Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Finger of John


–Detail of John the Baptist, Matthew Grunewald

In the fourth gospel, no story recounts the baptism of Jesus by the great Advent figure we call John the Baptist. The Evangelist refers to the day when the famous dove descended and a voice from heaven named Jesus “the beloved,” but nowhere does he tells us that John did anything that day except to be present and see it. The fourth gospel is not as interested in John the Baptist as it is in John the Witness. “I have come to testify,” John says.

That is why in Christian iconography the Forerunner is often depicted in a pointing pose. In some images, he is also given an unnaturally long index finger. Your eyes are compelled to follow along his outstretched or uplifted arm to the very end of that finger, which is precisely what John wants you to do, for beyond that finger is the most important thing of all.

There is no motion in these images: John is not preaching or immersing. He is not even scolding. He is pointing, implacably, to Someone there, here, “already among you,” he says. Someone we cannot see, Someone we need help seeing, in part because that Someone is so unremarkable (unsurprisingly so: after all, for thirty long years, he chose the same invisibility of ordinariness in which most human lives are cloaked); but also because we have trouble seeing truth in front of our eyes, truth hiding in plain sight, truth that is just too unvarnished and blunt for us to be willing to credit, truth so bracing it requires courage we do not possess of ourselves to embrace it.

And so the Witness points. He compels us to look. His help feels more like coercion; it is insistently intrusive and unpleasant, but without it we might not dare. He will not move an inch from the spot until we follow his oddly elongated finger to the object of his testimony.

That’s not the hard part, however. The hard part comes next, when we see what we see; because as compelling as the truth is, as candidly as it stands there looking back at us along the line of sight John’s finger describes, we can still decide not to see it, to look away, to avert our eyes in any one of a thousand practiced aversions—denial, fear, cowardice, exhaustion, nuanced abstraction…

To be willing to gaze at it as steadfastly as John points to it is a great grace, something to beg for every day on our knees; because the more we are willing to look, and the longer we are able to look, the more unblinking we will become, and the more we will grasp that John’s vocation is the most critical calling of all—the call to be a witness who will not move from the spot, will not lower the arm, will not retract the finger, will not permit any human heart its cherished evasions and its practiced aversions—intricate obfuscations, intellectual games, political posturing, power plays—but for a thousand thousand years if need be, will point and point and point.

Yesterday, a young man murdered his mother, 20 children, and several adults who were caring for them, and then he murdered himself. He murdered families and a school and a town and a nation. He took the life out of the world beyond the nation too. This “tragedy,” as we are so fond of calling all the world’s mass murders, did not “unfold,” as news anchors kept repeating all day: like all other mass murders (violence in our cities, war, starvation, poverty, drugs, financial manipulation, vast stolen wealth, the earth’s pollution) it was no passive accident, no random occurrence. There is something to see here, something to point to, something to be implacable about, a truth about what happened, a truth about ourselves.

Whose raised arm and long finger will show us what it is? Who will come up from this wilderness and spy the ordinary truth right in front of our eyes, the ordinary human and humanizing truth hiding in plain sight? Who will not cease pointing once the funerals end and the hue and cry has died away and the lobbies have cowed us once again? Who will not be moved?

Can we get a witness?

A Voice in Ramah

This is an excerpt from an older sermon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents…


Matthew 2:13-23

Did you hear it? That voice? Not Herod’s voice or Joseph’s, for neither of them speaks in this passage. Not the angel’s voice either, although Gabriel speaks twice, first ordering Joseph to take the family to safety in Egypt and then ordering him home again when Herod dies. No, it’s a voice Matthew reaches far back into the Hebrew scriptures to retrieve and play back for us. It belongs to a woman who at the time Matthew wrote this story had been dead for a thousand years. The voice of Rachael, the great matriarch who died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, whom she intended to name ‘son of sorrow.’ Rachael, the personification  of maternal grief.

Matthew brings her voice into the story of Jesus via the prophet Jeremiah, who remembered her as he wrote about the calamity that had befallen God’s people when they were overrun and driven into exile. Their Babylonian captors assembled the terrified deportees in the border town of Ramah, and it was there that Jeremiah hears her weeping down through the ages ‘for her children…and she will not be comforted, because they are no more.’

She will not be comforted. There is no way to address a grief like Rachael’s, and she stubbornly refuses everyone who tries. She refuses to diminish the unspeakable reality of innocent suffering by the attempts of the well-meaning to assuage or explain it, to make sense of it or sublimate it. Rachael is a witness to things in human life that are so awful they cannot be soothed or repaired. They can only be wept over, lamented, and comfortlessly mourned.

Rachael’s weeping is the voice of all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan, and nation from whom children have ever been torn away by a police state, by Jim Crow or apartheid, by political greed and indifference, by war and the glorification of war, by gun violence, bigotry, or crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. Her anguish will not be pacified.

These days we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices. By knowing voices that explain and justify the unfortunate necessity of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity. By cool voices that prettify what violence actually does and paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering. By the pandering voices of politicians.  The smug voices of the self-made. The dismissive voices of the privileged. Even our own voices that too often echo the hollow pieties of the church and the self-involved bromides of the world.

On the cusp of a new year, one that will almost certainly see some new atrocity unleashed upon this gasping planet, the liturgy does not give us assurances that hope is rational or that better days are ahead. What we hear instead is the stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children. Rachael’s tears telling us to resist comfort. To refuse explaining, justifying voices and listen instead to hers over every bland dismissal of the real needs of real children, over every empty proclamation of concern uncoupled from policy and deed, over every thought or prayer offered for their brutal, preventable deaths. Rachael weeping: listen for that voice, and refuse to be comforted.

Listen for her weeping. And join her. Rip apart with lamentation the curtain behind which hides the greatest lie: that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the murder of innocents, whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, in hospitals with no supplies in Syria, by famine in Sudan, in school buses in Tel Aviv, in shot-up elementary schools in quiet American towns, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.

Rachael makes only a brief appearance on the Christmas stage, but when this wailing mother of a dead child shows up beside a sleeping child watched over by a Virgin tender and mild, we are also reminded that what our feeble words cannot speak of adequately or truthfully, God’s Word, the Word we experience in Jesus, can. The Babe who escaped this time; the Child who one Herod could not find, but who will be found by another in thirty-three years’ time and will not escape him then; this  Word is God’s decisive Word to our world.

It is also, perhaps, a Word of comfort all the world’s Rachaels might finally be willing to accept, because it is a Word of justice. A Word profound enough, courageous enough, persevering enough (through trial, cross and grave) to address whatever horrific stuff our living and dying, our ignorance, sin and fear can present. Now and forever it is spoken powerfully against powers-that-be, defeating death itself — even ours, when we pick up its resonance, welcome its light, echo its truth, and live on its dangerous edge.

No, Not Now

This sermon was preached on the occasion of the great Asian tsunami at Christmastime in 2005.     It may have some relevance to the horrific shooting in Connecticut today.


