Monthly Archives: December 2019

Preaching the Absurdity of a Human God

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS/EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

When I was still in active full time parish ministry, I always celebrated Epiphany on the closest Sunday to January 6th. I was advised once (in a very disapproving tone) by one of my colleagues in ministry that this is not proper liturgical practice. Epiphany, he told me, is not a “movable” feast. Consequently, it ought to be celebrated with a separate mass on whichever day January 6th falls. That’s fine in theory. If I thought for one moment that my working members would take the day off, my teens would skip a day of school or that my elderly members would drive through the dark to a weekday service, I would gladly have done an additional Eucharist. But that was not about to happen and I was not about to exile Epiphany, a feast I consider critical to the church calendar, to a worship service no one would attend. So, I advised my learned colleague that Epiphany would be celebrated in my parish the coming Sunday and that he could sue me. (OK. I really said something more gracious and respectful, but to the same effect.) If you are of the same mind, I invite you to re-visit my post of January 3, 2015.

Of course, this need not be a binary choice between sticking to the lectionary or observing Epiphany. Sunday’s gospel from St. John presents a perfect opportunity for talking about the revealing of God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ. I think that perhaps the best way to describe how John writes his gospel is aptly reflected in the words of John Steinbeck:

“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” John Steinbeck from his novel, Cannery Row.

Rather than relating the story of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a poem about the miracle of the Incarnation filled with many opposite, contrasting and complementary images that will be developed and brought into sharper focus throughout the following narrative. Light and darkness; being and nothingness; knowledge and ignorance; belief and unbelief; birth from flesh and birth from God. All of these images and terms will find further expression and deeper meaning as the story of Jesus unfolds. For now, though, they swim about together in the rich primordial soil of John’s imaginative lyrics. We must wait for them to ooze out and show themselves for what they truly are.

John begins with the declaration that the Word was both with God in the beginning and was God. This is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of God’s Word as “coming” and “accomplishing.” See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:2Isaiah 55:11. God is not merely as good as God’s Word. God is God’s Word. Yet even though the same as God, the Word is somehow distinguishable from God.

But then John goes on to tell us something really remarkable. “The Word became flesh.” The Word became a human person such that the invisible God is now visible. John goes on to speak of the enfleshed Word as God’s Son. It would seem that if we are going to say that God has a Son, it follows inevitably that there must be at least two gods. Yet John (along with the rest of the New Testament writers) maintains that God is one. The church struggled with this enormously counterintuitive confession from the onset as it forged its Trinitarian confession, rejecting numerous simplistic and more plausible alternative understandings along the way. At the heart of the Incarnation stands this one scandalous truth: God is visible and God is human. The Incarnation was not a temporary state into which God entered for a single lifetime. It was not merely a clever disguise. In Jesus, God became irrevocably human and remains so. That is why John can say in his First Letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20.

The inescapable conclusion is that to rend the flesh of another human being is to rend the flesh of God. To ridicule, excoriate or insult another human being is to blaspheme God. God cannot be harmed or insulted by the removal of a crèche or a cross from public lands, by disrespect for the Bible or by desecration of a sanctuary. Only by harming the persons created to bear God’s image and for whom the Son of God died can God’s self be injured. When that becomes clear, it is equally clear by how far much of what passes for Christianity these days misses the mark. Something is seriously out of whack when we grieve more over the removal of humanly designed plastic figures of Jesus from the park than we do for the homeless people created by God in God’s image who are still sleeping there.

One of the most significant words in this section is that word “dwelt” or “lived” as the New Revised Standard Version has it. Vs. 14. Both translations fall short of the actual Greek word “skaiano” which means literally to “tent with” or “tabernacle with.” The word conjures up images of the tent of presence in which God dwelt among the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. This powerful image of Jesus as God’s presence gets lost in the English translation!

There is far more that could be said about this section of John. Nearly every word in John’s gospel is freighted with meaning that accumulates like the mass of a snowball rolling downhill. For those of us who will be observing the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful. One might consider weaving the themes of Epiphany into the miracle of the Incarnation and the divine humanity of Jesus-as does the following hymn by Mechthild of Magdeburg.

