Light in the Darkness

 

In his 1880 painting, Lucy-Olivier Merson portrayed the Holy Family on their Flight into Egypt. Right away we discern a focus on the themes of rest and light. In the darkness of a starry desert night, the holy child rests on Mary’s lap while she reclines in the Sphinx’s embrace. A glowing light from the holy child illuminates her face, and the chest of the Sphinx.

Like many painters, Merson employs artistic license in the service of theology. The great statue at Giza is not the only Sphinx from ancient Egypt. Yet, the artist likely had it in mind. He portrays it as it might have looked at Jesus’ birth, but in a diminished scale. The actual Giza Sphinx faces east, the direction of the rising sun. And so, in Merson’s painting, the monument is aptly illuminated by the light from the long awaited Morningstar ~ the ‘dawn from on high’ that will break upon us in the Christ child.

The ancient Sphinx’s head cloth and beard are shown intact but chipped, a neglected condition consistent with the drifting sand pushed up against the monument. The face of the figure is distinctively turned upward, we might even say inquiringly, toward the stars above. The figure of Joseph is shown asleep. His head is covered and his eyes shielded from the image of the ancient Egyptian divinity. And yet, his heart and mind remain open to angelic messengers. His inner spirit is attuned to the God who called him here, while the embers of the small fire emit a wisp of smoke, moving skyward in the dark night. With both the face of the child, and the depiction of the fire, Merson reminds us of the Light that shines in the darkness. The vocation of this Light is to illumine all people, in clear contrast to the idols of this world.

Merson’s painting can help us perceive how we often rest upon the natural and humanly-made things of this world ~ upon the monuments and achievements of our forebears as well as upon the comfort and beauty of places we love. But we must not cling to them! For we are now a covenant people, called to live in a new and promised land. Not a dwelling place we can see or touch, but one that is nevertheless real. The full dimensions, meaning and purpose of this promised land are not yet apparent, but remain articles of promise and a source of continuing epiphany and disclosure.

Being members of the Body of Christ, and of the renewed Israel, we have been called out. We have been called out of many forms of ‘Egypt,’ to live in a new and promised land. This journey challenges us to grow and change, rather than remain comfortable where we are. Yet, we find lots of ways to rationalize the continuing rule of the Pharaohs of this world. Too easily we make ourselves at home within the sheltering embrace of stone-cold and decaying kingdoms. But the God who calls us to journey through darkness is also the God who speaks to us through angels at night.

 

The image above is of Luc-Olivier Merson’s, Rest on the Flight into Egypt. This post is based on my homily for the second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 5, 2020, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

To See Spiritual Light

 

I first learned about the monumental sculptures and the suspended mobiles of Alexander Calder during high school in the early 1970’s. My school was in western Massachusetts, and I remember some weekend trips when I saw a couple of his large outdoor sculptures being built at a metal foundry in Connecticut. To me, Calder’s work continues to suggest a delight with the world and a generous appreciation for the beauty within it.

Calder approached the creation of public sculpture in a unique way. His largest pieces are often set in the center of cities, placed on plazas between modern office buildings. We have a beautiful example here in Grand Rapids, with another large one in the same bright red color nearby in Chicago. Many of Calder’s large outdoor “stabile” sculptures provide a lyrical counterpoint to the linear and grid-like facades of the surrounding office buildings.

We know that monumental sculptures from earlier times often portray honored heroes, sometimes on horseback. Perhaps the most dramatic and newsworthy examples in our own day are some Civil War legacy moments in the deep South. I think of the one in Lee Square, New Orleans, and the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Memphis, both recently removed. In these cases, major post-Civil War statuary has been an object of contention because of negative historical associations.

By contrast, Calder’s large works are not tethered to historical occasions. Instead, they are abstract, and point to transcendental ideas rather than to memorialized national events. They don’t simply draw attention to themselves as objects of regard. Calder’s plaza sculptures do more. They lead the observer’s eyes to notice the interplay between his work and the spaces around them, as well as their contrast with nearby buildings. One doesn’t just view these sculptures; one interacts with them, and with the larger context of their placement.

