One of my favorite Gospel passages is Mark 4:35-41, in which Jesus and the disciples are traveling across the Sea of Galilee at night. A supernatural storm arises and begins to capsize their boat. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus sleeps serenely through the storm. In the disciples’ fear and anxiety, they awaken Jesus, who then stills the storm and asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have so little faith?” Often this passage is taught and preached as if Jesus means by his questions, “Didn’t you know God wouldn’t let our boat capsize?” But Jesus means no such thing. He doesn’t promise that everything will turn out just fine, or that the boat will keep an even keel. Jesus lives in the gritty, real world, and he knows that sometimes storms upend our lives. What Jesus means to convey to the disciples is that, even when the storms sink us, God is with us. That is how he can sleep in peace while the tempest rages.
God abides with us in love when we sail and when we sink. God shares our joy and bears our sorrow. Faith is the recognition and trust that there is no fathom we must endure without God. I have thought of this passage and this promise repeatedly this week as, for so many of us, brief periods of light and warmth have been surrounded by long stretches of cold and darkness. There is no storm in this life greater than the God who creates the heavens and the earth. There is no darkness in this world that can overcome God’s light. It is my prayer that God’s ever-presence with each of us be felt palpably in these days. We are, each and all, loved beyond measure, and, as we support one another every way we can, I pray that warmth of heart sustain us until warmth of hearth returns.
Right out of college I worked in the admissions office for Hendrix College, my beloved alma mater. Twenty-two years old, with a newly-minted Bachelor of Arts, I was a proud advocate for liberal arts education in a new J. Crew suit and power tie with a Half-Windsor knot. Frankly, I was a little full of myself. One autumn afternoon, I drove into the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas for a college fair at Fayetteville High School. I set up my table and neatly arranged my brochures. Soon, a young man with greasy hair and a black rock concert t-shirt stopped by and asked, “Y’all got comic book drawing at your college? I want to draw for Marvel Comics.”
“Well,” I offered, entering the admissions marketing zone, “Hendrix has a superb art department. And, you could earn a double-major in business in case you ever want to move into management.”
The young man looked at me as if I were an alien from another planet. “Just want to draw comics,” he said again. “Y’all got that?”
Suddenly, an idea sprang to my mind, a hook. I had him. “Well, no,” I carried on, “but a liberal arts degree is much more well-rounded. If all you do is learn to draw comic books, and Marvel Comics goes out of business, what will you do then?”
The kid cocked his head and with a smirk I’ll never forget responded, “I guess I’ll stand behind a table and hand out college pamphlets.”
Believe it or not, that was not my worst experience that day. In those days, Interstate 540 hadn’t yet been built, and the state highway down the mountain from Fayetteville was twisting, narrow and treacherous, with one side hugging the mountain and the other dropping off into abyss. By the time the college fair ended and I headed toward home, dusk had settled, and with it came a thick fog. At the top of the mountain, everything was clear and starry sky, but I could see, just a few hundred yards below, that the world was swallowed in dense and soupy darkness.
I began my descent, and before long my arms ached and my neck was stiff with tension. I was scared. And then, as if from nowhere, I came upon the taillights of an eighteen-wheeler piercing through the fog. Light shining out of darkness. They might as well have been Jesus himself beckoning me to follow, and follow I did. The trucker had clearly run this mountain innumerable times before, in all weather conditions. He knew each turn intuitively, and no cloud was going to prevent his progress. I kept my eyes trained on those lights through the fog, and eventually they led me down the mountain and into the valley.
Today we celebrate that feast of the church most embraced by our culture, the Feast of St. Valentine. As I whisked through Walgreen’s this past week, looking at aisles of syrupy pre-packaged greeting cards and cellophane-wrapped, heart-shaped boxes of candy, I paused to consider exactly what it is Valentine’s Day celebrates.
The answer is simple and comes quickly. The notable thing about Valentine’s Day is its brazen exaltation of love: romantic love, intoxicating love, mountaintop love. And the reason Valentine’s Day is so commercially successful is that such love is not restricted to any niche market. We all crave it. Junior high students and octogenarians are equally vulnerable to cupid, as are people of any gender, ethnicity or orientation. “I love her,” we say with stars in our eyes, and we mean exactly the stuff of Hallmark cards.
And, it is an idea that is absolutely, completely, and entirely absent in Holy Scripture. The kind of love extolled by Valentine’s Day is so foreign to the heart of Christian faith that the Roman Catholic Church ended its observance of the Feast of St. Valentine fifty years ago. Surely, scripture knows love. St. Paul affirms love as the greatest spiritual gift, the one without which no other gift has meaning. St. John tells us not that God is power nor that God is justice, but that God is love. But that love is different in kind from Valentine’s Day; it is virtually the opposite of the cellophane love sold at Walgreens.
Today’s Gospel passage comes exactly in the middle of Mark. It is the hinge of Mark’s story, the spine of his book. It is the Transfiguration, and everything else Mark tells us is oriented to it. The first eight chapters of Mark lead up to it, and the latter eight chapters follow from it. Consequently, this brief passage is key to our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are called to be. This story also gives us the true definition of love, and we are fortunate it appears on our calendar immediately after the alternative definition offered to us by Valentine’s Day outside these walls.
