Tag Archives: Incarnation

Incarnations Among Us

Michelangelo CreationThe link between God and man has always been sacred. The glory of the Creator permeates his creation. His life pulses through us, from conception to death, and into eternity. God, our preacher reminded us yesterday, is incarnate within us.

Such incarnation – in the flesh – is the heart of Christianity. This mystery was revealed two thousand years ago, made perfect in God’s incarnation as Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. As St. John writes: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… 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.” (KJV)

This moment in history revealed to a barbaric world the innate natural law to honor the dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, race, handicap, age, born and unborn. To be sure, before Christ, God led his Chosen People to this moment by giving them laws and judgments that taught the same respect, belief, and charity for one another and set them apart from other communities. But when God the Son entered humanity to live among us, he gave us incarnational means, sacramental means, to take part in his divinity through God the Holy Spirit.

The Church through the centuries has worked to make incarnation understood and experienced. Doctrines and dogma explain in words. Sacraments provide incarnate ways for God to enter his creation again and again in human time, hourly, daily, weekly. We receive his body into our body. We pray and praise, and his Spirit weaves among us, entering our hearts and minds. We, the created, are called to converse with our Creator, and he descends upon us, within us, filling us with his life and love. This is incarnation. This God in our own flesh.

Recently, at a concert at St. Peter’s, Oakland, “Bach Vespers, Cantata 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” with soprano Juliana Snapper and organist Jonathan Dimmock of the San Francisco Symphony, I knew I was experiencing a kind of incarnation. For music c0mposed for the worship of God, as this was composed, is prayerful praise. It links us with God through our hearing and our singing. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), church organist, wrote this stunning cantata for a Lutheran Evening Prayer service (Vespers), weaving music through Scripture readings and prayers. The audience of varying beliefs sang hymns with the rest of us. The music danced around us, in, and through us.

I have often called for the return of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the public square, not as theocracy but to remind our culture of the roots of our historic belief in human dignity founded on the belief that God indwells in each of us. Here, in the nave of this Oakland church, the public square came to us, for it was a public concert reminding ordinary citizens of the roots of freedom, this God of revelation. It was a powerful moment.

And when I saw Pope Francis address Congress this weekend, the first pope to do so, I was encouraged to see that Christianity had entered the public square for a short hearing. The pope, to be sure, appeals to a broad spectrum. As Peggy Noonan writes, Pope Francis has two sides, a lovable one, preaching the dignity of human life, and a not-so-lovable one, preaching an economic theory long ago discredited as helping the poor, one that hurts the poor. He is a pope, she writes, who “endorses secular political agendas, who castigates capitalism in language that is both imprecise and heavily loaded… he doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given – and is giving – his own church.” Indeed, his own Argentina has fallen into poverty through socialist ideology. Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell weighed in this week: “The official poverty level in the United States is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the United States has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left.”

But even with the two sides of this lovable Pope Francis, I rejoice in his presence, for he has brought the Church into America’s public square, and many are listening to his words spoken from a loving heart. He has reminded us of our Judeo-Christian roots simply by his white-robed incarnate presence among us, for he represents historic Christianity through the ages. His visit, in this sense, has been a sacramental journey, to America but in time as well, as all true pilgrimages are.

Saturday night, at my fiftieth high school reunion, I saw  schoolmates I had not seen since high school. I tried to match names and faces. I studied the class photos on the wall. And as we linked with one another, searching for recognition and trying to read name tags with our reading glasses, I thought how unique each one of us was, how we had all moved through our given time changed and yet unchanged. Each one of us, created in the image of our Creator, carried his life within, in varying degrees. We are neither God nor gods, but we carry God’s spark within us, and those who had fanned it into a flame with prayer and praise and Scripture and sacrament shone brighter than those who hadn’t. They lit the room with their quiet glow.

Incarnations of God are all around us, in every person we meet. We are born to love and praise God, and this is the good, the wondrous news of salvation. We need not despair, for he is with us if we desire him. But we must desire.

