Friday, December 23, 2011

O Emmanuel

Note: This post is the seventh and final in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, 
the hope of the nations and their Saviour: 
Come and save us, O Lord our God. 

Everyone wants a sign, some sort of certainty that their faith is not staked upon a fantasy.

The Lord offered to give a sign to Ahaz. Ahaz was king of Judah for a time during what's known as the divided kingdom. Israel had joined forces with Aram (Syria) to attack Jerusalem. The story in 2 Kings tells us that the Lord sent Isaiah out to meet Ahaz, telling Ahaz to have courage because the Lord would protect him. Israel and Syria wanted Jerusalem for their own, but the Lord would strengthen Ahaz so he could protect it. Yet, the Lord warned Ahaz, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”

And then the Lord offered Ahaz a sign.

Ahaz refused, saying he would not put the Lord to the test. But the Lord knew that Ahaz was not speaking from a place of deep faith, but from a place of deep fear. The Lord knew that Ahaz did not refuse the sign because he trusted God, but because he was terrified of what might happen to him. (And Ahaz was already arranging an alliance with Assyria, hoping they could protect him.)

So the Lord gave Ahaz a sign anyway: Immanuel.

“Look,” the Lord said, “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Isaiah also prophesied that the country Ahaz had trusted in to help him (Assyria) would instead come and lay waste to Jerusalem. Israel would be carried off into captivity by Assyria and destroyed. Later, Judah would also be carried off into captivity by Babylon. God's people would be taken from their land and the supposedly everlasting covenant of Abraham and David would seem to be revoked.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, 
and ransom captive Israel, 
that mourns in lonely exile here 
until the Son of God appear. 

Eventually, the Persian empire came to power and Judah was returned to their homeland. They rebuilt the temple but never fully retained sovereignty over their land. For a brief period during the 2nd century BC, it appeared as though the revolt led by the Maccabees would give the Jewish people sovereignty. However, the Seleucid empire regained control. In 63 BC, Pompey captured Jerusalem for Rome, subjecting the Jews to Roman rule.

And it was into this context that Mary received news that she would give birth to the Messiah... the captivity of God's people appeared about to end.

But you need to remember the sign of Immanuel. The word literally means, “God with us.” The young woman would give birth and the child would be called “God with us.” In the context of exile and captivity, where God seems profoundly absent, this name of "God with us" becomes so very important. No longer will we feel lost. No longer will we feel as though there is always someone on our back, pressing us down. No longer will we search the skies and search the ancient texts for some sign that God is still around.

God will be with us.

God with us.

Some of the Jewish people thought the Messiah would come and give them political freedom. Instead the Messiah came and suffered alongside of them. Many thought the Messiah would return to them the power that had been stolen, instead the Messiah came and spoke up for the powerless. Many thought the Messiah would be a sign that God was for them. Instead, the Messiah was actually God with them, right alongside of them.

Now, you and I may not be in exile. We may not be in captivity. But we share the same confusion as some of the first century Jews, thinking that the kingdom is about political power or the success of our particular agenda. Who would have thought that Immanuel was actually just what it says: God with us? We will no longer be alone. We will no longer search desperately for God's presence in our life.

Look, a young woman is about to give birth. She doesn't look like the mother of a king. She's a unwed pregnant teenager, after all. But look, look so very carefully and take note. Because the child she will bear will be called Immanuel.

The child will be Emmanuel.

God will be with us.

God with us.

O Emmanuel.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

O Rex Gentium

Note: This post is the sixth in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O King of the nations, and their desire, 
the cornerstone making both one: 
Come and save the human race, 
which you fashioned from clay. 

We are all just clay, after all. We seem to do everything we can to forget that fact. We wrap ourselves in fancy clothes, strive to own nice cars and houses, to have powerful and impressive jobs—anything we can think of to hide the fact that we are just clay.

We form ourselves into ethnic groups, tribes, states, nations, so that we can point at other clay and say how much better we are than them. We go to war to protect the illusion that we're more than clay. We get offended whenever anyone even suggests we might be less than what we want to believe we are.

We want so desperately to believe we're more than clay.

O come, Desire of nations, 
bind in one the hearts of all mankind; 
bid thou our sad divisions cease, 
and be thyself our King of Peace. 

