Washing Socks

5160513351_8089e06577_z

At the church I’m serving, we distinguish clearly between Advent and Christmas. In Advent we sing Advent hymns. Pretty much only Advent hymns. Which means we don’t start singing Christmas carols until everyone else is sick of them.

There’s a good liturgical and biblical rationale for delaying the gratification, although if you’re someone who never gets sick of singing carols, there’s not an argument in the world that will sway you.

But maybe this will—it’s just safer to wait.

If you sing carols too long, you might start paying attention to the words. If you do, you’ll have questions. Take those lyrics about “mild mother Mary.” How many mild mothers do you actually know… with screaming infants at the breast?

There are other dangers too, such as the invention of goofy lyrics. Remember that old chestnut, “Good King Windshield Glass”? And surely you know “While shepherds washed their socks…”

While shepherds washed their socks by night, 

all seated round the tub, 

the Angel of the Lord came down

and gave them all a scrub.

We used to drive the nuns crazy with this one:

We three Kings of Orient are

puffing on a rubber cigar.

It was loaded. It exploded.

Bang!

We two Kings…

And so on. That’s the American version, by the way. In Liverpool they sing about underwear that sells for two pence a pair in Hamilton SquareSo fantastic! No elastic! Not very safe to wear.

And not very safe to sing!

Yep, it’s just less risky to restrict carol-singing to the brief Christmas season. Unless, of course, you know that neither Advent nor Christmas is about being safe. Unless, of course, you know risk is what it’s all about—God taking a risk on the world, a risk on us. Leaving divine glory and heavenly peace aside to become one of us. A goofy, crazy, laughable plan if there ever was one.

No matter when you sing them, may the carols of Christmas give you joy, and maybe even a few laughs. Especially if you could really use one.

Prayer Grant us joy in your birth, O newborn Jesus. And not a little goofiness. We could use a laugh. Amen.

Story and Song: Reflection at Lessons and Carols

chorister_1735844c

The custom of holding Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve originated at King’s College in Cambridge in the year the Great War ended. It was a rather fancy way to tell a simple story, high church and glorious. But whether you tell it in a Gothic cathedral with priests in surplice and cassock, or in a village church with little kids in bathrobes and paper crowns, it’s the same story repeated, wondered at, puzzled over, relished, and entered into for 2,000 years. And whether it’s sung with sophistication by boy choristers in ruffles accompanied by a masterful organ, or with a willing simplicity by a few octogenarians at a church piano, it’s the same song, sung with astonishing trust in its ancient oddness and candid faith in its startling relevance.

It’s such a good story. And so we tell it and we sing it year after year until its truth dawns on us, its power changes us, its vision redirects us, and all its promises come true. No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, it’s a story and a song for me, for you, for all.

If you’re a little restless in spirit, if every now and then you’re blindsided by a longing you can’t quite name, if you’ve ever felt far away from yourself, as if you’re missing some meaning you were made for, if you wish you could clear away what’s standing between you and the joy you know is for you—if that’s how it is with you, restless and far from yourself, the story and the song are yours. The story, about a people in lonely exile, yearning for a light, for someone to bring them home. The song, your own heart’s cry for a breakthrough, for joy at last—O Come, O come. Rejoice, rejoice. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’re exhausted from the effort to climb to the top, if your heart’s a little soured from doing the things it takes to get there and stay there, if you’re asking yourself what it’s costing you, whether you might be happier some other way—if that’s how it is with you, tired of climbing, the story’s yours, and so is the song. The story, about a God who comes down, lays his glory by, abandons privilege to become small, and all for love. The song, a wondering, a question for Christ, a question for you—‘Is it love that leads to leaving?’ If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’re feeling stymied as you survey an unjust world, if you’re angry and depressed about how little things change, if you’re tempted to throw in the towel—if that’s how it is with you, edging to the brink of despair, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about the fear and panic engulfing a proud tyrant’s city, while in a village just nine miles away—light-years away—heavenly peace holds sway as an infant sleeps at his mother’s breast. The song, a vision, the powerful down from thrones, the poor up from the dust, justice no longer denied. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’ve made a mess of something, maybe your life, if there are unkempt places in your heart you’d rather never come to light, if you know what you deserve and fear an accounting, if you think you’re not good enough for God to love you—if that’s how it is with you, hiding something, ashamed, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story of a truce between earth and heaven, of pardon and peace and the erasure of shame, a story in which the feared judge turns out to be like us, helpless and vulnerable, knowing our weakness well, from the inside out. The song rejoices in a Child who pleads for us, a heaven born prince with healing in his wings. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’re sad tonight, if you carry a heart pierced with the fresh pain of recent loss, or an old loss still vivid and sharp, if you’re acting brave but really want to curl up and cry—if this is how it is with you, grieving, bereft, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about a hard journey, following a star on sheer faith, keeping company with others in the long cold night as life and love are somehow born again. The song is sure: the Child feels for all our sadness, you are not alone. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

