The angel

I know an angel.

She’s the deli counter server who smiles when taking my order.

He’s the fourteen-year-old who dreams of winning $10 million to give to Parkinson’s research because his grandpa suffers from the disease.

They’re in the bus shelter laughing and giving hi-fives and kisses to friends who do not share the same skin colour, age, language and physical ability.

She’s the one who comes in the nursing home room to encourage with a soft and happy voice.

She challenges world leaders to pay attention to and do something about the climate crisis.

I know an angel.

Today, and every year on September 29, the church recognizes the annual festival, “Michael and all Angels”. In the bible, we acknowledge the popular ones: Gabriel, who brought news to Mary of God’s intention to give her Jesus. And, Michael the great protector whom we read about in Daniel and Revelation.

Herein lies one of those very grey areas for Lutherans who have, in our recent history, become increasingly nervous about the angels. Why is that?

In the Confirmation class which started this past week, we closed our time together by praying Martin Luther’s evening blessing: “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”[1][emphasis mine]

By the way he prayed, we can tell Martin Luther believed in angels. On the other hand, Luther didn’t care too much for those parts of the bible that suggested allegory—those so-called apocalyptic descriptions that described futuristic, other-worldly, colourful, image-rich portrayals of angels, arch-angels, cherubim and seraphim, of sword-wielding horseman, dragons and giant wheels in the sky. Luther consequently relegated these scriptures to a lower priority for the biblically literate.

“Angels cannot be our intermediaries between us and God,” we reformers insist. “There is only one mediator and that is Christ,” we claim. Christ alone, we’ve made things simple. Concrete. More about this in a minute …

And yet, at the same time, we cannot deny the reality and the truth, that just beyond the thin curtain of our awareness and perception there lies a dimension of reality in which we, too, participate—for good and for evil. Our highly trained, rational minds—thanks to the Reformation and Enlightenment eras of the last few centuries—have made us suspicious and skeptical of making such risky forays into those ambiguous, beyond-rational notions. We just don’t know what to do with that part. We just don’t know …

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a beautiful story about an experience he had following his mother’s death: “The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, ‘A serious misfortune in my life has arrived.’ I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother.

‘But one night in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut of my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk with her as if she had never died.

‘When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.”[2]

Perhaps you, too, can point to these subtle yet profound moments—especially following a loss or some great suffering or deepest love—when the cloud breaks, the sun streams through, a bird calls, an image flashes across your vision, a dream’s effect captivates you, a momentary feeling of peace and well-being engulfs you, a stranger impresses you in some unexpected, surprising way.

This is real. People talk to me about these experiences all the time. We can’t put our finger on it. We can’t rationalize our way through it. Well, we try, by talking about neural impulses and undigested fats in our bellies. But here we go again, dealing with our discomfort by reaching for yet another rational explanation. But can we explain away these experiences? Should we?

It’s easy to place religion into the esoteric realms of doctrinal outer-space. That’s our head space whose thoughts, theories and machinations serve to disconnect us from what is, right in front of us. And, sadly this state has almost exclusively defined the Reformation since the days of Martin Luther.

What about our bodies? What about our feelings? What about the natural occurrences in our daily lives? Are these not the purview of God as well?

Martin Luther insisted on the real, the tangible, as a valid and powerful expression of the divine. A faith that is characterized by the incarnation—Word becoming flesh—is a faith that cannot deny what we see, hear, taste and feel. When God became human in Jesus. When the Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts, our bodies. When we eat the body of Christ in the sacrament. God makes our reality God’s domain. Angels among us. The spiritual becomes tangible. Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for God.

One of the clever jingles of the TSN1200 radio station in Ottawa is their oft-repeated phrase introducing whatever sport they broadcast: “The Sens play here” (NHL hockey); “The NFL plays here (football)”; “The RedBlacks play here”(CFL football); “The Fury play here” (soccer); “The 67s play here” (junior hockey).

That needs to be the church’s motto: “God plays here.” In real, tangible, visible, ways. “God plays here” among mortals, among real people in real situations. “God plays here” along with the angels and archangels.

We may not be able to figure it out completely. We may not know the mind and ways of God fully. We may not know this spiritual realm that interplays with our own. We may not even be able to rationalize it in the usual ways. And yet, we trust.

In the last line of the Evening Blessing from the Small Catechism, Martin Luther, after praying for the holy angel to be with him, he gives the following instruction:

“Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” And falling asleep quickly and cheerfully can only happen when, despite our inability to have all the solutions and figure out all our problems, we can feel that it will be well with my soul.

God will make God’s ways and purposes knowable to us, in the regular grind, routines and ordinary circumstances of our lives.

May you know some angels, too.

Trust.

