pleasures of the Advent season is its use of the Fourth Sunday of Advent to turn our shared attention to the Virgin Mary. When the season began in late November, it emphasized the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. For the intervening two Sundays we heard the proclamations of John the Baptist. Now, in this fourth week before Christmas, we have moved closer to the moment of Jesus’s actual, historical birth. The person at the center of the action is his mother, Mary.

Those churchgoers who grew up in a Catholic form of Christianity—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglo-Catholic—are quite familiar with Mary, usually referred to in those traditions as the “Blessed Virgin” Mary. For several centuries, Catholic expressions of Christianity have venerated Mary both in her role as Jesus’s mother and as a feminine aspect of the divine. Those who grew up in a more Protestant form of Christianity—Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, low church Episcopalian—have not had much opportunity to consider Mary on her own terms. Because most Protestants have been skeptical of what theologians call “Maryolatry”, they have tended not to think about her very much at all.

One of the great achievements of the 20th century ecumenical and liturgical movements has been the opportunity for every sort of Christian—Catholic and Protestant—to reevaluate their understanding of Mary and the meaning of her life and witness. For Catholics, this has meant looking at her in more historically human terms. For Protestants it has occasioned serious, sustained reflection about Mary as an exemplary follower of Jesus.

Two excerpts from yesterday’s readings help us see and hear Mary as a Christian witness and prophet. In the Gospel (Luke 1.26-38) the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus. This is a startling announcement: Mary is not married, and bearing a son who will reclaim the throne of David is a daunting task. Mary is being asked to bear two burdens—social opprobrium as a single mother (see Matthew’s version of the story [Matthew 1.18-25] where Joseph has to be convinced that his betrothed’s pregnancy is of divine origin) and the added weight of raising a child possessed of an immense public and religious destiny. Many would shrink from this task, unwilling to bear these burdens. Mary does not. She faces directly and faithfully into them. “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’" [Luke 1.38a]

So Mary shows herself to be a willing, faithful servant of God and God’s purposes, however strange or frightening that service might appear. But when she has some time to settle into the consequences of carrying out this role as Jesus’s mother, she discovers her own special vocation as one who proclaims God’s purposes—that is, as a prophet. On her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist, Mary proclaims the prophetic canticle we call “The Song of Mary” (in Latin, Magnificat) (Luke 1.46-55), familiar to many from the service for Evening Prayer. Mary says,

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.From this day all generations will call me blessed: *the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.He has mercy on those who fear him *in every generation.He has shown the strength of his arm, *he has scattered the proud in their conceit.He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *and has lifted up the lowly.He has filled the hungry with good things, *and the rich he has sent away empty.He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *for he has remembered his promise of mercy,The promise he made to our fathers, *to Abraham and his children for ever.

In this stirring and powerful song, Mary aligns herself with the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others who proclaimed God’s vision for peace and justice among human beings. She announces that what God is doing through her is consistent with what God was doing in the Old Testament—casting down the mighty, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, calling into question the self-satisfaction of those who have perhaps too much. The coming Messiah to whom she will give birth will be God’s agent of this prophetic challenge and blessing. As the prophet who announces Jesus’s mission, Mary claims her role as Jesus’s first and most consistently faithful disciple. And she will live out this vocation all the way to the cross, the empty tomb, and the birth of the Christian movement.

As we move toward Christmas this week, let’s give thanks for Mary and the way she points us toward what Jesus’s birth really signifies. God is doing a new thing that will bring about health and wholeness, peace and justice, for the whole human community. God calls us into that wonderful noble effort as colleagues and companions with both Mary and Jesus. May we have grace to say “Yes”, as Mary did. And may we have vision to see with her and Jesus the world God is asking that we help create.

Gary Hall

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: December 12, 2011

Looking and Living in Hope

Advent—the four weeks before Christmas--is a time of expectation. But it is not a time of just any kind of expectation. It is a time of hopeful expectation. As the season draws on toward Christmas, that hope gets its primary focus in the expectation of the birth of the child Jesus in Bethlehem. But the season is also more broadly focused on what God will do beyond Christmas, especially now and in the future. Our waiting for Christmas is a paradigm of our waiting for God to act on the near- and long-term desires we have for redemption, reconciliation, and new life.

The best biblical text I know about hope appeared in our Sunday lectionary yesterday. It is Psalm 126, a text that comes from the period of the Exile, the fifty years when Israel’s leadership was led in captivity to Babylon from about 587 B.C.E. to 537 B.C.E. The Babylonian Captivity lasted two generations, and it destroyed Israel as a political and a religious community. Those who were led into exile tried to maintain their religious and cultural identity in Babylon, but lacking both a Temple and a political community they found it difficult to do so. As another psalm, Psalm 137, says,

1 By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.

4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song *
upon an alien soil?

The Psalm we read on Advent 3 comes from that exilic moment of loss and alienation. And yet it does not despair. It is, instead, wildly, extravagantly hopeful.

Psalm 126 In convertendo

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”

4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Think, as you read it, about the time line projected by this psalm. The singers of it are speaking in the present moment of Babylonian captivity. And they sing exuberantly about God’s liberation. Yet they talk about it not in the future tense (as a wished event) but in the past tense (as a completed event). “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, “they announce, “then were we like those who dream.” They go on to describe mouths filled with laughter and tongues with shouts of joy. The hoped-for fulfillment has been proclaimed as an achieved fact. The exiled Israelites will dare to live as if their liberation has already happened. Even though they are imprisoned now, they will choose to live in that captivity as free people. And living as free people will help bring about their ultimate liberation.

