Tag Archives: God

True Fatherhood

TRINITY.RUBLEVTrinity Sunday comes late this year, appropriately landing on Father’s Day and adding to the rich texture of June, a month that opens the door to a new season. So as we leave spring and slip into summer, we don the green of Trinitytide. The “extra-ordinary” time of Advent through Pentecost, celebrating the Son of God’s life on earth changes to “ordinary” time, a time of quiet growth and reflection on what that life means to each of us.

They say the Holy Trinity is a great mystery, how three persons can be one. And yet, as one grows in the faith, it seems natural. God the Father expresses himself as God the Son and later as God the Holy Spirit. It is said that love binds the three together, and no doubt this is true, but I would say that the three are all extraordinary expressions of love. Christ, the Son, is God’s loving incarnation, God’s healing and salvific sacrifice for us who brings us home to him. The Holy Spirit is God’s loving presence sent when the Son has ascended. God the Father provides for us, loves us, in all time, through all eternity. So we need never be lost. We need never be alone, afraid, unprotected.

Our culture celebrates Father’s Day to honor those who, on this earth, act to shelter us and love us in the same way our heavenly Father has done for his people since Adam and Eve. Our earthly fathers stumble, to be sure, for they are earthly, but their role as protectors and providers continues to be an ideal. We honor them for their hard work, their sacrifice of time and treasure, to provide for us. When they abandon us, we know they have wronged us. We know they are no longer fathers.  For true fathers, like our Heavenly Father, never leave us. They never stop loving us, never stop sacrificing.

Fathers, like our Father in Heaven, discipline us so that we may learn right from wrong. They teach standards of behavior in an effort to raise us up, transforming narcissistic children into responsible adults. It is no coincidence that crime rises when fathers abandon fathering. In American culture, since the rise of easy divorce and the artificial separation of sex and procreation, too many fathers have run away from their children. Too many mothers have been forced to be fathers as well, and somehow, mysteriously, they can never really be both. In this, American culture has been grievously wronged.

We call the great theologians of history, those men who formulated and protected the creeds and canons of Christianity, our Church Fathers. They too took care of their children, the faithful. They gave them, gave us, through interpretation of Scripture, the words to express the truth of God and his love for man. They protected us from untruth, lies, heresy. Like Saint Athanasius, who fought Arianism with the Nicene Creed, they explained the Trinity to us, the truth of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The words of those Church Fathers, passed from generation to generation, continue to guide this Body of Christ, so that Christians have a great host of fathers to enlighten their dark and help them shoulder the perplexing dilemmas of living.

And, to be sure, the inheritors of those eminent Church Fathers, through Apostolic Succession, are the priestly fathers we know today. These men, through the Laying on of Hands, are consecrated to and with and by these creedal truths, vowing to unite God the Father with each of us through God the Son and by the power of God the Holy Spirit. These priestly fathers are, however, sons of Adam and earthly too, but they strive through grace and sanctification to give us a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The Epistle for Trinity Sunday for Anglicans is the fourth chapter of the Revelation of John. The passage recounts John’s vision of Heaven, and it is this vision that every Christian may glimpse from time to time. Hidden within moments of love, moments of sacrifice and suffering, we see God’s presence weave among us. We sense a glory close by, near enough to know. Angels hover about us, and if we can forget ourselves for a time, we can sense them. We need to be silent and listening, full of the words given to us by the Word, Christ, through Scripture, explained by the Church Fathers through the centuries. So we worship on Sunday, sing the Psalms and listen to the lessons. We hear our priestly father explain the great miraculous mysteries given to us. We meet God the Son at the altar and we sing God the Father’s praises as God the Holy Spirit moves among us.

This is the most Holy Trinity, the ultimate Fatherhood, when Love becomes one of us, dies for us, and gives us his Spirit to be with us always, even to the ends of the earth.

On Mothers

It’s crystal clear, the skies windswept and bluer than blue, here in the Bay Area this Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May, Mary’s month of May. The proximity of the two celebrations each year always touches me, for it is a time to consider the very center of human life, the miracle of birth.

Mothers, like our mother Mary, have strong ties to their children. In some sense, after the season in the womb, after the dramatic entrance into our world, after the great first gasp of air, the cord is never cut, but holds fast throughout life. Some cords are stronger than others, some ties are formed in spite of little desire or intention, some are never formed through tragic circumstances. Some mothers early on have the sword of love pierce their hearts; some know that piercing later. Mothers who adopt, God bless them, may not have given birth, but in their hearts they did, and they swaddle that baby close, cheek against breast, nearly one flesh. Love is like that. It weaves a strong cord, entwining, holding, feeding, eyeing, singing.

We know that our mother Mary, the new Eve, grinds her heal on the ancient serpent, Satan, destroying him. She gives birth to the Son of God, incarnate in her womb. She loves, she suffers, and she watches her son die a cruel and humiliating death. She is full of grace and blessed among women. She prays for us just as we ask her to. She has appeared to many of her children through the centuries, sending them fountains and wells of healing waters. She loves us so; she is our mother.

