Monthly Archives: December 2012

O Antiphon: Sapientia

17 December

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come and teach us the way of prudence.

17 Dec O Sapientia

Prudence?

Now there’s an unsexy virtue. Do you know anyone who sets her heart on becoming prudent? Works at it everyday in her spiritual exercises? To become loving, yes, that’s a lovely goal; faithful too, or patient, even humble. But prudent?

The very sound of the word is off-putting. It sounds … prudish. Careful, surveying the scene, looking for trouble to avoid. Who wants to be like that—calculating risks, playing it safe, and sourly disapproving of the bold?

Too bad about prudence. It’s a lonely virtue, like meekness, forbearance, and long-suffering, misunderstood and underrated. But without it, the world would be doomed. Already is, almost, since it is singularly lacking. Which is why we pray in Advent that Wisdom, who appears among us as a Child, will hurry and teach it to us.

So what is it? Prudence is one way to worship God with your whole mind, as the Great Commandment says we ought. We tend to neglect this part of that charge in favor of the more familiar and comfortable loves of heart and soul. (We don’t love God very much with our bodies, either, but that’s a story for another day.) But there it is: love God with your mind, your intellect, your reason.

Prudence is thinking things through and distinguishing among things correctly. It’s telling good from bad, excellent from mediocre, ultimate from penultimate—as well as slogging through the proverbial gray areas, the complexities of the middle ground and the forgotten ground. The prudent person willingly spends time among the perplexities, listening and thinking, and then thinking some more.

Prudence studies the evidence of love and the rumors of life, skimming dross from the surface to reveal glints of gold beneath. Like a skilled shopper at a big department store sale, she sorts through everything that’s on offer until she finds clothes that fit God’s taste and style. These she buys.

All this she does not obsessively, in an anxious effort to get control over life, but “mightily,” as the antiphon says, strongly confident that there is in fact a discernible God-hinting pattern, and that the gift of reason graced by faith will be able to perceive it.

MMstudyingByWeydenPrudence is not content to say, “We shall never know.” It is of course true that we shall never know, completely. But prudence is avid for as much knowledge as she can get by peering intently through the mirror Paul talks about in I Corinthians 13. Even if our seeing is ever only dim, prudence believes that looking will yield something true enough.

True enough for what? To choose. This is the key. Prudence chooses, she decides, she commits, she sets out. And orders things.

This is where the “sweetly” part comes in. Because in that choosing, in the ordering of decisions and actions, in the reorientation of life that deep and godly knowledge directs, prudence is prudent enough to know that despite faithful application of graced reason to the maze of worldly possibilities for making life good, we could be finally mistaken in our judgments and in the choices that flow from them.

Her action is thus as humble as her seeking, which doesn’t mean it is not loud or long or deep or keening or ecstatic or prophetic; only that in all things it is profoundly charitable and meek, in the way Jesus was meek, in the way we are all meant to be foolish in order to be wise. Prudence is, in the end, not so much an egghead, a scholar, a weighty theologian, nor even a conventionally wise person filled with common sense–perhaps she is that least of all. No, she is the one who engages doggedly in a great and necessary folly. Prudence is a great and wise old fool.

After all,

Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. [1 Corinthians 1:20-25]

If God Can Find A Corner Small: A Carol for Christmas

Unknown_painter_-_The_Nativity_-_WGA23511

1.

If God can find a corner small,

a town constricted as a tomb,

to house the sweeping Life of all,

we too can find a little room.

2.

If God requires but little space,

an unassuming mother’s womb,

to birth God’s spacious Gift of grace,

we too can be a little room.

3.

If little room is room to spare,

a stable’s manger plain and rough,

to cradle everlasting Care,

we too have room, and room enough.

4.

And even if we still mistake

a mansion’s pomp for God’s embrace,

whatever room we sinners make,

Good Love will gladly fill the place.

A NOTE ON TUNES:

You can sing this carol to the tune, ANDREW, Hymn 467, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth’ in The New Century Hymnal. [You will need to repeat last line of each stanza of the carol in order to fit the tune’s 8.8.8.8.8 meter]

A really lovely LM tune, NORWICH, was composed for that same text (“Mothering God”) by Carolyn Jennings. It is at # 735 in the Lutheran hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. And a wonderful choral setting of this same tune is by Zebuloma Highben, and can be found at Augsburg Fortress. I like this tune very much for this carol.

