Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent: Desert

Abbey of St. Walburga
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! (Isaiah 40:3)

Year after year, we hear that Advent is the season of "already" and "not yet."  We look back and remember that Christ, Messiah and savior, has already come and is still with us.  We look forward and remember that Christ has not yet come in his promised fullness. 

The desert is Advent's not-yet.  At the beginning of Mark's gospel, which we read this Sunday, the cast is gathering in the desert region beside the Jordan within reach of Jerusalem.  John the Baptist is there, offering a baptism of repentance and a promise that one greater than he is coming.  We readers know that will be Jesus, but Jesus isn't there just yet.  

The desert where the scene unfolds is not the Saharah, nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see.  It's a tough wilderness of sand, scrub, and rock.  You wouldn't want to live there.  

But in fact you might.  Translator-commentator Robert Alter notes that at the beginning of the Genesis creation story, the earth is tohu wabohu in Hebrew.  He translates the phrase as "welter and waste." Other translations include, "without form or shape," or "without form and void" .  According to Alter, the key word here, tohu, "means 'emptiness' or 'futility, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert." In fact, the gospels refer to the desert also as "wilderness" and "wasteland."  Like the primal chaos, the desert appears to be useless barren emptiness that offers human beings no hospitality, neither  rest nor shelter nor food.  Don't we all sometimes endure desert times, when life feels empty and unproductive, of use to no one, not even ourselves?  

That is the "not-yet,"  the places in our hearts or in our lives where it seems that Christ has not yet come bearing the gift of new life he promises: "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).  We are "they"--but where is that life now?

These desert interludes are miserable.  Sometimes they are infrequent and brief, and experience has taught us that we will survive them if we can just hang on till the rains fall.  If you have ever spent time in a geographical desert, you know what magic water works: green plants, edible fruits, gorgeous flowers all appear overnight where cactus and thorn had dominated the landscape.  But sometimes our desert interludes seem to take up residence in our lives as permanent and unwelcome guests. Will they never end?

Yes, they will.  In Advent, the desert is the place of hope: stubborn, resilient, determined perseverance in the belief that the Christ who seems not yet is the Christ who has already come.  It is we who can't see him or hear him, not he who went away at the Ascension and has never come back. We sometimes call Advent "the season of hope."  That is not only true but comforting.  The Christ we imagine in Bethlehem, the Christ who walked the roads of Palestine for a few short years, the Christ who died and rose, the Christ who seemed to vanish at the Ascension is still here, whatever our experience is telling us.  "I am with you always," he promised (Matthew 28:20). We remember that during Advent when we sing, "O come, O come, Emmanuel."  Emmanuel is Jesus' "second name." It means "God-with-us." Hope and faith walk hand in hand in the conviction that, as empty as the not-yet times may seem, it's true.  

So our Advent prayer is not really that Christ will come, but that we may learn to recognize him here with us in the dark now.

Copyright 2017 Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Advent: Open the Door

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5)

When I wake up in the early morning dark, the door of my room is outlined faintly in light from the hall.  Out there are morning coffee, notes about the day on the white board on the way to the coffee pot, information about what liturgy we're celebrating today, and, of course, the rest of my community.  Out there are the good things that go a long way toward making me who I am.  (Even the coffee, my faithful companion during my first morning prayer.)

"Come," says the prophet Isaiah. In other words, we have to leave wherever we are and go somewhere else. He's inviting us to get up from whatever darkness we we might be inhabiting right now and go out there, to the house of God, from which flows the one essential light: the light of the Lord.  Without that light, we risk wandering around in the dark all day, even when kitchen lights, office lights, warehouse lights, school lights, and the plethora of holiday lights shine around us everywhere we go.  Of course, we know something Isaiah could only hope for:  the essential light is not a light bulb but Jesus Christ, "the light of the world" (John 8:12).  For us, he is the light that leads us through and beyond every dark place.  We don't always see or recognize him among all those other bright and familiar lights, of course.  God has given us a book of instructions to help us to recognize which light is which and to follow the one that will lead us even through the ultimate darkness of death.  We know it as the Bible: "Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path" (Psalm 119:105)

The path lets us go in one of two two directions, though: out and in.  The prophet does invite us to come out of wherever we are and go somewhere we aren't yet.   But the path on which the word of God sets our feet can also take us in rather than out.   We live in Christ, the Light, so we can expect to find that  light  in the depths of our life, the depths of our mind and heart.   However, "in" may be the last place we want to go to seek it. When we turn inward,  we may have to face the dark places of our own hearts.  We all have them, and we don't usually really want to go there.  But if we do, we may see, imaginatively anyway, a different door outlined in light.   And we may hear someone knocking at it, and a voice saying, "Here I am!  I stand at the door knocking!  Let me in so we can sit down together for awhile!"(see Rev 3:20).  And when we open the door, we find that Christ is indeed there, in our deepest center, flooding our interior darkness with light.  Since all the neat boxes in which we keep the things that matter tend to melt together in Christ's presence, the flood is light, love and life, all mixed together to banish the darkness, warm the cold places, and give us the energy to embrace life as it comes to us today.