The children of Israel were God's chosen people. God pointed at them in their clay-ness and said, “I choose you.” They often thought that meant that they weren't clay, and so they got into all sorts of trouble. In actuality, though, God chose Israel to be a light to the nations, to clarify once and for all that being clay was not a bad thing... but that it was the most beautiful thing in the world. Israel was meant to display the glory of being just clay so that all nations could see their true nature. Because prophets and sages told Israel the truth: they were beloved clay.

One of my professors from Sewanee recently published a book. I haven't read it yet, it's on my bookshelf waiting for me, but I absolutely adore the title: Beloved Dust. We are all beloved dust. We are all beloved clay.

God sees us in our weakness and loves us dearly, not in spite of our weakness, but right through to the depths of our weakness. Saint Paul knew this, that's why he wrote the arguing and schismatic church in Corinth, reminding them that there was a profound treasure in their clay-ness. The treasure of being beloved of God.

God loves us in our weakness. All of the things in our lives we anxiously try to paint over, God caresses with the hand of the Potter, transforming our weakness into God's divine intention. And thus our weakness is beautiful. Nations war and rage. The Spirit whispers, “Peace. You are all beloved.”

Groups split and split, each claiming superiority over the other. The cornerstone reaches out and grasps the two bitterly divided groups and joins them. Remember, it was the stone that the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone. The builders thought it was weak and clay, but in that weakness God's glory was revealed. In that weakness, the stone has lovingly connected with the weakness of all humanity, drawing all things together into one new structure. And every stone therein is beloved of God.

War and rage no longer. Put down your need to prove yourself. Discover that you are beloved and that the Other is beloved as well. The King of all beloved clay is coming and our hearts will be bound into one.

O Rex Gentium.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O Oriens

Note: This post is the fifth in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Rising Sun, 
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: 
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

At this time of the year, it can get awfully dark. I'll get home from work at the parish and my wife will be coming home late. Sometimes she had work to do, or some shopping to catch up on, so I'll have that first hour or so home by myself. On those days I'll often go downstairs, maybe play some Halo, and then come back upstairs when Bethany gets home. It'll only be about 6:30 or so, but it's already getting dark outside.

And we'd expect that, because it can get awfully dark at this time of the year.

Those families who live on tough hourly wages, working to make Christmas happen for their families, find themselves farther and farther behind and wonder how they will make it to January 1. Others who feel the persistent absence of loved ones feel it more acutely during the holiday season. And with all the joy and happiness all around, those for whom this month is hard wind up cold, lonely and squinting to see in the dark.

Because it can get awfully dark at this time of the year.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer 
our spirits by thine advent here; 
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, 
and death's dark shadows put to flight. 

The early church usually celebrated Eucharist with the priest facing east, a position known in liturgical-speak as celebrating ad orientem. After Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal movement of the twentieth century, this position became more commonly known as “celebrating with your back to the people.” And that's unfortunate, because it was not really about the priest doing magic while the people peered around the priest's back. It was much more about the priest standing in the same direction as the people, ascending to the altar with them and for them, and celebrating Eucharist with everyone facing a transcendent God (instead of everyone gathered around and facing the priest as the center of focus).

And they called it ad orientem.

That's latin for “to the east.”

The priest would stand and face the rising sun, offering to God simple bread and wine and asking God to become present for the people in those offerings. The priest would stand and face the rising sun in defiant expectation that Jesus was coming again. There would be a certain type of coming, a certain type of advent, in Eucharist, but Eucharist was much more than that, Eucharist would stretch us, reaching forward to Christ's second coming. In the midst of a world in love with Power, the priest would stand and defiantly face East, confident that he would see Christ come again in the bread, but also knowing there was a day when Christ would come on the clouds of the East and return.

Far too often in the church we hide the darkness in our lives. We pretend it's not there, that everything is light and beautiful. But in reality, there are places of oppressive darkness that terrify us.

So we all face the priest as the priest faces us, watch the priest do the Eucharist, and smile, believing it's OK. And that's fine. There are benefits to the priest celebrating ad populum, facing the people. I'd never try single-handedly to change a parish's practice in that area.

But every now and then...

Every now and then...

Every now and then it would do us some good to stand up and face the east. To stand up in defiance of a world that thinks it is in control, to stand up in defiance of all the darkness that creeps into our lives, to stand up in defiance of all of that, face the east, and tell one another that Christ will come on the wings of dawn and spread warm light throughout the world.

