December 24, 2012 Comments Off on From the Altar Guild: The Symbolism of the Cope in the Advent Blue Set Week IV
We have made our way to the two last symbols on the Advent Cope. The first of the two is a crown for Emanuel, the last is a star for the Virgin Mary.
A crown has long been a symbol of royalty. The symbol of a crown on our cope reminds me of a crown from the Crown Jewels of England especially the way the top of the crown arches towards the center. It also reminds me a bit of the crown on the statue of the Infant of Prague. It is a style of a crown that is used on state occasions as a symbol of the royal persons authority.
December 23 – O EMANUEL
O come, Emanuel, our king and law-giver, the desire of all nations and their salvation: come and save us o Lord our God.
The traditional versions of the O Antiphons would end with this seventh antiphon having begun on the night of December 17th. This would seem appropriate since, with the coming of Emmanuel, the reign of God is begun on earth.
The Sarum version of the O Antiphons adds an eighth antiphon at the end of the series and begins a day earlier, on the 16th of December. As you might remember, “Sarum” refers to the customs of the church in Salisbury and have been expanded to mean the use for the church in all of England. So, our cope is Sarum in its details as we have eight symbols not seven.
All of the O Antiphons are titles of the Christ as found in the prophets of the Old Testament, yet this last antiphon is not addressed to Jesus but to the Virgin Mary.
December 24 – O VIRGO VIRGINUM
O Virgin of virgin, how shall this be? For neither before you was any like you, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Hierusalem, why do you marvel at me? The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.
I have found no reason why this one antiphon is so different from the other seven. The mystery of its creation seems to be lost to history. One commentator did offer that the English church before the Reformation was so devoted to the Virgin that it only seems appropriate that the O Antiphons as they were used in England should have one addressed to the Virgin. England was often referred to as “The Virgin’s Dowry” for its many churches dedicated to Mary.
The symbol for this antiphon is a star. In the Christian West, we usually see the Virgin crowned with the twelve stars of Revelation Chapter 12 but in the Christian East the star is a popular symbol of the Virgin. I found this explanation of stars in icons of Mary from Orthodox Wiki:
There are three golden stars: one on the forehead and one on each shoulder of the Most Holy Theotokos. These stars are symbols of her virginity. She was a virgin before, a virgin during, and a virgin after the Nativity of Christ. The three stars are also a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Sometimes the third star is covered by the figure of the Christ Child, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
We have an example of these stars right here at St Luke’s in our own icon of Our Lady of the Sign.
As John Bradley wrote is his fascinating reflection on the text of the Antiphons:
The first letter of each Antiphon after the “O” creates a reverse acrostic so that, beginning with the last antiphon and working backward to the beginning – even more symbolism – it spells in Latin: Ero Cras: Tomorrow I come.
But with O Virgo virginum this becomes ‘Vero Cras’, ‘Truly, tomorrow’.
– Sean Scheller
December 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
Imagine the perfect herald for Christ and his ministry. How would the herald dress? Where would the herald go? Which of Christ’s themes would the herald emphasize?In my own mind, she or he would dress unobtrusively, travel to those who cannot travel, and share Christ’s profound, unconditional love for humanity.
But I must have a limited imagination, because the first person to announce Christ’s ministry was John the Baptist: dressed most obtrusively in camel skins, waiting in an inconvenient location for the people to make the pilgrimage to him, and then calling those pilgrims a brood of vipers and describing Christ using terms appropriate for a pyromaniacal Grim Reaper.
Advent III focuses on preparation for Christ’s coming, and yet the man charged with leading that preparation, John the Baptist, seems to me profoundly unsympathetic: dogmatic, arrogant, comfortless; precursor to the fiercest fire and brimstone Christianity. Exactly the belief system from which I try to separate myself: “those people seem to have no concept of a loving God” or, “they shouldn’t even call themselves Christians.”
Yet the Christ who preached the Sermon on the Mount, one of civilization’s most enduring expressions of divine grace, mercy, and love, is also the Christ who came to John the Baptist as He prepared to begin His own ministry: He was willing to engage first with a man who located God’s power not in love and mercy but in retribution and damnation.