Peter, James and John follow Jesus up the mountain, and once at the top Jesus is transformed in their eyes. They see him as he is, not the ragged and mud-splattered man who walks the roads of Galilee, but the Son of God, Incarnate Deity, the very completion of every promise God has ever made to humanity. And they are star-struck.
“I love him,” the disciples likely spontaneously say. It is, after all, the mountaintop experience! It is, on a cosmic scale, the Hallmark moment. Were the disciples Shakespeare, they’d compose sonnets. Were they Hershey they’d whip up boxes of candy.
The disciples say they want to stay atop the mountain, basking in their bedazzlement in the presence of this one they adore. But almost as soon as they’ve said so, clouds begin to descend. They are blinded by soupy fog, and when they begin to see, Jesus is ragged and mud-splattered again. He looks, well, ordinary.
Uh oh. We know that experience. It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, the day after the allure wears off, the day when the Hallmark card gets used as scratch paper for the grocery list. It’s the day when sickness befalls, or financial pressures crowd, or arguments outweigh sentiments of joy. It’s the day the clear and starry sky is swallowed by the clouds. This is where Valentine love proves to be no more substantial than cellophane. And, this is where, Jesus teaches us, real love begins.
You see, in his first act after revealing the fullness of his nature, Jesus walks down the mountain into the fog. For the rest of Mark’s Gospel he will march steadily toward Jerusalem, where he will receive the blows and taunts and pain of a confused and hurting people. He won’t walk way. He won’t quit. He won’t find excuses. And he surely won’t debase real and true love by staying safe above the clouds. He walks down the mountain, and the next time he ascends any hill he will have a heavy wooden cross on his back.
Starting today, Jesus shows Peter, James, and John—he shows us—what real love does, how real love acts, what real love looks like. And this is not only the love between lovers, but between parents and children, friends, and, it’s worth saying, fellow Christians. Fleming Rutledge says, “Love comes down…Love is grateful for the experience on the mountaintop, but knows that it cannot stay there. Love persists when glory has faded, when the romance has fled, when the curtain has been dropped on the stage set. Love never gives up.”
Many of us have been on the receiving end of cellophane love that abandons us when the clouds descend. We have been hurt by lovers and friends and the church.
Many of us also, ashamedly, have extended such pitiful, sorry love. We have loved on the mountaintop but failed to love in the valleys. We have given up and walked away and left those we professed to love lost in the fog and darkness.
And we have been Peter, James and John, misunderstanding that Jesus—that love—only first dazzles in order to provide the light we need to see us safely through the clouds and down the mountain.
Today, blessedly, we are reminded that, no matter who has failed us in this life and no matter when and how often we have failed, Jesus does walk down the mountain. Jesus does enter into the cloud and into the hurting heart. Jesus does provide light out of darkness, and if we cling to his light we can navigate the most twisting, narrow and treacherous roads. Just as importantly, pointing to his light we can truly love each other and make sure we all know the way.
The clouds will descend, people of God. They always do. They descend in our lives and they descend in our world, as we’ve been so potently reminded this past year. But don’t fear. Jesus isn’t staying on top of the mountain. His light is on the way down to where we are, into the depths of broken promises, loves lost, and sorrows deep. He travels to where love is most needed, and his love is solid and sure. Love comes down and meets us. Thanks be to God.
The 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is woefully underrated and almost forgotten sixteen years after its release, which is a pointed irony if you know anything about the movie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stars Oscar winner Kate Winslet as Clementine and Jim Carrey, who is surprisingly good in serious roles, as Joel. As the film begins, Joel wakes up foggy-headed and skips work, and, seemingly on a whim, takes a train to Montauk, the last stop on the very tip of Long Island. In a manner the film conveys almost palpably, Joel knows dimly that something is amiss. He has forgotten something. The forgotten something is important and momentous, and it lures him forward to Montauk’s obscure and remote geography, but he cannot recall what it is. Joel is off-balance and adrift, with neither keel nor mooring.
Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, serves as the Torah’s retelling and renewal. Deuteronomy is an extended speech as from the mouth of Moses, recounting to the Israelites their relationship with God and explaining what it means to live completely dedicated to that relationship. Right in the middle of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the four offices necessary to shepherd the Israelites. The first of these is the judge, whose job is to administer the law and mete out justice fairly. The second is the king, who both keeps order and is a symbol of the ideals of the people. The third is the priest, who leads worship, makes sacrifices, and serves as pastor to the people in need. These three roles are, perhaps, self-evident. For any people, they are each indispensable. Without the judge, the world would be arbitrary. Without the king, the world would be chaotic. Without the priest, the world would lack succor.
The fourth office is that of the prophet, deemed by God to be as important as judge, king, and priest. It is about the role of prophet that we read in Deuteronomy today. The prophet’s essential role in the life of a people may be less obvious than the other three offices. Indeed, in ancient Israel, though there were court prophets like Nathan who sat at King David’s side, the prophets were usually outsiders—think Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah—who the king and people would preferred to have been rid of. The prophets were nuisances and gadflies who repeatedly questioned the kings’ decisions and the people’s way of life.