As a mother I for a time housed my child within me. My body was his home, his very life blood. It is easy to think that he was literally a part of me, so close were we, but that is the great mysterious miracle. For the child was separate, a genetically unique human being, unique in all past, present, and future time, fully known only by God. When labor is accomplished, and the unborn is born, mothers know they have been part of the greatest miracle on earth. Gather any group of mothers together and mention the birth of a baby, and each will remember what happened to her on that day. She will recall the hugely important part she played in this great drama, for it is seared in her memory. Mothers tell their stories to one another as though reciting heroic ballads upon which the world depends – all history, all humanity, all love. The hours and minutes of giving birth are alive, fresh and real, eager to be shared.

The anguish and the pain are forgotten in the joy of new life. Circumstances may not have been perfect – perhaps the mother was alone. Perhaps she didn’t want the child. Perhaps she thought her life would be ruined or simply changed. Perhaps she gave birth in a back room, or in a cave, or in a stable. But with the telling, each mother chooses the joyous bits to remember. The infant placed in her arms. “Hello,” she says. “What shall I name you?” Then, “I love you… don’t worry, it will be all right.” She vows to protect that child forever; to feed, clothe, and teach this son or daughter to become loving and responsible. Of course her life is changed. How could it not be? She will never be the same. But she has no regrets. She is a mother now. She has learned how to love.

But most of all mothers remember how close we were at that moment to the heart of life, the beating heart of God, in this stunning miracle, how in that place at that time in each of our lives we touched eternity.

Today, as we drove to church this morning, my thoughts returned to a moment nearly forty-two years ago in Grace Hospital in Vancouver, Canada. My son was born, big and strong and healthy and a little pinched around the head. He was bald. He squinted up at me as I held him in the crook of my arm, neatly wrapped in cotton flannel. Today he is bigger and stronger and still healthy, a father of two. He shall always be my little boy, even at six foot three, and I shall always love him, always worry about him, always want to shelter him from life’s sufferings such a part of love. That’s what mothers do.

So on this Third Sunday of Easter when the preacher spoke of Mother Church holding us in her womb, gathering us all together, protected by her seamless cloak woven from the golden threads of sacraments, I understood what he was saying perhaps better than he did. The Church is many things – an ark in the sea of life, the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, Mother to her faithful children. I thought of icons depicting the Madonna holding the Church within her cloak, for Mary was the first Christian tabernacle, her body the home of God’s Son, and today, the home of His Body, the Church, the Body of Christ.

The images danced in my mind, weaving, joining, coming together again. Words cannot fully explain what is unexplainable. Mysteries are mysterious. But image and symbol and story and art and song can connect the dots of God’s love for us so that we begin to see a shape, an outline, for we recognize reality when we see it. And the Church nourishes and protects us just as mothers nourish and protect their unborn. The Church teaches us and shows us the way, just as mothers do their born children. We need only say yes to her. 

And when we do say yes, when we listen to her and worship within her and remain faithful to her, suddenly we see. We are no longer squinting; our eyes are opened. The skies are bluer than blue, the air windswept and crystal clear.

The Gates of Jerusalem

The great festivals of the year mark our time on earth, our passage, our pilgrimage from birth to death. Where was I last Palm Sunday? Where will I be Palm Sunday 2015? We mark time with festivals, for time is limited, making it precious; numbered days are valuable days. Was I journeying closer to God or away from him?

This morning in church, as I gazed upon the purple-veiled altar and tabernacle, purple-shrouded candlesticks and crucifix rising above, I considered Palm Sunday, how Christ’s entry into the holy city of Jerusalem two thousand years ago was a climactic, crucial moment in man’s history. Riding a donkey through the welcoming crowds, the Son of God enters the City of Man. The people had heard of this Jesus of Nazareth, this possible messiah, and they waved palm branches. Palms were associated with kingship, but this king came on a humble beast of burden. Could he really be their king?

In our sanctuary this morning our king was covered in royal purple, penitential purple, hidden from sight. But the purple shrouds draped against the brick apse were somehow beautiful, framed by giant green palm branches on each side of the altar. The palms reached high, rising above the shrouds, framing the purple with their vivid green. All was the purple of death and the green of life; all was flaming candles, incense, and chanting. Death and life touched one another in that sanctuary, as we, God’s people, followers of the Christ, began the suffering Way of the Cross, a pilgrimage to Easter joy.

We stepped to the altar to receive our own blessed palms and formed a procession. We sang as we stepped around the nave, All glory laud and honor, to thee redeemer king, to whom the lips of children, made sweet hosannas ring… We waved our palms, and followed the draped crucifix raised high above us, the torchbearers, the clergy. We became the Jerusalem crowd. We became mankind receiving God among them. We became a moment in history replayed and replayed throughout the world, throughout time, solemnly and tearfully and with great thanksgiving.

As I walked with my brothers and sisters, my children and mothers and fathers – my parish family – I sensed I was walking all of the Palm Sundays of my life. There have been many, I am happy to say, perhaps over thirty processions that reenacted that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. And today I was able to add one more, weaving a tapestry of time in my soul, a fabric of purples and greens and flaming candles. It is a tapestry that will enshroud me at my own death, ensuring that that moment in time will usher me into eternity, that I will be clothed with white linen and golden brocade.

