Being God’s People (Year C, Proper 11)

“The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,”
says the Lord GOD.
Amos the Prophet, an engraving by Gustave Doré
Amos the Prophet, an engraving by Gustave Doré

This Sunday’s readings are tough ones.  We begin with God’s anger with Israel, as related by the prophet Amos, and we end with the oft-frustrating gospel story of Mary and MarthaAmos didn’t have an easy job: during the most prosperous times that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had seen since the golden days of David and Solomon, God calls Amos out of the southern kingdom of Judah to preach God’s word in Bethel… and God’s word?  Not a happy one for the Chosen People.

When a nation prospers, the gap between its poorest citizens and its richest citizens tends to spread out.  You’ve probably heard this said about our own economy in the US: The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.  These words are often spoken with a shrug, with empty palms outstretched, as if to say What’r’ya gonna do about it?
In Judah and Israel, God certainly expected God’s people to do something about it.  After all, there are laws and commandments that address this very thing: in God’s Kingdom, those who are rich are full of generosity and loving-kindness, so that they share their wealth with those who are poor.  Because in God’s Kingdom, all people recognize that wealth is a temporary thing arising from the gifts God has given them; in joyful gratitude, these gifts from God are shared, so that nobody has to live in need.  In Israel and Judah of the eighth century BCE, though, this isn’t happening.  The kingdoms of God’s Chosen People do not resemble the Kingdom of God, and God is not happy about it.

So what does God do?  God hires a lawyer: Amos.  In recent scholarship, the concept has developed of a genre of biblical literature called the prophetic lawsuit.  This is a lawsuit between God and God’s people, where God sues the people for breach of contract, or, in biblical terms, Covenant.  God has a pretty good case, too.  In earlier portions of Amos, which are not part of our lectionary, God lays out the crimes and offenses of God’s people:
  • They have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes.
  • They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.
  • They trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.
  • They push the afflicted out of the way.
  • They lay themselves down beside every altar.
  • In the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.
  • They store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.
  • They oppress the poor, and they crush the needy.
  • They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
  • They trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.
  • They afflict the righteous, take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
  • They have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.
  • They trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.
Amos 8:9, by Brian Dunnette
Amos 8:9, by Brian Dunnette

Things don’t look so good for the people of God, do they?  How do you defend yourself against these accusations?  The truth of the matter is, these were Good People, just like we think of ourselves.  They worked at their jobs, and they tended to their homes, and they went to the Temple and the synagogue like they’re supposed to.  Just like us, right?  Good Christian People.  In a prosperous and wealthy kingdom, these folks thought, Hey, I’ve been working hard.  I earned this money, right?  So I can use it for a little bit of luxury for my family. or maybe, I’ve been saving up my wages; now we can take that trip to Jerusalem and do some sight-seeing.  How about, Oh, I wish someone would clean up all these beggars from the marketplace.  It’s getting so that there’s nowhere safe to go shopping with my kids around here! That’s just normal, isn’t it?

Well, God says it’s not.  God says that my luxury at the expense of your poverty is a sin, a breach of the Covenant.  God says that turning a blind eye to the sick, the needy, the afflicted is wrong.  God says that not one of us has greater worth than another.  If I were truly attending to God, I would know this.

It isn’t very comfortable to see ourselves in this light, is it?  God’s accusations against Judah and Israel may as well be aimed right at us.  And the punishments God promises to levy, well they’re pretty scary, too!  God threatens earthquake, flood, eclipse.  God promises that our joy will turn to sorrow, and our celebrations will turn to grief.  And worst of all, God proclaims that God will remove Godself from our presence:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it.
That doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it?  To put it frankly, it sucks.
Thankfully, each one of the prophetic lawsuits in scripture has a happy ending.  In each lawsuit, God promises to renew the Covenant, to rebuild the nation of God’s people, to bring about a time of joy and peace.  We won’t get to hear the happy ending from Amos next Sunday, and there’s a reason for this, and its name is Jesus.  The history of God’s people, as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, is a continuing cycle of establishing a Covenant relationship, enjoying a time of God’s favor, taking God’s favor for granted, ignoring Covenant responsibilities, being warned by the prophets, having God’s favor and protection withdrawn, and re-establishing the Covenant to begin the cycle anew.
But between the eighth century BCE and today, something different happened.  Something broke through, giving us a different sort of Covenant, a different sort of relationship with God.  This something different is the Incarnation, God taking on a human body and living here in our world with us.  In the person of Jesus, God actually lived and experienced both sides of the Covenant between Israel and God.  Through his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus set us free from the punishments revealed by Amos and the other prophets.  And through the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost, God promises to be with us always, never to subject us to a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.  Isn’t that good news?  I think it’s pretty freakin’ awesome!
When God is always with us, we are reminded of our responsibilities to all of God’s people.  We know that we have a duty to the widows and orphans, to the afflicted and the needy, to the poor and the hungry, to the thirsty and the homeless, to those in prisons or sickbeds.  Jesus reminds us of these responsibilities a number of times, telling us to be guided by the two greatest commandments: love God with everything you have; love all persons every bit as much.  Through this loving relationship between us, God, and all of God’s people, a life of loving-kindness and generosity is natural.  We need not fear scarcity, not when Jesus has come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.  Our very identity as people of God leads us to give generously, to share the gifts God has given us, in joyful gratitude.  This is as natural to us as breathing.
Christ in Bethany (Pugin), by Br. Lawrence Lew, OP
Christ in Bethany (Pugin), by Br. Lawrence Lew, OP

