“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
A confession seems appropriate to begin a reflection for Ash Wednesday. So, here it is: I struggled to write this piece. No, it wasn’t procrastination or ‘writer’s block’ or that I was too busy. I honestly believe that it is about my own wrestling with the texts and the truth of this day in the life of our faith.
After all, Ash Wednesday is a hard day in the life of the Church.
In fact, one of the best sermons I have ever heard proclaimed on this day involved the preacher wondering aloud why we flock to churches to hear the stunningly honest proclamation of this day–you are dust, and to dust shall you return. These are sobering words, for they reveal our deepest truth as human beings. We are impermanent.
As I ponder this the appointed text from Matthew’s Gospel, I am reminded that, over the course of seven years of marriage, my spouse and I have lived in six different homes across three states. To write that is almost painful. However, along the way, through each move, we’ve learned quite a lot. We have strong opinions about moving companies, detailed plans for how best to pack, and a deeper appreciation for the ways that communities enable us to feel at home.
We have also been amazed at how quickly we amass ‘stuff’ in each placed we have dwelt. Even when we haven’t lived in a place very long, belongings seem to multiply quickly, and, before we knew it, every corner of storage space in the house is filled.
In the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells those gathered on a Galilean hillside not store up treasures on earth, where they rot, rust, or are stolen. Instead, Jesus bids them, store up treasures that will last, heavenly treasure. Treasure, he says, will lead the heart.
I’m always amazed that we read these verses, and the ones that precede them, on this day in the Christian tradition. Of all days, this day contains one of the most ‘treasured’ practices–the imposition of ashes upon one’s forehead. With a very public display of piety, so begins a forty-day sojourn in a wilderness of penitence, fasting, and self-denial.
Yet, Jesus’ warnings before his instruction on treasure storage focus on piety and prayer, suggest a much more private posture toward the actions we Christians will take on this holy day.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…”
“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…”
“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…”
Like many who have read Matthew’s Gospel before us, I don’t believe Jesus is arguing that we should never pray in public, that we should never share our fasts with another person, or that we should stop placing our offerings in those shiny brass plates on Sunday morning. However, I do believe Jesus’ words call us to some deep reflection about our lives, our faith, and our treasure.
Maybe this day isn’t about putting on ashes, or anything else for that matter; perhaps this day, and the invitation to enter into the season that follows, is about what we need to take off or with which we need to part ways. After all, everything, including us, is impermanent.
In reading this Gospel passage on this sacred day, at the dawn of this holy season, Jesus’ warnings seem to invite us to travel lightly in the trek that lies before us. As the depths of winter begin to give way to the blooms of spring across much of the country, and the layers of cold weather attire give way to warmer days and lighter jackets, our faith might also do well to shed a few layers and be renewed by this hallowed journey toward resurrection.
What do we, as individuals, need to shed in the days ahead?
Perhaps it is a sense of shame at having not kept up a life of prayer or an addiction to the voices of various media that leave us in a haze of confusion and doubt.
What do we, collectively, as a people of faith, need to part ways with as we travel the familiar road of Lent?
Perhaps it is an attachment to the sacred symbols of tradition or a fear of taking a risk amidst a world that too often bids the Church play it safe.
Together, the soft, flaky ashes upon our foreheads and these ancient, familiar words of Jesus, invite us into this holy season, and call us to take stock of our individual and collective lives. Let us not fear shedding a few layers of whatever weighs heavy upon us in these days, that we might discover what truly matters, what really lasts–the eternal love of God.
The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter, Eleanor, who was born in 2017.
The last thing to happen between Jesus and his friends, just before this incredible and miraculous story that we call the Transfiguration is a heated argument between Jesus and his closest companion, Peter. Just before Jesus calls Peter up to witness Moses, Elijah, and Jesus sharing time together on the top of a mountain, he refuses to trust Jesus’ prediction that he will suffer and die at the hands of elders, chief priests, and legal experts.
And just before that, all twelve of the disciples demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus overcame a worrying lack of nourishment in a crowd of thousands by multiplying a few loaves of bread and pieces of fish that might have fed three or four families into an abundance of food that fed more than four thousand families with baskets of bread and fish left over.
