I’m going to explain the shape of the church’s year, and I need a couple of helpers. … See? The church’s seasons make a circle. This circle represents one calendar year. But there are bigger circles too, of course – seasons that come around in our lives, and in the life of the world. Some wise folk say that time is not a circle but a spiral: we move through similar times and seasons, but we’re different each time, because there’s greater movement too; our lives, individually or as a species, are not static, flat. We change; we are different at 50 than we were at 30; we are different in 2018 than we were in 1018. And yet we’re probably less different than we think we are. There are always echoes and resonances; past, present, and future intertwine and tangle.
For a lot of us, church is probably one of the main places in our lives where we spend time with, you know, old stuff. Stories and symbols and images that are 1000, 2000, 3000 years old. Showing up here is, among other things, a vote that the old stuff still matters somehow, still speaks, still holds truth. (Believe me: There are many people who find this a very odd point of view!)
Fundamentally, of course, we’re here because we believe, or want to believe, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that the things he said and did tell the truth about God’s love for humanity. But there are Christians who spend a lot less time with all this old stuff – for whom ancient texts and traditions are much less central to their worship and practice.
It’s one of the hallmarks of the kind of Christian we are, we Anglicans, shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: we take seriously what we have received from our forebears in faith, all the way back. We expect the ancient to come alive in the present and guide us into the future. Why? Well – I think often of a study I read a couple of years ago showing that families that tell and re-tell stories of past struggle, survival, and success are more resilient in the face of difficult times in the present. Our ancestors’ perseverance encourages and strengthens us. That’s certainly one of the things we do, as a church family.
But I believe that the way our sacred past works in us is more than psychological; it’s mystical as well. Sometimes the past simply sings within us, among us. Sometimes the saints and holy ones stir up in us their courage, compassion, eloquence, endurance, humility, fury. If we believe – or want to believe – that more exists than we can see, measure, or prove, then all the “old stuff” we tend and treasure, our scriptures, songs, habits and symbols, are not just antiques but talismans, objects of power that might suddenly turn out to glow in the presence of evil, or to unlock a hidden door that advances our quest.
One of the ways we carry the past into the present and future is by naming and celebrating holy days. When we set aside a holy day, we’re saying: This is worth remembering. This is worth passing down. This week, this second week of December, is rich in holy days. Let’s look at them together.
The first one isn’t ours: Chanukkah, a Jewish festival observed from December 3 through 10, this year. But in a quirk of the lectionary, one of our texts today points towards Channukah: Baruch. The book of Baruch is part of the Apocrypha, books written later than most of the Old Testament, not long before Jesus’ time. They have sort of a “secondary Scripture” status for many Christians, but there’s lots of good stuff in there. Baruch was the assistant of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ, at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The book of Baruch claims to be the words of Baruch, writing words of rebuke and encouragement to Jews in exile in Babylon. But the book of Baruch actually dates from several centuries later. It’s possible that fragments of older texts were used; but writing texts that borrow and expand the voice of older Scripture texts was common in the centuries just before Jesus’ time, and the book of Baruch fits that pattern.
Some scholars think that Baruch was actually written around the time of the Maccabean revolt – a military revolt against foreign rule which was also a forceful movement against the encroachment of Greek culture in Judea, and for the return to the old ways of the Jewish people, both cultural and religious. Judas Maccabeus and his guerrilla forces fought back the armies of the Seleucid Empire, ritually cleansed the Great Temple and re-established traditional Jewish worship there. The festival of Chanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. (The story about the oil came along later.) The message that Baruch might have had for Jews in exile in the 6th century before Christ, would have felt urgent and relevant for Jews in Judea in the second century before Christ:
Repent! Forsake other gods! Pray for mercy! If you had walked in the way of God, says Baruch, you would be living in peace for ever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength; where there is length of days, and life, and peace.
This nameless second-century author turns to the past to find inspiration for what the present demands, writes this beautiful prophetic poetry that speaks to the people and the times, and attributes it to the long-dead Baruch. Who am I to call it a lie? Prophesy is a mystery, and time is full of tangles and echoes. Sometimes the past sings in us.
The second feast this week isn’t exactly ours, though maybe it’s becoming more so: the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Five hundred years ago, just as King Henry VIII was beginning to think about a church independent from Rome, a native Mexican farmer named Juan Deigo was working in a field outside Mexico City, a place called Tepeyac Hill, when he saw a vision of a beautiful young woman who poke to him in his native language, told him that she was the mother of the true God, and asked him to build a church there in her honor. The bishop was skeptical, but the Virgin kept appearing to Juan. Finally, thanks to miracles like the appearance of roses on Tepeyac Hill, Juan Diego’s vision was accepted as a true theophany, an encounter with the divine. Many native Mexicans became Christian because of Maria de Guadalupe – who was THEIR Mary, not a Spanish import, but God’s Mother come to them on their own soil. Over the centuries she has become a powerful symbol of Mexican faith, unity, and freedom.