In the encounter between Jesus and the sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus makes this clear.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing”: living in relationship with God and with God’s people.  From that loving relationship, all else flows.  This gospel is not simply about be-ing vs. do-ing, about whether contemplation may be preferable to action.  Rather, Jesus reminds Mary that when her relationship with God comes first, a life of generosity and loving-kindness becomes a state of being.  The do-ing becomes be-ing, because Who We Are is a people of Christ, a joyfully grateful people, a people who live with and uphold the poor, rather than trampling them, a people who keep God’s Law as naturally as we breathe or eat or sleep, a people who know that all of Christ’s brothers and sisters hold the same worth.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.  God’s Kingdom is any place where we fully live into our relationship with God, so that our be-ing and do-ing cannot be distinguished, so that truly, we will be known as the friends of Jesus by our love.

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joyful mystery #5: finding jesus in the temple

The final Joyful Mystery is the finding of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.  I’ve written about this story pretty recently, for St. Joseph‘s Feast Day, and it’s one of my favorite stories to think about and play with.  The NRSV story is below, and you can find other English translations here.

 

The Finding of Jesus at the Temple (Rosary altars), by indy catholic
The Finding of Jesus at the Temple (Rosary altars), by indy catholic

And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.

When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.

Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.

Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

Richard King's Seven Rejoices of Mary 5 THE FINDING IN THE TEMPLE, by Fergal OP
Richard King's Seven Rejoices of Mary 5 THE FINDING IN THE TEMPLE, by Fergal OP

What is shining out for me in this morning’s reading of the story, is Mary’s rebuke of Jesus: Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. Can you imagine being in Jesus’ shoes?  Most of probably were, at one point or another in our childhood or youth, whether it was intentional or not.  If you’re a parent, I’m sure you can understand how Mary and Joseph must have been feeling — that terrible, awful feeling that the very worst has happened to your precious child.  If you’re imagining that feeling, now add to it the extra piece: you haven’t just lost your own child; this is God’s son who is missing!

The NRSV (among others) uses anxious to describe how Mary and Joseph feel.  The Message has Mary say that they’ve been half out of our minds looking for you.  The word that sang for me, though, I spotted in Young’s Literal Translation and in the KJV.  In the YLT, Mary says, Child, why didst thou thus to us? lo, thy father and I, sorrowing, were seeking thee.  Fear and anxiety are one thing, but after three days, Mary has moved to sorrow.  Is she now expecting to find only an empty body now?  What must her prayers sound like after three days, pleading, begging, frantic?

Matthew Henry’s commentary on this verse makes some interesting points about Mary’s sorrow.

His mother told him how ill they took it: Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Why didst thou put us into such a fright?’’

They were ready to say, as Jacob of Joseph, A wild beast has devoured him; or, He is fallen into the hands of some more cruel enemy, who has at length found out that he was the young child whose life Herod had sought some years ago.’’

A thousand imaginations, we may suppose, they had concerning him, each more frightful than another.

“Now, why hast thou given us occasion for these fears? Thy father and I have sought thee, sorrowing; not only troubled that we lost thee, but vexed at ourselves that we did not take more care of thee, to bring thee along with us.’’

Note, Those may have leave to complain of their losses that think they have lost Christ. But their weeping did not hinder sowing; they did not sorrow and sit down in despair, but sorrowed and sought.

Note, If we would find Christ, we must seek him sorrowing, sorrowing that we have lost him, that we have provoked him to withdraw, and that we have sought him no sooner.