Of course, the response to that miracle among the religious insiders is just ridiculous: the religious leaders demand that Jesus should perform a sign. As if the news of abundance and healing weren’t enough. The religious leaders—the Pharisees and Sadducees insist that they need more. They heap on doubt and criticism in a way that multiplies itself.
So, Jesus warns his disciples, who were closest to him to be careful around the religious authority. Their subversion of the gospel grows like yeast. Unfortunately, the disciples didn’t understand Jesus. After Jesus mentioned yeast, the disciples spin around in circles looking for bread, and complaining that there wasn’t any food to eat.
They just don’t get it. And their misunderstanding has potential ramifications for the future of God’s movement. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus knows that he will suffer, he will die, and he will rise up, but he needs to have his disciples there to lead this radical movement and carry Jesus’ message of grace and love into the world so that the Kingdom has a place to take root. In order for this movement to be effective, the disciples can’t be taken over by the subversive doubt manifesting in the religious leadership. They need to resist the impulse to doubt Jesus’ incredible ministry. They need to resist the impulse to categorize and contain Jesus’ message.
So, after Jesus and Peter get into a pretty nasty argument, culminating in Jesus yelling at Peter for embodying the power of temptation, Jesus invites a few of his disciples, including Peter, to come and see one more sacred sign that might lead them towards a new alignment with the Kingdom of God.
It is hard to understand what is happening on the top of the mountain without taking a quick glance at where we’ve come so far. In this tense moment with his disciples, just as he is beginning his journey towards the cross, Jesus brings his close friends to a thin place, where the Kingdom is fully tangible. There are no crowds around to distract the disciples. There are no other religious folks there to critique and question what they were seeing.
They simply witnessed a reunion of Israel’s past, present, and future illumined on the crest of a hill.
Then, from there, Jesus and his disciples go about business as usual. Jesus heals another young child, then teaches about the ethics of the Kingdom of God.
The Transfiguration doesn’t seem to change much. It certainly doesn’t give the disciples a sudden burst of clarity. It doesn’t change Jesus’ fundamental ministry. It doesn’t even change the timeline or the outcome of Jesus’ challenging message. He continues to heal. He continues to teach. He continues to frustrate the religious folks. He continues to expect more from his disciples than they ever are able to follow through on. Ministry just continues, which makes this sacred moment on the top of a mountain all the more interesting.
Transfiguration Sunday is such a weird and wonderful day to celebrate. In so many ways, nothing really happened. Nothing changed. The world wasn’t turned upside down. The disciples weren’t suddenly flooded with a new understanding of God or of Jesus. In other ways, it was incredibly important.
In reality, the moment highlighted how quick we are to categorize our experiences of holiness into easy, comfortable boxes. Peter’s response was just perfect: “something holy happened, let’s put up a tent!
But, in the scheme of life and ministry and faith, big moments are always just that. They are moments that stand out as significant and important nestled between other moments. For most people, life is filled with significant moments. Even if they are big and mind-blowing, those moments are rarely actually life-changing. Very few people have had single moments that changed the course of their life. That’s just not how life works.
Most of us require several moments strung together to start making an impact on our lives. We need multiple experiences nudging us in the same direction before we start walking faithfully.
As I read the Gospel of Matthew, that is exactly what I see. I see a group of friends who experience a series of significant moments together in the presence of Jesus, who slowly allow their lives and their perspective to be changed.
They witnessed healings and exorcisms, miraculous meals, thoughtful teachings, resurrections, and even the transfiguration of a friend into dazzling white. They witnessed faithfulness, and doubt, and growth. They witnessed lives transformed. They witnessed lives reborn.
For the disciples, it took every single one of these moments for them to start to understand the immanence and power of God’s Kingdom.
I wonder sometimes about the cultural preoccupation that we have with immediate gratification. I wonder if we look too hard for a life-changing moment or experience that will alter everything in our lives, missing the small moments that lead us towards transformation. I wonder about our habit to cancel the people who irritate us most. I wonder what would have happened if Peter had walked away after Jesus called him Satan. I’m confident that he wouldn’t have seen the transfiguration.
Without every moment leading up to the Transfiguration, I’m not sure Peter, James, and John would have seen Moses, Elijah and Jesus talking together. I think they needed the time together, traveling through villages and towns. I think they needed to see every single sick person healed. I think they needed to hear Jesus speak about a faithful ethic for the Kingdom of God. I think they needed the arguments and the debates. I think they needed the challenge.
