Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Day

Giotto's Nativity
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him ... God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. - 1 John 4

Merry Christmas. Let us abide in love.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent, Day 24: Christmas Eve

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, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 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 favor 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 forever, 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. - Luke 1:26-38

John Collier, The Annunciation
"For nothing will be impossible with God."

Think about that for a minute. Anything can happen. Better yet, things can happen in whatever way God wants them to -- God, the Creator of all things, whose hands we cannot tie.

Oh, sure, God lets us tie the divine hands, at least for a little while. And God has created a universe that roils away in endless change, and some of that change is, for us, total disaster. It's these two features of God that cause us, quite often, to find serious fault with God: God lets evil things happen, and God lets us do evil things.

Maybe it's all just random, and we have absolutely no control.

Maybe it's all fixed, with the same net result -- we have no agency at all.

But I believe the reality of the universe is somewhere in the messy in-between. Here we find ourselves, self-aware creatures who are made by God and yet are not God, so we get to decide what to do. It's way too much responsibility. It's overwhelming, and we are not at all qualified to make decisions that affect the rest of the universe. Except that we are qualified, because God has made us qualified. And we can't help ourselves: we will and do affect the universe merely by existing.

And then, somewhere in the middle of all this mess, God has come among us, to be one of us, to experience truly what it means to be a created being.

I wrote yesterday that the specificity is the scandal. If God could only be with us as a human being for thirty short years, those thirty years had to be placed somewhere on the timeline, and somewhere on earth. Sometimes first-century Palestine doesn't feel like enough. Why couldn't Jesus be here, and now? Why couldn't Jesus be in the past as well, in other places on the globe? Instead we have no archaeological evidence, short of what later generations wrote about him and the buildings people put up in which to worship God through the worship of him. We have no photographs or video. We don't know the sound of his voice, or the cut of his beard, or the nature of his embrace.

Is that what matters?

What we know is that our Jewish ancestors met in Jesus a man who shocked their monotheistic sensibilities to the core. It was obvious to them that Jesus should be worshiped. But to worship a human being? And then they had these experiences after his death. He wasn't gone after all. He was with them in fleeting glimpses, and those glimpses often involved welcoming strangers and sharing food together.

May your Christmas dinner be such a table at which Jesus is experienced to be present, even if you only catch a glimpse. Watch for it. Let yourself be surprised by the presence of the one who is always present, appearing in flesh, appearing in the people -- not just family, but the most shocking strangers -- who are in flesh right next to you. Prepare a room for the one who made you, the one who is also preparing a room for you. Set the table for your dinner guest, the guest who is also both the host and the meal.

God is coming to be with us in all our specificity. If you don't look, you might miss God. Stay awake, watch, and love.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent, Day 23

For God alone my soul in silence waits; 
 from God comes my salvation.
God alone is my rock and my salvation, 

 my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken. - Psalm 62

At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the LORD. - Zephaniah 3

The stage is set.

What is the craziest belief we Christians share? I don't think it's the idea that God would come into the world as one of us. I think that's just a brilliant idea, so brilliant that, of course, God would come up with it. It's the kind of idea that, once thought of, seems like the most logical thing in the world.

No, I think the craziest idea is one we share with people of other religions as well, and with people of no religion.

It's the idea that God would and does intervene in our world at all.

It's easy to imagine that a vague, creative "force" created everything that exists. Very few people in the world don't believe that. Even people who call themselves atheists might admit to the philosophical necessity of a "prime mover," as the Greeks put it.

But what if that "prime mover" were not just The Force, described by Yoda as that which "binds the galaxy together"?

What if the "prime mover" were actually a person?

What if the very fact that we are self-aware is only possible -- is specifically true to our nature -- because the One who created us is also self-aware?

What if self-awareness is the entire project of the universe, and everything else in it is set in motion for the sake of our apprehending it with our senses?

We're already a step removed from pantheism, the idea that everything that exists is God. No, there seems to be separation here between that which is self-aware and that which is not, and between Creator and Created. And if that's the case, then the logic of the universe seems to be not just about grand, cosmic things, but also about specificity. God creates everything that is, and God creates or allows for creatures' awareness so that they can interact with the creation in a meaningful way. But there is a necessary separation there.

The story of the three monotheistic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- is the story of that separation. It is portrayed -- and felt -- as a tragedy, a great breach in creation across which we are always trying to find our way back. The separation allows us to become more and more who we are, and that much is wonderful and necessary. But it still feels like we have a long journey home ahead of us.

The Christian solution is that we don't have to cross that breach, because we can't. Rather, God has come -- is coming -- is always coming -- across that gap, running at a dash, arms outstretched, to embrace us.

It's the most undignified behavior we might imagine for a great, glorious, Creator-deity.