I look forward to more public square incarnations, to the fusing of our culture with the Judeo-Christian belief in a loving God who proclaims the dignity of each one of us, no matter what, no matter who.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

The Nativity of Our Lord

I was thinking about the weaknesses of the flesh, especially the aging flesh, as I realized I had driven off to church and the Christmas pageant, without my glasses. I turned around and retrieved them, so all was well, and I could read my lines and music, gold halo on head, white robe donned, even wings yearning to fly. After all I was an angel, a key role in the Heavenly Host.

But now, this afternoon, reflecting on this morning’s beautiful Fourth Sunday in Advent, it is fitting to consider our decaying bodies. It is fitting to tell the story of Christmas with every generation present, to tell the story of the glorious Incarnation. It is fitting to include the prequel of Adam and Eve and their tragic decision about that apple long ago. Our flesh, after all, is what incarnation is, a word meaning literally, in the flesh. The Incarnation itself, that moment in history two thousand years ago when God took on our mortal flesh to reverse that choice in the Garden of Eden, is an event we have come to know as Christmas, derived from the Old English Cristes moeses, “the Mass of the festival of Christ.” 

The Incarnation of God in human flesh, Christmas, while certainly overladen and hopefully not disguised with modern excess, still celebrates the kernel of this festival of love. Gift-giving is about love. Hospitality is about love. Christmas concerts celebrate love. The story of Saint Nicholas, fourth-century Bishop of Myrna known today as Santa Claus, is particularly about love. We delight in love when we light the fir tree to honor the Tree of Life, the Cross, for indeed, the tree that bore the tragic fruit becomes the wood that holds the loving sacrifice for mankind. Mary is the new Eve, Christ the new Adam and the bearer of the fruit of salvation, the giver of incarnate love.

So the other day, when the huge fir tree worked its way through the small backdoor of our home and the needles flooded our living room, making quite a mess, I embroidered the event into my tapestry of Christmas. When I climbed the ladder to string the lights and run the garlands glittering and dancing through the greens, I embroidered the moment into my tapestry. When I crouched under the lower branches and poured two jugs of water into the bowl (a thirsty tree) I wove this action, which has become over the years its own ritual, into my Christmas tapestry. These are the small ones, the blessed ones. There are so many other rituals and symbols, far more famous: the evergreen wreath with its symbols of life, the candles with their flames of light and hope, the glorious music (Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, to name a few) and the charming carols that retell the story again and again. So rich a season! So rich a tapestry! The beauty may be too great to bear.

But I shall wait for Christmas Eve for the ornaments, collected over the years, to be hung by one of our grandsons. And I shall wait for many more moments like this, this week of Christmas, and shall weave them into my life. 

All the rituals of Christmas, and they vary from family to family in details but not essentials, express this stupendous miracle, one we can’t find words for: love come down among us. C.S. Lewis said that there is a difference between believing in a god and believing in this God. This God, this specific God, makes it clear that there is nothing vague about Christian belief, and who this God is, what he is like, what he does for us. It is as though the sensory details of our physical world, our bodies, are part of this God, this Creator. He knows us; we reflect him in some mysterious way. He became one of us to know us better. And since that moment outside Bethlehem when eternity intersected time, the world has been changed. We saw love incarnate. We saw truth and we saw beauty and and we saw goodness. 

Christ, the Son of God, taught us how to be changed. He gave us ways to heal our corrupt flesh, our destructive selfishness, our hurtful pride. Love one another, he said, as I have loved you. 

But, many ask, how do we know this child in Bethlehem, this carpenter from Galilee, is the Son of God? Wasn’t this all made up by fanatics? 

We know this because of the resurrection stories that refused to die. Because Jesus the Christ (Greek for the anointed one, messiah in Hebrew) conquered death, and thus he was divine, outside mortal time, with power over mortal flesh. Because he did these things, and we trust the accounts, we listen to him. His words speak deeply to us about our lives, our world, and how to love one another. He perfects us through simple belief, repentance, and intention to follow him. He raises us with him through his own death and resurrection, for that wood of the Cross bridges Heaven and Earth, God and Man, Love and Un-love. But we must experience our own “little deaths” of self to find our true and beautiful and good selves. 

