Sunday, December 21, 2008

RCL - Advent 4 B - 21 Dec 2008

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
RCL - Advent 4 B - Sunday 21 December 2008

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

L'angélus - 1857-1859 - Jean-François Millet - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

This morning at 7:04 a.m., at just about the time we were finishing the recitation of the Venite here in the chapel and repeating its lovely antiphon: “Our King and Savior now draws near, Come let us worship. Alleluia,” we were experiencing an astronomical event, though most of us were quite likely unaware of it. It was, of course, the moment of the winter solstice, that point in the yearly cycle of our solar system when (at least in our northern hemisphere) the sun's path reaches its lowest and most northward arc across the skies. The night is at its longest, the day is at its shortest and everything seems to come to a stop or a complete halt.

That’s the literal meaning of the word solstice — the sun stopping — reminiscent of what Joshua (or more accurately, God) accomplished. Or what any ordinary swimmer swimming laps or runner running an old-fashioned relay must do before reversing directions. He or she must come to a complete stop, if only for a nanosecond, before turning around and returning home. St. Basil tells us that this is a wonderful image of the path of conversion. Like the sun in the heavens or the Prodigal Son in the Gospel, we must all at some point stop before we can reverse the direction of our lives.

And it’s often this very simple but critical act of stopping which is most difficult and most unavailable to us. Can’t we just keep on going? But as much as we would wish otherwise, life is in fact radically discontinuous. It is punctuated by repeated moments of stopping, of braking, of reversal, and of change, more often like a quantum leap than a smooth bell curve. It can feel that way with the times and seasons of our lives. Welcome winter!

So much of our celebration of the Advent season and of Christmas is shaped culturally by this astronomical occurrence of the winter solstice, with its ready-made natural symbols of life and death, darkness and light, cold and warmth, activity and quiet that we associate with these days... not to mention the secular overlay of snowmen, elves, evergreens, holly, poinsettias, food and gift-giving… these latter two are obviously more deeply symbolic and sacramental than, say, Frosty or the Little Drummer Boy.

I remember my first Christmas as a Novice in Southern California. I wasn’t sure if it would be possible for me to celebrate Christmas with palm trees and an outdoor brunch. I discovered to my relief, however, that it was quite possible, thank you very much, in part because the day was still the shortest of the year and the dark was still as dark, though the temperature might be in the high 70’s.

But what, I’ve wondered, would it be like in, say, New Zealand or at our monastery in Grahamstown, South Africa, where even this association of darkness is removed and Christmas is right at the height of summer, and the daylight is at its most ample and where the preferred social activity for those who can manage it is a week at the beach. Think: Christmas in July. Where would my attention go? My body? My heart? My devotion?

I would hope it might go right back to this very familiar passage from St. Luke’s Gospel read this morning throughout the Christian world, back to this wonderful, mystic, mythic, layered, compelling, gentle story of the Annunciation which informs our theology and shapes our devotional and spiritual lives in ways that are both insistent and subtle. A woman, an angel, a pregnancy… a mystery. It’s pretty primal stuff, just like that related story of the woman, the serpent and the tree that we heard Sr. Hildegard read so beautifully last Sunday (at the monastery's Lessons & Carols service - editor's note).

Perhaps the most insistent and subtle way this shaping or formation happens for us — or at least for me— is the practice we have in the monastery of ringing the Angelus three times a day, calling to mind today’s Gospel story. It is admittedly not an ancient practice — perhaps five or six hundred years old — but there is a certain timelessness to it. If it didn’t exist, we might be forced to invent it.

All of us here are familiar with the practice. Three times a day — morning, midday and evening — we chime the tower bell in a rather complicated set of three sets of three followed by nine. And, as we also know, there are certain traditional texts connected to the ringing, the first two of which come (more or less) straight from today’s Gospel:

  • “The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary…and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

  • “Mary said: Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

  • “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

Some people add the recitation of the prayer Hail Mary between each verse. Personally I find that way too many words.

The whole brief devotion then concludes with the Collect for the feast of the Annunciation: “Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his Cross and Passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection”…setting today’s Gospel narrative within the great story of Salvation and Redemption from which it takes all its meaning and power and grace.

I love this devotion, this practice, this Angelus.

I love it because it invites me, wherever I may be, whatever I may be doing, to stop and recall that there is always a Bigger Picture and a larger setting than my often very narrow concerns allow. It is a reminder, a regular and (for me) necessary reminder, that God is God and I am not. I might add that I was fortunate to grow up in a city where there were many, many Catholic churches in my neighborhood and so at noon and six p.m. and yes, even at 6:00 a.m., there was a veritable choir of bells for miles around calling me to this awareness long before I could ever articulate it. The only thing sweeter, I think, is the sound of seemingly endless change ringing of an English parish church.

I love this practice because it daily reminds me of the epic sweep of our salvation history: It reminds me of Mary, the daughter descended from King David, through whom we look back to our primal parents and our Jewish heritage. It reminds me Jesus, the eternal Word and Power of God come among us in the flesh. It reminds me of the continuing, loving, saving action of God available and effective in a broken and desperate world. Who of us doesn’t need to be reminded of that daily, even hourly?

But most of all I love the Angelus because it presents in the simplest possible terms the fundamental shape of Christian life. One of my fellow novices, the late Gary Mattson, pointed this out to me years ago — and I have never forgotten it. The structure is always the same: Annunciation, Response, Incarnation. That’s how it happens, over and over again. That’s how it happens to us, to all people. God invites, suggests, encourages, perhaps even commands. We jump at the opportunity… or perhaps drag our feet, ask our questions, consider the costs and maybe squirm a bit. But ultimately — if we are wise, if we are graced, if we’re lucky — we give our consent and, with Mary, we say yes. Then the real mystery happens: God takes on flesh once again, in ways big and small, in ways predictable or stunning, in places most necessary and perhaps most feared. But the pattern is always the same: Annunciation, Response, Incarnation. It’s good to remember when the way appears dim and the going gets rough and life seems complex, because it is.

It’s also good to remember that for most of us, most of the time, the consent asked of us is to small and ordinary acts of faithfulness: the invitation to trust in this circumstance that God will be faithful; the decision to act not out of my fear or suspicion but out of hope; the possibility of risking to be vulnerable with this brother or sister; this opportunity of forgiving or accepting that we are ourselves forgiven; the willingness to fall, to fail, or to be proven the fool because that’s where God seems to be inviting us. Today. Every day.

Here we are, huddled together on this cold and snowy Fourth Sunday of Advent, on the shortest day of the year, invited once again by God. To what? To wait. To hope. To trust. To act. To love. To share. To be just. To just be.

What is it that God is inviting you or me to this morning? What is the Annunciation, the suggestion, the command, the dream today? And how shall we respond? How shall Christ become flesh again in our midst? In our community? In our society? In our hearts?

As short as it is, we have all day to ponder it, all day to pray about it, all day to rejoice in it.

The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary…and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

And the Word became flesh…and dwelt among us.”


The Annunciation - contemporary - John Collier

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