I realize this is not going to sound very priestly of me, but one of my favorite films of all time is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; I saw the first show on opening day in 1994 and I don’t know how many times after that; it was a hugely important pop cultural moment in my youth. It is not recommended for all audiences—it’s full of violence and profanity.
But one reason I like Pulp Fiction is that it perfectly captures something important about what we mean by an epiphany. It still is Epiphany season, but what does that mean? What is an epiphany anyway?
An epiphany is a revelation of God’s work in the world—it’s the shock of recognition that attends divine intervention. And the season of epiphany is about the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, the shocking recognition that this man is the Messiah of Israel but not just the Messiah of Israel but also the king of the universe and the savior of the entire world.
Incredibly, Pulp Fiction features a smaller-scale but nevertheless very obvious epiphany. The Pulp Fiction epiphany happens to two characters in the film: Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta). Jules and Vincent are violent depraved hit men, and on orders from their mob boss they execute three small-time criminals that have ripped off their employer. But Jules and Vincent have been careless—unbeknownst to them there is a fourth criminal hiding in the bathroom, and he bursts out, firing a hall of bullets from a .357 Magnum at point-blank range. To no effect. Defying all logic, Jules and Vincent are totally unharmed by the barrage. The baffled criminal has just long enough to register total incomprehension before Jules and Vincent nonchalantly execute him too, their fourth and final victim. But their reactions to what has happened could not be more different.
Jules immediately insists that what has just taken place is a miracle, but Vincent shrugs it off as just lucky. Jules says no, it wasn’t luck, it was “divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?” “Yeah, I think so,” says Vincent, rather cynically, “That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.” Jules is sure, “Yeah, man, that’s what it means. That’s exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.” But Vincent won’t believe it; he is sure it’s just something that sometimes happens, a lucky break, not a miracle but a big whatever. And indeed nothing about the film so far has even hinted at the presence of God or any openness to the miraculous. Everything about Pulp Fiction suggests a gritty fallen world, so maybe it’s not surprising that Vincent does not believe. But Jules does believe, and because he believes he is transformed, and he forsakes his life of violence.
This is actually an important point about any epiphany. To one person, with the readiness to see, with the eyes of faith, an epiphany is a miraculous and life-changing divine intervention. But to someone else it might look like nothing at all, just an ordinary, everyday happening. Without the eyes of faith, an epiphany will look like a big whatever. An epiphany then isn’t just about revelation. Epiphany is also about division.
Consider today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. The celebration of our Lord’s presentation at the temple is a perfect epiphany passage, because Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles is spelled out plainly by Simeon: Jesus Christ, even as a one-month-old baby, is the glory of Israel and the light for revelation to the Gentiles. Jesus Christ is now proclaimed by Simeon to be the salvation that is meant for “all peoples.”
The presentation though also features not just revelation but division. Because everything about this situation is outwardly ordinary. Mary and Joseph are fulfilling the demands of the law, observing the prescribed ritual sacrifices. Such a thing would have happened every day. That they offer two doves indicates that they don’t have the money for a lamb, so they are poor, ordinary folk. Nothing about the circumstances suggests anything miraculous in the offing.
But here in this mundane setting Jesus’s parents meet two remarkable witnesses to who their infant son is: the saintly Simeon and the prophetess Anna. They are devout people who have something in common. They are waiting and actively looking out for the salvation of Israel. Simeon we are told is “looking for the consolation of Israel,” and Anna is an evangelist to all those who, like herself presumably, were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
So Simeon and Anna are lookers. They are seers. They are on the lookout so they see the epiphany for what it is. It is none other than the Holy Spirit has led Simeon in to the temple, and Anna too has come “at that very hour” to see here and now God’s revelation of God’s own self in the divine intervention that is the infant Jesus. Because after all this time, after the decades of prayer and self-discipline, for these two elderly holy people, the wait is over. It has been 400 years since Malachi the prophet spoke the words that we read today. Yet Anna is a prophet too, and to her it is given to witness the fulfillment of what Malachi said in his day so long before as we heard today in chapter 3, verse 1: “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Anna and Simeon have been seeking the Lord for a long time. And now suddenly he has come to his temple. Here he is. It’s him. The one who has been promised. It’s an epiphany. And they can see it for what it is because they have been faithfully preparing themselves for this moment.
Even when the wait is long and lonely, God gifts us from time to time with just such an epiphany, as long as we are prepared to see it. Simeon has been graced to know that he will live to see the Christ, but now he is an old man. It has been a long time, long enough to lose heart, but still he is faithful and alert, and when the promise is fulfilled he is ready for it. It’s unfortunate perhaps that our translation puts the word “Lord” first in Simeon’s justly famous hymn of praise, which as you know is an unchanging feature of the rite of evening prayer. The first word in Greek is “Now,” as in—“Now Lord lettest thou thy servant depart”—and that is fitting, for now is the lead ideas here, now is the moment that Simeon has been waiting for and for which he is fully prepared. The implication in the Greek term for “depart” is not just to leave but indeed to die, because Simeon is now ready to die in peace, for the one thing in the world worth seeing—Christ’s divine intervention into the world—the one thing in the world worth seeing he has at last seen. Or think of Anna. Her marriage was all too brief, certainly not what she expected from her life. But her many years of widowhood have been spent in worship and spiritual discipline. She too is prepared to give thanks to God and to testify to all the others like her to what she has now at last, at last seen.
I said though that epiphany brings division along with revelation. That this epiphany brings totally divergent reactions is something Simeon himself foretells to Joseph and Mary. This child, your child, he says will provoke wildly different responses. Some will fall, and some will rise. Some will leap for joy at the recognition of who he is; some will be scandalized and recoil from him. Some will fall to the ground in reverence and love and wash his feet with their very tears; some will jeer in hatred and spit in his face.
Some will call him a miracle and some will shrug it off.
And all this Simeon says will wound you too, Mary. What about this terrifying private aside to Our Lord’s blessed mother? What could it mean that a sword will pierce her own soul also? Could it mean that she too will be tempted (as any of us would be) with the thought that it was nothing after all? The angel, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, what if it wasn’t a miracle but just happenstance? Don’t forget that Mary sees her son die alone on the cross.
In that moment, at what looks like the end of the story, could you still believe in the epiphany here at the beginning of the story, or would you be tempted to say it was nothing after all?
This temptation to despair, to fail to see, is built into every epiphany. It is always possible that the miracle will go unnoticed or ignored. An unbelieving witness to the presentation would say that all he sees is an ordinary baby in the arms of his impoverished parents and a pair of delusional old people.
It is the virtue of great artists like Tarantino that they leave the epiphany open to the viewer to decide. Did God really come down from heaven to stop the bullets that should have killed Jules and Vincent? Jules decides “yes,” it’s a miracle, and his life is changed, while Vincent decides “no,” it’s nothing special, and ultimately he is doomed for his lack of vision. We have to decide too, whether as viewers of the film or readers of Luke’s Gospel. No one can be forced to believe in an epiphany; we must either affirm it as a revelation of God or write it off as nothing at all. And these are really the only two choices. The presentation of our Lord in the temple really is an epiphany, and if that’s true then this is not an ordinary baby but the greatest case of divine intervention the world has ever seen. But to see it for ourselves, we will need to be like Simeon and like Anna, ready, waiting, and looking. Amen.
The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year A, Proper 18)
“Back to School: Paul’s Syllabus” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Welcome back! Our program year at the Advent officially/unofficially kicks off with the feast of St. Michael and All Angels on Sept. 29, but with Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer, lots of us are streaming back to our normal lives after a packed few months. Today as we commission our church school teachers and our register for their classes, there’s a palpable sense that things are beginning again. There’s a little chill in the air at night, football is back (someone should tell the Pats), school buses are rolling again. From first grade through grad school, I went back to school every fall for a quarter century. I love going back to school! Everything is potential; anything’s possible. One specific thing I love that may be lost on you: I love syllabi! I love getting the list of what we’ll read this semester, what topics we’ll study, what my professor expects of me. This week my oldest daughter, Ellie, brought me a paper to sign from her her 9th grade theology teacher — an outline of the teacher’s expectations of Ellie in the class. Made me feel all warm and tingly just to hold it!