–Pablo Picasso, The Weeping Woman

Psalm 69:1-3, 13-18

If you’ve been following the news coverage of the South Asian tsunami, by now you will surely have seen something that has torn your heart out –- piles of bodies unceremoniously bulldozed into mass graves; a child with impossibly big eyes standing alone, staring into the distance; the stunning before-and-after satellite photos of a ravaged coast.

Or perhaps you saw the report in which a journalist is speaking with several Indonesian survivors, some of whom have lost entire families. They tell their stories to him, some with unnerving stoicism, others wailing and striking their heads with flat hands. Then, in the background you hear an unmistakable sound. It is Friday, and somewhere in that desolate place, a muzzein is calling the faithful to prayer – as if to remind the whole flooded world that no matter what, God lives, and that to pray is just what one does, what one must do, for everything to make sense.

Allah akbar! God is great! There is no God but God. Come to salvation! Come to prayer!

Hearing the call to prayer, the reporter asks the men if they are going to the prayers. Some nod yes. Some get up to go. But one man, who has just told us that twenty-four members of his family are dead, shakes his head. Through the translator he says simply, “No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.”

When I heard the call to prayer invite everyone to come to the good God and find salvation, I felt something rebel in my stomach. In spite of my deep conviction that God had nothing to do with making this horror happen, my mind filled involuntarily with the age-old Big Questions. What is it that one could possibly pray for in the midst of such misery? And why would one ask anything of a God who seems to have stood by and done nothing while it unfolded?

In that moment, it was not enough for me to answer myself by saying that God was not responsible when tectonic plates collided, and the sea floor rose, and the displaced water needed somewhere to go. It was not enough for me to affirm, in C. S. Lewis’ words, that God is not a “cosmic sadist” or a “spiteful imbecile.” When my stomach lurched at the call to prayer, it was because my soul needed to be able to say something more affirmative than that about God; to be able to say not only where God was not, but also and more importantly where God was.

And I couldn’t. At least not honestly. Everything that came to mind seemed inadequate, even repulsive. I went down the long list of standard explanations and theological considerations, each one leaving me emptier than the last – until I heard that poor man say, “No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.”

His was not an answer, not a solution, not an explanation. But it rang true – a simple acknowledgement that there are times when we are unable to bear the thought of God, unable to give ourselves to God in trust, unable to accept that there is any moment but this awful moment, unable to feel that anything exists outside our loss, unable to believe that anything can be done but endure it.

And I began to think that if we are not at least that honest, our piety will serve only to shield us from reality, our prayers will be only a game of “make nice,” and our faith will only separate us from our own humanity. Whether we contemplate the ravages of a tsunami, the carnage of war, a mindless mass shooting, the stupid waste of a death by drunk driving, or the intimate catastrophe of a loved one’s untimely passing, what matters is not so much our particular beliefs about God, but rather our capacity to be before God in our truth and to allow every question to rise, even if for some of us that means that what used to pass in us for faith is lost, and what replaces it is a permanent open-ended question.

I have no quarrel with the people who got up to go to Friday prayers. I am glad for them that they could go to God as the one who saves. But I found a great relief and blessing in that grieving man’s refusal to worship God right now. I also found a great relief and blessing in his refusal to rule it out for later. Above all, I found relief and blessing in his implicit confession that it is not up to him to know how and when and whether the conversation between him and God may be renewed. All he knows is that it isn’t now. Not yet. Now he does not have it in him to pray.

We Christians find it hard to refrain from overwhelming great empty spaces and terrifying silences with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and abiding presence. We are people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is a second nature reflex, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when we rush too quickly to Easter, times when we take Jesus off the cross and usher him into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps this haste is a reason why, as Anthony Padovano once observed, Easter is doubted by so many.

There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and of all our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our lives, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. Times when we need the cover of night.

Sooner or later, we all wonder with Job why we were ever born. Sooner or later, we all pore over the lexicon for a word with which to fashion inconsolable laments—and we find, the cross. Padovano calls it Christianity’s most believable symbol, because it offers no answers. It offers instead a common lot: sooner or later life deposits us all at the cross. It is the gathering place for the world’s sorrow, its wasted efforts, its murdered children, its unimaginable catastrophes, its utter silences. When we arrive at its foot, we also discover its hope – not the hope of Easter so much, but the hope that comes from having a place to gather when the pain is unspeakable and the sorrow beyond all bearing.

It is not yet the dawn. Not yet. We need to be healed, and we will be, but not yet, not too fast. It takes time. We have to wait. And we have to stay together, bearing with every loss and horror creation has ever borne. We have to stay together so that it is not too frightening to wait, so that our waiting does not become despair. Like that inconsolable man in Indonesia, we may even prefer to wait, just as long as we are not alone. Together we will outwait death and come startled and blinking to Easter.

But no, not yet, not now.

A Communal Reading for Christmas

A Communal Reading for Christmas

NOTE:  This Communal Reading stands in for the gospel reading from Luke, as a paraphrase. The actual text of the reading from Luke could be printed in the bulletin, if so desired. The “script” below should be prepared as an insert for congregation and readers. Shepherd reads from center chancel. Child reads from his or her place in the congregation (standing on a pew if need be, with a cordless microphone, or a very big ‘outdoor voice’). The Choir should be prepared to burst immediately into the refrain, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” from Angels we have heard on high at the indicated places. The Shepherd should be a skilled adult reader who can really tell a story. The Child should be willing to raise her hand and jump up and down a bit, like an eager student. In general, everyone should take their time, and ham it up. No rehearsal should be needed if all the ‘characters’ practice their lines beforehand on their own.

bassano_jacopo_the_annunciation_to_the_shepherds–Jacopo Bassano

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke

[Luke 2:8-20]

Shepherd: I remember that night. How could I forget it? We were tending sheep in the fields when all of a sudden, the dark sky began to shine, and shine, and shine!

Choir: Was it the moon breaking through the clouds?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t the moon!

Congregation: A shooting star flashing across the sky?

Shepherd: No! It wasn’t a shooting star!

A Child: I know! I know! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining!

Shepherd: Yes! That’s right! It was an angel of the Lord, shining, and shining, and shining! And that angel of the Lord scared us half to death! We fell flat on our faces with fright!

Choir: What happened next?

Shepherd: The angel of the Lord spoke to us!

Congregation: Spoke to you? What did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know! The angel said: “Do not be afraid! I have great news for you and the whole wide world! Today, in Bethlehem, the City of David, a savior is born!”

Shepherd: That’s right! A savior was born!

Choir: What else did the angel say?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: Hey! You know everything!

A Child: Yes, I do! I pay attention in Sunday School! Anyway, the angel said to go to Bethlehem to find the savior. To look in a manger, not a palace. To look for a baby, not a king. Wrapped in strips of cloth, not in a velvet robe!

Shepherd: That’s right! That’s what the angel told us! And then, oh my goodness! Then, the whole sky was filled with angels! A million of them!

Congregation: A million?

Shepherd: Well, maybe half a million. And they all began to sing!