What is a prophet? Unfortunately, today we too often associate the term with fortunetelling or future-predicting. The whacky and malleable predictions of Nostradamus are called prophecies. Certain sects within Christianity seek to read the bible as code book of opaque future-oriented “prophecies” waiting to be deciphered. But neither of these notions gets anywhere close to what the bible means by prophet or prophecy. Please give them up. (I have a short list of gross misconceptions I hope to help people shed over the course of my ordained career, and this is near the top.)
So, what are prophets, really? They are those who tell the truth. That is the beginning and end of prophecy. In scripture, at times it seems that prophets are harbinger of doom. But why is that? It is because the prophet has the courage, and the commission from God, to tell the people the truth about their actions, their commitments, their plans, and the consequences of all three. When those plans are hell-bound toward destruction, then the prophet’s truth-telling comes across as bad news. But it isn’t the prophet’s intention to convey doom and gloom. Some of the most soaring and hopeful passages in scripture also come from the prophets. Think of Isaiah’s vision of the wolf and the lamb, or of the heavenly banquet. Or, consider Martin Luther King, Jr.—a true modern prophet—and his vision of the beloved community.
Prophets tell the truth. God’s truth. And what is that? The truth is that the world we live in most of the time, in which we make our decisions, and choose our paths, and react and respond to others, is an illusion. It is not what God intends—it flows not from the heart of God—and thus it is not real. We recognize that dimly. The illusion and artificiality of the world through which we walk is why we, like the main characters in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, carry with us a dull but ambient anxiety. It is why we are so often, but without any clear object, confused. It is why we take note that things seem to be broken, but we cannot pinpoint why, or exactly how, or how to repair them.
In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it turns out that both Joel and Clementine have earlier paid a company called Lacuna to erase their memories. Joel and Clementine had originally met in Montauk and fallen in love, but love is hard. It is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong, and sacrifice. Clementine’s and Joel’s relationship became so strained that they each chose to cancel love, to banish its presence and even memory from their lives, to live as amnesiacs. They scrubbed their minds clean, believing that a spotless mind would be eternal sunshine.
What the main characters quickly learn, however, is that such willful amnesia results not in light but in confusion, anxiety, and a discomfiture that is gnawing and ever-present. Letting go of love seems at first to be the simpler and easier route, but that proves to be desperately wrong. Such willful ignorance casts a shadow that is a pall over everything. Without love, the world is false and confused. Without love, sunshine is merely an illusion.
I doubt that it is a coincidence that the filmmaker named his main character Joel. Joel is, after all, another of the bible’s prophets, another of its truth-tellers. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, despite the supposed erasure of his memory, Joel can’t shake the feeling that the world through which he now walks is broken. Something has been forgotten, and it must be remembered. In Joel’s confusion, he lumbers and careens through shadows where he thought there’d be sunshine. He won’t the abide the falsity, the amnesia, the brokenness, the sorrow, and even in his confusion he doggedly seeks the truth. Until, miracle of miracles, he rediscovers and speaks it. Joel and Clementine find one another again in Montauk. They commit to live in light of the truth and do the hard work of love.
There is a moment in the Eucharistic liturgy called the anamnesis. “An-amnesis.” It means the contrary of amnesia. It means to remember. The words are different in each Eucharistic Prayer, but the anamnesis always comes after the priest has rehearsed the story of Jesus and his friends in the Upper Room. Suddenly, as if waking from a dream or shedding an illusion, the whole gathered people say, “We remember his death! We proclaim his resurrection! We await his coming in glory!”
We remember. That is the first step in prophecy. To be prophets all, we must awaken from our confusion and our willful forgetfulness of God’s intention for the world. We must recognize that we, consciously or subconsciously, have sometimes decided to abandon love, for ourselves, for our intimates, of those who are different from us in the world. We have come up with all sorts of rationales for why life will be easier, simpler, spotless, and sunshine without love. We have convinced ourselves and lapsed into amnesia for who God truly is and what God intends for the world. We must remember. We must remember that God is love and calls us to love. The very word “re-member” means to knit back together that which has been frayed and separated. Remembering is the first step.
And then, as the prophet does, we must speak the truth. We must tell it both to ourselves and to the world, recognizing that, depending upon the depth of our forgetfulness, the truth may seem like bad news before it is revealed to be Good News. Awakening and remembering will require that we become different. Love is hard, not easy. Love is work, and self-giving, and acknowledgement of wrong and passive complicity in wrong, and sacrifice. But love is also light. It is the ever and only truth. And speaking that truth is the way we awaken others to it, the way the world begins to shed its amnesia and knit its frayed edges back together.
The author and poet L.R. Knost understands that light is to be found in the recollection of love rather than in forgetting. She articulates our calling to the office of prophet in these days:
“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.
All things break. And all things can be mended.
Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”
Blogger Megan Griffith shares what it is like when she listens to the world.[i] She says, “Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone at a concert, sporting event, or on a noisy train/subway? It’s difficult to hear the other person, right? [My life] is like all your conversations take place in some kind of stadium or subway station, even if you’re actually sitting in a quiet classroom or even your own living room.” All the time, in any circumstance, Megan hears the sounds all around her, but she can’t distinguish where they come from or the meaning attached to each one. Sound is a constant bombardment and sifting through the barrage is virtually impossible. Megan suffers from Auditory Processing Disorder, a condition that includes the failure of “auditory figure-ground discrimination,” or, “being able to focus on the most important sounds in a noisy environment.”
In 1 Samuel today, the little boy Samuel is asleep in the temple at Shiloh, but he sleeps fitfully. Three times he is awakened by a voice calling out to him. Samuel can’t distinguish from whom or where the voice is coming. He thinks it must be Eli the priest, and he gets up each time and tries to follow the sound. Finally, the bible tells us, “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy,” and he counsels Samuel that, if Samuel hears the voice again, he should listen with care.
I’ve always loved this story, and it does, indeed, turn out that the voice calling out to Samuel is the voice of God. That’s why it is included in Holy Scripture, after all. But I’ve always wondered, what if it hadn’t been God? Because often, of course, it isn’t. Often, when we hear a siren song and call it God, the voice is something different altogether. Albert Schweitzer famously said that sometimes seeking to hear God is like calling out down a deep well and mistaking our own echo for God’s voice.
But even that is just one voice among innumerable others. In full, it is as if we suffer from a cultural Auditory Processing Disorder. We are all so bombarded with noise—and I mean this both literally and figuratively—that we cannot process it accurately. We suffer from a collective failure of auditory figure-ground discrimination. We too often fail to recognize the trustworthy and reliable voices in a noisy environment.
As a result, often the sound that lands is the loudest, most incessant, and most outrageous. Why is that so? Because we cannot abide ambiguity or confusion. We are hard-wired to seek simplicity and clarity just as when the earth beneath us feels like quicksand we will seek solid ground no matter what, even if that ground is volcanic. We desire these things so much that we are sometimes willing to accept whatever pierces through the noise and grants us something distinguishable, whether or not that voice is trustworthy. Or, to hearken back to the story of Samuel, whether or not that voice is of God.
That can happen regardless of one’s politics or ideology, but it certainly happened in the weeks, months, and, indeed, years leading up to January 6. The assault on the U.S. Capitol Building was the inevitable result. The rhetoric, postings, and emblems of those who violated the Capitol Building express fidelity to, and certainty in, loud and incessant voices that are most decidedly not of God. There were overt expressions of white supremacy; idolatrous signs emblazoned with the message “Jesus Christ is my Savior; Donald Trump is my President;” and, cryptic to those on the outside but most telling of all, ubiquitous symbols of QAnon, the Byzantine, internet-driven conspiracy theory with thousands of devotees that claims to be combatting, as reported by the BBC, “a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”[ii]
The scale of the violence involved in the assault on the Capitol is still becoming clear. In addition to the Capitol Police officer killed, Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin reports as “mind-blowing” the extent and severity of the acts of violence at the Capital Building. Sherwin said in his press conference, “People are going to be shocked with some of the egregious contact that happened within the Capitol.” Sherwin also revealed that live pipe bombs were planted at both Democratic and Republican party headquarters. Blessedly, they did not detonate.[iii]
In the wake of January 6, we must ask anew, “Through the world’s noise and our own distress, how do we know which voices are God’s and of God, when so many competing ones claim to be?” For that, we turn, as we should always turn, to the Gospel. Today, the voice of Jesus calls out amidst the world’s noise, and Nathanael hears him. Without pause or hesitation, Nathanael proclaims of Jesus in awe and wonder, “You are the Son of God!” In that moment, Nathanael’s entire life changes. And by that, I don’t mean he starts going to church twice a month or rests easy in the assurance that he gets to go to heaven when he dies. Rather, his life becomes, in its entirety, a life of discipleship to Jesus. Every commitment, every decision, every priority, every passion becomes the shared passions of Jesus.
Why is this so? Why is this voice different? Why does it transform Nathanael’s very being in the world? A few verses prior, John’s Gospel has told us, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”[iv] That is to say, and admittedly mixing metaphors of sight and sound, “If you want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus.”
This has always been the central Christian truth, the truth of the Incarnation: If we want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. If we want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus. By extension that means we mustn’t call our own self-affirming echo Jesus’ voice, and we mustn’t choose some ideology—any ideology—and call it the Gospel of Jesus.
Listen to Jesus. Let Jesus’ voice reach us through the noise. Focus on it, and only it. What does that voice say? The voice of Jesus denies the temptation of power in favor of sacrifice.[v] The voice of Jesus defends the vulnerable who are at the mercy of the majority and the mob.[vi] The voice of Jesus brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. [vii] And the voice of Jesus blesses those who do likewise as inheritors of his kingdom.[viii]
This is the voice of Jesus piercing the noise. This is the only entirely true, trustworthy, and reliable voice. Any voice, from anyone, that speaks differently is not God or of God. And following the voice of Jesus in all things is what the life of discipleship looks like. It is all-encompassing.
At the funeral of John McCain on August 31, 2018, McCain’s friend and fellow senator from Arizona Jeff Flake said, “This fever will eventually break. It has to.” That’s an interesting image. Fever spikes, often into delirium, before it breaks. I pray that our national fever broke on January 6. In hopes that it did, then we must ask how we, as Episcopalians and members of Christ Church Cathedral, can contribute to national healing.