Perhaps the lesson is that respectfully confronting that fire and brimstone rhetoric is key to preparing the way for Christ: that to share the good news, we sometimes need to listen first to the “bad news” and understand why it resonates so strongly with some people. Hopefully, dialogue from a place of understanding will allow messages about God’s love to get through more easily than from a place of confrontation.
So as I prepare for the Second Coming, I feel called to engage in a more thoughtful way with fellow Christians whose understanding of God seems more connected to John the Baptist’s than mine. We can prepare together, and while I can’t force my understanding of God on them, I can be open to understanding their conception of God and why their own spiritual journeys have led them to that conception. We’re all imperfect heralds for Christ, and if He was willing to let John the Baptist lead the preparations for the First Coming, then I can be respectful of those who echo John’s rhetoric today.
– Jared Spencer
December 19, 2012 Comments Off on O Come, O Come Emmanuel, A French Processionale, and John Mason Neale
On the 4th Sunday of Advent we sing one of the most beloved hymns of the Advent season, “O come, O come Emmanuel”. For me personally the text of this hymn is a summation of the observance and spirit of preparation and anticipation that is Advent, and the requisite final hymn for any annual observance of the season. It was even sung in my protestant parish when I was young, though mysteriously on Advent I. Even though I have rejected nearly all of the theology of that denomination, they did have good taste in music. Most, if not all of us, are familiar with the hymn text and can hum the familiar tune, but the origins of both the text and melody provide in interesting glimpse into our collective liturgical past. As we prepare for the Solemn Feast of the Nativity, let’s take a moment and reflect on the nearly 800 years of history that passed, while each year the texts were sung with quiet contemplation. Those familiar lines and tune which, like so many aspects of our familiar hymns, rituals, liturgies and other components of Anglican worship, meet where the centuries-old forms of worship in the pre-Reformation church intersect with the reformed Catholicism of the Oxford Movement with its interest in England’s Medieval liturgical and musical heritage, and our own 21-century expression of traditional worship.
Each verse of the Latin processional chant Veni, veni Emmanuel is a metric paraphrase of what are known as the “O” Antiphons, for the simple reason that they begin: O radix Jesse, O sapientia etc. The symbolism of each of the antiphons is beautifully explained by Sean Scheller in his contribution to the Advent blog, using the images found on the front of our gorgeous Advent cope made some years ago by the venerable Graham French. In the Catholic West the “O” Antiphons frame the Magnificat sung or recited at Vespers in the Roman Catholic or Evensong in the Anglican traditions during the octave, or eight days, prior to the Nativity. Each one is one of the names which are given to the Messiah, and also reference the prophecies of Isaiah. To make it even more interesting, the first letter of each after the “O” creates a reverse acrostic so that beginning with the last antiphon and working backward to the beginning – even more symbolism – it spells in Latin: Ero Cras: Tomorrow I come. Oddly, considering their widespread usage, the texts were not set chorally in a complete set until the 17th –century by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. In modern times the texts have received more attention by composers, Bob Chilcott, Arvo Pärt and Peter Hallock are among the contemporary composers who have set them.
The exact origin of the O Antiphon texts remains a mystery, but we do know of a few threads. The Roman Philosopher Boethius alludes to them as early as the 6th century, and they were in use in Roman liturgies within the next two centuries. The Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf (c.800) based four sections of his poem entitled Christ on the antiphons O Rex gentium, O Clavis David, O Oriens and O Emmanuel suggesting more than a passing familiarly. The metical version which is the basis for our version of five of the seven antiphons was in use in the 13th –century. They are less literal, abandoning the more gloomy aspects of the original texts replacing them with the more confident “Gaude, gaude Emmanuel” refrain as you can see in the text and translation below. Those of you who know the hymn tune by heart will be immediately struck by how easily the Latin words fit with the familiar melody.