On these great festival days, time collapses as it is purified into these intense moments of meaning. Time deepens and changes as we walk through Holy Week, as we meet in the upper room and share a Passover meal like no other before, as we pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, and as we walk the suffering Way of the Cross that Our Lord walked. We follow this path year after year through all of the years of our lives. We follow it to the Hill of the Skull, Golgotha, where the Son of God finishes his great act, his passionate passion.

I am certain that these re-enactments, these humble pilgrim processions around the church nave, wed me to the Body of Christ, the Church, in a true and mysterious way. As I take each step, as I sing and wave my palm frond, I become part of the eternal intersecting time. With every Sunday, every Eucharist, I draw closer to that miracle that occurred not only two thousand years ago, but occurs each Sunday, and in every sacramental gathering of the Body of Christ. 

Time stands still yet disappears as I enter the gates of Jerusalem, as I become one with the love of God.

 

 

 

A Chapel in Berkeley

On this Second Sunday in Lent, my husband and I worshiped at St. Joseph of Arimathea Chapel in Berkeley, a block from the University of California campus.

It was not our first visit to the chapel, for our publishing group, the American Church Union, is headquartered in the adjoining building (where I spend considerable time…) along with our Anglican Seminary, St. Joseph of Arimathea Theological College. It is also the seat of our dear Archbishop Robert Morse.

It was the first time, however, that we arrived on a bicycle race day. After finding on-street parking, still free on Sundays (!), we stepped around the roadblocks, watching the cyclists fly around the corner of Durant and Bowditch. This particular corner was our destination as well and, as we approached St. Joseph’s Chapel, working our way through the gathering race-watchers, we heard the happy thunder of the pipe organ.

It was a traditional English hymn that poured out the open doors and onto Durant Avenue. Many race-watchers on the sidewalk paused, wondering about the music. “An Anglican church,” I heard someone say, approaching the sign near the front door. “Hmmm, interesting,” he murmured, and moved on to the corner’s edge and the flying cyclists.

The day was bright, a glorious spring day. The hills in my East Bay neighborhood have turned a velvet green. Balmy weather has returned as though last week’s welcome rain was a distant memory. Berkeley buzzed with the energy of youth enjoying a sunny Sunday morning.

We left the bright energy of the flying cyclists and their watchers and followed the music. We entered the chapel’s softly lit space and paused in a small foyer. A Madonna and Child opposite the doorway caught the light, glowing. Turning, we stepped into the barrel-vaulted church, a “collegial” church, meaning one with a choir and sanctuary but no large nave. The space, twenty by fifty, thirty feet high, reminded me of chapels we have seen in Europe, medieval parish churches dating to the seventh and eighth centuries. But I knew St. Joseph’s was built in the mid-twentieth century, designed by William Dutcher, who clearly had a good sense of history and acoustics as well as holiness. In this chapel, the eye is drawn first to the altar – the simplicity points there – then above to the sixteenth-century crucifix, and higher to the vaulted ceiling.

We were early, the first to arrive, and I appreciated the time to gather my heart and mind into prayer. Sitting on wooden benches, we listened to the organ. The music spilled onto the red-tiled floor, winging to the altar, the crucifix, soaring beyond. A hanging sanctuary lamp glowed before a rustic altar, and soon a gentleman entered from the side of the sanctuary and lit six candles on either side of a purple-draped tabernacle. The white stucco walls, unadorned, added to the simplicity, and I recalled a Cistercian abbey (much larger) we visited in Provence: Senanque, where the empty space channels vision, and thus heart, mind, and soul to the altar and its tabernacle.

The organ is on loan from the university in a happy collaboration with St. Joseph’s. It is, according to the website (www.anglicanpck.org/seminary) a “twelve-stop, two manual and pedal, mechanical-action instrument,” built by Herr Jurgen Ahrend of Loga-Leer, Germany, renowned for his work in Europe and America. The organ is especially tuned for liturgical music of the medieval and early modern periods, so that we enter history as we sing.

I’m not a professional musician but I am drawn into beauty, and especially beautiful music, and if I am allowed to sing hymns I know and love in an intimate space like this, I think I am in heaven and not Berkeley at all. If an organ such as this one leads me through the music of beauty, a mere fifteen feet away from my ears, I am sure I am flying with the angels, and my feet couldn’t possibly be planted on terra firma.

The Anglican liturgy, with prayers dating to the seventh century, with words translated from the Latin to Elizabethan sixteenth-century prose, is especially beautiful and stunningly poetic. Over the years the words have become part of me, as the beauty has soaked into my five senses. I hear the song, see the procession of acolytes and flaming candles, smell the burning wax and the billowing incense, feel the host upon my tongue, and taste the eternal as I receive Christ into my body.

But the liturgy in this small soaring space, the organ thundering its notes upon our ears, is intimate. It is the intimate experience of God among us, touching us, loving us. Outside, the watchers shouted and bicycles buzzed. Inside, we flew as well, soaring into the chapel vaults, winging with the music, the chants, the prayers.

