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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On the Longest Night in Advent

OK, I’m off by a day or two…Solstice is over, and the days begin to lengthen. But on this eve of Christmas Eve, here’s one more reflection on the coming of Christ. Fittingly, it’s the longest poem I ever wrote.

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT IN ADVENT

There are times when I am so mindful of the life
growing inside me
that it seems to also saturate the world around:
These tiny leaves that twirl down to meet me,
kindred withered things,
that pass from their former greenness by the arrangement
of seasons, and fall
with such levity;
Damp chilled air that hovers
like a promise of ensuing warmth –
These are the portents of hope known by
the cold and lonely.

A shriveled leaf falls out of the frigid dark,
and I, who choose to hope,
must confess that I know only the weight
of believing, and wonder
if I wouldn’t rather
feel myself absorbed into the void of the empty night sky.

My tiny messenger of hope
crumbles at my touch. In the distance,
lit and unlit windows
speak in cryptic patterns,

like the few stars emerging from heaven tonight,
like the flashing beacons of radio towers,
like the questions
that spin in my mind, refusing
even to be formulated –

thoughts I wear like a thick skin
against the cold
as all pretense of contact
retracts, and the world sinks back
into the impenetrable dark. It needs
nothing from me.

The sun
is invisible now, but it burns tirelessly, fueling
even cold night.

The void
that presses against my skin,
that surrounds everything in space,
that swallows everything in time,

also relentlessly burns, but cannot consume me. My life
is buried deep inside,
embalmed in past appearances, waiting to be recollected
like a long-forgotten promise – waiting
to be born anew

into this world full of
life that is separate from me, hiding behind its own
thick skins: tree bark, brick and concrete,
headlight glare, human flesh, night sky,
the negative space that implies,
like a question,
the yet-unknown object of my belief.

The answers
will be ordinary. The prophets
will wear the faces of my neighbors, speak to me
in my own dialect, and I will understand them
through my senses: the same ordinary means
by which I interpret the universe of sense
that enwraps me, the universe of which
my body and its senses
are a part.

Immersed as I am
in routine and emptiness,
will I fail to recognize it?

Another leaf falls,
and I reach out to touch it –
a gesture that is no more faith
than desperation.

All my experience,
and all my memory,
and all my knowledge,
my collected bits of the appearances of Life
converge

As at the intersection point
between ancestry and descendants;

and the void
in which I exist
exhales its quiet chill,
becomes a sanctuary
for the hope that grows inside me:

the future drawn out of my past – a mystery
birthed in the familiar,
nursed in my own being,
destined to transcend me. It will begin
in the immediacy and subjectivity
of my own sight and touch and hearing,
and will unfold forever – boundless as the ever-growing
ever-cryptic universe.

Is it enough to believe?

The dark world reaches out with wind to brush my cheek,
and I feel its cold penetrate my skin.

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.

Christmas and Martyrdom: St. Stephen’s Day

Happy second day of Christmas! And happy St. Stephen’s Day.

Icon of St. Stephen.

Icon of St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also a deacon, one of seven chosen and ordained by the twelve Apostles to serve those in need. He also preached and “worked wonders,” which made him some very powerful enemies. Accused of blasphemy, he was stoned to death. You can read his full story in Acts chapters 6-7. Today, the Church commemorates him, and, in particular, his violent end.

It’s the day after Christmas, the second of the twelve days of Christmas. We’ve just welcomed the Christ child, marveled at the mystery of God becoming human. Most of us have domestic messes to clean up—dishes, gift wrap, laundry, and so forth—and are tired but happy, full of good food, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and magi. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the memory of violent death: not of the babies slaughtered by Herod (that’s the day after tomorrow), but of the martyrdom of a Christian who preached Christ crucified and resurrected, and who saw, just before he died, a vision of Jesus seated at God’s right hand. That’s quite a leap in the story! It seems a strange juxtaposition.

But it’s actually what Christmas is about. Mary’s “Magnificat” had predicted that the birth of her son would turn the world upside down. The world, however, doesn’t turn upside down without a fight.