We know this carpenter was the Second Person of God because of the foolhardy yet loving behavior of his followers, the first Church. These were ordinary folk who changed dramatically, caring for the poor, protecting human life, irrespective of age, gender, race, born and unborn. He preached that the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, the mournful will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, the merciful will be shown mercy, the pure-in-heart will see God, the peacemakers will be called the children of God. The two “Beatitudes” that follow are warnings to his followers about their future martyrdoms. And it is these martyrdoms, beginning with Nero in 67 A.D., that powerfully witness to this Galilean carpenter being the Son of God. These saints believed he was divine, and in this sense were in love with him, and they died painful deaths to witness to their belief, and to their love. They changed our world forever. 

And so, as I took my little place with the other angels and shepherds in the chancel of our parish church, and as I gazed upon Mary and Joseph and the baby (we had a real baby this year, three months old), I gave thanks. I gave thanks for another year of life, but more importantly, another year as a Christian. For my Christmas tapestry is growing, as I added another pageant to my weave. My fellow Christians dance among the threads, singing and praising God, Gloria, Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo, the heavenly angels’ song to the earthly shepherds that starry night, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men.

Deo gratias and Merry Christmas!

Gaudete Sunday

???????????????????????????????The heavens opened early Thursday morning, and rain poured upon our California soil, slaking the thirst of the earth but soon bursting gutters and filling low places with floodwaters. In drought-plagued California, we didn’t dare complain, but were thankful.

We live in the foothills of Mount Diablo, and while our house is on bedrock, our northern hillside falls steeply into a ravine. Friday morning we noticed part of the fence was missing, and it had taken some of the landscaping with it as it slid to the bottom of the hill. I thought, as I have thought many times, how suddenly nature makes short work of man’s efforts to tame her, shattering our pride.

The earth is drying out now, and this morning we headed for church, bundled up for temps are in the low fifties (cold for us). The skies had changed from threatening to sudden beauty, with white clouds scuttling against brilliant blue patches, the low sun clarifying the air as though trying to fit more light into shorter days.

And in this winter-scape we prepare for the light of the Incarnation, to me always a stunning event, one repeated in a different way on humble altars in glorious Eucharists. It is Advent, and we prepare for Christmas, the coming of the Christ Child, God becoming one of us, with us, Emanuele. We celebrate the love, sacrificial and humble, of a God who loves his creation so much that he would do such a thing, that he would be born in a manger-cave, among animals, to a poor, devout Jewish couple who believed in his angel messengers and obeyed them.

And so, stepping into the warm nave of our parish church, the symbols of the space textured this story of miraculous birth. The Virgin Mary and her holy Child stood to the left, Gospel side, a bank of votives flaming at her feet. Three of the four Advent candles in their bed of greens had been lit (two purples and one rose). The American flag stood proudly, a testimony to our freedom of worship. Against the red brick apsidal wall, the white marble altar was draped in purple, and six tall tapers burned on either side of the purple-tented tabernacle. A crèche set in greenery, to the far right, Epistle side, told the humble story of glory, this huge contradiction, one of many fascinating ones in our faith, of glorious humility. Somehow true glory can only be found, we are told, in true humility. Somehow true joy can only be found in true sacrifice. Somehow the Creator must become part of his creation to save it from itself.

I love Advent III, called Rose Sunday, Gaudete Sunday. We light the rose candle along with the first two purple candles. Today is Gaudete Sunday because of the opening prayer, the Introit: Gaudete in Domino semper, or Rejoice in the Lord always… Rose Sunday is a break in the penitential purple of Advent, and this is the only Advent Sunday we have flowers on the altar. We emphasize the joy of anticipating Christmas rather than the penitence of preparing for Christmas.

In the daily readings of the Morning and Evening Prayer offices, the mood is definitely one of penitence and preparation. Most of the readings have been Old Testament prophecies, warnings, and judgments in Isaiah and the Psalms. We read the early chapters of the Gospel of Mark, of the beginnings of Christ’s ministry, but not the Christmas story, not yet. But most fascinating are the chapters in Revelation, or The Apocalypse, the great vision given to St. John on the Island of Patmos, detailing the end-times, the last days, the Second Coming of Christ.