We praise You, O Lord.
For you have sought us in your humility,
Saved us by your compassion,
Honored us by your humanity,
Led us by your gentleness,
Ordered us by your wisdom,
Protected us by your power,
Sanctified us by your holiness,
Illumined us by your intimacy,
Raised us by your love.

Source: The Flowing Light of the Godhead,  published in Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Writings, Madigan, Shawn ed., (c. Fortress Press, 1998). Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1282) was monastic and mystic born to a noble Saxon family. At age 12 she had the first of several visions. In 1230 she left her home renouncing all claim to wealth and privilege to join a Beguine order at Magdeburg. There she seems to have risen to a position of authority in the community. She became acquainted with the Dominicans and became a Dominican tertiary, studying many of the Dominican writers. It was her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle, who encouraged and helped Mechthild to compose The Flowing Light. Mechthird’s criticism of church dignitaries and their religious laxity along with her claims to theological insight by reason of her visions aroused ecclesiastical opposition. Some clerics called for the burning of her writings. In old age Mechthird lost her sight and found herself alone and the object of much criticism. Around 1272, she joined the Cistercian nunnery at Helfta, where she was given protection and support in the last years of her life. You can read more about Mechthild of Magdeburg and sample more of her writings at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

Jesus at the Border

FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The grizzly story we know as the “Slaughter of the Innocents” and the flight of the Holy Family from that terror into Egypt reads very much like the stories of thousands of refugee families fleeing gang violence, starvation and war in Central and South America, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Burma and many other places around the globe. As we don’t read that Mary and Joseph were detained at the Egyptian border, the family separated or the Christ child confiscated and caged, we can presume that the imperial authorities regulating borders back in the 1st Century were a tad more humane than our own U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, affectionately known as “ICE.” This is the same border to which Abraham and Sarah came fleeing famine and starvation in Canaan some four millennia earlier and felt compelled to trade sexual favors for passage. Centuries later, Jacob and his family came as refugees to Egypt and then fled as refugees four centuries later. The people of Israel knew very well what it was like having to flee from home to a foreign land. They knew what it was like to live as foreigners in a land where they were hated, feared and persecuted. It is for this reason that as Israel established itself as a people in the land God had given them, the people were strictly ordered: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34.

As I write these lines, hundreds of asylum seekers, including around 200 young children are sleeping in the open near the U.S. border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. This is due to policies under U.S. President Donald Trump aimed at reducing the number of new arrivals in the United States. This has caused a backlog as United States border officials limit the number of asylum cases they receive at ports of entry each day. Consequently, tens of thousands of mainly Central American asylum seekers live for months in Mexico as they await court dates or interviews with border officials.

As serious as this humanitarian crisis is, it pales in comparison with the horrendous suffering resulting from migrant refugee waves within and out of Africa, Asia and South America. Moreover, this too is but a foretaste of the global refugee movements that will surely be triggered by floods, famines and epidemics resulting from climate change. Soon, the industrialized nations will be faced with a stark choice: 1) meet the refugee crisis with substantial aid for those areas worst affected, open borders to resettle displaced persons and sacrifice substantially to rebuild a more just and sustainable order; or 2) fortify their borders and use all necessary means to preserve their positions of wealth, power and privilege. The current administration has clearly chosen the second path. But disciples of Jesus know that salvation lies in the first.

My biggest fear is that one day my church, which has issued apologies for its participation in our country’s slave trade, for its involvement in the genocide of America’s first nations, for its silence and complicity in the murder of six million Jews will someday be issuing an apology for its failure to stand with refugees turned away at numerous borders and allowed to die. For once, I hope the church recognizes Jesus in the hungry, poor and desperate stranger in front of its face rather than having to apologize for making that recognition only a century later. There are some hopeful signs. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is currently suing the Trump administration over its unlawful executive orders severely limiting refugee resettlement within our borders. Congregations of all Christian traditions around the country are sheltering refugee families from deportation. Armies of disciples are at our border even now assisting refugees with nutritional support, medical care and legal representation. It is my Advent prayer that perhaps this time, the Church of Jesus Christ will be standing with Jesus, the child of refugees fleeing for their lives in search of a safe haven.