And if you’re joyous, at peace and full of hope, if you’re amazed by all the love you’ve received and all the love you’ve given in your life, if even your sacrifices are wellsprings of joy, if your thanks cannot be counted—if this is how it is with you, awestruck and grateful, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story about love in the beginning, about love in the end, about light in darkness that darkness cannot overcome, about the unaccountable graciousness that makes you God’s child, the apple of God’s eye. The song is glory in the highest, love’s come down to earth for us, and earth repeats the joy. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

Dear friends in Christ, the church doesn’t offer certainty or safety. Faith won’t fix your problems or pay your debts. We have no armies, no power to force right where there is wrong. No doctrine or rule in our tradition can change a heart or mend it. We have nothing efficient to offer the world. But we have a story. We have a song. The story of fierce love, the song of tenacious hope, the surprise of a God in flesh appearing. The Christmas story, and we tell it tonight to you, in this good company. In good company, we sing it with you tonight. With all who need to hear it, with all who need to sing it, we share it with love. No matter who you are, no matter where you find yourself on life’s journey, it’s yours. A gift to you from God.

May it save your life, heal your heart, soothe your pain, shield your gladness, awaken your desire, strengthen your hope, and give you joy that never ends.

Treasure: Christmas Day

mary-and-jesus

“But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19

 The Savior is born!

A thousand angels broadcast the news. They fill the sky and sing. Shepherds praise the Lord. They scurry around, they come and go and tell. Christmas dawns bustling and loud. Everyone has something to say, noisy and glad.

Mary doesn’t say a thing. But the door of her heart stands dangerously open. It all comes in—gladness, hope, consequences. Inwardly, she turns the prism of each sight and sound, each extraordinary thing, every possible meaning. With each turning, new light, greater affection.

She is the still point in the resounding amazement.

Oh, the things she knows…

She is the field in which God buried a treasure. And some day, when we’re paying attention, we will stumble upon it. Some day our hearts will leap at its worth. Some day we will sell all we have for it.

Maybe today.

Prayer

On Christmas Day, Saving God, move us to loud rejoicing; but grant us also the stillness of Mary, her open door, the art of treasuring, and a glimpse of the things she knows. In the name of her newborn Child, we pray. Amen.

So Weird: Meditation for 4th Advent/Christmas Sunday

XIR361198

Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-18

In our house, when I was growing up, the baby Jesus didn’t get placed in the manger until after we got back from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We were strict constructionists—no carols in Advent, and no baby in the cradle ‘till the night he was actually born.

But that was just about the only biblically correct thing about our crèche. Remember the part in the Bible where it says that a large fuzzy spider was crawling along Joseph’s shoulder? No? Well, we had one in our manger scene anyway. And an angel in a tutu and big clown sneakers straddling the roofline of the barn. And a little model Ferrari parked next to the camels. And a big beautiful purple wind-up Godzilla that spit electric sparks on the Virgin Mary’s head. When you have little kids in the house and you’ve put the crèche on a low table, a purple Godzilla’s not the weirdest thing that’s likely to show up to adore the Child.

But then, all the characters in the Christmas story have a touch of weird about them. Take the angel Gabriel. He’s scary. Every time he appear in the Bible, he says, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ You don’t have to say “Don’t be afraid!” if nobody’s scared. Gabriel has to say it all the time. That’s because he scares people. You’d be scared too if a bright pulsating creature with ginormous wings dropped in on you out of the blue. Even if he were to appear as an ordinary person, which angels sometimes do, he’d still be a strange guy you don’t know—in your house.