They that thus seek him in sorrow shall find him, at length, with so much the greater joy.

Sorrow, by just.Luc
Sorrow, by just.Luc

I’m not sure whether we must be sorrowing to seek out Jesus, but it sure does seem like that’s our nature.  When we’re cruising through life, and everything is going well, we tend not to pay much attention to our need for God; in fact, we’re likely to credit ourselves with our successes and abundance, rather than giving thanks to God for the gifts that enable us to achieve these things.  It’s when the days become dark, when life is frustrating, when we are in trouble or anxiety or sorrow that we’re much more likely to reach out for Jesus.

I did notice, in this commentary as in others, that part of the anxiety and sorrow and half-out-of-our-mind-ness Mary is expressing is a confession of her own fault.  I should have paid closer attention; I should have noticed; I should have found you right away.  If we are honest with ourselves, then after we’ve spent a day (a month, a year, a decade) walking away from Jesus, we have to admit that we did this; this was a choice I made, to deliberately walk away from Jesus without checking to make sure I was heading in the right direction.  Part of the anxiety and sorrow is my distress at my own poor choice.

It strikes me as too bad that this is 12-year-old Jesus, rather than 31-year-old Jesus.  His response to Mary and Joseph feels less than gracious, less than generous.  This doesn’t sound like the Jesus who tells us that all things will be forgiven us.  It sounds more like a mouthy teenager: What’s your problem, Mom?  Didn’t you know where I’d be?  How clueless can you be? Of course, somehow, it’s always easier for us to forgive a complete stranger than it is to forgive someone we live or work closely with.

Hug it out... Jesus, by mollypop
Hug it out... Jesus, by mollypop

As I reflect on this story, here during Holy Week, I think about the sorrow Jesus undergoes.  Tonight, we will honor the Last Supper, where Jesus is surrounded by his closest friends; a few hours after that, Jesus will be arrested, and all of those friends will scatter.  He will face his fate alone, in sorrow for the entire world.

I invite you to spend a little time with Jesus today and tomorrow morning.  Things may be going well in your life (or they may not!), but now the human Jesus is the one in anxiety, the one sorrowing.  Perhaps now is the time when Jesus needs us.

joyful mystery #4: presentation in the temple

By law and by tradition, forty days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the Temple.  This was when Mary would be ritually purified from the blood and uncleanness of childbirth, so that she could take her place in the world again.  The fourth Joyful Mystery honors this event.  The story from the NRSV is below, and some other English translations can be found here.

 

The Presentation in the Temple, by Lawrence OP
The Presentation in the Temple, by Lawrence OP

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 

Simeon & Anna, by Martin LaBar
Simeon & Anna, by Martin LaBar

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

This must have been puzzling to Mary and Joseph.  They’ve made the four-day trek to Jerusalem to fulfill their spiritual obligations for their baby.  They know that he’s a special child, but probably don’t understand what this is going to mean for them quite yet.  So they get to the Temple, in this big city so far from home, and right off the bat, this old guy comes up and takes the infant Jesus right out of Mary’s arms!  After he finishes his little speech, another person comes up to them and begins her own preaching about their baby.  I have to wonder, were these the only two?  On hearing Simeon and Anna, did the other people around the Temple come up to listen, to touch this tiny infant?  Were Mary and Joseph crowded in?  And what was their conversation on the way back home like?  Four days’ walking leaves plenty of time to try to puzzle some of this out!

The last line of this story is an interesting one:

The child grew and become strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.

In the four canonical gospels, this is the most we know about Jesus between his presentation as an infant and his trip to the Temple in Jerusalem at age 12.  There are apocryphal gospels that tell more stories about the childhood of Jesus, but these were not chosen to become part of the biblical canon.  One could spend years studying why one book is in the canon of scripture and another is not.  What I can say is this: Episcopalians are taught that the canonical bible holds all things necessary for salvation.  This does not mean that all things in the bible are necessary for salvation, nor does it mean that some of those things necessary for salvation are found only and exclusively in the bible.  But everything we need is in the bible somewhere; the problem is, none of us knows what things in the bible might not be necessary for salvation, so we have to carefully read and inwardly digest scripture.  What this tells me is, the canonical gospels hold enough stories and words of Jesus for our salvation, without needing to know about his childhood up to age 12.  Those apocryphal gospels are certainly interesting and fun to read, but we don’t need them.