Choir: Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Shepherd: And then they disappeared!  Just like that. They were gone. And everything was the way it was before – dark and cold, and very, very, very, very quiet.  And we looked at each other, our eyes as wide as saucers, and we said, “Should we go, then, and see for ourselves?”

Choir:  And so you went, didn’t you?

Shepherd: Yes, we did. We went to Bethlehem. We saw Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger. We saw everything the angel said we would see. We saw it all, and it made us glad. And so we told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people, and they told other people – and now you know the story too.

Congregation: It’s a wonderful story! Who could have imagined it?

A Child: I know! I know!

Congregation: There [he/she] goes again! All right, tell us. Who imagined it?

A Child: God imagined it!  And God brought made it happen! God did it for us!

Shepherd: For us, yes. Because God loves us, God did it for us. And for everybody, and for always, and forever and ever. Amen.

Everyone: For everybody! And for always! And forever and ever! Amen!

Choir [and everyone joining in]:  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Odds and Ends of Advent/Christmas Liturgy


I. Words to Introduce A Carol

Leader: Advent is waiting and preparing.

It is desire and hope.

It is also a question.

A question Mary asks.

A question you have asked.

A question everyone asks, sooner or later.

How can this be? What does it mean?

Scripture tells us that for Mary,

Advent was a long pondering.

She spent the time

between angel and manger

turning things over in her heart.

Advent is a wondering,

perhaps a contradiction,

certainly a mystery.

How can this be? What does it mean?

Advent is also a morning.

It begins to dawn on us,

which is why we light candles.

In Advent there is light, increasing light,

such beautiful light;

but that doesn’t mean anything is clear.

Carol [solo or choir] I Wonder As I Wander


4320471_f248–Tricia Mason

II. Words to Introduce A Carol

Leader: Some babies are born into bleak midwinters

when water is stone.

Others are born in spring

with soft blankets under their chins.

Some children are born to own their lives.

They are never dressed in hand-me-downs.

Others draw their first breath in a borrowed crib

and their last in a borrowed tomb.

This is way things are. What can you do?

What can you do?

Carol  In The Bleak Midwinter



–Candles in the Grotto of the Nativity, Bethlehem, photo Christopher Chen

III. A Candle-Lighting Liturgy for Advent 3 Gaudete

Reading  Isaiah 35:1-10

Reader 1: A reading from the prophet Isaiah.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

Reader 2: Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Reader 1: For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Reader 2: A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

Reader 1: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Candle Lighting

Leader:  In silence and shadow, we wait.

In mystery, we live.

In unknowing, we look for wisdom,

for a ray of darkness.

At night, our hearts are awake:

Love is not far away.

And in the fullness of time,

when everything is still,

the One we wait for comes.

[Light Candle(s) here]

Leader:  Let us pray.

All:  Joy of every longing heart,

you draw the sound of singing

from speechless fear and unrelenting pain;

from the gulf of estrangement

come laughter and song.

By the light of this candle, show us again

the glory of your mercy full and free—

death routed and in flight,

a cradle rocking newborn Life,

all creation dancing home,

ringed  ‘round by herald angels

playing music in the air.

Hymn  My Soul Sings Out with Joyful Praise

[or another setting of the Magnificat]

Scandal and Soap

homeless-people–Boca Raton Tribune

Malachi 3:1-5; Luke 3:1-6

You don’t need me to tell you that the rebounding economy is not rebounding for everyone. You don’t need me to tell you that there are poor people in the United States of America. You may be one. You know as well as I do that without lots of money or a job with good benefits, it’s hard to be healthy in this country, and that depending on where you live or what kind of job you have, it may still be hard even after all the provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act kick in. You know too that the poorer you are, the sicker you are; and if you are not white, you’re sicker still. You also know that no matter what finally shakes out with healthcare in this country, old people and poor people will still have to pay a hidden cost of indignity and the not-so-hidden cost of red tape and mystifying paperwork.

You don’t need me to cite depressing statistics about housing, or food stamps, or available childcare and eldercare—or should I say unavailable childcare and eldercare? You know those numbers. And you know that a lot of people are scared right now, imagining that negotiations aimed at avoiding the metaphorical fiscal cliff could end up hurtling the vulnerable over a literal cliff of their own. You already know without my telling you, for example, that schoolchildren learn better on a full stomach, and your common sense tells you there should be school breakfast programs for every kid who needs a meal, so you don’t need me to tell you that any cutbacks in these programs will not only hurt kids now, but will also have a long-range effect on the economy and on the social fabric.

And I don’t need to tell you about indigent drug addicts and drunks and (here’s an awful word) “de-institutionalized” mentally-ill people; you’ve seen them, so you already know, or you can easily guess, that even if this winter is not too harsh, over the next few months a few of them will die on the streets where many of them live. And you don’t need me to tell you that social workers, state-funded childcare providers, and people who work in homelessteenx390public assistance of every kind are among the least well-paid professionals in the country. You can guess yourselves, without any help from me, at the high turn-over and burnout rates in these jobs; and you can easily imagine that it doesn’t take long in that kind of public service for some good people’s idealism and commitment to settle into a kind of functional despair, or sour to cynicism and contempt.

You’ve read about them in those human interest stories that appear in newspapers every Christmas, so I wouldn’t be telling you anything you don’t already know if I were to describe the daily struggles of families that are (what’s that grim phrase?) “less fortunate”—as if living in an apartment with no heat, frozen pipes, and an absentee landlord were a matter of sheer serendipity; as if somehow, had these families just been in the right place at the right time a year or two ago, they’d be living on Easy Street today. Poverty has an awful randomness to it, to be sure; many people, maybe even some of you, are a paycheck or an illness away from trouble; but you know as well as I do that it isn’t all just the luck of the draw.

You don’t need me to explain that the continued existence of poverty in this country is a scandal, that the lack of adequate health care in this country is a scandal, and that scandals by definition are stumbling blocks for the conscience, barriers to belief. Who could believe in a God who says that the poor are dear to the divinfamily_in_car1e heart but whose heart appears to be stone, whose ears don’t seem to hear anything, whose arm hangs down, ineffectual, as if having thrown in the towel? You don’t need me to tell you that it is not our reason that most often denies the existence of God; far more often it is our gut that rebels, our heart that recoils, our gorge that rises to deny the truth of a compassionate God in the face of so much suffering and degradation. And you don’t need me to explain that, as far as the Bible is concerned, it is not God who has the stony heart, but God’s people; not God who’s deaf, but God’s people; not God who has the lifeless arm, but God’s people who have thrown in the towel even as they raise their voice in prayer. And you already know perfectly well that the biblical God is notoriously disgusted by piety disconnected from justice.

