To worship at The Church of the Advent is always to experience a celestial ceremonial. As the emissaries of Prince Vladimir famously reported in Kiev in 988, following their experience of Orthodox worship in Constantinople, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” And so it is for us tonight. The processions are glorious. The congregation sings with joy. The choir is sublime. And repeatedly in the liturgical instructions, at the laying on of incense, the note reads, “The Thurifers should encourage the Bishop to be extravagant!”
Perhaps on no occasion is such a liturgy more appropriate than on this, the Vigil of Saint Michael and All Angels. We seek to glimpse another realm, to put sight and sound and scent to the verbal images of celestial hosts with which this evening is replete: “where, Cherubim and seraphim bow and adore.”
So with a slight hesitation, I nonetheless invite you for a moment into a different musical vernacular than that to which you are accustomed. Humor me and sing along.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the Cross
The Scriptural propers for this Feast feature two lessons in which angels are ascending and descending – on what? On ladders, of course!
[Then Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. [Genesis 28:12]
Jesus alludes to this same vision when he declares in the Gospel:
‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ [John 1:51]
So we are given this image tonight of heavenly messengers ascending and descending, connecting us with another realm we are eager to glimpse; “climbing Jacob’s ladder,” advancing – by God’s grace – towards the union of things earthly and heavenly.
The thing is, one of those three scripture lessons includes some angels being thrown down, instead of climbing up. We heard how Satan “was thrown down to earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” Angels climbing up. Angels being thrown down. So now I am put in mind of a rather different image. Maybe it’s because I so loved playing board games as a child, that these readings make me think not only of Jacob’s Ladder, but also of that wonderful, terrible game … Chutes and Ladders.
You know the one, right? Where you roll a single die and move your little marker along, trying to make your way up the winding path to the finish line at the top. And oh, how great when you land at the bottom of one of those ladders, and scoot ahead towards the top. And oh, what frustration when you land instead at the top of a chute, and slide right back down to a place you’d already left behind.
So what do you think – does life sometimes feel like a game of Chutes and Ladders? Sure it does. We have good days and bad ones. At one moment we climb to some new and unanticipated height. At other moments, we have setbacks and disappointments, frustration and seeming futility.
We simply do not experience life as a steady or predictable trajectory, a ladder of evenly-measured steps and inexorable, unidirectional progress. Surely this is true of us as individuals, knowing as we do the vicissitudes of life. No doubt this is true also in our national lives, where collective advancement in matters of equity and justice – however we might choose to define those – is fitful, unpredictable, iterative, elusive.
I expect this “chutes and ladders” paradigm might be applied to the life of parish churches as well. The Church of the Advent is no exception. In early years the parish embodied its noble vision of securing for Boston “the ministrations of the Holy Catholic Church, and more especially to secure the same to the poor and needy.” Yet the fledgling parish also experienced opposition from high places. Infamously, my predecessor Manton Eastburn, Fourth Bishop of Massachusetts, was so outraged at the presence of a cross and candlesticks on the altar that he refused to return for eight years, and only then when forced by canon law to do so.
Sometimes, of course, the strife was not from without but from within, as during your more recent Time of Troubles a quarter century ago. The point is, throughout its history this parish church, like every other (and not unlike that game of Chutes and Ladders) has had its ups and its downs.
But here’s the thing: In God’s economy, even our setbacks are part of our path towards greater faithfulness and service. In the final analysis, your life in the church is much more akin to Jacob’s Ladder than it is to Chutes and Ladders. And I will tell you why. Because Chutes and Ladders is a game of pure chance. There is nothing whatsoever in that game to determine your progress except the roll of a die. It’s sheer, dumb luck. But your life, people of the Advent, is not a function of dumb luck. Your life is guided and led supremely and unfailingly by the grace of God. And your life is guided also by skilled and faithful leaders.
This leads me to that certain parochial subtext for tonight’s celebration. Alongside scriptural imagery of angelic choirs and ladders that lead towards the heavenly kingdom, we are thinking – or trying to avoid thinking – about priest and parish reaching for the next rung, moving on to the next chapter of your respective lives – lives linked and virtually synonymous for almost twenty years, now with a leave-taking on the horizon.
Father Warren, no doubt, would be the first to object if his bishop veered in the pulpit from proclamation of the Gospel to either roasting or canonizing the rector. Besides, there is, I believe, some roasting planned for the reception which follows this liturgy. But let me say this. Gifted leaders are a tradition at The Advent. You have a history of dedicated clergy, and your faithful, eccentric, devoted incumbent has been no exception. Under his leadership your life together has indeed born much more resemblance to the divine vision of Jacob’s ladder than to the haphazard chaos of Chutes & Ladders. Not random windfalls and pitfalls, but the steady labor of God’s servants, coming and going from this place – such is your life with this journeyman priest.
Now, if an “angel” is understood as an ethereal, unearthly being, the I suspect that few of us would attach the label to Allan Warren, who is altogether corporeal and earthly. But cautiously, and in the same way that the term “saint” can be applied with both specific (capital-S) and communal (small-s) connotations, I want to say that if the definition of “angel” is not “ethereal being” but “messenger,” Fr. Warren has been that – faithfully and consistently. No less a personage than Gregory the Great has reminded us that “the word ‘angel’ denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits, but they are only called angels when they deliver some divine message,” says Gregory. [i]
What, then is the message that this small-a angel, this messenger of the Gospel, has brought to you? I quote to you from Fr. Warren’s Annual Meeting Address nine months ago:
I have mentioned to you before that the word ‘parish’ comes from two Greek words – ‘para’ and ‘oikos’ – which together mean “away from home.” The implication being that a parish is our “home away from home.” Our true home is with God, but on the way to that consummation of our lives, the Parish is our “home … away from home.” In this parish we gather together, we pray together, we are nourished by Christ’s presence together, we renew our friendship. We are a community, a family, in this “home away from home.” [ii]
And now, listen to these words from a sermon of Bernard of Clairvaux for Michaelmas:
[E]ven if the splendor and glory of the holy angels before God is beyond our comprehension, we can at least reflect upon the loving-kindness they show us. For there is in these heavenly spirits a generosity that merits our love, as well as an honor that evokes our wonder. It is only right that we who cannot comprehend their glory should all the more embrace their loving-kindness in which, as we know, the members of the household of God, the citizens of heaven, the heirs of paradise, are so exceedingly rich.”[iii]
I hope that you can hear the deep resonance between your rector’s foundational image of the parish as a Christian manifestation of our truest Home, and Bernard’s testimony to the angels as exemplars of the loving-kindness which merits our wonder, our love, and our emulation, in the household of God.
And so, dear friends – now, and next year, and in the years beyond – be that household of God. Be that home away from truest Home which your rector has described. Weather the occasional Chute, and steadily climb Jacob’s Ladder toward the Kingdom. Be thankful for your pastor, priest, and friend. And be faithful messengers of God – that others might say, as Jacob said upon waking from his vision: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” [Genesis 28:17]
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
i – Celebrating the Saints: Devotional Readings for Saints’ Days, ed. Robert Atwell and Christopher Weber (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2001), p. 324.
ii – The Rev. Allan B. Warren III, Rector’s Annual Report, January 28, 2018.
iii – Celebrating the Saints, p. 326.