The Deep Well of Living Water

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The middle of the day brings with it contrasts – both literally and figuratively. When the bright sun shines directly overhead, distinct shadows form around us, leaving sharp lines between light and dark. We often feel most-alive at mid-day, when we’re involved with projects or work. But at noontime, we can also be distracted by cares and concerns, bigger than we can handle by ourselves. Milder than in some places, the noonday sun in Samaria can be demanding, causing people to seek shade where it might be found. Even livestock move to the shadows under low tree branches until the respite of early evening. Though relief might come from cool water, a walk to the well is usually postponed until the daytime heat has passed. Especially if one plans on carrying jars heavy with water back the house.

In spite of this, and in fact because of it, she comes to the well at mid-day. This way, she can mostly count on no one being here. Back in ancient days, Jacob’s well was covered by a large rock. It was so large, it could only be lifted by several people working together. Therefore, no one could come alone, and take more than his or her fair share from the depths below. One could only satisfy a need for water in the presence of others, who would help lift the heavy stone cover. The Samaritan woman is glad it’s different now, for she can come alone to draw from this deep well.

On one noonday visit, under the hot sun, she finds an unexpected stranger by the well. He appears tired, and asks for a drink. She does not yet see how this moment connects with a larger pattern. He thirsts, just as he will thirst again on another hot noonday. Both now and then, he thirsts as he does the work of his Father. Paradoxically, just as will happen on that later hot afternoon, he thirsts while at the same offering living water to those who need it.

He seems to know more about her than she could ever have guessed. And his statements are provocative. Slowly, she discerns that he is saying something like this: “You have come here in the safety of noonday. For you assume no one else will be around, when you raise water from the depths of Jacob’s well. Yet, you have a deep well within you. How far into the depths of your inner well, are you willing to go with me?”

 

This posting is based on my sermon for Lent 3, Sunday March 19, which can be accessed by clicking here. In my sermon, I quote the David Whyte poem, “The Well of Grief.”  The image above is another one by the gifted James Tissot, and reflects an intentionally faithful, late 19th century, perception of what the study of archaeology tells us about ancient biblical sites.

 

The Beauty of a Gracious Opportunity

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It is night. Some things are easier under the cover of darkness. Daylight suggests accountabilitynot always welcome when we’re uncertain about our choices. Darkness provides room for indecision and exploration. It’s after dark when Nicodemus slips out of the house, and walks through the quiet alleyways of the city. A gentle breeze stirs the branches above him. Silently, he climbs stairs to the roof terrace where he is told Jesus is staying. To his surprise, he finds the country rabbi expecting him. And so, there is no hesitant pause, no time spent in small talk. Nicodemus goes right to the heart of the matter, but in a circumspect way.

Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher from God. For, if God wasn’t in you, you could not do all the God-revealing acts that you do.” Jesus unexpectedly responds to him with an invitation. He says, “Hear me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to — which is God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus hungers to see God’s kingdom. He wants to see it so much, he arrives in the middle of the night to talk about it. Yet, Nicodemus wavers, not only finding security in the darkness. He also hides behind the furtive safety of a rhetorical question: “How can a person be born who has already been born and grown up? Please tell me: what are you saying by this ‘born-from-above’ kind of talk?”

In the light of the moon, and that of a flickering lantern, Nicodemus observes a knowing smile spread across Jesus’ face. He perceives that Jesus is not talking about mothers and babies. He’s talking about God, and grown-up people, just like Nicodemus. But to acknowledge this, the senior Pharisee must concede an awkward fact. Having come by night, he will have to admit that—in more ways than one—he is ‘in the dark.’ He’s looking for a light he doesn’t yet have. So Jesus says to him, “I don’t think you’re listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to God’s original creation (—the kind of ‘wind hovering over water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—) it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within, is formed by something you can’t see and touch. The person within becomes a living spirit.”

Leaning back on the cushion against the low wall of the terrace, Jesus raises his hand in a sweeping gesture. “Don’t be so surprised, my friend, when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’ — from out of this world. Listen to that breeze, stirring through the branches of the trees above us. We feel it and know it’s there. But who can say where it’s come from, or where it’s going? That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by God’s Spirit.”

