Shortly before Christmas, I read an article by Fr. Ben Maddison, an Episcopal priest in NJ, that drew on the song “Mary did you know.” He and his wife are foster parents, and he wrote about that experience through the lens of the song. I expect many of you have heard it – it’s a series of questions addressed to the Blessed Virgin, wondering how aware she was, ahead of time, of all that her Son would go through. It begins,
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you. Mary did you know?
Fr. Ben starts out by speaking from his own perspective about how little, really, he and his wife and all parents know ahead of time: They brought the baby to our doorstep. Five days old. Directly from the hospital. One outfit. Four pre-made bottles. A handful of diapers. A package of wipes. And a packet of papers that offered no definitive judgment on the proper pronunciation of her name….
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas! Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, so we get to say that one more time. The Son of God has been born into the world as a human being and we’ve been rejoicing ever since the day of his birth. Today we find him, the child born king of the Jews, in the house where the wise men from the east behold, for the first time, the manifestation of the Son of God to the peoples of the earth. If Christmas proclaims that there was never an event as new as the Incarnation of our Lord, then tomorrow, the Feast of the Epiphany, will proclaim how this unprecedented event will work itself out in the lives of those who encounter it.
Our Gospel today concludes with the wise men returning to their country by another road. In the most immediate sense, this is in direct response to a message from an angel warning them to get out of town without checking back in with King Herod, as they had originally planned to do. But the reality is that they could not have possibly returned home the same way as they came, for they are no longer the same people. Had they not knelt before the King and Savior of the world? The one who is very God of very God and yet fully human, born of the flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Such an encounter makes for an irrevocable change and an overwhelming joy. Once the wise men enter the house, they are not the same people that they were. And after they leave the house, there are no steps to be re-traced and even their journey home will be unfamiliar. It is certainly not the journey that they had expected. They have witnessed the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Son of God to the world. Before that, human life was just like it is right now at the beginning of a new decade and had always been. We have always been the people that we were. And none of our hopes for innovation and progress can ever quite shake that knowledge from us. Nothing can save us that is possible, the poet W.H. Auden said, for We who must die demand a miracle.
Today is the fifth day of Christmas and the frenzy of Christmas has settled. No more pageant, no more incense, no more thinking ahead to the big dinner, or last minute presents to wrap. The stimulation, of all the people and paper and stuff being everywhere, has paused. For many of us, we have been so busy “doing” Christmas that we may not have had the time to experience it or to reflect on what it means. And then in the liturgical year we are given the space of these twelve days to actually do that. And that is one of our opportunities this morning.
The Christmas season is one filled with memories, mostly good memories though occasionally sad ones too. We remember favorite carols and favorite holiday foods. Perhaps we remember favorite gifts through the years and certainly favorite people with whom we have shared Christmases past. This reflection is a way to experience and re-experience the love that Christmas brings. And human love and human kindness is a reflection of God’s love. We hold these experiences in our hearts year after year as a part of our understanding of God’s all-encompassing love. The season is filled with remembrances of love, how we are loved and how we have loved.
Let’s take a few moments this morning to reflect on the origin of that love and how we can grow in our understanding of the depth of God’s love for us.
When I went to the Holy Land last summer to take a course called “The Footsteps of Jesus,” I went, being a priest, with some background in the topic. I already knew a good amount about the New Testament, and a moderately decent amount about the historical evidence for the New Testament. I knew about some of the archaeological discoveries of inscriptions, bone boxes, and particular sites that corroborate what we hear in Scripture. And I knew about how good the manuscript evidence is for these texts as opposed to so many other ancient documents, in other words, that far more than we can with ancient books by people like Plato or Euripides, we can be sure the New Testament still says what was written down by the original authors, that nobody changed the text to suit an agenda.
And just to be silly about it, I of course knew that Capernaum and Nazareth and all those places were real towns in a real country. I had enough background, in short, to understand that Christianity depends on history. What Christianity offers is not a set of values or a spiritual philosophy or a special kind of attitude; Christianity offers the news of what God did in a real time and place – followed up by the additional news that because God did what he did then and there, many things have changed forever here and now.
In the seasons of Advent and Christmas, the Blessed Virgin Mary gets plenty of good press, but Joseph more often than not is overlooked and treated as a minor character. But today's reading from Matthew reminds us that Joseph was someone with an important role to play in God's plan.
At the beginning of this Gospel, Joseph is about to get married. Many marriages in those days were arranged by parents, and the system had three steps. First the engagement period, beginning in childhood. Then betrothal, which took place when the children had come of age -- about 13 or so -- as a kind of ratification of the contract made by the parents. At this point either the girl or the boy could opt out of the agreement. But if they chose to go ahead, they were then betrothed, that is, in the eyes of the law, legally bound together. Betrothal was serious enough that it could only be undone by divorce. After one year of betrothal, the third step took place -- the marriage itself.