The Virgin Mary's emblem, by Lawrence OP
The Virgin Mary's emblem, by Lawrence OP

The other part that sings out to me in this story, especially during this Holy Week, is what Simeon says to Mary after he blesses Jesus:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be opposed
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—
and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life — we know that in the light of Jesus, Truth is revealed.  This truth encompasses both hard things (the last will be first, the rich need to squeeze through the eye of a needle, all the workers in the vineyard get the same wage) and very, very good news (all the workers in the vineyard get the same wage, the last will be first, and absolutely everybody is welcome in God’s kingdom).  Unfortunately, one of the truths that Simeon delivers to Mary is a hard one: a sword will pierce your own soul too.  Just as those who are opposed to Jesus and the kingdom that he preaches will find their souls pierced, so will Mary.

On this day in Jerusalem, when her son Jesus is only 40 days old, how can Mary know what this means?  She’s probably already figured out that every mother feels like her soul has been pierced by the awesome responsibility of having God entrust her with an infant.  The world that once seemed so wonderful now feels full of threats and dangers to her precious and helpless child, and each time he comes near them, a mother winces as her soul is pierced anew.

12253 - Vatican - The Sermon on the Mount by Rosselli, by xiquinhosilva
12253 - Vatican - The Sermon on the Mount by Rosselli, by xiquinhosilva

But we know what this means, don’t we?  We know that Mary’s soul will be pierced with the worst sword any parent can have to hear.  Her son will be taken from her, taken from safety in the garden, taken from her protection and that of his father her God.  He will be taken and beaten and killed, because of his talking.  That’s right, Jesus gets executed because of his talking.  He kept saying dangerous things, Truth that threatened the power and authority of the spiritual leaders.  So they arrest him to shut him up.

Truth doesn’t do very well when it’s shut up, though, does it?  Truth will always find its way free.  Truth will always pierce souls, will always show souls the way to God.

I am the Light of the World, by andreasfeusi.ch
I am the Light of the World, by andreasfeusi.ch

Today, I pray for blessings on you, just as Simeon prayed for blessings upon Jesus.

May you be a light for revelation to all peoples,
in this world that needs your light.
May you bring glory to your brothers and sisters, the people of God.
And may the sword of Truth pierce your own soul,
that God’s light may shine even more brightly through it,
filling you with all hope, all faith, all love.

Amen.

joyful mystery #3: the nativity

The third of the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary is the Nativity, the birth of Jesus, which the Church celebrates each year as Christmas.  The story is familiar to us, though only two of the four canonical gospels actually tell the story, and we piece together images and assumptions from both as well as from other traditional stories.  Since we’ve just had two stories from Luke, I chose the nativity story from Matthew’s gospel.  The New Revised Standard Version is below, and four other English versions are available here.

 

Gabriel, by Niall McAuley
Gabriel, by Niall McAuley

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Betrothment of Mary to Joseph XCIIIIv, from the Nuremburg Chronicle
Betrothment of Mary to Joseph XCIIIIv, from the Nuremburg Chronicle

It isn’t quite the nativity story we’re used to, is it?  We don’t see much of pregnant Mary, no trip to Bethlehem, no stable or cave or manger, no shepherds or angels.  There are magi, in the next chapter, but none of the wonderful mother-and-child stuff we get in Luke’s account.  Really, this is a pretty manly story, isn’t it?  It’s about Joseph, son of David, and the yet-to-be-born boy Jesus.  And this angel isn’t nice and sweet — Joseph isn’t heaped with blessings, but is given some straightforward instructions: (1) Quit your whining.  (2) Marry the girl.  (3) Name the boy Jesus.  Straightforward.  Direct.  Masculine.  One, two, three.

But there is a tantalizing little bit in there that isn’t quite so masculine, though it is disguised.  It is the angel’s address: Joseph, son of David.  Just that.  See, the name David means “the beloved” or “the friend.”  So Joseph is addressed as son of the beloved.

Let that roll around in your mind and heart for a moment.  Imagine yourself in Joseph’s place.  You are tossing and turning at night, troubled by what you feel you have to do about your bride-to-be, and a messenger from God comes to you.  You’re startled (to say the least), but then the angel addresses you by name, adding son of the beloved, or maybe daughter of the beloved.  That feels awfully nice, doesn’t it?