We have been immersed in these daily prayers, not reflecting the coming of Christ to Bethlehem but reflecting the Second Coming of Christ in Judgment. We are “woken up” with these future realities, these warnings and visions, given a “heads up.” Are we ready for Christ to come? How will we fare when judged? Have we loved enough? Have we cleaned out our hearts to receive him? For he will not enter a cluttered heart fettered with sins, the detritus of selfishness and pride, envy and greed. There will be no room for him in such a heart. We need to make room for him.

So Advent, often called “Little Lent,” reminds us of the four great events, the adventures, to come to us: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. How will we – our lives – be measured?

This morning I entered the nave of our warm parish church and knelt in a pew, giving thanks for the clergy, the people of the parish, and the freedom to worship. I asked God to clean out my little heart, to remove all the obstacles to his advent in my soul. My gaze fell on the purple-draped tabernacle and knew that this weekly ritual, this rite, would set me right with God. I knew that the habit of confession would serve me well in the time span of my life, would ensure that I have the time of my life, ride the waves of glory in this great adventure. I knew that, encouraged by the words of the liturgy – confession, absolution, the great action of the Mass, Holy Communion – I would unite once again with Christ, in bread and wine placed on my tongue. I knew that each Eucharist prepared my heart and soul, mind and body, for the great Feast of the Lamb that would await me in Heaven. And I wanted to be ready. I wanted as many Eucharistic feasts as I could manage before then, readying my heart and soul. I want to sing with the angels and the saints.

I also love Advent III because we usually practice (after Mass) for the Christmas Pageant. Young and old gather together to portray our story of redemption, beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve and ending with the Nativity of Our Lord, the beginning of our salvation, the antidote to the Fall. Lessons are read and carols sung. We rehearsed today; next Sunday we don costumes and prayers and wings (I get to be an angel, and yes, even with wings…) We have a five-year old Mary and an eleven-year old Joseph.

The days are wintry and short. We prepare to celebrate Christmas, the year of our Lord, Anno Domini, A.D.  Some of this sense, this pairing of season with humble glory, has been captured by the poet Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

 

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

 

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.

 

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.

 Christina Rossetti (1830-1895), “In the Bleak Midwinter”

 

 Yes, Advent is a time to give him our hearts: clean, ready, and open.

Thanksgiving for Hana

HANA-LANIThis Thanksgiving weekend we spent giving thanks for Hana, Maui. We arrived in the dusk of Tuesday evening, flying low along the coast from Kahului to Hana. Darkness was descending quickly and a thick fog enshrouded our small nine-seater plane. I knew that Hana Airport had no radar, and if we could not land due to poor visibility we would turn around and return to Kahului Airport, where we would need to rent a car for the two hour winding trip to Hana.

Suspended in the fog, it seemed we were floating. I began to pray. Then I sensed the plane had curved out to sea searching for visibility pockets, but it was actually making a different approach, coming in from the south. Soon we saw the coastline of land and sea, the gentle green shape of Ka’uiki Head reaching out from Hana Bay, with its lighthouse alight and welcoming, and soon we heard the wheels touch the landing strip. We rolled between the lights flaring along the sides of the runway. Safe. With bowed heads we maneuvered through the exit door and climbed down the rope ladder to terra firma.

The pilot explained he used GPS (I suppose I should not have worried) but when he said that he missed the “twilight cutoff” by one minute I asked what he meant. “I’m not allowed to land at the Hana Airport after twilight.” “Oh,” I said. One minute? My prayers were needed after all.

The temps have been on the cool side even for this rain forest on the eastern shore of Maui in the middle of winter, but in spite of winds and gray skies, rain has been mostly at night and we have been able to walk a bit. But the loveliness of Hana isn’t just the tropical temperatures, the palms, the roaring surf, the little drinks with umbrellas, but rather the people. Over the years we have come to appreciate this village that nestles under the volcano Haleakala, that is protected by Fagan’s Cross standing like a beacon on one of the green foothills.