Importantly, the first word Jesus speaks in the Gospels is a call to repentance, to acknowledge our contributions to the world’s unholy noise, and to turn anew toward the God of love. Surely and specifically, this means holding accountable all those who participated in and abetted the violent and hateful assault on January 6. Beyond that, in order to experience societal redemption, we must each ask and answer with stark honesty what sins of commission or omission we have contributed to the acrimony in our nation. We must amend our speech where we have added to the noise and speak Gospel words where we have been silent.
Secondly, and of equal importance, a restoration of health also requires that we acknowledge that “getting back to normal” is not good news for everyone. Our experience these past years has revealed that there are those in our society who remain vulnerable and for whom justice and equal opportunity have been ephemeral. There is much work to be done with regard to race and racism, the economic effects of de-industrialization on communities, and more, all of which must be constructively addressed, from our national leaders all the way down to our local community. And about these things the Church must have something to say as well, just as Jesus did.
First of all, we must quiet the noise and listen to the voice of Jesus. In it there is no deceit. It is good, trustworthy, and true. And it calls us, this day and every day, to follow him into the transformed life of discipleship.
In college I was a philosophy and religion major. I loved the passion of the religion department, but I equally appreciated the dogged rigor of the philosophers. With set jaws and steely eyes, they probed as deeply as the human mind can probe the fundamental questions of the universe. I especially loved philosophers like Hegel who, while crazy difficult to read, proposed total systems of understanding, leaving nothing out. There is something elegant and satisfying about the “grand theory of everything.” I have always wanted to know the Truth with a capital “T”. I’ve always desired knowledge about the things that hold the world together and give it purpose and meaning.
It wasn’t long into my first philosophy course when I learned that once-upon-a-time physics was simply a branch of philosophy. That realization made perfect sense. The physicists, too, seek to understand the underpinning of things. They, too, ask the deepest questions. In fact, at some point along the way modern philosophers became sidetracked with (in my opinion, at least) silly questions and ceded the essential questions to the physicists. It is the physicists who insistently peel back the layers of the world to discover what lies beneath. And in so doing, they reveal to us dimensions that sometimes seem fantastic and surreal.
For instance, there is, right here and right now—around and within each of us—another world, populated not only by molecules and atoms, but by things that even atoms dwarf. It is a world of quarks and bosons (bo-zens). It is a world governed by the strong force and the weak force.
This is the world explored by physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research. Theirs is practical in addition to theoretical physics. With their Large Hadron Collider, these men and women actually smash protons together at nearly the speed of light. The collisions occur with such force that the protons splinter into their component parts, allowing physicists to see the very basic building blocks of the cosmos. Because their work is mysterious to folks like you and me, it frightens many people. Indeed, in the weeks before their Large Hadron Collider fired up for the first time in 2008, there was a crescendo of panic that its proton-smashing might create a black hole that would swallow the earth.[i]
Lucky for us, that didn’t happen. But what did happen at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, and announced with fanfare in newspapers and on cable news channels across the globe, was the discovery of the “God particle.” In laymen’s terms, the God particle is that subatomic bit that draws other particles to it, causing them to cohere and have mass. Without it, there would be nothing tangible in the universe. All would be merely ether. It is, in other words, the basic property of creation, that through which all things are made: you, me, the tree, the rock, the supernova. On this tiniest and simplest thing, all else hinges. You can see how it got its nickname. The God particle’s proper name is the “Higgs Boson,” and scientists had been searching for it for fifty years. Without the Higgs, physics had a big hole in it. Physics’ model of the universe was a hope, but it was not a hope realized. Until the Higgs was found, physics’ house of cards might’ve fallen. And so, the wise men of physics were constantly on the lookout for the Higgs at its rising. They needed it as a lodestar to guide them to the truth.
Today, in anticipation of the Feast of the Epiphany later this week, we read about another guiding star. Magi—wise men, philosophers, we might say the physicists of their day—ardently seek the Truth. They wish to plumb the depths of mystery and understand the essential workings of the world. So they follow the lodestar at its rising, wherever it may lead. On their quest, politics attempts to co-opt them (as politics today often tries to co-opt scientists). King Herod seeks to influence the magi for his own ends, but these are seekers of truth, and honest truth-seekers will not be used and will not be influenced, no matter what pressure is brought to bear upon them.
The magi continue to follow the lodestar, which draws them as a force toward Bethlehem. The star beckons and lures until it stops over the place where lies a child. These wise men from the east are learned. They already have a healthy and potent sense of how the cosmos works. They already hold a fair portion of the truth. But until this encounter, there is a hole in their model of reality. Their house of cards could fall.
Until now, when in this child the wise men discover the heart of the world, when they find the essence, the purpose, the meaning of creation. In this child they see, in the words of St. Paul, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” As they gaze at Jesus, the magi realize, as Paul also says, “all things have been created in him and through him…and in him all things hold together.”[ii] In this tiny and simple child, all else hinges.