Here, we must note a paradoxical aspect of all public sculpture, which indicates something more about us than it does about the art. Many people work everyday in buildings adjacent to where sculptural works are situated. But these workers are just as capable of being inattentive to these pieces of art as they are to their parking spaces, or to the doors of their offices. With the soaring heights and reaching curves of his public monuments, Calder’s sculptures are expressively shaped and tremendously uplifting. But our focus on our work and our worries, and on the practical things we need to do, blinds us! And it diverts our attention from something truly beautiful, right there in front of us.

I note all this because the same thing can happen when we encounter the first verses of John’s Gospel. In what is often called the ‘prologue’ to his Gospel, John has written a passage shaped by poetic beauty and filled with lofty theology. Yet, we have a tendency to focus on what is immediate and practical, and on what seems narrowly relevant to our everyday concerns. And so, we can ‘pass by’ this Gospel ‘work of art’ just as people hurry past the great Calder downtown, absorbed with getting to our ‘work.’ In both cases, something sublime lies before us, ready for us to engage with. But sometimes we don’t see the sublime because we aren’t really looking for it!

 

The image above is of Alexander Calder’s stabile, Le Grande Vitesse. This post is based on my homily for the first Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

He Comes to Us Unrecognized

 

It looks like a scene right out of the Christmas hymn, “In the bleak midwinter.” Peter Bruegel has evocatively painted the arrival of Mary and Joseph at Bethlehem, to participate in the census. It gives us a wonderful way to consider the Christmas Gospel. As Luke presents the story, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth are anchored in world history. Yet, as Bruegel shows us, God’s extraordinary entrance into the world in the Messiah’s birth happens in the midst of the ordinary.

Peter Bruegel’s painting is true to the Gospel, even if he portrays the scene in a 16th century northern Dutch village. He helps us realize that Mary and Joseph did not arrive in town that evening with all the attention focused on them. Just like our lives, and as Peter Bruegel portrays folks in his own day, the world around Joseph and Mary was focused upon itself.

Notice how Bruegel renders the scene: it’s early evening on a cold winter’s day in northern Europe. The sun is setting behind the great tree, at what might be about 4:00 pm. Having crossed the surface of a frozen pond, in the lower right, the Holy Family is just arriving at Bethlehem. To the left, in the direction they are headed, we see a table outside the inn that provides a temporary office for the traveling magistrate. A small crowd gathers there, to be included in the census. Their varying types of clothing suggest they have come from different places. To approach that inn and table, Joseph and Mary must go between several wagons, which are loaded with hay and grain, barrels of beer, and firewood. In the lower left corner, two hogs are being slaughtered, perhaps for an upcoming feast or for use in the kitchen of the inn.

This latter detail may be significant. For it’s worth noting how common it is in nativity paintings to find coded reminders of the Passion story that lies ahead. In Israel and for Jews, it would have been lambs or sheep; here, in northern Holland it is hogs. But either way, the child to be born this night is destined to be led as an animal to slaughter, as an atonement for an unknowing world – just the kind of world into which he arrived on a cold winter’s night.

Equally oblivious to the arrival of the Holy Family is the rest of the village: children everywhere are at play – some skating and sliding on the nearby pond and others playing on the frozen river up to the left. And all around them are men and women working at various chores and duties, trying to keep themselves alive. Across that frozen river in the upper left, some tradespeople are carrying bags of goods to be sold, while two others move a sled full of similar items in the opposite direction. In the upper center, a group stands around an open fire, and to the right of them another group may be preparing for a hunt.

In this northern Dutch version of winter in Bethlehem, the world of these people is not so very different from ours. Just like them, our focus tends to be upon ourselves, upon our daily activities of tasks and duties. So we miss the sheer wonder of the world around us. And, we miss the mysterious and unexpected presence of the Holy One in our midst. No one in Bruegel’s painting notices the arrival of Mary and Joseph!

It is just as John wrote in his Gospel: “He was in the world, and… yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

 

The image above is of Peter Bruegel’s Census at Bethlehem (1566). This post is based on my homily for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Acceptance with Joy

 

“Look,” says the prophet, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” What a strange promise! How could the birth of a child be a gift for a troubled world?

This is the kind of promise that Mary received from the Angel Gabriel. And it is the kind of promise that every one of us receives when we are called to acknowledge and accept that same gift. During this Advent season we have reflected on how there are a number of aspects of our response to God’s call, and to the promise of God’s gift to us.