Here’s a poem by Robert Southwell, S.J. capturing this very hope:

The Burning Babe

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Robert Southwell (1561–1595) was an English Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit Order and a poet, hymnodist. He served the Roman See as a clandestine missionary in post-Reformation England. Southwell was arrested and imprisoned in 1592 and after being tortured and interrogated by the authorities, he was tried and convicted of high treason for his links to the Roman Catholic Church. He was executed in February of 1595 by hanging., Southwell was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. You can read more about Robert Southwell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Original Draft of Trump Letter to Speaker Pelosi Disclosed

 

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)See the source image

Kierkegaard’s Ghost has acquired, through and anonymous source, a copy of the original draft of President Trump’s December 17, 2019 letter to House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, prior to editing by the president’s communication team. The text is printed below.

Deer Pee pee Pelosi

This impeechment thing is so unfair! You are just mad cause I beet Hilery 2016 by a land slide. You are just jelus cause I am the best president the cuntry ever had. The ameriken peeple love me. Fox news poles that say they want me out are rong. Fox is fake news. They sed they were my frends. But Fox and frends are not frends. Except Tucker Karilson. He is still my frend. The rest are not frends enymore.

Impeechment is an ugly word. But it is an importent word. It is an expensive word. Expensive things are good. I have all expensive things. Very expensive things. The best things muny can by. But you took an expensive word and made it cheep. That was very bad of you. It shoes you are a bad person. All the democrat party is bad persons. They are all very bad to me. They have been bad to my famly. Very bad. They made my famly feel bad. And that is bad.

You shud be ashamed of yourself. The founding fathers would be ashamed of you if they knew you. But they don’t know you cause there dead. But if they were not dead, they would be ashamed. Ashamed of you. Not me. They wood be proud of me. Cause I am the best president ever. I made a big wall to keep bad people out of the cuntry. I made a tax bill that made the stok market go up. I made lots of jobs for black people even though they do not like me. But they shuld like me cause I was very nice to them. I gave them lots of jobs.

You sed my call to valdumer zelincky was abusing my power. It was not! It was a perfect call. The perfectest call there ever was. It was a butiful call. All my calls are butiful. But this call to mister zelincky was the perfectest call I ever made. But you sed it was bad. All the democrats sed it was bad. That is a lie! It was a very very very good call. Everybody says it was a perfect call exsept you and your very bad frends. You shud be ashamed!

You are very unfair! Joe Biden goes to ukrane and does many bad things and you say, oh, that’s joe. We like joe so he can do what he wants. Donald Trump has a perfect fone call and you say, oh Donald is bad! He did a bad thing! We have to impeech him. You just like joe Biden beter than me and so you treet him nice and me mean. That is very unfair. You are a very unfair person and so is the democrat party. Very unfair. Rudy juliani knows who the bad person reely is and he is going to tell evryone how bad joe Bidan is.  Rudy is my frend. He is not mean to me. He helps me like you shuld help me. You wud help me if you were a good person. But you are a bad person so you don’t help me.

Adam shiff is also a very unfair, very mean person. He was very mean to me and said things that are mean. He sed I put myself in frunt of the cuntry but I did not! I put the cuntry ferst. I always put the cuntry ferst. But nobody in the senate is going to lisen to shiff. The democrats will lisen, but there are more republicans than them so they can think what they want. It won’t matter. The republicans, who are more, lisen to me. They know I made a perfekt call. They know I did not do bad things. They know I do good things. So they will akwit me no matter what the bad democrats say. Akwit means say I did not do anything rong. And that is what they will do. You can’t stop them from akwiting so buggers on you!

Yours truly

Donald J. Trump

P.S. This is you.

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

 

Learning to Plan for the Unplanned and Expect the Unexpected

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Prayer of the Day Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 1:20.

Matthew’s Christmas narrative begins with an unplanned pregnancy. There is no romanticizing this narrative. No angel appears to Mary with glad tidings about the child she is carrying. The angel speaks only to Joseph and only in dreams and only after the baby is well on the way. We can surmise, I think, that the engagement of Mary to Joseph was arranged as was usually the case in 1st Century Palestine. Marriage in that context was more a business arrangement between two families than the culmination of a courting ritual between two individuals. Thus, Mary’s pregnancy threw a wrench into the workings of a carefully negotiated social contract, thereby threatening not only her own reputation, but the peace and stability of the community. Given these realities, Joseph’s resolution of the problem appears both humane and pragmatic. Setting Mary free to marry the father of her child will keep peace between the families, preserve public respectability and spare Mary the stigma of adultery.