All of that led to the top of a mountain. Then that moment led them back down the mountain. And life continued for them. And because life continued for them, it continues for us.
The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.
As is the case with most other types of literature, we as Biblical interpreters should give an exceptional amount of weight to the beginning and end of major formal elements in books of the Bible. They are often quite revealing regarding what the author is trying to communicate through his story. This passage from Matthew 4 stands at a pivotal moment in the form of Matthew’s gospel: this is the point where we move from Jesus’ pre-ministry to his ministry proper. As such, this passage is particularly important for understanding Matthew’s gospel message.
Our story starts off with an ominous sign. In a foreshadowing of Jesus’ eventual fate, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist (who modern scholarship suggests was Jesus’s mentor) was arrested. Jesus’ response to this was to leave home and move to Capernaum. Exegetes for millennia have tried to figure out why Jesus did this. He certainly wasn’t fleeing for his safety: Capernaum was directly in the center of the Galilee, the very domain of Herod Antipas, the Roman-installed client-king who was responsible for John’s arrest, who would later kill John the Baptist, and would put Jesus on trial. So clearly, Jesus is not fleeing toward safety here.
Interestingly, this is in contrast to his parents under the previous Herod (“the Great,” Herod Antipas’ father). The Holy Family fled as refugees to Egypt to prevent Jesus from being killed in the so-called Slaughter of the Innocents. At this time however, Jesus, now convicted of his ministry, steels himself and moves straight into the lion’s den, toward his confrontation with the powers that be. Over and over again, Jesus foretells his own death: throughout his entire ministry, he has a resoluteness about his behavior and rarely shies away from delivering his message, even though it comes at considerable personal risk.
In reflecting on Jesus’ relocation, Matthew cites a passage from First Isaiah. Along with the whole of Jewish biblical interpretation in this time period (including both Rabbinic and early Christian interpretation), Matthew would fail a modern exegesis class. He cherry-picks a ”prophecy” from the Bible (remember, there was only one Testament at this time), which he appropriates, giving little if any regard to its original context, simply plucking out the phrase that suits his purposes and disregarding the entire rest of the passage. This would not go over well under the rules of modern exegesis; he violates the most core principles of the discipline of Biblical Studies. However, in Matthew’s defense, few if any Jews in the first century C.E. would pass muster by modern exegetical standards. So Matthew’s use of Scripture here indeed is crass, but he also is behaving within the interpretive principles of this time.
However, all is not lost. We can still understand the intertextual relationship between Isaiah’s passage and Matthew’s productively, even if we add more nuance than he does. The original passage, coming from First Isaiah, reflects on the Jewish experience of exile. The people ”who sat in darkness” are those hauled off into exile in Babylon. (Which, note, is a classed experience. The Babylonians didn’t see it as worth the effort to haul off the poor into exile.) These elites who used to be so high on the cultural totem pole have now suffered a severe reversal of status and have been kicked out of their homeland, never to go back within their lifetimes. Notice as well that for many of these exiles, their descendants would never end up returning to the Holy Land. Despite the prophets’ best urgings and the laments of some of the most fervent of those exiled, many Israelites did not experience the Babylonian exile as suffering and in fact saw a marked increase in their standard of living. This then created the conditions whereby they would decline to move back to the Holy Land when they were allowed to, creating a significant Jewish community in Babylon. (This Babylonian Jewish community is so significant that it will eventually produce one of the versions of the Talmud.)
However, Isaiah is not speaking from this perspective of those who have accommodated to life in Babylonia, but from the perspective of one who sees the Holy Land itself as a fundamental part of God’s promises to Israel. Thus, beyond the emotional distress and trauma of forced displacement, the Israelites have suffered the loss of God’s gift to them. So for Isaiah, returning home was indeed a blessing, a “great light.” These people who have been sitting in darkness, as Matthew adapts Isaiah poetry to say, are finally able to return.
For Isaiah, this is fundamentally a story of God’s restoration at work in the world, restoring that which has been broken. And for Matthew, this same restoration that Isaiah talked about has come to be through the person Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.
