Nose to the ground,
The light is new
on each circuit of this
foreign and familiar path.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I remember my father’s ashes falling into the earth, covered by soil, and now overgrown by ferns and moss.
I remembered him today as I pressed ashy crosses on the foreheads of about 50 people.
Fifty times I pressed my thumb into a bowl of ashes, then touched a warm forehead with my fingers as I used my thumb to trace a cross.
Said the words.
We beheld each other with these marks of our transience.
Never alone in our heart-rending silent prayers,
We approach and gather and confess together.
Return to me with all your heart, the prophet reminds us.
We are beloved.
Even as ashes.
Even as dust.
It’s always a challenge figuring out how to challenge yourself for Lent
Give something up?
Take something on?
Maybe the challenge is, it isn’t a challenge
Maybe it’s an opportunity
It is, after all, preparation for great joy
So, do something that brings you closer
To the one who created you in joy
And created you for joy
And remember, no one is in this alone
The fasting and praying and giving of alms
The Body does together
All twelve days of Christmas are now over, and now we celebrate one of the most important aspects of its meaning – not only did God become incarnate, God came for all of us. That is what Epiphany is all about.
One of the remarkable stories connected to Jesus’ birth is about strangers who were drawn to him even before his first sermon or miracle. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about a visit by Magi from afar – and it illustrates for us that right from the beginning God’s incarnation is more than even the most faithful believer expected.
Now, there’s an old joke that if the wise men had been wise women, they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable and made a casserole. They would have brought gifts more useful than gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But what is striking to me about this story is not what the Magi bring, but who they are. Now, to be sure, we don’t know much. Matthew does not tell us their names, where they were from, or even how many there were. Some translations say they were kings, but most say they were Magi – scholars, astronomers, scientists.
They have the means to bring extravagant gifts, the types of gifts you bring to a person of importance and high leadership.
And probably most important, they come from outside both the oppressed Jewish culture and the dominant Roman power structure into which Jesus was born.
These visitors come to a country not their own to honor a Messiah outside their tradition. Why was it so important that Matthew tell us this story? What does it tell us about Jesus and about our own faith today?
Prior to the arrival of the Magi, Matthew starts Jesus’ story with a genealogy that links him directly to Abraham and David. He is absolutely, definitively Jewish. His birth is the fulfillment of prophecies within one particular tradition.
These visitors are clearly not Jewish or even Roman – they are possibly Persian, Indian, Arabian. Legends have given them names - Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar – that make the point that they come from the outside and they give an important signal to those on the inside.
Mary and Joseph are in that line of faith that culminated in the birth of Jesus. They are faithful to God, to their community. They have a special role to play in the story of God coming to us, yet they are also like their forebears and their own generation. They have waited and expected the Messiah to come to them. To the people who worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and study the Hebrew scriptures. To the people who were exiled to Babylon and are oppressed by the Romans. To the people who keep the law.
What does it mean that they will share him? With outsiders?
What does it mean for us?
Our scriptures tell us that the Messiah was foretold and expected based on tradition, word, and prophecy. But God Incarnate was also revealed by creation itself. You didn’t have to hold a certain belief to know about this King. The Magi saw signs of his coming written in the stars. This is not a Messiah who will stay inside one community.
This story of the Magi at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel connects with the message at the end of the gospel. After the Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples –
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…
Well, this gospel tells us that at Jesus’ birth, the nations already came to him. Outsiders. They sought, found, and honored him.
The Magi come from outside to honor the Messiah on the inside.
The Messiah, this infant Jesus, fulfills a prophecy inside a specific religious tradition.
Yet he is recognized and honored by people from outside it.
No matter who you identify with in this story, if you recognize the Messiah you’re going to have to leave your comfort zone.
If you are like the Magi, you will seek and follow the holy wherever it takes you. You will risk being an outsider.
If you are like Mary and Joseph, you will welcome a stranger and the stranger’s gifts. You will risk redefining what it means to be inside.
