Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?
Christmas is now done. It ended Friday on Twelfth Night. I am sure than none of you, good Anglican traditionalists that we all are, put away any of your decorations before then, but have by now put them all away.
Yesterday, of course, was the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember especially the visitation of the Magi. We don’t know exactly when they visited the Holy Family, but most scholars seem certain that it was a lot more than 13 days after Jesus’ birth! More likely, it was about two years. We’ve left the Creche in place this morning and you’ll notice that the Wise Men have made their way from the table at the rear of the Nave up the Epistle side aisle, have visited Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, and are now heading back down the Gospel side aisle, returning to “their own country (as Matthew tells us) by another road.”1
“In the beginning was the Word . . . .” The Prologue of John’s Gospel echoes the opening words of the Bibe, “In the beginning God said . . . .” Our God is a god who communicates, who speaks, whose Word creates.
The collect for blessing the Christmas Créche begins, “O God our Creator, to restore our fallen race you spoke the effectual word, and the Eternal Word became flesh . . . .” (Book of Occasional Services 2003, page 37) I’ve always like that turn of phrase, “the effectual word” . . . the word that accomplishes something, the word that has power.
In his magisterial work on the poetry of the Indian sage Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. S.K. Paul wrote of powerful words:
If we think of poetry as the use of especially powerful words, then there may reason to suppose that poetry was more important in the prehistoric, preliterate past than it is today – in song, in ritual, in myth – with the structure and choice of words compensating for the impossibility of any written record. Some have even suggested that in the beginning was poetry – in the evolution of language each new word was a poem, the outward expression of a new inward perception. (The Complete Poems of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali: Texts and Critical Evaluation, Sarup & Sons: New Dheli, 2006, page 318)
At the Christ Mass on December 25, 2017, I offered this poem as a meditation for the congregation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
Skin by Godfrey Rust
God treated himself to a new coat.
Till then he’d not really been dressed for visiting—
he’d nothing dull enough to wear.
Quite early he had come to realise
his appearance didn’t put people at ease.
Even the very first ones were nervous—
when he took an afternoon stroll round the garden
they would run and hide.
I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come
To show the way
I believe, I believe
I believe above a storm the smallest prayer
Can still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word
Every time I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe1
Those are the lyrics of a song written the year after I was born and which was very popular in the early 1950s. Frankie Laine, the Four Letterman, Elvis Presley, and many others recorded versions of it. It was even arranged in combination with Gounod’s Ave Marie as a Christmas choral piece.
In place of an original sermon at the 2017 Advent 4 services, I offered this Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem as a meditation:
Christ Climbed Down
Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars
One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:
- He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
- He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
- He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).
She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):
“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”
Today’s Gradual, Psalm 85, includes what may be my favorite verse in the entire collection of the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v. 10)
I think it may be my favorite because it figures prominently in the movie Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by the Danish write Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The story tells of a grand meal prepared for the residents of a small Danish village in memory of their deceased Lutheran pastor. In flash backs, we see his ministry and on several occasions we hear him quote this verse, which seems to be a rallying cry for his flock.
Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
It’s a lovely poetic summation of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in that book of prophecy.
In a few minutes, when this sermon comes to an end, we will all stand together as we do every week and recite the Nicene Creed in which we will say that, among other things, we believe that Jesus Christ
. . . will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. (BCP 1979, page 359)
In the Apostle’s Creed said at Morning and Evening Prayer, and in our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm our expectation that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” (BCP 1979, pages 96, 120, and 304)
In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer we re-affirm this this belief by saying (as we will in Prayer C this morning), “We celebrate his death and resurrection, as we await the day of his coming.” (Pg 371) We say something very similar in Prayer A: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (Pg 363) In Prayer B: “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.” (Pg 368) And in Prayer D, we offer our gifts “recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to [the Father’s] right hand, [and] awaiting his coming in glory.” (Pg 374)
In Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s novel of post-colonial political intrigue in Africa, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), one of the characters (echoing Karl Marx’s famous aphorism about religion) opines:
Charity . . . is the opium of the privileged, from the good citizen who habitually drops ten kobo from his loose change and from a safe height above the bowl of the leper outside the supermarket; to the group of good citizens (like youselfs) who donate water so that some Lazarus in the slums can have a syringe boiled clean as a whistle for his jab and his sores dressed more hygienically than the rest of him; to the Band Aid stars that lit up so dramatically the dark Christmas skies of Ethiopia. While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.
For many years, nearly all of my life as a parish priest, every time the story of Christ the King separating the sheep and the goats, Matthew’s picture of the judgment at the end of time, rolls around, I have read it, understood it, and preached it as Jesus’ admonition to us to be charitable. I have read it as an instruction in favor of individual charity, and so novelist Achebe’s statement, his condemnation of charity as “the opium of the privileged,” pulls me up short and discomfits me.