Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Month: January, 2015

The Conversion of St. Paul

The Conversion of Paul, Michelangelo, 1545. Sistine Chapel.

The Conversion of Paul, Michelangelo, 1545. Sistine Chapel.

This Sermon was preached at 10am on Sunday, January 25, 2015, at S. Stephen’s Church, which was kept as the festal mass for the Conversion of St. Paul.  Today is also the third Sunday after the Epiphany, which propers were kept at 8am.  Music at the 10am was Herbert Howell’s Office of Holy Communion (Collegium Regale), with the Peter Philips anthem Beati estis.

Collect: O God, who by the preaching of thine apostle Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having his wonderful conversion remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 26:9-21, Galatians 1:11-24, Matthew 10:16-22

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Today we keep the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.  It’s a day when we have a lot to be grateful for: apart from the events of Our Lord’s own life, death, and resurrection, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, today’s feast probably has more significance for church history and the development of western civilization than any other event in history. Paul’s letters and missionary journeys are simply amazing, the stuff real legends are made of: shipwrecks, imprisonments, dramatic miracles and mass baptisms, church councils, even an address to the Roman Emperor himself.  He is the great missionary apostle, and he laid the foundation for the Gospel in Europe – and by extension, to us too.

But today we keep the feast of his conversion specifically. We know the story — it’s one of those few Bible stories that still seems to have purchase in an age where many struggle to remember even such pivotal characters as Moses and John the Baptist.  Paul, then called Saul, was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians there, when all of a sudden a great light appeared to him on the road, and he fell from his horse struck blind.  A voice calls to him, and he learns it is Jesus, whom Saul is persecuting.  He continues to Damascus, but not to arrest anyone – rather to be baptized by Ananias whereupon he regains his sight, and then receives instruction in the faith for a period of several years.  The rest is history.

When we think of conversion these days, it’s easy to think of math, or of chemistry: something gets changed, from what it was before, to a different value or unit, or even to a different substance altogether.  It’s easy to think the same thing about faith, and there are plenty of televangelists and authors of so-called Christian books out there to sell you this idea, and line their own pockets in the process.  The conversion of Paul is often the poster child of this impulse: a “Damascus Road Experience” we sometimes hear people say, and even say ourselves.  But Christian conversion is not an instantaneous change into some other unit or substance.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  “I once was blind but now I see” — words by John Newton from Amazing Grace, and they are certainly true for Paul.  But neither Paul nor John Newton ceased to be Paul or John Newton.  Their sins were forgiven, and they were made members of Christ’s Body in baptism; but even if Paul had a new name, he didn’t cease to be who he was.  The same faith, the same righteousness, the same zeal which had characterized his whole life so far, remained undiminished.  And the very same faith, the very same righteousness, the very same zeal was put to use in spreading the Gospel all over the known world.

The Snake Oil Salesman seems to be a uniquely American weakness.  I’m sure it occurs everywhere around the world, but here it seems to have a special hold on us.  The Snake Oil phenomenon takes many forms, but it always boils down to getting something for nothing; taking a magic pill that fixes all your problems; changing lead into gold for nothing but the gold already in your pocket.  The Snake Oil Salesman always makes us poorer.  And yet so much of the time, we want religious conversion to be just like one of the Snake Oil Salesman’s magic bottles.  And like many people who have been bamboozled by magic ointments, we can go to great lengths to convince ourselves that it has worked.  How many stories do you hear about sudden and radical changes in someone’s life thanks to the direct intervention of God’s grace?  And how many stories do you read about influential people in that category who have been brought low by the revelation of their all-too-human weaknesses?  Reading Paul’s letters, it’s easy to see he was probably not any nicer of a person after meeting Jesus on the Damascus road than he was before.  It’s obvious that none of his personal qualities were altered in any way.  If anything, everything he was before was merely intensified, not reduced or changed into some other more palatable substance.  Why do we expect religious conversion to work any differently with ourselves?