The story of the Magi is a challenge to Christians today just like it was to its first audience centuries ago – are we insiders or outsiders? Most of us are both. Like the Magi, we are all seekers and strangers.Like the Holy Family we are kin.
What does it mean to share this Christ child with people whose faith experiences and expectations don’t match ours? What does it mean that the Messiah came for us as well as those who find God by a different path.
When people outside our comfort zone recognize Jesus, do we see it as a threat to our institutional religion, or welcome them as people who have given up all they have to follow? I think often, we see members of our own extended Christian family as outsiders. Maybe they baptize the wrong way. Maybe their worship is not liturgical enough, or too liturgical.
As we worship together and especially as we leave our time together at the altar, consider what it means to be an insider and an outsider. This movement from inside to outside, from outside to inside – it is one we each make all the time.
When we gather for worship, we come from our lives outside in the world to gather at the table on the inside.
We bring the successes and challenges, celebrations and brokenness here, remember the stories of God’s love for us and with us. We are fed.
The altar is where the inside and the outside meet. Where strangers and kin gather.
As a deacon these past few months, one of my regular duties has been to dismiss worshippers at the end of each weekly celebration. To send them – us – back outside.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.
When you gather at the altar, what treasure do you bring from the outside to the inside – how daring is your journey to seek the truth? When you leave, when you go outside, what will you take with you from the table?
When you are inside, whom do you welcome? Are you willing to expand your understanding of the infinite God you claim to follow? When you are outside, do you see the seeker in the faces you meet every day?
Every time you take your faith out into the world
Every time you welcome the world to your faith
It is a kind of Epiphany.
The coming of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God in the Christ Child didn’t put a bookend on a prophecy long ago. It opened up the experience of God’s love to all of us – and allows us to share it with all.
No matter how long I spent at seminary or looking at calendars and lectionaries Advent always takes me by surprise. Not the kind of surprise where I didn’t expect it…I mean, the holiday decorations have been up since 12 minutes past Halloween. The kind of surprise I feel is the mood.
Every year, I anticipate the season of anticipation – preparing for Christmas, celebrating the coming of the Christ child, being awestruck by the incarnation. And every year the first Sunday in Advent comes and what we get is…
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. (Luke 21:25)
Because Advent isn’t just anticipation of the coming that already happened in Jesus, it is also anticipating the coming again.
I don’t think it is an accident that I’ve suppressed this memory of what Advent is about. If you look around, I am clearly not the only one. More people are decorating their trees than worrying about the powers of the heavens being shaken. Those of us who are Christian are usually more focused on the manger than “people fainting from fear and foreboding.” (Luke 21: 26) As much as our faith is about that coming again, it is an intimidating concept – the visions we get from Scripture are dramatic and violent, frightening and mystical. It is much easier to anticipate Christmas because we have stories about it and we live in its aftermath. The celebrations we have built up around it are so comforting!
During Advent, most of us are looking for memories not prophecies.
And yet, here we are.
Jesus tells his disciples…”Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21: 28)
No matter how intimidating the signs, raise your heads.
Recently, I had an experience that made me think a little differently about the coming and the second coming, about Advent. Last weekend I was visiting friends in New York. We were deciding what to do with our Saturday when I mentioned I’d never been to Brooklyn. So we decided to go there – but instead of taking the subway we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge, as you may know, connects lower Manhattan (the emblem of American Capitalism) to Brooklyn (the capital of American Hipsterism) and is anchored by two enormous stone towers. The pedestrian way is crowded in both directions with walkers and cyclists. Thick cables stretch from road to tower and back again, holding the whole thing above the East River. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is like getting a snap shot of humanity – especially on a holiday weekend. There were people from all over the world on that bridge going in both directions. All ages, all genders, all beard styles. There were businesses set up along the route selling magnets, key rings, and Statue of Liberty hats – at one point on the walk you can see Lady Liberty in the distance.