Then there’s Mary. After Gabriel calms her down (‘Don’t be afraid, Mary!’), he tells her that God’s decided she should have a miraculously conceived baby who will be the son of God and a king with an endless reign… and would that be okay with her? In one of the greatest understatements of the Bible, Mary is said to have been ‘perplexed’ by this. Perplexed? That’s what you are when you’re looking at your electric bill, not when you’re being told about a virginal conception.

Mary also ‘ponders.’ We’re told she meditates on everything that’s happening. While it’s happening. Giving birth in a livestock shed in the dead of winter, she’s pondering. Smelly animals nose around her newborn, she’s pondering. Angels play trumpets overhead, shepherds with garlic breath crowd her personal space, and she ‘ponders all these things in her heart.’ Mary ponders. You and I would be hysterical.

And Joseph. Silent Joseph. He says nothing at all from his first appearance in the biblical record until he disappears altogether, sometime after Jesus turns twelve. Not a syllable. He probably didn’t have time to talk. Angels were always interrupting his sleep. He kept having to load up the donkey at a moment’s notice. Off to Bethlehem. Off to Egypt. Back again. Without a GPS. Maybe he was just too worn out to say anything.

And the shepherds. You want them in your Christmas carols and on your greeting cards, but not in your house. They tramp in all that … manure, tell off-color jokes, and are known to have sticky fingers. You’ll have to count the silver when they leave. You’ll be missing a few forks and the soup spoon.

No, Godzilla isn’t the oddest character in the crèche. They’re all a touch strange. But it’s probably a good thing for us that they are. If Gabriel had been a pudgy-cheeked cherub who never made anybody nervous, we might not have known that it’s good for us to be scared by the Holy every now and then. To tremble before an awesome Lord. We sing about being scared— ‘Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.’ ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand.’ But when was the last time you actually shook in God’s presence, or hid your face before God’s holiness, or begged God to go away and leave you alone, or stood mute before God’s power in the world, in someone else’s life, or in your own? The last time the world suddenly became a lot larger than you thought? Deeper and more mysterious than anybody thought? When your certainties vanished? When you dropped to your knees?

And if Mary hadn’t done so much pondering, we might not have realized just how much there is to ponder in the way our lives unfold. How much mystery is tucked into life’s smallest details. How available God is to us in the facts on the ground, the stuff of being human. If Mary doesn’t ponder everything in her heart, we might never hold some seemingly insignificant experience up to the light, turn it ‘round and ‘round like a prism, and discover there, in every facet of mess and glory, the presence and activity of the living God.

And if Joseph hadn’t been so silent, so retiring, we might not have seen how silly it is always to want to have something clever or wise to say, to interject something about everything, to be the center of attention in every conversation. If he isn’t silent, we might not discover how liberating it is to have no need to comment, no compulsion to be heard, no urge to intrude upon a drama and steal a scene. We might miss a chance to notice how seldom we hold back so there’s room for someone else to be seen and heard, or how much we need to have someone make that space for us.

If Joseph had been a chatterbox, his son Jesus might not have developed that beautiful capacity of his just to let things be. Jesus might not have disappeared to hilltops at night to be still and listen to God, and catch the sounds of human suffering and hope rising from below. Maybe it was the example of Joseph’s silence that kept Jesus from being provoked when, bloody and accused, he stood before Pilate and the crowd. Maybe Joseph’s relinquishment of the need to be somebody enabled his Child to stand before the powers, without uttering a single self-defensive word.

And if it weren’t for the stinky, shifty shepherds, some people might think they have to spiff up to go to the mange and meet God. They might never go at all if they think it requires clean hands, expensive clothes, a spotless conscience. They might miss the chance to know the God who welcomes everybody who comes, even the odd and undesirable. Welcomes everybody and everything who comes for whatever reason, even if it’s to try to steal the silver.

Without shepherds who steal the silver we might never come to love this God who doesn’t seem to mind being taken advantage of. Who would hand over the whole treasure to us in a heartbeat. Who does hand it over to us in the life of a shivering Child. Who never demands a thing in return except that we hand ourselves to each other in mercy, justice, and love.

In my family’s crèche there was a spider crawling all over Joseph, a Ferrari parked next to the camels, an angel in sneakers perched on the roof, and a plastic Godzilla, purple and proud, spitting sparks on Mary’s head. It was a weird scene. But then, so is my life. And so is yours. And so is the world’s.