And still we long for the possibility of being different, of being better people.  As much as Paul stayed the same person after his conversion as he was before, still it is incontrovertible that he did in fact change, in some clearly perceptible ways.  What made the difference for him?  What makes the difference for us?

Many of you know I was on retreat this last week, something I try to do annually but don’t always have the time to do.  I’m very grateful to have been given the time this year, and I’m very grateful for your prayers while I was away.  The place I go for this is a monastery called Christ in the Desert, high in the mountains of northern New Mexico.  It is a Benedictine community, following the Benedictine Rule according to “The Strict Observance.”  You may know that one of the chief hallmarks of monastic spirituality is a commitment to what they call “conversion of life.”  One of the things this means for them is that conversion is a lifelong process: not an instant transition from one category to another, but a daily decision to live for Christ over self, and to do the daily hard work of seeking him first over all.  It is a process of continual repentance, and therefore of continual humility.  They will be the first to tell you that they haven’t “arrived” yet, and nor will they until they see God face to face in heaven.  You and I have to go through a similarly long, similarly arduous process, of continually putting to death the old self, of continually admitting our faults, failings, and sins, and of continually accepting God’s grace to make us more and more like him: so that we are more and more able to recognize his will and to do it.

This is part of what makes Christian conversion different from so many Snake Oil ointments.  But what about Paul?  He actually did see Christ face to face on earth, and however disciplined and consistent he might have been, this was still a watershed moment.  What makes it a moment of conversion?

Certainly he changed his mind about Jesus, from thinking he was a false Messiah to owning him as the Incarnate Son of God. But there’s more to it than this.  On the Damascus Road, Paul has seen Jesus in glory, and now he knows the One who calls him.  For us the task is the same: to know the One who calls us.  This is conversion: not a magic pill to make us nice, or righteous, or whatever, but the opening of our eyes to see and know him who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. [1]  We do this by making choices to put Christ first above self, to seek him in all things, to believe his word, to accept the gifts he offers, to serve him in all the places where he himself has said he is to be found, taking responsibility for our sins and humbly asking forgiveness.  In making these choices (hard choices!) every day, year in and year out, we set ourselves about the task of conversion.  Far from becoming something we are not, it makes us more and more what we were created to be, in the image and likeness of God.

Does all this sound familiar? It might: Patience, humility, being focused on someone else, eschewing possessiveness, practicing generosity, credulousness, hopefulness; endurance to the end.  This is exactly the way Paul describes Love in the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, read at so many weddings and even funerals.  To work towards our conversion is to work towards knowing the One who calls us; but even more than this, it is to love him, and to dwell in his love for us, for our neighbors, and for the world.

Before the road to Damascus, Paul knew about righteousness.  He knew the Scriptures, he had great faith, and he was very zealous for the kingdom of God.  But what happened on that road, and what we celebrate today, is that he was given also to know the Love of God, and to see it face to face in our Lord Jesus Christ.  That made the difference to him, and that makes the difference to us.

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” [2]  At the beginning of this new year, at the beginning of a new term, let us commit ourselves to a continual conversion of life, becoming more and more proficient in the love of God.  So “our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments.” [3]  So may we finally come to our heavenly home, and behold Him face to face who is our Redeemer, Brother, and Friend.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] 1 Peter 2:9
[2] 1 Corinthians 13:13
[3] Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue. Translated by Abbot Justin McCann, OSB, 1951.

The Baptism of Our Lord

The following sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on Sunday January 11, 2015, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence RI.  This was the first Sunday after the Epiphany, and the propers were for the Baptism of Our Lord.  Music for the Ordinary was the Communion Service in G minor by Searle Wright, and the offertory anthem was Lauridsen’s setting of O nata lux.