Not bright garish light that will make us shrink back.

No, the Dayspring, will spread the warm light of the dawn, reaching it's tendrils out through the darkness of a fleeting night, whispering softly to our hurting hearts that everything was not as scary as it seemed.

It's OK now. The nightmare is over. The God who created us has returned and the things that frighten us must flee.

Shh, Mommy's here. Daddy's here. The mother of our souls has returned. The father of our salvation has returned. The dawn has arrived and the darkness has been forced to flee.

Face east, brothers and sisters. Stand up today and look hard at the east. Our Dayspring is about to come.

O Oriens.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O Clavis David

Note: This post is the fourth in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; 
you open and no one can shut; 
you shut and no one can open: 
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, 
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

This is not your house. You don't own the keys. You cannot close the doors God opens, neither can you open the ones God has shut. This is not your house.

And isn't this a tremendous message of grace? Because if this is not your house and it's not my house, if this really is God's house, then that means this is not their house.


The Powers. Those who stake their claim of ownership on contested land, those who trade the needy for a pair of sandals, those who trade the minority for a false unity, those who turned a cold shoulder when you walked into the room... this is not their house.


O come, thou Key of David, come, 
and open wide our heavenly home; 
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery. 

There is one key to the house of God's people and it is owned by God. It is carried by Christ. It has been passed on to the Apostles and the church that bears the lineage of the Apostles still holds those keys. But we are only stewards of the keys. They are not ours.

And the keys are certainly not theirs, it is not the Powers’ key nor the key of them that serve the Powers’ ends. They will come to the house of God and find that the locks have been changed, that the name they pasted on the mailbox is gone.

But the least of these, the voiceless, the oppressed, the small and seemingly weak will find the door opened wide. They will find that Christ has made safe the way home. The way home is now safe.

Because the keys were never theirs. They were never ours. And the door is even now about to be open. The way to salvation will be made safe for all.

O Clavis David.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Radix Jesse

Note: This post is the third in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; 
before you kings will shut their mouths, 
to you the nations will make their prayer: 
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. 

“Truth,” Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Thus Power responds to God incarnate. Of course, the power of God in Christ was difficult to see for many. Few look at the pain and suffering of the cross, point their fingers, and say, “That is power.”

But the answer to Pilate's question of truth stood before him in the abused prisoner. The glory of divine power was revealed as Christ gave completely of himself for others.

Perhaps Pilate should have shut his mouth.

O come, thou Root of Jesse's tree, 
an ensign of thy people be; 
before thee rulers silent fall; 
all peoples on thy mercy call. 

This O Antiphon describes the return of the Davidic kingship. The original son of Jesse, David, was promised a throne in perpetuity. The coming Messiah would sit on that throne, in power and great glory. And yet, instead of ascending a throne, the promised Messiah was lifted up on a tree.

What kind of a sign is that?

In the 12th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The majesty of the Davidic kingship, culminating in the reign of a Messiah lifted up on the cross, was drawing of all people together through an act of self-giving love. In Ephesians we are told, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). In Christ's ascension on the cross, we see God join human suffering, we see God experience all of the things we build up as barriers between each other. Through this self-giving love, Jesus sought to “reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

Drawing all things together in God.

As Father Tobias says, in the economy of God's salvation nothing goes to waste. Look around you, the Root of Jesse is coming. And the Root is not coming to secure our own power, but to jostle the world until we will stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters and see the image of God in them. Thus the nations pray. Thus the nations, beat down by the Powers of this world, long for justice and true friendship.

Watch, God is making everything new.

O Radix Jesse.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Adonai

Note: This post is the second in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, 
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush 
and gave him the law on Sinai: 
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. 

I grew up in a tradition that emphasized grace. Sure, there were parts of my evangelical upbringing where the importance of works would sneak in, where preachers would insist that you had to do certain things correct to be saved. However, that's not what shaped me. I was shaped by the idea that we are saved by pure and unadulterated grace, not by works, lest anyone should boast. And that gospel was the sweet milk that nourished my young Christian soul.

And I'm grateful for it.

Later in life, though, while working on my Bachelors degree in Biblical Studies, I took a class on the Minor Prophets. This “grace only” view had begun to break down before that, during the freshman Old Testament survey course taught by David. But that class on the minor prophets... it broke my theological world in two. All of the sudden I saw that grace without justice was cheap and empty.