Fear can often be our first reaction, followed then by wonder and uncertainty about the fit between God’s promise and our own suitability for receiving it. By attentiveness to God’s Grace, our uncertainty can be transformed into a humility ~ a humility that is willing to accept the Word of Promise and the Call to receive it. And if we come that far, if we are willing to believe and remain attentive, we may experience a wonderful moment. It is in Mary’s fourth response to God’s Word of Call. It is quite simply, Joy! There is no other word for it. Both Mary and Joseph, each in their own way, accept the unlikely and unexpected word of promise. And by accepting and receiving God’s will for what it is, they find joy.

Over the course of this Advent, I have shared with you four images of the Annunciation to Mary of the promised gift of a child ~ a child who would be God with us. In the image above, El Greco beautifully captures the sublime quality of the moment. Having accepted God’s Word in humility, Mary’s eyes and her whole being are uplifted up to receive the message. Her up-turned hand says it all! The gilded and hovering angel points upward, in the direction where all this is supposed to go, to the realm of Spirit. This is where the Lord will ascend through his Resurrection, taking us and our humanity with him into the very being of God.

Joy may not be the defining feature of our lives today. Yet, we can find the fullness of joy in the gift we celebrate this week. For we receive a gift whose meaning and value we can never fully anticipate in advance.

To this gift, Mary says “Yes!” And, with her, we can say, “yes,” as well. Yes to God’s Word that comes to us as both promise and call – a promise that he will be with us always, as we accept him for who He really is. And, a call for us to become new persons in him. For in him we find a spiritual maturity that this world can never give.

In raising our hearts in assent to God’s promises, and by receiving God’s call to be transformed by the Spirit, we grow. We grow into that quiet joy which was Mary’s, instilled by the Angel’s visit. Behold – a virgin has conceived, and has borne a Son, and we call his name Immanuel – for God is with us!

 

The image above is of El Greco’s Annunciation (1600). This post is based on my homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Attentive Openness

 

The spirit of attentive openness is at the heart of the third aspect of Mary’s response to God’s call through the Angel Gabriel. God’s call often challenges us to live in a different way; or try and be a different person, especially in our relationships with our family, our friends and those with whom we work. Receiving this call, we can react at first in fear at what this call will mean in practice. We can also respond with uncertainty, wondering about our worthiness or suitability for what God may have in mind for us.

But we can also see that —in faith— we are able to go into the heart of our fear, and find God’s power. Receiving God’s grace, we may move beyond relying on our own strength, and not depend upon our estimate of our own abilities and worthiness for what God may have in mind. And we can choose to respond to God’s gracious invitation into the Spirit’s redeeming work, just as Mary did, by saying, “Yes!” As John Lennon so simply captured the spirit of it, in the words of his famous song, “Let it be!” As Mary said to God through the Angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy Word.”

This is the spirit of Mary’s response to the message of the angel as portrayed in the third image I am sharing with you this Advent ~ Trygve Skogrand’s photo-collage, pictured above. The artist has skillfully juxtaposed a traditional painted figure onto a contemporary scene. We see a simplicity and spirit of humility in Mary’s posture, as she kneels in her plain gown. In the plain ‘bed-sit’ room in which she prays, we notice her uplifted eyes. They are now focused on the divine source of the message she is receiving.

Attentiveness is key to meaningful perception, just as we find in the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Advent. John sends his disciples to Jesus with what should be our most persistent question ~ “are you the One?” ‘Are you the One for whom we are looking, and whom we are awaiting?’ Notice Jesus’ response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” For they only hear and see if they are attentive. This is one reason why the Church sets aside this season of Advent ~ to encourage our attentiveness, so that we can hear and see, and then accept God’s Word to us.

“Let it be as God would have it.” Let things be as God wills. Let God be God! Perhaps nothing will be so hard in our lives, as to say those words in faith and in humility. Our pride objects! Our desire to be at the center of reality intrudes. But to say, “Let it be…,” in faith and in humility, is to return to the Garden of Creation Grace. And it is also to begin to live forward into the fullness of the Kingdom, as God would have things be.

 

The image above is a detail of Trygve Skogrand’s photo-collage, Bedsit Annunciation (an image I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

God’s Word of Hope

 

Remember God’s call to Moses, through the burning bush. Remember God’s call to Isaiah in the Temple. And remember God’s call to Jeremiah. In each of these encounters, when a divine invitation and word of hope comes to those who would become prophets, they react in a similar way. Each of them responds with fear, just like the reaction we see in Simone Martini’s Annunciation painting of Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel (featured in my prior blog post). Yet, in these call passages we see Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah respond in a second way: each of them is overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness at being called to serve the Lord. For in our hearts and our minds, we as God’s people do not always hear or receive what the Lord intends to be a word of hope as a hopeful message.