It was a good morning, this Second Sunday in Lent. As I saw the Cal Crew process in as acolytes (one of their duties as residents in the chapel’s neighboring house), I smiled. The young men carried their flaming candles, stepping seriously, holding the crucifix with care. As the liturgy of the Eucharist began, we all stepped into time, past, present, and future, with ancient prayers and future glory.

And we left the chapel with a holier sense of the present, and our place in time, this Second Sunday of Lent 2014.

On Sowing Seeds

I’ve been researching Beethoven since I’m including his Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor Concerto,” in my novel-in-progress. I learned Beethoven studied with Haydn to master the skill of “counterpoint.” The lyrical second movement in the concerto is a perfect tribute to his mastery.

The melody haunts me. It lives, dancing in my aural memory, much as Beethoven must have experienced as he composed it, for he was losing his hearing in this year of 1809. He never performed the concerto, but left it to be performed by others. The notes are tender, calling one into their beauty. I thought it was sad that he didn’t hear it performed, but then, I suppose, he did in a way. I also learned that he didn’t name it “Emperor,” that others named it, and that he would not have appreciated the title. Alas.

So it was with great interest that I read in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal a review by T. J. Reed of Not I, Memoirs of a German Childhood, by Joachim Fest (1926-2006). The complacency of good Germans during the rise of Hitler has troubled many: If it could happen in Germany, why not anywhere? After all, Germany was “a culture that produced Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Beethoven.” Hitler’s rule, was, to many “good” Germans merely a “Nazi phase.” Things would change soon, surely. They had great pride in their culture, great faith in their own people.

But of course, we know things got worse, a lot worse. As I listen to Beethoven’s piano concerto and am filled with such exquisite joy, I understand how some Germans slid into complacency, thinking they could wait it all out, because of their strong culture. But “high culture,” art for art’s sake, brilliance, excellence, man at his greatest and most noble will never tame the beast within each of us. We shall always have a dark place, a shadowy corner, where something isn’t quite right, where cancer grows. For what happens in a society, happens first in each person’s heart.

Joachim Fest’s family were Catholic dissidents. How did they read the times? What gave Joachim’s father the vision to see what was happening as early as the 1920’s, when his Catholic Centre Party joined with Social Democrats against Communists and Nazis? By 1933 the father lost his headmaster’s job; soon the four children were removed from school; soon friends deserted them. And even with his vision, what gave Joaquim’s father the strength to risk everything to not be complacent, to not look the other way?

I believe (and I hope to find out more in the memoir) that the answer was his faith, his God. The title, Not I, refers to St. Peter’s reply to Christ, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Just so, Joachim’s father refused to go along.

Excellence, perfection, talent, beauty, accomplishment, achievement. We all want these, whether we are born with talent or not, whether we are born with beauty or not. But their price is often pride, a natural (and deserved, we say defensively) flowering after a budding success. And a great pride means a great fall. As is often said, the higher you are, the farther you fall. Perhaps this pattern occurred in 1930’s Germany, and in the appeasing nations of the West as well, who didn’t want to risk their own peace, and trusted in their own “civilized” European world.

The glories of man – Michelangelo’s sculptures, Rafael’s paintings, the music of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, the stunning canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites, the poetry of Shakespeare, excellence in sports, theater, finance, medicine, or any other human endeavor – all carry the temptation of pride, the temptation to sit back and congratulate oneself, a temptation to be complacent. What corrects, prevents this? What pulls us down from the that peak in time?

Only God can correct, prevent, protect our world, humankind. Only seeing ourselves through our creator’s eyes. Only looking deep into our own hearts and shining a light into the shadowy places to see what lurks there. It is a good exercise of the soul – daily self-examination. What was my attitude today? Was I thankful or complaining? Was I judgmental or forgiving? Was my anger turned to love? Was I lazy? Was I envious? Was I gossipy and perhaps worse, enjoying the gossip?

The list goes on, a well-known catechism of sins the Church helpfully provides from Scripture. And today, on this Pre-Lenten Sexagesima Sunday, we are reminded, through the parable of the sower and the seeds, of our many choices each day, hour, minute. Is the soil of our hearts rich enough to receive a single seed of goodness (Godliness), from God? If yes, do we choose to water the seed with worship, Scripture, sacrament? Do we allow the seed to take root in our lives, in our families and communities?

And when the seed flowers, reaching for the light, and we see that it is good and beautiful and Godly, do we credit ourselves? Do we credit our culture? Or do we credit the sower of the seed? Do we admit our dependence, our powerlessness without the sower?

I think that Joachim Fest’s father knew the sower. Joachim’s father could see into the heart of man just as his creator sees. His heart was rich, loamy, a bed to receive the gifts of vision, strength and courage.

It is tempting, with even the smallest success, to preen like a peacock, feathers in glorious array. But such a temptation is the perfect and necessary time to reflect on sowers and seeds and fertile ground. This is the time to examine, confess, and repent, before climbing any higher. This is the time to conquer false pride with true humility.

We draw closer to Lent. We pray for humility so that we may truly see who we are and who we are meant to be.

True Love

It rained this last week, alleviating only slightly the California drought. More rain is promised for later this week, more watering our dryness, the ground drinking thirstily and thankfully.