Sprung from Jesse, by Lawrence OP
Sprung from Jesse, by Lawrence OP

Jesus is addressed a number of times in the gospels as son of David.  Just as Joseph is a descendant of King David, so is Jesus.  So right smack in the middle of this oh-so-masculine little story, we have this beautiful love note from God.  And in that love note, we can see the infant Jesus nestled in the arms of his loving mother.  We can hear the singing angels, see the gathering shepherds, feel the scratchy straw and smell the animals and touch the softness of the baby’s cheek.

Leaf from an Ivory Diptych with the Crucifixion and Nativity, by peterjr1961
Leaf from an Ivory Diptych with the Crucifixion and Nativity, by peterjr1961

It feels strange to reflect on these Joyful Mysteries as I prepare for Holy Week and the walk to Calvary with Jesus.  It is hard to hold the image of Jesus being flogged and crucified in my mind, at the same time I see Jesus as a helpless infant in Mary’s arms.  But then, at both the beginning and the end of his life, Jesus is helpless in the hands of another human.  He begins his earthly life as an infant, God trusting the life of God’s son to Mary and Joseph.  And Jesus meets his end, placing his life in the hands of the Sanhedrin — the spiritual authorities — and in the hands of the Roman (secular) authorities.  Jesus makes himself helpless, in order to set us all free.  The son of the beloved makes himself helpless, in order to make all of us children of the beloved.

Remember this, always.  You are God’s son or God’s daughter.  You are the beloved.  In you, God is well pleased.

joyful mysteries #2: the visitation

For Friday, March 26, the second of the Joyful Mysteries is the Visitation, the young Mary‘s visit to her cousin Elizabeth to share in the joy of their miraculous pregnancies.  The story from the NRSV is below, and other versions can be found here.

MONTSERRAT - CUSACHS Visitation, by Fergal OP
MONTSERRAT - CUSACHS Visitation, by Fergal OP

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

magnificat, by Akira ASKR
magnificat, by Akira ASKR

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

St Elizabeth & St John Baptist; Annunciation; St Anne & Virgin Mary, by IanAWood
St Elizabeth & St John Baptist; Annunciation; St Anne & Virgin Mary, by IanAWood

The Feast of the Visitation is traditionally celebrated on May 31 in the Western Church, to honor these two mothers.  At the Annunciation, Mary learned from the angel that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant.  What she does not know yet is that Elizabeth’s son will be John the Baptist, the great prophet who preaches fiery sermons, exhorting all to repent and turn to God, and who baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River.  These two women are bearing sons who will turn the people of Israel upside-down before each man is executed by the Roman authorities.

Thankfully, at this moment in the story, Mary and Elizabeth are blissfully unaware of these mighty events.  At this moment, Mary is about two months pregnant, too early for anyone to even see; Elizabeth is about seven months pregnant, beginning to feel unwieldy and clumsy as her body prepares for labor.

We don’t know exactly why Mary traveled to be with Elizabeth.  It may just be that she was overjoyed to hear of her relative’s miraculous pregnancy.  Or it could be that her family sends her to Elizabeth’s in shame, disbelieving this story of angels and the Holy Spirit.  Can’t you just hear her mother?  Now you’ll see what’s ahead of you, young lady!  Elizabeth has a proper husband, but you — you’ll have to go through this all on your own.  We’ll never be able to find a husband for you now! This cannot have been an easy time for anyone in Mary’s family.  It wouldn’t be easy in the 21st century, and our taboos are nowhere near as strict as those of Mary’s day.

But instead of fear and tension and frustration, we hear a joyful greeting.  You may recognize some of Elizabeth’s words in the Hail Mary prayer:

Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

sf leap, by Foxtongue
sf leap, by Foxtongue

We hear that the infant John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. (Personally, I think that would have triggered an intense need to visit the necessary, but I could be wrong.)  And we hear Mary’s joyous song of praise and hope and the upside-down-ness of God’s kingdom.

Jesus preaches this upside-down-ness throughout his ministry, and it should come as nothing new to those who hear him.  This imagery shows up throughout the words of the prophets: God will turn everything upside-down and inside-out.  The people of Israel have long found this a comfort, as they have been captured, oppressed, scattered, re-gathered, and occupied.  They have been waiting for a great and mighty savior to bring this upside-down-ness about, to throw down these occupying armies and to restore Israel to its rightful place as the leader and light of the world, as God’s chosen people.

Jesus doesn’t do this, though, does he?  He doesn’t model the strong and mighty savior. He doesn’t take on the armies of Rome.  The most violent thing he does in his ministry is to knock over the tables of some merchants in the Temple.  Rather, Jesus models the other side: he models the lowly, the hungry, the poor.  And really, this makes sense, even if it is the upside-down sense that only God’s kingdom makes.  If Jesus were strong and mighty and proud, he would be scattered, brought down, sent away empty.  Instead, he must be poor and lowly, so that he can be lifted up and filled with good things.