During this season of Advent I am once again reflecting on four Annunciation paintings. Here, I invite you to consider Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of the angel’s visitation to Mary, calling her to be a servant in God’s ongoing work of redemption. Observe Mary’s response to the angel and its contrast with Simone Martini’s painting (featured in my prior posting). In Martini’s Annunciation, we see an image portraying fear – Mary clutching the top of her cloak turning away from the angel and yet not able to take her eyes off the divine messenger. In Rossetti’s Annunciation (above), we see Mary looking in a different direction. Her gaze is off into the middle distance, and we can tell that she is not looking at anything in particular, ‘out there.’ Instead, she is looking within.

When encountering the holiness, righteous and purity of God, we may experience not only fear about change that might lie ahead. Very likely we will also feel a sense of our own unworthiness. Sensing the glory of God, we will become more aware of what fall’s short of God’s glory within us. When the Spirit invites us to experience transformation back into God’s own likeness, we are called to face and then set aside all that stands in the way of this positive change. In the Gospels we learn how God’s Word came through John the Baptizer’s ministry as a call to repent. We hear the same call to turn toward renewal in our own day.

Notice what we see in the angel’s hand. When inviting Mary to bear the Word of God for the sake of the world, the angel holds lilies. Lilies are a sign of the resurrection. We also see the prominent red sash that Mary may have been stitching. It bears an image of the same lilies, along with a vine that may recall the ‘Tree of Jesse’ motif (inspired by Isaiah 11). But here they are set against a red background – a sign of the passion that lies ahead. This suggests the path of suffering which the ‘Son of Man’ must walk so that we might experience the restoration and transformation of our fallen nature in his likeness.

 

The image above is a detail of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, The Annunciation (a painting I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of an Unexpected Invitation

 

Advent is the perfect season for reflecting on how God’s Spirit invites us to go to a new place spiritually for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Since there is no question that this will happen, the only question is how it will happen, and how we will respond when it does.

This is the season when we focus on how God’s Kingdom comes into the world. We look back to the earthly kingdom of Israel, and her difficulty fulfilling her spiritual vocation. We also look back to the promised first coming of the Messiah, who would bring God’s Kingdom into the world with new power. And during Advent, we also look forward, to the Messiah’s return in glory. But here is a crucial fact about the first coming of the Messiah: if there had been no Mary, there would have been no Jesus. In order for God’s great “YES” to us in Jesus to become manifest, Mary had to say “Yes” to God.

God’s call to Mary embodies God’s holiness and righteousness. In our encounter with this, everything in us that is less than godly undergoes judgment. The bright light of God’s glory throws into relief all the dark corners of the world ~ and all the dark corners in our lives. The purity of God shows up all that is less than pure.

Our reaction to this may involve at least one thing: fear! God’s call comes to us as Good News. And yet, we experience God’s call for us to become a new person and do new things as a fearful invitation. For me, it has involved a call to consider moving away from one beloved church and congregation to what I could only hope would be another. For both you and for me, it may be a call to go and speak to someone with whom we have a disagreement, or to reconcile with someone whom we have failed to forgive. When God calls us to new life, by inviting us to do something like this, our first reaction is often fear. We think of all the things we are afraid might happen: like losing the security of a familiar home and community; or setting aside our own pride and sense of right; and opening ourselves in vulnerability to being hurt by another person.

In this detail of Simone Martini’s Annunciation, we see what may have been Mary’s first response to the presence of the holy Angel. Gabriel comes to her sharing God’s good news about the child she will bear, who will bring salvation for the world. And Mary draws back in fear at this message, frightened about what it might mean for her and her life. We all know the end of the story, how it all turned out for good. But in that moment, as it often is for us, God’s call probably had a frightening aspect to it. Because a change to something always means a change from something else, from where we started.

Martini’s painting reminds me of spiritual advice I received years ago ~ spiritual advice that gave me the courage to leave a tenured faculty position at one of our seminaries and return to parish ministry. The prospect of this change, for which I had a sense of call, was frightening. And the good advice I received was this: when you go toward the heart of your fear in faith, God will meet you there with power.