But things are not always what they seem. Turns out that Mary’s pregnancy, is “from the Holy Spirit.” That changes everything-though it might have been cold comfort to Joseph.  The Spirit has been known to work God’s redemptive purposes out of some very unsavory circumstances. If the lengthy genealogy set forth in the previous seventeen verses had been included in our gospel reading, we might have been better prepared for this.  The royal line from Abraham and Sarah to the promised messiah leads right through the middle of incestuous unions, prostitution, seduction and adultery. From all that we can discern in the text, the assurance of the Spirit’s involvement, whatever shape that might have taken, was all the information Joseph was given when commanded by the angel in his dream to do the counterintuitive, namely, take Mary as his wife. This is the Christmas story as we have it from Matthew.

The gospel narrative does not tell us anything about how Mary became pregnant or how the Holy Spirit was involved. The temptation to fill in the blanks with what we think we know from Luke’s gospel or to negate the scandal with doctrinal assertions is strong. Yet I believe we need to resist that temptation if we are going to hear this narrative faithfully. I believe Matthew wants us wonder how the Holy Spirit could possibly be working in the midst of this seemingly unholy circumstance. I believe Matthew wants us to wonder why, after going through the painstaking effort of recounting the holy family tree from the patriarchs and matriarchs down to Joseph, he begins his narrative with a pregnancy wholly unconnected to that lineage. I believe that Matthew’s gospel would have us stand squarely in the shoes of Joseph as he contemplates the command given to him in a dream that must grate on his every instinct.

This is a timely exercise as we seem to be confronted with a whole panoply of circumstances from which nothing good appears to be coming anytime soon. The grim news given to us regularly by the scientific community concerning the progress of climate change does not admit of any “silver lining.” Moreover, just when global leadership is required to meet this crisis, global institutions, international treaties and strategic democratic alliances are falling apart before a wave of populist nationalism giving expression to the darkest and most violent human instincts rooted in blood, soil and nation. You have to look long and hard at this dark picture to find even an inkling of light.

In the face of what well might be the dawn of global catastrophe, the story about a dream, a promise and a child is a slim reed upon which to hang our hope. Yet this fragile gospel tale that begins with so much scandal, doubt and ambiguity is, in fact, all that the church has ever had to offer. For those with ears to hear it, the Nativity story blows like a fresh wind over all the stale hopes that have disappointed us. As Americans, we have always believed in our constitution and our democratic institutions to ensure justice. We have always looked to our superior military might to defend our freedoms. We have always believed in the innate goodness of our nation. But today we find our government paralyzed, our military powerless to achieve the lofty objectives of peace and security we set for it and our politics beset by a rising tide of racial hate and nationalist sentiment calling into question our national character. Nevertheless, in the darkness of this dying empire expiring in the midst of a disintegrating world, “God is with us.” The Spirit is moving. The young woman has conceived. The child has been pushed out into the glaring light of day. God has become human, holds us with human arms, loves us with a human heart and makes room in our tortured existence for divine hope: hope for the healing of our past; hope for newness in our present circumstances; hope for creation’s future.

Disciples of Jesus are realists in the sense that they recognize and acknowledge the full scope and extent of evil. But they also recognize that evil is not the only thing out there. As the anonymous poet says, God slipped quietly into the world through the messy consequences of an unplanned pregnancy. That changes everything. Because “God is with us,” the Spirit of God is also always an active part of the mix in whatever is going on. For that reason, we often witness surprising, unexpected and redemptive moments in the middle of the most painful and hopeless circumstances. The wasteland created by the Chyrnobyl disaster is recovering faster than scientists anticipated and has become a thriving refuge for animals threatened with extinction. The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has likewise become a revitalized stretch of jungle habitat that in recent decades has become all too rare in Asia. The election of Donald J. Trump has awakened us to the ugly reality of racism deep in our psyches and the systemic perpetuation of white privilege in our schools, our workplaces and our government. More importantly, the recognition of that reality has spurred many of us to break our silence and to speak and act boldly in the face of oppression.