Dealing with us earthlings so directly on this tiny, insignificant planet?

Calling a chosen people to be a blessing to all the others?

Becoming known in a special way through certain stories and writings?

Existing for thirty short years as a Palestinian Jew under the occupation of the Roman Empire?

Carrying on work in the world through an organization as relentlessly flawed as the Church, as driven by dissension and self-interest as the myriad churches?

Hearing my prayers, identifying with my concerns, appearing to me (just as to you) in ways that make God's presence a sure thing in my life?

And still being the creator of everything that is, was, and will be?

It's so ... specific.

It's a scandal.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent, Day 22

"I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel." - Genesis 3

"The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him." - Revelation 12

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." - John 3:17

Today's readings bookend the Bible and also cut to the heart of it. The Genesis story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden is placed alongside a story of war breaking out in heaven, a shocking idea if ever there was one. And Jesus is held up in John's gospel as the savior of the world.

Even if I were not a Christian, I think I would find the Christian story absolutely thrilling. How can it be rivaled? God creates people. People decide to take on the responsibility of being God themselves. They mess it up, and the result is more and more separation from God. God calls them back again and again, but even when they listen, it's not for long. How can God reach them? God can become one of them. But when he does, they kill him. And then -- surprise! God transforms that death into the one thing that can save the world from this crippling separation from its creator. Effectively saved but still largely unaware of that fact, the world goes on, sometimes listening, sometimes not. The church works to reduce the separation from God, to call people back into that relationship. Evil, despite apparent victories all over the world, cannot now ever defeat good, and the stories tell of a time in the future when good will finally utterly defeat evil.

It would be easy to sit back and say, "Well, that's just a story." I don't fault anyone who does. And yes, in some ways, it is a story -- but never "just." Because it's not just a story for listening to. It's a story for placing ourselves within. It's a story for orienting us to our ultimate purpose in life, and for working that purpose out with each passing day and year of our lives. To place ourselves within the story requires vulnerability, humility, a willingness to be wrong, and a perpetual willingness to change. I have heard lots of stories, but none of them compares to this one. I have taken on this story as the story of my own life.

We tell the story every year, and oh, how I love to tell it. We are just about at that point in the story when God becomes one of us. It's a deep, deep mystery that we've been preparing for these several weeks. And we're almost there ... we're almost there ...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advent, Day 21

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601-02)
The Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle

Today's readings for Morning Prayer, while not specifically about "Doubting Thomas," can all be related very easily to his story.

The psalms appointed for today are two of the psalms people most rely on for comfort in times of doubt and distress. The Old Testament reading is Job's response to God's appearing "out of the whirlwind" to put his doubts and fears into perspective. And the epistle reading from 1 Peter does its best to reassure those who are suffering of better times to come. (I'll print the readings at the end of this reflection.)

Today, God willing and the people of God consenting, I am to be ordained as a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church, a step on the way toward ordination as a priest. I will commit myself to the trust and responsibility of the life and work of a deacon. I will agree to be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of my bishop. I will vow to be faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of the Bible. I will promise to look for Christ in all others, to be ready to serve those in need, to pattern my life after Christ, and in all things to seek not my own glory but God's.

These are some weighty promises. But even as I write about me today, it is not ultimately about me. I am one of the many millions of baptized Christians, and it seems to me and to a good many others that God is calling me to serve in a certain away. I will do my best to do just that.

I love "Doubting Thomas" -- or, as he might be better called, "Believing Thomas." He didn't begin there, but he got there, and that's what counts. In the same way, ordination did not come quickly to me, and since I served for seven years as a layperson at a parish called St. Thomas, I find it especially appropriate to be ordained on his feast day. And so all these readings will be on my heart today, and the other four friends to be ordained with me will also be in my prayers. If you happen to read this, I would appreciate your prayers as well -- even if you happen to read this long after the day. Maybe prayers even work retroactively. Who am I to doubt it?


Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
You make me lie down in green pastures
and lead me beside still waters.
You revive my soul
and guide me along right pathways for your Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills;
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
The LORD will not let your foot be moved
and the One who watches over you will not fall asleep.
Behold, the One who keeps watch over Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep;
It is the LORD who watches over you;
the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
So that the sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
the LORD shall keep you safe.
The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.


Job 42:1-6

Then Job answered the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”


1 Peter 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent, Day 20

Thus says the LORD: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts shall be called the holy mountain. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts? Thus says the LORD of hosts: I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness. - Zechariah 8
In Uganda, being gay is now a crime punishable
by life in prison. Pray for the gay citizens
of Uganda, and for a change in the law.
(Photo: BBC, Reuters)

It seems impossible. Growth where there has been destruction? Success where there has been failure? Good where there has been evil? Something coming out of nothing?