Do I believe it? I wouldn’t presume to disbelieve. I put no boundaries on the One called to wrap God in flesh. And why shouldn’t a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Mary choose to transcend fifteen hundred years of history to share the grace of her presence with a poor, small-town, brown-skinned person like Juan Diego? Time is flexible, in the domain of faith, of the Divine. The past can manifest in the present, and shape and bless the future. If you’d like to honor the Virgin today, take a rose and place it at her feet sometime during our worship. We have some prayer cards there as well.
The third feast day this week is ours, though it always sneaks up on me: the feast day of St. Nicholas, a few days ago on the 6th. My strongest association with Nicholas is the cookies my mother used to make, every December. Their base was a wedge of sturdy, not-very-sweet gingerbread; the frosting of Nicholas’ read cope and mitre were colored with beet juice, because my little brother was sensitive to red dye. I loved them, as a child, but I remember friends trying them and being… nonplused. My mother’s Nicholases were more of a grownup cookie – and that fits, because Nicholas is kind of a grownup saint.
Nicholas was a bishop, in what is now part of Turkey, back in the third century – seventeen hundred years ago. He’s remembered in many stories that are, like my mother’s cookies, nourishing but not particularly sweet. In one story, three boys on a journey stop at an inn. The innkeeper robs them, kills them, chops them up, and puts them in a pickle barrel. Nicholas, stopping by the inn, discerns the boys’ plight and resurrects them.
In another story, Nicholas, walking the streets of his city by night, hears parents grieving: they are so poor they cannot afford to help their daughter marry, and she is doomed to a life of prostitution. Nicholas tosses a bag of gold coins down the smoke hole in the roof of their humble home – the ancient origin of the presents-down-the-chimney myth. And then there’s the story of the time Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, the great 3rd-century gathering of church leaders to hammer out what the church actually believed. There was a great debate with a man named Arius and his followers, who thought that Jesus was not fully one with God, not fully divine. It is said that Nicholas was so impatient with Arius’ heretical views that he slapped him – and was sent to Bishop Jail as a result.
Dead children, vulnerable women, slapping heretics – No wonder we collectively opted for Santa Claus, instead of this cranky bishop whose life and deeds were a little too gritty. But which do we really need – a supernaturally-jolly elf who engages in invasive surveillance and behavior control, and who replicates the dynamics of capitalism by bringing the best gifts to the most affluent kids? Or a saint, a man of God, who walked the poorest streets of his city, listening to the people’s cries of anguish? Who strove to help women in poverty, children touched by violence; and who stood up fiercely for his convictions? The pile of gifts we’re sending to families served by Middleton Outreach Ministry this year shows that the spirit of Nicholas is at work among us already. May that fierce and compassionate saint continue to inspire our generosity and our courage.
Time is messy for church folks. Out there the calendar marches onward, linear and one-directional: 2018 will soon give way to 2019, and 2020 after that. A revolt from 2300 years ago – a saint who served his city 1700 years ago – a mother who lived and died 2000 years ago, only to show up on a new continent 500 years ago – it’s all distant past, long dead and dusty. But here, time circles and doubles back. There are echoes, resonances, and sometimes resurrections. What has happened, what is happening, what will happen, tangle and overlap.
Which brings us to the Magnificat. Mary’s bold song of praise, rightly beloved by generations of Christians: My soul proclaims the greatness of God! My spirit rejoices in God my savior! For You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones, and have lifted up the lowly. Later we’ll sing Rory Cooney’s song based on this text, the Canticle of the Turning, which many of us have come to love in the years we’ve been singing it. In the song, the poet has made God’s actions into future events. That makes sense – since we still wait to see these things finally, fully completed.
But in the Scripture text, Mary doesn’t speak of the future. She uses the present perfect tense: God has filled, has pulled down, has sent away. The tense indicates completion, something already brought to fulfillment.
Mary wasn’t naive – nor was Luke, who offers us her words. They lived in times more violent, more broken, than ours. These faith-ancestors of ours were under no illusions that God had already fixed the world, once and for all. Yet Luke’s Mary has the audacity to say: God has acted. God’s future is present. Barbara Brown Taylor, writing about the Magnificat, says, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.” (in Home By Another Road)
What will happen is, somehow, happening now; has, somehow, already happened. Mary sings of a world in which God’s justice already reigns, in which Love has already, finally, won. That’s not the world I see, when I look around. And yet it doesn’t feel to me that Mary is wrong. It feels instead like time folding in on itself, future fulfillment overflowing the past, flooding the present. Time isn’t a line; time isn’t a circle; time is a glorious, complex, mysterious spiraling knot, in which a 2000-year old song strengthens us for the work of this moment, in which saints of old march and pray and struggle and give and sing beside us and within us.
We spend our days uneasily suspended between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept; in this puzzling difficult unsatisfying in-between time, after the first coming at Bethlehem, before the second coming in glory. That’s the energy behind the most fundamental prayer of Advent, the thing we say again and again and again in these weeks, the prayer that folds time: past, the promised babe, future, the King coming in glory, and now, the urgent holy present; the prayer that gives voice to our yearning and our hope, our disappointment and our faith: Come, Lord Jesus. O come, o come, Emmanuel, God with us. Come.