Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas eve

2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16; Psalm 88:2-5,27,29 (LXX); Luke 1:67-79

For I have said, 'Lovingkindness will be built up forever;
In the heavens Thou wilt establish Thy faithfulness.
(Ps 88.2)

And...Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For he has visited us and accomplished redemption
for his people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David his servant...
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet in the way of peace.
(Lk 1.67-69, 77-79)

. . .

God's lovingkindness and faithfulness bear fruit; there is nothing idle about the character of our God. God's 'bottomless mercy' (as one translation has it) does not just wait for us to return, but meets us on Christmas morning. God's own joy comes to us, in tenderness and mercy, in faithfulness and love. I want to be caught up in that joy this Christmas, to be held secure in that love, which is eternal and unshakeable. And I want to know to the core of my being that Christmas means the saying is true which says:

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.
(Zeph 3.17)

So I welcome the coming of John the Baptist, not least in my own heart, to make the way for Love to come into the world, for joy divine to enliven our hearts, to light the way for those (like me) who walk in darkness, and to guide our feet in the way of peace. Indeed, He who is coming is our peace, our light, our salvation. Let Love come tenderly and mightily, and find a dwelling place in me. Let it be done to me according to His will.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thursday of the fourth week in Advent

Malachi 3:1-4,23-24; Psalm 24:4-5,8-9,10,14 (LXX); Luke 1:57-66

And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, 'What then will this child be?' For the hand of the Lord was with him. (Luke 1.64-66)

. . .

'What then will this child be?' We know, because we have heard the rest of the story: this is John, who will baptize in the river Jordan, and will proclaim the coming of the Messiah. At the time of his birth, though, the signs only point to some divine purpose. The miracle of his conception and the wonder at his naming are marks of a promise whose fulfillment cannot even be imagined yet.

Promise. Advent is about that promise, fulfilled and being fulfilled, in the fullness of God's own time. I wonder whether I do not have something to learn from my children's anticipation this Advent. Of course, for them Christmas is still tied to the presents, the imminent arrival not of the child Jesus, but of Father Christmas. Nevertheless, I have something to learn from their hope, their joyful and eager expectation that the promise of Advent will be fulfilled on Christmas morning. Would it even occur to them to doubt that their stockings will be full, that something special will be waiting for them under the tree? I think not.

Yet I doubt a promise more certain than that. Our children depend on us, imperfect as we are, to give them what they need, and to keep our promises. Hard as we try, we may not always keep every promise. But God always keeps God's promises, and this is the season we remember that, and celebrate it: 'All the promises of God find their Yes in Him' (2 Cor 1.20), that is, in Jesus. Still, it seems that Love is delayed, Hope frustrated, and Faith faltering. When will the promise of healing be fulfilled? When will the glory of God be revealed?

The people around John had to wait years to see how God's promise would come to fruition in him. And so they 'laid [these things] up in their hearts'. Some translations say that Elizabeth and Zechariah's neighbors (like Mary, later in Luke's gospel) ' their hearts' what they heard about John's birth. The treasure is not the fulfillment; the treasure is the promise. Because God is perfectly faithful, God's promise is our treasure. I pray that on Christmas morning, in the noise of tearing paper and the sound of hymns being sung, I will hear God's 'Yes', and remember again, deeply enough to carry me through the storm, that 'faithful is He who calls you, who also will do it'.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday of the fourth week of Advent

Song of Songs 2.8-14; Psalm 32.2-3, 11-12, 20-21 (LXX); Luke 1.39-45

My beloved speaks and says to me:
'Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land. (Song 2.10-12)

. . .

This passage conjures up a rich and complex set of memories and images. I cannot read it or hear it without immediately being reminded that it was the text the priest chose to preach on at our wedding. I was hopeful then that I was about to embark on my happily ever after: 'the winter is past, the rain is over and gone'. I thought we had been through a lot, we'd weathered the storm, and we were entering a time of peace and plenty. A month later, we found out that our firstborn child would have a congenital heart defect, very possibly a heart defect strongly correlated with Down Syndrome. Nothing could be established with any certainty until much later in the pregnancy, except that our baby would require heart surgery in the first few months of life. The storm was not over.