And, the Story goes, for some unfathomable reason—call it love—God can’t resist joining us in our weirdness. And so, the Story goes, the Word became flesh and lived among us. And because he became all that we are, nothing that we are is out of bounds at his cradle. Not you, not me, not purple plastic Godzilla.

Odd as that is. Strange as it seems.

‘Do This’ [Luke 22:7-23]

dark bread on white

The night of the last supper, all was not well among Jesus’ disciples. Everyone was on edge. They all saw the handwriting on the wall—soldiers and swords, crosses and nails. One of them had already sold Jesus to the authorities. And Peter was boasting he’d be brave and follow Jesus, even if it meant death. Every time he said it, eyes rolled. It was Peter, after all. But they were all off kilter, scared and queasy. None of them felt much like eating.

The Bible says Jesus was aware of their fear, their questions, and their confusion. He loved them all. He knew their hearts were in the right place, but he also knew he’d end up alone. They were so frail.

As was he. He would have given anything to escape what was coming, and in prayer he begged God that it might pass him by. The Bible says fear ran down his face like drops of bloody sweat. He had seen crucifixions. He could imagine his.

The only difference between Jesus and his disciples was that when the time came, he didn’t run. But that doesn’t mean he welcomed his fate. He didn’t feel much like eating either.

But that’s what they did. On the night Jesus was betrayed, they shared a meal. They gathered at the table. Because that’s what they’d always done. A large part of their three years together was spent at tables.

In Jesus’ ministry, the table was where things got real—eating together, they began to understand that God’s love for them was real, no matter who they were or what they’d done. There they were, saint and sinner, rich and poor, all welcome to eat.

The table was where truth got told—Jesus would tell you stories about invited guests who were too important and preoccupied to come to a king’s banquet, so the riff-raff took their places, going into the kingdom ahead of the privileged and the powerful. And so the last are first.

The table was where the principles of Jesus’ movement got spelled out in object lessons of service and humility. Jesus on his knees with a towel around his waist, dragging a bowl of water from foot to foot, washing his disciples clean. ‘Servants,’ he told them at that table, ‘are not greater than their master. What I have done for you, now do for each other.’

The table was where pardon was given—to a sinful woman who could not stop bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, to an odious little tax collector who’d climbed down from a sycamore tree to welcome Jesus into his home.

At table with Jesus it somehow felt possible for hard things to get better, and lost things to be found. At table with him, you could imagine a time when you would be able to forgive just about anything.

And so that queasy night they ate with him. And while they were at table, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body broken for you.’

The bread, his broken body. A sign of broken dreams, broken promises, broken hearts. A sign of mercy and presence to show us that in things that break, God is there.

‘Take, eat, all of you. Here is frailty made blessing,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And after the supper was over, he took a cup, blessed it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, drink, all of you. This cup is a new covenant in my blood, poured out for you for the pardon of sins.’ Medicine for what ails you. And a covenant, a promise that we can begin again. And we will.

’Take, drink, all of you. Healing and the dawn of a new day,’ he said. ‘For you.’

And then, after he broke the bread and poured the wine, he said to them, ‘Do this.’

Do this. To remember me.

Do this, and I am with you.

Do this when you’re broken. Do this when you sin. Do this when you get sinned against. Do this when you’re afraid. Do this when you just can’t believe the way hard things have dropped into your life uninvited. Do this when you disagree and fear you won’t find common cause or a clear way forward. Do this when you want good company, when you don’t want to be alone. Do this when you’re joyous and want to multiply your joys. Do this when you’re grateful and want to taste again the goodness of the Lord who’s been so good to you.

Do this. Come to the table. Sit down. Eat and drink.

And so on that awful night they did.

Now, if I were making this story up, I’d tell you that after eating with Jesus, all the disciples got up from the table, repentant, converted, faithful and brave. I’d tell you they were loyal, loving Jesus and each other with a love that could withstand anything. I’d report that they didn’t abandon him, but were with him to the end.

But that meal didn’t make the weak strong, or cowards brave. It didn’t give Peter a personality transplant or any of them more wisdom than they had when they first sat down, which was pretty much zero. They shared with Jesus a meal of love and memory; a meal whose heavenly food and intimate company was all they should’ve needed to find a faith nothing could shake. But it wasn’t. They went out that night and failed him, and he went to his death alone.