Our Gospel reading shares with us the fact of this discovery. But in the Epiphany season we are about to enter, we also receive the content of the meaning and purpose Jesus embodies at the heart of all things. During Epiphany we often read the Third Song of Isaiah, known in Latin as Surge, illuminare. In it, the Prophet speaks of the way the world will be when it recognizes Jesus Christ as its center. When we awaken to the reality that we are created in and through Christ—when we are drawn to him as our center the way all those subatomic bits are drawn to the God particle—we will take on greater substance and surge with light, which is what the title of that holy song means.
But there is more. Christ gives us substance and light not for our own sake. Too much of Christianity grasps only this half-truth. The Third Song of Isaiah goes on to say that when the Truth is fully revealed, when we kneel before it the way the magi kneel to the Christ-child— when it completes us—we will be changed as essentially as those particles in the Hadron Collier are changed when they slam together at the speed of light. Where our minds once tended to brood and darken, we will instead see the world in light. Where we were closed off, insular, and self-protective, the gates of our hearts will remain ever open. We will, each of us, foreswear violence and live in peace. We will, in all things, seek to further the purpose of Christ Jesus through whom we are made, which is always, always love.
That is the Epiphany. That is the Truth disclosed by God and discovered by the wisest men and women, both in the first century and today. It is practical rather than theoretical spirituality. It bears concretely upon the way we respond all those things that linger from 2020 as we enter into a new year. Once physicists discovered the God particle, they could never turn back. Their world will never again be what it was before that truth was disclosed. Once we have experienced the Epiphany, we can never go back, either. We have seen the Christ at the heart of the world. It has been revealed that we were created for no other reason than to live through him and for him. We now know the Truth. Surge, illuminare. Take on new substance, rise and shine.
“What will you preach?” That is a question that has been circulated on every Zoom clergy group of which I am a part these past few days. What does one say on Christmas Eve this year? How does one relate the Gospel promise of Christ’s Nativity in a world so uncertain, an environment so fraught, a winter so unrelenting in so many ways?
Even in balmy Houston, we have experienced a metaphoric winter nine months long, in which the coronavirus has put our lives in deep freeze. Indeed, one consultant I read has called this our existential “Ice Age.” As after a blizzard, the world has ground to a halt. Like many of you, in a year’s time I have not seen loved ones beyond those who live in my household. I have not sat face-to-face with most of my friends or colleagues in almost that long. And lest some still think that COVID-19 is only a half-step more severe than the common cold, know that I have conducted Last Rites through a computer screen for someone dying of this insidious virus alone in a hospital room, while his family wept through their phones. It has been winter, indeed.
In an otherwise even-keeled world, the coronavirus would be enough to capsize us. But our world is not otherwise even-keeled. There is an ambient anxiety coursing through this season. It distorts our thinking, making us uneasy, distrustful, prone to respond poorly and inaccurately to events swirling around us like a wintry mix. It is as if we’ve gone through the looking glass, or, perhaps, into the wardrobe.
In such circumstances, how can Christmas come? What does Christmas even mean? And, what word of hope can a preacher offer? No theology will do. It will all seem too esoteric, too academic, too bloodless for the visceral days we presently endure. So instead, let me tell you a story. It’s a story you’ll remember, perhaps almost as familiar to your childhood as the Nativity story itself.
Lucy, and then her siblings Peter, Susan, and Edmund—the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve—find themselves transported from war-ravaged England into the equally-threatened land of Narnia, caught in the wintry grip of the White Witch. In Narnia, everything is frozen. Life is ground to a halt. Mr. Tumnus, a faun, explains to Lucy that this winter is as joyless as it is eternal. “Always winter and never Christmas, think of that!” Mr. Tumnus says to Lucy, scarcely believing it himself.[i] The long winter has affected Mr. Tumnus. He, himself, has gone to work for the White Witch, gradually allowing his thinking to be distorted and his actions to collude with hers.
As the story goes on, Edmund, Son of Adam, also falls prey to winter’s confusion and the White Witch’s spell, but the other three children hunker down and hope for better. And then, one day as the three children (along with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver) hide out in a snowdrift, they hear the jingling bells of a passing sleigh. They are terrified that it is the White Witch, caught up to them at last, and Mr. Beaver sneaks out to take a look. Soon he returns, and dancing outside their warren he says, “Come on! Come and see! This is a nasty knock for the Witch! It looks as if her power is crumbling! Didn’t I tell you that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn’t I tell you? Well, just come and see!”[ii]
The children climb a snowy hill to find there, atop a massive sleigh led by mammoth reindeer, Father Christmas. He is not Clement Clarke Moore’s jolly elf, but a spirit both joyous and solemn. The reader is told, “He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still.”
When Father Christmas, finally arrived in Narnia, speaks, his words are a miracle, for the children, for C.S. Lewis’ readers in war-torn England, and for us today in the midst of our own travails. Father Christmas says, “I’ve come at last. She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”
Father Christmas gets it exactly right. He recognizes that, however desired he is—however needed the Spirit of Christmas that buoys our own spirits—Christmas only comes because Aslan is on the move. And in Lewis’ fantasy world, Aslan is, of course, the Christ, the begotten of God, the Incarnate Lord whose entrance into the world breaks the grip of any winter and thaws any heart.