An early version of the English hymn as we know it was included in The Hymnal Noted – Part II in 1852. The text was translated by the great John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a high-churchman whose invaluable work translating medieval hymn texts into English for modern usage is one of the largest single contributions to traditional hymnody in use in the church today. As a vocal advocate of the Oxford movement, Neale had to endure a good deal of opposition, including a fourteen years’ inhibition by his bishop. He translated the Eastern liturgies into English, and wrote a mystical and devotional commentary on the Psalms. He held to the belief that the truth was found in the mediaeval and orthodox theologies of the church and popular hymn composers such as Isaac Watts composed erroneous theological texts, and was an offence against good taste. Neale was little appreciated in his time, and received is Doctor of Divinity not in England but at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut in 1860. He is best known as a hymn writer and, especially, translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. More than anyone else, he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns. The English Hymnal (1906) contains 63 translated hymns and six original hymns by Neale. His translations include a number of St. Luke’s favorites, all found in the Hymnal 1982 among them: All Glory, Laud, and Honor, Of the Father’s Heart Begotten, Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle, and To Thee Before the Close of Day.
The Veni, veni Emmanuel tune was in use by the 13th century, found alternately in a manuscript in Portugal (now missing) and in a book of French processional chants. Although it its exact date of composition is unclear, the close relationship of text to melody suggests that either the tune was composed to fit the meter of the text, or they were composed together. The French Processionale book has the familiar hymn tune on a left-hand folio, with a complementary discantus part on the opposite folio. A lovely version of the hymn from the Processionale is found in the New Oxford Book of Carols (Andrew Parrott and Hugh Keyte, editors) and on the Taverner Choir’s Carol Album easily found on iTunes or Spotify. Take a moment to listen to the original version of the hymn, pause and reflect on the fact that like us, many who have come before have felt a similar attachment and sense of anticipation, preparation and awe in what are the last few days of the Advent before the coming each year of our Lord Jesus.
Click the link to hear the Tavner Consort perform Veni, Veni Emmanuel: Veni, Veni Emmanuel – Taverner Consort
– John Bradley
December 17, 2012 Comments Off on From the Altar Guild: The Symbolism of the Cope in the Advent Blue Set Week III
So now it’s the third Sunday of Advent the Sunday called Gaudete (Rejoice), as the Lord’s arrival is near. The Church wears rose-colored vestments as a sign of the joy we feel anticipating the birth of the Savior which is to come very soon. At St Luke’s, we wear what we have of a rose set (a chasuble, pulpit fall, burse, veil and our priests wear rose stoles). We also have rose-colored flowers today in the sanctuary.
In our exploration of the symbols on our Advent cope, we are up to the T for St Thomas whose feast day is December 21st and the sun for the remembrance of the Dayspring on December 22nd. .
December 21 – St. Thomas the Apostle – O THOMAS DIDIME
O Thomas Didymus, through Christ who suffered you to touch him, we entreat, you by your prayers for us on high, to aid us in our miseries, lest we be doomed with the lost when the judge appears.
December 21st is the traditional day of the martyrdom of the apostle. Sacred tradition says that Thomas was martyred in Mylapore, India having a spear thrust through him. The Mar Thoma Church of India is the legacy of the ministry of St Thomas. There is a Mar Thoma congregation in New York who used to meet on Sundays afternoon in the undercroft of Church of the Intercession uptown. I was there once as part of a Churches of New York Architecture Tour just after the Mar Toma congregation finished worship and, boy, could they could teach St Luke’s something about the use of incense. It was so smoky and they had finished the service almost 30 minutes before I was there and the undercroft certainly had an aura of sanctity.
I always find it a bit jarring to be thinking of Thomas, who has such a large a role in the Easter narratives, so close to Christmas. I don’t ever remember anyone named Thomas in any of the Christmas stories I have ever read. You know that the doubting Thomas story is the Gospel for the Sunday after Easter every year. Then again, the Thomas story is focused so much on the physicality of the Risen Jesus, when Jesus invites Thomas to reach in and feel his wounds, that it makes such perfect sense, as we get ready to celebrate the mystery of the Word-made-flesh remembering Thomas’ shining hour. Thomas is our reminder that the babe in Bethlehem grows up to be the Risen Jesus in the upper room who is my Lord and my God for us all.
December 22 – O ORIENS
O Dayspring, brightness of light everlasting and sun of righteousness: come and enlighten him who sits in darkness, and the shadow of death.