I am reminded of a prayer attributed to St. Francis, which similarly helps us pray to set aside our strong-mighty-proud selves in favor of our poor-lowly-hungry selves, to make room for us to be filled with good things.

St. Francis, by novelgazer

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith ;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy
O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.

I confess that I’m not very good at this.  I don’t like being lowly, and I’m afraid of being poor.  I don’t want to find myself humbled while someone else is being exalted.  It just doesn’t feel fair!  Don’t I deserve good things, too?

But it is fair.  It’s just that God’s sense of fairness is not the same as my sense of fairness.  Mary must have had moments when she sang out this same anthem – but that’s not fair! Yeah, she’s having God’s baby, but she’s a young teenager, and her new husband almost called the whole thing off, and she could still be stoned to death for this!  The people in Nazareth are not exactly well-off, and Mary isn’t going to have the luxury of time to figure out how to keep house for Joseph before their first baby.  It’s just not fair.

Was Mary better than I at letting go of the pride and haughtiness, to make room to be fed and lifted up and filled with good things?  Was she better able to let go of her needs to be loved and to be understood, so that she could love and understand?  I know that Mary gave, so that we could receive, just as Jesus died so that we could be born to eternal life.  I guess that’s a pretty good example to follow.

The Song of Mary, by Rachel Titiriga
The Song of Mary, by Rachel Titiriga

joyful mysteries #1: the annunciation

Since I’m one day behind in posting this mystery, you’ll actually get to see my reflection on the Annunciation on the very day of the Feast of the Annunciation!  How cool is that?  🙂

So for Wednesday, March 24, our first Joyful Mystery of the rosary is the Annunciation.  The biblical account can be found in four English versions here, and the NRSV is below…

The Annunciation (Westminster mosaic), by Lawrence OP
The Annunciation (Westminster mosaic), by Lawrence OP

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ [Some original texts add “Blessed are you among women” here.]

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’

The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’

Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

This is a familiar story to many of us.  We hear it each year during Advent, and we see it acted out in children’s Christmas Pageants, with white cardboard wings and white robes and lots of glitter.

Annunciation Icon, by jclor
Annunciation Icon, by jclor

It’s kind of funny.  I’ve long admired Mary for her ability to take these amazing events in her life and quietly ponder them in her heart.  I find that I tend to try to talk these things out; I can ponder things for a while, but then I need to check in with someone else to make sure I’m neither spinning my wheels nor crazy.  And here, when the angel Gabriel greets her, Mary doesn’t respond immediately, but ponders what sort of greeting this might be.

The word ponder brings to my mind something more than just have a little think.  From dictionary.com, I see two definitions: to consider something deeply and thoroughly; meditate (often fol. by over or upon) and to weigh carefully in the mind; consider thoughtfully.  These definitions jibe with my own thinking: pondering is something that takes time.  So how long does Mary sit there pondering Gabriel’s greeting?  And what is he doing during that time — standing there, shifting his weight from leg to leg, adjusting his wings?

One possible explanation is that the writers of the gospels saw only Mary’s quiet public face.  They did not know what she discussed with Joseph, or at home with her family.  They didn’t bother to listen to the women around the cookpots, to hear what the women discussed over their work.  So maybe these evangelists just didn’t know that these momentous events were not merely treasured and pondered in Mary’s hearts.

Another explanation that jumped off the screen at me this morning could be that Mary is a little, well, slow.  Let’s face it, she’s a girl of about 13 or 14, and she lives in a small town (probably less than 1,000 people in her time).  Girls and women of her time would not be taught to read or write, and would not be allowed to study Tanakh.  Critical thinking, logic, rhetoric — these were prized by the Greeks and Romans, but probably not taught to a poor young Jewish girl in a small town in Galilee.  We can see that Jesus was very quick-witted, in the ways he response to the traps set for him by the religious authorities, but it could be that Mary just… wasn’t.  I know that to imagine Mary being other than completely pure and wholesome and perfect may seem like blasphemy, and I am truly sorry if I have offended you.  I just find myself wondering about this sometimes.

Back to the story, the angel’s greeting to Mary is now part of the traditional ‘Hail Mary‘ or ‘Ave Maria‘ prayer.