In Romans 12, Paul gives us a “syllabus” — a list of his expectations for the Roman church and, in turn, for us. In the 13 verses we read today, he gives us 26 (!) imperatives, 26 commands, 26 behaviors that should mark the life of every Christian. Let me assure you: I don’t have a sermon with 26 points. What I want to do is pick out just two of these commands to look more closely at, and then look at our motivation for living how Paul exhorts us to live. So two points — First, the marks of a Christian, and second, the motive of a Christian.
First: The Marks
Verse 9: Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection . . . . [And skipping to verse 13:] Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.(12.9-10, 13)
If you read the first 11 chapters of Romans, whenever Paul talks about “love,” it’s about God’s love for us. But here in chapter 12, he pivots to talking about our loves. Paul says “Let love be genuine,” and then he takes 12 verses to list what genuine love looks like. So these 26 imperatives aren’t just a jumble of miscellaneous commands; they’re all about how we are to love. As one commentator says, “each staccato imperative adds a fresh ingredient to [Paul] the apostle’s recipe for love.”
Now look closely at that recipe — Paul has in mind two different kinds of love. The first kind is philadelphia, the word for “brotherly love” or “sibling love.” That’s the love we are to have for one another, the love we practice in here. Real Christian community is to be marked by the love family members share inside the family. What’s that mean? Well — Look to your right; now look to your left; look back at me; even if you can’t stand one of those people, you have to love them. That’s how families work. Siblings don’t pick their siblings, but they love each other because they’re family. In this room there are republicans and democrats, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old . . . . Somebody in this room believes what you believe; others in this room don’t. But we’re a family, so we go all out to love each other no matter what.
Share your resources with each other. You got a car? Somebody else here needs a ride to mass.
Serve at coffee hour or Compline.
Host a neighborhood group in your home.
Give generously to support our life together.
But two verses later there’s another kind of love, and you it’s hidden in your English bibles — Practice “hospitality.” The word for hospitality is philoxenia. “Xenos” means “stranger.” Philadelphia is family love; philoxenia is “stranger love.” Not love in here, but love out there. I heard a pastor preach on these words one time, and he said we have to:
work like crazy at loving the insiders, people with your same beliefs, people that you know. [At the same time] work incredibly hard at loving outsiders. There is intensity and openness . . . . The word xenia . . . means a stranger, but as a verb it means ‘to take in a guest,’ so philaxenia is an incredibly strong word and a very gospel word. Philaxenia means to love, to open your living space, to open your wallet, to open your resources to people who otherwise you’d be suspicious of.”
If we aren’t doing that all the time as a community of faith here on Beacon Hill, then we are dying. As a church, we’re dying. Jean Varnier is a Canadian theologian who, back in 1964, decided God wanted him to welcome two men with developmental disabilities into his home. That’s what philoxenia meant for him. Today, the community he founded, called L’Arche, is actually 147 communities, in 35 countries, on all 5 continents. This is what he says about hospitality or love of the outsider:
Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share . . . . A community which refuses to welcome — whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors — is dying spiritually.
Volunteer to serve at our Community Supper on Tuesdays.
Serve at Common Cathedral.
Come join our Mission + Outreach Team.
Volunteer to be part of a team that travels to Texas or Florida to help those communities rebuild after these devastating storms.
Be an evangelist — share your faith with a neighbor over a cup of coffee.
Paul commands: Love each other like crazy in here, at the same time that you love the stranger like crazy out there.
Second: Our Motive
Paul gives 26 commands, but can you love on command? I can’t. That’s why it’s always important, whenever we see a command in scripture, a “what” we are supposed to do, remember to look very closely for the “why.” Because every time St. Paul give us an imperative, it follows an indicative.
Put it another way: Our duty follows our doctrine.
This is classic Paul — only now, after eleven chapters of doctrine in Romans, does he start to lay out his ethics. For Paul, the imperative (he compels us to do) always follows the indicative (what God has done for us). Romans 12.1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God . . . .” Everything goes back to having experienced mercy.
One last little example. Brennan Manning died in 2013. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of people I wish I’d have had dinner with. Describing himself, Manning once said: “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” In his memoir, All is Grace, he wrote this:
My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that it the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion.
In a word, this vulgar grace is mercy. That’s the gospel — God showed us mercy — therefore, we should be marked by mercy. God loved us, therefore we go and love and return. Mercy is the motive, the only motive, for the love that marks our lives.
What’s a better time than the beginning of another church year together for us to recommit ourselves to loving each other and then, together, loving the world? Paul gave us the syllabus. Let the classes begin.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994): 330.
Sermon by Dr. Timothy J. Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on 24 April 2005. An .mp3 of the sermon is downloadable from www.redeemer.com.
Jean Varnier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist, 1989): 266-67 (quoted in Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999): 160).
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2000): 26. See Agnieszka Tenant, “Ragamuffin: The Patched-up Life and Unshabby Message of Brennan Manning,” in Christianity Today, 15 April 2013 (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/june/ragamuffin-brennan-manning.html).
Brennan Manning, All is Grace (quoted in William McDavid et al., Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, Va.: Mockingbird, 2015): 53).
An audio file of a version of this sermon is available at https://www.dropbox.com/s/ns2tgkgbobg4wy3/Paul%20Takes%20Us%20To%20School.m4a?dl=0.
The First Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
“Prisms” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Look around — All the decorations are down; the Advent is back to looking like she looks most of the year long. The chronological calendar turned to 2017, and the liturgical calendar turned to the season of Epiphany — a word that means “manifestation” or “appearance” of Christ to the Gentiles in the person of the Magi (who, you may have noticed, made their circuit of the church from just to my right all the way around to the creche). Now on this first Sunday of Epiphanytide, we read the first of four songs from Isaiah about a mysterious figure called “the Servant” (42.1), a figure God will send to bring justice (42.1), to bring back ethnic Israel from the exile caused by their disobedience (49.5-6), and ultimately to suffer vicariously to redeem those he came to save (53.4-6).
Let me say this up front — Barrels and barrels of ink have spilled debating the identity of this “servant.” But there is a Christian consensus about the issue. Simeon in the temple recited the nunc dimittis, saying the child he held was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” (Luke 2.32), language directly from Isaiah 42.6 — Somehow he knew the infant Jesus was the long awaited servant of God. And the ancient church fathers agreed. Eusebius of Caesarea, writing in the 4th century, said:
Although this very great person is not the one who was in the mind of those hearing the prophecy the first time . . . clearly the Christ of God is meant here.
So let us assume, for the sake of this sermon, that Jesus Christ is the messiah, the ultimate embodiment of the “servant” in Isaiah. If he is that servant, then what do we learn from Isaiah 42? I believe that it tells us: (1) Jesus’ kingdom brings justice; (2) his kingdom crosses boundaries; and (3) Jesus wins his kingdom by losing.
First: Jesus’ kingdom brings justice
Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. (42.1) He will bring forth “justice.”
How many flavors of Law & Order are there on TV? That’s what we think when we hear “justice” — finding out whodunnit. This word mishpat, or justice, occurs some 400x in the OT, and it does mean to judge fairly on the merits of every case, not out of prejudice or preference, regardless of race, class, or anything else.. But more than that, it means giving people their rights under law. That’s why over and over again mishpat shows up connected to orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor — people sometimes called “the quartet of the vulnerable.” In Generous Justice, Tim Keller says:
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups had no social power. They lived at subsistence level and were only days from starvation if there as any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest. Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people. The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat.
This tells us that Jesus’ messianic kingdom is about more, much more, than just forgiveness and going to heaven when you die. God sent Jesus his servant to do justice to restore dignity to every human being, to deal with all the effects of sin in the world, to bring about absolute flourishing for every creature under heaven. That is biblical justice.
Hold that thought. Point two: Jesus’ kingdom crosses boundaries
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations . . . . (42.6)
Israel’s destiny, as God’s chosen people, had always been for blessing to overflow through them into the ends of the earth. In Genesis 12, God told Abraham “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Leave all that behind, and I will do three things: I will make you a great nation, I’ll give you a great name, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12.1-3) That’s why God chose Abraham — not for his sake alone, some special privilege just for Abraham’s family, but in order that God could bless the whole world using Abraham as his channel of blessing. That’s why we make so much of the magi making their way around the church finally to arrive at the crèche — the Epiphany is the manifestation, the dawning, the appearance of salvation not just to Israel but to the goyim, the Gentiles — the whole world.
