Full Circle

Today is the second and last time this century that Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation fall on the same day. Historically, though, they’re linked. In the earliest centuries of the Church, the death and resurrection of Christ were observed, but Christ’s birth was not. However, the symbolic value of placing Christ’s conception – the Feast of the Annunciation – on the same calendar date as the day he died is actually where the date of Christmas came from: nine months after the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” Jesus was born.

God Incarnate sojourned with us, moving through the entire mortal circle of life, from conception to death. For us, that’s all there is. No immortality, no rebirth. The natural cycle for the whole created order was fulfilled by Christ on Good Friday.

An early Christian hymn declares Christ to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We know the story, how Easter changes everything. But this language, “image of God” and “all creation” also suggests, first, that the life of Christ is not a closed circle, and further, that it has cosmic significance.

I certainly would not be the first person to map Holy Week onto the week of creation in the Genesis myth (“myth” here meaning a story with deep layers of truth beyond a literal reading). Good Friday, being the sixth day of the week…oh, dear. That’s the day God made humans in God’s image. And the day God Incarnate dies. But it’s also the day God Incarnate is conceived. So the whole mortal human life of God begins and ends with God creating human beings. That makes sense.

The seventh day, God rested.

In Holy Week, that is the full 24-hour period in which the human God is dead. In our tradition, though, he descends into hell to free all the souls imprisoned there. Well, he’s still the guy who stirred up trouble healing people on the Sabbath. Yes, Christ is indeed “the same yesterday, today, and forever!”

This mapping was not lost on early Christians, who saw that the week could not just turn over into another week as we’re used to them doing. Once God has been conceived in the Virgin’s womb, has been born, has lived a human life, and has died a human death, something new has to happen.

The Resurrection, we’re told in the Gospels, happened early on the first day of the week. But just as Christ’s conception and death can be mapped onto each other, so can the first day and the eighth day.

The eighth day is the day of resurrection – the new creation, in which, in the hypostatic union of Christ (fully God and fully human), God creates something new: a completely new way of being human. We’re baptized into that new way of being when we’re baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s why so many baptismal fonts – or their bases, or the platform/steps they’re on – are octagonal.

That adds another layer: Christ’s death on Good Friday is a new kind of conception (as if a virgin conceiving weren’t enough!). In his death, Christ’s human body becomes the seed that must fall to the earth so that a different kind of life can bloom.

 

I feel a little bad that I’m only getting to this now, near the eleventh hour (literally) when the fruitful* coincidence is almost over. It’s been a long day, in a busy week with so little time to think. And now with all those circles and cycles interlacing and intertwining, I fear I’ve made myself dizzy! But I did not want to let this day pass without remark.

 

*And, yes, that’s a pun. The coincidence of today’s fast and feast is pregnant, we might say, with meaning. Just like the Blessed Virgin is beginning this day on one arc of the circle.

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Merry Christmas! God is with us!

Gaudete! Christus natus est! Alleluia!

Tonight God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled.

Nativity reredos painting edited

Detail of reredos in Nativity Chapel, the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit. Photo by the author, who is not too proud to admit this.

I love this gaudily-colored painting from the reredos of one of the side-chapels in my church. Christ is born, and everybody, human and otherwise, has shown up to celebrate! I’m reminded of a phrase from the requiem Mass (quoting from the Psalms): Ad te omnis caro veniet—“To you all flesh shall come.” As many Christmas carols—and the Bible itself—remind us, it’s not inappropriate for the mind to turn to death on this holy night. Christ’s death was inscribed into his birth:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’  Luke 2.34-35

And yet, isn’t that true of us, too?

In becoming human, God the Son destined himself to die. This is no surprise if you take the Incarnation seriously: all living creatures eventually die. Through his death, however, Christ made his divine eternal life available to all flesh. No surprise, then, that “to you all flesh shall come!”