Go ahead.  Take up the invitation. Dare the dark, whether it's loneliness, emptiness, fear, anger, or some other misery.  Open the door.  The Light that you meet there can be blinding. You may find yourself disoriented for a bit, but just stay put for awhile on the threshold till the eyes of your heart adjust.  Then go wherever the Light

leads you.  You might be surprised.

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Advent: Looking Forward to the Light

In these December days, the dark is encroaching more and more on daylight as the winter solstice approaches.  We turn the lights on earlier in the evening and turn them off later in the morning.  There are already homes in the neighborhood where, refusing the domination of the night, Christmas lights burn brightly, although the nativity of the Light of the World for which we are preparing is still three weeks away.

An unknown author wrote: “Christians live in the dark with their faces toward the dawn.”  So Advent is our season.  The dark surrounds us now, here in the northern hemisphere, but we know the dawn lies just ahead.  The dawn has a name: Jesus Christ.  In this odd, uncomfortable season of Advent, we live in that uneasy space between “already”—Christ our light was born in the flesh two millennia or so ago—and “not yet”—Christ’s story and ours before he comes again, as we believe he will.

When we say “we know” and “we believe” we are claiming hope as our holy ground.  Hope is the gift of this season, but it is an elusive gift. We think we have wrapped it snugly in neat definitions, decorated the packages with Advent wreaths and verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” only to find that the ribbons have come untied and hope is spilling out all over the place.  It takes on different meanings depending on where it falls and pools. 

When we attach it to beautiful Advent images like Isaiah’s mountain top meal where lions and bears and wolves share a peaceful table with lambs and calves and kid goats, we risk turning it into wishful thinking.  “That would be nice,” we muse, looking up from news headlines that make it clear that the lions, bears and wolves are still devouring lambs, calves and kid goats with no sign of ceasing. When we attach hope to fantasies of a future utopia when all the distressingly dystopian movies will turn out to be fiction after all, we drift off into daydreaming.  TV commercials imagine happy families gathering around groaning tables laden with the advertisers’ products, cooked in the advertisers’ new cookware, and served on the advertisers’ best china.  These commercial daydreams allow us to ignore the families torn apart by quarreling, the empty places at table where teenagers have slipped away to get a fix on the street corner,  the homeless woman rooting through the dumpster for grocery store throw aways, the family eating free week-old doughnuts out of a paper bag. We can all supply the real-life scenarios that punch holes in our daydream balloons and turn them into bits of dead rubber.

Hope doesn’t just wish for the light whose dawn we long for.  It doesn’t just daydream about pretty sunrises on some white sand beach.  Hope rolls up its sleeves and goes to work: it lights the candles made famous by proverb, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Hope works to quiet one family feud, at least for Christmas, to bring one carton of cans to the local food pantry, to find a few better blankets for one homeless shelter, to get one family member into rehab. Hope doesn’t talk about hope. Hope trusts that the dawn will come one day. Meanwhile, it lights another candle in the dark.

Every Sunday for the next three weeks we will light one Advent candle and put it on the Advent wreath to affirm our hope.  And on Christmas day, with our churches ablaze with candlelight, we will celebrate once again our belief that Christ, who has broken the boundaries of night, truly came one memorable night, still lives among us as the unrecognized light that burns through the darkness, and will come again in a burst of flaming glory at the end of time.  But for today, let us just light that first Advent candle. Then let’s get work. There is still a lot of darkness out there needing those candles to set hope alight in the dark corners of the night.

Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga, 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Folly of Solomon

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

1 Kings 3:4,7-12 is read this Sunday as a prelude to the story of the merchant who finds a great treasure in a field and the merchant in search of fine pearls (Matthew 13:44-52).  The biblical passages cited or quoted here are all from 1 Kings 3-10.

Solomon grieves me. 