It seems impossible. A job falls apart. A marriage falls apart. A nation falls apart. If God is good, what role can God possibly play in this situation?

Yet God mourns with us. God suffers loss with us. Even impossibility is no barrier to God's grace.

The words are nice, but in the moment, they can be of little comfort.

In South Sudan, political infighting has spiraled into
violence that threatens civil war. Pray for the citizens
of South Sudan. (Photo: BBC, Reuters)
And that is where we come in. We must pray for the needs of the world. Will our prayers change anything? Absolutely.

If we don't pray, how will we sustain our relationship with God? There is no human relationship without communication, and communication involves some amount of caring work and occasional sacrifices of our own immediate desires. Why should it be any different with God?

If we don't pray, how will we come to understand how much we care? If I don't pray for the needs of the world, I may well just forget the needs of the world.

People die in accidents all the time. When it happens at
the holidays, the trauma can be especially difficult on family
and friends. Pray for those whose lives are affected by
tragedy this holiday season. (Photo from MSNBC, Laura Seitz,
Deseret News, AP)
If we don't pray, how will anyone ever make a difference? Do we expect God to swoop in and do everything for us? Yet God calls us to do good work in the world, not because it's necessary for salvation (it's not), but because that's just what saved people do.

And so Zechariah gives us God's words: "Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?" Today, let's listen for God's voice, let's watch for God at work, and then let's go join in that work with comfort and joy.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent, Day 19

The angel who talked with me came again, and wakened me, as one is wakened from sleep. He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. And by it there are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” Then the angel who talked with me answered me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” He said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” - Zechariah 4

Not by might, nor by power, but by the spirit of God.

We don't want it to be this way. We want to achieve our ends by might and power. For that matter, we want God to achieve God's ends by might and by power.

We keep falling into this trap. We think that having the biggest and most well trained military will protect our country, but when we fail to work for justice around the globe, we undermine our own cause. We begin to believe that peace through strength works, rather than peace through vulnerability.

In our own lives, too, we fall into this trap. We shore up our lives with money and success, the might and power of American individuals. Some people lock themselves away in gated communities, succumbing to fear of those who are unable to get in. Some of us make job security our god, seeking a paid position in which as few people as possible can change our fate, rather than a position that does the most good for others.

We all do this. Deep down, we really believe that might and power are the way to go in this world. In the short-term, that may be absolutely correct.

But we worship a God who always has the long-term in mind as well. God could come down and knock heads together anytime. Some people still believe that God will do exactly that one day.

But how did God come to be among us the first time? As a helpless baby.

Would God come again in a way that contradicts this first way?

Author Robert Farrar Capon calls God's power "left-handed power," as opposed to the "right-handed power" of "might makes right." What makes God's use of left-handed power most astounding is that God, by virtue of being the creator of the universe, doesn't have to work that way. But God chooses to abdicate the power of force in order to have a relationship with us.

And that baby, Jesus, grew up and showed us that we must do the same, because love -- not force -- is the only thing that works in the end.

Even if it kills us.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent, Day 18

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel; and the angel of the LORD was standing by. Then the angel of the LORD assured Joshua, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.

“Now listen, Joshua, high priest, you and your colleagues who sit before you! For they are an omen of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch. For on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the LORD of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree. - Zechariah 3

According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, "The book of Zechariah is the longest and most obscure of the Minor Prophets."* No kidding! This isn't a very well known reading from the Bible, but that's a shame. It has all sorts of interesting imagery in it.

This Joshua, first of all, is not the same as the Joshua who "fit de battle of Jericho," but is rather a high priest of the temple at the time of its rebuilding following the Babylonian Exile. Here Joshua represents the holy tradition of Israel, being renewed and prepared for a celebration.

We also have Satan in this passage, but he's not yet the "big bad" we think of today. At this point in Jewish history, Satan was still a member of God's court, a trickster and a prosecuting attorney. The Hebrew word  "Satan" means "adversary." Still, Satan is about to be disappointed, because he's losing his court case. God, the ultimate judge, changes the accused Joshua out of his filthy clothes and dresses him for a party.

Yet still, the terms on which Joshua will continue in God's good graces are conditional: "if you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements." This is all God has ever asked, but the people have shown time and time again their inability to do even this much. It is the human condition: no matter how much we want to follow God's ways, we fail. We always fail.

But get ready. Here comes the Branch -- a reference to the "Root of Jesse," the royal descendant of David. The Branch will grow into a flowing vine to produce grapes for wine, or into a sturdy fig tree to produce fruit ... fruit worthy of repentance. And God will remove all our guilt in a single day.