 

[1]Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.1162.

[2]Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (Riverhead Books: 2002), p.5.

Courage and Joy

Last night, the hustle and bustle of getting ready, and anticipating the birth. Last night, the noise, the anxiety, the smelly stable, the animals, the shepherds, the chorus of heaven singing in the starry, silent night. “Joy to the world” indeed!

Today, however, the child is born. A little more breathing room, perhaps. A little more time for realizing what just has happened. Time, amidst the burping, squawking infant feeding for quiet reflection, to ponder this miraculous birth, this wondrous event that will change everything! “What child is this?” indeed!

As things begin to sink in, to settle, one may ponder the last several months as I am sure Mary and Joseph did — how it all began to take shape. It all started, of course, when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her the news of God’s intention (Luke 1). 

Looking back, this was the critical moment. In the reverie it almost feels like the Mission Impossible theme song should start up: “Should you choose to accept your mission ….” Da-Da, Da-Da-Da, Da-Da. 

Everything depended on that moment of decision on Mary’s part. The course of history hung in the balance. So much at stake. What does she do? How will she respond?

During Christmas, Mary mother of Jesus figures prominently in the story-telling. Traditionally, Mary has been imagined by Christians as a passive, placid, sweet and quiet girl. Certainly she is portrayed like this in many a Sunday School Christmas pageant.

But the biblical record suggests something more. Listen to the famous poem, the “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov who captures the immensity of the moment:

“We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, 

almost always a lectern, a book; always

the tall lily.

       

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,

the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,

whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions

courage.

       

The engendering Spirit

did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

She was free

to accept or to refuse, choice

integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations

of one sort or another

in most lives?

         

Some unwillingly

undertake great destinies,

enact them in sullen pride,

uncomprehending.

More often

those moments

when roads of light and storm

open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.

But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept

like any other child–but unlike others,

wept only for pity, laughed

in joy not triumph.

Compassion and intelligence

fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous

than any in all of Time,

she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’

and gravely, courteously,

took to heart the angel’s reply,

the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb

Infinite weight and lightness; to carry

in hidden, finite inwardness,

nine months of Eternity; to contain

in slender vase of being,

the sum of power–

in narrow flesh,

the sum of light.

                     

Then bring to birth,

push out into air, a Man-child

needing, like any other,

milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed, Spirit suspended, waiting.

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.”

How did she handle the moment of decision before the Angel Gabriel? I must conclude, with both courage AND joy. Often we don’t consider the two together. Either someone has a whole lot of courage, determination, and serious intent about their business. Or, someone tends towards the frivolous, uncontained in their happiness and joyful demeanour — even being silly, unfettered from the cares of the world.

During the memorial service for the late Dorothy Mueller last week, we recalled a moment in Dorothy’s early life in Montreal with her husband Henry. One night all dressed up for going out dancing on the town, she and Henry came across a street fight where a couple boys were beating up another. Without missing a beat she crossed the street, strode right up to the offending boys and demanded that they stop their violence. Which they did.

Not many of us would demonstrate that level of courage in the public arena. And take the risk to stand up out of passionate concern for the underdog, the downtrodden, the suffering, the poor.

What else is impressive is that she showed that courage while out on the night, dancing. Along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled with joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and others, have suggested that the most appropriate contemporary equivalent to “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) may be “The Word became poor.” (1) Like Mary, like Dorothy, we too need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the poor and the needy.

Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. When Mary, with courage and joy, accepted the mission presented by the Angel Gabriel, the God-human relationship was now restored in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Indeed, “The Word became flesh.” Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to all humanity. To us.

God was now human in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the divine-human dance. At Christmas we ponder the love of God that seeks to fully understand each one of us. We ponder this great love which brings God’s comfort, mercy and encouragement no matter the depth of our grief, the extent of our suffering, the measure of our pain and loss. Jesus came into the darkness of the 1st century world. And, Jesus continues to come into the darkness of our lives.

At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, the world, our lives, still have problems. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, and to each according to our needs.

Perhaps, on this Christmas Day, we can start by giving thanks to God for Mary — her courage and joy at being the first to receive Christ.

(1) cited in “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, WJK Press Kentucky, 2014, p.138

Holy Innocents

There is a rather obscure and tragic story from the bible not widely told. But it is part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:16-18).

Herod was infuriated that the Magi had tricked him. Their agreement was that after paying homage to the newborn Messiah, the Magi would come back to Jerusalem and report to Herod where this new King was. Instead, they had gone home by a different route.

Enraged, the evil and paranoid dictator massacred all boys under 2 years of age in the Bethlehem area — just to be sure he would not have any competition from any Messiah, for years to come. Machiavellian in spirit, such brutality is reserved for the annals of history when humankind was barbaric and unenlightened, right? Surely, we have evolved to higher levels of sophistication. Or?