We know that this is what Mary did. For she moved beyond her reaction to the seeming strangeness of the Angel’s greeting, not knowing what it meant. She was then open to embracing the message and all that it would entail for her ~ and for the world.

 

The image above is a detail of Simone Martini’s painting, The Annunciation (a painting I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of a Fuller Picture

 

Late in Luke’s Gospel, some Sadducees come to Jesus to challenge him with a fanciful question about marriage. As we may remember, their question is premised on an assumption they do not share ~ that is, belief in resurrection.

In his response, Jesus does not really challenge the Sadducees to have ‘right belief.’ As if just believing in the resurrection will make all well. No, Jesus challenges their perception of what is now present among them. Through his words, and even more through his personal presence, he offers them revelation of a more encompassing reality, a doorway to a fuller life already in their midst.

Here is what Jesus says, and embodies for them: our God is the God of the living. Not just of breathing, metabolism and brain function! Our God is the God who brings fullness to life, who brings flourishing in blessedness, and a happiness that transcends all the pleasures of this attractive world.

What a paradox this suggests! Because many of us routinely settle for merely existing. We sacrifice the possibility of something greater by habitually relying on the limited forms of living which are within reach, apparent to our earthly eyes, and alluring to our sensate experience. These can be good things. Yet they cease to be good if they keep us from seeing and wanting more. The world around us bears the imprint of the Creator’s handiwork. Through the special revelation of Scripture, and especially in the Word made Flesh, we see more fully what God would have us see, and not simply what we are drawn to see.

One of the important things revealed Luke’s story is a truth that is embodied in The Book of Common Prayer. Marriage is bound up with God’s purposes for our lives. These Godly purposes change when we get to ‘the other side,’ precisely as our lives become more characterized by eternity, and by our shared experience of transcendent glory.

So, whether we are thinking of marriage or of the broader experience of friendship, whether we are thinking of knowing and loving, or of activities like singing or work, Jesus shows us this: that the reality of these things on the other side will transcend the limited ways we experience them now. This is most true with our knowing and loving, both of which are manifestly incomplete for us. We love many things we do not really know; and we know things that we do not truly love. It is the same with our being and our doing, which are often out of sync. But these aspects of our lives will no longer be separate when all is accomplished in Jesus.

The vital thing is the dynamic element that transforms ordinary things into the extraordinary, and basic living into flourishing. It is this: We need to let what is heavenly shape and change our experience of what is earthly. This is the opposite of letting our engagement with the earthly limit our hope and expectations for all that is heavenly. Jesus reveals fuller life in the Spirit, and gives it to us now. Clinging to what is near and tangible may hinder our openness to what may yet be. At the same time, when we open ourselves to what is made new in him, he loosens our grip on what is near and on what seems important to us now. Jesus is our Daystar. The Daystar from on high broadens the horizon for human life.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, November 10, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Autumn Glory

 

In Western Michigan, the leaves at this time of year are usually beautiful. On the relatively few sunny days we’ve had, some of the leaves have been striking. But even against a foggy or rainy sky, the bright leaves provide a lovely metaphor. Like a choral concert featuring many voices, the leaves show their individual colors together in a stunning overall performance. I always love the deep reds of the maples. But the brilliant yellows and oranges of the birches, cottonwoods and hickories provide strong complementary support. Since these lively colors among the leaves are less common down south, we always put some in the mail to our kids in Louisiana.

As I think about this fall display, I remember something I heard years ago. We think of the bright colors as suddenly appearing in the autumn. But, apparently, those bright colors in the leaves have been there all along! It’s just that, at this time of year, the predominant green color fades away. When it does, it reveals the other brilliant colors latent in the body of the leaves. Either way, we don’t see the bright colors until autumn. And from the leaves’ first emergence as buds in the spring, we see only suggestions of what will come later. Sometimes the buds show hints of red and yellow. But soon, most of them bear variations of green, some light and pale, and others dark and rich-looking.

We can find a further extension of this metaphor in the form of a reflective contrast. On one hand, we appreciate the leaves at the end of their growing season. Yet, we often have a less-than-poetic view of ourselves as we approach the end of our own ‘growing season.’ Regarding the autumn display of color, people of faith rightly echo words from the Psalms, when we speak of fall leaves as ‘singing out praise’ to the creator. The leaves are doing what they were made to do. They are true to their own nature in each of the four seasons. And they come into their full glory in the fall.