* Gregory Mobley, "Zechariah," in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1357.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent, Day 17

I looked up and saw a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” Then the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him, and said to him, “Run, say to that young man: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the LORD, and I will be the glory within it.” - Zechariah 2

There's a new ministry in my diocese which I admire very much, called Outside Church Walls. These folks are exploring what it means to get outside the expected environment of the church and to befriend the world around us. They're going out and having conversations that get beneath the surface, beyond the small talk. They operate under the principle that the church cannot be an island unto itself.

Is church to be found here somewhere?
Lately I've been doing something similar. As an assignment for class, we had to pick a neighborhood, meet random young adults, and interview them on what they think about life. We tried to learn the art of listening beneath the surface to get at people's deepest longings and motivations. Once we got over our initial fear of approaching people in coffee shops and malls, we found that many will open right up and talk for a long, long time. We met a young man who drives children in the "holiday train" through the mall, but who is also an apprentice to an electrician and really wants to be a professional musician. We met a young Roman Catholic woman and her atheist friend from Montana, who love each other deeply while respecting each other's religious differences. We met a young mom who has her BA but is stuck in a dead-end job and relies on her parents to help her make ends meet.

The prophet Zechariah tells us that "Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls." In ancient days, the big cities had walls in order to protect them from invaders. I'm afraid that many of our churches have wound up like that, too. We put up walls to protect ourselves from the experience of the Other -- the one whose experience of life seems to contradict our own, or at least to make us very uncomfortable. Just yesterday a friend of mine was talking about the hard time her church gives her because of her divorce: she's even having a hard time getting her son into a religious school for that reason. What is this school so afraid of?

But if we in the churches tore down our walls, maybe we would find many people coming to us not only to be changed by us, but also to change us. Maybe our churches could become fuller expressions of people's deepest longings. And maybe the Holy Spirit would be in that work, delighting in it, transforming people's lives. Maybe by allowing our walls to be torn down, we'll find that the Holy Spirit was at work all along, but the work was happening in coffee shops and malls, rather than in the pews. Maybe we'd find that the baby isn't born in the society-approved inn, but in the stable out back.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent, Day 16

Jesus said, "Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ – do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

"Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

"Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." - Matthew 24

This is a portion of Matthew's version of what is called the "little apocalypse"; it appears also in Mark and Luke. All three of these writers place it toward the very end of Jesus' ministry, shortly before his arrest.

These days most scholars believe that Mark's gospel was written right around the time the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. For both Matthew and Luke, then, it would have been a very raw memory of a deeply traumatic event.

So here we are with more language about the end of the world, probably inspired by the seeming end of everything the Jews held dear. But while it seems at first glance to be all about gloom and doom, note that the end of all this action is the gathering up of God's "elect" from every place to which they have been scattered. In the same way that the Old Testament prophets spoke of God gathering the nation of Israel back together after the Babylonian Exile, Jesus speaks of God gathering the faithful back together at the end of time.

Jessica Hill/AP (from link below)
Love wins. No trauma, no violence, no destruction is so complete that God cannot ultimately overcome it. But neither does God always prevent traumatic events from taking place. And this doesn't tend to sit well with us.

But still, love wins. In the garden outside a church I frequently attend is a small patch of trees and bushes, and placed inconspicuously among them is a little stone inscribed with the words, "Love wins." The stone is just sitting there, waiting to be seen by any person who needs desperately to see it.

I was struck yesterday by this NPR story about the family of one of last year's Sandy Hook victims. Despite their trauma, they have chosen as their motto, "Love wins."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent, Day 15

The time is surely coming, says the LORD,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the LORD your God. - Amos 9

See? Even Amos has a good day eventually.

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. - 2 Thessalonians 2

“Behold, I am coming soon,” says the Lord. - Revelation 22

One of the most fascinating things about the New Testament is the tension that develops around Jesus' "Second Coming," something we're still trying to figure out. If you read the New Testament books and letters roughly in the order scholars think they might have been written, 2 Thessalonians is one of the first, and Revelation is one of the last.

Paul was convinced that Jesus would literally return to earth, oh, maybe next Thursday afternoon, and his letters reflect that belief. He suggested that nobody even bother to get married, lest that distract folks from being ready for Jesus' return. But as the years and then the decades wore on, people began to lose hope, and some drifted away from the faith over this point. It was in this context that Luke quoted Jesus as saying, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." Yet the Revelation to John encourages a continued waiting for Jesus.

Of the many Christian tenets that people believe different things about, the Second Coming may be the hardest one for people in our time to swallow. It's another of those mysteries. Some people really do believe that one day, oh, maybe next Thursday, Jesus will come descending out of the clouds (a notion clearly based on pre-Galilean cosmology) to sweep the faithful up into heaven. Others say, "Why would God suspend all the rules of this carefully constructed universe, just like that, all of a sudden, after 13 billion years, just because of us presumptuous humans on this tiny little planet?" Some believe that Jesus' Second Coming has to do with each of our individual deaths.