And you know, because you’ve read the text from the book of the prophet Malachi, that as a result of this disconnect, God has found it necessary to become a refiner who sits down (because it’s going to take a very long time and a lot of patience), fires up the furnace, and burns away the dross until the gold is pure; and God has found it necessary to become a harsh soap, a fuller’s lye, to bleach and scrub and bleach and scrub again the sons of Levi (that is, the tribe of priests, and by extension, us), until they (and we) are cleawhat-fullers-soap-800x800n enough to carry out, without separation, right worship in the Temple and right action in the world. You don’t need me to tell you that if you are indifferent to or exploit your needy neighbors, you will always read Scripture, sing hymns and pray to this meticulous God at your peril.

But you don’t need me to make you feel guilty either. We feel guilty enough on our own. But if you don’t feel guilty—if, for instance, you have made your peace with social disparities; if you have made up your mind that poor people are here to stay, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it; if you have concluded that throwing money at the health care system won’t change anything, or that government programs are never the answer to social problems anyway—you are not going to feel bad and guilty just because of something I or somebody else may say.  Besides, it would be unfair for me to try to make you feel guilty, since so many of you are engaged day in and day out in work that serves the poor and the sick, work that immediately or remotely heals and counsels and lifts and teaches and comforts and inspires; work that helps change or improve the systems and conditions we deplore. So, you don’t need me to grind away at the guilt machine. And you don’t need me to tell you what you should be doing about all this. You know what to do, and many of you are doing it. You give money, you write to your lawmakers, you vote for change, you belong to organizations that work for justice. You do what you can. You do your part. You try to live more simply. You find ways of making human contact with suffering that is not your own. You teach your children about the real world. You preach. You witness. You occupy. You serve. You find a thousand ways to see, to touch, to learn. So you don’t need me to give you social justice marching orders. The truth is I could learn a thing or two from you.

Let’s see. What else is there that you already know and don’t need me to tell you? Well, you know it’s Advent, and that in Advent we pay attention to the Christ of three comings: the Christ who came long ago, who comes to us now, and who will come again. We reflected on that final coming during the first week of Advent. On Christmas we will commemorate the first coming on the straw of a stable. And you’ve already figured out, I’m sure, that here we’re focusing on Christ’s present Advent, his coming and his availability to us now in the Spirit, and especially (for he does have his preferences) his keeping company with the poor, the hungry, the sick. For if we’re speaking of Advent, then we’re also speaking of Incarnation. And to speak of Incarnation is to speak of the conviction that God is not some vague mythic idea, impersonal archetype, general concept or feeling, not love-at-large, or generic benevolence; but rathes_o01_58590925r that in a specific person, Jesus of Nazareth, God lived a fully human life. Incarnation is the expression of God’s solidarity with us, solidarity so complete and full that in some mysterious way that we can’t fathom, God is changed, and so are we. The Word’s humanity is forever part of what it means to be God. And the Word’s divinity is forever part of what it means to be human.


Incarnation is the Christian truth claim most people, including Christians, find hardest to swallow. It’s the scandal that keeps on scandalizing. It’s always been easier to believe that Jesus Christ was “divine” than to embrace the implications of a full humanity. Matthew 25 says something about this scandalous solidarity. It’s a oneness with all flesh, which sounds very nice and kind of harmless in general; but the scandal really hits you when you realize what “all” includes. You know what I’m going to say next, and you don’t need me to remind you of it, but I will anyway: the “all flesh” of Incarnation compels us to confess that God is a shrinking shape on a nursing home bed, an obnoxious odor in an unventilated room, an empty stomach at a first-grade desk, a family of eight on an income for two, a man on the bus with six shirts and a tin foil hat who chooses you to sit next to, a newborn wrapped in rags and laid on the floor of a stall, poor, hungry, real.

As I said, this is old news. You’ve heard it a thousand times. So why say it again? Why tell you things you already know?

For the same reason we do Christmas every year, read the same old prophecies, make the same old jokes about how weird John the Baptist is, drag out the same old Christmas decorations and sing the same old carols. Year after year after year. For the same reason we tell family stories over and over, like the one about the way Mom and Dad met, or the story of the way you carried on your first day at school. For the same reason the sayings of Jesus were collected, written down, and handed on. We tell things we already know so that we will never forget, so that we will learn the truth of things that matter more than anything, so that our children will know what we stand for, believe in, stake our lives on—what makes us who we are. And because if the church (that’s you and me) doesn’t talk about them, and keep talking about them, fewer and fewer people will be talking about them; fewer and fewer, until finally there is only silence. And just ask anybody struggling for justice about the horror of such a silence, the nasty things that happen when nobody utters a word.

Retired Episcopal bishop Packard and other protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement are detained in New York

–National Post

We need to tell each other things we already know because there’s knowing, and then there’s knowing. There’s the kind that gives you things to think about, and then there’s kind that gets under your skin, penetrates and aims for your fault lines, breaks you up and leaves you so shattered you require divine rearrangement. We tell each other things we already know so that God will lay what we’re saying decisively upon us and shatter our hearts, for the first time in some cases, in others for the umpteenth time. If that shattering were to happen this Advent, we would be blessed indeed; for God, a psalm says, cannot pass by a broken heart. Our God will come.

Do you know that already? Let me tell you anyway, again…


Why Is It That Blue Christmas Services Make Me A Little Blue?


In addition to four Sunday Advent services, many Christian congregations offer an extra service in the weeks leading up to Christmas. “Blue Christmas” services (as they are commonly called) came onto the Protestant liturgical scene in the mid-1990’s in pastoral consideration of the sadness, depression, loss, and estrangement many people report experiencing during a season of relentless cheer and family-centered celebrations. Normally held in the evening in mid-to-late Advent, these services are designed to acknowledge this pain and offer consolation in the form of worship that does not take for granted that all is well.

By many accounts, Blue Christmas services succeed beautifully in this aim. Many friends and acquaintances—and pastoral colleagues— express sincere gratitude that there is, as one put it, “a safe and sacred space” for people to name their sense of alienation or sadness, and to do so in the company of others whose experience of the season is similar. Blue Christmas services, they testify, more or less save their lives every year. I believe them. I’ve been to a few myself and can testify to their impact. All the same, I always feel an odd twinge of disappointment when the announcements of Blue Christmas services start popping up in church bulletins and on Facebook. There’s something about them, or perhaps better said, the fact that we do them, that gives me pause.

It’s hard to put my finger on the reasons for this niggling discomfort. Maybe it has to do with the way we have so quickly come to accept these services as the best or (dare I say?) the right way to address the pastoral situation that prompts them. There’s not been very much theological or liturgical reflection about Blue Christmas, other than the assertion that it serves a need. I don’t mean to imply that additional reflection will lead to a different conclusion; I mean to say only that whenever an innovation arises in the church—whether in doctrine, practice, or liturgy—it is worthy of reflection.

Change and innovation always offer gifts (which is why a lot of innovation-minded pastors keep telling their reluctant people that they should happily embrace them); but they often also offer some loss. It seems to me that the church should want to understand as clearly as it can what it stands to gain from an innovation, and what it might stand to lose.