O come, O come, great Lord of might, 
who to thy tribes on Sinai's height 
in ancient times once gave the law 
in cloud and majesty and awe. 

In the midst of giving the law, God made it clear that the law was a covenant ensuring that the people would truly practice the love of God. Thus the Torah is filled with concern for the poor and weak, those without voice in society. In Deuteronomy's retelling of the Ten Commandments, the commandment for keeping the Sabbath day is given so that the poor, the slaves and workers of society may also have rest.

Later in Deuteronomy, God declares that this law flows from God's very being. And lest you be confused about what that being was, God says, 
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. — Deuteronomy 10:17–20 

The Torah should make us look like that. Our God is not moved to action or inaction because of financial gain. The key question for universal health-care, thus, isn't how much will it cost. The key question is how does a society care for the least among them. To oppose the idea of providing health-care to every human being because of the cost is to take a bribe, to use financial gain as a reason for action/inaction on a question of justice.

God is not like that.

And our God will execute justice. Our God will look out for those in our society to whom we have given less rights, and will establish equity. Our God loves immigrants—illegal or otherwise—because our God watched the people of Israel struggle as they journeyed in search of a homeland. God has a soft spot for these folk and so cares deeply for them.

The worship I had loved, when I was younger, one that was bathed in a sense of grace, was incomplete. Because I took this class on the Minor Prophets and discovered that the prophet Amos believed the Lord despised such worship, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). I discovered in Micah that God had no patience for my offering of sacrifice if I neglected the first good, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

We need to recover the importance of the Torah. We need to recover a sense that our actions absolutely have social repercussions—and that God is profoundly interested in them. We need to recover the sense of a society which will structure itself with a sense of justice and equity, not solely concerned with what will keep the markets going up.

We need Adonai to descend once again, to burn this law onto the stones of our hearts, to surround us with the smoke and majesty of a God who is on the side of the weak and helpless. Because we seem to have forgotten. We've bought the bottle of cheap grace and ignored the more costly. But it is the more costly that will save us. It is the more costly that will change us.

O Adonai.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

O Sapientia

Note: Two years ago, around this time, I wrote a series of reflections on the "O Antiphons." They are reflective of my context at the time, as I neared the end of my time at Christ Church and was also near the end of the call process that resulted in my call to my current cure at St. John's. Last year I read them over again to myself each day. This year, I thought I might re-post them. The context has changed, but the Antiphons remain moving. And perhaps something within each of these daily reflections is still worthwhile to hear. Here is the first one, for "O Sapientia." I'll repost the rest each day as we draw closer to the awesome, terrifying, glorious, and grace-filled feast of the Nativity.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, 
reaching from one end to the other mightily, 
and sweetly ordering all things: 
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

In a day when all most people want to hear is foolishness, when talking heads on radio and television spout partisan half-truths, more concerned with attaining power than with helping the powerless... in this sort of day, I'm longing for Sapientia.

Today the “O Antiphons” enter into Evening Prayer, to be said along with the Magnificat. And the first O Antiphon, the one appointed for today is “O Sapientia.” There is one English translation above, but most of us are more familiar with the paraphrase of the antiphon used in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,”

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, 
who orderest all things mightily; 
to us the path of knowledge show, 
and teach us in her ways to go. 

And listening to the world today, the cacophony of hatred and dissonance which assaults our souls, I'm longing for Wisdom. I'm longing for Sapientia. I'm listening for sapience. As the author of Proverbs declares,
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. — Proverbs 1:20–23
Can you hear wisdom calling? Can you listen, can you pick out her strains in the cacophony of our culture?

I don't always feel like I can.

But I'm longing for it.

And in my own life, at this moment in my ministry, I'm listening. As I seek to discern God's will for my family, I'm listening. As I look at my calendar and see the end of June—the time when my tenure at this parish will end... I'm listening. I'm hoping to pick out her voice among the others. I'm longing for Wisdom.

Are you? Are you tired of scoffing? Are you sick of simplicity? Wisdom is kind and gentle, but she is also difficult and complex. She does not find satisfaction in easy answers or neat systems. She seeks to reveal the foundations of the world, she crafted the quantum physics that keep the whole cosmos balanced. She is not simple. She is that which men and women may spend their whole lives seeking, but her depths will go even further.