And so I wrote Hana-lani, a love story set here, and in the dreaming and the courtship of words and phrases and sentences, as I married language that reflected the many colors, sounds, and fragrances, with the family and faith of Hana, I’ve been blessed by the warm hospitality of the folks that live here. We return to Hana, it is true, to rest, relax, and listen to the surf (and sip a few Mai Tais) but also to enjoy the people.

We are in our gentle years and not quite as active as we once were, but the paths that meander over the lawns of our hotel are kind and beckoning, with views of the sea and the spewing white foam. And from our veranda we can see Ka’uiki Head, the same scene that’s on the cover of my novel. At night, surf pounds and rain rattles the roof. In the day, we read and rest, and I create my next scene in The Fire Trail. And all the while, I say my prayers of thanksgiving as we slip into Advent and the marking of a new Church Year.

St. Mary's Hana compOur time in Hana has been appropriately bracketed by Eucharists celebrated on Thanksgiving and today, Advent I. We climbed the white stairs to St. Mary’s and entered through an arched portal into the airy space where prayers mingle with breezes wafting through open windows. It is a white church, set on a green hillside, Fagan’s Cross higher up, and the volcano behind that, and today the chancel was splashed with purple hangings for Advent. Four Advent candles nested in their greens and the Lady altar had been lovingly decorated with flowers (we joined in a Rosary before Mass). The polished wooden pews have comfortable kneelers, and for this I am grateful, because I like to kneel when I pray.

They say that gratitude is a good cure for depression (and drug-free), forcing one to turn outward and less inward, becoming a bit more selfless and a little less self-centered. I think there is truth in this, and it is also true that it is a good preparation for penitence, a cleaning out of the heart. For when I am thankful for the blessings of each day, beginning with the blessing of waking to the day itself, I am humbled. And in the humbling I see places in my heart that need cleaning out… dark corners where envy, pride, idolatry, sloth, gluttony, wrath, and all their many many relatives, have hidden. It is good to give my soul a good sweeping, to let the fresh air in, just as the breezes blow through the windows of St. Mary’s.

In this holy season I will re-learn the Advent collect in the Book of Common Prayer

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

I will re-memorize these words and place them in my newly swept heart. I shall hold them close, so that I may retrieve them at any moment in any place during this holy season. They are words that sum up our hopeful faith and faithful hope, these sixteenth-century phrases of Bishop Cranmer. I would like to have that armor of light. I would like to rise to that life immortal. 

Advent St. JSo we trundled up the stairs to St. Mary’s and worshiped God with the lovely people of Hana. Many ages formed the congregation, and while I was pleased to see so many children, I was equally pleased to see the respect paid to the elderly. No one was left out, and we visitors were greeted with vine leis, a sweet kindness.

Sometimes we sang together in Hawaiian, sometimes in English, as we accomplished the “work of the people,” the Holy Liturgy, joining together in the great action of the Mass, with Scripture, sermon, creed, confession, consecration of the bread and wine, communion. In this huge prayer we took part in a drama enacted throughout the world and throughout time, and we sang with the angels and saints in Heaven. I think God was pleased with the offering of his children in Hana. 

We have entered Advent, the season of the coming of Christ Jesus among us, humbly as a child who donned our flesh and shared our sufferings, so that he could unite with us and carry us to Heaven. We now look to Christ’s coming again, his second advent, in glory to judge the living and the dead. Will we be ready? We are told it could happen now, tomorrow, the next day. So we practice penitence, as we wait for that glorious advent; we cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.

The Light of Candlemas

It was with some surprise and great thanksgiving that I received word yesterday that my novel The Magdalene Mystery received First Place in the Feathered Quill Book Awards for 2013. 

I was surprised again when I woke this morning, recalling this bit of news, and when I saw that it was raining, however lightly (our first real rain in California for months), I became deeply grateful, thinking that perhaps the drought was lessening. But later as I entered the warm sanctuary of our parish church, leaving the cold outside, and stepped up the thick red carpet of the central aisle, I sighed in wonder. 