Matthew continues to expand upon Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 17 by describing what Jesus’s mission ministry looks like. It contains the core of the message for Matthew’s Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change your lives, for this restoration that God is bringing to pass has arrived. Come participate in this restored world. And what does this restoration look like? Verse 23 demonstrates that Jesus’ restoration-ministry consists of preaching, teaching, and healing. The restorations of hearts, minds, and bodies that have been broken down by Empire and exile—finally restored to how God originally wanted them to be.
So Matthew provides us a fitting beginning for Jesus’s ministry: encapsulating Jesus’ emphases, providing a characteristic example of Matthew’s crass deployment of Scripture to try to prove his point, and demonstrating how Jesus’ message fits within the broader narrative of God’s redemption of the world that the people had been waiting for in the figure of the Messiah—all of which done is a characteristically Matthean fashion to demonstrate who exactly Jesus was.
Colin Cushman is passionate about teaching the Bible. His particular areas of interest are around the intersection of social justice and the Bible: race, sexism, imperialism, poverty, etc. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife, daughter, and dog.
If you’ve read my bio line at the end of this entry, you’ll know that I am a huge fan of the Transformers. I don’t have nearly the time to go into the ‘whys’ and ‘what-nots’ of my hobby, but one of the (few) highlights for the Transformers franchise in recent years was 2018’s Bumblebee, a movie about a giant alien robot that turns into a VW Beetle and befriends a young woman named Charlie Watson. Their stories mirror each other beautifully: Bumblebee is far from home, separated from those he knows and loves, and to make matters worse he has lost both his voice and his memory. Charlie is estranged from her family following the death of her dad. She doesn’t really know who she is anymore and feels lost. Their paths cross, and together they go on a journey of discovering who they are meant to be. Girl meets alien robot. Tale as old as time.
Like Bumblebee and Charlie, we find Jesus today on a journey of self-discovery, as the time has come for him to become the person that he was always meant to be. And what is the initial public action in which Jesus participates when he takes his first steps into this larger world? It’s the rite of baptism. It’s the rite of belonging.
But we can’t help wondering why Jesus would need to participate in such a rite. Luckily, John the Baptizer wonders the same thing. Jesus’ response to him is: “We must fulfill all righteousness.” I’ve often wondered what he meant by this, and over time I’ve come to believe that at the core of Jesus’ desire to be baptized was the need to belong to the human family, that this is what he means by fulfilling all righteousness. How could Jesus do what he did, be who he was meant to be, if he were not one of us? How could we possibly look to him as not only our Savior but also our model for how to live faithfully in this world if he did not do what we do, including participate in our rituals? It wasn’t that Jesus needed baptism to wash away his sins—we know that he was the sinless one—but he chose to be baptized so to fully embrace his own humanity, to share in the human journey with us, to be part of our family. This is what baptism does. It brings us into the family of Jesus and gives us a place of belonging.
But there’s another layer to it. Baptism doesn’t just bring us into the family, it commissions us for the lives that we were always meant to live. In his own baptism Jesus is declared by the voice of God to be God’s “Son,” God’s “Beloved,” and in our own baptisms we are called children of God, we are called beloved, and like Jesus we are sent out into the world to do what God has called us to do: to be agents of God’s love and reconciliation in the world. Before Jesus can begin his public ministry, he goes through the rite of baptism, taking his place in the family of God, and the same is true for us. The waters of baptism not only make us brothers and sisters in this family, but like Jesus we whom the Holy Spirit has sealed and marked forever are called to go into the world, empowered by that same Spirit, to love and to serve. Those waters transformed Jesus from the simple carpenter of Nazareth into the Savior of the world, and they have the same transformative power to make the wounded, vulnerable, and lost part of the family of God.
The desire to be part of something, to belong, to have a family—whether one of blood or one of our own choosing—is a fundamental characteristic that is shared by every person. Is there anyone who does not seek some form of belonging? Who does not seek a relationship with someone who tells us that we matter and that we are loved? This is what makes Bumblebee such a good story, not because it’s about a car that turns out to be an alien robot—although that’s cool, that’s cool—it’s because in the characters of Bumblebee and Charlie we see that desire played out, and we see these two form such a relationship. The whole world is longing with such a desire, and we are the agents who can go and say to the lost, lonely, and outcast, and tell them: “You matter. And you are loved!” We not only discover our own selves when we become part of the family of God, but we are equipped to go and invite others in.