God appearing among us, in our flesh, participating in our birth and in our death, is an invitation for us to be reborn into Christ and to participate in his death. Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to face martyrdom; but we are invited to die to our selves and to our own ambitions because we are called to something better. When St. Stephen had his vision of Christ enthroned, he was seeing the end result of the Incarnation: human nature, and with it, all creation, taken into the very heart of the Triune God. In the baby Jesus, the Word of God became human. He has never stopped being human. What he is—what St. Stephen saw—is God’s design for us all: to dwell intimately with God in perfect union, not dissolved into an impersonal oneness or reabsorbed into our source, but joined to our maker in the most beautiful unity-in-diversity.

That was, in fact, the goal all along. In the Incarnation, we see that God created the cosmos in order to dwell in it and to unite it to Godself in love. The Incarnation was no “Plan B” resulting from human sin. It was God’s intention all along, the very purpose of creation. Knowing that frees us from our own little lives that end with our individual, self-shattering deaths. That freedom allowed St. Stephen not only to accept death, but to forgive those who participated in his murder in any way (among them, the future St. Paul, who guarded the coats of those doing the actual stoning).

Holy Stephen, pray for us, that we may share your vision of Christ exalted, and so gain the freedom to die to our small selves and receive with you the life of the one whose birth we continue to celebrate these twelve days of Christmas.

A brief Advent reflection

Advent’s just begun.

Ordinary Time closed with a celebration of Christ the King; now we’re waiting for that King to be born…while at the same time, looking for him to “come again in glory.” Even while Christmas preparations must be done, we hold those celebrations at bay during this strange season of remembering the eschaton and anticipating Christ’s birth 2,000-some years ago, all while continuing to meet his Real Presence in the Sacrament at every Mass we attend. Advent is “timey-wimey,” as the Doctor might put it:

Well, in the Church, we usually use the phrase, “already and not yet,” but it’s a similar idea.

The entire Church year, in fact, is like this—not just Advent. When we walk the Way of the Cross with Christ during Holy Week, we’re also busy preparing for Easter celebrations, while celebrating the Eucharist before, on, and after Maundy Thursday. We know that Christ was born, lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, but we mark the days of our year in ways that combine memory, anticipation, presence, longing, and participation in ways that allow us to find, afresh, our own place in the story, year after year. We sound the depths of the traditions, which have accrued and continue to grow through the centuries, and find that they echo back our own longing, fear, joy, pain, faith, doubt—whatever we might be experiencing right now. We have the opportunity to put our lives as they are this year in conversation with that story which is both historic and eternal, the story of the One who was, and is, and will be.

Blessed Advent. May the mysteries we ponder with Mary resonate in our lives throughout the coming year.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Annunciatory Angel, Fra Angelico, c. 1450-1455. Detroit Institute of Arts.

PS: I’d be remiss not to mention that today, Detroit’s application for bankruptcy protection was approved by a judge. I ask for your prayers for the city and its residents, as well as the surrounding region, and for wisdom and a spirit of servanthood in the leaders who will be hashing out a plan going forward. For more information:

USA Today’s report, which gives a general overview of today’s news on the subject.

Huffington Post’s report centering on the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collections.

The Nation’s report, which considers the really bad precedent(s) that could come out of this.

Christ the King

In 1925, Pope Pius XI introduced the feast of Christ the King, which was meant as a reminder, amid the encroachments of secularization, that Christ is our Sovereign, reigning over all peoples in all places and all times—indeed, over all creation.

Such a small vision, really.

True, it’s a step beyond the old nationalistic thinking—prevalent in antiquity (according to the biblical record, at least)—that pits one people’s god against another people’s god to see which god wins. The winning god, of course, is determined through the spilling of human blood.

But with several millennia of monotheism under our belt, we know better than to think there are different gods backing different peoples and prodding them into war. We’re a little better than that. A little. The confession that Christ is King ought to help us see our unity under the one and only Lord, but instead, we want to test which of us the one Lord really favors. We want to use Christ the King to conquer our enemies and to put others in their place. If Christ is King the way human kings are king, then he might be swayed by our deference, our flattery, our lip-service, or even our genuine loyalty and obedience. As God, he’s the biggest, baddest king of them all, so we know we’re on the winning side, if we tactfully side with him:

Such a tiny, tiny vision.