And still it rages, nearly ten years on. Storms within, and storms without. Very often, I find myself wondering with the disciples, 'Master, do you not care if we perish?' Marriage and family, far from being the heart of the 'happily ever after' I dreamt about, bring their own rain clouds and furious winds. When will the winter be over? When will the rains be over and done?

Advent comes in the midst of the storm; maybe Advent itself is not unlike the storm: it is a time of waiting in hope for what is not yet. Advent is a time in which we look for the salvation of our God, even as all creation groans with us, 'Master, do you not care if we perish?' Christmas will come, and Christmas will go, though, and I wonder whether this time singing 'Hark the herald angels sing' will cause the storm to abate. For the Great Hope may be already, in the sense that salvation has been accomplished, but I experience it these days almost exclusively as not-yet. Brokenness reigns, chaos erupts, and the harmonious order of God's good creation seems to have vanished.

Far from the winter showing signs of ending, it seems like I am living in Narnia bound by the White Witch: always winter, and never Christmas. If only this Christmas, Christ would come again, and end the winter! I suspect that it is I who am spell-bound, my inner landscape thickly covered in the snow and ice of many winters of my soul. And the spell needs breaking; winter cannot rule forever, even in my own heart. And I know I have no more power to change the season in my heart than I do to change the weather outside.

So, I ask again, 'Master, do you not care that we are perishing?'

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday of the third week of Advent

Genesis 49:2,8-10; Psalm 71:1-4,7-8,17 (LXX); Matthew 1:1-17

Give the king thy justice, O God,
and thy righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge thy people with righteousness,
and thy poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
may he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor! (Ps 71. 1-4)

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

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.*

. . .

What is the salvation that the Lord has promised to Israel? We look for it in Advent, but I wonder sometimes whether I, at least, understand rightly what it is. In the first place, I think that it is not just about us, the human beings who struggle to be in right relationship with God and one another; it is about the whole of creation, with which we likewise struggle to be in right relationship. Not only does the Messiah come to judge and to govern in righteousness and justice; the mountains and the hills participate in the coming of the kingdom. Righteousness and prosperity spring forth for God's people from the earth itself; under the government of God's anointed, 'all things' are brought into harmony with God. So it is that the sweetness of the divine life comes to flavor creation. The delight of the harmony within God extends, according to God's own desire, 'from one end to the other'. In this way, the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.

In the second place, though, this salvation does not always come in the form we anticipate. (A baby? Born in a stable? Surely not!) Somewhat mischievously, I commented yesterday evening that God is not to be trusted. Not surprisingly, I got a look which communicated something between puzzlement and disapproval. I meant it in all seriousness, though: if what we expect from the God who saves us is deliverance from suffering and protection from tragedy, we are bound for disappointment. We continue to inhabit a fallen world, and live in it as sinful creatures, sojourners in the valley of the shadow of death. We are saved in the valley of the shadow, not from it. In that valley, God's presence with us is our salvation: even in the darkness, we need fear no evil.

Often, very often indeed, I wish that salvation meant deliverance from the valley, that the light would dispel the darkness and not just shine in the darkness. But that isn't what salvation means this side of heaven. Advent reminds us that we look forward to walking in the light, in fervent hope and joyful expectation. In the meantime, we rejoice that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

* About the O antiphons, see the Catholic Encylopedia & Wikipedia articles.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wednesday of the third week in Advent

Isaiah 45:6-8,18,21-25; Psalm 84:9-14 (LXX); Luke 7:19-23

Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
by myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.
Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength:
to him shall come and be ashamed,
all who were incensed against him.
In the Lord all the offspring of Israel
shall triumph and glory. (Isaiah 45.23-25)

. . .

So says Isaiah, about the coming of the Lord's anointed, the messiah. And yet, it doesn't quiet look like what we might reasonably expect, given the prophecy. Jesus comes into the world not in glory and power, but in a stable. He is born not into the aristocracy, but to Joseph and Mary. When he begins his public ministry by attending to the poor and outcast, John is understandably (it seems to me) perplexed: 'are you the One who is to come, or do we wait for another?'

