December 8, 2013
Festival of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
A couple of weeks ago a group of young men came together to face a major challenge. Something momentous was about to happen, and they were unsure about the outcome, but they had been preparing for it for a long time, and they were eager to face into the challenge.
As all true football fans know, the Saskatchewan Roughriders won the Grey Cup two weeks ago (you may have noticed I have been very politely restrained about that). It was fascinating watching the Riders’ players as they were about to go on to the field to start the game — they weren’t dragging themselves out onto the field with a sigh, or rolling their eyes, as if to say, really, do we HAVE to do this? As the big moment approached, they were literally bouncing with enthusiasm – leaping in the air – shouting encouragements to each other – reassuring themselves that they are a great team and that they were up to the challenge.
There was an intensity to it – a fervor – that was very compelling. A recent article in Psychology Today says “No wonder sports has become such an important vehicle allowing people to express and address some of the major themes in their lives …” Comparing religious and sports, the article said “consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”
So I wondered how that kind of enthusiasm might look if it were applied to a typical church setting.
I think Annie Dillard captured it as well as anyone when she said, “On the whole, I do not find Christians . . . sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”
Those Roughrider football players were focused, intense, driven, and fuelled by a common purpose. It looked like nothing could stand in their way (and of course, nothing did).
The typical image of church, on the other hand, is of people dragging themselves in, inattentive, unfocussed, sleep-walking through the service, rolling their eyes as though the Christian faith is all too much for them – and that’s just the clergy I’m talking about!
There’s a story of a mother, all dressed and ready to go to church on a Sunday morning, coming into her son’s bedroom and urging him to wake up and come to church.
Groaning, he mumbles, “Give me three good reasons.”
“Well, all right,” she says. “Reason Number 1: You’re a Christian and you know it’s your duty to be in church on a Sunday morning.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says.
“Reason Number 2 “You’re 59 years old and you really ought to know by now how to get out of bed on your own.”
“You might have a point there,” he says.
“Reason Number 3 — You’re the priest of the parish so you know they’re expecting you to be there!”
He says: “You always have to bring that up, don’t you?”
Three reasons! Can you think of three reasons for being here? Did you come with enthusiasm? Expectation? Purpose?
Advent always begins with a certain intensity, even ferocity, personified by this strange guy in his underwear screaming at people in the wilderness: “Repent!! Straighten up!!” The approach is confrontational and harsh – a forceful wake-up call.
The opening of an event like the Grey Cup is full of drama – intense energy – heightened expectation. The fans and equipment people and other folks all come out and take their place on the sidelines and in the stands, all these rather ordinary folks, and then the players – the principles – are introduced, and they come blasting out of the entranceway like rockets, and, as they say, the crowd goes wild. There is an Advent-like build-up, and then the time is fulfilled, and the game begins.
Like John their attitude is: “One who is greater than I am is coming; I am not worthy to carry his shoes” To continue the sports analogy, John the Baptist is saying he is like the water boy in comparison to the star player – merely part of the supporting cast. It is not a way of trivializing John but of indicating the true greatness of what God was about to do in Christ, and putting John in perspective.
I wondered, what is the church equivalent of all that? Are there elements of that camaraderie, intensity of purpose, excitement and confidence? Sports is full of sayings like “Go the distance,” “keep the ball rolling” “Go hard!” “Be a team player!” and “Did you bring your ‘A’ game?” So what are the typical phrases we use to encourage and affirm each other in church? (and greetings like “Are you still alive?” and “Hey – you’re sitting in my pew!” are not what I had in mind).
In comparison to Christ, perhaps John is to be treated as a kind of mascot (and he would not look at all out of place in the stands at a Rider game, where half the crowd is wearing watermelons on their heads and painted green). But he is a mascot who urges the “fans” in the direction of truth, social justice, and meaningful spiritual practices, a mascot who urges people to stop being bystanders and to get involved in the action themselves. We need folks like that in our lives to egg us on and stir us up.
We don’t want to risk trivializing John the Baptist, who is no mere mascot. Actually, if you want a modern equivalent, he is more like a Nelson Mandela figure, demanding justice, fearless in the face of oppression and threat, pointing to the possibility of equality and a better future, and ending up in jail because of his convictions and unwillingness to back down.