Young though he is, he knows what the pearl is, and he knows where to get it. He doesn't have to sell anything. He doesn't even have to dig. All he has to do is ask his father David's God, the One who has set him on the throne in his turn. God told Solomon to ask for something and promised to give him what he asked. Apparently, this generous Providence was expecting the usual wish list from a young man seated on the throne of his father's achievements and already into making important political alliances: long life, victory over enemies, wealth. But Solomon surprised even God, who had seen everything and knew a thing or two about human foibles, when he made his request: "Give your servant… a listening heart to judge your people and to distinguish between good and evil. For who is able to give judgment for this vast people of yours?" (1 Kgs 3:9)

Solomon was clearly already wise. He knew his own limitations, he saw what his people needed most, and he made their good the one thing he asked for. God was pleased and gave him the whole package, both what he had asked for and what he hadn't: "I now do as you request. I give you a heart so wise and discerning that there has never been anyone like you until now, nor after you will there be anyone to equal you… In addition, I give you what you have not asked for: I give you such riches and glory that among kings there will be no one like you all your days." (1 Kings 3:12-13).  God added the promise of a long life but included an important rider:  “if you walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and commandments, as David your father did” (1 Kings 3:14). But Solomon had already stopped listening. He had all those gifts to think about.

However, his first act after receiving the gift of discernment he had requested was to demonstrate his new found wisdom in the famous episode of the two mothers who came to him to resolve a tricky situation.  They had both given birth at the same time, but one of the children had died while the other lived.  Now they were both claiming to have mothered the living child. In fact, they got into a hot argument over it right there in front of the king.  He put a stop to it by calling for a sword.  When it came, he told one of the servants to cut the baby in two and give each woman half.  One of the women said, “Ok, the child won’t be hers or mine.  Go ahead and cut it in two!”  (Good grief!  What had she been drinking?) But the other one pleaded, “No, please don’t do that.  Give her the baby.”  Solomon immediately said, “Let the baby live.  Give it to her.  She’s the mother.”  The whole kingdom was in awe, recognizing that God had given him the wisdom to judge aright. And his fame spread.  People came from all over to ask for his judgement.  Even the Queen of Sheba “came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (Matt 12:42; 1 Kings 10:1-10).

It didn’t hurt his reputation that after he had solidified his vast kingdom according to God’s promise, he set about carrying out his father David’s dream of building a great temple to house God’s presence in Jerusalem.  David had in fact stockpiled all sorts of valuable materials for the project, which God did not permit him to complete.  Solomon, as bidden, did.  The resulting “Temple of Solomon,” seven years in the building, was magnificent.  When it was done, God’s glory filled it as it had filled the old portable Tent of Meeting that had led Israel through the desert long before.  And God appeared once more to Solomon, as he had years before, saying, “I have heard the prayer of petition which you offered in my presence. I have consecrated this house which you have built and I set my name there forever; my eyes and my heart shall be there always”  But once again, God added the proviso:  “As for you, if you walk before me as David your father did, wholeheartedly and uprightly, doing all that I have commanded you, keeping my statutes and ordinances,  I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father” .  And once again Solomon seems not to have listened.

Sadly, the only person in the world known not to have consulted the wisdom of Solomon was Solomon. Instead of heeding God’s proviso, made with increasing urgency, the great king, master of all he surveyed, solidified his sovereignty among the other peoples by making political marriages on all sides, and taking well-placed concubines as well, although God’s statues and ordinances and pleas to Israel had forbidden marriage those who worshipped other gods.   God knew what would happen if they did.  And, in Solomon’s case, it happened. The author of First Kings claims that he “held them close in love,” all seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:2-3).  In fact, he loved them so much that he built places of worship for all their pagan gods.  The older he got, the more he honored them, and the more he turned away from his own God who had so richly blessed them.  Solomon clearly forgot the proviso, but God did not.  He expressed his displeasure to this king of wandering allegiance, telling him that the kingdom would be broken in two and most of it taken from his house—but, for the sake of God’s beloved David, the consequences of Solomon’s infidelity would be visited not on him, but on his son.  And it was.

Solomon held the pearl in his hand.  It had been given to him without cost and without effort on his part.  But he threw it away.  It wasn’t his great wealth or political power or status as Temple builder.  It wasn’t even his extraordinary ability to make good judgements, at least for people other than himself.  True wisdom is a deep communion with the God from whom all wisdom comes.  That’s what Solomon threw away so lightly.

