When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
I did not begin this morning with “Happy Christmas” or “Merry Christmas” because, although it’s December 24th, it’s not Christmas; it’s not even Christmas Eve yet! The rest of the world may want you to think it’s Christmas and that it has been since mid-October, but the Episcopal Church insists that it is not yet Christmas. In fact, there’s still more than nine months until Christmas if we believe the good news we just heard from the evangelist Luke! We still have some time to wait for trees and carols and packages, for festive dinners and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and the “holy infant so tender and mild.” We still have some of the Advent season to complete and so on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on Mary and consider not the end of her pregnancy, but its beginning, that moment when the Angel Gabriel told her that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.
Visual artists depict the stories of the bible in many fascinating ways and their works can help us explore scripture’s meaning. Often their images capture or suggest nuances in a story that we might miss just hearing the words. This morning, I’d like to tell you about three paintings that particularly speak to me about the Annunciation. They are the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini painted in the 1850s, Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli’s late 15th Century Cestello Annunciation, and a contemporary piece by American artist John Collier.
On April 12, a little more than seven months ago, I was privileged to officiate and preach at a service of Choral Evensong at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Following the service, on our way home to Medina, my wife Evelyn and I stopped at a Lebanese restaurant in Middleburg Heights for a late dinner in celebration of our 43rd wedding anniversary, which that day was. After a lovely meal of hummus, baba ganoush, spicy beef kafta, and chicken shwarma, we went home to bed. A few hours later, around 2 a.m., I woke up with a horrendous case of heartburn. I took some antacid and went back to sleep sitting up in my favorite armchair. At 7 a.m. the next morning, I woke up knowing that I hadn’t had indigestion after all; I was having a heart attack.
When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
Lenten Journal, Day 25
I have put off writing my journal for the Fourth Sunday in Lent because it was “one of those days.”
“Mama told me,” the song goes, “there’d be days like this.”
I was awakened when the dog yelped in pain, really cried out, and we’re not at all sure why. It may have been that my wife in the early morning darkness stepped on his paw, though probably not. When I examined him, it seemed that his pain could be either (a) sensitive ears – he is prone to ear infections; or (b) a sensitive jaw or teeth; or (c) his neck.
They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. – Micah 5:4b
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
That is the poem Beloved Is Where We Begin by Jan Richardson from her collection of verse entitled Circle of Grace. It is a poem for Lent, but it also speaks to us of the Advent promise we hear in the prophecy of Micah, “They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” On the Christian journey, as poet Richardson writes, wherever it may take us, there will be help; there will be the security promised by Micah.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7)
I’m not preaching this Sunday, but if I were I would have to congratulate John the Baptizer on his social skills! He sure knows how to warm up and relate to a crowd.
What is John saying by greeting his audience thus? Is John speaking to the Pharisees and the Sadducees at all, or rather to the rest of the crowd? Or, more likely, is Luke saying something to us, his later readers?
“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”
If I were preaching on the Second Sunday of Advent this year, I think I would select the first of the two options for the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is actually from the Jewish apocrypha.
Years ago (many years ago) when I was 18 years old, I worked in a small 100-bed community hospital in Southern California. Initially, I was a janitor (“housekeeper” in the hospital jargon of the time) but within a few months I was able to take the job of orderly.
If I were preaching this week, I would have to work with Luke’s version of the Little Apocalypse: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. * * * For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Many read these words of Jesus as if they are predicting something which will be an act of God. The lectionary links this reading with a prophecy of Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” To suggest that the apocalyptic scenes predicted by Jesus (and others elsewhere in the Scriptures) are the act of God would equate God’s promises, God’s righteousness, and God’s justice with destruction. If I were preaching, I would suggest a different understanding.