As for me, I don't mind living in the tension. I don't think Jesus will literally come "with clouds descending," but hey, I've been wrong before. As I wrote yesterday, all houses will be destroyed. I think that extends to the universe -- it probably had a beginning, so it will probably have an end. Will there still be humans around to see it? Probably not. Rather, I think the Second Coming has very little to do with timeline. The "already" and the "not yet" get folded into each other in a way that's beyond even Einstein to demonstrate.

And as Amos quotes God saying, "The time is surely coming ..." Many good gifts are in store for us in this wondrous universe.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Catechumenal Formation Meets Cosmic Invitation: On the Use of a Litany of Saints at the Great Vigil of Easter

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” – Hebrews 12:1

The corners of the worship space are dark, but the nave is brilliant with light from the handheld candles of a hundred worshippers. A large octagonal baptismal font occupies most of the floor space in the apse. In a few moments, the first of several adult catechumens will kneel in the water of the font to be showered with several gallons of additional water, soaking her three times in her clothes. Afterward, at the Passing of the Peace, white bathrobes and fuzzy slippers await the newly baptized in the sacristy. But first, even before the candidates are presented, two singers lead the congregation in chanting a Litany of Saints. They chant, “Elizabeth and Simeon, Joseph, Monica and Helen, exemplars in the love and care of children,” and the congregation sings in response, “Stand here beside us!” They chant, “John the Baptizer, mapmaker of the Lord’s coming,” and again the congregation responds, “Stand here beside us!”[1] This goes on for nine minutes … yet it is not mentioned in The Book of Common Prayer. The ancient practice of calling on saints throughout history to be present with today’s worshippers, while retained and used periodically in other denominations, has only recently begun to reappear in Episcopal churches. When done well, the use of a Litany of Saints in the Great Vigil of Easter need not burden the liturgy, can be adjusted easily to fit local and theological exigencies, provides a logical flow from readings to baptisms, is justifiable within the existing rubrics of the prayer book, and undergirds the training of catechumens and the formation of the entire congregation.
The celebration of a paschal feast may date all the way back to the first decades of Christianity,[2] but the Litany of Saints may have appeared no earlier than the seventh century. The Catholic Encyclopedia cites its early use in the rogation days, Holy Saturday, penitential seasons, and various other occasions, including “times of drought, famine, earthquake, and other calamities.” A litany of saints is used at the Easter Vigil in the Sarum Rite during the procession to the font.[3] The Protestant Reformers, “espousing a strong belief in justification by faith, rejected the mediatory and intercessory role of the saints and therefore purged the Reformation liturgies of any invocation of the saints.” [4] In England, Thomas Cranmer kept the Litany of Saints in his early revisions but did eventually remove it.[5]
The Great Vigil of Easter is usually the longest-running liturgy of the year. From the lighting of the new Paschal flame through the lengthy Exsultet, multiple Scripture readings, musical responses and prayers, baptisms, the “alleluias” and return of the light, and finally the Liturgy of the Table, those worshippers hearty enough to attend might well feel as if they had run a liturgical marathon. While many come away feeling incredibly uplifted, others, especially little ones brought by their parents in pajamas, may grow weary and need to be tempted by chocolate and strawberries at a post-Vigil reception. Why make the service any longer? Still, as a pamphlet printed by the Church of England points out, “Traditionally this was a service that began after sundown on Saturday and ran through to after dawn on Sunday. Such a long service is a challenge for modern churchgoers to attend.”[6] Even a full-service Easter Vigil is a compromise compared to the practice of the Middle Ages. Could one choose a Litany of Saints that would keep the congregation engaged? Another consideration is that of efficacy. Does not the Great Vigil, in current common practice, do all that it sets out to do? What might a litany of saints add to the Paschal liturgy without detracting from its focus on Jesus’ passing over from death into life? More specifically, how might a litany of saints change the focus of Vigil baptisms?
With these questions in mind, we turn to the content of various litanies of saints in current use in several denominations in close liturgical proximity to the Episcopal Church. Roman Catholic practice is not strictly uniform: one litany used in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, provides some background on the variety, naming three forms: “(a) the complete (solemn) text, used principally in the rogation processions and public intercessions; (b) abbreviated texts, based on the first and used in the Easter Vigil and in the revised rites of the Roman Pontifical incorporated in a Mass; and (c) a short form used in the rites with the dying.”[7] This particular litany is typical in that it divides the saints into categories: Prophets and Fathers of Our Faith, Apostles and Followers of Christ, Martyrs, Bishops and Doctors, Priests and Religious, and a few Lay saints. Some of the names listed may not be commonly known even in Roman Catholic circles, including such martyrs as Isaac Jogues, Peter Chanel, and Maria Goretti. Special instructions show that “the names of other saints may be added in the appropriate place in the Litany.”[8] So even in Roman Catholic practice, variety is generously permitted. The common response to the invocation of these saints is, “Pray for us.”
            Some may be surprised to learn that Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains a Litany of the Saints, but each of these saints appears in Scripture, and the word “saint” is not employed in the chanted text itself. The Lutheran version begins not with the saints of the early Christian church, but with Abraham and Sarah. As many women as men are named throughout salvation history, from Deborah and Esther to Martha and Phoebe. In the portion of the litany in which specific saints are named, the congregational response is, “Thanks be to God.”[9] Meanwhile, the Church of England’s “Thanksgiving for the Holy Ones of God” is recommended especially for use “at Morning or Evening Prayer at All Saints’ tide. It may also be used at services of Christian initiation in procession to or from the font.”[10] This relatively brief litany, like the Lutheran litany, begins with Abraham and Sarah, but it continues through the Bible and into the history of the church, naming in quick succession Ambrose, the Cappadocian Fathers, Julian of Norwich, and many others. Perhaps most notable is its juxtaposition of “Thomas Cranmer and all who reform the Church of God” with “Thomas More and all who hold firm to its continuing faith.”[11]