Collect: Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Many of you may know an old story people sometimes tell about religion.  It goes something like this:

Four blind men are in a room with an elephant, but they don’t know it’s an elephant.  Their task is to figure out what it is.  One catches hold of the trunk, and tells the others it must be a snake.  Another one has the leg, and says no it can’t be a snake, it’s a tree.  The third has the ear, and declares it must be some kind of great winged bird.  The fourth has the tail, and says the others are all wrong because clearly it’s just a bit of string.

The point of the story is usually to say that this is what the world’s various religions are about: that God is the elephant, and that each religion, like each blind man, has just a piece of the truth, and together they’ll come up with something like the whole picture.  It’s a useful story as far as it goes, and helps us to see that even radically different interpretations of the same thing have some value.  It also warns us against thinking we can figure out the whole story on our own.

But the trouble is, the way this story is usually told conveniently forgets that elephants can speak for themselves.  The moment it blows its trumpet, the game is up: the joke is on the blind men, and they know the elephant for what it is.

In the same way, our religion is a revealed religion.  We believe that God can speak for himself, and has told us who he is.  There are several ways God does this, and our Eucharistic Prayer B makes a convenient list.  First God speaks in creation, communicating a desire that there should be something rather than nothing, and that the something should be full of light and growth and order and fruitfulness.  Second, God speaks in human persons, in calling a people to be his own.  He speaks in the prophets, whom he calls to bring his people close to himself, in an ever-closer bond of intimacy and love.  Finally, though, God speaks chiefly of all by his Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, his Incarnate Son, dwelling among us to reveal his glory.  Today we celebrate his baptism at the Jordan by John the Baptist.

Through the centuries, Christians have found a number of meaningful ways to reflect on this event.  It is in marks the beginning of Our Lord’s earthly ministry, the beginning of three years of teaching and healing which will culminate in his crucifixion and resurrection.  It is also the moment when God himself enters the waters, just as Noah had ridden out the flood, and as Moses had led the people of Israel across the Red Sea on dry ground.  By this sign, Jesus recalls the old covenants and looks forward to their fulfillment.  Third, in this event  Jesus is commissioned for his work by the voice of God, and anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the prophet promised of old.  Finally Jesus’ baptism is viewed by the Church as one of only a very few moments in all of Scripture when the whole Trinity is revealed: Jesus the Incarnate Son, named by the voice of the Father in heaven, while the Spirit as a dove descends to rest upon him.

All of these images and avenues are compounded together in the Church’s prayer, and our experience of this feast is always one in which we are caught up afresh in all its interweaving patterns of grace.  Because to be honest, there is really a lot going on here, a lot being spoken; and as we all know, for better or for worse, language shapes us very deeply.

This summer, a five-year old boy was quoted in an English book review saying, “Words are food we eat with our eyes.”  It’s a brilliant insight, and may as well be extended to include eating with our ears too, and feeding one another with our pens and our mouths, and with our actions too, which we say speak louder than words, and they do.

The world is not a silent room with a mystery object in the center inviting our inquiry.  It is full of speech, full of ongoing dialogue which feeds, nourishes, and in a very real sense creates us.  What kinds of words do we consume? What kinds of words do we speak?  Internet, music, billboards, films, novels, television, radios, magazines; flyers, newspapers, videos, campaigns, education, commercials; every kind of media imaginable is constantly feeding us words, sounds, images.  Every one of them, with every action we undertake, every relationship we cultivate; all of it is some kind of language which we speak, hear, learn, and inwardly digest.

What kind of people do we become, nourished by the language we consume?  It depends on what we eat.  But somehow, all together and inexorably, all these many and various languages articulate who we are in relation to everyone and everything else: in our cities, our vocations, our families, even within our selves.

We are surrounded by language which builds up, tears down, distracts, enriches, beautifies, or terrifies.  And in every case, whether good or bad, the language we hear and the language we speak makes some kind of claim about the nature of the world and our place in it.