Ave Maria, by seriykotik1970
Ave Maria, by seriykotik1970

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, mother of God,
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death.

Amen.

Much of this prayer comes straight from scripture, and it concludes by asking Mary to pray for us all.  Many people don’t understand what it means to talk to or pray to the saints.  We do not worship the saints; only God is worshiped, because only God is, well, God!  Rather, we ask the saints to intercede for us with God; we talk to them, maybe ask them for guidance — since they’ve been-there-done-that already — and ask them to pray for us.

This prayer is the one prayed on the beads that make up the five decades in a traditional Dominican rosary.  Some Protestants reject the rosary as idolatrous, because they feel that this kind of prayer elevates Mary as high as Jesus, maybe more so.  The beautiful words of the Ave come not from idolatry, though, but from scripture and from an earnest request for intercession.  Pray for us, Mary.  We know that you are favored among women, and that you are the chosen mother of our Lord.  Please put in a good word for us. That said, if this prayer makes you uncomfortable, then you need not pray these words; we are blessed with an abundance of lovely prayers in our tradition, and there’s nothing wrong with praying in your own words, from your own heart.

The Annunciation falls each year during Lent, our time of purification, penitence, and fasting in preparation for the Feast of Easter.  This connects Mary’s obedient response, let it be with me according to your word, with the obedience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want. Mary risked her own life in saying yes to God, knowing that Joseph could have her stoned for being pregnant with someone else’s child.  And so the life of Jesus both begins and ends with this amazing obedience to God, dangerous obedience, scary obedience, life-threatening obedience.  It is so hard for me to even imagine responding in this way.

I’ll close with a wonderful poem, by Br. Tobias Stanislas of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory:

Olives in Gethsemane-2, by Ian W Scott
Olives in Gethsemane-2, by Ian W Scott

She knelt beside the neatly planted rows
of cummin, dill, and mint. The clear March sky
was bright; a flock of birds flew high.
She pinched a leaf;
then, suddenly, she froze —
a voice had spoken. There was no one there.
It spoke a second time; she looked around.
“How can this be?” she asked the vacant air.
Once more it spoke, yet there was not a sound.
She paused again; her answer in her mind.

In thirty years and three, her words would find
an echo: “Not my will, but thine be done,”
said in another garden by her son,
while three friends slept.
So here none heard her words —
except an angel, a high flight of birds,
and three neat rows of cummin, mint, and dill:
“Be it to me according to thy will.”

April 7, 1989
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Alleluia! The Lord is Risen! (Easter)

Alleluia!  The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

So begins our celebration of Easter, the most important Feast of the church year.  This is a day of great celebration, with many flowers decorating the church, with festive white and gold hangings and vestments, with joyous songs and Alleluias (and Hallelujahs).  Easter is our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, a miracle that is mysterious and beyond understanding, but that is the foundation of our faith as Christians.  Many years ago, those who wished to be baptized would spend the season of Lent in learning and preparation, and on Easter, they would be baptized into the Church.  Without Easter, the Christian church would not now exist — which, I know, may be considered a mixed blessing — though we mark the birth of the Church at the Pentecost.  So what is this all about?

The lections for Easter worship offer several options, including two

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus
Eastern Orthodox Icon of Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome at the grave of Jesus

different accounts of the Resurrection.  The account in Mark’s gospel is more spare, less detailed.  The account in John’s gospel speaks with John’s poetic voice, with more details and more drama.  These appear to be two completely different stories, but they tell one very important truth: Jesus did not stay dead.  Jesus did not remain in the tomb.  Of course, there is another detail that is very dear to my heart: it was women who first discovered this.  It wasn’t John, the beloved disciple, or Simon Peter, the rock on whom the Church was founded.  It was Mary Magdalene, healed by Jesus of a multitude of demons, and some accounts include Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome.

I can only imagine the fear and anxiety that these women must have felt.  First, as they approach the tomb, they remember the large stone that sealed the entrance, and they doubt that they will be strong enough to roll it away.  And then, they arrive at the tomb and find the great stone is already moved.  What does this mean?  Did the Romans or the chief priests take the body of their beloved Jesus to hide it?  Did some thief come, and steal their lord away?  What happened here?

In John’s account, Mary Magdalene runs back to the men to tell them that the stone is moved.  In Mark’s account the women proceed straight into the tomb, and the first words the angel inside speaks to them are, “Don’t be afraid.”  (Of course, these are the first words that every angel appearing in the bible speaks to a human.)  It’s no wonder they are afraid!  This is beyond understanding, beyond comprehension — especially when one is already filled with loss and grief and anguish, and maybe even doubt.  But then, the truth of the miracle is revealed.