I want to reflect on the “lose” part of this equation, not (I repeat) because I feel negatively towards Blue Christmas services, but because I think the “gain” part has already been articulated, perhaps not so much in theological essays or pastoral sermons, but in the sheer proliferation of these events. The faithful (and many seekers) have voted with their solace-seeking feet, and the verdict is in. It’s a gift to the church to be prompted to name and embrace a more nuanced and compassionate understanding of the human predicament in the seasons of Advent and Christmas. It’s of benefit to the church to ritualize a divine-human encounter that does not flinch from our weaknesses, thereby creating conditions of possibility for God’s grace to reach, comfort, encourage, and heal our broken hearts.

imageThere are, however, critical questions that arise from the Blue Christmas phenomenon. Here’s one that comes up for me:  I wonder if the proliferation of such services in Advent casts doubt on the liturgical adequacy of Advent itself, at least as the season is currently observed in many mainline Protestant churches. What is lacking in the Advent liturgy or the way we perform it that allows people to conclude that it isn’t designed to handle sorrow and loss? What does this say about our own assumptions about what the tone and content of our regular liturgy should be? What we are doing that makes it necessary to create new liturgy for the sole purpose of helping people in need of consolation and support navigate their loss and grief? Why are we steering people away, in a sense, from ordinary communal prayer and segregating their pain in separate services designed solely (or at least primarily) for the hurting?

In other words, are Blue Christmas services a sign of the failure of Advent and Christmas worship to address the full scope of human experience? Why doesn’t regular worship do for people what a special service appears to do?

If it turns out that our performance of the ordinary liturgy really is failing a significant segment of people, this is an important datum, and not a good one, because the Advent/Christmas cycle is aimed precisely at accommodating, embracing, comforting, reassuring, and reorienting a human race that has grown alienated from the source of its deepest joys. Through its classic texts, hymns, and prayers, it intends to move us all to face squarely the painful paradoxes of our human condition, the dashed hopes and deep fears of all the years, the grief of our losses and the tangle of our sins; and to clear an attentive compassionate and hopeful space for us to perceive a cry in the wilderness, lift our hearts to the footfall of a messenger on the mountain, and be charmed into new life by a lullaby of love and praise cooed over a newborn by a mother who has already had her fair share of losses, and will soon suffer even more.

The whole Advent/Christmas story is something of a downer, with its consciousness of lack and estrangement, its longing across seemingly unbridgeable distances, its village scandals, its particular hardships—occupation, cruelty, rejection, homelessness, poverty, infanticide and the kind of ageless grieving “that will not be comforted.” From this standpoint, every Advent and Christmas service is blue—and liturgically designed to make us face and negotiate the dislocations and fragmentations of life in frail and wounded flesh, as well as to find ourselves approached, embraced and remade by One who is coming, a fellow-sufferer who knows from the inside what we are made of, and whose compassion, therefore, is infinite, and infinitely healing.[i

CandleIf this is not the sort of liturgical encounter people are being invited into on Advent Sundays; if we have been playing down or obscuring the heartrending aspects of Advent and Christmas, cutting away its reference points of sin, pain, grief, and loss as if they were the unwelcome face of an ex-spouse in an old family photo; if we are reluctant to engage the very particular forms of human suffering the liturgy names in this season, in favor of focusing on the generic “wonder of children” (whose childish excitement then serves to circumscribe the range of acceptable emotional responses to the season), or on the warmth of family and friends, or on the cute pageant and the big anthem; if we eschew the telling human detail in favor of four weeks of universal (and often vague) concepts—hope, peace, joy, love—it’s no wonder that the woman whose husband just walked out on her, the young adult estranged from his family over his sexuality, or the 80-something fellow whose siblings and friends are dying off faster than he ever thought possible don’t dare weep in the back pew on Sundays, but decide to show up at a special Blue Christmas service instead, so that they can be who they are, feel what they feel, and sit with others who feel odd and out of joint not only in the mall, but also in the pews of their home congregations during the Advent and Christmas observance.

I am not suggesting that we turn Advent and Christmas Sunday morning worship services into a sallow, somber slog through every problem and pain known to humankind. There’s already enough pressure on pastors annually to produce a “perfect” Advent and Christmas that appeals, impossibly of course, to a thousand different tastes, preferences, age groups, and memories; and satisfies every conflicting and mutually exclusive felt (and loudly expressed) need. Besides, there is no quick fix for the church’s weakened liturgical sensibility (if a weakened sensibility is indeed part of the disquiet I feel and am trying to describe). Improvement will be slow and long-term, the product of ongoing reflection among pastors and people. The last thing I want to do is provoke anyone to re-think the plans for this year! I am suggesting, however, that the project of reinvesting regular worship with the tensions that make it “work” (at least potentially) for the serene and the troubled alike is a project worth shouldering—little by little, over time.

Worship that “works” for all, in season and out, requires a skillful interweaving, a sensitive rhythm if you will, of elements that affirm the best human values of culture and faith and open a space for the interrogation of those values by the gospel prayed, proclaimed, sung and confessed. This is probably way too simplistic, but for the sake of argument we might say that the ordinary liturgy of the season seems to do the happy, all is well, mythic stuff pretty well, and Blue Christmas services seem to have the sad, it isn’t all glorious, there’s another side to the story, wait a minute stuff down pat. We’d all be better off, however, if we could manage to do both in the same service, or over time in a series of services, not aiming for some phony “balance,” but in a way that mirrors the real life oscillations of soul anguish and body anguish we human beings experience in the midst of cheer, and the gladness and gratitude we are all in fact capable of knowing, even if it’s hard, in the midst of our pain. If we have lost this deft touch when it comes to creating worship that takes us on such an honest journey (liturgical scholars refers to it as the interplay of the “mythic” and the “parabolic”), we need to figure out how to recover it.

bluechristmastreechristchurchI like Blue Christmas services, but beyond their immediate usefulness to those who attend them, I wonder if they might have a more bracing purpose. Maybe they could serve as smelling salts for the liturgical practice of the churches. Maybe they could get us to wake up to the season’s inherent possibilities and draw out from our worship the full range of its concerns so that we will eventually have no need for extra services that make it too painfully apparent that right now, anyway, there is no room in the ordinary liturgical inn for the real hard griefs of real hurting people. The recovery of the ordinary liturgy’s intentions to be that welcoming house might someday reveal that the genius of Blue Christmas services, the key to their effectiveness, was not so much that they were new, but that they were old—they recovered a truth that ordinary Advent and Christmas Sunday worship had discarded, and bequeathed it back.

They recover a truth, but not every truth. Here’s another question I have about Blue Christmas services, returning to an assertion I made much earlier about separating the hurting out. Is there a sense in which providing Blue Christmas services steers people in distress away from the church’s ordinary communal prayer and segregates their pain in separate services designed for the hurting? If so, I find it ironic and worrisome, not because people do not need and deserve to have that pain honored and their grief supported during a time when everyone is busy throwing glitter over everything that smacks of trouble; but because the way Christians have always done this honoring and supporting of each other most effectively is indeed in community—but not in communities only of the hurting. The community in which support, consolation, and healing come to each of us most surely and most graciously is the whole community, the gathering of the joyous and the afflicted, the peaceful and the troubled, the faith-filled and the faith-emptied.