With a litany of saints approved for use in neighboring denominations and even by the Church of England, it is surprising that no such thing exists even for optional use in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer or in any supplement approved by General Convention. Yet some Episcopal churches have gone out of their way to adapt litanies of saints to their local purposes. One such litany is available from, a website for “traditional Episcopalianism in the 21st century.” A hub for resources such as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1940, this site also provides a litany of saints clearly based on Roman Catholic tradition, complete with the congregational response, “Pray for us.”[12] Socially progressive congregations might find this particular litany difficult to justify due to its traditional language (“thees” and “thous”) and lack of gender-inclusive forms. But other creative litanies have sprung up in recent years. The Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C., uses a litany first composed by William MacKaye, former religion editor of the Washington Post. This litany borrows images from other sources and has been edited for local use in various other ways. It employs a congregational response that avoids any accusation of saint worship but goes far beyond mere remembrance: “Stand here beside us!”[13] It is unclear whether this congregation uses the litany at the Easter Vigil. But at the Feast of All Saints, “the litany is chanted in procession. The procession moves from station to station around the church during the singing of the verses of ‘For all the saints.’”[14] Among the saints whose presence is sought are “Catherine of Siena, the scourge of popes … Gandhi the mahatma, reproach to the churches … Das Hammarskjold the bureaucrat … Martin Luther, who could do no other.”[15]
MacKaye’s setting as edited by St. Stephen and the Incarnation is the source for Dent Davidson’s musical setting,[16] though Davidson has reduced the number of names somewhat. A male and female singer alternate lines of the chant, which begins a cappella. The choir begins to hum a drone at “Peter of the keys, denier of the Lord,” and at “Bach and Mozart, Britten and Duke Ellington,” a steady drumbeat begins. As the chant progresses, the choir adds more and more harmony to the congregational response, and the rhythms of the chant become jazzier. The section devoted to martyrs is extensive and dramatic, and space is provided for a reading, over the choir’s drone, for the church’s annual necrology at the Feast of All Saints. This leads into the final section, in which the choir’s rhythms grow even more complex. The chanters invoke “Holy Mary, unmarried mother” and, finally, Jesus himself. All told, Davidson’s litany runs about nine minutes in length.[17] A congregation that appreciates the power of this setting may well find it to be nine minutes well spent in the course of two and a half to three hours.
The decision of which litany to use, and whether and how to adapt it, is very important and must rely at least partially on parish and diocesan customs, priorities, and theological distinctions. The Episcopal Church is not subject to the limitations of the Lutherans to saints in scripture or to the Roman Catholics’ use only of saints formally canonized by the magisterium. But neither is it advisable to use every name in Holy Women, Holy Men, and many liturgists may feel that it is inappropriate to include faithful non-Christians such as Gandhi. Therefore a liturgist must decide which names to include and why, feeling free to alter existing litanies or to compose something new.
Can a Litany of Saints be used at the Great Vigil of Easter without flouting the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer? At least two options for placement are clear. In either place, the Litany of Saints can assist a seamless liturgical flow and even an amplification of the theology of the Pasch. The choice between these two options may depend on the architecture of the worship space, specifically hinging on the question of whether a procession to the font is desired.
If there is to be no procession to the font, the Litany of Saints can serve as a musical response to the final reading in the Liturgy of the Word, from Zephaniah (3:12-20): “And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home … for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”[18] The Litany of Saints can serve thus not only as a “suitable psalm, canticle or hymn,”[19] but also as a bridge to the baptisms. Following the litany, the presider can still use the appointed collect responding to Zephaniah: “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery …”[20] The same collect is used on Good Friday to conclude the solemn collects. The gathering to which Zephaniah refers now stands alongside the gathering of a great cloud of witnesses at the font, saints who have gone ahead with Jesus into death, including martyrs who have shared in Christ’s suffering in an explicit way. The Litany of Saints can also be seen as a musical response to the entire set of readings: the Evangelical Lutheran version recaps the highlights of salvation history, from creation to the exodus to the prophets to the coming of Jesus. After the collect, the presider may immediately go on to say, “The candidates for Holy Baptism will now be presented.”[21] A Vigil congregation with no baptisms may also consider using the Litany of Saints at this point, immediately prior to the renewal of baptismal vows.
According to one rubric, “If the Presentation of the Candidates does not take place at the font, then before or during the petitions (page 305), the ministers, candidates, and sponsors go to the font for the Thanksgiving over the Water. If the movement to the font is a formal procession, a suitable psalm … or a hymn or anthem, may be sung.”[22] The Litany of Saints can be used as a suitable anthem: indeed, this is its recommended use in the Church of England.[23] In this case, the petitions, which would otherwise be sung in procession, can take place upon the candidates’ arrival at the font. In this way, we are asking the saints to pray for the candidates along with us. One consideration in this case is the length of the Litany of Saints: it must be understood that no procession to the font will take nearly as much time as the litany does.
Having assessed the content of various litanies of saints and options for placement, we can assess their use theologically in the context of the Vigil. Liturgist Derek Olsen writes that the Litany of Saints, “while not sanctioned by the prayer book, reflects an organic understanding and application of the baptismal covenant, and makes a crucial move towards communicating our baptismal ecclesiology.”[24] The catechumens are connected not just to a group of people who have died, but also to the lives they led as Christians. Olsen continues:
The inclusion of the litany of saints directly after the baptismal vows holds up before the eyes of the whole community fellow baptized believers recognized not for their ordination status or because of their historical importance but because they offer us examples of a life lived in conformity to the vows that we have just taken once again upon ourselves. They give us concrete, incarnate pictures of the goal of baptized life … When we ask for the prayers of the saints, we make a strong statement about the nature of baptism and the life-in-Christ into which we are subsequently drawn: we affirm that the company of the baptized still includes those who have gone before and that they continue to share the same life-in-Christ and participate in the continuing ministry of the church as the baptized whom we see around us.[25]
This speaks to the possibility of using such a litany at the Feast of All Saints, as St. Stephen and the Incarnation does, but why the Easter Vigil? In an email to me on November 14, 2013, the Rev. Poulson Reed, rector of All Saints Church in Phoenix, wrote:
The Vigil’s theology is rich with the sense of the great cloud of witnesses, that ‘this is the night’ when the Church around the world and through all time gathers to tell the stories of our salvation and rejoice in Christ’s resurrection. It is a night in which we recall ‘that wonderful and sacred mystery’ the Church, in heaven and on earth. Particularly at a parish called ‘All Saints,’ the Litany of Saints reminds us in the most important service of the whole year that we are always supported by the communion of saints, this fellowship of love and prayer. It is into that fellowship and communion that we have been baptized, as members of Christ’s Body.