I don’t mean to say here that God causes bad things to happen in order to bring about a greater good. Rather, it is the case that God takes whatever evil the world throws in God’s direction and works redemptively with it. So however apparently hopeless the circumstances, there is always a “God factor” at work that frequently surprises us with good news where we least expect to find it. Sunday’s gospel, along with all of the other Advent scriptures, challenge us to plan for the unplanned and expect the unexpected.

I Sing of a Maiden

I sing of a maiden
That is makeless:
King of all kings
To her son she ches.

He came also still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on grass.

He came also still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falleth on the flower.

He came also still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falleth on the spray.

Mother and maiden
Was never none but she-
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

Anonymous verse composed sometime in the 15th Century. Source: Chapters into Verse, Edit. Robert Atwan & Laurence Wiler (c. 2000 by Oxford University Press) pp. 251-252.

President Trump Cancels 2020 Election

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source image

Today President Donald Trump signed an executive order cancelling the 2020 election. “The president feels this is the best way to prevent foreign powers from interfering in our elections,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “No election, no interference.” Democratic leaders expressed outrage at this latest of Trump’s moves. “This is a bald face affront to the United States Constitution,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It’s lawless and intolerable!”

Representative David Nunes scoffed at the Speaker’s remarks. “There they go again. Unconstitutional this and unconstitutional that! All this proves is that the Democrats are singularly focused on taking down the president.” He went on to say, “They [Democrats] complained because they were afraid the Russians were interfering in our elections. They cried when Donald Trump identified the real source of interference in Ukraine and tried to put a stop to it. Now they whine because the president finally fixed the problem once and for all. Nothing this president does will ever make the Democrat Party happy.” Representative Kevin McCarthy also criticized the Speaker, saying “They are still just sore because they lost in 2016. They should thank us for sparing them the embarrassment of losing again in 2020!” Representative Jim Jordan agreed, telling reporters “first they used an impeachment proceeding to remove the president. But now it looks like that isn’t working for them, so they are trying to use an election to take him down.”

Democrats announced that they will be seeking a ruling from the courts on the President’s executive order. “Let ‘em,” said Attorney General William Barr in response to inquiries to his office. “We will drag this through the courts and by the time it gets to the Supremes, the old lady will be retired and we’ll have another of our own boys on the bench. Once that happens, the constitution means whatever we say it means.” Speaking to reporters later this afternoon, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvani similarly shrugged off the Democratic claim of constitutional illegality. “Presidents violate the constitution. Get over it,” he said.

Phone calls made to the Democratic National Committee concerning the fate of the upcoming primary debate remain unanswered to date. However, an anonymous source within the organization told us that, as far as she knows, the debate will be held as scheduled. “I suppose that, given the president’s order, the candidates won’t have much to talk about,” she said. “But then again, what else is new?”

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FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

Signs-Nourishment for Ailing Souls

See the source image

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

John the Baptizer is in a bad place. Sitting in Herod’s dungeon with no prospect for release and, as we know, soon to lose his head, things are looking pretty dark. The coming of God’s servant to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire failed to materialize as John had announced. The mountains of oppression remain as high as ever and the valleys of suffering too deep to plumb. John must be wondering whether the prophetic word he received and preached was not, after all, a delusion. Perhaps he had been mistaken about Jesus, whose ministry thus far has failed to dislodge corruption, oppression and violence in order to make way for God’s coming reign. Maybe he had been wrong about everything. Perhaps the way things are is the way they always will be and, in the words of a presidential chief of staff, we just have to “get over it.” Out of this dark place comes the question posed to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3.

Jesus does not answer John’s question. He gives John something better than an answer. He gives John a sign. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Matthew 11:4-5. These tidings didn’t break down the doors of Herod’s prison or put even a dent in the tyranny of Rome. But perhaps they were just enough good news to crack open the darkness of John’s despairing mood and ignite in his soul a tentative hope. Often, a sign is just enough to make all the difference.