 

This image comes from Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1899 painting, Jesus and Nicodemus on a Rooftop. As an African American artist who lived well before the Civil Rights era, Tanner moved to Paris, a context he found more congenial for the development of his significant talent. This posting is based on my sermon for the second Sunday in Lent (referencing John 3:1-17), which can be found by clicking here. Please note: the text of this posting, as well as of my sermon, contains many quotations from John’s Gospel that involve a mixture of source material from the NRSV translation, as well as that of The Message translation by Eugene Peterson, some of which has been adapted for this context.

The Beauty of Self-Possession

Satan Tried to Tempt Jesus James Tissot, 1895

 

Here is an image worthy of Lenten reflection: James Tissot’s 19th century portrayal of Jesus’ Second Temptation. Hovering over the Jerusalem Temple, we see starkly contrasting figures ~ the bodiless tempter, with an anger-filled face; and the serenely embodied Jesus, whose focus is within.

If you are the Son of God…” Why would those words have any power over Jesus? Perhaps it’s because they echo something said earlier in the Gospel. For we hear essentially the same words at his Baptism. “Just as he came up from the water… a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the beloved…’” A voice from heaven declares that this man, born to a village carpenter, is in fact God’s own Son.

We need not have grown up in modern times to consider this claim improbable. Many of Jesus’ own contemporaries considered the statement far-fetched, and even blasphemous. Jesus, himself, may have wondered at this. He probably had had strong youthful premonitions, that God had marked him for a special vocation. But, it’s unlikely he would have imagined there was something unique about his personal being, rather than more simply a difference in the kind of activity to which he was being called. And so, as he came up from the Jordan waters and heard those now-familiar words, he may have wondered what was really being said.

Then he finds himself alone in the desert… It must have felt like “now or never!” A childhood and young adult life shaped by a genuine piety, and full of Spirit-prompted intuitions. And then, in the wilderness, all is tested. And not for the last time!

The voice in the wilderness probably said other things to him: “Hello, my friend. Yes, you recognize my voice. I come in peace. Indeed, I’m probably the only one who believes you and those strange words from the sky. So, you see, I’m on your side! Let’s suppose it’s all true. In fact, let’s prove it! If you’re the Son of God, you’ll change the world sooner than you think. Do yourself a favor ~ make these stones into bread-rolls. Then, you won’t be hungry and, soon, you’ll be very popular! Or, even better, as I lift you to the top of the Temple, see how great everything looks. Jump! Everyone loves a wonder-worker. Besides, if you are God’s beloved, what can go wrong?

Tissot’s image captures a self-possessed Jesus, and we can assume it’s a faithful portrayal of his character. A significant part of Jesus’ self-possession stems from the fact that he is not captive to others, and not captive to possessions. Self-possession is focussed within; possession by things and by other people happens when we are distracted by what is around us. And so, self-possession is an antidote to being possessed by our possessions.

Self-possession makes possible self-giving. This is why we distinguish self-possession from self-absorption. For self-possession and self-giving are natural and spiritual corollaries. In his vocation, and especially in his Passion and Death, Jesus exemplified self-giving.

 

This blog is based on my sermon for Lent 1, the text of which can be found by clicking here. The James Tissot image comes from the archive of his biblical artwork, which is physically maintained at, and digitally available from, the Brooklyn Museum. Observers may note what appears (by contemporary standards) to be a culturally insensitive rendering of both the Tempter and of Jesus. Taking this point into account (while also appreciating the artist’s effort to depict matters historically and contextually), we can still benefit from Tissot’s biblically faithful work.

The Beauty of ‘Nothing’

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A week ago, using the metaphor of the twin towers of a suspension bridge, I invited my congregation to explore a pairing of two Sundays in the calendar ~ Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday. The beginning of Lent presents us with a similar opportunity ~ to explore the relationship between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. With this comparison, instead of noticing a parallel, we can observe an obvious paradox.