And yet, when we think about ‘the autumn’ of our physically embodied lives, we consider it to be a time of decline and loss rather than one of gain, or as a time for giving glory. Suppose someone asks us to think about examples of people who give glory to God just by being who they are. We are likely to think of young folks in the ‘springtime’ of life, physically fit, professionally accomplished, with lots of time for achievement ahead. But why don’t we perceive the fullness of age as the time when we grow into wholeness, into the beauty of maturity, and when we embody received wisdom and grace? Why is autumn no longer a ready metaphor for when we as human beings come into our own glory?

The gloriously colored leaves falling from the trees at this time of year do not attain their beauty through anything they do. They come into their glory as a result of what happens to them. This follows from how God has made them, and from what God has put into them. This is perhaps the most significant meaning we can find in these leaves coming into their glory at the end of their lives. It gives us a different way to think about how we move into and through the ‘autumn season’ of our lives. For we now share in the beauty of the Communion of Saints not through anything we have done, nor by our strength, but through God’s graceful embrace of our weakness.

This past Sunday -All Saints Sunday- many people across the Church received a new birth through being joined with our Lord’s death and resurrection. They became new buds grafted onto the Tree of Life. In the youngest ones, we can only imagine how —some day— they will reflect Christ’s glory in their maturity. For we don’t yet see how they will become like the brightly colored leaves on autumn trees. But on All Saints, all the newly baptized emerge as flowering buds on the Tree of Life. May we join them in glorifying God through every season of our lives.

 

The image above is of an untitled Coco Treppendahl painting portraying the beauty of autumn leaves. This post is based on my homily for All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Prayer

 

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem. On the way, he senses the looming adversity it harbors for him and his disciples. To strengthen his followers, he tells them a little story with a simple point. We shouldn’t let the details distract us from Luke’s introduction to it. He plainly states the purpose of Jesus’ story. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Unless we are careful, we are likely to assume that Jesus wants us to see prayer as boiling down to persuasion! But the point of his story is not for us to try to persuade God about the rightness of our needs! The point is for us to be as persevering in prayer as was the woman who kept pestering the unjust judge. We are to persevere in prayer precisely so that God can persuade us about the rightness of God’s will. Jesus commends the example of the woman’s persistence, not her insistence on getting her way. Discerning that God wants us to be attentive and faithful, we then see that our relationship with God is the real issue, not our needs. If even an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will our righteous God vindicate Israel’s faithful, who seek him?

Just as children do with their parents, we usually take our relationship with our Father in heaven for granted. At the same time we are absorbed with our needs and wants. Yet, we can also choose to be intentional about our relationship with God, and trust God’s Providence for our needs. Well, this is hard to do!

Here we can connect with Jacob’s experience, as recorded in Genesis 32. Jacob’s life has been greatly disrupted. He is filled with unease about meeting his brother Esau, whom he has wronged. Jacob worries for himself and his future, about his kids and his possessions. He wrestles with anxiety. During a dark night, he discovers he is wrestling with more than worry – he is wrestling with God! And so, he is also wrestling with himself.

This is the key: wrestling with God is usually the result of resisting God, and of resisting God’s will. Wrestling with God can leave us with the spiritual equivalent of a limp. As with Jacob, this ‘limp’ results from our stubbornness and hard-heartedness. In spite of this, God truly wants everyone to receive divine blessing, whether it’s Jacob and Esau, or all of us. But, sometimes, and maybe even often, we get in the way!

At the very least, as Jacob discovered, prayer is about hanging on to God, no matter what… ~ even while we are asking God questions, and even while we are contending with God’s will for us. It really is ok to tell God we are angry or sad, or disappointed or depressed. And it really is ok to tell God that we blame God for these things! The point is to tell God, instead of telling our friends or Facebook. By asking God, or honestly telling God, we engage with the Spirit’s presence. Then, like Jacob, we are in the best position to receive a divine blessing. It helps us see that prayer has little to do with changing God’s will. Instead, prayer has everything to do with God changing our will. For God always seeks to change our will so that it comes into accord with God’s great love for us.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jacob Wrestles With an Angel. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, October 20, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.