His birth, life, death, and resurrection, however, were not a “plan B” contingency for human sin, but rather the very purpose of creation: by doing the impossible and becoming a creature, the Creator, having loved creation out into existence has loved it back to Godself. St. Ireneus put it this way:

“…it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”

Human DNA is now in the Godhead. That is the radical truth of Christmas. Tonight (paraphrasing Ireneus), God became human so that humans may become divine.

All flesh is involved, too, because all flesh is related. By uniting creatureliness and uncreated Creator in his Person, Christ saves a cosmos that, of its own power, would tend toward extinction. Think of it as a rescue or a salvage operation; either way, creation was not meant to be disposable.

“You hate nothing you have made…” – BCP Collect for Ash Wednesday

It’s a miracle that anything other than God should exist at all. It’s a far greater miracle that God should enter creation. Again, this is no contingency plan. It was the point all along. God made us because God wanted to be with us, and God is with us, forever, in Christ.

Merry Christmas.

“O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the
brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known
the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him
perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he
lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.”
– BCP Collect for Christmas

Lift Every Voice for Charleston

I have a friend who believes the correct response to whatever befalls a community of faith is: “What, then, shall we sing?”

This morning in church, many of us throughout the United States joined in solidarity with the congregation at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC by singing the great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (#599 in The Hymnal 1982 if you’re Episcopalian like me; the text is by James Weldon Johnson and can be read at poets.org).

I love that hymn. Being a Detroiter, I know it by heart. But it was particularly difficult to sing today:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

I don’t know about heaven, but earth does not yet know the tune, much less the harmonies. We have work to do. So the triumphant-sounding words in the hymn, which sprang so easily from the tongue in 2009 when our nation elected its first Black president, felt a little flat today.

We were gathered as community to celebrate: that’s the term we use when speaking of the Eucharist. It’s a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we celebrate it. Our story, as people of the Christian faith, looks death squarely in the eyes and takes it on, in the “sure and certain hope of resurrection.” On any given Sunday, that resurrection faith is easy to sing. But this week, we were made keenly aware that we are still, in the words of the hymn, “treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” It was difficult to sing.

Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“No,” I wanted to reply. The hymn refers, in past tense, to “the day when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet it feels like we’re living in such a time.

Reflecting on the contradictions we were singing, I recalled the words of Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ’em hope.” Biblical scholars often encourage us to interrogate the text of Scripture by asking, “Where’s the good news?” It’s a question we should also ask while looking out at the world trying to find what the Spirit is doing, and another way to word it is, “Where’s the hope?” Today’s hymn, I think, is actually quite useful in training our vision to see hope where it seems to be absent.

There’s no denying that, even though we keep retreading the same stony road, we are “already and not yet” in a place for which our ancestors hoped. Ground really has been gained, no matter how much journeying still needs to be done. Today’s triumphant-sounding hymn carries that sense of the “already-and-not-yet” by proclaiming a bright future even while acknowledging a “gloomy past.” That in-between stretch of road that spans from hopeless past to future promise continues to be watered with tears but also continues to point us toward the consummation of our hope.

Wisely, the hymn does not end on either a mournful or a celebratory note, but with a prayer, reminding us that our hope lies in praying these words and striving to live them out, together:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Perhaps the rhetorical-sounding questions earlier in the hymn are intended to evoke a mixed response. Have we arrived in the place “for which our parents* sighed”? That language is reminiscent of the biblical descriptions of patriarchs and matriarchs in the faith hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We read, for example, in Hebrews 11 [NRSV]:

…By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Our “native land,” to which we pray in today’s hymn to stand true, is that city “whose architect and builder is God.” We’re not quite there yet, but we catch glimpses, especially when we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. May we remain true to that native land, and bring along with us whoever we meet along the stony road.

*The Hymnal 1982 changes the word “fathers” in the original poem to the gender-inclusive “parents.” You know our mothers were sighing, too! Maybe more, even.

Being there

“I probably shouldn’t be grinning on Good Friday,” I said to the Dean after today’s Good Friday service. But one of the features of bipolar illness is that sometimes you just aren’t in charge of your emotions. On a day like today, when I’m teetering on the edge of hypomania, sometimes I just feel giddy, no matter what. I was in that state when the first of my grandparents died. I got the news, tried to be sad, and failed miserably. So I went to the store and bought a pack of cookies, and probably ate them all in one sitting. Probably giggling, I don’t remember.