To say that the saints are joining us at the font is an exercise in what Adam Seligman and colleagues call “ritual as a subjunctive.” [26] For them, ritual is “an endless work of creating a subjunctive world in overt tension with the world of lived experience.”[27] In Christianity, this world is the Kingdom of God, and in the sacraments of communion and baptism, we imagine a world in which the saints join with us in celebration. The use of a litany of saints can be a powerful imaginative tool in helping reveal the Kingdom not only to those about to be baptized, but also to the entire congregation.
Another lesson this reveals is the inability of Christians to separate themselves from the world around them. Gail Ramshaw outlines twelve proposals demonstrating the effect that Christian worship can have, through its worshippers, on the rest of the world. Her Proposal #3 reads: “Participation in a weekly gathering reminds us that the individual does not, cannot, ought not, exist alone.”[28] Evelyn Underhill puts it this way: “It is plain that the living experience of this whole Church, visible and invisible, past and present, stretched out in history and yet poised on God, must set the scene for Christian worship; not the poor little scrap of which any one soul, or any sectional group, is capable.”[29] This is an antidote to Western culture’s radical overemphasis on individuality. According to Alexander Schmemann:
The purpose of worship is to constitute the Church, precisely to bring what is ‘private’ into the new life, to transform it into what belongs to the Church, i.e., shared with all in Christ. In addition its purpose is always to express the Church as the unity of that Body whose Head is Christ. And, finally, its purpose is that we should always ‘with one mouth and one heart’ serve God, since it was only such worship which God commanded the Church to offer.[30]
            At the same time, the Litany of Saints stresses the “in but not of” nature of Christian community. Richard Norris, in reflecting on the writings of Clement, concludes that Christianity “is another society, living a new and different sort of life, which one enters only through a personal revolution … and which for that reason is inevitably set apart in its world.”[31] Through the church, God calls people into a life lived in tension between immersion and separation. J. Neil Alexander explores this tension:
We have rediscovered that becoming a Christian is less something one does than it is something one survives and reckons with on a daily basis throughout our life … The exigencies of the end of the twentieth century have called us, indeed forced us, to rediscover what it means to be the Church, to offer a living witness to Jesus Christ, and to embrace life in response to the Gospel in a context that is largely hostile to the Gospel’s demands for justice and mercy.[32]
The saints, in their varied stories and legends, offer endless witness to the life into which baptism calls every one of us. Derek Olsen writes, “The saints then are not mediators through whom prayers must be channeled in order to reach God; they’re fellow voices just as my priest, parish, and family pray for me and I for them. In naming the saints, though, I align my prayers with theirs, and reinforce my own commitment to live a life like theirs which is marked by service in the image of Christ.”[33]
In its use at the Great Vigil of Easter, the Litany of Saints teaches catechumens and the entire congregation about the life of the baptized while simultaneously amplifying the theology of the entire Triduum. It demonstrates our ancestors’ dedication to Christian service as exemplified on Maundy Thursday. The invocation of the martyrs, accompanied by the use of a collect most recently heard on Good Friday, underscores the indivisibility of death and resurrection while reminding Easter worshippers of the saints’ acts of service to the world around them, strengthening the connection between the mission of Christ and the mission of the Church. The newly baptized have become a part of the family of those who take up their cross for the sake of the world, just as Jesus did. Finally, the saints also exemplify the eschatological gathering together of all the faithful through the Paschal mystery of the Resurrection. Far from diluting or distracting from the common theology of the three parts of the Triduum, the Litany of Saints strengthens and upholds all of them.[34] In their baptismal vows, the catechumens take hold of the dedication of the saints and make it their own. From their baptism, they go on the Eucharistic table and bring all of us with them. Presumably, the saints we have invited to our celebration join us there as well.
End Notes