Let’s keep in mind that football is just a game; we’re talking about faith, and about the meaning and purpose of life! As Soren Kierkegaard said: “Faith is the highest passion in a human being. Many in every generation may not come that far, but none comes further.”
I think John forces us to ask ourselves: “Where is the fire – the enthusiasm (which means being filled with Spirit)? Is your heart really in this?” Nelson Mandela is credited with saying: “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
Though John the Baptist was traditionally indicated as a kind of role model for the clergy, there are obviously other ways of responding to the call, as each of us must find our own path. My own path has always had a paradoxical, “on the other hand …”, yin/yang kind of character to it. I think there is something of John the Baptist in me – the intense and driven servant of God – but there is also another tendency pulling me away from all that seriousness and toward something less heavy and solemn. Nobody can be that zealous all the time, and besides, I am certain there is something of the jester in me.
A few weeks ago I was looking at my son’s Facebook page and I was surprised to see pictures of him indicating he had dressed as a priest for Hallowe’en — he had fashioned himself a black cassock and a clerical collar. I realized he looks a lot like me when I was that age. I was just basking in the glow of the thought that my son was symbolically following in my footsteps when he informed me that there was more to the costume, namely a zebra head – and I realized maybe he is more like me than I thought!
This is primarily a day in which we hear the witness and proclamation of John the Baptist, which is overt, forceful and loud. But because I was ordained on this day 32 years ago (Dec. 8 being the Festival of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary – a festival dedicated to the gentlest of saints), I can’t completely identify with John and his in-your-face, rah-rah approach. Because I also identify with Mary the Mother of Jesus, there is a tension, a sense of being pulled in two directions, and it would be simplest to say the pull is between masculine and feminine, but for me it is the appeal of two very different but somehow complementary forms of spirituality.
John pulls me in the direction of confrontation, action and transformation – of wanting and even demanding change and response from people. Mary pulls me back in the direction of the interior life and the mysterious, and urges me to spend time in the darkness of unknowing and trust, in contemplation and simplicity. John’s way seems for adult and powerful, while Mary’s way seems childlike and gentle.
As we acknowledge at this time of year, Jesus was born of a woman, which reminds us that Jesus himself was rooted in both the masculine and feminine – a beautiful harmony which echoes God’s intentions as they are expressed in the Book of Genesis.
John may have predicted that Jesus would baptize with fire, and all that, but it was Mary who changed Jesus’ diaper, and kept him safe and warm – she was the one who let him know how beloved and special he was, long before the great moments of his baptism, his confrontation in the wilderness, and with the intransigent evils of human life. Thanks to Mary, Jesus acted as one who knows in the depths of his being that he is beloved – that gave him the courage to be compassionate as well as truthful. The presence of Mary reminds us that love is what made Jesus what he was; her life is a witness that love is the power that overcomes all obstacles.
The image of Mary has evolved over the centuries. I suspect the modern equivalent of Mary might very likely be found on the downtown Eastside, or in a local High School. Though the Church has done its best to purify and sanitize her story, I’m guessing the reality was a lot different – the story of a very young unwed mother, trying to explain a mysterious pregnancy, in the face of a lot of condemnation and threat of exclusion. In any age and culture, that puts women in a very precarious place.
As priests we are now much more aligned with the marginalized, those who are suspect, than with the elite and powerful. As we see constantly in the mainstream media, we are despised and rejected, and clergy today are well acquainted with that particular form of grief that comes from rejection. And that is where the ministry of John and Mary align and come into harmony – each, operating out of profound humility, looked to a day when God would topple the arrogant and oppressive, to a day when the marginalized and oppressed might find their true worth.
This is a day that puts wolf and lamb together, personified by John and Mary, pointing to the power of God to overcome our opposing and unreconciled tendencies. So this day is a bit of a paradox, with the strong and the weak, the hard and the gentle, the loud and the quiet, the masculine and the feminine, all side by side in all their different and distinctive characters.
This chasuble, that I had designed for my 50th birthday, tells that story of light and darkness – yin and yang – wolf and lamb together. It speaks of God’s shalom, a peace that surpasses our comprehension, and a unity that can only be achieved when we surrender totally to God, which both John and Mary did. On this day we are asked to trust that in Christ the two are made one. As the Psalm says “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” So it is with those who are in Christ.
So as St Paul says: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you … and may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
RCL readings for Advent 2:
Isaiah 11:1-10 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Romans 15:4-13 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 3:1-1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”