And that’s why Lesslie Newbigin calls the gospel, the message of God’s kingdom, “public truth.” In Truth to Tell, Newbigin writes:
The church lives by the faith that . . . Jesus is Lord. That means that he is Lord not only of the Church but of the world, not only in the religious life but in all life, not merely over some peoples but over all peoples. He is not just my savior, but the savior of the world . . . . If it is true, it is true for all and must not be concealed from any.
Point three: Jesus’ kingdom is a just kingdom, it crosses every racial and national boundary, and he gains his kingdom in the strangest way — Jesus wins his kingdom by losing
He will not cry aloud of lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth . . . . (42.2-3)
This is only hinted at here, but it’s clearer in the other Servant Songs in chapters 49-53, — notice this king doesn’t become king the way normal kings do. Normal kings field armies to conquer through force or coercion; bending the enemy to their will and plundering their lands. But look at this king — he is gentle: He won’t break even the slenderest reed; he won’t snuff out the faintest candle. We are in a position to understand better what Isaiah only hinted at — that Jesus the servant of God didn’t save us by force; he saved us by weakness. Isa. 53.10 says “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.” In other words: Jesus came not to bruise us but to be bruised; not to snuff us out but to be extinguished. That’s why he won his kingdom not on the field of battle but on the cross.
One last point: We’ve covered a lot of theology. But what about application? What about us? Well, every Epiphany I think of a song. Richard Shindell is my favorite songwriter, and my favorite song of his is called “Transit,” a long song about a nun named Sister Maria. Sister Maria often drives to the state penitentiary to direct a choir of convicts, a motley crew of “car thieves and crack dealers, mobsters and murderers.” And here’s how Shindell describes their song:
And so it began in glorious harmony Softly and Tenderly, calling for you and me With the interstate whining way off in the distance And the sun going down through the bars of the prison They poured out their souls, they poured out their memories They poured out their hopes for whats left of eternity To sister Maria, her soul like a prism For the light of forgiveness on all of their faces
. . . her soul like a prism . . . .
Epiphany is about light dawning in a dark world. And here’s the application: First — Let that light come to you. Maybe you feel like a bruised reed, like your light is almost flickered out. Come to Jesus — he is the medicine your soul most desperately needs. And second — Be prisms.
Be prisms and refract God’s justice into the world everywhere you can. Stand with the vulnerable — widows, orphans, immigrants, refugees, the poor, anyone with little or no social power.
Be prisms and cross every boundary with the gospel — Be evangelists. Don’t let the postmodern spirit of our pluralistic age dampen your zeal to take the gospel to the whole world.
Be prisms and advance God kingdom in the world not from a position of strength but weakness. The church must be a place that is loving and kind and welcoming to the most broken among us. “Christ disarmed his enemies with love and grace and gentleness.” We must do the same.
God manifested his son to the Magi, and he did so to you. Now be prisms for the light of Christ’s star. Make him manifest for all the world to see.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Go Deeper //
For Eusebius of Caesarea, see Ancient Christian Cmt. on Scripture, Mark W. Elliott, ed., vol. OT XI, p. 32ff.
Shaphat,” in Theological Wordbook of the OT, Harris et al., eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1980): Vol. II, p. 2443-44.
Timothy J. Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010): 4.5.
John N. Oswalt, Isaiah, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003): 474.
Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991): 33-34. Nor can we continue to accept the security which is offered in an agnostic pluralism where we are free to have our own opinions provided we agree that they are only personal opinions. We are called, I think, to bring our faith into the public arena, to publish it, to put it at risk in the encounter with other faiths and ideologies in open debate and argument, and in the risky business of discovering what Christian obedience means in radically new circumstances and in radically different human cultures. Ibid., 59-60.
Tim Keller, Gospel Christianity (2003) (“Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away. And those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit they are weak and lost.”).
For audio of this sermon: https://www.dropbox.com/s/0dzmt7gedeuixx0/Prisms.m4a?dl=0
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) “#AdventFail” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood Isaiah 7.10-17 Psalm 24 Romans 1.1-7 Matthew 1.18-25
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are six — count ’em, six — more shopping days until Christmas! How did that happen?!
I think I’ve mentioned before — every year when I get to the end of Advent, I’m never ready for Christmas. Every year I make Advent plans — to pray as our family lights the candles in our wreath every night; one Jesse tree ornament every day; stamp and send the Christmas cards (which I never even got around to ordering this year); cross every name off my shopping list; all while setting aside extra time for prayer and reflection. Making time to grow, to do good. But work gets in the way. Family issues demand my attention. There are Christmas parties, choir concerts, papers or exams or projects.
By this Sunday every year, I admit: I failed at Advent.
This week I wondered whether anybody else felt this way, so I searched hashtag #AdventFail on Twitter. Here’s what came up:
@hashtagCatholic said “Eek! I don’t have my purple and pink candles. #AdventFail”
@JordanTrumble (who describes himself as an Episcopalian, West Virginian, and snark aficionado) said, rather snarkily I thought: “Pastor at my aunt’s church began the service by saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ #AdventFail”
@LeighLem said — and this is good advice — “This Advent, I’d like to remind church-goers there may be some new candles in unexpected places — watch ur hair. #AdventFail”
@ReedsTweets1 said “Ate entire Advent calendar in 12 minutes. Apparently that’s not how you do it. #AdventFail”
Failure can be a common feeling in Advent.
There’s no way you can see this from where you’re sitting, but just imagine that you can — This is Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Nativity, and I want to introduce it as exhibit A for this homily. See Mary is in the center? She reclines beside the baby she’s wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes, and she captures our attention. In the gospel narratives Jesus’ birth, Mary is a paradigm of readiness for God. Gabriel tells her she will have God’s child; she says “Let it be unto me according to your word.”
But there’s another figure in the narratives. This figure, in Rublev’s icon, is not in the center — he sits off in the bottom left corner, and he’s not alone. Joseph, the human foster father of Jesus, sits with a troubled look on his face talking to a bent and wizened old man. Tradition says Rublev painted the devil whispering to Joseph — giving voice to all Joseph’s doubts about this event and his role in it:
Joseph, how can you be sure this baby’s yours?
This is not how you planned for this to go!
How could you not feel like a failure?”
This morning, if you’re like I am, if Advent hasn’t gone as planned, may I suggest three practices in Matthew’s story that we can emulate? Three things to do when we fail at Advent: (1) Dream, (2) Let Go, and (3) Obey.
First — Dream — Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . . .”
I don’t know how Joesph could sleep, but he did, and when he slept, he dreamed. That’s when his angel appeared and told him another story. Not just the story of his reputation in shambles, of his dashed hopes and spoiled plans. And when Joseph woke, he must’ve thought, “What if that’s really true?”
For Joseph, and for us — what if the dream was really true? What if this baby was really God’s son and really Joseph’s son? God and man? Dorothy Sayers, in Letters to a Diminished Church, says this:
One thing is certain: if he were God and nothing else, his immortality means nothing to us; if he was man and no more, his death is no more important than yours or mine. But if he really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too; and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person.
Do you see? If the angel told the truth in the dream, everything changes! How can we doubt God loves us when he dies for us to prove it? And why be afraid of anything? Even death can’t keep us because it couldn’t keep him. We’re free to risk everything for a God like that without ever being afraid we’ll come up short and he’ll find us wanting. Let that be our dream. Dare to dream the angel told the truth.
Practice number two: Let go — Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
I had a plan. When Renee and I got married, I had a plan. I wanted 6 kids, she wanted 1. We had Ellie, and Renee moved her target up to 2, and I came down to 4 (it was harder than it looked). Then we had Paddy, and we both said “Change of plans — let’s stop at three.” And that was Flannery.
What were Joseph’s plans for his life with Mary? They certainly didn’t involve a suspicious and very public pregnancy, two years on the run from King Herod, and a son who even his own family would come to believe was mad. But God said: Don’t be afraid; let go or your plans; let me set the course of your life.