I suspect many of you, like me, refer to your congregations as your sisters and brothers in your sermons. It seems natural, doesn’t it? We belong together, as a family, united by the love of God made manifest in Jesus and given outward representation by the same waters of baptism that washed over him and washes over us. I wonder how we will live into this journey of discovery and belonging among our congregations. How will we equip them to be sent out, to find those who need to hear such a message? We have been transformed by baptism into children of God, now how will we transform this world that God loves so much?
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.
The Episcopal Church formally adopted the Revised Common Lectionary at its 2006 General Convention, but only in part. I’ll save the reader, especially the non-Episcopalian crowd, the full legislative history, but as a piece of the process of adopting the RCL, in 2000, the Episcopal Church revised the Revised Common Lectionary. The most heavy-handed revisions occur during the Christmas Season, wherein the old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary is substituted fully for both the First and Second Sundays after Christmas. So, while y’all are preaching from Matthew’s long nightmare, I’ll be sharing with my people the lofty and uplifted image of Jesus Christ as Logos from the prologue to John’s Gospel. In fact, all things being equal, I’ll never actually have the opportunity to preach on Matthew 2:13-23, as that full pericope is never appointed in our revised version of the Revised [Common] Lectionary.
If you made it that lengthy introduction, then you know that I’ve already betrayed my opinions on the standard Gospel lesson in the RCL. Sandwiched between two dreams in which God sends a message to Joseph is the brutal story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It is the kind of story that brings up all kinds of questions about theodicy and the role that God plays in the evil that happens in the world. These are the kinds of questions that people don’t much enjoy with their peanut butter blossom cookies and hot apple cider, but they are questions that a tired preacher ought to probably consider before the rush of services from Advent 4, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Christmas 1 leave you scrambling at midnight on December 28th.
We can all understand why God would send an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream in the hopes of protecting Emmanuel, the Second Person of the Trinity who was sent to earth bring salvation for our sins. What is less easy to understand is why God didn’t send angels to every father of a toddler under two living in and around Bethlehem to protect them from the crushing sadness of losing a child to the deranged paranoia of a powerful tyrant. Sandwiched between the two dreams of Joseph as it is, the slaughter of the innocents is exceedingly troubling for those of us who follow a God who is assumed to be loving, just, and compassionate such that the story can feel like one long nightmare from the flight to Egypt, through the slaughter of the innocents, to the return to Nazareth. The quotation from Jeremiah makes matters worse. At least in Matthew’s mind, the death of these small children seems to be a part of God’s plan. A plan that is elsewhere in Scripture described as “good and perfect.”
God’s good and perfect plan was to send the Son into the world so that the world might be saved, but how that plan gets lived out in real life brings with it all kinds of skirmishes between good and evil, the God and Maker of All and the powers and principalities which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. While this story is meant to show us that even as an infant, Jesus is more powerful than any political leader hellbent on destruction, a preacher, especially a preacher in Christmastide, would do well to help their congregations see and understand that the Innocents weren’t killed by God’s divine plan but by the sinfulness of humanity, the wonted corruption of political power, and a madman who lived every moment of his life in fear of losing all that he had gained.
The Slaughter of the Innocents is remembered with its own Feast Day on the Fourth Day of Christmas and recounted by the Revised Common Lectionary on Christmas 1 to remind us of God’s ongoing plan of salvation in the light of humanity’s epic ability to do evil. We remember those young souls as martyrs because their deaths remind us of what happens when the powers of this world are confronted by the power of God’s love. We tell this story during the “most wonderful time of year” to remind ourselves that God’s will, as our Presiding Bishop often says, “is to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.” In order to get there, we must admit the truth of that nightmare, that this world is corrupt, evil, and violent, in order to then flip the script and move toward a place we dream of when on Christmas we sing “Peace on earth, and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.”
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds a Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.