Most of us will never be as wise as Solomon, but we can certainly be as foolish.  The antidote? Do what Solomon did not:  “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts!”[1]

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

[1] Psalm 95:7-8 as quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Vine and Branches

I am the Vine, you are the branches.
(John 15:5)

When I was a small child, it was customary to harness little ones when you took them outside.  When my grandmother took me to the park, on would go the harness and off we would walk.  Not being a particularly adventuresome child, I didn't mind at all.  On the contrary, as I toddles after birds I couldn't catch, or explored mushrooms my grandmother warned me not to eat, or made friends with curious dogs, I always felt safe, knowing I was connected to someone who was always there to take care of me.  (As a side note, she also taught me the names of what we met, but one day, when she pointed up at the sky as a plane flew over, she asked, "And what is that."  I am reputed to have considered it carefully and then answered, "A DC-3".  I was three years old.  But I was also an airline pilot's daughter!)

The image of the vine and the branches conjures up this memory of our walks in the park.  A branch, however small and far from maturity, is always attached to the vine, unless some malicious or careless gardener cuts it off.  The vine feeds the branch and strengthens it, but it leaves the branch free to go off exploring, seeking a patch of sunlight, shaking off an encounter with a puddle, and growing, growing, growing, but always sheltered by the older branches.

And when the vine is Jesus,  it probably also laughs with delight when the three-year old identifies correctly the model of airplane soaring overheard because to learn is also to grow.

Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga 2017

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Resurrection Step by Step

The Book of the Acts of the Apostle, our Easter reading fare at Mass this season, might well be retitled "The Book of Chaos."  It might sell better, chaos being much more a part of our daily experience than apostles are.  And it would be true.  In it, St. Luke chronicles the ups and downs of the post-Pentecost Christian communities spreading from Jerusalem to Rome.

Some of them take with them the memories of the chaos that followed upon the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb in the gospels, including Luke's.  The impression all four evangelists give is that the early disciples were plunged at first into the kind of grief everyone knows from experiences of loss, bereavement, and discouragement as all their hopes fell to pieces in the wake of the crucifixion.  Jesus certainly talked to them about rising from the dead, but they were obviously utterly unprepared for what that really meant.

How could they be prepared, really?  They had some idea of a general resurrection from the dead at the end of time, a belief that had become fairly common among some groups of Jewish believers at that time.  The Pharisees, so often painted in dark colors by the evangelists, were prime supporters of that conviction.  But vague visions of the far-distant future are a very different thing than having your very dead leader, whom some have actually seen sealed into a tomb with a great slab of rock rolled across its entrance, suddenly appear among you, talk to you, share food with you, and show you the very real wounds of the crucifixion many of the disiciples had actually not seen because they had fled.  Quite understandably, chaos reigned as people ran around telling excited stories of what they had seen or what rumors they had heard and who had said what and who believed whom, or didn't.  Anyone who has ever tried to turn all those accounts into a coherent timeline knows that can't be done because experiences differed so widely.

Amid this narrative chaos, though, there is a single strand that draws all the stories together:  Jesus' actual appearances to one person after another, one small group after another, on Easter day and for some time after that.  These meetings become pools of quiet, intense conversation with no outsiders there to cause  ructions as Jesus gradually convinces all of them that, yes, he was indeed crucified, yes, he had indeed died, and yes, he had risen from the dead and was very much alive and with them through whatever would come.  "Peace be with you," was the refrain with which he reassured them in their frazzled, frightened confusion.  And the chaos could never drown that peace.

However, at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts, Jesus is withdrawn from the disciples' sight and the Holy Spirit falls upon them and quite literally blows them out into the street to tell the whole world the good news.  The chaos begins all over again as the stories of Jesus spread beyond the small group of followers to Jews and gentiles alike, some interested, some convinced to join the disciples, some furiously antagonistic.  And in the midst of it all, the disciples themselves discover that what they know about Jesus and his teaching is challenged over and over again by new experiences:  disciples sent to do jail time and released by angels, ethnic groups fighting with one another even in the intimacy of the early Jerusalem community, leaders disagreeing over whether and how to incorporate gentiles into their tight Jewish-born community, authorities threatening death, Christians at home in Jerusalem and Galilee forced to flee to other places where Greek rather than Aramaic is the common language and not everyone welcomes them.  Issue after issue arises to require that they deepen and expand their understanding of what Jesus' message means far from a Galilean hillside or the Temple in Jerusalem, and how it is to be lived in alien settings and what it means to be an alien in the Greco-Roman world without sacrificing anything essential about their faith. Over and over again, they have to learn what it really means to be a follower of the crucified and risen Christ.