I knew today was the Festival of Candlemas, the celebration of the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. I knew it involved candles and I even recalled we in the pews held white tapers that would soon be lit by acolytes, and we would light our neighbor’s, fire catching fire. But I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of the candles on the altar as I entered: two large candelabra, each bank holding seven flaming white tapers, framed by eight giant candlesticks aflame. I had entered a holy home, this bright house of God and his fiery love. I was cradled by the warmth and light of the space, as the clergy and acolytes processed in, swinging incense and holding the crucifix high before the burning torches, the celebrant gliding royally toward the high altar with his royal gold and white cope. We sang with many voices joined together as one, “As with gladness men of old/Did the guiding star behold; As with joy they hailed its light, Leading onward, beaming bright; So most gracious Lord, may we/Evermore be led to thee…” (52).

The nave and sanctuary shimmered in the candlelight, a contrast to the dim and wet cold outside. And so we celebrated this moment in history, when God the Son moved from the private space, the home, and entered the public space, the temple. The light of heaven entered the darkness of our world. And thus we celebrated with light, the flame from the altar lighting our tiny wicks, the candles held so carefully, so hopefully, and we turned to light the next. 

We held our flaming candles as the Gospel was read from the central aisle. In this passage, Luke 2:22+, the elders Simeon and Anna witness the appearance of their Messiah. They had waited and prayed; they had been promised this moment. Simeon took the child in his arms, blessed God, and said, 

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel…’

These words, “Simeon’s Song,” have become a treasured part of our Evening Prayer Office. We re-affirm that we too have seen this salvation, we have seen this light that enlightens, we too know this glory that came to us from the People of Israel.

Today we ended the season of Christmas, forty days after this most holy birth-day, a time span set by Jewish law, the “law of the Lord.” Today we re-affirmed that the light of the world has come and continues to dwell among us, with us, enlightening us.

The Magdalene Mystery is largely about affirming that light. How do we know this remarkable God-story is true? How should we treat those first-century documents we call the Gospels? How do we know that the account of the empty tomb is an accurate witness? Did Mary Magdalene even exist, let alone see the risen Christ?

From Dan Brown to the Jesus Seminar to the “New Atheists,” folks have spent a good deal of time and energy trying to prove the Incarnation and the Resurrection did not happen. There must be much at stake. And there is. 

My little novel has been roaming the world since June 2013 when it first was released, when it was born. As an author I feel like a mother who has given birth and sent my child, my words, out into the world to fare one way or another, to hopefully provide a flickering flame to lighten some of the darkness.

So it is a sweet moment of delight that I experience this weekend, a time in which The Magdalene Mystery has been honored on this weekend of Candlemas, when Mary presented her son to the temple, and thus to the world. 

And now, as I glance out my window, I see the sun has burst upon my watered garden, turning the grays to greens. And I believe I see a dusting of snow on the top of Mount Diablo. 

Deo Gratias.

Healthcare of the Soul

I’ve been exercising more and feel the better for it. I have chronic low back pain and exercise helps a great deal, stretching and strengthening those tiny but crucial muscles around the vertebrae. 

And during this holy season, these holi-days, of Advent, I exercise both body and soul and feel the better for it. 

We all know that we must fight fat and cholesterol and carbs and calories and sugar in order to be healthy. We must do thirty minutes daily of aerobics so that our heart rate will rise and our blood move freely through our arteries to feed our flesh and return through our veins and into our pumping heart to begin again the journey of circulation. We know now, in this modern world of ours, through words on pages and in media of all kinds, lots of “how-to’s,” lots of self-helps. We know that “natural” is good (although the definition of natural remains elusive), that fish is better than meat, that baked is better than fried, that fresh is better than frozen, canned, or cured. Dark veggies and bright fruits should fill our plate. We must avoid fries, hamburgers, hot-dogs, and pizza. I fear that we what we really want is white rolls rather than brown, white rice rather than whole grain, fast food rather than slow. We know a great deal about how to have healthier bodies. 