One vocation of the ordinary congregation it is to model a kind of wholeness not constituted by perfection, but by sharing, by the carrying of each other’s burdens, the carrying of each other’s ability or inability to believe and to respond, and even to feel; all of us learning to regard with awe, reverence, mercy, and compassion those among us who pray with empty hands. If those empty hands feel in any way ‘disappeared” or banished by congregations that can’t bear their presence in a supposedly happy season, Blue Christmas services may only help us evade a problem much bigger and more serious than seasonal disaffection.

It’s not for nothing that “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says the Lord,” is one of the most ringing liturgical refrains of the season. Iniquity is pardoned, warfare ended, alienation cured, grief and loss consoled, a promise of healing delivered to every broken heart. This is personal, but it’s more than personal: it’s first, last, and always communal. It is about you and me in our particular circumstances, but it isn’t just about you or me and our particular circumstances. If we treat people with seasonal distress solely as individuals with a peculiar individual problem, and not also as, in some deep sense, “common” folk with a common condition, one in which to some degree we all participate by virtue of our humanity, we may miss an opportunity for solidarity of the best kind. One of the greatest gifts and truths of Christian proclamation is that if we are made whole it is because we are inserted in a whole community, because we are together, all of us: we all require healing, and the healing of one is the healing of all.

Do we assume that the grieving can be consoled only by others who are similarly grieving, in their exact same condition? Is there relief only in the company of the like-minded or the similarly afflicted? The therapeutic tradition seems to say so, but the Christian tradition has never believed this to be true; indeed, if you credit Paul, it was precisely so that all barriers between us might fall and so that tribalism might give way to communion (even emotional and psychological tribalism) that Jesus was willing to accept death, even death on a cross. Segregating hurting people may be (certainly is) helpful, good, and necessary for a time; but it is not sufficient, it does not mature our congregational life, and it should not be our only response to the problem. In the long run, it may even add an extra burden of unnecessary isolation to the burden people are already carrying.

LongestNightFeaturedWhat a grace it would be for our Christian journey if in addition to dedicating time, creativity and pastoral sensitivity to the creation of these ancillary services, we also began the equally demanding pastoral work of shoring up the deep communal character of the season and helping all our people, the joyous and the afflicted, see themselves as engaging it in each other’s company, lending one another joy and hope, solidarity and consolation, depth and sobriety, moving through this complex time arm in arm with one another’s sorrows and joys.

I have many other questions about Blue Christmas services— e. g., Why are they invariably described as “powerful”? Is it because it’s at night and you get make things dark enough to light candles, and everybody loves candles and is moved by candlelight? Is it all “atmosphere”? If it is all or mostly atmosphere, is it also mostly emotion, and if so, will the benefits of this service stick, or will they go the way of most emotions? If we know how to do Blue Christmas services effectively, beautifully, deeply, with liturgical creativity and care—and apparently we do—why don’t we know how to do regular Advent and Christmas this way too? (Maybe we do, and I’m just being grouchy.) Are Blue Christmas services contributing, like self-fulfilling prophecies, to the need for Blue Christmas services? Are we in any way marketing sadness at Christmas? Is there a way compassionately and sensitively to help people develop disciplines of joy and gratitude through the observance of Advent and Christmas that will not mask, diminish or dishonor their loss and grief but anchor them in a truth more enduring and encompassing so that they can open themselves more fully to the One who comes “with healing in his wings”?—but I leave these questions and all the rest I’ve mused about here to your continued consideration—after the New Year and Epiphany!

Just trying to start a conversation. There’s plenty of time. And that’s all I got on my end of it, for now!

[i] Even on the third Sunday when the candle is pink and the admonition is to rejoice, there’s plenty of blue. Yes, we are told to rejoice, andto rejoice always, but that can mean only one thing—in good times and bad. The regular Advent liturgy is not oblivious to the fact that many people find cheerfulness nearly impossible in the Advent and Christmas seasons, or in any season for that matter, but wisdom is at work here. Precisely because we may lack the ability to feel cheer, the liturgy enjoins something different upon us—joy.  Joy does not require that we feel or emote; it’s a gift and a virtue, available by grace and through practice to souls centered and un-centered alike. It arises not from external circumstances, but from the exercise of faith in the nearness of the Lord, whose approach makes the mountains clap their hands. (There are, of course, exceptions—a person who is deeply depressed or suicidal or suffering the first throes of a terrible grief will not likely be able to access the deepest reaches of the soul where joy resides, unaltered by circumstance. The regular Sunday liturgy nay not do much to accommodate their pain; it’s also unlikely that such grievously suffering folks will be comforted by a Blue Christmas service. Their predicament requires directed professional attention and support.)

What Do You Want?


Christmas is just around the corner. Have you made your list? What’s on it this year?

What do you really want?


Season tickets?

Gardening tools?

A trip to Greece?

Scotch? Cash? Clothes? Not fruitcake?

What do you want this year?

A better address?

A smarter broker?

More clout? More control? Less pain?

Good kids? Good sex? Good schools? Good health?

Want to quit drinking? Quit pretending? Quit worrying? Quit working 18-hour days?

What do you want for Christmas?

That other life you planned?

More love? Some love? Another chance? Anything but what you’ve got?

What do you really want?

World peace, more jobs, less hate, no guns?

The big bad mess cleaned up once and for all—yours, mine, ours, theirs?

What do you want this time around?

A strange and shining grace – to be the partners of a God who will be born not in the world that ought to be, but here, right here, in yours?

To say ‘yes’ like Mary to what was not your plan?

To wed like Joseph the tainted mother and accept her child?

To bow and kiss the mystery and the mess? To coo and soothe it, rock it in your arms?

What do you want this year?

The whisper of an angel in a dream, ‘Don’t be afraid’?

The whisper of an angel in a dream, ‘Don’t be afraid’?

Christmas is just around the corner.

What do you want?

Singing Christmas


Some congregations observe a sharp distinction between the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In Advent, they sing Advent songs. And pretty much only Advent songs. Which means that they don’t even start singing Christmas carols until everyone else is sick of them.

I’m glad some churches save Christmas songs for Christmas. Not only is it more liturgically correct (so say the purists)—it’s also safer. I’ve found that if you sing carols often enough, you actually start paying attention to the lyrics, and when you do that, you have questions. Take carols that sing about “Mary, Mother mild.”  How many mothers do you know with crying infants at the breast who are ‘mild’? More like on the verge of a sleep-deprived nervous breakdown.

There are other dangers too, such as the invention of goofy lyrics. Sing carols long enough and sooner or later someone will wreck them for you. That old chestnut, “Good King Windshield Glass,” comes to mind, but I am particularly fond of “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.

And If you were ever in elementary school, you know this one:

We three Kings of Orient are

puffing on a rubber cigar.

