The Holy Name: Poetry in the Midst of Prose

Philippians 2:5-11

Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stopped his prose and began quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blessed the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blessed God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels taught lowly shepherds a song of adoration sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. Returning to work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat the church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).

By now the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday – the twelfth and last day of this short season. Unbeknownst to most, the Christian “New Year” was Advent I (December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name the church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” a 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder to not only remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as her answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body both the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?

 

*This blog was originally posted on the website Modern Metanoia on December, 16 2019. *

Silent Night. Holy Night.

This homily was delivered to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church, Christmas Eve, 2019

Throughout the season of Advent there have been sacred stories followed by whimsical songs, and remembered lessons echoed by familiar carols that anticipated what was to occur on this most holy and silent of nights. Zechariah was silenced by the angel Gabriel, but soon found his voice again raised in melody announcing the birth of his son, John, who would later welcome the adult Jesus into the waters of his baptism. Gabriel then turned to Zechariah’s cousin-in-law, Mary, announcing that she was pregnant with the one prophet’s poeticized. She too responded to this news with music: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…Tonight’s Gospel (the Gospel of Christmas Eve) follows this pattern of musical response with the shepherds joyfully singing alongside the heavenly chorus, “Glory to God in the highest!” At once we celebrate the songs of angels while pondering the mystery of God within our hearts. We remember the dance of those shepherds while finding God’s treasures in the stillness of the night.

We are further reminded that even in our busy lives, God’s message of love is best heard when we are still; when our ruminating minds are silenced and our tepid hearts awakened. It is those moments when we make ourselves ready to hear songs of the divine. So busy was the government administering a census count that God’s music could not be heard. So busy and closed off was the innkeeper to welcoming the holy family one must wonder if he ever heard Mary’s song at all. We may even imagine Joseph being too nice to argue the point of vacancy with him. Instead, he acquiesced; and like animals made the inn’s stable their lodging for the evening. Meanwhile, the shepherds were entertaining a different set of notes. For them, it was a night like all others with the silence being the pregnant one. Then, all of a sudden new birth sounds out with cacophony. A terrifying startle begins the music of the night, and the shepherds are swept away by its melody sending them from the fields of their own flock to a cramped barn full of others. The band has gotten back together, and they didn’t even know it. New riffs are tried while stock music is remembered. Personalities and personas bleed onto the pages of pencil noted sheet music. There is no rest – until there is. The quarter rest arises as realization. Their music has been inspired by something. It had a muse. The muse was discovered as none other than the Divine – all powerful and all knowing – only more intimate. It is yes/no, both/and, alpha/omega. The muse is all powerful God, and poor helpless baby. It is silent night. It is a cacophony of holiness.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”[1] The food was there lying in a manger that night. Livestock consume mangers when they are full of hay. Tonight, Christians world-wide will consume the muse of love playing as bits of bread in the palms of their hands. It is no laughing matter; and yet, we are filled with joy for tonight we are reminded of hope. Tonight we reminisce on the faith of our great-great-grandparents somehow believing the story – (all of it; at least tonight) – is true. “God,” we may say in the morning, “help me with my un-belief.” “Make me remember the songs of angels. Teach me to be still and truly know you – not as all powerful and all knowing – but as a baby whom I can hold even as I believe you are holding me.”

“So this is Christmas, and what have we done.”[2] I’m sorry, Mr. Lennon, but for once this night is not about you/me/us. It’s about the muse and music of the night: The all-powerful. The all-knowing. The helpless, little Savior (of the world).

[1]                The opening line of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” said by the character, Duke Orsino.

[2]                The opening lines of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song released in 1971, “So This is Christmas”.

This New Year Recall the Light of Christ in Your Life

The Prayer Book defines 7 “principal kinds of prayer” being adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition (BCP, 856). These are all defined on page 857; however, there are two – thanksgiving and penitence – which I would like to focus on as we approach the New Year.

For 4 weeks, the Season of Advent gifted us with John the Baptist’s invitation to repent in order to prepare our hearts for the light of Christ coming into the world at Christmas. Christmas is a season of thanksgiving as we stand thankful for the gift of light within our lives being called (like John) to witness to this light (Jn 1:7,8). This act of thanksgiving is symbolized on Christmas morning when someone gives you a gift to open. You open it; thus acknowledging the gift. Then you thank the person for the gift by actually using the gift – be it a toy, or something practical, or monetary. Again, you use the gift that has been given to you.

Taking these two prayers, thanksgiving and penitence, and thinking about the closing out of one year and the opening up of another, let us recollect, counting our many blessings naming them one by one through prayers of thanksgiving, as well as acknowledging and confessing sin in our lives – not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. This is a great way to not only end a year, but to also live into the next one with grace, mercy, and integrity.

God Moments
When a God Moment occurs, we usually tell somebody about them, or we serve Christ in tangible ways because of all our recognizable moments with God. We are like John the Baptist “testifying to the light” when we participate in these God Moments. Prayers of repentance as well as thanksgiving help to recall those God Moments in our lives, and the church has gifted us with spiritual tools to help recollect both our sins and our thanksgivings. It’s important to balance confession with thanksgiving. Only confessing sin leaves us dull, and boarders on obsessiveness and morbidity. On the other hand, continually thanking God without confessing sin puts us out of touch with the reality of sin, and ignores real problems within our own lives, the lives of others, and even the life of our planet. Having balance with these two types of prayers is a sign of Christian maturity, and spiritual longevity.