For, on Easter Sunday, we face an unusual challenge ~ we must take the finding of an absence, and discern within it a presence. Something that was known, seen and touched, became as if it was nothing. And so, we are challenged to see how an empty tomb could at the same time be full of meaning. Even though Mary Magdalene and the disciples found nothing in the tomb, they came away with the conviction that something profound was there.

Consider, then, this remarkable contrast. In the metaphors at the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we observe inverse phenomena. What would Ash Wednesday be without ashes? A biblical image with a vivid history, and the tactile liturgical use of a common material, characterize our services on the first day of Lent. And yet, the presence of ashes is meant to represent an absence. A dish full of ashes in my hand represents something larger, which is empty. Something is marked on my parishioners’ foreheads, and it symbolizes the starkness of nothing, or, literally, no thing.

So, the Sunday of resurrection presence provides the reverse of the Wednesday of regrettable absence. Though it wouldn’t sound as good, Ash Wednesday could instead be called, “Absence Wednesday,” “Empty Wednesday,” or “Nothing Wednesday.” This is because the ashes at the heart of the liturgy for this day symbolize an absence, an emptiness, or a ‘nothing.’ I don’t mean that the ashes are empty of meaning. It’s just that what they represent is literally nothing. Ashes represent nothing of value, nothing of worth. And that is what makes them special! We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us that, on our own and relying on ourselves, we are nothing of value, nothing of worth. No matter how hard we try, we don’t give meaning and value to ourselves. Only God does that.

Our lives can sometimes feel like they are full of “nothings,” as if all that we do only amounts to ashes or dust. All too quickly, we forget that dust and ashes are the building blocks of God’s Creation. They are the building blocks of God’s Kingdom. When we are tempted to think about something we have done, and say, “O, it’s really nothing at all,” let’s remember what God can do with ‘nothing’.

 

This posting is drawn from my homily for Ash Wednesday, the text for which can be found by clicking here. The link will take you to the sermons page on our parish website, where you will find a link to the Ash Wednesday sermon as well as others.

Beauty in Parallel

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Perhaps the only thing more memorable than driving over the Golden Gate Bridge may be to pass under it on an ocean-going ship. I was lucky enough to have that experience five times before I was a teenager.

Many of us assume the name for this bridge is related to its warm color. But the name comes from the ocean straight over which it stands, though it does not derive from the Gold Rush. Rather than mimicking gold, the bridge’s official color—“International Orange”—was chosen to contrast with fog. A story is told about when that color was first applied. Painters dabbed splotches of it on the heads of curious seagulls. Pretty soon, Bay Area birdwatchers reported a new bird species, which was called the California Red-Headed seagull!

Until 1964, the Golden Gate Bridge had the longest main span in the world. Yet, its basic design isn’t unique. We know this from other suspension bridges, which are found all over the world. Bridges of this kind have two main towers, steadied in place by their suspension cables, which are anchored in the ground. From their anchor points, these substantial cables ascend to the top of the towers, and then gently descend again to the center of the bridge. From that low point, they again soar up, to the top of the opposite tower. The slightly arched roadway across is literally suspended from these main cables, by small support cables that hang from them. Here, in the beauty of this simple design, we find a helpful spiritual and liturgical metaphor.

Reflect for a moment about two significant Sundays in the church year. One is the last Sunday after Epiphany, or Transfiguration Sunday, and the other is Easter Day. Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before Lent, and Easter Day is the first Sunday after Lent. Imagine these two Sundays on the Church calendar as being like the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Transfiguration Sunday, coming just before Lent, is like the south tower of the Golden Gate bridge, on the urban, San Francisco, side of the straight. And, Easter Sunday is like the north tower of that bridge, on the less familiar and historically rural side of that navigational channel. The season of Lent stretches between these two Sundays like the main span of a bridge. Here is the crucial part ~ every year we need to make this liturgical crossing. And, like the great towers of a bridge, Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday uphold us all the way across our Lenten journey.