Whenever we say this psalm in our liturgy I find my heart and imagination stirred. What would it mean for me, for you, for all of us to live as if what we most deeply long for were already a reality? Think of all the forces of life that oppress us—from political and social forces beyond our control to our own bad habits to the physical illnesses and inevitable losses we suffer and grieve. What would it mean for our lives if we were to choose to act as if God’s promises had already been fulfilled? I don’t mean that in some fairy tale way—I mean it in the way the early Christians meant it when they chose to live not in the oppressive control of Rome but in the freeing light of the resurrection. Caesar was not their king; Jesus was. They lived as citizens of his reign and enacted God’s abundant blessing even in times of privation. They were free even in captivity.

The Advent season is our opportunity to reclaim and orient our lives around the promises at the center of the Gospel. Our hope is one proclaimed in the midst of pain as the place where God’s promises become real. All religions face the danger, in Walter Brueggemann’s words, of moving “upstairs away from the realities of life.” [Israel’s Praise, p. 132] As he says, “It is the reality of concrete pain known in the specificity of a person or a community which is the locus of serious faith.” Christmas is not a nostalgic celebration of bygone happiness. It is the coming of God into the realities of life, the concrete pains and longings that mark each one of us as people living in the real world. Like the exiled Israelites and the early Christians, you and I can choose to be free even as we are captive to the pains and losses and limitations of life. Living that way is where serious faith begins.

“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy”, said the singers of Psalm 126. They knew that because they hoped it. And because they hoped it, they could live it. May this Advent season give you the grace to trust what you expect, to live what you hope for.

Gary Hall

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: December 5, 2011

Language and Worship

On the First Sunday in Advent this year, November 27, many Roman Catholics experienced the new English language version of their liturgy. There was a lot of press coverage about this change, so briefly: under the leadership of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church has worked to revise the English language service that emerged after Vatican II in the 1960s. That earlier English service, like our own Rite II in the Book of Common Prayer, was based on a return to early church liturgical texts. It was not a revision of the Latin Mass in use at the time. It was a new version of something old.

The current Roman Catholic hierarchy has been quite public in its desire to roll back some of the changes (we would call them reforms) ushered in by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI in the 1960s and 1970s. The “new” version of the English Mass unveiled last week is actually a translation of the Counter Reformation Latin Mass used before Vatican II, and as such it’s an attempt to restore the theology of that era. An analogue for Episcopalians would be to imagine a new English language liturgy that would be a mere modernization of the 1928 Prayer Book’s language—the “thees” and “thous” would be changed to “yous”, but the underlying theology would be the same. The churches revised their liturgies in the 1960s and 70s as a way of giving expression to an experience of church very different from the one that preceded it. The “new” English Mass for the Roman Catholic Church thus represents a return, however subtle, to a pre-Vatican II way of thinking. It may sound more stately than its predecessor did , but it also tends to validate an antiquated and hierarchical vision of the church and world.

Surprise at changes to liturgical language on Advent 1 was not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Some Christ Church Cranbrook parishioners seemed caught off guard by the revised version of the Nicene Creed we began using at the 10:00 a.m. service that day. This text, approved by the General Convention in 1994 and widely in use throughout the Episcopal Church since then, makes three changes to the Creed’s language. It refers to God becoming “truly human” (not “man”) in Jesus. It refers to the Holy Spirit in more neutral (“who” instead of “he”) language, and it omits the phrase “and the Son” when it talks about the procession of the Spirit from the Father.

The two changes to gender language are an attempt to translate the Creed in a more expansive manner, consonant with the inclusive language used in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Many Greek, Hebrew, and Latin words that are inclusive in the original have been rendered in English in male language (e.g. “humanity” becomes “mankind”). These new translations attempt to render the Latin text o the Nicene Creed in a more accessible way that is also faithful to the original.

The third change—the removal of the clause “and the Son” (in Latin, filioque) is actually a theologically important attempt to right an old wrong. The original text of the Nicene Creed (dating from the fourth century Council of Ephesus) read, simply “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” The original text, adopted by the whole church, did not have the word filioque (“and the Son”). It was added by the Western Church two hundred years later in an attempt to respond to local heresies. The Eastern (now Orthodox) Church never agreed to add the phrase, and the Anglican reformers of the 16th century mistakenly thought that filioque had been there from the beginning and edited out by the Orthodox later on. One longstanding principle of Anglican theology is that only scripture and the teachings of the undivided (East and West) church can be truly normative. In restoring the original text to the Nicene Creed, the Episcopal Church is attempting to be faithful to the spirit of its origins.

All of us who go to church regularly become habituated to familiar ways of speaking in worship. Language is important, and our task as Christians is always to balance what we mean with the comfortable (or disquieting) associations of how we say it. I am skeptical of the “new” English Roman Catholic Mass. I believe that the new translation of the Nicene Creed in our church will be a great aid to each of us seeking to understand not only who God is but how God acts in the world. As we settle into it this Advent and beyond, my hope is that this language will open up the Creed, and the liturgy itself, as windows into the mysteries we investigate as we gather together around God’s table.

Gary Hall