Present Yourself to the Lord – A Meditation on Candlemas

**The following was featured on the blog, Modern Metanoia in January, and preached at a Candlemas Service at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on Feb. 2, 2018.**

There’s a house on my block that sold weeks ago. No one has moved in. It sits empty; and there are still Christmas lights hanging from the roof. Its purgatory-like presence both intrigues and annoys. Annoys because the house and its yard are untidy. Intrigues because today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

Let me explain:  Today marks the 40th day after Christmas, and with this feast the Church closes out the “Incarnation cycle.” In other words, it’s time to put away those Christmas decorations. We’re two weeks away from Lent…Shouldn’t we be tidying up the yards of our hearts, climbing a ladder to the roofs of our souls tearing down those Christmas lights? “Not so fast,” says this Feast Day. In fact, some Christian traditions hide away the light bulbs while the candles come out. For this reason, The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord is sometimes referred to as Candlemas. It’s the day when the candles used in worship services will be blessed. It’s also a reminder that the long winter’s nights are still around, yet the light of Christ eternally radiates the darkness.

Luke 2:22-40 gives us three presentations to consider on this feast day. The holy family presented sacrifices of thanksgiving in accordance with the law of Moses (“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”). They also presented their newborn son, Jesus, who “suddenly comes to his temple;” thus fulfilling an ancient messianic prophesy found in Malachi 3:1. The third presentation is that of Simeon and Anna, two pious and patient Jews, who waited their whole lives to present themselves to the Messiah.

Luke’s story also captures the tensions and realities found in new things. A new child was born as the Messiah, yet old thoughts and formularies about what this meant had to pass away. Mary, like any mother, was proud of her new son, yet she learned “a sword [would] pierce [her] heart” when new revelations about her child would be exposed (Luke 2:35). For each beginning, there is an ending; and the transitions in between are often messy and confusing.

As we transition out of Christmas and Epiphany into the season of Lent, may Candlemas be a day to honor what has come before, and to ready ourselves as to what may lay ahead. If the lights are still on your roof, know that the house of your heart does not stand empty, but is filled with God’s “wisdom and favor” (Luke 2:40). If the Christmas decorations are down at your house, take out a candle, light it, and present yourself to the Lord in prayer as Christ presents himself to you in illumination.

Below, please find the prayer that will be said in Episcopal churches and homes today. I offer it to you in thanksgiving for your ministry to Christ. Use the prayer as you light a candle, then find a word or phrase that sticks out to you, and meditate on its meaning. As for me (and my soon-to-be neighbor) who knows? I may go over to their sold, yet unkempt house, plug in those Christmas lights one last time, praying and contemplating something similar.

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 239)




Can Anything Good Come Out of Haiti/El Salvador/Africa/Nazareth?

Preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on The Second Sunday after The Epiphany (Also, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Holiday Weekend) by: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke, 2018

John 1:43-51

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 August 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

G. K. Chesterton, a twentieth century author and apologist for the Christian faith, once compared the church as a place that holds a thousand doors. What he meant by this was that we come across the church in a variety of ways. Some of us are born into the faith; others converted – usually by some degree of truth, beauty, or goodness. For example, one may hear a theological argument grounded in intelligence, another sees an icon, a stained glass window, or a Christian praying the rosary. Maybe the door that was found was one of healing, music, or liturgy? Maybe the door was a grandparent, a friend, a casual invitation, or a saint? Maybe it was simply looking up into the night’s sky wondering why there is something rather than nothing?

This morning’s collect points to the light of the world, that is, Jesus Christ. In the prayer prayed a moment ago, we asked Almighty God to illumine us by God’s Word and Sacraments. No matter what door we take into the life of the Church, once inside, we participate in the ongoing grace of illumination. Illumination defined is a participation in the life of God. Think of it as a new way of seeing. Illumination can occur through the liturgy of the Word, and the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, and all for the benefit of being in right praise and relationship with God. The consequence of illumination is that the light of Christ is made manifest through us as walking sacraments out and about in the world. As walking sacraments, we take on a vocation of prayer continually asking that we (as God’s people) may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.

God is made known in a whole host of ways. Again, think of those thousands of doors. God is worshipped not only with our lips, but in our lives. Finally, God is obeyed to the ends of the earth. This morning, St. Paul stated, “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. This sentiment is grounded in humble obedience to God. We are given freedom, but true freedom participates in the will of God, not the will of mankind. Discerning the difference takes a lifetime, and a lifetime of contemplative focus and relationship with God can lead to illumination.

There are two beautiful phrases found in today’s Gospel that captured illumination. The first phrase was addressed to Philip, and was said by Jesus. Jesus called out to Philip, “Follow me.” Today, Christians enter into the life of the church through one of those thousands of doors; however, when we do so we are still responding to Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” We remember this call every time we participate in the sacraments, and every time Christ is worshipped and obeyed.

The other phrase comes from Philip. Here, he has answered the call of Christ, has told another (Nathanael), and Nathanael questioned him, asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Instead of elaborating or arguing with Nathanael, Philip responds, “Come and see.” In other words, “I’m not going to convince you that Jesus is the Son of God through argument or reason (that’s probably not your door); instead, come and see for yourself, and that’s what happened. Nathanael met Jesus. Jesus performed a miracle. Nathanael was amazed and believed; then Jesus promised a deepening of the spiritual life and relationship with him – that is, illumination. “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Illumination will occur, Jesus could have easily said, and not because of you, but because of me. Nathanael, like Philip was called, each in different ways, and because they responded to the Lord new promises would be fulfilled.