Many today are uncomfortable with the language of saying that Christ is “King” or Jesus is “Lord,” and with good reason. Those words represent the kind of earthly power that Christians are being called to relinquish. Calling Jesus “King” or “Lord” can easily be misused to re-shape Christ into the image of Caesar. It has historically been used to justify social hierarchies in which the rich dominated the poor, men dominated women, clerics dominated the laity, and whites dominated people of color. These dominations and others, as we know, are still going on.

But the Gospel writers intended a much more revolutionary meaning when they said, “Jesus is Lord”—even more than the simple fact that if Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t. John, in particular, spelled out the insane Christian claim that the Cross of Christ is his throne, that true power is seen in self-emptying. Jesus wasn’t going to take over Caesar’s office, but rather to reveal that office’s inadequacy—irrelevancy, even. This is one of those radical reversals we find throughout Scripture. What on earth would Jesus even do with Caesar’s supposed power? It would be like a surgical nurse handing a neurosurgeon an AK-47. Or a fish.

To assert that Christ is King, or that Jesus is Lord, is to say that Kingship looks like Christ, not the other way around. Lordship looks like Jesus: it is cruciform. It takes the form of a servant. True power lays down its life and welcomes vulnerability. In the video clip above, the character of Jesus in the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, tells the crowd of his followers (in the Twitter sense—fans, really) that they don’t know what power is; that true power comes through death. Or, as the Book of Common Prayer words it, Christ has “made the way of the Cross to be the way of life.”

This is liberating news for the downtrodden and marginalized, but it is terrible news for those who hold worldly power—something most of us enjoy to some degree, if we live in the developed world. Christ’s Kingship should, for most of us (think the “99%”) be both comforting and unsettling: comforting, because we know that the powers of this world, which too often subjugate us, cannot claim ultimate victory; but unsettling, because in order to be fit for the reign of Christ, we will need to unlearn many habits. Habits that we like very much.

Habits like acquiring cheap consumer goods, the production of which most likely polluted the earth and quite possibly enslaved some worker somewhere (maybe even a child). Habits like demanding our own rights but neglecting the rights of others, or holding on to privileges we obtained through no real fault of our own. Habits like putting ourselves, or our own families, ahead of others and their families. Habits like judging others, and justifying ourselves. In other words, pretty much every habit we inherited from our pre-human ancestry. Even our good habits aren’t good enough, or they’re wrong-headed, motivated by self-interest. Christ’s self-emptying might make him seem harmless, especially when we look at a crucifix and see him nailed down where he can’t do any harm, head bowed in submission to the Father. But that self-emptying is the radical reversal of the self-interest that seems to have been one of evolution’s primary engines. Christ the King threatens to unravel everything we know and trust.

The good news, though, is that Christ is King: no other power will ultimately stand against him, not even the powers that bind us in our bad habits and keep us from reaching our full human potential. Because Christ is King, we are liberated from ourselves and toward each other. Our King has conquered death, by showing us that the path through death is the way to life—so that the fears and struggles for survival that shaped us as a species and as individuals ultimately hold no true power.

In the Gospel lection this year, one of the two “thieves” (read: political troublemakers, threats to worldly “power”) who is crucified with Jesus recognizes the truth we celebrate this last Sunday before Advent. He asks Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a strange thing for one dying man to ask another! Especially when their deaths, according to Rome, would expose them as frauds, whose aspirations to power had been thwarted by the great power of Rome that ruled the whole world!

Yeah, no. Rome had it entirely wrong.

Worldly power rewards those who worship it and punishes those who work against it. If we imagine that Jesus is aspiring to the kind of power we humans, cousins to bonobos and chimpanzees, find alluring—the power, e.g., that destroys its enemies, rewards its cronies, and makes a name for itself—then we’re trying to shoehorn Christ the King into the worthless role of Caesar. Even worse, when we aspire to that kind of power, we are swearing our allegiance to Caesar, not Christ.

And that is such a myopic vision.

Good thing Christ is King, and we aren’t.