Dayspring is not a word that we use in everyday speech. I had to look up exactly what dayspring means. It is the time before the dawn when the horizon can be seen and perhaps the outline of some objects. In the liturgical life of the Church, it is the hour of Prime, the first prayers of the day. It is very early in the day and it can be a magical time when the light overtakes the darkness, the rising sun is anticipated well before it is actually seen or the heat of its rays are felt. It is a time of great possibilities, the day has just begun and anything is possible. This brings to my mind the passages from the Gospels that tell of the first Easter Day “after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning” when the women went to the tomb of Jesus. So, once again, so close to Christmas I have Easter on my mind. I always think of Christmas as the miracle in the middle of the night while Easter is the miracle of the dawn.
Last week I told you one of the secrets of the sacristy that we have a purple low mass set for Advent. I remember many years ago the designer and creator of the set, Graham French, telling me that the set was meant for both Advent and Lent since it was purple with silver trim and so was a penitential set since it had no gold.
Next week we will hear about the last two symbols of the Advent cope.
December 15, 2012 Comments Off on Advent Quote: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
December 14, 2012 Comments Off on Scripture Reflection — Luke 3:7-18: If Today You Hear God’s Voice, Harden Not Your Heart
Our Gospel Lesson for Sunday Advent 3 is Luke 3:7-18, the old chestnut of John the Baptist addressing the “crowds that came out to be Baptized”.
I have a confession: people specifically, the unwashed public up close in crowds, repel me. In March I began a job working in what I refer to as Tourist Zone 2, in the shadow of the Tiffany star at 57th and 5th, just south of Central Park South and The Plahza. Having to maneouver my way through “children laughing and people passing meeting smile after smile” while I’m trying to get from my crowded train, around two construction sites, the Apple Store and lines of rickshaws on the way to my office every morning is an object lesson in prayerful meditation during my Advent practice. I do love people in general, however, and what fascinates me most about them in the abstract is what they pray about and what they pray for, and what they think about and what they say out loud.
An hilarious thing to me in this vein is when I used to watch one of my girlfriends at my old job go COMPLETELY berserk because she would ritually give work to one particular department at the firm and they would ritually COMPLETELY mess the project up requiring her to do the whole project all over again herself. You would think after a couple of times, let alone every time for my eleven years with her, it would cease to be a surprise and become an expected behavior, yet each and every time she would become exasperated all over again in new and exciting ways, together with tried and true rants, about that department’s incompetence.
I do it myself, especially with my weight gain over the last 11 years. I keep saying, I’m so fat, I’m so out of shape, I need to lose this weight, one of these days … Backstory: I was in a miserable job, I ate and drank my feelings and now, 60 pounds overweight, I keep saying, UCH ! I’ve GOT to get this weight off … then I think, but it’s Easter, just these few chocolates; oh, it’s Halloween, my yearly Snickers bar (and not many kids came by this year so what am I supposed to do with these leftover Hershey miniatures); dear, here we are at Advent again, I have to make my sister-in-law her favourite holiday cookies. I balance my exercise routine with the substantiation that we live in New York and I walk miles every day, so I must be healthy, plus we don’t have enough money to join a gym; the Ashram is so inconvenient to practice daily … like I can’t practice yoga on my own floor at home, as if I don’t have free On Demand exercise channels, can you imagine MAKING the cookies but not waking up in the middle of the night and have SEVERal, rationalizing it by pretending I have a sleep-eating disorder. Oh, and then there is the daily free leftover catering at work, like I seriously need a brownie and an extra sandwich just because they’re free and have no calories (but I don’t eat the bread, so that’s healthy). As Ethel Roberta Louise Mae Potter Mertz used to say in an exasperated tone, “Honestly, Lucy”.
I’m (obviously) no scholar, but I was learned [sic] that between the writing of 4th Maccabees (≈19 B.C.E.) and when we presume John began his ministry of baptism (≈26 Anno Domini), the countryside was bursting at the seams with Messiahs. Everyone was looking for Him and it seemed there was one on every corner, so John by the Jordan River was not as much an oddity as we might think. What gave him distinction, however, was a new message: repentance. Metavnoia, μετάνοια, a change of mind, the act of heartily amending with abhorrence one’s past . The system of Jewish ritual since it was handed down from God by Moses afforded propitiation of one’s wrong-doings through ritual sacrifice and the assurance of no guilt from wrong-doings by adherence to these rituals. No concept of remorse, no practice of inner reflection, no sense of personal responsibility for the wrong-doing, just the clearance of the balance sheet through performance of a ritual. John came to announce a new path.