One of my favorite allegories for ministry comes from the scene in Disney/Pixar’s original Toy Story, where toy space ranger hero, Buzz Lightyear, “proves” to Andy’s other toys that he can fly. He climbs up the post of the footrest on Andy’s bed, takes a deep breath, and confidently proclaims his trademark phrase: “to infinity and beyond!” With a leap off the bed, he soars toward the ground but at the last second lands on a bouncy ball, which catapults him head over heels onto a Hot Wheels car sitting at the top of its track. As he rides the car down the shoot and loops around the track, Buzz catches air once again and shoots up to grab the ceiling airplane. His momentum jolts the plane to circle faster and faster until it launches him into a graceful arc to land on his feet in front of the awed and astonished waiting toys. “It’s true!” they exclaim in awe and wonder. He “flies!” (Except Woody, who declares later that Buzz is simply “falling with style.”) Such is often the case with ministry as, despite our all too human quirks and foibles, the Holy Spirit brings grace and transformation out of our fumbling attempts to do God’s work and will.
How many of us have had the humble moment of dissonance and disconnect when we, like Buzz later in the movie when he discovers he can’t actually do all the things he thinks he can do, discover that our hard work in ministry doesn’t always pay off? That often, instead of the awe and glory and miraculous transformation, what we think is our ability or gift doesn’t seem to make much difference, might not actually accomplish the big change we thought was in the making, hasn’t done much to usher in God’s kingdom in the here and now. How many of us wonder if the miniscule return is worth the effort? That if the few moments we get it right make the many moments we don’t worth the discouragement and disillusionment? I know I have.
This is why I find Mary so intriguing. Mary: a teenager pregnant out of wedlock, who faced sure and certain social, religious, and familial condemnation. Mary: sent away from her home, into “seclusion” if you will, to live with her cousin Elizabeth for at least nine months or perhaps until the scandal died down. Mary: facing the possibility of a broken engagement with Joseph, assured gossip and ridicule, and a lifelong precarious social position.
Despite these very real and prodigious challenges, Mary somehow sings with gladness and exultation. How does she do it? How does she find, as Isaiah describes, “waters breaking forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand becoming a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water?” How does she, like the farmer in James’ epistle, wait with patience for the precious work of God to come into fruition before it has even begun? How does she act with confidence, proclaim salvation already at hand without the doubt of John in Luke’s Gospel, questioning “is this really it, God, or should I keep waiting for you to make it more clear?” And most intriguing: how does she do it all with quiet peace and without grumbling, moving forward in confidence though there is no indication whatsoever that everything is going to work out okay?
It’s a question that has haunted me for over a year. A question that began burning as I trekked my way along the Camino de Santiago, that weighed on my shoulders as I traversed the landmines of an unintentional interim ministry, and eventually experienced “the worst”—finding myself unexpectedly unemployed with no immediate prospects on the horizon. I found myself in the place so many people do so very often in life: liminal space. It’s a word I first heard while in seminary, a word thrown around as our young heads nodded wisely without truly knowing. The Latin word is limen. Limen. Threshold. It’s the word that best describes Advent, the actual living in the already-but-not-yet promise of anticipatory hope. Coach and poet Christine McDougall, in her poem Liminal, defines that anticipatory hope differently than Mary. She writes:
The space between
A Dawning, a Dusking …
The immanent threshold
Crossing … to what?
The moment is calling you
to pay … exquisite … attention
Advent is truly a liminal season, a betwixt and a between; rife with hope, temerity, grief, cold dark, warm glowing light. It is a season ripe and potent as we look forward to the incarnation of God with us, of the Christ Child. Advent is an immanent threshold that calls us to slow down and pay exquisite attention to all that roots and coils within us, to watch and wait for God’s infinite plan for our salvation, personal and corporate, to unfold. Advent is a time during which we turn toward the promise of what-is-to-come, an act which requires us to let go and mourn that which must die in us to allow that promise or desire to unfold. Advent, liminal space, betwixt and between, not yet is not a comfortable space. Perhaps that is why the season is only four weeks – it is difficult, even dangerous to make our home in the unknown and the amorphous for too long. Far more comfortable to move from what has been to what will be, than to live in the in-between of not yet that is now. And yet, this is what we all do at any given time in our lives, live on the threshold of the next thing, for nothing in life is constant. Advent is the poster-child of the old adage that “the only constant is change.” Perhaps this is why the glow of candles on Christmas Eve warms us so. The waiting and watching, the not knowing, is finally done. Now we know all is well, and we can breathe a sigh of relief.