Today’s liturgy was the second part of the great Triduum, the three services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve, respectively. In a way, it is actually one liturgy broken across three days, and so it encompasses the full three days which it spans. The appropriate emotions would run the gamut of human experience, from the cozy togetherness of Maundy Thursday’s footwashing and Last Supper, to the pain of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution, through the shocked, perhaps numb, state Jesus’ friends must have felt on Holy Saturday, to the bewildering joy of Easter’s unprecedented resurrection. But few of us can muster all those emotions in three days just by participating, however fully, in the liturgies. “Were you there…?” we sang today; and even though in a way, we were, we actually weren’t. We were in a beautiful church, fully aware of the story’s arc and what happens at the Easter Eve vigil.

Then there was me, feeling giddy…able to rein it in, but unable to keep my mind from wandering throughout the service.

Which is one reason I truly appreciate our sacramental tradition. My spirituality is not something that happens in my head, or what my emotions are doing (emotions actually being much more bodily than we tend to acknowledge). Even when my mind is wandering, there is my body, in the church, sitting attentively, or standing, or kneeling, or kissing the Cross, or bowing, or, most importantly, receiving the Sacrament.

Today, we received the Sacrament under the species of bread only, reserved from Maundy Thursday’s Eucharistic celebration. Traditionally, Episcopal and Catholic churches keep Reserved Sacrament, in which we believe Christ is truly present, somewhere in the church at all times. However, on Good Friday, it is all consumed. There is no Reserved Sacrament in the church. I was reflecting on this after receiving Communion. Very dramatically, we see that Christ is now only present in the bodies of the faithful who are gathered there. Yes, we believe in resurrection, and we are preparing for it in ways Jesus’ disciples and other friends could not have done after seeing him crucified. But in his dying, as in his Incarnation, he gives himself so fully to us that we have a responsibility to be his body in the world.

And for that, as for worship, it doesn’t matter how we feel. What matters is what we do with our bodies. Show up, do the good work God has given you to do. Put one foot in front of the other and trust that God is directing your steps. Proclaim the Resurrection this Easter not only with your words, but with your body. This side of death, we already share in Christ’s resurrection in our mortal flesh, even if it’s broken or diseased (bipolar, say), even if we aren’t feeling it, even though we can’t break all our bad habits. Show up, put one foot in front of the other, do the good work God has given you to do.

Resurrection is coming.

Closing in on Christmas (an Advent poem)

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
CLOSING IN ON CHRISTMAS

I do not come bearing gifts like the magi,
or introduced by angels like the shepherds.
I have mistimed and miscalculated and misunderstood,
and the Christ I seek

is still a fetus, still developing the fingers he used
to form the world, the eyes that surveyed it,
perceiving it as “Good.”

Mary, you grow this human God inside you.
Eternity now bears your DNA.
Here, at the navel of the cosmos,
you prepare a place for him.

Holy Mary, Gestator of God,
I can only wait with you.
But tell me:

is the kicking I feel inside me
also Life? Is the emptiness around me
at work to make him room?

Your presence is the Lord’s coming.
Let me linger here and learn from you;
for soon you will be wearied with new motherhood,

and all the world will come to suckle
at your breast.

Wherein the poet casts herself in the role of the Gerasene Demoniac.

I’ve been away from this blog for a while, dealing with life…

To at least check in, I figured I’d post a poem. It grew out of hearing the story of the “Gerasene Demoniac” one Sunday Evensong a couple years ago (or so). I recognized myself in the passage.

I feel the need to add a TRIGGER WARNING, as this deals with bipolar and self-injury. But other than that—I’ve been told I shouldn’t over-explain a poem before presenting it, so here it is:


Elaine Elizabeth Belz
MY NAME IS LEGION
Luke 8.26-39

I could be the madman in this passage: mine
the howling, the bruises, the manic
smashing of all constraint.

