The Questions Epiphany Bring

During Epiphany we remember three miracles: The baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan with the voice of God the Father giving approval for this act, the wedding feast in Cana where ordinary water was turned into extraordinary wine; and finally, the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. These Epiphany miracles remind us Jesus’ ministry has begun. They also foreshadow his death and resurrection, and how we are compelled to take up our crosses and follow him. The Season of Epiphany invites us to find the miraculous in the mundane, and to walk alongside Christ as a disciple.

During what is sometimes referred to as the “Octave of Christmas” – those 8 out of the 12 days of Christmas – the Church’s calendar begins to reveal what following Christ truly entails. December 26, the day after Christmas, is St. Stephen’s feast day. The irony in the placement of this feast is clear. On December 25th, we remember the birth of Christ, the Messiah into our world, and the very next day we remember the death of Stephen, one who followed him. St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christendom, and revealed what the cost of discipleship can sometimes entail. The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this about discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

On the second day of Christmas, we remember St. John the apostle and evangelist. John takes us away from martyrdom for a moment and helps us focus on Calvary’s cross in a very intimate way. From the cross, Jesus looked down and saw his Mother Mary; he then looked to John, and again at them both and said, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26). A classic interpretation of this story is that Mary represented the Church. John was to be joined to her, and the Church to him. Christ compels us to do the same through the graces his Church offers.

The third day of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Innocence. Here, we are reminded that those who stand in the way of the State (represented by Herod in the story) will be punished and even killed for the sake of Truth. It is Jesus Christ that is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not emperors, kings, congress, or presidents. Historically it is the State that is willing to sacrifice the least of these in order to gain power; whereas, Christ lifts up the least of these as the ones who will inherit the true Kingdom founded upon Him.

Finally, on the octave of Christmas the Church remembers Christ’s Holy Name. Here, we remember the name the angel gave him – the name Emmanuel – which means God with us. This name is important because if the call to discipleship is to loose our self for the sake of Christ (again, represented in St. Stephen) then Christ (as Emmanuel) is always with us. He’s with us in our joys and our sufferings. He’s with us corporately in His Mystical Body – the Church. He’s with us whether we are Jew or Gentile as St. Paul reminded us in his letter to the Church in Ephesus (Ephesians 3:1-12).

God is with us is a great Christmas truth that continues into this season of Epiphany. In two weeks, we will celebrate the Confession of St. Peter, the apostle. Peter confessed to Jesus that he was indeed who he said he was. Jesus is the Christ, and Peter would spend the rest of his life stumbling around trying desperately to figure out what following him meant. Peter, in other words, is very much like you and I.

The following week, we have the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s story is a conversion story in the extreme. It was he who by persecuting the Church was persecuting the very Body of Christ. Christ appeared to him and told him this. Paul repented of his sin, and followed Christ. He then went on to produce most of the canonized letters found in the Bible’s New Testament.

On the 40th day after Christmas, and really the day that ends the Christmas stories, is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Here, we remember Jesus being presented by his parents to the priest; and yet like Anna and Simeon who were waiting on him in the Temple, we too must ask how we are to present ourselves to him. Again, do we fight against him and recollect our egos like Herod; or do we die to our egos, take up our crosses and follow him? These are short questions, and the Church gives us 40 long days in which to contemplate them.

After tomorrow, which is the Baptism of Our Lord, the Church will change its liturgical colors from white to green. Green signifies growth, and Epiphany truly is a season in which we are invited to grow into the likeness and image of Christ. Will you be like Peter this season, proclaiming Christ is Lord, yet wondering how to follow him? Will you be like Paul, in need of conversion from this or that in order to truly follow in his path? Ponder these questions that the Church naturally gives at this time, then live into their answers knowing God as Emmanuel is always with you.

An Incarnational Faith

**Redacted from my sermon preached on the 1st Sunday after Christmas**

John 1:1-18

I am convinced that the more the Christian immerses herself into the life of the Church, the more freedom she receives. A fidelity to Christ allows those spaces and places within one’s heart to continually make room for his love and grace. St. John said we must “receive him” – a passive act that does not grip or grasp at truth, but accepts truth “as is.” The Christian then has the opportunity to imitate the will of God not only with her lips, but in her life giving up her very self in service to him. Again, putting this theology into the language of John, “[Christ] gave power to become children of God, who were born, not…of the will of man, but of God.” The will of God is like Mary’s song, a passivity that leads to freedom…the freedom to walk in love as Christ loves us, the freedom to love neighbor as self, the freedom to pray for those who persecute you. As Christians, we point to these graces when we give our fidelity to Christ and his Body – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. When we follow the doctrines, disciplines, and life found within the Body, we open ourselves up to a deeper grace that continually gives itself away.

What I am writing the world has never fully accepted, and just a quick look at the latest polls on church attendance and its decline over the past 50 years should give us pause. This is nothing new; however. St. John wrote, “[Christ] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” When we accept Christ we are receiving the reality that we are not our own. We are accepting the revelation that God is in control, and we are not. These truths are hard to shallow, especially to a materialistic, hedonistic, and individualistic society; however, they are still truths that the church holds up for all the world to see.

The Church holds these theological truths up daily, weekly, and seasonally in its common life. Let’s look at all three of these. As catholic Christians we are gifted with a breviary. A breviary is a fancy word for a prayer book. In our prayer book are structured prayers for morning, noon, evening, and bedtime as well as other contextual prayers, not to mention the Lord’s Prayer and The 10 Commandments for other devotionals and meditations. Outside of the breviary, yet part of the traditional practices within the church, are the Stations of the Cross (formally done as community on Good Friday, but open to anyone during the year) mediations, the rosary, and silent forms of prayer – to name a few. These daily forms and practices of prayer help ground a Christian in an intentional way, that is, a way of communicating with God and further discovering his will for us.