And yet, we know, too, that Advent will come again and again and again. I have always thought of the spiritual journey as circling a mountain. We slowly spiral our way around, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending in order to climb again, seeing the same view over and over again but often from a different vantage point depending on our spiritual growth or palsy. Gary Snyder’s short poem, On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years, captures, for me, the goal of the spiritual life:
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.
How do we shift from discomfort to become friends with the uncertain and unknown? How do we wait with patience for the crop to come to fruition, how do we experience joy in all circumstances, how do we find peace in the midst of the varied changes and chances of life?
The answer is simple. Trust God. Trust God with the faith of Mary, the faith of Isaiah, the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Trust God so completely that you have no fear of fallout, no fear of survival, no fear for what may befall. Easy, right?
Not easy. Not remotely easy. There is a cost to discipleship, to following God with this level of commitment. The cost might be high. The cost will likely require abject humility, an unflinching examination of self, courage to embrace and heal the parts and pieces of your self that are messy, and broken, and maybe even unlovable. It is not easy to hold on to the absolute and unflinching trust, that you are enough, that God created you to be who you are in all your imperfect, messy, learning, be-ing and that God has prepared a place and a purpose for YOU – especially when it seems that everyone around you has an opinion otherwise.
That is the trust with which Mary lived. That is the trust that she taught Jesus to live. That trust is what gave them, and countless others, absolute, unshakable confidence and peace. The lack of fear terrified the people around them, terrified them because we humans are accustomed to being bound by the limits people around us impose. But Mary, and Jesus, Isaiah, and countless others lived beyond the limits. They lived, in their here and now, in the realm of the Infinite, the creative, the realm of boundless possibility rather than the finite world the rest of us inhabit. They lived as if God’s promise was already a reality, even if there was no sign in the moment that God’s promise was even a possibility.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Liminal space is a constant in our lives, but so is God’s promise. So when we find ourselves in those tenuous moments of not knowing, when we can’t understand why it is that we are going through what we are going through, can we trust? Not blindly, expecting God to magically work everything out into a smooth, even path. But with trust – like Isaiah, James, Mary, Jesus and all the other saints who have gone before us, choosing to live confidently in the God’s promise to do what God has said God will do as if it is already a reality, as if God is already at work. It is not an accident that the very first words of the gospel, the good news, are “Do not be afraid.” To be free from fear and angst… what kind of peace would that freedom give us?
In his writing on liminality, poet and storyteller Padraig O’Tuama tells the story of the work he does at Corymeela, a place and people that seeks to make peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. “A practice of peace,” he writes, much like dwelling in an advent liminal space, “is messy. It is not easy. It is fragile and thin and breakable. It is a verb, not an achievement. It needs to be conjugated regularly. It is the experience of having been torn. And, having been torn, staying with that new shape and finding dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. It’s not a landscape; it’s staying alive… Liminality, if it means anything, must be as truthful as forgiving, as confessing, as breathing, as surviving.”
Mary does all of these things in her Canticle of praise, as do Isaiah, and James, and many others. In her song she names the tearing of her personal and corporate life, finds dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. Mary stays alive and survives, but also thrives in God’s promise of mercy and remembrance. At the heart of trust is remembering how God has fulfilled God’s promises before, being sure that God will provide again, and knowing in one’s very being that God is already at work on what is next. If we can bring advent joy, hope, love and peace into every day then perhaps we, with the gladness and exultation of Mary, might also proclaim with confidence “the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is God’s name” wherever this journey of faith takes us –to new and unknown places, to new spiritual depths, to Christmas … to infinity and beyond!
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. In January 2020, she will begin a new call as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
The start of Advent begins the new liturgical year for the Christian calendar. However, many churches find themselves pushing toward the end of the year and Christmas day. Our culture certainly does not help us enter into the Christian timeline. Usually by the start of Advent we have already received our Christmas catalogues, celebrated our hanging of the greens, and have begun making our wish lists. Many preachers may find themselves in this very struggle between where the congregation wants to be (preparing for Christmas) and where the Gospel text leads us (the apocalyptic judgment of God).