Our Advent plan is to be good — to live better lives. And we make Advent all about what we will do for God, like he’s some kind of celestial bookkeeper marking deposits and withdrawals. But the gospel says that’s just not what God’s like at all! If you’ve prayed the collects for these past Sundays, maybe you noticed something. Listen:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness (Advent I)
Give us grace to heed the prophets’ warnings and forsake our sins (Advent II)
And because we are sorely hindered by our sins (Advent III)
Purify our consciences by thy daily visitation (today)
Those aren’t prayers to a God who’s surprised we fail. Who’s surprised we’re still sinners, even if we’ve praying those prayers for 50 years. God sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good — and he loves you anyway! No Advent discipline will ever make God love us any more, and no amount of Advent failure will ever make God love us any less.
You’re free to let go — Let go of your best-laid plans. Let go of your false image of yourself, or the false image you broadcast to those around you, that you’ve got it all together. Just let go, then . . .
Practice number three — Obey. Once you’ve dared to dream Jesus was who the angel said he was, once you’ve let go of the illusion you need to dress yourself up in good works for God, then, and only then, begin to obey. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
Notice the order: God didn’t bless Mary because she obeyed; he didn’t bless Joseph because he obeyed; the angels announced the blessing, then the couple said “let it be as you say,” and they began moving obediently toward Bethlehem.
Do we dare to dream of a world where we are not under law but under grace? The only problem with a glorious season like Advent is we’re prone to make Advent into something we do, not something that’s being done for us. It’s our default position — to plan more, do better, work harder, and to forget we’re on the cusp of Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of the One who was born into the world to do all the things we couldn’t do to make ourselves ready for God. All we must do to get ready for God is open our eyes, our hands, our mouths — and let him come to us. Only then will our obedience really be free.
Let me close with a quote from a friend of mine, an internet friend at least. Sarah Condon is a priest in Houston, TX (and a graduate of Ole Miss, by damn), and she closed an Advent sermon of hers with these words:
This sounds crazy, because I have a Christmas to-do list that will not get to done, but we are already ready . . . because Jesus is ready for us . . . . So I’m not in a big hurry to start the manic exercises of what we seem to culturally call “Getting into the Xmas spirit.” I am thrilled at the idea of not feeling like I should control all of it. I am joyful at the thought that nothing I do this season, nothing, will improve upon the Christ child who will come into our midst to save us . . . . We are here to get ready for Jesus, and the incredibly good news this morning and every morning is that Jesus, in all of his mercy, has always and forever been ready for us.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go Deeper //
Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson), 5.
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18, Year C) “The Choice” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood Deuteronomy 30.15-20 Psalm 1 Philemon 1-20 Luke 14.25-33
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
How many of you — show of hands — are aware it’s an election year? Front page of every paper; lead of every newscast. And it seems like it’s already lasted forever. The real question is: When is it not an election year? This week in the Globe, Jeff Jacoby wrote a piece called “Our long national nightmare,” which I thought was pretty dead on:
Why do we do this to ourselves?
In no other nation on earth do candidates for national leadership devote as much time to running for office. Political ambition and a taste for power exist in every society and era. But the insanity of marathons for the White House that last nearly two years is uniquely, humiliatingly American.
Whatever you think of our candidates for national office, nothing’s as pervasive, as ubiquitous, as ever-present as “The Coice.”
In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, there’s another choice to consider. And as important as the presidential election may seem, the other choice matters infinitely more. So let’s look at it.
Deuteronomy, you may know, is sort a sermon series. Moses is now an old man, 120 years old, he’s led Israel for four decades since their exodus from Egypt — 40 years since crossing the Red Sea, 40 years since Sinai, 40 years of wilderness — and now Israel is finally poised to cross into the promised land. But Moses won’t go with them, so he preaches a series of farewell sermons to remind them of everything that’s happened, of all God’s done, and to sear into their minds one thing: They have to choose.
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey . . . then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land . . . . But if your heart turns away and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods . . . you will perish.
Life and death. Good and evil. They can’t have both, and they can’t opt out. There was a right way and a wrong way to understand God. When Israel crossed the river into the promised land, with all their new neighbors, each with different gods, the pressure to run after those gods would be immense. So they had to choose now: Good or evil. Life of death. No third way. That’s the substance of the choice.
What about the mechanism? When you think about it, the mechanism wasn’t complicated. All that mattered was whether they would obey. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land . . . .
Obey — love the Lord, walk in his ways, keep his commands. If you obey, then you’ll live; if you don’t, then you’ll die. That’s how the choice worked.
So here’s the jump — They had a choice; so do we. This story isn’t just history about Israel. It still says something true to our experience in 2016. So let me leave you with three quick application points to take away —
1: We do have to choose. Modern Americans have made doubt into almost a “zen” thing, an art form. The fastest growing group in all the studies of religious preference in the West is the “Nones” — not Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa after her canonization today), not Sally Field with wings on the headpiece of her habit, “None” is shorthand for a significant and growing segment of the population, as much as 25% of Americans, who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, or who practice no particular religion. Many of that 25% have a curious fascination with doubt.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Jann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, but one part always stuck with me. The narrator says this:
I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the Garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.
Doubt and faith aren’t mutually inconsistent, not incompatible. I think doubt is irreducibly a part of the religious life. But at what point does doubt become just a choice, a “choosing not to choose?” Struggling with doubt is different from reveling in it, from making it a way of life. Choosing doesn’t mean absolute certainty, at least not for me; it means at least we are moving toward the God who calls us.
2: We don’t choose our direction just once. I quote this all the time, but in Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis said this:
[E]very time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with another creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
We don’t just choose once and we’re all set. We course correct a thousand times a day. God graciously maneuvers almost every moment of every day to where it’s a choice — another chance to move toward God. To choose love over indifference; choose obedience over rebellion; choose God over ourselves.
And the last point — 3: The choice starts right now, today. The verses right before what we read in Deuteronomy 30 today say “This commandment that I command you today . . . it’s not too hard, neither is it far off . . . It is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deut. 30.11-14)
Today, Moses says — Today, as we ready for a new program year at the Advent, as kids go back to school and we turn our calendars over to fall (thanks be to God). Today our choice begins. There are a thousand pagan gods around for us to chase after — gods of success and wealth and pleasure and self. A first step towards God is repentance for all our bad choices. Turn around, then move toward God by coming to the altar for forgiveness and communion.
As it was with Israel, so it is with us — we have before us life and good, death and evil.
Now choose life.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Go Deeper ::
Jeff Jacoby, “Our long national nightmare,” Boston Globe, 31 August 2016, p. A8.
Jann Martel, Life of Pi (New York: Harcourt, 2003), 28.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Collier, 1960): 72.
The flowers at the High Altar are given to the Glory of God and in loving memory of Nancy Hockfield LaPosta.
If you are visiting or new to the Advent, we hope that you will feel welcome and at home. Please, if you will, fill out a visitor’s/newcomer’s card so that we can keep in touch.
All persons baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit are invited to the Altar to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If you wish to receive a blessing, come to the Altar and cross your arms over your chest.
Childcare is provided for infants and toddlers during both the 9 AM and 11:15 AM Masses.
9:00 AM – Infant nursery is located on the first floor in the room beyond the Parish Office. The Toddler nursery is located downstairs in Moseley Hall.
11:15 AM – Infant and Toddlers are cared for on the first floor in the room beyond the office.
If you have questions or special needs we want to hear them. Contact Sarah Connor at 617-480-3017 or by email.
9:00 Coffee Hour. Nathan Cleveland and Ray Porter host the Coffee Hour this morning. The hosts next week will be Rob Braman & Rachel Johnson and Nancy Macmillan. New coffee hour hosts are always needed; please contact Barbara Boles by phone, 617-501-7572, or email email@example.com if you’re interested or have questions about what is entailed.
Entr’acte resumes this morning after the 9:00 am Mass. Vance Hosford will begin a two-part discussion of Anglo-Catholicism and Church Architecture. That’s in the Library at about 10:20 am. Please try not to be late.