Before he leaves the children, Father Christmas does what Father Christmas always does: He gives them presents. But he tells them, “These…are tools, not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.”
The gifts are specific to each child, and they are each items that empower the children to support Aslan, to play their own unique part in thawing winter, to usher hope into the world.
This is our message on this Christmas Eve. Christmas is here, because Aslan is on the move! Christmas is here, because this night the Christ child is born. Try as it might, the winter of the world this long year past begins to break. There are signs of the thaw all around us.
And, beyond the trinkets and baubles we may give and receive this night, we are each given, by God, gifts beyond measure that we must bear in the world to strengthen hope and further grace. Christ is born, and that includes in us, as Christ’s hands and feet and heart that can use our abundant gifts to quell anxiety, abate fear, lift spirits, and share love.
Christmas this year lacks the frivolity of years past. Clement Clarke Moore’s jolly Santa seems out of place and out of touch with our reality. But C.S. Lewis’ Father Christmas does not. Solemn yet joyous, Father Christmas knows the truth. He knows that, though there are chilly days yet to endure, the news arrives each day now that the icy grip of winter is losing its hold. Aslan is on the move! Christ is born! And the way we choose to wield the gifts God gives us has a real impact on what happens next. May we bear those gifts with the forthright courage of children, who always teach us so much at Christmas time. May we care, and love, deny the White Witch wherever she appears, and be agents of the Incarnate God. As Father Christmas rides out of sight, he calls out to the children in words inspiring and true: “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”
[i] Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 2.
[ii] Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 10.
Oh, you can feel it, can’t you? It all starts to seem real when we get to the Gospel lesson on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Young Mary is alone in her room. Gabriel shows up and speaks. There is Mary’s moment of perplexity, when she protests her virginity, followed by the angel’s explanation of what will happen. The whole thing leaves us giddy, because we know that the Advent time of waiting is almost over. Christmas is almost here.
For several years when I served St. John’s Church in Roanoke, Virginia, I was one of a few local pastors who appeared in Mill Mountain Theatre’s annual production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” It was great fun. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is the hilarious story of a church pageant invaded by the Herdmans, the wildest, most disruptive kids in town. The best lines in the play are given to Imogene, the eldest sister in the Herdman family.
When Grace, the pageant’s director, reads today’s portion of the nativity story to the cast, Imogene asks, “Why didn’t Mary get to name her own baby? I would have named him ‘Bill.’ What did the angel do, just walk up to Mary and say, ‘Name him Jesus’?”
Grace, who is entirely flustered, responds, “Well, yes!”
And it is a little odd, isn’t it? The angel Gabriel does just walk up to Mary and take over. Gabriel arrives like some sort of fixer and begins dictating how things are going to go:
“And now,” he says to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…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 the Son of God.”
Why is this so? Why does the Christmas story necessarily begin this way?
The summer after second grade, my family took our first and only summer vacation to the beach. We rented a huge, rambling house on the Florida coast outside of Pensacola. My grandparents went with us. In my memory, this vacation has mythic importance rivaling Scripture’s nativity story. It was wonderful. Among the memories, I recall waking up early every morning to the sound of the surf and wandering down the boardwalk to the beach. I was up early, but not as early as my grandfather, Pop. Pop arose with the sun to take his net and bucket and go crabbing at the edge of the water. I would hit the beach just in time to meet him walking back to the house. He’d smile, and I’d look down at a five gallon bucket full of crabs.
Pop never put a lid on that bucket, and I asked him if the crabs could climb out. “Just watch,” he said.
Anyone who has ever been crabbing knows what I saw. One crab would extend his body up the side of the bucket. A second crab would climb up the first crab’s back and almost make it to the bucket’s lip. But just as he reached forward with his pincer, a third crab would latch onto his legs and pull him down. I was mesmerized. Endlessly, the crabs would make the effort to escape their predicament, and each time any hint of cooperation quickly gave way to a primitive panic, with one crab pulling another down in the attempt to leap frog to freedom.
There may be no better image to describe the human condition. Sometimes, it feels as if we are but crabs in a bucket. We prove incapable again and again of saving ourselves. As individuals, we attempt to reorder our lives so that we are good and pure and fair at least to those we love and cherish, if not to the stranger we meet. We wake up each morning and say with commitment, “Today is going to be different. Today I will offer the kind word and make the right decisions. Today I will…”
And on some days breakfast is barely digested before we feel the worst in us grab hold of an ankle and begin to pull us back down.
Then we turn on the television, read the newspaper, or open the internet and realize that, as disordered as our personal lives are, the society in which we live is far worse. With politics, the economic cycle, foreign relations between our nation and others—take your pick—everything we do seems to cause the crabs to tumble back over one another into the bottom of the bucket. Even our best attempts to make things better create unforeseen consequences, collateral damage that is often worse than the original problem we set out to solve.
And this is not academic. Trust me. Those who lose hold of hope and tumble to the depths are actual, real people. They line up outside the Beacon. They desperately seek help from our At Risk Youth Program. They lie in hospital beds hooked up to innumerable tubes. They sit in these very pews this very day, and join us by the hundreds via livestream, anxious about all the ways in which we seem to flail around and almost smother under the mass of the desperate others around us.