While some Christians would argue that the apocalyptic end is near with the divisive and chaotic news viewed when the TV is turned on, the passage from Isaiah for the start of our new year paints a very different picture of the apocalyptic judgment of God. Many readers of the Isaiah passage get lost in the dream of peace: swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. War will be no more. The vivid imagery of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks has tricked many a scripture reader into missing the bigger picture. Even the notion of ultimate peace can keep us from seeing the bigger picture.
Each of these texts runs the risk of being subverted for our own intentions. The reality of Christian history is that the church has too often used the final apocalyptic judgment of God to get whatever it is we believe the church (or, more accurately, ourselves) may want. Too often, the Advent season is like this. The challenge for the reader and/or preacher is to be true to the expectant waiting and preparation of the Advent season. I do not mean to suggest here that we need to put Christ back in Christmas. Instead we must find a way to allow the anticipatory nature of Advent to be what it truly is: a sitting/waiting in darkness for the light of Christ past, present, and future.
Isaiah’s vision, or dream, is a beautiful hope for the world. Who among us hasn’t wished and hoped deeply for peace in the midst of conflict, fighting, and war? However, the challenge of the future is that it is a dream – not unlike the Christmas wish lists made up from children whose families celebrate gift-giving. Too often peace seems to be a dreamy and idyllic hope. In fact, history if filled with individuals who have had such a dream who are meet with the violence of a world that cannot envision the dream with them.
Isaiah’s dream of peace does not just appear at the end of time. This apocalyptic peace comes with arbitration. The Holy One “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4). God not only speaks to the nations, but listens to grievances, disputes, and concerns. God listens and adjudicates. These two words— “judge” and “arbitrate”—are the only active verbs assigned by the text to God. There can be no true and lasting peace without justice.
My own faith formation and theology reads scripture metaphorically more than literally. I do not read of the apocalyptic end times and God’s final judgement in a literal sense. However, this means I also do not read Isaiah’s dream of peace between the nations literally. The chaos, sorrow, pain, and violent conflicts do not merely disappear when Christ is born on Christmas day. To be true to the season of Advent means to acknowledge the struggles and doubts. The preparations made throughout Advent proposes risk and potential failure to live into the ideal of the dream.
It is here that Matthew’s Gospel reading enters. While the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is focused on the unknown future day of judgement, the setting is actually the present. The present day in which the thinking of the apocalypse is set is characterized by a lack of knowledge: uncertainty (possibly even doubt). This lack of knowledge extends beyond humankind to even the angels and the Son. Instead of preparing for Christmas, or even the future apocalyptic judgement of God, these texts have a word for us today.
Most people realize that too often they are like the disciples who follow Jesus around, yet almost always get caught up in the wrong things or miss the point altogether. We are so very often aware of our lack of understanding. However, most of us also want to be better. We hope and we dream about a future that is better. Many of us long for the peace of Isaiah’s dream. Humankind is excellent at dreaming. We struggle with the steps between here and there. Matthew’s Gospel text for the start of the new church year reminds us that there are some things we simply do not know.
The other thing humankind is excellent at is guilt and shame. The struggle in these two texts relates to the push and pull between peace and judgement. These poles suggest that there are two ways to miss the point of our scriptures: one would have us focused too much on the peace and miss God’s judgement. I personally see more people lean the other way: too focused on judgement and miss the peace. Our faith certainly requires action of us. We should be working toward God’s justice for God’s world. However, Matthew’s Gospel text points us toward the work of wakefulness and watchfulness.
We are called to peace. We hope for peace. We, as the church, work for peace. However, the highest mountain tops of Isaiah’s dream come – not from our work, but from somewhere outside and beyond it. We are called to watch for it. We are called to witness it. We are called to preach it to the world. As we enter a new year of the church may we prepare for the rapture. May a rapture of relief come over us when we realize we do not have to know everything. May a rapture of relief overwhelm us when we realize we need not do everything. May a rapture of hope, peace, joy, and love fill us this Advent when we realize that our work—while important—has nothing to do with our own or anyone else’s salvation.
 Noted by Paul Simpson Duke in the “Homiletical Perspective” of Isaiah 2:1-5 FEASTING ON THE WORD: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.
The Rev. David Clifford is the Transitional Minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David is graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). David lives in Henderson with his wife and three children where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading. He also coaches a local elementary archery team.