In the middle of this maelstrom of language and meaning, the baptism of our Lord takes on added significance.  Here is a new kind of speech (actually an old kind of speech, the oldest there is, and yet always the freshest): the speech of God, within the Trinity, pouring out into the world.  Today the Son stands in the water of creation; He is given for the world by the Father, as the Spirit descends upon him.  Everything falls silent before the Christ as he comes up out of the water.  The voice from heaven speaks, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

As we ourselves are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his own relationship with the Father and the Spirit.  In Christ, we too become the people God speaks into the world, along with the prophets, the people of Israel, the whole Church around the world and across the ages, and all creation.

At the baptism of Christ, God himself speaks.  Our ears are opened, and we are blind no longer.  We are not in a silent room, grasping into the dark.  We see that the question is not figuring out what it is that’s out there, but rather how to join that ongoing, eternal dialogue of love from which springs the world, ourselves, and all that is.

In the baptism of Christ, we see the answer: being baptized ourselves, we become Our Lord’s brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God.  As such, our life consists at its deepest level in continuing the speech of God: receiving its nourishment, communicating its strength and vitality, dwelling ever more richly in the eternal eternal dialogue of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If this seems a hard task, it’s no wonder: it is difficult to learn a new vocabulary, difficult to learn eloquence in a new language.  It requires courage to speak where we may not be understood.  And yet this is both our task and our eternal life.  Thanks be to God he continues to feed us with the riches of his Word, with the vitality of his own Body and Blood.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

A Christmas Message

"The Mystical Nativity." Sandro Botticelli, c.1500-01 National Gallery, London.

“The Mystical Nativity.” Sandro Botticelli, c.1500-01 National Gallery, London.

The following letter was written for my students at Brown & RISD, and sent to them via email on December 31, 2014 — the Seventh Day of Christmas this year in addition to being New Year’s Eve.  Tonight Christmas is still on my mind, and since it is also the Twelfth (and final) Night of Christmastide I thought it might be fitting to post the text of the letter here.  Consider it a brief seasonal meditation from someone who is always sad to see Christmas pass into the year’s rear-view mirror.

Dear All,

This note brings Christmas greetings, for the Seventh Day of Christmas (also known as New Year’s Eve).  I hope you all are keeping jolly with your various swans a-swimming, partridges in pear-trees, and other festive accoutrements.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with Christmas as a season rather than as just a day, so I thought I would write a few words here in the interests of enlightening the whole group.

Seven is a familiar number in Scripture: seven days of creation, seventy “weeks” of exile in Babylon, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven lamps for the seven churches at the beginning of Revelation; the seventh day a day of sabbath rest; you can probably come up with more.  It is a number of completion, of finitude.  In Christian theology, the number eight serves as an additional commentary on the number seven.  The new creation follows from the old, but begins a new thing: it is the eighth day of the week, the last of the old and the first of the new, no longer finite, now without end in the eternal splendor of God’s glory.  The major feasts of the Christian year are celebrated on their day, but the festal spirit continues for eight days – called an “octave” (those of you who are musical will catch the connection!).  This gives us time to celebrate the person or event the feast commemorates, but it also forces us to look forward to the day when that which the holiday inaugurates will be experienced in full.

There are a few dozen feasts in our calendar with “octaves” following them. But two are so significant that their octaves are extended, and their respective celebrations are carried across a longer span of time.  Those two are Christmas and Easter.  Easter’s octave is especially long: fifty days (basically a mirror image of Lent but slightly longer), in which every day is celebrated as though it were Easter Sunday itself.  Christmas is the other one: with a less exhausting, twelve-day octave, beginning with Christmas Day (hence the famous “Twelve Days of Christmas” motif, and “Twelfth Night” parties, and the Shakespeare play). What would be the “thirteenth” day of Christmas is the feast of the Epiphany: January 6, when the three kings make visits to the baby Jesus with gifts, an occasion referred to theologically as “The Manifestation to the Gentiles.”