 

This posting is based on my homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which explores the parallel between the revelation of glory that we see in the Transfiguration, and the glory we see in the Resurrection (click here for a link to it).

The Beauty of Freedom

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One of the most creative and thoughtful novels in recent years is Yann Martel’s, The Life of Pi. It’s both imaginative and evocative. The novel explores our knowledge and wisdom about animals, while also reflecting on our knowledge and wisdom about God. Pi, the narrator, was a double major at the University of Toronto, in religious studies and zoology. Before that, he grew up in southeast India, where his father had run a small zoo.

Near the beginning of the book, Pi reflects on an unexpected reality about zoo animals. Most of us assume that zoos should be large open parks having extensive land preserves, with all the animals roaming about together. Otherwise, we think zoos are cruel, artificially propagated institutions, which have no genuine respect for fellow members of the animal kingdom. Pi challenges us with some interesting empirical observation. Zoo’s actually resemble our own houses, in a positive way! In prehistoric times, our ancient forebears had to roam, from cave to stream, and from animal habitat to places where fruit bearing plants could be found. Now, we have the modern equivalent of these things in a limited spacial structure we call our home. Animals in the wild face immense challenges: how to find food and water, safe places to rest, to mate and rear young, and free of predators. Usually this requires large tracts of land. But zoos, like the houses that serve us, provide these things in a limited compass, which actually contributes to animal contentment and well-being! Their enclosures provide the security of a known-place, which they feel is theirs. Like us, animals are territorial.

Pi tells us this: when animals happen to get out of their enclosures at a zoos—in what we are likely to call ‘escapes’—they most often go right back to their pens or cages, especially when they encounter anything that frightens them. Generally, they do not head out for the open and unknown! Pi then offers a critical insight: “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

A modern notion of freedom has thoroughly permeated our culture. We assume that freedom is best defined in one way ~ ‘freedom is the absence of limits.’ Freedom is ‘no one getting in my way,’ no rules limiting me, and no constraints on what I want to do. So, we imagine that the same must be true for animals, and especially those in zoos. As exciting and liberating as this may sound, it is actually contrary to animal nature—and therefore, probably also to our nature.

Pi offers this observation: “An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard— significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more ‘freedom’, involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard. Both speak of pattern and purpose.” But, ironically, this is the very thing we resist! We somehow assume that we are less than human when we go through life wedded to pattern and purpose, and when we adopt habits that shape our character in enduring ways. These are precisely the features of the modern mind, which make it so hard for us to hear what Paul says about freedom, in Galatians (For freedom, Christ has set us free). Our modern notions also separate us from our nation’s Founders, who were just as concerned with what freedom is for, and not simply what freedom is from.

 

Adapted from my homily for Sunday, June 26, 2016, which may be accessed by clicking here.

Temptation, and Beauty

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At Jesus’ Baptism, his Father in heaven speaks to him in the hearing of others: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” Luke tells us that Jesus is at prayer in this moment, with his attention likely turned within. By contrast, in his temptation, the devil appears to him and speaks to him in his immediate presence, tempting him with things seen or imagined. Our Father in heaven speaks to him from above. But the one he calls ‘the father of lies’ speaks to him from his side, about the things of this world. It is in relation to this point that I find Eric Armusik’s perceptive painting of the Temptation of Christ so compelling.

Look at that sinister-looking hooded face, and that claw-like hand on Jesus’ shoulder. The tempter speaks in his ear, to turn his attention away from his mission. In the process, the tempter offers to Jesus what he might be tempted to desire. A dark brooding sky obscures the light from above, and accentuates the dark ground underfoot. Jesus looks resolute while yet affected by the experience of his temptation. Eric Armusik captures how Jesus is tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin.