Church School: The Advent’s Church School program is a busy and exciting environment for Christian formation for the youngest members of our parish family. Nobody is too young—we even have a class for infants and their parents!—and class offerings run all the way through high school age. Classes happen every week after the 9:00 Mass. After your child goes forward to receive communion or a blessing, all children aged 3 and up head up to class on the 3rd floor of the parish house. Children meet at the doorway to the hall leading upstairs, and they go up to their classrooms as a group. Infants and toddlers (up to age 3) go with their parents to “Beulah Land” in the All Purpose Room just off the Parish Office. Children ages 3 – 6 go up to the 3rd floor and ages 6 – 9 go to the 4th floor for Godly Play, where they’re led in song, story and play as they learn to speak the vocabulary of our church’s rich heritage. Junior High students meet in Moseley Hall to help set up coffee hour, then head up to the Frisby room for class, and High School students meet with Fr Wood. For more information or to sign your child up, contact our Church School Coordinator Sarah Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-480-3017.
Our preacher this morning is the Rev’d Phillip Channing Ellsworth, Jr. Fr Ellsworth is Associate Rector of St Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, and the former Associate Rector of St Bartholomew’s Church in New York. He is also, by the way, the father of the Advent’s own Gabriel Ellsworth. Fr Ellsworth is presently on sabbatical and will spend part of that time assisting at the Advent on Sundays and weekdays involved in all the priestly and pastoral ministries of the Parish. We are delighted to welcome him into our Parish family.
The Adventurers Culinary Adventure begins today at the Museum of Fine Arts with a lecture about world’s cuisines by Curator Laura Ziman. We’ll be leaving about 1:30 pm today by cab from the Church so all can travel safely. See Ginnie at Coffee Hour to meet up. Laura is really energetic and entertaining. It will be lots of fun.
Gift Opportunities: Very good news. To date, we have received funds to pay for the renovation of the Frisby Room upstairs in the Parish House, and a donor has stepped forward and offered to underwrite the renovation of the remarkable West Doors of the Church. A third project remains:
A new High Mass Set and Frontal for Advent. This is something we need badly. A minor emergency, one might say. Recently, our Sacristan showed me that the Advent frontal is deteriorating from the inside, and that the top panel is connected to the frontal itself by torn and rotting cloth. It is quite beyond repairing.
The High Mass vestments, which in fact do not match the present frontal, have been repaired so many times that we are not going to be able to do this much longer. Clearly, we need a new set of vestments to go with a new frontal.
And . . . we are, after all, the Church OF the Advent. We ought to have a High Mass Set and frontal which befits our title and our tradition.
So far we have had several very generous donations to this project, and there has been the promise made of other gifts. At present the cost is uncertain. We will have a better idea when there have been enough donations to know that we have ample money to begin the project and have a specific design created for the set and frontal. —Father Warren
Theology on Tap returns this Tuesday, January 12, 2016 with a visit from an old friend, Leah Libresco, whose topic will be: “Accidental Stylites?: The Benedict Option and the American Church”. Lots of people are talking about “the Benedict Option” these days—from the man who coined the phrase (Rod Dreher), to the guys at Mockingbird, to an Anglican who launched a BenOp community in London—but other folks aren’t as familiar with the idea or haven’t considered its consequences. Leah Libresco has thought about the BenOp, and she thinks it’s easy for Christians today to wind up as “accidental stylites”—living their faith in isolation, going to Church with others, but otherwise finding their spiritual life restricted to private, solitary moments. She joined us last year to promote her first book, Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer, and we’re delighted she’s agreed to come back! Come out to the Rattlesnake Bar and bring a friend (or 4) to welcome her back to Boston on January 12 at 7:00 pm.
Bible Study Begins—Wednesdays at 10 am—Parish Library—Interested in studying the Bible with others from our parish? Join Fr Wood in the Library on Wednesday mornings at 10 am as we begin a weekly informal Bible study on January 13. “Episcopalians as people of faith share a central conviction about the Bible: that God the Holy Spirit lives and breathes in these pages, and in those who seek with humility and compassion to understand such challenging, ancient texts.” (Roger Ferlo, Opening the Bible, NCTS vol. 2 (Boston: Cowley, 1997): 8.)
Annual Parish Meeting
January 24, 2016, 10:00 AM
The Nominating Committee has proposed the following persons to stand for election to the Vestry at the Annual Meeting on January 24, 2016:
Lynda Blair Jason Lewis
Dustin Henderson Virginia Pierce
Christopher Laconi Nathaniel Slater
There are four three-year terms and one year of the late Bruce Webb’s term to be filled.
Also nominated for one-year terms are:
For Clerk: For Treasurer:
Frederick Ou Adam Rutledge
Delegate to the Diocesan Convention (and the Boston Harbor Deanery) (two to be elected):
Betsy Ridge Madsen Julianne Turé
Alternate Delegates (one to be elected):
Photographs of the nominees accompanied by statements of their intention to serve will be posted in the lobby of Moseley Hall.
Nominations from the Floor of the Annual Meeting: The Vestry has adopted a process for nominations from the floor after the Nominating Committee has announced the candidates which it proposes. Any four members of the Parish can nominate a candidate by filling out and signing a nomination form that gives the name of the nominee and the office to which that person is nominated. This process does not preclude nominations at the Meeting itself; but it does permit the name of the nominee to appear in print on the ballot. The Nominating Committee may also adopt such nominees from the floor as part of its proposed slate as well. If you have any questions about this process, please speak with the Clerk (Christopher Laconi) or his predecessor (C. Thomas Brown), or call the Parish office. A statement describing qualifications for Officers and Members of the Vestry may be found at the rear of the church.
An Important Message From the Clerk:The Vestry has set the next Annual Meeting of the Parish for Sunday, January 24, 2016. At that meeting there will be elections for Vestry and for Diocesan Convention. To qualify to vote in a Parish election, you must be a baptized Christian, at least 16 years of age, who makes a regular, recorded contribution to support the Parish for the preceding year. You must also subscribe to the authority of the Parish By-Laws and the Canons of the Diocese.
Under the By-Laws of the Parish, the Clerk is responsible for maintaining the Electoral Roll. The Electoral Roll for the upcoming Annual Meeting is now posted outside the Parish Office. It consists of those who have pledged or made a similarly recorded qualifying contribution to the General Fund of the Parish during the past year. Your name must be on the Roll in order to vote. Any changes to the Roll must be made before the Parish Meeting commences. Please inspect the list and let the Clerk know if you think there is an error.
The Advent needs and values the participation of new parishioners, both in Parish life and Parish governance. If you are new, please be sure to make a pledge for 2015 so that you can vote in the January, 2016 Annual Meeting. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
In accordance with Article IV, Section 2, of the By-Laws of the Parish of the Advent, the Clerk has posted the Warrant for the Annual Meeting in the lobby of the Parish Hall, The Vestry has called the Annual Meeting for Sunday, January 24, 2016, at 10:00 am.
Christopher Laconi, Clerk
MISSION & OUTREACH
Volunteers Needed—Missions Opportunity in Dorchester—Fr Edwin Johnson (friend of the parish and a guest preacher for us last year) contacted Peter Madsen for help with a project at St Mary’s church in Dorchester. They need to rework the former fellowship hall, located below the main church, to make it suitable for a new tenant, and the first step is to insulate the windows. Peter has ordered 29 interior storm windows to be delivered in February, and the Advent donated a portion of the purchase price. The vendor’s website suggests that anyone who is handy can install them, so now we’re looking for some volunteers. If you’re interested in joining a team one Saturday this winter, please contact Fr Wood.
Welcome to the world, Alma May Ringenberg!—Baby Alma May Ringenberg was born to Rachael and Joe on the night of December 29 coming into the world at 8 pounds, 5 ounces of sweetness! The whole family is doing well, and now we want to show them some Advent loving care! If you can provide a meal to the Ringenbergs, just click http://ow.ly/WITUB to sign up for a specific day, and contact 617.823.7721 or email@example.com to schedule a delivery. If you find it difficult to deliver a meal yourself, please consider leaving food for them at the church.