Jesus' answer suggests something about what the 'triumph and glory' the Lord brings forth in Israel; he says to John's disciples, 'Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me' (Luke 7.22-23). The 'triumph and glory' cannot be separated from the healing and peace God promises to Israel.

It seems that the dwelling of glory in the land (Ps. 84.9) involves the gentle union of justice and love, and that salvation comes mightily and yet tenderly:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
(Ps. 84.10-11)

Into that power and tenderness we are drawn, especially at Advent, as we await the One who comes in glory, heralded by angels, who is also the One who comes in Love. Into that Love we are drawn, by that Love we are healed, and to remain in that Love is the blessedness of our eternal salvation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday of the third week in Advent / St Lucy

Numbers 24.2-7, 15-17; Psalm 24.4-6, 7-9 (LXX); Matthew 21.23-27

I see him, but not now,
I behold him, but not nigh;
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth. (Numbers 24.17)

Remember, O Lord, Thy compassion and Thy lovingkindness,
For they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
or my transgressions;
According to Thy lovingkindness remember Thou me,
For Thy goodness' sake, O Lord. (Psalm 24.6-7)

. . .

The contrast between the prophecy of Balaam and the prayer of the psalmist is striking: on the one hand, destruction; on the other, forgiveness. My first instinct is to look for the theme that ties them together (for example, Christ's triumph over sin and death as the triumph over enemies foretold by Balaam); yet I hesitate to do so.

I hesitate, because I find that following Jesus and living in the world is a study in contradictions. I, myself, am a study in contradictions. The unity of the Scripture is a mystery, even as the Trinity is a mystery, the Incarnation is a mystery, and we ourselves are shrouded in mystery. To say that all these things are mystery is not, however, to throw up my hands in despair. Rather, it is a way of embracing the paradox that Advent points toward: the paradox of the Word made flesh, the light shining in the darkness. Advent is a time of hope; ideally it is a time of joyful expectation. (I say ideally because it is so easy to be distracted by the trimmings that we forget the feast we're keeping.) But expectation is not fulfillment, and so Advent must also be a time of longing, longing for the Word to become flesh in us, and longing for God to deliver us from the power of sin.

The paradox of Christian life is captured beautifully by St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein):

'To suffer and be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly to sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels, this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth'.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Gaudetes Sunday

The eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears to the deaf will hear,
the chains of the lame will be broken;
streams will flow in deserts of fear.

So goes the first line of a song we used to sing in college, based on the passage from Isaiah 35 we read today. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the poor have the good news preached to them: this is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in the ministry of Jesus. The answer to John the Baptist's question is, 'yes': Jesus is the one.

The question that confronts me this Advent is simple and straightforward. It is the question that Jesus asks the man who sits by the pool at Bethsaida: 'Do you want to be healed?' Here is the one who brings healing; the one who makes all things new is coming in power and love, bringing light and life. There can be no doubt that healing is at hand, and it is for all who seek it. The man sitting by the pool answers Jesus in a roundabout sort of way, explaining why he is still sitting there and describing the difficulties he has getting into the healing waters. I've always been this way, he seems to be saying, and the healing that some seem to find here just isn't for me.

Like the man by the pool, I hesitate. What would it mean to be healed? For him, it means a whole new way of life. Better, maybe, but nonetheless pretty scary. To be blind, and then to see? To be deaf, and then to hear? Not to be able to walk, and then to stand up and step forward? All these remarkable healings involve a total paradigm shift for the one being healed. Am I ready for that? Is anyone really ready for the amazing power and the limitless love of God that comes to us in Jesus?
Ready or not, here he comes. And that is good news--if scary news--indeed.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday of the second week in Advent

Ecclesiasticus 48.1-4, 9-12; Psalm 79. 2-3, 15-16, 18-19 (LXX); Matthew 17.10-13

O God, restore us,
And cause thy face to shine upon us,
and we will be saved.

Even the shoot which Thy right hand has planted,
And on the son whom Thou hast strengthened for Thyself.
It is burned with fire, it is cut down;
They perish at the rebuke of Thy countenance.
Let Thy hand by upon the man of Thy right hand,
Upon the son of man whom Thou didst make strong for thyself.
Then we shall not turn back from Thee;
Revive us, and we will call upon Thy name.
O Lord God of hosts, restore us,
Cause Thy face to shine upon us,
and we will be saved. (Psalm 79.3, 15-19)

. . .