We are likely, always, to hear this same voice in our own ears. Sometimes the voice speaks strongly and directly, and sometimes it is only a whisper. But the message is the same: ‘Look at this beautiful sight! Look at this wonderful thing. It could be yours! Yes, yours.’ And in that moment, we are likely to forget the words of the Psalmist, who reminds us how “the earth is the Lord’s for he made it; come, let us adore him!” In the moment of temptation, the Father’s voice from heaven seems less immediate than other things grabbing our attention. Instead, we give preference to the voice from the side, which says, “go ahead! It will be ok ~ after all, it’s ‘good’!” So, ‘when we see that the tree is good for food, and how it is a delight to our eyes, and that the tree is to be desired to make us wise, we take of its fruit and we eat; and we also give some to our families and friends, who are with us. And in that moment, we know we have sinned, for we experience our separation from our Father in heaven.

Whether we are considering the history-changing choice of our biblical ancestors, or whether we are thinking about our own choices, temptation has more than one reference point. The obvious one, is whether we choose the path toward sin ~ to accept the allure of appropriating some good or beautiful thing, but in a bad way, for our own ends. The other opportunity provided by temptation is the choice we might make for the good ~ to seek and follow God’s will, and live more fully into God’s ways for us. Temptation always has a benefit that we should never forget ~ whenever we are tempted, we can choose to live more nearly as we pray.

 

The Temptation of Christ, 2011, by Eric Armusik. The image is reproduced here with the artist’s permission. To see more of his fine paintings, click here. Also see the Temptation passage in Luke 4:1-13; Hebrews 4:15 (quoted above); and Genesis 3:6-7, which I have paraphrased. My reflections here are drawn from my homily for Lent 1, which explores the themes suggested by the Temptation of Jesus (click here).

The Beauty of Lent

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THE BEAUTY OF LENT

We are entering a season about which many of us are ambivalent. Lent often just happens to us.

I once heard someone say that change in our lives occurs in at least three ways: by default, through drift, or by decision.

Lent often happens by default—the church calendar simply clicks forward, one day or one week at a time. In its turn comes Lent, having arrived as a matter of course.

Sometimes we find ourselves drifting into Lent. When not aware of the liturgical season, and not quite regular in our worship attendance, we arrive one Sunday to find the interior of the church strangely transformed.

The best way to enter Lent is by decision. Though Lent may seem to happen to us, we can also be intentional and choose to engage this new season. And, on its terms!

Our choice here may parallel our choice to tithe. At first, we attend to what we are giving up or leaving behind. In other words, we focus on what we seem to lose. But we can also see giving ourselves and our financial resources as a gain. We gain through giving ourselves to God, and to others.

When I was younger, I often took a rigorous approach to this traditionally penitential season of Lent. Some years I fasted every weekday until evening, in a practice we associate with Ramadan. I learned from this practice, as I did from my subsequent celebration of Eastertide. Alternating feasts and fasts shape the liturgical year.

But I have discovered another way to approach Lent. I am now more likely to arrange my Lenten pattern so it anticipates how I want to live as an Easter-person. I used to experience a pendulum swing from a season of Lenten fasting to one of Eastertide feasting, followed by the more ambiguous ‘ordinary’ time of summer. Now, I try to live toward extraordinary time, all the time.

How I always want to live becomes the measure of how I try to live during Lent. I find great beauty in the simplicity and restraint of this holy season, a beauty which I always want to engage. Lent provides an opportunity to focus on this beauty, and to pare away all that impedes my apprehension of it.

 

Thanks to the website of The Gateway Church, at Des Moines, IA, for making available the neutral Lenten background image.

The Beauty of Mystical Union

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This painting by Niels Larsen Stevns, a relatively unknown Danish painter, strikes me as profound. I think he portrays the occasion in a way John the Evangelist would have liked. First, notice the huge stone basins, which by their placement in the painting occupy the center of our attention. These vessels exceed what we might imagine when we hear the English word “jars.” Yet John, who is consistently focused on mystical and symbolic themes, takes care to tell us how these ‘jars’ hold twenty to thirty gallons each. To put that in perspective, 24” of water in a standard bathtub equals roughly 24 gallons. And Jesus transformed six times that amount, for just one party!