For a more meditative mood, you might use CONDITOR ALME, alternating verses between a soloist and the congregation, or choir and congregation.

What You Can See Through Tears

I continue to mine past resources for current pastoral consideration in the wake of the Newtown shootings. This was a sermon for the Easter after 9/11. If you substitute “Christmas” for “Easter,” and “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for “Alleluia,” it will come to pretty much the same thing, I think.

 La_Pieta_Santa_Maria_della_Vita_Niccolo_del_Arca_1462

— Niccolo dell’Arca

John 20:1-18

Someone said to me a few days ago, “Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”

By “this year,” of course, he meant 9/11; and he meant the war in Afghanistan, the crazed violence of the Middle East, the fear of Muslims, the fear of flying, the fear of the future, the free-form fear ignited by color-coded homeland security alerts.

By “this year” he also meant the anger of grown-up little boys molested by trusted Fathers, and the duplicity of the Fathers of those Fathers who for indefensible reasons did not, when the children cried out, put aside every other consideration and run raging, weeping and full of tenderness to their aid.

“Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”

The question implies that in a year such as this one has been, it will be at best a perplexing exercise to sing lusty alleluias about the death of death. It implies that this year we’ll need to put up a struggle so that the undertow of grief won’t drag our high hosannas out into a sea of sadness.

It also suggests that perhaps we hepped-up Easter preachers should be careful when we claim that because of the resurrection, everything we think is so gosh-darn bad is really not all that bad after all, when all is said and done! Christ is risen from the dead: Presto change-o! All’s right with the world.

Watch out, this question warns, that Great Easter not become a shallow dismissal of the unspeakable pain, the mindless destruction and the utter helplessness we have known together “this year.”

I experienced something like that dismissal recently, as I participated in an ecumenical Good Friday service in Boston. At the end of the service, a young layman employed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sang movingly, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  But he couldn’t let the question hang in the trembling air, as it was meant to do, unanswered. He proceeded instead to assure us breezily that although things have been hard in the Catholic Church lately, the resurrection of Jesus is going to make it all OK. The bad acts of a few bad priests will not destroy the Church: after all, he explained, one of the Twelve betrayed Jesus, but the rest did not. And after that betrayal, they just chose another man to take Judas’ place, and with the number full again, the good work continued. So, friends, he concluded, don’t worry! Never forget: the tomb is empty!  Not to worry. Presto change-o! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

“Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”

Yes, I suppose it is. But isn’t Easter always a hard sell?

wpe2With all due respect to the faith-challenges of this terrible year, Easter is no more a hard sell today than it was in 1069, when a preacher in Cologne, Germany, finished his Good Friday sermon on the text, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” and dismissed the gathered faithful — whereupon they all poured out of the cathedral and began looking for Jews to kill. The killing continued for weeks. It was the first instance of that pious Christian anti-Jewish violence that we have come to know as the pogrom.

Easter is no more a hard sell this year than in 2000, when, if you believe that year’s domestic violence statistics, in the home of at least one family of someone you know (but would never suspect), a husband threw a hard fist at his wife, and both of them lied about it later in the emergency room.

Easter is no more a hard sell this year than it was or is in any year when a person gets fired because of a losing battle with the bottle, or gets laid off because of a company’s losing battle with the bottom line; or a placement is denied to fit foster parents because they are gay; or somebody steals your perfectly pleasant fourteen-year-old when you aren’t looking and replaces her with a pot-smoking monster who hates you and whom you don’t like very much either.

Easter is no more a hard sell this year than in any year in which human beings perpetrate and suffer all manner of violence and illness, when natural disasters wreak havoc, good kids lose their way, death-loving zealots win too many hearts to their bloody causes, and indifference permits evil to prosper.

A hard sell this year?