This is the story of God's relationship with his people: God raises up his people, and God's people wander. Far from God, we struggle to see God's face, and we experience God's rebuke. But there is nowhere to go except back to God, who alone can revive us, who alone can restore us to light and life. Interesting that the reviving here precedes the 'call[ing] upon Thy name': we do not even have the strength to cry out to God without God's help. Truly, 'we do not know how to pray as we ought' without the Spirit of God who moves us to pray.

And it is the story of God's relationship with individuals, too, at least with this one. God calls, and I hide. God's love pursues me, and I turn away. Truly, I do not know how to pray as I ought: I pray for the wrong things, and my will is mortally corrupt. I cannot call upon the name of the Lord without the Lord's own strength, without being moved by the Spirit, without having my will broken. I cannot but ask the Lord to take this cup from me; yet I cannot insist on my own will.

I have strayed far from the text. I do not know what to say, except:

O God, restore us,
And cause thy face to shine upon us,
and we will be saved.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday of the second week in Advent

Isaiah 48.17-19; Psalm 1.1-4, 6; Matthew 11.16-19


Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:

'I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you to profit,
who leads you in the way you should go.
O that you had hearkened to my commandments!
Then your happiness would have been like a river,
and your integrity like the waves of the sea'. (Is. 48.17-18)

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (Ps. 1.1-3)

. . .

This is the most difficult of all sayings for the hardened sinner: obedience is your happiness, your integrity, and your delight. To hearken to God's law, and to turn away from the sin that has become your way of life is the way of peace and joy; true pleasure is to be found in righteousness; that is, in God alone, who makes our way righteous, our path blameless, and who teaches us the way in which we ought to walk.

This Advent, more than any other, I identify easily with those who walk in darkness. I realize that I have spent too long in the far country, preferring my own way to God's, and trusting in the world's false promises of happiness and security. I have yet to rise, however, and turn back toward the Father's house. That is why I identify with those in the darkness before, and not after, they have seen a great light.

And so I long this Advent, with a hope deeper and wilder than ever before, for the Light that is coming into the world, and to sing with faith renewed on Christmas morning:

O ye, beneath life's crushing load
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

For I know, though I cannot perceive it, that the Light shines, even in my darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Genesis 3.9-15, 20; Psalm 97.1-4 (LXX); Ephesians 1.3-6, 11-12; Luke 1.26-38

O sing to the Lord a new song
for He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm
have gotten Him victory.
The Lord has made known His victory.
He has revealed His vindication
in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God. (Ps. 97.1-4)

Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord;
let it be to me according to your word.
(Lk. 1.38)

. . .

The victory of our God appears in a most surprising way: the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, is born of the Virgin Mary.

It strikes me that there are only two things I can say about these readings, and this feast. The first is that she said 'yes' to God, and that 'yes' foreshadows the 'yes' 2 Corinthians describes. 'All the promises of God find their Yes in Him'. The second is that, inspired by the example of Mary's consent, I made her response to the angel Gabriel my morning prayer starting in June of 2009. My intention and hope was to grow in faithfulness and obedience to God, and I very often added a proviso to the prayer: ' long as that doesn't mean having another child'. Apparently God is not interested in provisos, and I am now pregnant with my fourth child.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tuesday of the second week of Advent/St Ambrose of Milan

Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 95.1-3, 10-13 (LXX); Matthew 18.12-14

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins. (Is. 40.1-2)

Then shall all the trees of the wood
sing for joy... (Ps. 95. 12b)

So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Mt. 18.14)

. . .

Advent is a season wrapped in mystery: Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. The pardon of the Lord comes in person, saying, 'so it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish'. It is a joyful mystery for a groaning creation, anxiously awaiting the revelation of the children of God, and the wiping away of every tear.