We pronounce the Confiteor during Eucharist and at least twice each day, at morning and at evening prayer, and the words flow so easily from our lips, just like the Lord’s Prayer, but do we mean them? Do we realize what we are saying? Do we examine our hearts and make amends and attempt repentance, a turning away? I’ll tell ya, it would be easier for me to give up one of my two cloaks to a stranger in need sometimes than it is for me to let go of the resentment I feel from an offense I perceive from someone, or to abandon some judgment which brings my heart to hatred for someone, seldom realizing that I must be guilty of the same thing I despise in them or else I wouldn’t know how to recognize it. We are guided by John in our Gospel Lesson to make straight our paths, to prepare the way for the Lord and to lay the foundation of reasonable and just behavior, guiding us to await in joyful anticipation the cleansing fire with which Jesus will baptize us.
“As the people were filled with expectation…” In my very humble opinion, I find The Revised Common Lectionary a bit clumsy this time of year, as it requires us to be very nimble bobbing from nativity narratives to Jesus’ early ministry, a visit with Doubting Thomas and our risen Lord with a side trip to the fiery fields of Armageddon before we dock with shepherds watching their flocks by night. I buoy myself during the season of anticipation by remembering that we’re not just waiting for this grown-up Messiah, or for the return of the Christós; we’re also waiting for the birth of a little baby.
Know what happens when a little baby comes in to your life? I’ve heard stories! Time evaporates. You need to be prepared well beforehand with a cozy sleeping space, food and clothes, toiletries and toys … there’s no time to collect them after baby’s arrival and there certainly is no time for selfish and petty little problems like lack of sleep or the inconvenience of a diaper change or food preparation… the baby needs to be attended to constantly and you need to be in top mental and physical condition or you’ll collapse. (Actually, I’ve also heard stories that no matter how tip top shape you’re in you’re NEVER ready for the first few months of a newborn’s needs.)
It’s all well and good to be bored and wander out to the shores of the Jordan to have an afternoon’s entertainment observing the funny-looking John shouting about the coming of the Lord, but what happens if you listen but you don’t hear. Are they accountable for the content of the sermon? It’s all very lovely to tell people I go to church all the time, but that doesn’t mean I’m paying attention to anything that’s being said and it certainly doesn’tmean I process or practice the words I proclaim during the service. Am I required to act accordingly throughout the week? As Joyce Meyer says, “I can sit in a garage all I want, but that doesn’t make me a car.”
Advent calls us to a season of clarity, expectation, renewal and new birth … not just a season to sing pretty songs and hear pretty stories but a season of preparation, readiness. A chance to cast off our own chaff and blossom as mature grains of wheat to be gathered in to God’s granary lest we be consumed by unquenchable fire, ingesting this call to excellence and heeding the exhortation that we should not rely on the devotions and practices of our past, but be revitalized by a renewed and passionate present so that we are worthy to greet the coming of our Savior, whether his first arrival or his second. Not just to hear John proclaiming the Gospel that whatever I have is so bountiful and sufficient that, if I give some away, grace and bounty will be mine. As he tells the soldiers, I should be satisfied with exactly the blessings I have. And as I tell myself, concentrating on being overweight is not going to lose me weight and “one day I’ll get to that” doesn’t get me fit. Watching my intake, planning and attending to my practice, and steadfast diligence is the key to my success. Isn’t that true for almost everything in life at which we wish to excel?
December 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.
A friend once told me that it’s the waiting while you wait that gets you. And with the waiting, in between the impatience and the silent peace in the pause of slow-paced truth, is the longing. The longing for things hoped for, for hope to pierce through the doubt, for a cup of kindness yet.
In Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, he longs for “the luxury of a child’s soul” in the midst of Advent, hoping that the penitential rites, formerly associated with Advent in Roman Catholic Ireland, can cleanse out that which has been “tested and tasted too much”. Kavanagh draws us into the disconnect between new wonder and experienced apathy, apathy won through the “knowledge we stole but could not use. While he waits, he longs for the “spirit-shocking wonder” found in the “ordinary plenty”, and he vows not to “analyse God’s breath in common statement.” He desires to put aside knowledge and the material pleasures for the fulfillment of his Advent longing, which is in the coming of Christ.