Self-Examination & Confession
When there is a God Moment that convicts you of a sin, or sins, in your life this is the Holy Spirit prompting you to pray. Tradition calls this movement of the Spirit, self-examination. We examine our lives in the light of God’s mercy and love, while seeking forgiveness for those thoughts, words, and deeds done and left undone where we fell short. There are multiple manuals within the tradition of Christianity that have helped countless Christians recall and confess their sins. I want to look at 2 of them in the English/Anglican/Episcopal Tradition: The Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.

The Bible
One way to examine our lives is to put it up against Judeo-Christian practices, specifically the moral and aesthetical practices found within the Bible. Within the Old Testament, we could turn to the Decalogue, or The 10 Commandments, meditating on them and observing where we are convicted of sin. From the New Testament, we might consider reading and meditating on the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel or when Jesus summed up the law. Let’s take this last one (Jesus Summing up the Law) and treat it as an example of self-examination. Jesus said,

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

During self-examination we might get curious as to how we understand and experience love within our lives (“Thou shalt love”), and how our love extends from our self, to those around us, including God. Reversing this, we might ask how we believe God extends his love to us, those around us, and in fact, to all God’s creation. This love extends out through our “hearts,” “souls,” and “minds.” This gives us pause as we can now recollect the awesome power of God’s love, and where we fall short giving expression of this love to ourselves, neighbors, and the world. What starts out as a broad meditation on God’s love and the feeling of falling short can now turn into specifics: “I didn’t love God with my mind when I…” “I neglected my neighbor just yesterday when I…” Being specific is important when confessing sin, and reveals to God your desire to be forgiven.

The Prayer Book
Self-examination in the prayer book is best expressed in the liturgical Rite of Baptism. Here, we are reminded of our Baptismal Promises made, or someone made on our behalf at our baptism, if one was baptized as an infant or young child. These promises are on page 304-305. Another resource is St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. In it are specific questions for self-examination using the traditional “7 Deadly Sins.” Once a Christian has practiced self-examination using the Bible and the prayer book for a while, and desires to go deeper, this is an excellent resource for doing so. Getting back to the Prayer Book, once sins have been recollected, there are three ways to seek absolution and forgiveness in the Episcopal Tradition. The first is to confess your sins directly to God in private asking for forgiveness, then praying a prayer of Thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins. Psalm 51 is a classic Psalm of thanksgiving for forgiveness of sins. There are other Psalms that you may wish to say with your own words of thanksgiving as well. The second way is during the General Confession either during Holy Eucharist, or within the Daily Office (morning and evening prayers). The last is a Rite in the Prayer Book called, Reconciliation of a Penitent (BCP, 447). This is confession to God with a priest being present to absolve the penitent through his priestly ministry of absolution. Confession to a priest isn’t in vogue like it used to be; however, this sacramental rite of the church is always available. Persons who use this office of the church today are usually wondering if God truly forgave them, and desire some tangible closure. This isn’t always the case of course as many Christians find confession beneficial at certain seasons of the Church, or at regular times in the calendar where confession to God through the priest is particular important and necessary for further spiritual growth and maturity. Traditional times of self-examination and confession during the liturgical year are during the seasons of Advent and Lent.

Thanksgivings 
Leaving confession and going over to Thanksgiving: Here you Count your blessings. Naming them one-by-one. A sense of gratefulness and thankfulness can suddenly wash over us as we recollect the many wonders of life and being. When this happens we can pause, taking it all in, and simply say, “Thank You.” When we want to be more specific, a great resource found within the Prayer Book is the Thanksgiving section found on page 836 and 837. This section is divided into A General Thanksgiving and A Litany of Thanksgiving. I’ve taken both of these and put them in question format for better recollection and self-examination. Once the questions have been answered, a proper way of closing out the recollection is to simply pray one of the two prayers. This can be done by yourself, in a small group, or within your family as a wonderful way of thanking God for the many blessings of life and light in our lives now as well as thinking upon this past year. The questions are below. Choose as many or as little as you with. I hope you find them helpful; then, using the Prayer Book, either use one of the prayers of thanksgiving on page 836 and 837, or gather up all your thanksgivings and pray The Lord’s Prayer.

God’s creation is beautiful. Where did you seek out beauty and find it this year?

Where did you remember the mystery of love this year? Who helped you remember?

How were you blessed by family? by friends? How were you cared for? How were you caring?

We can be thankful for our disappointments and failures if we faithfully believe that these missteps can lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God. How was this true for you?

 Choose a Gospel story were Jesus is teaching, healing, suffering, being tempted, questioning, being obedient, dying, etc. Place yourself into the story. What do you believe God is showing you today?

 What do you know about Jesus? How do you know him and/or experience him in your own life?

 What gifts did you receive this year? Could any of these gifts be used to “give back” to God?

 Did you travel somewhere beautiful this year? If so, describe it to God.

 Do you pray to God thanking him for the food and drink you are blessed to have, shelter over your head, and friends that support you along the way? Thank God for these now.

 Where did you use your God-given intellect this year? How did it help you or someone else? Did you know thinking critically is a gift?

 How did you serve Christ in “the neighbor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the lonely” this year? How did they serve you?

 Work gives humanity dignity and respect. Are you satisfied with the work you did this year? Will you remain in this work next year, or are you discerning “a new calling?”

 Where did you take the time to make good use of leisure, rest, and play? Do you have tangible plans for these important things in the coming year?

 How are you brave and courageous? Who is your example – either living or past?

 When you suffer or are experiencing adversity, are you patient? Do you experience God’s presence in these times?

 How do you seek after truth, liberty, and justice? How are these Godly attributes lived out in your life?

 Who is your favorite saint, and why?

Conclusion
As we set aside 2018 looking toward 2019 may these two types of prayer – penitence and thanksgiving – give you pause in your life to recall, recollect, and examine your lives in the light of Christ’s glory and grace.

God bless you, and Happy New Year!

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.