But the sun broke through today, Sunday, bluing the sky and glistening the land, and a hesitant, wondering, breeze nudges the silvery leaves of the olive tree outside my window as I write. The oaks are greening too and the grassy hills are waking up to new life hesitantly here and there. The cherry trees in our neighborhood blossomed their Valentine’s gift of big pink bouquets, giving us far greater hope than any February groundhog. 

The incredible beauty and the horrible devastation of nature continues to astound  me. Blizzards kill in the East as sun shines in the West. Yet the four seasons repeat regularly, we count on them, and we assume spring will one day replace winter. Just so we yearn that the darkness in our hearts will be enlightened, that hate will turn to love, that judgment will be banished with forgiveness. We yearn for peace, yet we cannot pacify ourselves.

We look to spring and we hope for love, and perhaps this is why we embrace Saint Valentine’s festival in mid-February, a season of reaching for the greater light of Easter, the longer daylight of April. It is thought that Valentine did truly exist, that he suffered martyrdom for his witness to the love of God. But the many legends of the many Valentines woven into present day are not as verifiable. The medieval court of love loved St. Valentine, defining this love as the romantic sort, and it is this Valentine that we recall with hearts and flowers and romantic dinners. 

The secular has adopted the sacred, for all people recognize truth, the core and kernel of truth, of who we are. We desire to love; we desire to be loved. Courtly love, with its rituals of honoring and respecting the woman for her womanhood, for her ability to carry and birth life, for her female beauty as dazzlingly different from rough masculinity, tried to tame the bestial nature of mating. Courtly love grew and flourished through the years, fed by Shakespeare and sonnets and the Romantic poets. It has faded in our time and our world, but still we yearn to celebrate the love between a man and a woman, to celebrate something more than the power of lust, to remember true love on St. Valentine’s Day.

It is fitting that such a day in February points to spring, to hope, to love. Such a day reminds us to honor one another, regardless of race, gender, creed, handicap, temperament, age, whether in the womb or near death. Such a day points to Easter, for resurrection day is the ultimate holiday of love, when God the Son, the crucified one, gives us the grace, indeed the ability, to love one another.

This last week I wrote another scene in my novel-in-progress, a story about the coarsening of love in our culture, the jungle encroaching upon the civilized world. Mankind has striven for centuries to civilize the jungle, to tame his own animal within as well as the wilderness without, but we seem to be undoing all that has been done. The working title is The Fire Trail, that boundary between the civil and the uncivil, between safety and danger. It is a love story searching for a way to love in a world of un-love. My recently released novel, The Magdalene Mystery, sought the truth that Mary Magdalene saw in the garden that first Easter morning two thousand years ago. The Fire Trail considers what that vision means to us today.

Today is Septuagesima Sunday, three weeks before the beginning of Lent, the forty days in which we prepare for Easter, April 20, 2014. Today we look into our hearts to root out all un-love. We pray, “Lord, show me every sin, every particle of un-love, that darkens my heart. Show me each time I dishonored or disrespected others, when I coveted, lied, stole, killed, in thought, in word, and in deed. Lighten my dark places, so that I may see, repent, and learn to love.”

Like the breeze nudging the leaves outside my window, my heart is nudged too. With Lent and its lengthening of days, I shall grow towards the light, toward the sun. The dry places shall be watered and my heart shall blossom.

The Light of the World

My Christmas tree is falling in upon itself. The branches no longer reach out. They bend down, spilling an even deeper sweetness into the room. As I gazed upon the tree last night, with the mini-lights still multicolored and twinkling, it was as though the tree had become solid and whole, no longer made of many parts, many decorations. The tinsel garlands had merged into dim shadowy beds of green needles. The miniature Raggedy Anns that I had strung across the apron of the tree, slept silently in their soft nests. One ornament had been batted down by one of our cats and its shards long ago swept up. But the others had sunk further into the dark hollows and had moved in. Even the star with its sideways tilt seemed happy with this home. The tree was nearly alive. 

I have become used to the Christmas tree occupying a corner of the room. My evening routine included lighting the tree so neighbors could see it through our arching windows. But the Twelve Days of Christmastide are nearing an end. I shall have to take the tree down soon. I shall have to remove the mini-churches dangling precariously from bits of wire, the red and gold balls with their fine filigree, the cut glass baubles with their Victorian fringe. I shall pause over each one, thinking when and where it was found or who gave it to me. The tree holds much of my family history, much of my past. 

With the turn of the year, as we round the corner and find ourselves in 2014, we turn our hearts and minds as well. We have pondered the old year and now embrace the new. We look ahead; we resolve to be better. We put away childish things, as St. Paul says, and don garments that bear the weight of adulthood, the resiliency of responsibility, the solemnity of choice. How shall we spend our numbered days in 2014? 

Those days grow longer, as the thin piercing light of winter takes on the mantle of spring. Already I’ve noticed the extra light, and it’s only been two weeks since the solstice. But the sun is still low in the sky, blinding in the beginnings and endings of the day, as though accusing me with its circle of seeing. I cannot hide in the shadow of winter. I must face the light of Epiphany and the new New Year. 

