December 18, 2012 Comments Off on Third Emmmanuel Station: The Visitation
More years ago than I care to admit, I celebrated the end of my PhD comprehensive examinations by spending a summer in Italy with a fellow graduate student who had just completed his M.A. thesis. Officially, we were there to study Italian, and we did go to classes, but that left us a lot of free time to see the nearby Umbrian towns and travel further afield every weekend. I soon learned that my friend, brought up in no religious tradition, and agnostic at best, had a fascination with representations of the Visitation, whether they be internationally famous paintings or the work of some unknown local artist. I saw more “Visis,” as he called them, that summer than I knew existed in the world. The one above, by Mariotto Albertinelli, painted in 1509, hangs in the Uffizi in Florence, and was one of the last “Visis” we saw, since we ended our trip in Florence. That summer was a kind of out-of-season advent; neither of us had a job to which to return, and we were anticipating new professional and academic adventures upon return to New York. Looking back, it’s amazing that we spent so much of the time looking at paintings that portrayed another kind of anticipation. Ever since that long-ago summer, the Visitation has been a powerful Advent symbol for me, and I have focused on what Mary and Elizabeth may have been expecting.
Elizabeth and Mary, cousins miraculously pregnant at the same time, doing what cousins would naturally do if both were sharing an experience—visiting each other to compare notes. Each knowing that the baby within her would be special, but not knowing in full what lay ahead, may have been filled with a somewhat scary anticipation of the future. I like to imagine that Mary and Elizabeth, willing instruments of God’s will in the world, must have had quite a conversation at that visitation. Did they talk about the future of their unborn sons? Did Elizabeth, further along in her pregnancy, give Mary advice? Luke doesn’t go into the mundane details that would have further humanized these remarkable women. That’s not his purpose. Luke tells us only that “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped 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.” (Luke 1:41-42). Mary’s response is what we have come to know as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56).
It is the Magnificat that endures when most of us think of the Visitation, or at least for those who remember that the Magnificat occurs at that moment in Luke, rather than at the Annunciation. I would like to suggest that what is really important in the Visitation is the sense of cautious yet joyous anticipation that Mary and Elizabeth must have felt. My wish for all of you is that you let yourselves feel that joy this Advent, as we await once again the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.
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.