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here!

Two years ago, on Easter Sunday, I wrote in this blog that I could not understand why Jesus would ever want to come back.  I mean, it’s not that he got treated particularly well while he was here, so why would he want to return?  It doesn’t make any sense!

Well, it might not make any sense to us, but it makes perfect sense to God.  After all, what kind of sense does it make to us that God would love every single one of us — love us perfectly, extravagantly, profligately, scandalously — when we know that we’re really not all that lovely or lovable?  And sometimes we might think, okay, so God can love me, but does it make sense for God to love people like Saddam Hussein or Genghis Khan or Vlad Ţepeş every bit as much as God loves Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu and Mohandas Gandhi?  Those first three — they’re terrible people!  They’re monsters, destroyers of God’s children!  And those last three, they’re people of great love and peace, truly God’s children!  How on earth does this make sense?  Of course, I just answered that question.  It doesn’t make any sense at all on earth.  But to God, it makes perfect sense.

The resurrection of Jesus is a great gift, and the fundamental truth of it is simple:

GOD. LOVES. YOU.

That’s it.  That’s the message of Easter.  Love.  It’s so simple, but of course, simple things are rarely easy.  Love is hard work for us, because we aren’t God.  We can have a hard time loving people, like Hussein and Khan and Dracula,

The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo
The Resurrection by Raffaellino del Garbo

even like the noisy kids next door and the husband or wife and that weird guy who’s always outside the grocery store smelling not-quite-right.  Some of the final words of Jesus to his closest friends, on the night of the Last Supper, were love one another, just as I have loved you.  Jesus commands us to love, tells us that we will be recognized as his followers by the love we show.  And we must show that love.  Love is a verb.  It is an action, a choice, a behavior.  You cannot say you love someone, if you ignore them or hurt them or refuse to help them.  Love is all about the actions.  You don’t love that smelly guy at the grocery store, if you make Tsch! noises at him, or refuse to look at him.  You don’t love the noisy neighbors if you yell at them or glare at them from your driveway.  Love does the very basic physical actions that Jesus entreats us to do: love feeds the hungry, love gives drink to the thirsty, love tends to the sick, love is present for the lonely, love makes sure that the naked are clothed, and love makes room for the homeless.

God’s love has shown itself in a very basic and physical way, too.  God’s love came physically into this world as a baby human.  God came to us as a naked, hungry, thirsty boy, helpless to provide these things for Godself.  God as an infant was even homeless for a time, when Nazareth was not a safe place for God’s human family.  God as Jesus experienced all of those needs: hunger, thirst, illness, loneliness, nakedness, homelessness.  Jesus experienced anger, frustration, fear.  Heck, Jesus even experienced flatulence, sneezes, itches, bumps, and bruises.  This is what it means when we say Jesus was fully human, while being fully divine.  Jesus knows what we humans need, knows in a personal, intimate way.  So when Jesus tells us to love each other, Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole
Peter and John at the Tomb by William Hole

Jesus also knows our brokenness, our failures to hit the mark, our separation from God and from each other.  Before Jesus, if a Jewish person wanted to show repentance for sin and be restored to God’s favor, a sacrifice would be made.  Jesus chose to become the last sacrifice; he allowed himself to be killed in order to restore all of us to God’s favor.  When Jesus was nailed to the cross, every one of our sins was nailed to the cross with him.  We may not realize — in this world — that we are loved so perfectly, that we have already been forgiven, that this act of Jesus reconciled us with God and with each other.  That’s because we’re flawed, broken.  We’re not perfect.  All we can do is try.  We can try to love one another, just as Jesus loved us.  We can try to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another.  We can make our own sacrifices, giving time to act out our love, giving money to further God’s work in this world, giving gifts, both tangible and not.

And this is the miracle of the Resurrection.  Yes, Jesus died on that cross, taking on himself the weight of all of the sin of all of the people that ever have been, that are now, and that ever will be.  But God’s love story doesn’t end there.  The story doesn’t end because somehow, marvelously and miraculously, Jesus did not stay dead.  He entered into a new kind of life, a life that included a physical body but that was filled with God’s light and presence.  And the promise of this new life of Jesus is that every one of us will be given the opportunity to enter into this same kind of new life.  We don’t know for sure how or when this will happen, but we know why.  Because

GOD!  LOVES!  US!

Amen.  Alleluia!