Thank you for a generous 2015! Advent parishioners were more active than ever in giving to support the various campaigns our Mission & Outreach Team ran in 2015—winter clothes for One Warm Coat, items for animals at Angell Memorial, school supplies for the Epiphany School, professional clothing through Solutions at Work, baby clothes and diapers for Vincent Newborn Necessities. All our campaigns are closed for now, and the office isn’t taking any more donations, but the M&O Team want to thank you for making 2015 our most active giving season in recent memory!
Pledge Envelopes for 2016: If you made a pledge for 2016 and requested pledge envelopes, they can be found at the back of the Church on tables in alphabetical order. If you requested envelopes and cannot find them, call the Parish Office at 617-523-2377 ext 122.
ODDS & ENDS
The flowers that adorn the Church are funded entirely by donations from members and friends of the Parish. There is an opening for a flower memorial or thanksgiving for the High Altar on Sunday, January 24. If you are interested, please call Blenda Jeffry at 978-443-3519 (email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Discount Vouchers for the Boston Common Garage are available for $9.00 each from Nola Sheffer. You can find her between the 9:00 and 11:15 Masses at the Coffee Hour or Entr’acte. The vouchers can be used after 4:00 PM weekdays, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Questions? Email Nola.
Discount Vouchers for the Boston Common Garage are available for $9.00 each from Nola Sheffer. You can find her between the 9:00 and 11:15 Masses at the Coffee Hour or Entr’acte. The vouchers can be used after 4:00 pm weekdays, and all day Saturday and Sunday. Questions? email: email@example.com.
THIS WEEK AT THE ADVENT
January 11-17, 2016
Monday, January 11
1:00 pm Organ Practice
4:00 pm Beacon Hill Seminar Kickoff Reception
Tuesday, January 12 Aelred of Rievaulx
5:30 pm Community Supper
7:00 pm Theology on Tap
Wednesday, January 13 Hilary of Poitiers
6:00 pm Healing Mass
6:30 pm Parish Choir Rehearsal
7:00 pm Bell Ringing
Thursday, January 14
10:00 am Play Group
7:00 pm Advent Choir Rehearsal
Friday, January 15
10:00 am Play Group
Saturday, January 16
10:00 am Advent Choir Rehearsal
8:00 pm AA Meeting
Sunday, January 17 The Confession of St Peter
7:30 am Morning Prayer
8:00 am Low Mass
9:00 am Sung Mass
10:15 am Church School / Entr’acte
11:15 am Solemn Mass
4:30 pm Organ Recital
5:00 pm Solemn Evensong & Benediction
Designed for people of any age, in any state of health, this interactive seminar provides knowledge and resources to help in navigating today’s complex healthcare system and prepare for the future. Upon completion of the seminar, participants will be able to:
Discuss the evolution of Christian understanding of illness and mortality; explore the integration of faith with decision-making
Recognize advances in public health and medical innovations that contribute to the complexity of choices faced by patients and families
Understand the nuts-and-bolts of advance directives, living wills, MOLST forms, DNR/DNI, health care proxy forms—what does each one mean, and which are legally binding?
Each participant will receive a comprehensive, resource-rich toolkit, described as “a fabulously complete set of information about every aspect of this topic,” including practical information for caregivers.
Faculty: The Rev’d Deacon Daphne B. Noyes, with two decades as a hospital chaplain; Christine Gryglik, RN, CNS, a critical care nurse with extensive experience in major teaching hospitals and the Air Force
What our alumni/ae say
“Excellent and very valuable program…a wealth of information that I find very useful…wonderful, useful, and practical…the toolkit is a fabulous resource – informative, even inspirational…Well done, I like the faith integration…fascinating, so informative…provided much insight…Christian/medical perspectives together are important”
Every service of Christian worship is a drama – a drama in which we enact, proclaim, and, as well, participate in the mighty acts of God. That’s what we are doing this morning; that’s what we do each time the Holy Communion – the Eucharist – is celebrated. Our drama today will be a little different, for we shall stop the action at certain points to explain its significance. We are doing this so that all of us may come to a deeper understanding of our worship and its meaning and, thereby, may participate with more enthusiasm, understanding, and joy – and ultimately with greater spiritual benefit.
Right now the stage is empty. The principal actors have not yet entered – though you and I are here and we are also actors in the drama. (Remember that. Never forget it. We too, are actors in the drama. We stand. We sit. We kneel. We speak and sing. We make various gestures which allow us to participate, enter into, and be involved in the drama of the Mass.) Soon, however, the principal players will arrive. They will make their entrance in procession as we sing a hymn.
There’s more to this entrance than just getting them in where they ought to be. It’s rather like the rising of a curtain as a play begins. The curtain begins to rise and we know that suddenly we shall be carried into another world, the world created by the play. The Entrance Hymn with its procession is just like that. It’s a sign. It signals to us that here in Church we are about to be swept into another reality – another world – not the ordinary world we live in day to day – but the extraordinary world of God, our world as He created and intended it to be.
II. After Entrance Hymn. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 323 – 325; Rite II, pp. 355-357
Ever since the Resurrection of our Lord, Christians have gathered together week by week, sometimes day by day, to perform one particular action – remembering His death and receiving His life with bread and wine and prayer. Many things in the Church have changed, but this one act has remained basically the same. It has been thought so essential that Christians have often risked their lives and sometimes lost their lives just to do this thing. It has been performed in innumerable different ways from the simplest gathering with bread and wine to the most complex and ornate ceremonial. It has been known by many names: the Holy Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Essentially, however, the action is the same, and it’s not at all forcing a point to say that the observance of this act is one thing that has formed a bond of continuity over the many centuries of the Church’s existence and across the painful divisions that separate Christians. The various Churches may think differently about the Eucharist and many perform it in different ways, but most agree that it is necessary and fundamental and commanded by our Lord.
A priest cannot celebrate the Eucharist alone. The Church forbids this, for the Liturgy is not a private thing. The Eucharist is the Church’s Act, and it can only take place in a community, performed communally by a part of the whole Church. Again, it is a drama: many people participating together in one action. From earliest times it has been called the Liturgy, from leitourgia, a Greek word which roughly translated means “work,” specifically, public work, a work of the people. The Eucharist is the Church’s work par excellence. In it the Church does all those things which make the Church what it is: it hears the word of God in the Scriptures, praises God for His majesty and love, offers prayer for the necessities of life, and partakes of the Sacrament of bread and wine which the Lord has ordained. The Liturgy is the Church’s work, and in this work the Church becomes in a very real and obvious sense what it is: God’s people, the Body of Christ gathered to acknowledge His real and living presence in Word and Sacrament and to feed upon the grace and power which Christ gives us through Word and Sacrament.
If a priest occupies a prominent place in the celebration of the Liturgy, this is because the Church has singled out particular persons to be her instruments and preside in the carrying out of this particular action. This morning Father Wood is our presider, the celebrant, of the Liturgy. He performs this function in the name of our Bishop who is the normal presider at every act within his jurisdiction. We have symbolized this already by the Processional Cross which brings the principal ministers into the Church. The Cross here is said to be a sign of the Bishop. The Bishop leads his people into the Church and to the Altar where they will meet Christ.
The celebrant, then, is the Bishop’s deputy in the Liturgy and, as such, has a specific function, a particular role, in the liturgical drama. The ancient vestment which he wears, called a chasuble, indicates this role. Supporting parts in the drama are played by the Deacon and Sub-deacon, who also wear vestments which indicate their function as assisting ministers. They and others at the Altar may be conspicuous by their dress, but they are no more important than you and me in the congregation. Because . . . again . . . the Eucharist is the action of the whole Church. It is always together that the Eucharist is celebrated – by a body, by a community. The congregation’s participation in hymn, in response, in prayer is absolutely essential.