December can be jingle-bell trite with slick Christmas pop songs about love, if only we can approach the critical purchasing mass. Kavanagh reminds us, however, that in the bleary-eyed midst of emptiness comes grace, grace which did not enter with blaring trumpets or loud cheers or probably even angels singing on high. God became human, like us, not in the midst of the sentiment of that there is “no place like home for the holidays”, but precisely in realities of rootlessness, poverty, social stigma, and of shame. Curious choice for an all-powerful, all-knowing God – and yet therein lies the strength, the grace in the broken cry of an infant. We begin to realize why “God we shall not ask for reason’s payment”, because this God who lowers himself in poverty and shame does so that we may be raised to newness, to “prophetic astonishment”, and to the love which is as simple yet powerful as the assent of that January flower.
December 12, 2012 Comments Off on Advent Hymns
The tune Merton, “Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding” (#59) is my very favorite tune in our current hymnal, with Bach’s harmonization of Wachet auf ! “Sleepers Wake!” (#61) a close second. What is it exactly about the Advent hymns that many of us regular church goers find so uplifting? Is it simply the music? Or is it the texts that inspire us so? Charles Wesley’s “Lo he comes with clouds descending” is especially pithy, theologically. Or it is a particularly felicitous match of text and music? Each of these aspects adds to the uniqueness of Advent hymnody. And since we only sing most of these hymns during the four weeks of Advent there are all of the seasonal associations that heighten the emotional impact of these hymns.
But when we strip away these sentiments, what we actually have in early Advent are some uneasy texts about universal change. The Second Coming of Christ is good news but also devastating because it heralds the destruction and reformation of all earthly things. I try to remind myself, as I sing along to these early Advent tunes, that Christ in glory and triumph is not manageable or comfortable but the opposite. More like Hurricane Sandy than Anglican worship. More like global warming than Advent Lessons and Carols. So my resolution this Advent is to pay closer attention to the texts while I am singing them, and not to be so absorbed by the soaring melodies and descants of the hymnody that I lose the plot.
– The Rev. Caroline M. Stacey, Rector
December 11, 2012 § 1 Comment
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…’ (Matthew 1:18-20).
Making plans is important. A friend of mine once told me, “plan nothing, do nothing.” This statement has served many times to pull me out of a state of inertia, helping me keep things moving in whatever direction I have oriented myself, hopefully with God’s guidance. As with all truisms, however, there is a parallel truth: our plans can also lock us into doing things the same way we have always done them, or thinking about things the way we have always thought of them. Our plans can be a repository for stale perspectives and a fossilized posture toward the world.
Joseph offers us a helpful example of how to make plans but to also be open to a new way of thinking. He is operating under an assumption about Mary’s pregnancy that fits his world view, and so he makes plans to dismiss her quietly. He is open to new perspectives, however. He is open to knowing something surprising, something that is perhaps very difficult to believe. He is so open to this that he lets himself hear the Lord in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife. He doesn’t wake up and say, oh, that was just a dream. He wakes up and knows it was the Lord. He decides to listen to some new information, and to act on it. I imagine that he can do this because has an attitude of suspicion towards his old way of thinking and an attitude of openness to what might be shocking and revolutionary to his understanding of things. Instead of dismissing Mary, he welcomes her.
This story invites us to follow St. Joseph with the soul shaking knowledge that we are each called, in our own particular ways, to welcome the Christ Child into the world. So as we make our plans this Advent, whether they are spiritual or Christmas list related, we will be wise to pay attention to the other voices that come to us: the voices of our dreams; the voices in the quiet of our hearts. Voices that say something like actually, you might reconsider that plan, that judgment, that action, that assessment of the situation. Especially if it involves dismissing someone. Because we might be planning on dismissing someone like Mary, who is birthing God into the world. Joseph’s faithfulness teaches us that encounters with the holy often involve an upsetting of old plans, and a formulation of new ones.
– The Rev. Hugh M. Grant