Our psalmody is Mary’s jubilant song celebrating God’s victory over violence, tyranny and injustice. Note well that Mary is in a particularly vulnerable spot just now. Her people are living under military occupation. She finds herself pregnant and unmarried in a highly patriarchal culture. Mary’s circumstances provide a striking contrast to her bold declaration that the promised reign of God has broken in to set right the inequities and injustice under which she is living. Yet if we go back a few verses, I believe we will discover the “sign” that set in motion this lyrical hymn of victory.

We read that Mary, upon learning of her pregnancy, goes to visit Elizabeth who is herself pregnant with none other than John the Baptizer. No sooner does Mary arrive at Elizabeth’s doorstep than the baby in Elizabeth’s womb turns, evoking her well known declaration: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb lept for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Luke 1:42-45. Just as Jesus’ message brought light and hope to John in Herod’s dungeon, so John’s joyful in utero dance brought inspiration to the mother of our Lord for what we know as her Magnificat.

I have never been in circumstances as dire as those of John and Mary. But I’ve had days when it seemed like the church I was serving was coming apart at the seams; days when it seems like nobody in the church had the faintest idea what we are doing or why; days when petty personal disputes and inconsequential controversies sucked all the oxygen out of the congregation; and days when it seemed as though nothing I did made a damn bit of difference. It was on one of those days that I was passing through the hall of the nursery-kindergarten school my church operates. I heard the sound of several little voices singing a song entitled “Seek ye First the Kingdom of God,” a song I had taught the children in chapel just a few weeks ago. The singing swelled as the pre-kindergarten class came down the stairs. The teacher smiled at me and shrugged. “They just started singing. I have no idea how it got started.” All I could manage to say is, “Thanks everybody. You have no idea how much I needed that!”

Signs are not capable of creating or sustaining faith. Many people ended up rejecting Jesus in spite of having witnessed the signs he performed. Furthermore, Jesus makes clear on more than one occasion that signs are not an entitlement. e.g., Mark 8:11-12. We have no right to demand divine confirmation ensuring that we are on the right track every step of the way. Yet we can pray for eyes to see signs and ears to hear them when they do come our way.

God in God’s mercy often sends signs just when they are most needed. There is a remarkable episode from the The Two Towers, the second volume in J.R. Tolken’s Lord of the Rings, illustrating the point. Protagonist Frodo and his servant, Sam, have embarked upon an impossible mission in the dark land of Mordor. Against all odds, they must transverse a ruined landscape occupied by fierce enemies to destroy a ring whose powers threaten the very fabric of their world. Wearied and nearly broken by their journey, the two come upon the ruined statue of a once great king that has been broken and defiled by enemy forces. It looks at first blush like one more illustration of the enemy’s triumph. But then-a sign.

“Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’ The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed. ‘They cannot conquer forever!’ said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.” Tolken, J.R.R., The Two Towers, (HarperCollins e-books) p. 919.

The gospel does not tell us how John the Baptizer responded to Jesus’ message about his healing the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and his raising the dead and preaching good news for the poor. But I would like to think that it brought a smile to John and caused him to remark to himself, “they can’t conquer forever!”

Here is a poem by Alan Brilliant illustrating the promise of signs and the loss incurred by ignoring them.

Searching for Signs

I am searching now for signs and wonders
Which, when younger, I might have had
For nothing, nothing at all, but which,
When older, I threw, despised, in the street-
Things of little value, spurned by the stupid.
What were these things? The works that
Embody and in their time transform
All poets destined for great singing
When, in their maturity, the pluck up the pearl
Lodged and nourished in the treasure of the heart.
But, for me, cursed with sloth
There will be no art
No enameled bird, no cup, no forge.
When, in my youth, I heard the clamor
Of the mob and was afraid, I turned and ran
And since that time am unmanned.
Oh, I did not betray a gift, an artifact
But only what was me and mine.
Instead of winding the golden thread
Up in a ball and following
Until the tall trees and blood-red fruit
Screamed Paradise I examined and searched
Pretending I needed more: “I need more time,”
I said. And, stooping, bowed the head
To look in mud and in that mod
Lies the pearl but it is long gone.

Source: Poetry, (1969). Alan Brilliant (b. 1936) is the founder of Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California for which he served as Director. He was married to Teo Savory, who both wrote for and assisted in the editing operations of Unicorn. Brilliant was a good friend and collaborator with Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and author of the spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain and the well known New Seeds of Contemplation.