As I rolled along on the elliptical machine, pushing and pulling, I thought of these things. I thought how lopsided our society had become, as though we walked with one leg instead of two, dragging the weak leg, the spiritual leg, behind. We seem to be unaware that we limp, listing to one side. We don’t notice the odd rhythm of our step, the scraping noise of our sick soul pulled along, for we are used to being unbalanced. Then we wonder why we feel a sad pain in the ignored area of our souls, our hearts and minds, why we get depressed, why life seems overwhelmingly meaningless. We look to pills and other self-help mantras, rather than diet and exercise suitable for souls. 

We ignore our souls as we exercise our bodies. We starve the spirit and feed the body. We are unbalanced, undernourished, weak. Just as we feel physical pain, we feel spiritual pain. How do we exercise and feed our souls to assuage that pain, that longing for something (or Someone) greater, that anguish that weaves through life, ambushing us unawares? I for one want to walk straight and tall and without a limp. I want to assuage my spiritual pain. I want a soul regimen, one with good diet and exercise. 

Exercise and feeding of the soul, of course, must be practiced with as much care as that of the body. There are exercises that help and those that hurt. There is healthy food and unhealthy food. How do we know? 

Just so, the Church defines and illuminates how to exercise and feed souls. She shows us, like a good mother, the healthy way, the care-full way, the diet to grow our souls. Our spirit-muscles strengthen with her commandments as we feed at her table, God’s altar. As we follow her teachings, we learn to love.

And this learning to love is what Advent is about. We await the coming of Love Incarnate in Bethlehem and as we look to Christmas Day 2013, we feed on Scripture, learning that love does indeed have a definition. Love is doing good – not doing harm – to our neighbor. Love is the summary of all law, the distilled essence of the Ten Commandments. For the Ten Commandments give us love’s recipe, guidelines to nourish us. The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses so long ago on those clay tablets on Mount Sinai, are the prescription for how to love and how to heal our spirits. 

It has often been said that if mankind followed the Ten Commandments, we would live in a peaceful utopia. Probably true. We would worship only God and keep Sundays holy. We would honor our parents. We would not kill one another, we would not sleep with another’s spouse, we would not steal, we would not lie, we would not desire what is not ours. In a sense the last five – those commandments about how to love one another – are largely about taking what is not ours to take, are all forms of theft, whether taking life, illicit sex, another’s goods, another’s good name. And we are not supposed to even desire these things for that transgresses the commandment, thou shalt not covet

A friend once told me that when he couldn’t think of things to confess, he would confess that he hadn’t loved enough. For me I can always confess covetousness, a sure sign of not loving enough. I don’t often covet other’s material goods, but other odd and not-so-odd things I often covet – clear skin, thick hair (I have mottled skin and little hair); energy (I am slow-moving); good vision (always a problem even with thick glasses). I covet more serious things too, more painful things. I envy women with many children, although I am not childless. 

Just making this list is bitter for me, for I know the other side, the true side, to these complaints. My mottled skin reflects my many years outside in glorious sunshine, lucky me! My thinning hair means that I have been graced with a long life. My low energy allows me to reflect and write. My poor vision has been balanced with acute hearing and miraculous attention to aromas, breezes, conversation, melody and song. And my few children? I have a wonderful son with a wonderful family. I’m a step-mom to three more sons and their wonder-filled families. I have eight grandchildren, with a great-grandchild due in April. How can I complain? I can’t. I am ashamed of my covetousness.

So coveting is a nasty thing, a tightening of the heart, a blinding of the soul to blessings. It is un-love for it treats others as objects to be owned. Perhaps it is the opposite of thanksgiving. 

But my sins against God’s law of love are forgiven in the sacrament of confession, through the Incarnation of God’s (only) son, through this redeeming intersection in human time on the Cross, through his glorious resurrection. And with confession and forgiveness, my own pain and shame vanishes. I am washed clean. I often leave church with a happy smile on my face. Joy has replaced the pain in my heart; I know true happiness. 