At first, it is easy to get caught up in the crowd, making sure you keep pace, don’t block the bicycles. Then you start looking ahead to see if you’ve made progress – how far are you from the Manhattan side? Is Brooklyn any closer? About half way there is a frenzy of selfie taking and you really have to watch out or you’ll cause a pedestrian traffic accident!
At some point during the second half of the walk I noticed locks attached to the cables. They were all different colors so they couldn’t be “official.” Without breaking stride, I reached out to handle one. It was etched with two names and a heart. The next one was, too. These were Love Locks.
Since that trip across the bridge I’ve found out that Love Locks are a “thing.” But I didn’t know it at the time, they took me by surprise. The idea is that you attach the lock to the bridge, then throw the key into the river as a sign of your undying love for your partner. It seems like a really sweet way to proclaim your love for someone that is both unique (each lock was different) and communal (they were all locks on a bridge.)
The idea of those Love Locks stuck with me after I reached the other side of the bridge and for the rest of the day. Actually, more than a day. I’ve thought about them all week and especially as I was mulling over the lessons for the first Sunday of Advent.
I think Advent is a bit like that trip across the bridge. The journey between Christmas (the first coming) and the time when we will stand before the Son of Man (the second coming) is one we make with all of humanity. It is a spiritual journey.
And as much as we are slogging our way toward our destination, there are a lot of distractions on the path. You can worry about how the cables are holding it all up or be tempted by the tiny NY taxi toys. You can worry about how close you are to the beginning or the end. You can forget where you started and where you are going. You can get distracted by how many people are there and which ones are making your journey more difficult.
The distractions on the Brooklyn Bridge are a lot like the ones we face every day, including the days of Advent.
Jesus tells his disciples – and tells us - “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…” (Luke 21: 34)
I read a wonderful advent reflection that compares the distractions of modern life to the dissipation and drunkenness and worries Jesus warns us about. In his reflection, Randall Curtis writes,
In a world that is filled more and more every day with tempting distractions, like cell phones, tech gifts, and pop up advertisements everywhere, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to consume the newest trend…These distractions are the new “drunkenness and worries of this life,” which means that as we prepare for Christmas and God breaking into the world, we will have to make sure we look up from our phones to see it.”*
Yet, sometimes among those distractions we find reminders of why we are on that path, where the journey started and where it is headed. We see things like Love Locks – evidence that among the confusion of life there is love. Among the crowds that are blocking your way are people made in God’s image on the journey with you.
Our Advent journey will be cluttered with all kinds of distractions. Shopping lists and deadlines, family feuds and travel arrangements. Work parties, neighborhood parties, holiday dinners and special menus. Being left off invitation lists, missing those who’ve died this year.
Among all that craziness, raise your heads. Among those distractions are signs of love and reminders of our journey toward God. And God’s journey to us.
Look for the Love Locks on this path. Look for the reminders that we are on this journey because God loves us and sent his Son to us.
Look for the signs that we share God’s love with each other – those we know well and make public commitments to…and those we hardly know, but share the journey with.
On the first Sunday of Advent, along with the head-raising warning that the kingdom of God is at hand, we have this prayer from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. It’s a good reminder and summary of the meaning of oru Advent journey:
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (Thessalonians 3:10-13)
*from Living Well Through Advent 2018: practicing generosity with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, Scott Stoner
All paths and memories come from one rock
carrying our shared journey round the sun
We are each other’s mile markers
temporary reminders of a permanent Love
We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors…a statement so true it is attributed to multiple people and whole cultures. When you are the one standing on those shoulders, it can feel wobbly and perilous, as if at any moment you might come crashing down. You might be alone.
The shoulders that hold you up are autobiographical stones that make a wall of shared stories. They hold you by the feet whether you reach for the sky or hover close to the foundation.
Your fear is our fear, your triumph is our triumph, your story is our story.
And even as you grow into your story, another is standing on your shoulders, which are stronger than you will ever know.
Catching my eye with a wink
Chance taking a chance on me
Destiny a reward for diligence
A blessing doubled
Fortune for any who find this shiny penny in their path