[1] This practice reflects my experience of Dent Davidson’s A Litany of All the Saints at St. Thomas Church in Medina, WA, at the Great Vigil of Easter in the years 2006-2008.
[2] James W. Farwell, This Is the Night: Suffering, Salvation, and the Liturgies of Holy Week (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 39.
[3] Frederick E. Warren, trans., The Sarum Missal in English, Part I (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913), 277-280.
[4] Berard L. Marthaler, exec. ed., New Catholic Encyclopedia, Second Edition, Vol. 8 (Washington, D.C.: Thomson Gale, 2003), 601.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Phillip Tovey, ed., Introducing Times and Seasons 2: The Easter Cycle (Cambridge, England: Grove Books Limited, 2007), 17.
[7] “Litany of the Saints for Solemn Intercessions,” accessed November 20, 2013,
[8] Ibid.
[9] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #237.
[10] Church of England, All Saints to Advent, 558-560, accessed November 20, 2013,
[11] Ibid.
[12] “Litany of the Saints,” accessed November 20, 2013,
[13] “For the Feast of All Saints,” accessed November 21, 2013,
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Dent Davidson, A Litany of All the Saints, score in PDF form, emailed to me directly by the composer in 2011.
[17] Ibid.
[18] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 291.
[19] Ibid., 288.
[20] Ibid., 291.
[21] Ibid., 301.
[22] Ibid., 312.
[23] Church of England, All Saints to Advent, 558, accessed November 20, 2013,
[24] Derek Olsen, “More on the Baptismal Litany of the Saints,” haligweorc, December 20, 2012,
[25] Ibid.
[26] Adam B. Seligman, Robert P. Weller, Michael J. Puett, and Bennett Simon, Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2008) 20.
[27] Seligman et al., 28.
[28] Gail Ramshaw, Christian Worship: 100,000 Sundays of Symbols and Rituals (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 203.
[29] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 85.
[30] Alexander Schmemann, “The Task and Method of Liturgical Theology,” in Dwight Vogel, Primary Sources of Liturgical Theology: A Reader (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 60.
[31] Richard Norris, “The Result of the Loss of Baptismal Discipline,” in Michael W. Merriman, ed., The Baptismal Mystery and the Catechumenate (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990), 29.
[32] J. Neil Alexander, “Christian Initiation: Ritual Patterns and the Future Shape of Revision,” in Ruth A. Meyers, ed., A Prayer Book for the 21st Century (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 18-19.
[33] Olsen.
[34] For more specifics on the “lateral juxtaposition of the Triduum liturgies,” see Farwell, 51-61.