In addition to daily prayer, there is weekly worship and participation in Holy Eucharist. Each Sunday, Christians gather together and receive both Word and Sacrament; that is, the story of God as revealed in scripture, song, and prayer and how we participate in the ongoing history of Christ in the world today. At Holy Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ within us that gives us strength for the journey outside these walls as well as puts us in communion with the saints of his church.

The Church also participates in theological truths found seasonally. In Advent, we look for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ into the world in the form of a child, and await his coming in glory sometime in the future. Advent is a season of anticipation. At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of God coming into the world in our own form; thus, sanctifying our very bodies making them holy and acceptable to him. At Epiphany, we acknowledge that the gift of God extends beyond those found on the “inside.” God’s truth is for everyone, and he is constantly calling the world to be united through his son. During Lent, we remember our beloved dustiness, and how these bodies are temporary as we await a participatory resurrection in Christ. During Holy Week, our souls are torn like the curtain in God’s temple. We knew truth, and yet we sacrificed it for our own relative truths. At Easter, we are forgiven for this as God raised Jesus to new life – God has done a new thing and continues to do new things. Finally, on the Day of Pentecost, we further acknowledge that the Church is for all God’s people, and participation in his Church is none other than the participation in Christ’s Body through the Holy Spirit. All of these seasons provide the various moods and colors found on earth as it is in heaven, and when we fully participate in these what we find is a rhythm to life grounded in Christ’s grace and love.

Finally, we have the sacraments and sacramental rites of the church. We have Holy Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Reconciliation of a Penitent (a.k.a. Confession), and Ministration at the Time of Death (a.k.a. Last Rites). When we combine a daily life of prayer with the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist found within the context of the Church’s calendar, and in communion with the sacraments and apostolic teachings of the Church, we are truly letting go and letting God. We are truly entering into the life of the Church as God has revealed it, not egotistically creating it in our own image. All of the above practices are non-rational spiritual technologies, and yet they point to a reality named Christ – the only true reality.

So why am I doing a teaching on the church today instead of talking about Christmas? Well, Christmas reminds us of our incarnational faith. We are spirit mixed in with flesh and flesh with spirit so much so, that they cannot be separated. The above practices use our bodies, minds, and souls to further communicate God’s love within us, and in the world around us. This New Year, accept the invitation Christ has given, and increase in his hope and love within his incarnational faith.

Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Balancing the Bigger Picture of Christmas

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. ~John 1:14 

“Take a step back,” my Dad called out to me. “You’re standing too close. Take a step back, and you can see it better.” We were visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, and what IT turned out to be was Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting’s iconic because up close one realizes the whole piece was painted with little dots. Artists call this technique pointillism, and at the time I wasn’t so interested in the bigger picture. I had studied this painting in school, and I wanted to experience the dots myself, so my face was as close to the painting as I could possibly get without making the security guard standing to my left suspiciously nervous. I eventually backed away, marveled at the size and scope of the painting, but for some reason, I kept focusing in on those silly dots.

The dramatic lead up to Jesus’ birth is found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Within Luke’s Gospel, we have the angel, Gabriel, visiting Mary and revealing she is with child; while in Matthew, we take a step back from the pregnancy and begin with the genealogy of Jesus. (Mark’s Gospel has no birth narrative. It begins with the baptism of Jesus as an adult). It is only with the Gospel according to John where the largest step away from the nativity scene happens. From its angle, the bigger picture, the idea, the point, and the revelation all stand revealed. John steps all the way back to the genesis where we discover that God, through the person of Jesus Christ, has always been and always will be. (What a picture John paints for those who believe). And what is this belief? The belief is what theologians call the Incarnation, what the prophets of old named as Emmanuel, and why worshippers celebrate Christmas. God took on flesh and walked among us. This is the Christmas miracle. This is the new beginning.

If we contemplate this theological space of new beginnings, the world opens up its mystery to us. We begin to experience within us and all around us those creative aspects found in God’s creation. A sense of awe, wonder, and imagination pricks the senses as we surrender ourselves to truth, beauty, and love. John’s Gospel reveals that God’s master plan has always been incarnation; and now, with the living breathing person of Jesus his mark on the painting is now complete. It is God’s most important point. The one holding the whole picture together; and yet I find myself torn between wanting to focus my whole attention on the dot that is Jesus Christ while at the same time feel compelled to take a step back and see the bigger picture. In that delicate space of contemplation is where the greatest mystery opens itself up to me. It is in the tension of the manger where I also find the cross of Christ. It is in the details of Jesus’ life where God is fully revealed to me. In this Christmas season, I know that I am called to the one who will feed the hungry, heal the sick, and forgive our sins. I know that I am called to love like Jesus for in doing so I realize the same love God finds within me is found in the other, the stranger, and the neighbor. These are crucial and oftentimes overwhelmingly crushing details where I feel compelled to take a step back and remember the larger picture. I wonder if that is the point of Jesus? That is, to remind us how to love, while at the same time pointing us in the direction of Love itself? I suppose it is a balancing act for us. A discernment. A knowing and an un-knowing all at the same time.

This Christmas, marvel at the point on the picture. Take notice that the security guard standing to your left is supposed to be a bit nervous. After all, institutions and those in charge do get nervous when we all start taking our art, our religion, and our Lord Jesus Christ seriously. Get close to the dots and at the same time don’t forget the picture as a whole. Each dot is important. Dare I say we can find our own dot within the picture, for in doing so, we discover God within us. How humbling it is to know incarnation was part of the plan the whole time. How sobering it is to know we are all part of the bigger story – a story within a story – the art and painting of God.