What have you to do
with me,
Love?
.                               I train my voice
to his, in case finding myself in the drama
might amount to faith.
Fractured shackles
still inscribe their false creed;
feigned hope bleeds into the margins.

But what if I were to profess
these dark stains, stark ciphers
set down on the page? Would belief
leap from dead paper, call forth
my name, and quiet
the clanging
hollow space between words?

The story plays out as arranged:

Pigs flee the scene,
the madman ambles off, perplexed
—though in his right mind;

.                                           but I
remain in white tombs of the text
poring over my Gerasene scars.

 


 

In case this seems familiar, I did blog on the text. You can find that post here.

 

The ordinariness of God

I work in a church—literally, in the church, not in the offices attached to it. My work is mostly preparing for worship services.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, which involved a fair amount of preparation. But that’s not what I want to write about.

Because the church where I work combines all our Palm Sunday services, so that there is only one big service in the morning, I was able to ready the side chapel today for Monday’s 12:10 Eucharist. As I was setting the chalice (dressed with paten, purificator, host, pall, and corporal), water and wine, and lavabo bowl on the credence table, I noticed that I was barely paying attention to what I was doing. I’ve been doing this for over eight years; it’s fairly automatic.

Credence

I did this in my sleep.

Working in a church, you develop a very intimate relationship with the sacred space and its vessels and furnishings. When we think of intimacy, we usually think first of special moments of tenderness and delight shared between persons in a close relationship. But as anyone in any kind of intimate relationship (romantic or otherwise) knows, they are also full of the mundane. No matter how hard we may try, we will at times take the other for granted. We’ll fail sometimes to pay full attention; we’ll miss seeing the love and grace and beauty that really are always there.

The vessels for daily Mass are among the plainest that we have. They also pretty much never get put away, and so they tarnish a bit, and sometimes are duller than they ought to be. Those of us who wash, dry, and re-set them tend to take them for granted and treat them as utilitarian objects. It’s one more task to wash and re-set them. Even the Reserved Sacrament does not automatically arouse a sense of awe. You have to be paying attention.

So when I noticed I was working on auto-pilot, I first felt a tinge of…not quite guilt, but a sense that maybe I should be working with more reverence. I thought about how a hypothetical visitor or attendee at Mass might respond if given the object to handle these sacred objects, how they might react to see me treating these items so casually.

But quickly my attention turned instead to one of the things I value most about the Sacraments:

My awe or lack thereof is actually as immaterial to the Sacrament as it was to the prep work I was doing. No matter how carefully I were to line the vessels up neatly, turn the chalice with the cross facing forward, or adjust the linens—or how carelessly I might have performed the same task—these relatively humble vessels will fulfil their function, and they will contain the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Similarly, when we receive Communion, our attention or inattention does not alter the objective reality of what is happening: we are receiving Christ and being incorporated into his Body. Our devoted mindfulness benefits us, to be sure, but either way, Christ always shows up, is always there, always receives whatever we offer, and always gives of himself to us fully. Even if we don’t notice.

This isn’t to encourage inattention this Passiontide—on the contrary: recognizing God’s generosity and condescension to be so ordinary, to risk going unnoticed, can clearly be seen in Jesus’ dwelling and walking with us, even through suffering and death. Christ’s willingness—eagerness, really—to enter our world, and there shed his tears, his sweat, his blood into whatever matter would receive them (clothing, the wood of the Cross, the thin air), his willingness to entrust his body to the tomb—this very human humility of Christ can inspire us to value and imitate his self-outpouring all the more.

Perhaps I might as well have been pre-setting a table in a low-end restaurant with placemats and ketchup bottles. Instead, I was setting a credence table for the celebration of the Mass, and was suddenly caught by the profound significance of those vessels.

Shouldn’t we also be caught by the profound sacredness of all matter? The cosmos, after all, was created for Christ to inhabit, and we are told in Scripture that Christ “fills all things.” His presence in such ordinary things as ketchup or a sock is certainly of a different character than his presence in the Eucharist. But, whether we notice it or not, he fills all things.