Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nativity of St John the Baptist - Jun 24, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Nativity of St John the Baptist - Sunday, June 24, 2012
Homiletical notes

Isaiah 40:1-11
Acts 13:14b-26
Luke 1:57-80

The time came for Elizabeth to deliver and she bore a son.  When her neighbors and relatives, and those of us here on this very day, heard that the Lord had shown her his great mercy, they shared her joy.

Joy, of course, joy at the birth of any human being as Jesus emphasizes when encouraging the disciples about the affliction which must be borne, but for this feast, joy concerning the one called the precursor of Jesus, who will precede and indicate his approach, perhaps by simply getting people used to the idea that something new is about to come on stage.

The total clarity and ecstasy of infants when John and Jesus met before birth; much less clarity for the adult John seeking realization of the original vision: “Are you he who is to come or do we look for another?”

A grand celebration of John’s birth is called for because of how Luke sets up the birth with bells and whistles similar to the birth of the Messiah. In fact, the bells and whistles associated with the Nativity of Jesus are a kind of development of those associated with the Nativity of John the Baptist in a literary treatment called ‘step parallelism’ in which the miraculous events of the birth of Jesus are a kind of one-upmanship to those of the birth of John as the evangelist spins out both nativity narratives, and for this reason, perhaps, the celebratory events connected with John’s birth aren’t as dramatically clear as those of Christmas.

Nevertheless, the Breviary antiphons describe cause for a rip-snorting celebration: Your prayer has been heard, Zechariah; your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.  Your heart will thrill with joy and many will be glad that he was born, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. From his birth he’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit and will bring back many Israelites to the Lord their God. He’ll go before the Lord as forerunner, possessed by the spirit and power of Elijah. You, John, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to offer his people a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins; and we are reminded that it was an assurance of forgiveness not like that of the scribes, for it was given with prophetic authority, which is why the people flocked to him confessing their sins and being immersed in the Jordan.

John, as we recall, lived in the spirit and power of Elijah, uniquely able to comfort God’s people, to speak to their heart. I’m reminded of Thomas Keating’s appearance at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre about ten years ago, where waiting to get in verged on a kind of European soccer riot. I doubt if most of the crowd put in two twenty-minute periods of daily Centering Prayer, but they’d clearly come to take the presence of the master.

Now, here’s an important possibility about John’s training which augmented and refined the prophetic character he received from God. It supposes the death of John’s elderly parents while he was quite young, and his adoption by the Essene community of Qumran, signaled by the concluding verse of the Gospel text: As the child grew up, he became strong in spirit. He lived out in the desert until the day he was manifested to Israel.

This phrase has served as the basis, along with other considerations, for the plausible hypothesis - which cannot be proved or disproved - that John spent some of his youth among the Essenes of Qumran. Born of elderly parents, he is located as a child by the Lucan narrative “in the desert.” For all the parallelism in the stories of John and Jesus in the infancy narrative, there is no further indication of any contact between the families. Somewhat further on in Luke we are simply told that a “message came from God to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert.”

This could be understood as a turning point, when he broke off from the Essenes with whom he had lived for some time, and went forth to preach a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Part of the reason for this hypothesis is that John, born into a priestly family, is never depicted as serving in or associated with the Jerusalem Temple, as was his father Zechariah. It is not implausible that John, perhaps after the death of his parents, was adopted by the Essenes, who were known to take “other men’s children, while yet pliable and docile . . . and mold them according to their own ways.”  Among those ways was the practice of what the Essenes called ‘Midrash,’ a form of lectio divina according to the axiom “How do I know what I think unless I tell you?”

This might lead us to imagine that scriptural meditation without scriptural conversation is lacking an essential food group. Not only is this important in the Jewish and Christian traditions, but equally in Hinduism and Buddhism which engage in various types of so-called Dharma conversation, including one the Tibetans call “Dharma Combat.”

Midrash, the study of the scriptural tradition, was so valued by the Essenes that its practice was not immediately opened to newer members; one had to live awhile in the brotherhood to learn the ropes, but once engaged, its daily observance resembled the conversation between Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus: Fire. And such fire that the breaking of the bread flowed rather spontaneously out of it. Which is to say the Essenes shared in a breaking of bread pretty much identical with the table fellowship for which Jesus became notorious. I’m suggesting that John the Baptizer’s early formation was stamped by this daily practice of Midrash, the daily Essene practice of Midrash and immersion - whence John’s signature practice of confession and immersion.

As mentioned, the celebratory events connected with John’s birth are not as dramatically clear as those of the birth of Jesus, the parallel narrative, nor do we possess the Gospel of John the Baptizer according to Matthew, Mark or Luke. It’s difficult to propose a toast to God for John’s birth comparable to those which celebrate the birth of the Messiah, and given the early rivalry between John and Jesus as prophetic figures, one might wonder if important data about John was eventually suppressed.