The truth is that we always celebrate Easter in the throes of one disaster or another, personal, communal, and global. Easter cannot prevent these things, and Easter must not gloss over them. Pain, sorrow, terror and outrage are, along with ordinary pleasures and extraordinary ecstasies, the stuff of our real human life; and our real human life matters so much to God that God shared it. Our real human situation – our life, our suffering, our mortality, our hope – matters so much to God that, as another preacher has pointed out, “Easter, our greatest godly celebration, takes place in a grave.”

giottonaIf the Easter message promises, and I believe it does, that all will be well beyond our wildest dreams, it does so only through the medium of scars and tears, dust and ashes. The Easter miracle is the power of God’s love and life in the human condition, not in spite of it, or against it, or above it, or beyond it. The gospels claim that Jesus’ resurrected body was so strange that the disciples were not always sure whether the man appearing before them was the same man who’d been dragged to the gallows only a few days before. Some of them were sure only when they saw nail-marks in his hands, the gash still gaping in his side. The risen Christ did not shake off the signs of his earthly service and suffering. His glorious face is eternally grooved by human tears.

Easter is not fairy dust flung over horror to “make nice.”  It is not the way our spirits lift at the annual rebirth of nature. It’s not comfort derived from our the common wisdom that brown things green up after bad winters. It is not a coping mechanism. It is not a basketful of bunnies and chickens and eggs reminding us that no matter what, life goes on and tomorrow will be another day.

Easter is instead the gift of power — power to live fully- free, fully-open, fully-vulnerable, and fully-engaged human lives in the bad winters, in the unthinkable disasters, in the terrifying destruction, on the brutal cross of shame, in each and every human grief and sorrow, in the painful groaning of the whole created cosmos for liberation and new life.

The writer, James Carroll, tells the story of a holy teacher who lost the power of words. He had spoken healing comfort to the dying all his life, but the dying still sickened and died. He had comforted the poor, but poverty still clung to them. He became discouraged, and at last, despairing, he fell completely silent, and settled at the edge of a vast wasteland, alone.

One day a desperate stranger crawled across the spiky stubble to the door of his hermitage and begged him for a word, just one.

“I am ages alone,” the stranger said, “and I am dying from being unspoken to.”

Silence.

The stranger insisted, “Your wordlessness is killing me. I see that it is killing you too.”

More silence.

At last, the stranger asked the hermit, “Do you want me to die?”

The hermit began to weep. From the deep cave of his being came a terrible moan. His old heart grasped the sound and pushed it up to his cracked lips. His lips formed it into a single shattering word: “No.”

Both men died that night. They might have died dead, but they didn’t. They died alive.

Easter is the gracious power that allows you and me, while we live, to resist a retreat into wordless despair and to overcome fear — not the fear of dying, but the fear of living humanly, feeling, perceiving, thinking, open, vulnerable, connected, committed and engaged. Easter is therefore also the power that, when we die, allows you and me to die alive. It is the power to hear, to believe and to act out in our own living, serving and suffering God’s thunderous “No!” to the most tortured question you, I, and the world address to heaven: “Do you want us to die?”

If we derive from Jesus’ resurrection only an optimistic ”faith perspective” on hard things, but are not driven by our Easter joy right down into the heart of suffering where Easter matters most; if down there we do not steadfastly offer Easter’s preposterousness, its tenacious hope-against-hope; if the lusty alleluias of our Easter liturgy are not also the thunderous “No’s” of God to the despairing deaths that stalk the world; if Easter indulges even the mildest indifference to the immense reservoir of human suffering — if it is evasive, it is not Easter, and we blaspheme when we sing.

Mary_Magdalene_sculptureBut if we do go down there, if we go down deep, and if we mourn and weep…  Well, consider Mary Magdalene. She went to the grave of Jesus while it was dark. The stone was gone, but she neither understood nor believed. She ran to the disciples who raced back with her, looked in, saw the linens, credited her story of a missing corpse, and went home. They didn’t invite her to go home with them. Or maybe she refused to go. She stayed there “in the garden alone,” as the old hymns says. Then, we are told, there in the dark she started to weep. She just stood there, glued to the spot, facing the tomb, deep in the grief and the horror. And she wept.

She wept and wept and wept. She could have wept forever.

But then she began to see.

It is amazing what you can see through tears.

What looked like an empty tomb is full of angels.

A gardener speaks, and faith knows that voice, registers those features.

In a room where the first time we looked there were only frightened women and men, peace materializes.

In broken dreams, broken bodies, and broken bread, you can see through tears that there, there, precisely there, the Great Wide Mercy dwells.

The Finger of John

Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_024

–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…

persp22_22

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.

the-weeping-woman

–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!