The procession has entered now. The stage, so to speak, is set and full. And we begin our work by blessing God. The ordinary world around us does not bless God. The every-day world largely ignores God. But in this other world, this extra-ordinary and essential world of the Liturgy, God is indeed blessed. This sets the tone. “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” we say, “And blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever.” We then pray to God to prepare us for what is to come. We ask Him to send His Holy Spirit into our hearts – to make our intentions pure and to enable us to praise and love Him with all our being. Afterwards we acclaim and praise Him – merciful and glorious, glorious in His mercy and love for man. Depending on the season, one or the other or sometimes both of two very ancient hymns – dating from the fourth century – follow immediately. The Kyrie eleison (from the Greek for “Lord have mercy”) or the Gloria in excelsis (from the Latin for “Glory to God in the Highest”). Both of these come from the East and have been a part of the Church’s worship from earliest times. The Kyrie has a double emphasis. It was originally a shout of praise directed towards God or even an earthly ruler. It is like the Biblical words “Alleluia” or “Hosanna”. It can be understood as the joyful cry “The Lord is merciful!” In another context it can be understood as a plea for mercy from God. The Gloria which often comes next is a wonderful and ecstatic hymn of praise to God acclaiming His splendor and His majesty in Christ. Its tone is one of jubilant celebration, so much so that during the more somber seasons of Advent and Lent we leave it out of the Liturgy – to return on the great feasts of Christmas and Easter.
The Kyrie and Gloria ended, the celebrant calls us to prayer and prays on our behalf the collect for the day. This is a short prayer which refers to the feastday we may be observing or to the lessons which will next be read. It collects together or summarizes the themes which will be the focus of the liturgy.
III. After The Epistle. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 325 – 326; Rite II, pp. 357-358
The action of the Eucharist consists of Word and Sacrament. Both are fundamental parts of the life and faith of every Christian. At this point we are engaged in the Service of the Word. We have just heard a reading from the Old Testament – those books which record the history and yearning of the Hebrew people and which look forward to Christ – and from the Epistles – letters of instruction written to members of the early Church. This first part of the Service, together with the sermon, has its origin in the worship of the ancient Jewish Synagogue. Like that it is primarily a service of teaching and instruction.
Here at The Church of the Advent and in most Churches lay people who are members of the congregation read the first two lessons. One particular reading, however, has by an early tradition always been reserved to the clergy: the solemn reading of the Gospel. Doubtless you’ve noticed that we read the Gospel lesson at Mass in a manner very different from the lessons. For instance, the singing of a hymn or a chant and a procession precede this reading. Much more solemnity, more ceremony is involved in the proclamation of the Gospel. Why is this? Again, because the structure of our Christian faith is two-fold,Word and Sacrament. This doesn’t simply describe what Christianity is from the outside, but from the inside: how it works as a religion. It means something important and profound: that we seek and find Christ’s presence in the Word and in the Sacrament. At the reading of the Gospel Christ makes Himself present to us in his Word just as surely as he was present with his disciples two thousand years ago. For this reason before and after the proclamation of the Gospel we hail and acknowledge not the reading, but Christ himself, the Word of God, who is mystically present in these words of Scripture. We stand at the reading of the Gospel and face the Book in order to be addressed and encountered by the One who comes to us in His Word. “Glory to You, Lord Christ,” we say. Because the reading or singing of the Gospel is such a special act, it is reserved for members of the ordained ministry – a priest, a bishop, or a deacon. The Gospel Book, itself a symbol of Christ, is brought in the procession to the midst of the Church to symbolize the coming of the good news of Christ to His people.
At a Solemn Eucharist, the book is censed. The use of incense is deeply rooted in the Scriptures and in the traditional practice of the Church. At this point in the service it is derived from the practice of the ancient Roman Empire in which incense was carried before important personages as a mark of their rank. And so, before the reading of the Gospel we greet our Lord, our King, with incense – a mark of the respect and homage which He deserves.
IV. After the Gospel. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 358-359; Rite II, pp. 358 – 359
The lessons have been read; the Gospel proclaimed. At this point in a normal service the sermon would be preached. Afterwards we respond to God’s Word to us in Scripture and sermon by declaring our common faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. This is an outline of belief which the Church adopted some 1600 years ago in a council at Nicaea, a town in present-day Turkey. It was chosen then to be and probably still is the best statement of what Christians believe – a summary of the meaning and hope of the Faith. In the Creed we affirm our belief in the mighty acts of God for our salvation – acts of power and love – the reason we are here today.
V. After the Creed. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 359-360,; Rite II, pp. 383-395
The Liturgy continues with prayer. Prayer, for the Church and for every Christian, is like the bloodstream and the blood. It joins everything together and it brings life. Without blood the body dies. Without prayer our faith becomes boring, sterile, and dead.
In the intercessions we present to God in prayer our own needs and necessities, and the particular needs of those close to us, family or friends, who may be sick or troubled, and the needs of the Church and the world. Then in prayer we confess our sins – those acts in our lives which have denied and stifled Christ’s working in us and have taken us away from Him.
Christ promised to the Church the power to bind and to lose, that is, the power to forgive sins in his name. The celebrant, then, on behalf of the Church pronounces over us the Absolution, a formal declaration of the forgiveness of our sins which Christ promises and gives to every Christian. And then, assured of Christ’s forgiveness, we greet one another in His name. It is sin that separates us one from another. It is sin that destroys the peace between us. In Christ our peace is restored.
VI. Before the Offertory.
In the early years of the Church’s life, if you had not yet been baptized, at this point in the Mass you would be made to leave the building. The Liturgy of the Sacrament, the second part of the Eucharist, was considered too sacred for the eyes of those who had not been initiated into the mystery of Christ’s Redemption. The unbaptized were expelled and in some places the doors to the Church were locked. It was with great seriousness and even awe that the early Christians regarded the miracle of the Mass.
The action of the Liturgy now moves from the pulpit and the lectern – the place of the Word – to the Altar – the locus of Christ’s sacramental presence, as bread and wine are brought forward in the Offertory and prepared.
We are accustomed to think of the Offertory as the Collection – the collection of our offerings of money which we return to God as stewards, in thanksgiving, for the support of His Church. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and the practice is to be encouraged! In the beginning, this was not the case. In the ancient Church money played no part in the Offertory. Rather the Offertory consisted of the gathering together and bringing to the Altar of bread and wine – bread and wine which often each person brought individually to the Church.
Bread and wine and the Offertory itself are powerful symbols. In the first place, bread and wine represent in microcosm the whole life of humanity – the life and work of men and women in the Creation, which God has entrusted to man’s care. The bread is not merely grain; the wine is not merely the juice of the grape. They are more than that. They go beyond simple nature. Rather, they are grain and grapes which have been transformed by human life and work. In the second place, we may see the Offertory as a symbol of the Christian life itself – these elements of bread and wine, like the life of the Christians, are given to up God to be received back infused and alive with the presence, and life, and grace of Christ. Members of the congregation – representatives of us all – bring forward the gifts which we shall receive back changed and transformed and which by the grace and power of Christ will transform us.
At a Solemn Eucharist incense is used at this point. Here the symbolism is very Biblical and Jewish, with its origin in the practice of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The incense represents prayer ascending to heaven. The gifts of bread and wine, those serving at the altar, and the congregation are censed to signify that all of us together are being swept up into that movement of prayer and offering which is the Eucharist.
After the Offertory. Prayer Book: Rite I, pp. 333 – 338: Rite II, pp. 361-376
This last part of the Liturgy – its climax and conclusion – stems from the last supper of Jesus with his disciples. Strangely enough, we don’t know a great deal about the particulars of this meal, which has so often been repeated. The Gospels don’t tell us much. What we can say for certain is that Jesus commanded the Church to “Do this in remembrance of Me” and that Christians have remembered his command and repeated this meal over and over throughout the centuries. Their experience has always been this: that He was present with them when they obeyed His command.
This part of the Eucharist – the Liturgy of the Sacrament – begins with the celebrant’s exhortation to “Lift up your hearts.” “Be joyful,” the priest tells us, “Sursum corda!” “Lift up your hearts.” The key to the meaning of the Prayers to follow lies in what the celebrant says next: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” for the Eucharistic Prayer is primarily a giving thanks to God for His acts of power in creation and redemption. This is, after all, just what Jesus did at that Last Supper: “He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it . . . he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them.” This same action – the giving of thanks – is the celebrant’s and also our action in the consecration of the gifts of bread and wine. For this reason we call the consecratory prayer “The Great Thanksgiving.” In fact, this strange Greek word “Eucharist” which we’ve been using means exactly that – to give thanks.