In today's Gospel we see that Joseph and Mary were at step two -- they were betrothed, that is, legally linked, but not yet living together. The arrangements for the wedding were doubtless underway: the rabbi was ready, the guests invited, the party planned. Like most husbands to be, I imagine Joseph was nervous but happy.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
This morning’s lessons are full of great and powerful images. Many of the phrases from today have appeared in works of art of all types such as poetry, paintings, and cantatas, throughout time. Let’s listen to a few of these images again.
From the Old Testament: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together.” And the psalm: “He shall come down like the rain upon the mown field, like showers that water the earth.” The epistle: “May God grant you to live in harmony with one another, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And then from the gospel we hear from the eccentric John the Baptist: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And these are just a few of the gems we have heard this morning. I want allow those images and that poetry to spin in the air a bit today, but before I do that I have a quick side bar.
I have a close friend who is a textile artist. She is well known professionally for her weavings, rugs, wall hangings and tapestries. For close friends she also makes scarves and stoles and even socks! She has a fine eye for creating beautiful things from wool and linen. Her reputation is built on large pieces of bright, vibrant colors whose subject matter is often taken from nature.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning! That’s more than a friendly greeting because it is the morning of the first day of the season of Advent: the first day of a new liturgical year. We don’t get any fresher than this, folks! In Advent, all Christians are morning people -- at least by grace if not also by nature. But the night is indeed far gone, the day is near. It is now the moment of Advent. It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.
St. Paul is not alone in his choice of sleep as a metaphor; it’s one that we’re quite familiar with in our own figures of speech. When we are not fully present in a conversation, we’ll apologize for our lapse of attention with sorry, I was totally asleep; what was that again? Then there’s its cousin going through the motions, which you might say when confiding to a friend that you’ve been disengaged from your tasks for awhile, living on autopilot.
“Not a hair of your head will perish; by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Have you ever watched young children go off a diving board for the first time? Some of them (the very brave) will walk to the ladder and go up needing just a little verbal encouragement. Maybe they’ll walk to the end of the board, close their eyes, and step off. Then there are the reckless few who seem not to understand the risk, who bound up the ladder, run to the end of the board and leap into the air. And of course there are the others, the fear filled ones, who may need a helping hand or to see a trusted adult ready to catch them in order to jump into the water. And we all know those who are paralyzed by the thought of even going up the ladder and if they get that far may need someone to help them back down. Diving boards are a place of fear from thrills to terror. As a child I did not like the idea of even looking at a diving board. My fear froze me. And yet, now, I do go off diving boards and have even taught others to do the same.
What makes the difference to get through fear and terror is having some trusted person there to coach, to encourage, and to strengthen by their presence. Fears are more bearable when there is some trusted one with you, alongside of you all the way. Think of something in your own experience that has caused you to fear, on the side of being fully terrified, and then remember what or who helped you to get through that fear. With that in mind let’s turn to today’s gospel.
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have no doubt that at some point as kids, sitting in the back of the family car during one of those boring road trips, we all asked our parents are we there yet? Besides being a sure-fire method for pushing mom and dad into complete delirium, it was also a rather odd question to ask. Because it was already perfectly self-evident that you had not yet arrived at your destination — you were still uncomfortably buckled in your seat and your sibling was still poking you in the head. But, of course, that’s precisely why you kept asking if you were there yet, despite the abundant evidence otherwise. You had been on the road long enough that surely you had to basically be there by now. How could you feel so ready to get out of the car if the time to do so had not yet come?
I have no idea if William How was thinking of today’s Ephesians reading when he wrote the hymn “For All The Saints,” but if he wasn’t, he should have been. Paul prays two things for the Ephesians this morning. He asks first, that they would know the hope to which God has called them, the riches of their inheritance; and second, that they would know the power of Christ for us who believe.
The hymn “For All The Saints” does such a great job of depicting the connection between those two things. There’s all this imagery first of struggling to walk the way of Christ now, in the face of a world which is blind to wonder, which stands in opposition to mercy. And then there are these moments where the future hope, the inheritance God offers in Christ, breaks in and becomes his power for us who believe.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, - there’s the present
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song - there’s the future
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. - The future hope comes back into the present to become the power Paul is praying for, applied to what we’re going through.
“For All The Saints” actually has several more verses that aren’t usually in modern hymnals, and here’s the one about martyrs:
For Martyrs who, with rapture kindled eye, - there’s the revelation of insight from God that Paul prays for
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky, - there’s the future, the hope of our inheritance in Christ
And (here comes the present), And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
And seeing, grasped it. The revelation of that fullness, that hope, that inheritance, that future, taken hold of and welcomed into the present as God’s power for us who believe.