And yet, as God's Wisdom puts on human flesh, she will not go to the academy nor to the temple (except for the disrupting of their comfort). When God's wisdom puts on human flesh, she enters through a teenage girl giving birth in a barn and she leaves tortured, hanging on a cross near the garbage dump. She wears a beard and will touch those who you and I avoid. And she will heal our broken minds.

O Sapientia. Come.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Monday, December 5, 2011

God, of your goodness

There are several moments during the liturgy when a moment of silence is called for. Sometimes the rubrics are explicit that silence is kept. Other times, they are more permissive, indicating that silence may be kept. Regardless, there are moments, just a few, when stillness is meant to envelop the assembly.

Most people find the stillness difficult. We are a people always on the move, always going from one thing to the next. There are many parishes that rigorously schedule the allotted length for each moment in the liturgy, lest any one part go longer and the liturgy end at the wrong time. In this super-efficient approach to worship, the idea of spending a moment of a worship service in silence can seem almost indulgent.

One of the ways I ensure that I keep significant silence when I'm serving is to recite small prayers to myself. Not all the time. Sometimes the silence is meant also to involve a stillness of mind. But at other times I've found this a meaningful practice.

For example, after the priest breaks the bread, the rubrics indicate very clearly, "A period of silence is kept." Sadly, I often find this period is rushed. I don't think it is intentional. I think waiting for silence feels like an eternity when you're in charge of ending it. I think in more than a few places there is not an agreement worked out between the priest and the organist about who ends the silence and when. I just know that in my own practice I work very hard to keep that silence real, perhaps even to allow it to become pregnant with the meaning of Eucharist in that moment.

And so, to keep that silence, I say a short prayer to myself,
God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough to me. And I can ask for nothing less that is to your glory. And if I ask for anything less, I shall still be in want, for only in you have I all.
And then I repeat a few times,
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. // All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. // All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
These prayers come from a form of praying the Anglican rosary that I picked up years ago. They are drawn from the writings of Julian of Norwich, a late fourteenth century English mystic. At a period of severe illness when she was 30, she experienced a series of powerful visions of Christ. She later wrote them down and they became the source of her book, Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love

The second prayer, the one that begins "All shall be well," is probably one of her most well-known. I've understood the meaning and power of that prayer since I first heard it. But the second prayer, the one that begins, "God of your goodness," is one I don't think I had a clue about until relatively recently. Ever since my spiritual director's impacting statement, I've noticed that the "God of your goodness" prayer has become increasingly meaningful. I've been reflecting for a couple of weeks now on why that may be.

I think part of it is that desire is such a complicating thing. While we all know what it feels like to want, the act of clarifying what it is we are actually wanting is much harder. This is why psychologists and therapists are so succesul, one part of their work is to help people realize what they are actually wanting.

This is why it was so powerful to hear my director articulate that she sensed within me a deep desire for union with God. I had never thought about it like that—intellectually I had, but not in a way that actually connected the theology to the aching of my heart. It remains powerful to remember that so much of my own angst and ache and want is, in the end, part of my heart's restless desire for God.

I've discovered over this past year and a half or so that parish ministry involves an awful lot of wants, several perceived desires from various quarters interacting with one another. This is why, I think, parishes argue over the color of the carpet. Every desire in the church is spiritually caught up in an individual's desire for God. Thus, even the color of the carpet has deep meaning.

And it's helpful, it's so very helpful, to be reminded that what we all are actually wanting is something else: God. It's not that our desire for God needs to be separated from the various mundane things that make up our journey into God—even the aesthetic questions of upholstery and carpeting. It's just that we need to remember why we care so much about them. We must keep the end in mind.

Each Sunday morning, after I break the bread, I rest my hands on the altar, breathe deeply, and remind myself that this is what it's all truly about—our desire for a God who comes near in the sacraments. All the other stuff that swirls through our hearts and minds, it can cloud the reality of our actual desire: God.

And somehow the act of saying this each Sunday, in my own small prayer, is remarkably calming. In the midst of all the activity and movement surrounding Holy Eucharist, saying once again, "You are enough for me," gently challenges me. It asks me to consider whether or not that is actually true. And it reminds me that when I forget this truth, when I focus the desires of my heart on anything less, that I'm still going to be left wanting.

"For only in you have I all."