Nevertheless, important markers about John have been preserved in the hard shell of the tradition, and we’re at liberty to suppose and celebrate that the one who preceded Jesus in the spirit and power of Elijah went about reviving the sons of widows, predicting droughts, accusing Jezebels, triumphing over the priests of Baal, receiving angelic sustenance, outrunning Ahab’s chariot on the way to Jezreel, and meeting God in sheer silence, while reminding us, How do I know what I think unless I tell you?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Trinity Sunday - Jun 3, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Adam McCoy, OHC
Trinity Sunday B - Sunday, June 03, 2012

Isaiah 6:1-8
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

A ceramic Celtic Trinity symbol found on the grounds of our Monastery when walking down to the Hudson River

When I was a teenager growing up in Las Vegas, most of my friends were Mormons, because Southern Nevada was and remains - the residential part, anyway - culturally Mormon.  My dad was the local Episcopal priest, and so I got a lot of the questions about religion.  The Mormon form of Christianity does not express its belief in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit in traditional Christian doctrinal terms.  So this incompletely instructed young Episcopalian, formed in the traditional beliefs, found himself in a religious culture where he was in the minority, where the watchword about God was “What we are, He once was; what He is we will become”; where such doctrines as the Incarnation and the Trinity take on quite different meanings, if they are named at all.

In these adolescent theological seminars, the usual course on the Trinity was for the young Latter Day Saint to pin down the budding Anglican by getting one to admit that when Jesus was resurrected, the Church had to find an explanation and so hit on the Incarnation, a head-trippy way of explaining the experienced phenomenon of a human being who was also divine.  And when the Holy Spirit came along at Pentecost, same thing.  Now there were three manifestations of God who had to be fitted into the monotheistic concept, and so the philosophical and verbal gyrations which took some four centuries or more to bring about the classic doctrine of the Trinity began.  Not that my Mormon friends knew that doctrine or its history in any subtlety.  But the general take was that traditional Christianity had somehow, like Jacob, wrestled with the angel and won, but the victory left something badly dislocated.

This experience is useful as more and more of our culture turns away from traditional belief altogether, and turns its polemic on the Church with ever greater force: How can you be serious about something so obviously self-contradictory as the belief that God is both One and Three?

For a long time I thought the “problem” of the Trinity was as described above: the people of God (at least, our people of God) experienced God in three different ways: The God of Israel, in the journeys of faith of the patriarchs, the giving of the Law, and the ups and downs of the Chosen People; the person of Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, in his life and teaching, and in his passion, death and resurrection; and the Holy Spirit, descending on the Apostles in the upper room at Pentecost, then guiding the young Church step by step as described in the Acts of the Apostles.  It was a sequence, and the Church worked it out eventually in all its nuances to give us the complex and mysterious doctrine we have today.

But there is another way to approach the mystery of God than this bald, reductive and incomplete rendering of *Heilsgeschichte* (German for "salvation history").  I want to suggest that it begins with the insight of the Torah itself into the nature of God, and particularly in the understanding of the ancient Israelites of the primordial events of creation.

Who is God?  If Genesis does anything at all, it proclaims the message that God is before all that is.  Before matter, before time.  Before words were spoken.  Before anything was distinguished from anything else.  When in Exodus Moses, needing credentials for his work in Egypt, presses God to give his Name, that is, to describe his essence, God says “I am what I am. Tell them I am has sent you.”  The famously untranslatable tetragrammaton Y-H-W-H:  I am.  I will be.  What there is is what I am.  I am becoming what I am becoming.  And so forth.

The Hebrew conviction was and is that God is what was before there was anything at all.  God is the one who brings being into being.  God is inexpressible because God is before all the words, all the categories, all the concepts of thought.  God is ... the very idea of “is-ness” implies an “other-ness”, that there can be an “is-not”.  God is before, beyond, behind any category of thought, before “being” itself as we can conceive it. Before the creation of all that “is” in all its multiplicity, God is One. God is All.

This ineffable mystery is essentially impenetrable.  Even the word “God”, the act of naming, implies linguistic differentiation, which implies a stance apart from the One, which is not possible if there is only One.  We are creatures and cannot help using our minds formed in a world of time and sequence and differentiation to describe God.  But no description can  suffice.  At a certain point, if we get close enough, all we can do is take off our shoes because it is holy ground and fall on our faces, because what “God” is is too much for us, too dangerous to get too close.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water.  God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.”
(Gen. 1:1-3)

It is all God.  The spirit is God and the word spoken is God.  The Hebrew writer describes the coming into being of being and in that coming into being there is God, God as spirit and God as word.  The narrative is sequential because human speech, uttered as time passes, requires that one word be placed after another.  But the reality described is not sequential.  It is simultaneous.  God, God as spirit, God as word, are one,  acting as one, before time, creating time.  It is our narrative mind that requires sequence.

“Language conceals thought even more than it expresses it”, as our Founder, Fr. Huntington, puts it in the Rule of our Order.  When we try to express something, we cannot do so without time and sequence and causation and substance, and so when we try to describe the nature of God, we are always caught in the contradiction that God cannot be described and yet we are driven by our God-given natures to do what cannot be done, to describe the one who is beyond all describing.

The beginning of what is is God as One and God as Three.  “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance,” as Athanasius encourages us to believe and proclaim.

God the mystery.  God, God in spirit, God in word, the beginning and the continuing life and the end of all that is, “Of whom all nature hath creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word.”