After Jesus rose from the dead, they ate together again. At Emmaus he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, just as at that last supper. And just as on that night, they were still who they were—betrayers, deniers, deserters, willing spirits with weak flesh.

In Galilee, he grilled fish and bread for them, and they ate breakfast in the cool dawn air by the lake. And just as on that night, he also fed Peter, who had sworn just two days before that he did not know and had never met this tender Lord.

Nobody at the table of the Lord was perfect, before or after the meal. The table isn’t magic. But it is necessary. We have to eat.

Jesus and his disciples ate together many times after his rising. And after he ascended to heaven, they keep on eating with him in the Spirit, in the church, in holy communion.

For two thousand years Jesus has been eating and drinking with disciples like us whose hearts are in the right place but whose lives are still kind of a mess. Two thousand years of ‘doing this,’ and we’re still suffering the small cuts and deep gashes of our human frailty. It hurts. The damage is real. There’s no denying the pain or evading the consequences. And still he comes to us. Still he says, ‘Sit down. Eat and drink. You, just as you are. You, just as I find you. Come. Do this. Again.’

What matters to him, it seems, is what’s real. What matters is that we are who we are. That we don’t hide our wounds in the dark where no light can reach them for healing. What matters to him is not that we have the right answers or the right opinions, or even the best behaviors, but that we do this. That we come to the table and do this, again and again.

It might take us another two thousand years to fully grasp the table’s lessons, two thousand more to receive the table’s truths, two thousand more to be transformed by its grace. But he is patient. And in the end—who knows?—it may be that becoming perfect, or even becoming ‘better persons,’ isn’t the most important thing. Maybe just being here together is. All he asks is that we don’t stay away because of our weaknesses, and that we don’t prevent others from coming because of theirs. ‘Do this,’ is all he says, ‘even when you don’t feel much like eating.’

Anchor your hearts here. For as long as we meet here again and again, as long as we are together giving thanks for the amazing grace that so willingly embraces the poverty and beauty of our hearts, as long as we are sharing the bread of life, all will be well, even when it isn’t—for Christ is with us always, and he is so kind.

So come today, lay it all out, everything you have—your emotions and questions, your strengths and weaknesses, your beauty and your struggle, your joy and praise and thanksgiving. Here with each other and with him, in the embrace of the Holy Spirit, you will taste and believe again, like never before, the trustworthy Word of the Lord—that as many times as we stumble, we’ll be helped up; as many times as we fail, we’ll learn and grow; whenever we sin, we’ll be pardoned; when we’re sinned against, we’ll find a way to offer pardon; when we’re full of joy, our joys will multiply; and when we die, we’ll rise.

‘Do this,’ our Lord said.

Sit down. Eat. Remember me.

Do this.

Eat and drink. I am with you always.

Do this.

Again and again and again.

Until I come.

You Don’t Have to Be A Woman

exodus_2 exodus_1

Images: Sculptures by Philip Rattner, The Rattner Museum

Our story begins with a demographic problem in Egypt. The minorities are having too many babies. Something has to be done about them before they become a security problem. So the king gets Congress to take away their driver’s licenses, deprive them of health care, and make them clean office buildings for minimum wage with no benefits.

But you know how those people are. They’ll work three jobs if they have to. The Hebrew people survive and keep on breeding. So the king orders two of their midwives to smother male infants right after they’re delivered. They say, “Yes, Sir!” (he was the king, after all), but they know they’re not going to do it. And they don’t.

When Pharaoh finds out, he calls them on the carpet. They wiggle out of it by telling him with straight faces that Hebrew women are prodigious earth mothers who have fast deliveries, so the midwives never get there in time.

When the king realizes that they’ve been scamming him, he adopts a more straightforward strategy. He has his minions throw the boys into the Nile. As it turns out, this is a badly flawed approach to the problem. He makes two huge mistakes—he underestimates women, and he messes with a river.

You don’t mess with water. You don’t foul it with death. Water is life, it nourishes, cleanses and renews. It also kills, of course; but unlike kings, it never kills for ambition, security, or sport. If you defile a great body of water, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. Somewhere, somehow, you’ll pay a price. And when water turns on you, it won’t be impressed that you’re a king.