This week, I had the opportunity (as dean) to gather the priests of your convocation (the SW Convocation) at Iglesia El Buen Pastor where Fr. Ramón Betances serves as priest. Fr. Ramón serves parishioners that hail from Mexico, El Salvador, as well as other Latino countries. In our own pews here at St. Julian’s, we gather as Christian brothers and sisters with one another. Our nationalities bring us here from America, Trinidad, Barbados, Australia, Jamaica, and Haiti – to name a few. We speak English, French, French-Creole, and Spanish. We stumble through the Way of Christ together, and with God’s help we have answered the call of Christ, and encourage others to “come and see” even while prejudices abound. This week, when I heard that our President – the President of the United States, a President whom I pray for, – allegedly muse, “Why are we having all these people from [poor] countries come here” referring to Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, Africa, and beyond [and not using the word “poor” but an expletive], I was reminded of Nathaniel’s questioning to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, can anything good come out of Haiti? Mexico? Africa? The Islands?

Yes. The answer is, “Yes”. How do I know this? Because I see you. Because I know you. And when I see you I see Christ. In my own prejudices, and when I’m walking out and about in the world, I run across folks who make me nervous, folks that look differently than me, that dress differently than me, that talk differently than me – and when I catch myself being nervous – when I catch myself in my prejudices – you know what I do? At my best, I remember you. I remember Haiti. I remember El Salvador. I remember the islands, food, culture, music, truth, beauty, goodness; and it is through these virtues and the relationships I have with each and every one of you where the Church opens up her doors to me; Christ illuminates me; and I repent.

Loving neighbor as self is hard. Praying for those who persecute you may be even harder. As Christians, we are called to do both. Why? Because we are called to obey Christ. At Christmas we were reminded that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or the State. Here in the Season of Epiphany, we live into our call to seek and serve Christ in all persons- loving neighbor as self. This week, be like St. Philip. Don’t get into an argument when prejudice is proclaimed and ignorance abounds. Instead, try another door. Try prayer. Try forgiveness. Try compassion. Let these virtues guide you to the love and light of the world, to Jesus Christ – the illuminator, the sanctifier…the one standing at the door….your door….knocking.

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” 

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.


The Saints of Advent

John 1:6-8,19-28

Today we contrast John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord with inquisitors searching for their own meaning within tradition. John revealed a new interpretation on an old custom teaching those inquisitors to get outside themselves, and to practice new riffs on old songs through the art of preparation.

What is Preparation?
Preparation is laying down a foundation to be built upon. It is the task of planning; a lesson from the virtue of prudence. It’s a recipe for a meal, a practice swing before hitting the ball, a deep breath before jumping in. Preparation is a means to a greater end; the vehicle that gets you to your final destination. It’s a map and a menu, a first step on a hike, and saying ‘yes’ to a task that is difficult.

Remember Your Preparation as You Look for the Goal
Preparation ultimately gives witness and testimony to the goal. Starting on February 9th, we will begin hearing much language around these notions of goals. February 9th begins the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the goal of every Olympian is to capture the gold. In order for an athlete to accomplish victory, she must put nutritious foods into her body, strenuously exercise, and practice her sport daily. She must also be aware of those substances, temptations, and time that could hinder her workout. St. Paul put it this way, “hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21). When I watch the experience of the athlete finally winning the prize, and standing upon that podium there seems to be a moment when the very persona of the athlete goes away. What remains is an attitude of humbleness, a posture that’s almost prayer-like. Perhaps she is remembering her preparation while the rest of the world bears witness to a champion.

John & Mary – Advent Saints
John the Baptist was a champion of sorts, and yet when faced with a barrage of questions asking if he was the goal – if he was ‘It’ – he answered in the negative, and quickly pointed to preparation, training, and practices. He pointed to water that not only cleansed one from sin, but humbled the heart toward ongoing repentance. He pointed to straight roads, and narrow paths, as well as voices of longing drowned out and crying inside the wilderness of the world. John was not the celestial sun, but the awakened moon whose only source of light came from its closest star. And like the moon that steadily snuffs itself out every 29 1/2 days, John understood that he must decrease in order for the light of the world to increase.

Advent’s hero and heroines of preparation most certainly are St. John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. While John revealed preparation, it was Mary, the Mother of God, who said, ‘yes’. What did she say yes to? None other than the goal itself – the telos, the lamb, the Christ, the Messiah. It is John’s preparedness and Mary’s paradoxical passivity that reveal their saintliness to us (and for us). Christ certainly calls us all to imitate him; yet every Advent I have this overwhelming desire to imitate these saints of the Church. To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest who they are all the while teaching me whose they are.

This morning’s collect began, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” John understood from where the power came, and taught that this power is mighty among us when we get out of the way, when we cry out, and when we make room within the inns of our hearts because all the inns of the world hold no vacancy. Mary knew that the mighty would be thrown down with this power, not because it’s war-like, weaponized, or violent, but because its yoke is easy and its burden, light (Matt. 11:30).

It is this light-heartedness along with the shining light in the darkness that this week of Advent now turns. We not only turn to the saints of Advent, these eternal saints of the Church, but we also turn to eternity itself. And if we turn to eternity, if we let these saints point us in the right direction, then we must prepare our hearts to receive it. We must prepare our minds to think differently. We must prepare our souls for revelation. God is about to reveal new things. God is about to disclose his secrets. God is about to unlock a great mystery, and if we honestly intend God to “stir up His power” then for heaven’s sake may we all be prepared.