Shadow. Light. In the thin piercing light of the New Year, in the brightness of Epiphany’s traveling star, I resolve to watch and pray. I resolve to listen with greater care to hear God’s voice, discern his will for me. I resolve to begin my day with the aid of prayer and end it with the light of confession, to peer into my heart and expose the shadow. The wise men followed the star because they watched the heavens. They found the manger with its hosts of angels and dazzling light. They fell on their knees and worshiped, offering the Christ Child gold for his kingship, frankincense for his priesthood, and myrrh for his burial. I too want to follow that blazing star to Bethlehem. I too want to offer gifts. 

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote in her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter”:

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
 

Epiphany means “manifestation,” a revealing, and this visit of the gentile kings to the newborn Messiah enlightens the entire world of mankind, embraces all nations and all races. God is made manifest. Now one of us, he gives us a way to partake in his divinity, if we choose to do so. As one of us, taking on our flesh, Christ pulls us to him. With him we rise. With him we open Heaven’s door. 

As I take down my Christmas tree, I know that I have been once again reborn in that moment in Bethlehem. Christ is the star that lights the dead tree of our dying world, so that when our own flesh falls in upon itself on the last of our numbered days, we shall “rise to the life eternal.”

Yet what can I give him as I enter this glorious Epiphanytide? It’s so simple. I can give him my heart.

Christmas Choices

It often seems when our family gathers at Christmas that the many activities, the many foods, the many gifts, the many reunions of cousins and brothers and sisters, fill the rooms to bursting, leaving no room for the story of the Incarnation. So, unhappily, on the birthday of Our Lord we are pulled away from him, away from the story of the Word made flesh, and God’s still small voice is muffled by the loud chatter of Christmas.  So I tried something new this year at our family gathering.  The grandchildren (age 12 through 20) read the nativity story aloud as we sat before the twinkling tree and the crèche figures arranged to the side.

The tree was bright and shimmering against a window of foggy sky, but the crèche – the fired clay figures of Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, the shepherds, the wise men, the sheep and cows – was dim and gray-blue, almost shadowy, set upon the river-rock hearth. The rough clay figures seemed more real than the fir tree, as though they were earthen, solid, but somehow eternal.

Our readers began with the words of St. Luke, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary…” These words tell of the great event we call “The Annunciation,” when Gabriel announces to Mary that God has chosen her to be the mother of his son. It is a precious and fabulous moment in history, for while Mary was chosen, she still had to choose.

Sr. Mary Gabriel Whitney OP of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, relates this pivotal moment in a charming ballad included on the CD, Mater Eucharistiae: 

And so on that day
The whole human race
Held its breath to hear the answer
Of the Queen of Grace.
 

The whole human race. Indeed, we all held our breath.

My grandchildren continued St. Luke’s account. We heard how Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and how Mary sang the song we call The Magnificat, magnifying and rejoicing in God her savior. We learn of the historical census decreed by Caesar Augustus, how Mary and Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem, the City of David, how she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. We then see the bright angels appearing to the shepherds and bringing the good tidings of great joy… that a savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord, and they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. We learn of the wise men from the East who follow a star to the manger where the young child was. Finally, we hear how all fell down on their knees and worshiped the Child.

It was a short reading, but the story of the Incarnation settled upon our souls, warming us. For a few minutes we recalled why we were celebrating on this 25th of December, 2013. For a few minutes we re-called the Lord of Hosts and his awe-full act of love, coming among us as he did.

I often think how God chose to come to his people, in this moment in time. I think of Mary and her choice, her answer. I wonder at the choices we make minute to minute, day to day, the power each of us has to shape our world by what we do or do not do. In a way, the whole human race holds its breath to see what choices each of us will make this day, this hour, this minute. For every choice creates our future as the People of God and as the people of the earth.

This morning I worshiped at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley with my son, his wife, his son (11), and his daughter (8). My father, my son’s grandfather, Carl Thomas, was youth pastor there in the early fifties (I was five), and today my son attends a Presbyterian church in Boulder. So I sat on the long cushioned pew with my son and his son, and thought of my father and his charismatic, loving ministry. The pastors today no longer wear the long black academic robes my father wore. The building from the fifties had been replaced by a modern one in the eighties. But the cross stood strong and present before us, and the simple service echoed my childhood memories.

Thick candles burned and large tables of sand stood to the side. Long white tapers were laid out nearby. The pastor asked us to consider the old year, the ways in which God had answered our prayers and the ways in which we thought he had not. He asked us to pray for the new year, one in which God would be present in our choices. Earlier, a speaker had said he had gone on a mission with open hands and had returned filled and transformed. So we prayed into the silence, reaching deep into God’s heart, and then, one by one we rose, lit a taper and gently shoved it into the sand. Soon hundreds of candles burned before us, each one reflecting a prayer to choose with open hands and hearts. I lit my candle off my grandson’s and shoved it into the sand alongside my son’s. 

As the Twelve Days of Christmas bridge the Feasts of Incarnation and Epiphany, they arc New Year’s Day. It seems a fitting cluster of events: the Word made Flesh, dwelling among us; the old year turning into the new, and our consideration of past and future, our choice-resolutions; and finally, the manifestation of the Word to the world, the light banishing all darkness.