After the large vessels, we notice next Jesus and his mother, the two main figures in this painting and in John’s story. In addition to their placement, we can tell who they are by their halo’s. While Mary stands fully graced by the glow of the late afternoon sun, the upper torso of Jesus is in shadow. I think this is for both pictorial and theological reasons, allowing the glow of his halo to be all the more radiant. At the same time, he is the only figure in the painting portrayed as praying. Very subtly, and faithful to John’s Gospel, Stevns depicts how the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness has not ‘comprehended’ it. This moment is all about Epiphany, about the revealing of light in new and profound ways, for the benefit of all who long to see it. Water, set aside for the purification of the body, becomes wine that warms and gladdens the heart and soul.

The chief steward is just behind, being given an opportunity to apprehend and perceive the light. It comes in the form of a cup of wine, reckoned to be among “the best.” Also subtle is Stevn’s depiction of the two persons on the left side, who are in conversation. They appear to be discussing something whose meaning eludes them, reminding us of the two disciples later walking on the road to Emmaus. Like them, and like the chief steward, these two at Cana do not yet perceive what this is all about. Only in the background, under and through the low arches, do we see the wedding party, feasting together at the tables. Among many paintings of this scene, this may be among the most faithful to what John wants us to see, and to believe. This story, like the whole of John’s Gospel, is about the wedding of the human and the divine, in Jesus.

Many guests at this wedding probably noticed the sudden arrival of a batch of fine wine—but not where it came from, nor what it represented. Those at the table were likely focused on the bridal couple, while enjoying all the splendid things on offer. But those who stood nearby, at the edges of the scene, were in a position to notice something else. Of greatest significance at this event was not the hospitality provided by the wedding hosts, whose wine in fact ran out! Most significant was the abundant and mystical hospitality, revealed and provided by a higher source. In this gathering, God’s hospitality is extended not so much as it is in other Gospel stories, to people who are unique and different, and on the margins. Here, God’s hospitality embraces what is common and the same, our needy human nature. God shows us how the deficiency we all share is blessed, and then filled. The empty vessels of our souls are ‘filled to the brim’ with the living water of the Holy Spirit.

 

The Wedding at Cana by Niels Larsen Stevns (correct spelling! / 1864-1941), based on John 2:1-11. To see my homily, which explores this Gospel reading in relation to historical representations of it in art, click here.

The Beauty of Holy Imagination

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One of the most beautiful buildings in the world has survived twenty centuries since its construction during the great age of Rome. Replacing two earlier buildings lost to fire, this third one was built for the ages. After two thousand years, its coffered concrete ceiling remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and it still evokes awe and wonder among architects. The building is, of course, the Pantheon. Unlike some buildings of equal stature and antiquity, the Pantheon has survived because it was, in effect, ‘baptized.’ Having been a temple whose practices were anchored in pagan religious cults, its original Greek name suggests the building was dedicated to a multitude of Roman God’s. Indeed, many modern visitors know the building only by its classical name rather than by its later Christian one, even though the transition between the two occurred fourteen-hundred years ago!

Think about that for a moment. A pagan temple, apparently dedicated to a panoply of Roman deities, was consecrated as a church, and renamed to commemorate Christian saints. The building’s earlier purpose and meaning was not seen as dangerous to it being used for holy Christian worship! For many of us, that is unimaginable! A more likely outcome would have been for the building to have been razed, and its materials perhaps reused to build an entirely new building for Christ-inspired liturgies. This represents courage, the courage of holy imagination, turned loose to see what is good, positive and hopeful, even amidst a decaying or already dead civilization.

On Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil, we pray these words: “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Who among us has not ever felt cast down, prematurely old, or just not worth much? Do we have courage, the courage to see that we are among all the things that are being brought to their perfection? Sometimes, among all the things God has made, it can be hardest to imagine ourselves as the objects of God’s unbounded creative and redemptive possibilities. Yet, because of our Baptism, we are among the saints who have already passed beyond death into new life. God’s redemptive possibilities are all about new life, and for us! We come to see this as we practice the virtue of holy imagination.

A photo of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome (creative commons license). This is adapted from my homily for All Saints Sunday, which can be accessed by clicking here.