No, you don’t mess with water. And that’s just Pharaoh’s first mistake. He also underestimates women.

It seemed so self –evident: get rid of the males and there’ll be no one to father new baby Hebrews. No more babies, and it’s the end of the line. And while you’re waiting for the genocide to run its course, you’ll only have to deal with girls. And girls are not a threat. The thought of girls won’t prevent you from sleeping soundly behind your walls.

See what I mean? Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave.

Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.

But he can’t imagine women thwarting his plan. He can’t imagine midwives inventing a way to bamboozle him. He can’t imagine that at least one mother of one Hebrew baby boy might rummage through her closet and come up with a basket, line it with pitch, test it on the water to see if it will hold him, then hide the basket in the reeds. It’s a measure of how little he knows about women that Pharaoh can’t imagine at least one mother giving that basket trick a try, one mother trying something, anything, to preserve her child.

No, he doesn’t know much about women. Or water, either. He doesn’t take into account that even clogged with blood, rivers still hold things up, still carry things along, even fragile things like a little ark, a bobbing basket with its tarred-over bottom and tucked-away child.

He doesn’t take into account that even sullied and sinned against, a river still attracts bathers. So he can’t imagine that a woman wading womb-deep in the current—his own daughter—will not be able to resist the whimper of even a foreign baby adrift. He can’t imagine that in the reeds on the bank, a guardian and a watcher will crouch, a big sister, Miriam: a quick thinker and a fast runner; a girl with patience and a plan and the nerve to see it through.

If Pharaoh were a man of imagination, if he were wiser about women and water, he might realize that, sooner or later, a floating Hebrew baby boy, snatched by women from the water, will grow up to be a Moses, and that such a Moses will make him let the people go.

He might see that one day this Moses will extend an arm, and there will be a wall of water on the left, another on the right, and a dry seabed in-between where an oppressed people will get to the bottom of things and find their way to freedom. He might see that sooner or later a terrible trap will spring, and that his mighty, mindless army will wash up lifeless on the shore.

But pharaohs don’t usually have much imagination. And so this king doesn’t know that women and water will have the last laugh and the last word, and that while he presides over a drowned army, that baby’s sister will improvise again, this time on her tambourine. Master only of broken chariots, on the far shore he will watch Miriam do her dance and sing her victory song: “Sing to God all the earth! Sing to God a fresh song. God does marvels for us! Horse and rider God throws into the sea!”

Poor Pharaoh. He should never have messed with the water and he should have got rid of the girls.

Well, that’s it—the story of a king disposed to violence to solve a dilemma. It’s what happened to him for ignoring the rules of water and for taking women for granted, not factoring them into his plan. It’s a story about Moses, too, of course, and about God who directed the whole drama from backstage.

But mostly it’s about what happened when an impromptu conspiracy of women decided that enough was enough. It’s about what happened when they decided that there’s never anything to be gained by standing around wringing your hands and cursing fate. It’s about the risks they took to assure a future, not just for a boy named Moses, but for a whole people; and, you could say, also for us. And it’s a good story for celebrating the gifts and courage of the Bible’s women, and of all women everywhere.

But you don’t have to be a woman to have this story be about you. This could be anybody’s story. It might be yours, for example, if you understand that Egypt is not some strange land far away, and that what goes on there has something to do with you. It’s yours if you know that Egypt is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got, acquire even more, and sleep peacefully at night.

It’s your story if you decide that enough is enough and put your foot down, if you resolve to try something, anything, to save a life, and not just your own.

It’s your story if you are clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, angry enough to devise delaying tactics against injustice; if you decide to join the small persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night, thinking up ways to bamboozle the king.

It’s a story about you if against indifference and despair, you have chosen to be a launcher of life; if every day you float a frail hope for the future on the vast waters of the world’s pain; if you discipline yourself out of love to wait and watch and pray until, against the odds, all those small hopes in all those little baskets come back, grown strong to liberate and save. Because they will come back. They will.

You don’t have to be a woman for this story to be yours. It’s already yours if you have ever had some mindless army breathing down your neck—some sin against you, some sorrow out of control, some intimate danger in your hurt or hollow heart, and you thought that the only way out was to curl up and give in, neither asking nor expecting mercy. It’s your story if, against everything your frightened heart hoped for, the waters you were sure would drown you pulled back and let you through, and you found yourself finally at the bottom of things, on a seabed path to freedom.

It’s a story about you if you’re tempted to think that you can’t make it through another day, not another step: I’m telling you, this story is about you, and for you it can end well. You can see the break of day from a safe and lovely shore. You will see that day, the day of God’s victory. And when you do, out of your mouth a fresh song will come: ” God has done marvels for me: horse and chariot he has tossed into the sea!”

No, you don’t have to be a woman to sing that song. You only have to believe that it’s wrong to foul life’s strong currents with death for the sake of something as insubstantial as undisturbed sleep behind a guarded wall.

You only have to believe that it’s unspeakably wasteful to stand by wringing your hands while a procession to the grave goes by, day after hopeless day.

You only have to decide that sticking your neck out to try something, anything, to halt that appalling parade won’t finally destroy you, even if you fail, even if you lose your life. You have only to understand that it is doing nothing that will destroy you. Doing nothing will destroy us all.

No, we don’t have to be women to sing that victory song; to have, like Miriam, the last laugh and the last word. But we do have to believe that no matter which pharoah and which army is arrayed against us—the big questions of justice and peace, the ordinary hardships of life, the misunderstanding or malice of others, the illness or grief we did not cause or want and cannot fix, or the self-defeating troubles of our own making—no matter the tyranny threatening our hearts, we are never adrift with no one watching.

Someone who once launched us like a faint dream on a great river is keeping track of us, the same Someone who will, like a woman, know how to seize just the right moment to reach for us, and save.

The Assumption of Mary, August 15

dormition-of-the-theotokos1

 

–Russian Icon, The Dormition of the Theotokos

Yesterday, August 15, Roman Catholics celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.* This is the belief that the mother of Jesus was assumed, or taken into heaven, ‘body and soul,’ immediately upon her death, without having to undergo the grave’s decay. By this feast, the Church teaches that the future resurrection of all flesh—that restoration of all creation to which scripture attests—is anticipated in Mary.

It’s because of her unique role in the drama of salvation, Catholics believe, that God bestows on her this anticipated glory, but it isn’t for her alone. Mary is simply given first what all the redeemed receive later. In the Assumption, we get to see in her what will become of us all because of the saving grace of Christ. The Assumption is the Church’s way of affirming the ancient conviction that ‘humanity’s future has a body’ (Luke Powery).

This festival has deep roots in Christian liturgy and devotion. The first extant mention of it is in the 4th century in the East. It was universally celebrated by the 6th. Clearly there was ‘something about Mary’ the ancient church appreciated more than we do today—especially we who are Protestants and tend to view Marian doctrines as unnecessary at best and idolatrous at worst.

Here’s what I’m appreciating about the Assumption today—

The feast asks us to imagine that a human being in her body, not just her soul, now lives in the eternity of God we call ‘heaven.’ Forget for a moment the triumphalist trappings and physical problems of this doctrine. Go to the nub of it and allow yourself to see Mary in her body welcomed into heaven, enjoying God forever in a fully bodily way, breathing, sensing, moving… in all her body’s uniqueness. If you grant this vision, even for a moment, and if you grant that her present is our future, what does this feast day say?

It says the body belongs in the presence of God. It says the body is holy. It says that God and bodies are not opposites or enemies. It says that bodies are not ‘mere’ bodies, not inferior housing for a superior soul; not to be escaped from, dispensed with, or despised. It says there’s no such thing as ‘spirituality’ without real ‘bodiality.’ It says you have to love the body because God does. Even when it’s hard to love the body, your particular body, and especially when it’s hard to love somebody else’s, it says you have to honor them all. It says you can’t kill Michael Brown. It says you have to love his black body. It says you can’t make any body no body. It says God cares, infinitely cares, what we do with our bodies. It says when a body’s hands go up, the guns go down.

——-

*The Orthodox also observe this mid-August commemoration, but they call it the Dormition (falling asleep)of the Theotokos. They prefer to think she was taken to God without experiencing even the slightest twinge of death’s customary pangs. Anglicans call this observance the Feast of Mary the Virgin, or more familiarly, the Feast of Mary in Summer. It’s a more generic celebration of Mary, but the collect of the day mentions God taking Mary to Godself, a clear nod to the ancient doctrine of the Assumption.