Sooner or later we find ourselves realizing the futility of trying to save the world. With each faithful attempt to make things better, other things get worse. We can’t even reorient our own hearts with any lasting effect. And our striving exhausts us.
Exactly. That’s why Gabriel shows up that day two thousand years ago. That’s why he speaks like a fixer, because we cannot, ultimately, fix ourselves or our world. The time had come for God to take the initiative; the time has come for God to take the initiative. We may be helpless to help ourselves, but, as Gabriel reminds Mary and reminds us, nothing is impossible for God.
As we careen toward the joy of Christmas, we must not forget that. We must not forget the “why” of our joy. It is nothing less than the reality that when we could not move to save ourselves, God moved. When we like a solitary adolescent child—like Mary—stand paralyzed in the world, knowing that everything we touch seems to fall part, God enters and says, “Do not be afraid. I will overshadow you, and my Son will reign forever and ever.”
Our joy is the joy that, in the end, we are not crabs trapped in a bucket. We are the beloved of God. Our world is, in fact, God’s world, and God’s Son comes to redeem it.
There is, of course, a role we must play. It is the same role Mary plays. Though Mary, a virgin, can take no effective initiative in God’s saving action, she must, for it to find purchase, be willing to receive it. Gabriel has announced God’s plan. Mary has listened. And then there is that moment of pause, that moment when, the Irish tell us, the very stars in the heavens held their breath to see what Mary would say. No doubt in the silence even she can feel the tug at her ankle seeking to pull her down. But Mary says, to the stars’ relief, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
All we must do is be receptive. All we must do it loose hold of the one above us and quit trying to save ourselves by pulling another down. Then God will do the saving work. God will act in us and through us and, through invisible yet powerful tendrils of grace, in our world.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel says, “for you have found favor with God.” Get ready! Keep your eyes open! God is coming to save you. Our joy is almost here.
I am the son of an English teacher mother and a father who reads voraciously. As such, our home was always full of books. Perhaps because of that, I was aware of Charles Dickens from a very young age. At Christmas time, we would drive the hour-and-a-half to Memphis to see the annual stage production of A Christmas Carol. I knew the story of Oliver Twist by heart. But the first Dickens story I studied with any intention, probably my sophomore year in high school, was Great Expectations, about the young protagonist Pip and his journey to adulthood. There are several haunting characters in Great Expectations, but none more so than Miss Havisham.
Miss Havisham was defrauded and abandoned by her fiancé on their wedding day. As a result, she arrested her life at exactly the moment of her abandonment: twenty minutes until 9 in the morning. All the clocks in her house are frozen at that mark. Miss Havisham continually wears her tattered wedding dress, and her wedding day breakfast remains on the table, uneaten, years later. Miss Havisham is, herself, the embodiment of her surroundings. In my mind, cobwebs hang from her moldering dress, as she decays along with the house around her.
In the novel, Miss Havisham is waiting. First, for the nightmare of her abandonment to prove to be an illusion. Then, for her revenge on the world to satisfy her grudge. Eventually, the dry and papery cloth of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress catches fire from an errant fireplace ember, and she burns to death.
As a teenager, I found Miss Havisham to be ominous. As a middle-aged adult, I know why. In my life and work, I’ve encountered plenty of Miss Havishams in real life, male and female in equal measure: People who have allowed an event (often beyond their control; remember, Miss Havisham is not at fault for her initial circumstance) to stop the clock in their lives, and slowly devolve them into bitterness that crowds out all else. Ironically, such people are often waiting on a redemption that can never come so long as they lock away their inner lives like Miss Havisham locked in her house, closed off to encounters with grace. That is the character of Miss Havisham’s waiting.
Contrast Miss Havisham to Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids in the 25th chapter of Matthew, which we read each year in Advent. The five wise bridesmaids wait, but not absorbed by what has been, not by pretending that the past is unreal or that pain is illusory (and attempting thereby to keep it at bay), and not by projecting that pain onto the world in bitterness. The five wise bridesmaids wait, expectantly and alert, because they know that God is always at work, doing something new. They know that encounters with grace require vulnerability, that we continue to live open-heartedly. They know that only in such a posture can one recognize the Divine when it brushes past us in the world. And when the Lord arrives, despite whatever may have come before, the wise bridesmaids know joy.
This matters this Advent more than ever. As we continue to endure the long Advent-like waiting season until we have relief from COVID-19, I see people lapse into bitterness, interpreting the natural flaws or mistakes of others as personal affronts, lashing out in frustration and anger rather than extending generosity of spirit.
Our lives were arrested back in March. Nothing since then has been what we’d planned for. But in our waiting, we always have a choice. We can become Miss Havisham, or we can be the expectant bridesmaids. The wonder is that the world is transformed either way by our choice. When we become bitter, so does the world. But when we open our hearts to God, like opening the morning curtains, light and love flow in. When we wait upon grace, grace appears! So let the hands of the clock turn. Be generous with yourself and with one another. Stay alert for occasions of grace. And you will know the love of God that redeems all things.