We give thanks to God first by repeating in the Sanctus the hymn which Isaiah the prophet heard sung around the throne of God – “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might.” Next, we praise the one who will soon come to us in the Sacrament of his body and blood, repeating the words of the crowd which greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” And in the prayer of consecration we give thanks to God for His mighty work in Jesus, the Christ. We pray that He will bless the gifts of bread and wine – that they may become the Body and Blood of Christ; that we, being made holy by the Spirit, may find our real food and real drink in His Body and Blood. This is the Christian sacrifice, the holy sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in which we recall thankfully the sacrifice of God in Christ. Here at The Church of the Advent the tower bell is rung at certain points during this prayer, namely at the Words of Institution: “This is my body. This is my blood.” The bells have their origin in the medieval Church. Their function was then and is now to alert us and focus our attention on the central mystery and miracle of the Liturgy – the coming of Christ to His people. The bells are rung and the celebrant lifts high the host and chalice for all to see.
In the Episcopal Church we believe that something really occurs to the bread and wine when they are consecrated by the priest and the Church. In this we are joined by the great and historic tradition of Christianity – by the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Churches, and several of the Reformed Churches. Some say that the Liturgy is only a kind of memorial: we eat bread and drink wine and remember Jesus when we do it. Certainly that’s true, but in the Anglican Communion we claim that there is more to it than that. We believe that when we gather together and give thanks over the bread and wine, Jesus Christ – as he promised – will make himself present to us, sacramentally, in the bread and wine. This is the faith of the Church. Moreover, and most important this has been the experience of the Church from the very beginning. The bread and wine become sacraments – instruments, signs effective in themselves – by which Christ Himself gives us his presence, and his power, and his life. God in Christ is always working to be near to us – to be close to us, and with us. He is, of course, continually present to us at every time and in every place, but in the Holy Communion He is as near to us as the food we eat and the wine we drink.
VIII. After the Communion. Prayer Book; Rite I, pp. 339: Rite II, pp. 365-366
We have received Christ’s Body and Blood. What else is there now to do, but again give thanks? We do so in a concluding prayer and the Liturgy ends as the celebrant blesses us and we are dismissed. We have celebrated the drama of God’s mighty acts; we have partaken of the Body and Blood of his Son; we have been swept into the extraordinary world of the Liturgy. We are dismissed to go out into the everyday world and take with us what we have received here, to spread abroad the love and power and presence of Christ. And what is our response to this? Once again – and how appropriate that these are the very last words spoken in the Mass! – “Thanks be to God.”
A Note about the term Transubstantiation
Many people equate the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist with the theory of Transubstantiation. They are, in fact, not exactly the same thing. The doctrine of the Real Presence asserts what the Church has believed, taught, and experienced since earliest times, i.e. that Christ is really and truly present to his people in the Sacrament of the Altar. Transubstantiation is one theory among the many which seek to explain how Christ is present; to articulate the mechanics, so to speak, of His presence. It was developed in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas in order to combat rather crude theories of the Eucharist that gave rise to superstition. St. Thomas’ explanation depended, as did his theology, on the philosophy and metaphysics of Aristotle.
By the time of the Reformation an intellectual reaction had taken place against St. Thomas’ thought, which had become the official teaching of the Roman Church, and also against the Aristotelianism upon which it is based. Luther and the English Reformers protested that Aquinas’ doctrine of transubstantiation per se can nowhere be found in Scripture or the early teaching of the Church. They were right; it can’t. It was, in their view, an illegitimate development which was a departure. They never, however, denied the doctrine of the Real Presence; indeed, they defended it. It was not until the second generation of the Reformation came along that this fundamental and scripturally-based doctrine was questioned and by some denied.
Even if we regard the doctrine of Transubstantiation as simply one way of explaining the gift of Christ’s Real Presence in the Mass, there is still some value in continuing to use the word. All accounts of how Christ is present – even those which the Continental and English Reformers came up with – attempt to make it clear and undoubted that a miracle is taking place in the bread and the wine. For some in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, Transubstantiation – in a metaphorical rather than metaphysical sense – remains the best term to point to this miracle – the mystery of Jesus’ Real Presence with his people, veiled in bread and wine.
Be that as it may, a good way to end this discussion is to quote verses on the matter attributed to a very clever and crafty lady, Elizabeth I.
His was the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that word doth make it,
That I believe and take it.
For many people – even many Episcopalians – the style of worship at the Church of the Advent will be unfamiliar, perhaps even rather strange. These questions and answers are intended to address some of the points that most frequently puzzle visitors and newcomers.
Where do our customs come from?
Worship at the Church of the Advent reflects our foundation in the tradition of the “Oxford Movement.” Beginning in the 1830s, several Church of England clergy, in reaction to what they perceived as the laxity and spiritual lifelessness the Church in their day, started a renewal which came to be known as the Oxford Movement (because most of them were associated with Oxford University). They advocated a restoration of the pattern of Catholic worship, devotion, and spirituality which originated in ancient times but was lost during the Reformation. The recoveries included an ornate liturgy, private confession, devotions addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and monastic orders, as well as the use of the name “Mass” for the service of the Eucharist.
Why do we call ourselves “Anglo-Catholic”?
The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word meaning “universal” and originally referred to essential beliefs held by all Christians. Over the course of history, as a result of various schisms and the consequences of the Protestant Reformation, it has come to identify Christians who hold a specific set of theological and sacramental views. Today, “Anglo-Catholic” describes the beliefs and practices of Episcopalians (Anglicans) who follow the ideas and practices born from the Oxford Movement.
Why is the worship so formal?
In addition to ceremonial recoveries, scholars of the Oxford Movement also led a rediscovery of classical Catholic theology, which included an elevated view of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in which we believe Christ to be really present to us in the sacramental bread and wine – His Body and Blood. From a Catholic viewpoint, worshipping Christ present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is an experience so profound that words become inadequate and ceremonial gestures, such as the Sign of the Cross and genuflections, serve to express some of what we cannot put into speech.
Is everyone supposed to make all these gestures?
Not unless you want to. The Sign of the Cross and other ceremonials are outward signs of reverence; expressions of deeply personal belief and practice. They are not requirements of our liturgy or “tests” for membership. If you feel comfortable with them, use them by all means. If you have questions, one of the clergy would be glad to explain these customs to you.
What are all the people at the Altar doing – why all the fancy vestments?
Our liturgy employs a number of ministers, ordained and lay, in roles that enhance our worship. The principal actors in the drama of the liturgy are the Sacred Ministers of the Mass – the Celebrant, Deacon, and Subdeacon. Their liturgical roles and distinctive vestments date back to early Church tradition. The Celebrant presides at the service and consecrates the bread and wine; the Deacon proclaims the Gospel and assists in the ministration of Communion; the Subdeacon reads the New Testament lesson and also assists at Communion. The Celebrant and Deacon are always ordained clergy; the Subdeacon is customarily a layperson who has been specially licensed and trained for this ministry. The other servers and choir play supporting roles in the action of the Mass, all of which draw the focus of attention to the liturgy of God’s Word and Sacrament. The vestments we use not only define the roles of the servers, but also express the corporate nature of our worship by minimizing individual distinctions.
Why do we use incense in the services?
The tradition of using incense in the liturgy goes back to ancient Hebrew worship, as recorded in the Psalms: “Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the incense” (Psalm 141:2). As this verse suggests, incense symbolizes the prayers of the faithful rising up to heaven as the smoke rises to the rafters. Incense also appears in the Bible in association with visions of the Divine, most notably in the book of Isaiah and the Revelation to St John. The smoke itself is associated with purification and sanctification; thus, we cense the consecrated elements of the Eucharist to show that they are set apart, and when we cense people we are not only symbolically “purifying” them but also acknowledging that they are set apart by their Baptism.
Can I receive Communion here?
All baptized Christians are welcome at our Altar. In accordance with the Canons of the Episcopal Church, any person who has been baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit may receive Communion in this Church. Please feel free to speak to one of the clergy if you have any doubts or scruples in this regard.
We hope this information deepens your understanding and enjoyment of our worship. If you have other questions about our liturgy or ministries, please speak to one of the clergy.