And so do we.  It would be so much easier if we could travel through Lent to an all-encompassing profession of faith at the Easter vigil and emerge, whether as new Christians or newly transformed Christians, into the simple clarity of a gospel-driven life in our times.  We might envy St. Paul, who charged up the Damascus road a fire-breathing warrior for the Law against this new Christian stuff only to find himself knocked to the ground by a great light, blinded, skewered by Christ's words, and turned into an ardent campaigner for the gospel almost overnight.  That kind of starting over on a brand new page has always appealed to me as "real" Easter conversion.  But, as my fresh Easter script gets blotted or washed out in spots when I fall on my face all over again, I realize that even for St. Paul, conversion wasn't actually instantaneous.  Faith in Christ was, but figuring out what that meant for daily life took long hard work. Paul went off to the wilds of Arabia and spent fifteen years pondering and praying before he emerged as the great apostle to the Gentiles.  And even then, with every new encounter in every new place, with every new community offering new challenges, Paul had to keep deepening his understanding of the mystery of Christ and figuring out how on earth he and others should live it.

The story of the early Church, with all its crisis, chaos and learning, teaches us that although Jesus rose from the dead very quickly, it takes us much longer to grow into the resurrection.  Deadening habits, stifling mindsets, wounded histories all require that, with prayer joining us constantly to Christ, we have to struggle day by day to find our way out of the tomb and into the new life given us through the cross.  But remember the strand that linked all the episodes of resurrection chaos in the gospels:  quiet, intense personal conversations with the risen Christ.  We would call them prayer, and we will find them in our own lives if we look.  Remember, too, that it was Christ who appeared to his followers, not they who sought him out.  So we know he is waiting here beside us for us to notice so the conversation can begin.

The most consoling words I know about this lifelong process of dying and rising comes from the Book of Lamentations, product of Jerusalem's misery in the wake of conquest and destruction:  "remembering [my state] over and over, my soul is downcast.But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! The LORD is my portion, I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him" (Lamentations 3:20-24).

Amen!  Alleluia!

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Different Hungry

The gospel of the disciples on the road to Jerusalem is read again today, the Third Sunday of Easter. Read the passage from Luke 24 by clicking here.

A new leaven is at work in the Jerusalem community of disciples.  There are rumors and counter rumors causing turmoil as word spreads that Jesus' tomb is open and the body gone.  No one knows for sure what has happened.  Some women claim to have had a vision of angels reporting that Jesus had risen from the dead, but other disciples refuse to believe it.  You can imagine the buzz!

But two disciples have no taste for the confusion, so they take off.  They've had enough of Jerusalem.  They're heading for Emmaus.

If you had stopped them and asked if they were hungry, they'd have told you you were crazy.  They were baffled, disheartened, and despairing, but hungry?  Not a chance!  They were, though.  They were hungry for hope, the hope they had had a for a new future and lost when that future died on a cross.

Jesus knew their hunger.  He always very good at spotting the hungers of the human heart.  Still is.  How often did he feed a multitude of people who came to him hungry for wonders to spice up their lives and found themselves fed instead with words that brought new life?  And when stomachs growled, they found themselves handed more bread and fish than they could eat in one sitting. Leftovers were not a daily experience for the poor who scrabbled hard for meals, but on those occasions, there were baskets full of them.  Jesus knew all their hungers, and fed them unstintingly.

So it's no surprise that he joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He knew what they ached for, and he knew it wasn't bread.  So, very patiently and at great length, he unpacked trunk loads of scripture for them, showing them what God had promised over the centuries, what God had provided, and what God would work through the Messiah, under whatever name different schools of expectation knew him.  And he showed them that it would be hard, bloody work because rewriting the whole death-doomed history of humankind would cost everything the Messiah had to give.  Literally everything.  You don't reorient a fixed path of history with a few words and a kindly look.  Not if you have to work from within the confines of humanity's hardened self-interest, break open the tomb in which the human spirit had buried itself, and break the barred gates of the dark prisons of sin and death  from inside so that all its hopeless prisoners could finally get out.   And that's what Jesus had to do.  And what he explained to those two disciples.

When day started to close down on them, they discovered that their cold, dead, hopeless hearts had already been warmed with a newly kindled fire set by his words.  But their hunger for their lost hope, for a life with meaning, for a new way to see and to be, wasn't quite satisfied, so they didn't want him to go.  They asked him in for supper at a nearby inn.  He went with them, but not to eat.  Instead, he continued to feed them, this time with bread.  And in breaking it for them, he let them see who he really was, this stranger who was no stranger.

And then, at last, they were fed.

Satisfied, he disappeared--he had other appearances yet to make on this busy Easter evening, other hungers to feed.

As his disciples always must, the two ran back to join their companions in Jerusalem and pass on what he had fed them.

I wonder if they stopped to grab the broken loaf before they went?  Maybe not.  They weren't hungry any more.   But you?  Hungry?  You know who to invite in to join you.

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga