Advent II

With whom do you identify this Advent? Perhaps it’s Mary or Joseph, misunderstood and fearful of the unknown. Or one of the angels, lending your voice in adoration and gratitude. How about a shepherd, watching his flock by night, wishing for a more lucrative occupation?

You could be a traveler from a distant land, bringing your gift of a wounded heart or a preoccupied innkeeper, too busy for kindness.  I must confess I identify with the sheep that strayed, who wandered off, just before the action started.  And even as I wander, I wish I were the Christmas star, guided by instinct to the One who offers hope and joy.

We’re all these things –and more and less- but Jesus came to all of us. For each of us. And such a Love as His remains forever.

 

Feast of St. Ambrose – December 7

Today we honor Saint Ambrose and his many contributions to our faith. Known as the Father of Western Hymnody, he left a prolific number of song texts, many of them familiar to modern worshipers. He also promoted Antiphonal chant, a style in which one side of the choir answers in response to the other.

He was born c. 340 AD in Augusta Treverorum, in the Roman province of Gaul. A beautiful legend surrounds his infancy, here described: While asleep in his cradle, a swarm of bees settled on his face. Without harming the child, they deposited a single drop of honey, then flew away. His father, standing nearby, declared this a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence, a man with a “honeyed tongue.”

Ambrose followed his father’s example of public service. After studying literature, law, and rhetoric in Rome, he became the governor of Liguria and Emilia, which had headquarters in Milan. Saint Ambrose served as governor until 374 AD, at which time he was named Bishop of Milan. Neither baptized nor a theologian, Ambrose vehemently refused the office. He hid in the house of a colleague, but a letter from the Emperor Gratian convinced the friend to release Ambrose from his protection. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as Bishop of Milan. A Nicene Christian, Ambrose as Bishop was at odds with the then-popular Arian heresy. Arians did not submit to the tenants of the Nicene Creed and therefore undermined the official church.

Ambrose, however, was not rigid in smaller matters and felt that liturgy was the servant of the people and the enhancer of worship. He believed in following local liturgical custom, which prompted him to say, “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not.” Sound familiar? We introduced this doctrine into everyday life with the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The life of Saint Ambrose influenced and supported our faith. He was generous, a consoler and instrument of hope, eloquent in word and manner, and a defender of truth. He died on April 4th, 397 at the age of 57, in the city of Milan.

Among his beautiful texts we sing today are, At the Lamb’s High Feast, Before the Ending of the Day, Holy God, Thy Name We Bless and Hark! A Thrilling Voice Proclaiming.

Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra – December 6th

Nicholas was born March 15th, 270, in the city of Patara, Asia Minor, then part of the Roman Empire.  He died on December 6th, 343, at the age of 73 in Myra, Roman Empire. His family was Greek Christian and reportedly quite wealthy.  Because he lived during a turbulent time in Roman history, written records of St. Nicholas’ life are few and writings of his own were not preserved. However, the essence of this exemplary man survived, and he remains greatly loved throughout the world.

Even as a child, Nicholas was drawn to scripture and prayer. His uncle, also named Nicholas, was Bishop of Patara. He recognized the spiritual maturity and piety of his nephew, and ordained him first a reader and then priest while still a young man. He made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, and upon his return was appointed Bishop of Myra.

When his parents died, Saint Nicholas distributed his inheritance to the poor and afflicted. Many legends surround his anonymous giving, and here is one example:  A man had three daughters, and insufficient money to provide dowries, so the sisters remained unmarried.  Their father, feeling he had no choice, considered selling them into servitude.  St. Nicholas, learning of their plight, made three secret visits to their home, each time tossing a bag of gold coins through a window opening, one for each daughter’s dowry.

Other such stories exist, evidence that Saint Nicholas was both gentle and kind, a generous man with a heart for the poor. He is Patron Saint of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, and nations such as Russia and Greece.

 

Advent I

I think of Advent as a preparation for both the celebration of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and the second coming of Christ in the future.

I don’t know about you, but I find there is something a little scary about Christ’s second coming, and I’m not entirely looking forward to it. Maybe it’s because there are places in my life that I’m not letting Him be King. It occurs to me that God shows great mercy in giving us the time of Advent to prepare ourselves for both celebrating the gift of salvation in the Baby Jesus, and the second coming of Christ!

If during this preparation time, I can invite and welcome Jesus into those places in my heart that need healing, I have an opportunity for both personal help and the chance to establish His glory on earth. If I open myself up to welcome and honor Jesus in other people, (not always an easy thing to do), He has also given me a chance to bring His glory, and peace on earth. What a tremendous gift and incredible season!

I find myself meditating on the words from Christmas carols. I think of “Silent” from “Silent Night” and “O, Come Let Us Adore Him.” Instead of losing myself in the activity of the Christmas season, this year I want to celebrate and worship the reason for Christmas, Jesus. I can’t get there unless I take times of silence, and find what blocks my true worship. I think of the Christmas carol “Joy to the World”, and feel that’s what the writer means when we sing, “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

Jesus came as a baby for us, as a gift, and maybe the best thing we can do at Christmas is offer ourselves as a gift to Him, needy and pure like a newborn.

 

Feast of St. Andrew – November 30

Saint Andrew, Community of JesusSaint Andrew was a fisherman by trade, called to be an Apostle of Christ and martyred upon a cross form called crux decussate (X-shaped cross or “saltire.”)  His crucifixion took place mid to late 1st century at Patras, Achaia, Roman Empire.  The saltire, also known as Saint Andrew’s Cross, is the central figure on the flag of Scotland, of which Andrew is Patron Saint.

Andrew, whose name in Greek means manly and brave, was born in 6 BC in the village of Bethsaida along the Sea of Galilee.  A faithful and uncomplicated man, he led an extraordinary life of missionary work.  Some scholars believe that he preached along the Black Sea, as far as Kiev and on to Novgorod. Saint Andrew became Patron Saint of the Ukraine, Romania, and Russia.

In the Orthodox tradition, Believers refer to Andrew as protokletos, or First Called.  This claim is substantiated in scripture, specifically John: 40-42: Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John (The Baptist) said. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah.” Then he brought Simon to Jesus.

Matthew’s scriptural account tells a slightly different story. We read in Matthew 4:18-20 the following:  As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed him.

Whether called first or simultaneously first with his brother Peter, Saint Andrew is an example of humility.  There is little record of his interactions with Jesus and the other disciples; however, we know that it was he who told Jesus about the boy with the loaves and fishes. Andrew was also one of four disciples who approached Jesus on The Mount of Olives to inquire about signs of Jesus’ return. Neither gregarious nor impetuous like his more famous brother, Peter, he served Jesus with a quiet and sincere heart. Tradition, rooted in ancient writings praise Saint Andrew for his great love of the Cross and his Savior.

Feast Day of Christ the King

I thought it would be helpful to do a little historical research before writing about the Feast of Christ the King. I was surprised to see that it was Pope Piux X who established the feast in the 1920’s. It was first set as the day before All Saints Day, and later on moved to the last Sunday in Advent. Pope Pius was moved to establish the feast because of the tremendous turmoil in the world between nations. Setting Christ the King certainly establishes God the Father as the One we need to look to, if we are ever to settle the strife between men.

And so we still look at the larger world and see the desperate condition we are in; wars, famines, natural disasters, terrorists, drug epidemics. In one sense there is no person who is not vulnerable to the disaster and evil that surrounds us. And so we gather to celebrate, and to clear again that Christ is King; despite all cries and screams of the hurting world around us and in us. And the term “in us” I do not take lightly. Yes, the struggle, and conflict against evil does not just happen in the world around us. It is going on inside us. In the part of our nature that is lured into sin, and haunted by fears and cemented in harboring unforgiveness. And thus we need to declare for ourselves that this Christ is King over all that territory of our inner life that is not fully surrendered.

Christ is King in the big sense of Time. What he accomplished in his life among us, and through his death on the cross decided our outcome for all time. But somehow we are working it all out still in our time. We have the short view and cannot see beyond our immediate horizon. We also carry around a lot of warped ideas that take time for the Holy Spirit to straighten out and within us.

So for me, when I look at our apse and the Church of the Transfiguration, I see Jesus coming from a place of all time, Time Eternal, into our time. He is breaking into our world. And he comes with penetrating, welcoming eyes, and with outstretched arms. His intention is love. This is what I can look to as promise.

For now I am caught inbetween. This does not diminish the reality of the Truth. It just says I am very much still on the way.

 

To Be a Pilgrim

I’m grateful for the first Thanksgiving. The harvest feast prepared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621 is a testimony to our ability to set aside differences. Surviving documents that reference the meal speak of wildfowl, corn for bread or porridge, venison, wild turkeys, eels, lobster and other dried or smoked fish.  And vegetables! Turnips, carrots, onions, squash, and pumpkins for any early vegetarians. Working together, they plucked chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts from the forest.

I’m convinced the key to the holiday’s longevity is gratitude. It shines through our hearts in a moment of unity. We sit down and enjoy turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, Grandma’s green bean recipe, Mom’s candied sweet potatoes, and Aunt Nancy’s gravy from a can that fools us all with its deliciousness. Whatever traditions, including small deceptions, stories, and family photo albums that appear on this unique celebration call us together. Not every day, not every hour but for a while, we dwell in love, harmony, and safety.

We’re all pilgrims, really, searching for a sacred place of joy, on a metaphorical journey of moral and spiritual significance. We don’t always exemplify the miracle of fellowship found at the First Thanksgiving, but neither have we forgotten it.

Keeping Gratitude in Your Attitude

I’ve had a lot of doctors’ appointments lately, unusual because I’ve had a miracle life regarding health. I’m even a stranger to antibiotics. So perhaps this explains my sudden interest in Luke, a Gospel writer, and physician. I researched his background and am in the middle of reading the Gospel According to Luke. I’d like to share a discovery from his carefully written narrative.

Luke, Chapter 1, verses 5 through 24, relates the story of Zechariah. He was “of the sons of Aaron,” a Jewish priest, advanced in years and steeped in Jewish law and tradition. Upon receiving a message from the Angel Gabriel regarding the birth of a son, Zechariah replied, “How will I know that this is so?” So far, so bad. Gabriel rebukes Zechariah for his unbelief and Zechariah forfeits his ability to speak until the birth of the son he doubted. We skip to verses 26 through 38, where the Angel Gabriel visits Mary, a young devout Israelite, and announces that she will bear a son. Mary inquires, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” So far so good. Gabriel encourages her and explains the circumstances of a holy conception.

What made the difference? Two people basically ask the same question, one is reprimanded and the other comforted. Very simple. Attitude. One asks in disbelief with a touch of arrogance and skepticism, and the other in an innocent moment of confusion, without doubt, looking for clarification, not proof.

So much of what we encounter each day is molded by attitude, both our own and those with whom we interact. It can make or break us, strengthen or diminish us. Just this past week, I had a series of medical tests. The facility was modern, clean, well-organized and even provided coffee and cookies in the waiting areas. The appointment was in six steps. Step one, a conversation and some papers to fill out with a kind older woman. Step two, an examination by two young nurse-practitioners, both energetic and positive. Three, a brief wait where I ate shortbread cookies and read a magazine. Next, a rather painful diagnostic test during which I could do nothing right. I didn’t stand properly, I was accused of withholding information from my physician (not true), I didn’t tie my robe correctly, my stomach was in the way. Ouch, wait a minute. God placed my stomach there, and I’m actually thinner than a year ago. I became a human apology machine, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m really so sorry.” I left the room discouraged, worried, and chastising myself for incompetence. Step five was an additional test, administered by a technician who exemplified professionalism. I felt secure, welcomed, and unafraid. And finally, a return of the two young nurse-practitioners who, with great joy, declared all tests normal and sent me on my way.

My turn to work on attitude: fret over the one in six who seemed to dislike me, or concentrate on the five blessings, especially confirmation that all is well. My choice. I can spread joy or perpetuate the discontent I innocently encountered. I choose an attitude with gratitude.

 

No Need to Wait

Recently, a dear friend of mine passed away. The process of dying is hard work, and while I realize that no two people are the same, it does seem that there are similar “stages” to preparing for heaven.

It seems that the person reviews their life and then works on unburdening themselves of places they have harbored hurt and unforgiveness. Some of those places are in unhealed relationships with others, while some are areas where they need to forgive themselves.

There is a stage of “letting go.” Some people I’ve seen let go of worries and fears they’ve been riddled with their whole lives, and finally, find some peace realizing they can’t do anything but let God take care of them. Some have cared more about possessions than relationships with God or others, and everything gets put into perspective thinking about their immediate future. Others let go of toxic relationships because they only have the energy and time left for what God wants.

Often there is a surge of gratitude, and a need to express and share thankfulness to those with whom they are close.

If this process prepares us for heaven, would it not make sense that if we began this process now, we could bring some heaven down on earth?

 

All Saints Day – November 1

I recently saw a film about elderly D-Day soldiers returning to the beach at Normandy to honor those who fought and died alongside them in World War II. It was moving watching them share memories, tears, and gratitude for the sacrifice of their friends. “All Saints Day” is this kind of remembrance for the church.

The first Christian martyrs were honored at their gravesite on the anniversary of their death and Saints Days developed from this tradition. In those early years, I imagine there were eyewitnesses of the event, with tears, and gratitude for a faithful witness (“martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness”). Then, after the first generation, stories would have been passed down. Eusebius, in the 4th century, wrote about the heroic death of Blandina, a slave girl 200 years earlier in Gaul (now Lyons, France). Although she was described as frail, Blandina had suffered such extreme tortures in the Roman coliseum that the crowds were “astonished at her endurance.” Eusebius goes on to say: But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession; and her comfort and recreation and relief from the pain of her sufferings was in exclaiming, “I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us.”1

Today’s celebrations of All Saints Day include all Christians, martyrs, and non-martyrs, known and unknown. But it is an excellent time to remember all who have died for the faith throughout Christianity, particularly those who are persecuted and dying in parts of the world today.

1 Eusebius, Church History, Book V, #19. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250105.htm