So I try to exercise my soul at least as often as I exercise my body. I want to walk straight and tall, with no limp, balanced. I want to be pain-free, full of hope, to learn to truly love my neighbor as myself.

The Adventure of Advent

This morning in church I thought how rich a season this is, this season of Advent, this season of coming, these four weeks in which we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation, the festival known as Christmas.

I continue giving thanks, thanksgiving that our culture still recognizes the feast of Christmas. There remains among us a spirit of giving, of love, of sharing. True, we are bombarded by ads and the commercialization of this pre-Christmas time, but even so, the ads enjoin us to give, to buy gifts for friends and loved ones. St. Nicholas with his bags of gold for the maidens who wanted to marry returns as Santa Claus in the malls to question children as to their gift lists. His presence (and presents) assures them this is a magical, a mystical, season.

True also, we as a culture seem to have lost the reason for the magical mystery that weaves through these twenty-five days. Yet weave into our hours and days it does, and we buy fir trees to festoon with lights and hang sparkly, memorable ornaments on bits of wire. We light our trees and stack our gifts, mysteriously hidden beneath wrappings and ribbons. These traditions pull us through an unbelieving desert, a parched time, hopefully to a time of belief once again.

Those of us who believe already in the Incarnation of God in Christ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, a historical intersection of eternity with time, sometimes become impatient and critical of the mania that seems to possess the rest of us, according to the media, as though their madness pollutes our holy time. But perhaps we should be grateful that folks want to buy gifts for others, and that retailers offer discounts so that they can do just that.

Those of us who believe already in this God of love and joy and salvation and eternal life need not pay much attention to the crowds storming the stores. We begin a lovely and sensitive time, a delicious time, this time of little Lent, a time of waiting for the great Advent of Our Lord, the coming of this child born to a young virgin in a manger-cave. Today, on this first Sunday in Advent, we begin our prayers fitfully, each evening, saying the assigned Collect, a prayer that gathers us all together, collects our minds and hearts:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

We wait and we watch. We put upon us the armour of light. We lighten, enlighten, our homes to prepare for this great coming of Christ. We teach our children the meaning of the twinkling stars on the sweet smelling branches and the four Advent candles we light in turn each week, as we count the days and wait and hope and pray for our redeemer to come to earth. It is a dark time in a sense, a time of watching for the greatest light to appear among us, a light to banish the dark, a glorious light.

We sing carols to tell the ancient story, a story renewed each year, one that settles into our souls like seeds planted in fertile ground, seeds sprouting from our watering. The carols are part of the watering. Worship in church in Advent is part of the watering. The seeds feed too upon our prayers and the words we commit to our minds and hearts in these holy weeks.

Advent is a great reminder. It is a season set apart from the rush of shopping and decorating, or perhaps a season overlaying this rushing busy-ness. Somehow Advent intersects our time, just as God intersected all time and became one of us. Advent reminds us of the great truth, the great reality, the great love of God for each of us. For a few days and weeks in the cold of winter and the long dark of night we are reminded that our lives have meaning, that each of us is a star in God’s heart. We are reminded that “he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, (and that) we may rise to the life immortal…” We are told once again that God loves us… that he loved the world so that he gave his life so that we might have everlasting life. And it all began in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. It all began beneath a starry sky as angels sang and shepherds knelt and kings offered their gifts.

So too we offer gifts to one another at Christmas. So too we kneel before the manger and before the altar where Christ is rebirthed with each Mass. So too as we receive him in this purple penitential season, our hearts are washed clean and our souls watered anew. So too we sing our praises with the angels on high.

Some call these stories myths. But myths are true. They tell the greatest truths of all, who we are, who we are meant to be. They answer the great questions why and how? They tell of God our creator, of Christ our redeemer. They tell us of love incarnate. These myths tell a glorious truth.

We light our Advent candles, the single purple one this first evening. Slowly, as we learn our Collect by heart, engrafting the words onto our souls, we change into something slightly different than we were before, something slightly more glorious, something slightly closer to heaven, something holy, as we taste a bit of heaven in this holy season.

This is the adventure of Advent, the coming of Our Lord upon earth.