It is a mystery, of course: we celebrate the coming kingdom, in painful awareness that it is as not-yet as it is already. Henri Nouwen offers this reflection on the Father whose will is that none of these little ones should perish:

The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to 'steal' all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don't have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.
This is a real discipline. (The Return of the Prodigal Son, p. 115)

So Advent is a joyous season, but it is also a penitential season. We remember in Advent that it is right always and everywhere to give thanks to God--even the trees remind us always to praise God. Sometimes praise is a discipline, giving thanks when the news is bad, or our friends betray us, or we are sorely disappointed.

And if we do not praise God, the whole of creation will glorify the Lord, so:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all it comtains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy
Before the Lord, for He is coming...
He will judge the world in righteousness,
And the peoples in his faithfulness.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Monday of the second week of Advent/St Nicholas

Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 84.9-14 (LXX); Luke 5.17-26

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
'Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you'. (Is. 35.3-4)

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky. (Ps. 84.10-11)

'Which is easier, to say "Your sins are forgiven you" or "rise and walk"? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins'--he said to the man who had been paralyzed--'I say to you, rise, take up your bed and go home'. And immediately he rose before them, and took up that on which he lay, and went home, glorifying God. (Luke 5.23-25)

. . .

If I could add a fourth reading, a New Testament reading, to these, it would be from Hebrews 12:

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (vv. 11-13)

There is something in all of this about walking and righteousness, and peace and healing. The assumption is that our hands will be feeble and our knees weak, but that does not mean that we abandon the journey. Just the opposite: we continue the walking, making level (in the NASB translation) paths for our feet, so that the journey is one that heals rather than further disabling us.

I cannot help but connect the 'recompense' in Isaiah with the forgiveness and healing Jesus brings in Luke's gospel. God will come, and will set things right. And this is what it will look like: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. The forgiveness of God makes our way straight, makes the path for our feet level: we need not fear stumbling, not because we are strong (we're feeble!) but because it is God's mercy that cushions our fall, makes it possible for us to rise again, and walk.

In Jesus, faithfulness springs up from the earth: he is faithfulness, he is our peace, and in him God's steadfast love and righteousness come together, and come to us. This is what it looks like when the Lord comes to make things right, when all creation is restored, when our God comes to save us. In Jesus, the beloved responds in perfect fidelity to the lover, and we get caught up in that; when righteousness and peace kiss each other, we are drawn into the love that is divine and eternal, and we find ourselves hidden, safe, in the faithfulness and righteousness of the Lord.

In Advent this is what we expect God to do. All that we hear about God coming to save us finds expression in the life and ministry, the death and resurrection, of Jesus. He is the One who sets things right, the One who is our peace, in whom all things hold together. And as we yearn for the salvation of our God, we pray with the saints throughout the ages: Come, Lord Jesus!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Saturday of the first week of Advent/St John Damascene

Isaiah 30. 19-21, 23-26; Psalm 146.1-6 (LXX); Matthew 9.35-10.1, 5a, 6-8

Yea, O people in Zion who dwell at Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. And though the Lord will give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher, and your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it', when you turn to the right or turn to the left...
Moreover, the light of the moon will be as bright as the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, when the Lord binds up the hurt of his people and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow. (Is. 30.19-21, 26)

He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds. (Ps. 146.3)

And Jesus...had compassion... (Mt. 9.35-36)

. . .

The temptation for me is to read these texts as the consolation for having eaten the bread of adversity and drunk from the well of affliction, and to look for the compassion of the Lord, the healing of my wounds.

But it isn't an either/or, is it? It is a both/and. Adversity and affliction do not simply precede the appearance of the Teacher, but go with us on the way. The healing comes in the movement forward, both in Isaiah and in Matthew's gospel. The way to see the Teacher, and to hear his voice, it seems, is to be on the way, walking. Not only that, but Jesus' compassion to the crowds in Matthew's gospel results not only in his teaching and healing, but also in sending: 'You received without pay, give without pay'.

I don't trust God. Not if trusting God implies a belief that I will be spared grief, or protected from either the annoying or the tragic. I don't trust God to make me a better person. I do believe, on my better days, that I will be saved, ultimately, and that I will experience joy along the way. But I have no illusions about the country through which that way lies: sometimes it is difficult, steep terrain, hedged with thorns and lying in shadows.