It was loaded.

It exploded. 

We two Kings…

That, by the way, is the American version. The Liverpool version is all about underwear sold in Hamilton Square for two pence a pair—So fantastic! No elastic! Not very safe to wear. And not very safe to sing, either.

But I digress.

There’s a downside to saving carols for Christmas. You don’t have much time to sing them, because the Christmas season is a mere blip on the annual liturgical screen, barely 2 weeks long (if you don’t combine it with the 4-8 weeks of Epiphany). And there are so many to sing! Thousands just in English alone!

All liturgical niceties and regulations notwithstanding, the sheer volume of carols and hymns is probably a good reason for sneaking a few in ahead of time. Here are three to start with.

I. The Huron Carol (“’Twas in the moon of wintertime”)

 9367498_orig“The Huron Carol” was set to a 16th century French tune, but its words were composed in the Huron language by a Jesuit missionary to New France, or Eastern Canada, St. Jean de Brebeuf. De Brebeuf is among the most sympathetic of all the characters in the harrowing story of the 17th C. Jesuit mission to North America. He deeply loved the people he had been sent to evangelize, and like a good Jesuit, he made a serious effort to learn, document and preserve their language and the world of their imagination.

The carol he wrote quickly became part of Huron tradition. It was sung by Christian Hurons in Ontario until 1649, when the implacable Iroquois wiped out the Jesuit mission and drove most all the Hurons to Quebec. There the carol re-emerged and was eventually translated into English and French.

Originally called “Iesous Ahatonnia” (ee-sus a-ha-ton-nyah,  Jesus, he is born), the English interpretation we have here is the work of the early 20th century Canadian music critic and choir master, Jesse Edgar Middleton. Middleton added images he thought would sound Indian, like the lodge of broken bark and the beaver pelts. Today these inauthentic “aboriginal” terms come across as Walt Disney-ish, even condescending.  But the carol has nonetheless become something of a Canadian national treasure.

figure3interiorlgThe Huron dialect in which it was written is now extinct, but we have a reliable reconstruction of the original hymn. It’s a text that shows the respect de Brebeuf had for the Huron converts as human beings and Christians.  It also hints at the seriousness with which he must have wrestled with the perennial questions that arises in every encounter of civilizations—the possibilities and problems of learning to speak the language of the Stranger, in a way more profound than the mere mouthing of syntax and vocabulary.

It also makes me reflect on the ways in which God’s embrace of our human life, the Incarnation, is for us the emblem of all such border crossings. The living God in Jesus is the prototype of every encounter with the Other that inevitably changes us, them, and everything.

Here’s part of that literal translation:

Have courage, you who are humans;

Jesus, he is born.

Behold, the spirit who held us prisoners has fled.

Do not listen to it, it corrupts the spirits of our minds.

Jesus, he is born.

Sky people are coming with a message for us.

They are coming to say, “Be on top of life!”

Marie, she has just given birth.”

Jesus, he is born

Three elders have left to go there

Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon,

leads them there

Jesus, he is born.

They found him, the one who is for them,

and he says, “Come here!”

Jesus, he is born.

They made a name many times, saying,

“Hurray, he is a good man.”

They greased his scalp, saying “Hurray.”

Jesus, he is born.

Let us show reverence for him

as he comes to be compassionate to us.

How providential it is that you love us

and that you say, ‘I should adopt them.’”

Jesus, he is born.

Listen to the Huron Carol….as performed by Chanticleer.


II.  The Friendly Beasts (“Jesus our brother, kind and good”)


In the Christmas pageants of my youth, this longish carol was the traveling music for Mary and Joseph. It was also always a bone of contention.  Its seven or eight verses got doled out to eleven and twelve-year old soloists. Invariably, the kid who got assigned the cow verse refused to sing it. Who wants to sing, “I,” said the cow…”?  And if it wasn’t the cow, it was the ass. So in the interest of spreading the humiliation around equitably, when you sing it in your church be sure to have the whole congregation sing all the verses of this great galumphing little tune.

There are many opinions about its origins, but it was probably part of the medieval Festival of the Ass celebrating the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and was a regular Christmas observance in parts of France in the 13th century. During the mass of this festival, it was common for a live donkey to be led or ridden into the church.

The original song gives thanks for the donkey on which Mary rode into safety in Egypt, and begins: Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus (‘From the East the ass has come’). Each verse ended with the chorus ‘Hail, Sir Ass, hail’ and was punctuated with a rousing oh-heh, which is Latin for hee-haw.

I probably should not have said that, because now you’ll want to do that hee-haw part in church….

Oh, all right, do it.

From the East the donkey came,

Stout and strong as twenty men;

Ears like wings and eyes like flame,

Striding into Bethlehem.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Faster than the deer he leapt,

With his burden on his back;

Though all other creatures slept,

Still the ass kept on his track.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Still he draws his heavy load,

Fed on barley and rough hay;

Pulling on along the road.

Donkey, pull our sins away!

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

Wrap him now in cloth of gold;

All rejoice who see him pass;

Mirth inhabit young and old

On this feast day of the ass.

Heh! Sir Ass, oh heh!

The carol as we have in our various hymbooks is an expanded and somewhat sentimentalized version of that original, and today it is regarded as a children’s song. But no matter how much fun was made around the figure of the donkey in the Middle Ages, the song was always meant as a serious tribute to a creature of God, without whom the work of our redemption would not have been possible. It speaks of the way God uses all the things God made to work God’s will and show God’s love.

IMG_1097What we might take from this carol, apart from the jolly spirits of the high Middle Ages, is a new sense that the salvation promised from of old encompasses not just the human creation, but all creation; that Christ was born into a real world that God really loves, and that everything in it, even some silly looking animals (like us!), is shot through with divine grandeur.  In an age in which the ancient ice shelf is melting into the Arctic sea and the polar bear is on the endangered species list, that’s a good and necessary thing to sing about.

Listen to it here…

III. Go Tell It on the Mountain


This familiar spiritual was born in the oral culture of enslaved Africans in the American south. As is the case with most spirituals, its music and lyrics cannot be attributed to any one person, but “Go Tell It on the Mountain” has a peculiar association with The Fisk School, now Fisk University in Nashville.

The Fisk School was established in 1866 to educate everyone, including freedmen, but quickly became known as a school for African Americans. To raise money for Fisk, a group called the Jubilee Singers was formed and began touring the nation.

At first ridiculed for their unimpressive looks, the group eventually won the public over, and in seven years they were able to erase the school’s $150,000 debt.  The songs they popularized were known as Jubilee Songs.

“Go Tell It on The Mountain” was one of two from their repertoire that have become household words (the other being “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”).

African America composer John Wesley Work, who taught classics and history at Fisk, included it in a songbook he published in 1907, and it has been a staple of the Christmas repertory ever since. Work himself used to lead singers around the campus before sunrise on Christmas morning singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” as a way of announcing the good tidings of the day.

In thinking about this spiritual, I recalled that James Baldwin borrowed it for the title of his first novel, published in 1953. That book is a searing portrayal of black life in America, of lives horribly damaged by racism, and of a society confronting inevitable change in the civil rights movement.

It struck me that “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is no tinsel-thin holiday song, but the strong and resilient song of a people for whom good news has always been in short supply. The song of a people who endured unspeakable inhumanity as enslaved women and men, but still found the courage to endure even more as they stood up to act, and to demand that others act to recognize and respect their humanity—the same humanity that God was irrevocably committed to in the newborn flesh of Jesus. The song of a people who understood, in Baldwin’s words, that “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.” It’s not for nothing that in the 1960’s civil rights movement, “Go Tell IT..” was sung with the words, “Let my people go” substituting for “…that Jesus Christ is born.”


Whenever you sing this wonderful spiritual, pray that it will be a thick, strong song for you and your congregation too. And pray that when we go and tell the good news of Christmas on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, we will by that act commit ourselves courageously to the redeeming danger of the gospel as well as to its resounding joy.

One of my favorite renditions, by Mahalia Jackson:

Hail Mary, Full of Imagination [Luke 1: 39-56]

JM2visitationLG–Joyful Mystery #2: Visitation, by Jim Janknegt

“My soul magnifies the Lord…”

When I was growing up, the nuns who taught me religion made much of Mary’s faith. Her greatness, they said, lay in her obedient disposition to believe the angel’s message and accept unquestioningly  the mysterious assignment to be the virgin mother of the Lord. She may have wondered aloud to the angel how such a miracle was to happen, but she never doubted that it could.

Mary’s faith was what we used to call “blind faith” before we became more sensitive to the fact that blindness does not mean you cannot see. In the religious world of my childhood, blind faith was the best faith you could have. We knew none of us had it, or would ever have it, at least not in the measure of Mary; but we were brought up nonetheless to be fundamentally biased towards belief.

No matter how much I now cherish the practice of doubt and question, I am still persuaded that there is a lot to be said for a second-nature reflex of faith, an instinctive willingness to give God the benefit of the doubt. I give my ancestors in the faith the benefit of the doubt too, which is why I still love the ancient creeds and keep them as the bedrock of my faith. After all, just because people lived in the past doesn’t mean they were naïve. Or stupid. This benefit of the doubt is not blind faith, but it’s my way of saying “yes” to things that lurk in a blur at the corner of the heart’s eye, waiting to clarify in time.

That said, however, I no longer admire Mary’s blind faith. I admire her perceptive faith—her capacity to perceive clearly a promised but (for most of us) still blurry world of divine justice and righteousness. And I admire her ability to inhabit that world now—to act and speak according to promised new conditions that have yet fully to appear. I admire Mary for her religious and moral imagination.

This wondrous imagination of hers is not the fantasy of a utopian dreamer, an escapist or a Pollyanna. She is, the gospel tells us, “lowly,” and the Greek original clarifies the meaning: not “humble” so much as “poor.” Dirt poor. Mary does her imagining the way dirt poor people always do—“amid ten thousand losses,” as Patty Van Ness puts it; or, as Kate Layzer writes, “amid the hard griefs of this world, its bitterness and need.”*

Mary imagines and inhabits God’s new world while embedded in the mystery of human privation, her own and her people’s. Perhaps that’s the only place where such imagination is even possible.

Like her singing sisters before her—Hannah, Judith, Deborah, Miriam—she intones a song whose verses leave no room for doubt: this hard world is real and it is miserable–and it is not all there is to say or see. Its suffering and injustice are horrific, and they are decidedly not the will of the God of “swirling joys.”  And so her imagination sings about tyrants dethroned, poor bellies full, mercy extended to the umpteenth generation. But note how she sings of these things with thanks and praise: it is as if God had already done all the rearranging that the world so desperately requires. That’s a holy, and a true, imagination.

645px-Folio_59v_-_The_VisitationIt’s a fierce and dangerous set of verses, this Magnificat. I’m told that an Anglican bishop once prohibited missionaries from reading it in the presence of the local chiefs, knowing that its implications would not be lost on them. It would be news all too welcome among them, and the Church couldn’t stand to lose what it stands to lose.

You’d be taking your life in your hands to use Mary’s song as the opening prayer of a board meeting of most Fortune 500 companies too (or in a meeting of the president’s cabinet.) The gift of a new world and the sway of its just Ruler is not receivable everywhere. It is not even seeable in some places. It takes a lot of imagination. But Mary is undaunted. She is pregnant with imagination. And pregnant with a child. And like most pregnant women, she believes that a new world is being knit together right in her own womb, and that her own child will be the one who makes all the difference.

You don’t have to be a woman, much less a pregnant one, to imagine what Mary imagines. But you can’t imagine anything at all—anything true, that is— if you can’t see beyond your own privilege to confess that things in the world are not the way God intends.

You can’t imagine anything true at all if you can’t contain your getting and spending so that you can receive the vision of the Day of the Lord with an uncluttered heart.

You can’t imagine the new thing God has in store if you don’t regularly feed your soul with the unspeakable misery and ineffable beauty of the world and all its creatures, putting yourself regularly in the company of real suffering people and real amazing joy.

You can’t imagine a new way of life if you try to go it alone without the generations of the faithful alongside you, without a community with whom you faithfully practice imagining, a community within which are told and retold a thousand thousand times the stories of God’s dream—a dream, as Will Willimon writes, “larger than the desperation of any of our particular moments.”

And if you cannot imagine, you cannot hope. If you cannot hope, you are left to your fear.  And if there is only fear, you know where that leaves you, where it leaves all of us, and where it has always left the world.

2So this Advent, wait and watch, ponder and pray, light candles and do whatever you do; but more than anything else, dare to imagine. Imagine a poor woman named Mary, singing. Imagine a baby leaping in a cousin’s barren womb. Imagine an infant surprise wailing in a manger under shooting stars. And see that old fox, Herod, jittery and wobbling on his lofty throne.

–Visitation, African Gospel Mafa


*Text of  the Cantata, “Advent,” by Patricia Van Ness, Composer-in-Residence, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational (United Church of Christ).

Amidst ten thousand losses and swirling joys

At this very instant

On this sacred Earth

I wait.

Come to us,

Beauty, Wisdom, Goodness, Peace,

Solace, Grace, Counsel, Love.

Through the open archway this cold night

Air, rich as gold, flows.

Fine snow glistens on our faces.

Each flake,

Every exquisite crystal blossom

Is a covenant of your love

Told a thousand thousand times.


*Text of the hymn, “Called from the World to Mystery,” by Kate Layzer

Called from the world to Mystery, from mystery to love,

we hold the hope within ourselves of certainties above;

and you, O God, who plant this hope in us and scatter it like seed

amid the hard griefs of the world, its bitterness and need,

have sent us as your laborers in fields sown by your grace–

the harvest and the harvesters caught in divine embrace–

for you in Christ held nothing back; may we likewise be free,

until when we have poured out all, we merge with Mystery.