Each of us plays a crucial part in this pivotal time. We are part of the greatest drama on earth. We look back to Christ’s coming in Bethlehem, and we look forward to His second coming to earth, this time in judgment and glory. We make our New Year’s resolutions, choosing his light, opening our hands to be filled with good things, so that we may be transformed, so that we may magnify the Lord. 

Like the Queen of Grace, we pray, “Be it unto me according to thy word.”

Great Expectations

Much has been written about holiday stress. I think it’s largely the excitement of great expectations.

America was founded as a Christian culture, and so Americans celebrated through the centuries the great festival of Jesus the Christ’s birth, the historic story of God becoming man. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enhanced Christmas with many rich traditions and glorious music, and it is this European Christmas (particularly from Germany and England) that provided us with wreathes, Christmas trees, and Saint Nicholas. When, in 1823, an American named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem called “The Night Before Christmas,” Saint Nicholas became a marketing opportunity not to be missed. The Santa spin-offs are familiar to us today as gift-giving required gift-buying, a boon to the December economy.

It is also true that in our American religious melting pot, the Christian story became diluted, nudged gently into the background, to be increasingly adapted to other beliefs so that folks from other traditions could join our celebration of Christmas. The story of the holy child born in Bethlehem, the fearsome angels who sang to the shepherds, the bright star that led the wise men to the manger-cave, became replaced by Rudolf and Santa and other elfin tales, but Christmas was still a time of excitement. Hollywood helped keep this altered  (and stunted) version alive, to be sure. Sleigh bells rang, jingle bells jangled, and Frosty the Snowman took center stage. The Grinch stole Christmas. Even the charming Dickens story of Scrooge, while focusing on brotherly love and remorse of past deeds, didn’t tell the story of God becoming man in Bethlehem. Charlie Brown and his Peanuts insisted that even scraggly Christmas trees are valued, a true morality tale, even if the Christ story wasn’t actually mentioned. Santa received his mail in the North Pole; letters were carefully scribbled by hopeful children. Sometimes the Christian story – this story of God coming among us, revealing his love so tangibly and historically, almost too good to be true – is simply sidetracked with an emphasis on a children’s pageant gone wrong or right, or stories focusing on the rituals themselves, as though these symbols and mysterious behaviors appeared from nowhere.

My generation, those baby-boomers who grew up in the fifties, lived and breathed these traditions and all the excitement of waiting those twenty-five days in the cold of winter. We loved Christmas, and still do. We waited and we watched, and we wondered if we would get even one thing on our careful list. On my tenth Christmas Eve, I peeked out my bedroom window and saw my father carry a bicycle from the garage, into the living room. I grew up a little that night, but even so I still believed in the God of Bethlehem, being a pastor’s child. And even after the Santa let-down, we continued to love Christmas – the colors, the songs, the smell of fir and pine and apple and cinnamon. We loved the garlands and the glitter and joining with others from church to sing carols to the aged and the ill. It was magical. It was mysterious. It was holy.

In fact, we invested a great deal of ourselves into this holiday, unlike any other holiday during the year. Sure, Christmas marketing added to the hype over the last few decades. But every year we wanted Christmas to be, well, Christmas. We had and have today great expectations. 

Now grown-up with children of our own and grandchildren too, we bake and we buy and we decorate our homes. Our “to do” list has nearly buried some of us with deadlines and time challenges, and we say we are stressed. We buy more, wrap more, and eat more, borne on this powerful desire, or perhaps a needy greed, to make the joy of Christmas Day meet our great expectations. Even Christians find it difficult to find time to go to church, to visit the needy, to say their prayers. Even Christians forget the true meaning of Christmas, so distracted we are by meeting our own expectations.

It is no wonder folks feel stressed. But I think such stress, such excitement, such looking forward, is also a reflection of the huge importance of this holy day and of the looking forward to Heaven. God cannot be forgotten. The story of Bethlehem will not be buried by reindeer and sleighs. Indeed, the traditions and the seemingly secular stories reflect the Christian God-story. They remind us of this historic event, ask us to recall and re-member the hope of Heaven we are given in this child, Jesus, Christ the Lord. Candles burning are lights in the darkness. The tree is new life shimmering with the light of heaven and the color of joy in the ornaments and tinsel. Santa flying through the sky demanding we be nice not naughty reflects the God of the Ten Commandments, of the Second Coming and the Judgment, and Santa giving magical gifts reflects the God of mercy, love, forgiveness. He is a Santa who, as a reflection of God, lands on each individual roof, goes down each chimney, arriving inside the heart of the house, the hearth. Like God the Son, he comes to earth to give us gifts. He wants us to be with him in eternity, to climb onto his sleigh and soar into the sky. He wants us to know how much he loves each one of us, holding us in his huge heart, calling us by our Christ-ian names.

All of these rituals create mystery and miracle. All of these help us re-call God among us. We know in our hearts that God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. We know even in this fallen world of suffering and sickness and sin, that God will and does redeem us, if we want him to.