I know, though, that I am not the first to walk this road, nor am I walking it alone. The saints have gone before, following in the footsteps of Jesus. And if I am to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living--where they dwell in everlasting light--this is the only way forward, and that by grace alone.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

St Francis Xavier

Isaiah 29:17-24; Psalm 26:1,4,13-14 (LXX); Matthew 9:27-31

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
yea, wait for the Lord.

. . .

This seems to be exactly what I cannot do this Advent: 'be strong, and let your heart take courage...wait for the Lord'. I hate waiting--if something needs doing, I want to do it; if it needs fixing, I want to fix it. And if it involves suffering, whether my own or that of someone I love, I want to do something about it.

Advent is a challenging season. It means waiting in joyful expectation, waiting in hope, waiting with the faith of the two blind men who believe Jesus is able and willing to heal them. And he does. I suppose I tend to be impatient and skeptical this time of year, and this year particularly so: the chances and changes of the year have worn me down, and I wonder whether anything can restore my hope and expectation. Reflecting on the amazing life and ministry of St Francis Xavier stirs my soul; the saints never fail to inspire me.

Unlike St Francis, though, I am not strong, or courageous; I am blind, and need healing as much as the two men who met Jesus on his way. I know that he is coming, I know that he can restore my vision and my hope. But will he? I believe, Lord; help my unbelief!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thursday of the first week in Advent

Isaiah 26.1-6; Psalm 118.1, 8-9, 19-21, 25-27 (117 LXX); Matthew 7.21, 24-27

Trust in the Lord forever,
for the Lord is the everlasting rock. (Is 26.4)

Give thanks the the Lord, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man. (Ps 118.1, 8)

...everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock. Rains came down, floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall; it was founded on rock. (Mt 7.24-25)

. . .

Some days it is difficult to see any connection between the readings, and some days I fail entirely. Today is not one of those days. Just the opposite: the theme of God's steadfast love and absolute and complete reliability jumps off the page.

As I write this, the snow blows past my window. Outside, all the evidence is that winter has come, and Christmas is just around the corner. Inside--not inside the house (my children are, of course, thinking of nothing else), but in my mind and heart--it is more like Narnia under the spell of the White Witch: always winter and never Christmas.

I am tempted to say that I am challenged by these readings, challenged to believe that God is a God who keeps promises, and to look ahead to Christmas in the sure knowledge that Christ has come and Christ will come again. But that's not what faith is, is it? Faith in the coming of the Lord isn't like trying to overcome fear of the dark, or pushing yourself to reach the top of the hill you're climbing. the prayer of faith is always, 'I believe; help my unbelief'.

What do I want for Christmas? my seven-year-old asks, writing all our letters to Santa for us. I want to receive again the gift of faith, and to trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord is the everlasting rock.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wednesday of the first week of Advent

Isaiah 25.6-10; Psalm 23 (22 LXX); Matthew 15.29-37

'On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast...It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation"'.

There were two things that marked the nearness of Christmas for me as a child. The first was the arrival of my grandmother, my father's mother. The day I came home from school and saw my grandparents' car was almost as good as Christmas morning. The other was, of course, the food. I don't know whether we had a rule that egg nog was not to be consumed before the first Sunday of Advent, but a hot cupful, sprinkled with nutmeg, could never be enjoyed so thoroughly without a Christmas tree to admire.

I have often wondered about the way we celebrate Christmas: what does all this food have to do with the reason for our celebration? But somehow, looking at these texts together, it makes sense. The abundance and richness of the feast we share at Christmas should remind us of the feast for which we hope in Advent.

Isaiah describes in some detail the feast that the Lord will prepare, and the psalmist repeats the theme of its abundance--in the face of the evidence. God will provide, and God will save, however unlikely it may seem at the time. And then there's Jesus, confronted with a hungry crowd and very little food: satisfaction seems unlikely indeed. Yet all 'ate, and were satisfied'.

Not only that, though. The description of the feast, and the miracle of the loaves and fishes reminds me that God is both able and willing to save, even when salvation seems impossible. Looking at my own life, past and present, I see what seem to be insurmountable obstacles not to success or happiness, but to hope. Too often, I find myself standing in the crowd, feeling hungry, or walking in the shadows, feeling afraid. I forget the invitation to the Lord's table, I forget that I taste the feast Isaiah describes, every time I receive the Lord's body and blood.