Last week alone, 132 schoolchildren and nine staff were massacred in a vicious attack by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan. Then, in a Nigerian marketplace, some children were murdered by suicide bombers. All this tragedy, just in the past week.

The world today, never-mind first century Palestine, watches the anguish of grieving parents burying their children. And, in the words of Primate Fred Hiltz (Anglican Church of Canada), “we are left wondering how such evil intent to kill innocent children continues to stock the earth.”

The world, it would seem, has never been an easy place to bear and raise children. The dangers have threatened throughout the ages. Not only two thousand years ago, but to this day, we shake our heads and wonder: Why would anyone want to bring a child into the world today?

I think we could, then, sympathize with Mary’s initial response, after the angel Gabriel visits her with the astounding news that she will bear the Christ child. The Gospel text for today simply indicates that Mary was “perplexed” (Luke 1:29) by this encounter.

I think we can relate. What the angel proposes is both irrational and incredible. One would have to suspend belief — in at least two ways:

The angel’s message basically boils down to two instructions: First, “Do not be afraid!”
and then, “You will bear Christ!” Why? How so? “How can this be?”

“Do not be afraid!” “Fear not” — This message is actually repeated in the bible some 365 times (one for each day of the year). But this time is a dark time, and a dark place. How can we not be afraid!

At the same time, the Word instructs us to “fear the Lord”. Fear, in this sense, is humility before the Divine. Fear is respect before that which is indescribable, uncontainable, Mystery. “Fearing the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Those who fear the Lord, as Mary then sings, upon them mercy endures forever (Luke 1:50). In the end, fearing the Lord is about trusting in God above all else.

What kind of God do we worship? Look at Jesus: Our Lord is known for having taken children in his arms, blessing them and upholding their awe and wonder in the love and trust of those who care for them (Mark 10).

Sometimes I think we get things mixed up about God — that somehow God is like a dictator who keeps a checklist of who’s following the rules and who isn’t — and then punishing those who are deviant. God, in this view, is like some cosmic police-officer.

But if Jesus shows us who the Father is, then the picture is entirely different. “Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God” (twitter: @RichardRohrOFM). Jesus shows us that the God we worship is nothing like what we had come to expect in the likes of ruthless, dictators personified in power-obsessed Herod.

We don’t have to be afraid — afraid of God — because of who God is: “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8).

The second message may be even more perplexing: “You shall conceive in your womb a child … by the Holy Spirit … and he shall be Son of the Most High”! (Luke 1:31-35)

Scholars have long puzzled over the past tense on the lips of this soon-to-be pregnant woman. Mary, who before giving birth speaks of her offspring’s approaching mission as already accomplished — finished and done (i.e. “the Lord has scattered the proud; has brought down the powerful; has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things”, etc.) She announces how the wrongs of her dark history have already been made right. (Luke 1:51-54).

The use of the past tense to announce a consummated future, is a statement of profound and deep faith. This grammatical curiosity from the Word of God suggests life-changing ramifications. Our challenge, I believe, is in the spirit of Mary’s faith, to cultivate the ability to see God’s promises as already having come to pass.

When we can express our faith from a trusting-in-God heart, how wonderfully this can change our whole outlook on life! Because we have to wait for it — something that, beyond our agency, will surely come to pass!

We are almost there. The liturgy in Advent forces us to wait for singing the joy of Christmas, unlike our culture that is already getting tired of Christmas when it hasn’t even happened yet. In church during Advent, we haven’t sung the Christmas carols for a reason.

Not only because Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th. But also because, as I’ve heard it said, Mary’s song must be the first Christmas song. Because it sets the right tone. It sets the tone of faithful praise and adoration. It brings truth and grace into sharp relief. It announces that the promises of God will come to pass:

For the lowly, the humble, those who respect the Lord. God will make things right for those who trust in God and God’s word.

How would you sing, this Christmas? How can you, now in your life, bring forth words, as well as a heart of thanksgiving, affirmation and hope? How has God been merciful in your life? Make a list, and check it more that twice!

My hunch is that even though life may indeed be difficult for you — whether burdened by grief, by sorrow, by depression, by financial ruin, by ill-health or a pending diagnosis, whatever — there are moments, even now, even barely perceptible, where you can point to a glimmer of grace, a memory of joy, and a hope that surpasses all understanding.

This is the song to carry you through the season. Because sleeping below our awareness of reality is the truth that God has already fulfilled his promises. And now, it’s simply a question of accessing the power of that truth, releasing it from your heart, for your life and for the benefit of a world shrouded in darkness.

Thanks be to God!