The twelve days between Christmas Day and the Epiphany are known as “Christmastide” — consisting essentially of the extended Christmas octave, and composing the shortest “season” of the church year.  Along with Easter, the proper liturgical color of the season is gold (where churches possess it, otherwise white).  They are days of especially intentional celebration, and of prayer: in the words of one of the Christmas collects, that “we might be made partakers of his divinity who humbled himself to share our humanity.”  This is the central mystery of the Christian Gospel: that Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant rabbi and son of a carpenter, executed in the first century for what amounts to sedition, is the Son of God, the Messiah of Jewish expectation, the incarnate Word by whom all things were made, and the One in whom all things will be brought to their perfection in the presence of his Father and ours.

Christmas is therefore an intensely theological feast, full of subtleties and compounding images.  And yet for all its subtlety, there is also something instantly recognizable about it, something very intimate, and always fresh. Christmas is not nearly so explosive as Easter: there are no earthquakes, no armies, no mobs; no “death of death, and hell’s destruction.”  Only a quiet night in a small town with a proud heritage from too long ago to overcome the poverty of the present. Shepherds doing what they had done for millennia. Townspeople reacting as you might expect under the frustrating weight of yet another seemingly arbitrary imperial decree.  In such a place as this, full of the long sweep of human normalcy, the threads of salvation were being woven together in startling array: despite the darkness of the night outside, despite the ancient, seemingly unalterable patterns which life was known to take.  A line from 16th century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert puts it this way: “O Thou, whose glorious yet contracted light, wrapped in night’s mantle, stole into a manger: since my dark soul and brutish is thy right, be not to man of all beasts a stranger.” Christmas is intensely theological, and yet in the same breath at the same time it is deeply personal: promising a newness, a freshness, which is also strangely a homecoming.

In the face of such quiet grace as this, we can do nothing but wonder at God’s love, and adore the Child in his mother’s arms.  Can it be true?  The shepherds say they heard angels singing, and wise men from the east were seen bringing rich and precious gifts.  We go to Bethlehem too, to see for ourselves.  What will we do when we arrive?  Will we bring gifts?  Will we ask questions?  Will we pledge our service?  However we are inclined to respond, our hearts are brought up short before the baby and his mother.  There is no service a newborn can reward, no questions a sleeping baby can field, no gift his tiny hands can open.  Before the manger our hearts stop their striving, and they behold a scene of pure Love.  This Child does not require gifts; he is himself the gift, to you, to me, to the whole world.  We can only open our hearts to him, and love him in return.

This free exchange of love is at the heart of the whole feast.  It is the source of the freshness we intuit at the manger, and the assurance of new life which the Incarnation promises.  In loving the Christ child we are brought through all the subtleties of philosophy and theology to the Thing Itself: Emmanuel, God With Us, to be himself our firmest friend and our eternal home.

I will leave you with a Christmas Carol I’ve only just discovered in the last few days, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”  Maybe you know it already, but if so it’s worth repeating.  The words were written by Frances Chesterton, wife of the prolific 19th/20th century English author, apologist, and commentator G.K. Chesterton.  This poem has been set to music several times since it was written, but the version I’ve linked below is my favorite – an adaptation of a 16th century English folk melody.  I hope you find it as charming as I did.

With continued prayers, every blessing for a happy Christmastide and joyful New Year, and all good wishes for a refreshing break-

Yours faithfully,


How far is it to Bethlehem?
Words: Frances Chesterton
Music: 16th century English folk melody (adapted)

How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?

Can we see the little child,
Is he within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?

May we stroke the creatures there,
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
Jesus asleep?

If we touch his tiny hand
Will he awake?
Will he know we’ve come so far
Just for his sake?

Great kings have precious gifts,
And we have naught,
Little smiles and little tears
Are all we brought.

For all weary children
Mary must weep.
Here, on his bed of straw
Sleep, children, sleep.

God in his mother’s arms,
Babes in the byre,
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart’s desire.