We have great expectations of Heaven. At Christmas we desire to recreate a little of that Heaven on earth, in our homes and gatherings. We open the doors of our homes to guests bringing in cheer, coming in from the cold dark into the warm light. We open the doors of our hearts to loving each other a little more. We open all these doors to God the Son, the Christ Child in Bethlehem, the one who makes Christmas for each of us come true.

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.   (John 1:14)

Nelson Mandela and Raymond Raynes

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), a reconciling man in a divisive time, passed into eternity recently. May his soul rest in peace and may light perpetual rest upon him. His passing reminded me of an earlier divisive time and another man of love (perhaps saint?), Raymond Raynes C.R., an Anglican monk who was born a generation before Mr. Mandela, whose work in South Africa has not been forgotten by those for whom he cared. 

Father Raynes (1903-1958), late Superior of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, England, built missions, schools, and churches in South Africa, first in Johannesburg (Rosettenville) and later in the Southwest Township, Soweto. This Anglican monastic Community had a missionary presence in South Africa since 1902; Father Raynes arrived in 1933, shortly after his profession as a monk. After ten years of devoted work, his asceticism and labor took a toll on his body. He became severely ill and was recalled to England in 1943. Father Trevor Huddleston was assigned to nurse him, and it was Father Huddleston C.R. whom Raymond sent to South Africa to continue his important work. 

Nelson Mandela came of age in the early 1940s about the time that Raymond was recalled. In the course of the next half century, it was Trevor Huddleston who stood alongside Nelson Mandela, working to reverse the curse of apartheid that gripped the nation from 1948 to 1994. Father Huddleston did indeed continue Raymond’s work. He died in 1998 having seen his friend Nelson Mandela released from prison and elected President of South Africa.

I became interested in Father Raynes many years ago, having read his biography by Nicholas Mosley, a remarkable man in his own right, a novelist and Lord of Parliament. Raymond Raynes converted him to Christ, brought him home. When Father Raynes died, Lord Mosley paid him tribute by writing his biography, with the support of the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield. 

My husband and I visited Mirfield in 2002. We saw the church and the cluster of buildings set in park-like grounds; we honored the grave of Raymond Raynes in the monks’ cemetery. Some of my impressions found their way into my third novel, my story set in England, Inheritance, about the great Christian inheritance we have been given, about the call not to squander it or take it for granted.

My Mirfield impressions and my introduction to Father Raynes by way of Lord Mosley’s biography has since led to a new edition of the biography, recently released by the American Church Union, an American Anglican publishing group. In this biography the South African story is told with color, poetry, and insight. It was a great privilege to edit this biography and see it once again in print. 

So with the passing of Mr. Mandela, I think with gratitude again about the Anglo-Catholic Father Raynes. Father Raynes loved the African people. In the 1930s the black South Africans lived in shanties and worked long hours for little wage in the mines, but aside from the poverty which was dire in itself, they were denied basic rights: the right to own land, the right of due process and other legal rights, the right to vote. For any reason, for no reason, they could be arrested, sent away, and never seen again. Into this setting came this young, handsome, energetic priest with his long black cassock who walked the neighborhoods sharing the love of God and also sharing his food, shelter, and knowledge. The children loved him and followed him around on his home visits. Father Raynes built a huge (“barn-sized”)  church with a high altar and colorful frescoes. The church was packed with thousands of worshipers weekly. He led his people in processions with incense and candles and chanting, often through the dusty lanes of the community. He gave them a vision of another, a more beautiful world. He showed them God and His love for each of them. He gave them dignity and worth in the love of God their creator. 

Father Raynes also became their political defender. He rescued many from prison who had been falsely arrested. He fought for sewers and lighting and water pipes in the neighborhoods. He campaigned for schools and teachers. He prayed night and day for these people whom he loved so. He fasted.

The children did not forget Father Raynes after he was called back to England. They grew up to become the future leaders and priests and teachers of South Africa. They had been educated in Anglican schools; many had become devout Anglo-Catholics with a mission for the poor. This generation birthed the new nation, brought it into a hopefully more democratic world of freedom and reconciliation.

So, with the passing of Mr. Mandela, I feel great pride in the timely new edition of Nicholas Mosley’s The Life of Raymond Raynes. This biography reminded me what one person can accomplish, with the grace of God flowing through his or  her mind and heart. I have read that Nelson Mandela was also a devout man in his own way, a Methodist, who kept his faith to himself, not wanting to cause division. But in his efforts to forgive those who persecuted him, I see a man who had been touched by Christ. In his long years in prison on Robben Island  and his waiting and his patience through it all, you can see the soul of a martyr willing to sacrifice himself for others.

2013 has been a year of remembrance for South Africa: Father Raynes’ life remembered with gratitude and thanksgiving; Nelson Mandela’s life remembered also with gratitude and thanksgiving. 

To learn more about the biography, The Life of Raymond Raynes, and ordering information, visit the American Church Union at http://www.anglicanpck.org/resources/acu/index.html.  To read an excellent review by Father Ian McCormack of New Directions, the magazine of Forward in Faith (Anglican), click here: Review New Directions