I hope that this year, when I delight in chestnut stuffing and Christmas cake, I will remember the Lord who came, and gave himself to save us, and believe more deeply that he will come again in glory.

Monday, November 29, 2010

St Andrew, Apostle

Romans 10.9-18; Psalm 19.8-11 (18 LXX); Matthew 4.18-22

I admit that the first thing that struck me about the Mass readings was that the selection from Psalm 19 doesn't include the verse Paul quotes in the passage from Romans 10. I puzzled over it a bit, especially because the readings attest beautifully (if you read the whole Psalm) to the inclusiveness of the good news Jesus brings: the word goes out to all the earth, and all those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. (I never did come to any conclusion about why those particular verses from the psalm are included in today's reading.)

I wonder whether there isn't something about the nets Peter and Andrew left behind that attests to the unimaginable breadth and depth of God's loving will, God's intention to save us. Usually, when I think about this story, I focus on the shift from catching fish to catching people. But looking at it in the context of the psalm and the reading from Romans, I find my attention drawn to the tools of the trade. In their new occupation, Andrew and Peter have to learn to cast a different kind of net, the gospel message Paul describes in Romans 10. And that net reaches to the ends of the earth.

But that's not the only thing about the gospel reading that changes for me as I look at it from a different angle: reading it on St Andrew's day reminds me how prone I am to seeing the task of being a 'fisher of people' as a task for St Peter and St Paul. Theirs is the place in the spotlight, theirs the gifts of preaching and leading others to faith in Christ. Teaching in a theological college, I find myself surrounded by those possessed of just such gifts, and many who are in the process of developing them--and I am quite happy to stay behind the lectern. In Matthew's gospel, though, Jesus isn't just talking to Peter. He's talking to Andrew as well. It isn't just the good news of salvation that reaches the ends of the earth: the call to be disciples after the example of Jesus' first disciples is for all Christians.

And why not? After all, the shepherds themselves teach us that the news of Jesus' coming is not to be kept quiet: 'they made known' what they had heard. I tend to think of discipleship primarily as following, but I wonder if maybe, just maybe, I might be missing a crucial element, if I fail to point to the master, and invite others to come and see.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Monday of the first week of Advent

The words the centurion says to Jesus are perhaps too familiar. 'I am not worthy to receive you', he says, and we repeat them in the Mass. I tend to think of these words as a statement about me, when in the context of the gospel, they form part of a declaration of faith in Jesus. The centurion's unworthiness is not the point. His belief that Jesus can and will heal his servant is the astounding thing about him.

And yet the words perhaps ought to sound different in Advent. In the early church, one of the questions that skeptics asked about Christianity was whether it was fitting for God to become human. The transcendent God, so the objection ran, would not (should not) have become so intimately involved in the messy, material world of human bodies and emotions. To be born, to experience human need, to die--all these were thought somehow beneath God. But theologians in the first centuries of Christianity were emphatic: that is exactly what God did, without sacrificing transcendence or dignity. On the contrary, by taking flesh and dwelling among us the Word made possible our participation in the divine life. Our worthiness or unworthiness is not the point: in Advent we look forward to receiving Christ, knowing that as we receive Christ, God receives us.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord', Isaiah invites us. But I, at least, am weary. The year has worn me down, and the thought of a journey, especially an uphill climb, seems daunting. Projects and plans for the year remain unfinished, and time seems to be running out. I carry burdens collected in seasons past, now become a heavy load.

How can I possibly 'go up to the mountain of the Lord'? The exhortation of St Paul and the message--'watch!'--of the Gospel fail to move me.

But two things I remember. The first is that Isaiah's message doesn't end here. Inside my engagement ring is inscribed my husband's favorite verse: Isaiah 40.31. If Advent is a time of watching, it is also a time of waiting, waiting on the Lord. Fortunately the strength for this journey is not my strength. The second is that going up to the mountain of the Lord means returning joyfully, with the people of God. Advent is not a solo expedition; I neither watch nor wait alone. The invitation Isaiah issues is an invitation to join the community and to expect to receive the strength I need for the journey.