Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Word Into Silence: Three Christmas Homilies

Three Christmas homilies are grouped here, from Christmas Eve 2011, Christmas Day 2011, and the Feast of the Holy Name 2012. Each relates to Dom John Main’s rich little book, “Word Into Silence” (Continuum, 2005).

I. Christmas Eve

Readings for Christmas Eve include Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

‘Tis the season to give a gift. And it’s no secret that giving a gift may be its own reward. We are gratified when a loved one’s delight, a receiver’s pleasure, shows us we’ve gotten it right. We have it on high authority that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Many an offertory in many a church has opened with that message, the pastor hoping it will be taken to heart… but inherent in the story of this holy night is the deeper truth that without mindful honest appreciative receiving, a gift gets tossed out, the baby with the bathwater.

We all get gifts that we struggle to receive. Each Christmas, a dear friend sends Diana and me a cd, usually a recording of esoteric music that has spoken to his heart. Sometimes, it doesn’t ring our bells, and that cd finds its way onto a shelf but not often into the player. I will admit that when that slim package arrives, I wonder what century it will take me back to, and do I really want to go there? It is not always easy to receive a gift mindfully, openly, appreciatively.

I suspect that Christmas comes to many of us in a like way. We think we know what to expect, and while we’re willing to be surprised we tend to play the disc as background to our own busyness. If there are surprises given with the gift, if there’s something that would be of inestimable value to us, some movement, some sweet harmony or graceful passage of light, we may not notice it. We play the disc, judge that it is much what we thought it would be, and shelve it for another year.

To receive anything mindfully, openly, appreciatively, I might have to trust that the giver knows me and might have a clue about what will benefit me—perhaps what I like, but likelier what I could rise to and learn from and try. After all, friends who keep feeding us the same-old same-old don’t help us grow.

Consider, then, what God gives on this holy night. In a time of protracted war and recurrent terrorism… at a place where displaced people occupy a few square feet they temporarily call their own as they face a system that shows no care for them… in the cold of a night with no fire burning but the stars above… at the crossroads of ancient animosities and culture wars… and imbedded with sentient beings clucking and neighing and mooing their truth that all creation waits with eager longing… in just these ways that seem so slim in hope, in this fullness of time God empties the treasury of heaven into the womb of Mary and there is born not an alien being but one who shows us who and whose we are.

My Advent reading of Benedictine Dom John Main has been helping me appreciate what God gives. God gives us this child Jesus who will show us that we are called to the same awareness, the same knowing, the same union with God that he himself cherishes. Here is John Main’s language:

“When he sends the Spirit into our hearts, Jesus transmits to us everything that He receives from the Father. He withholds nothing, neither any secret or intimacy of personal love. By His very nature He is impelled to give all of Himself, and the power, the urgency of the love-impulse radiating from the Father make it impossible for Jesus to retain any area of special privilege, of non-communication. The building up of the Body of Christ is precisely the consuming desire of Jesus to flood every part of our human consciousness with His Spirit. Nothing can prevent that desire from being satisfied except man’s own unwillingness to receive, to acknowledge, to awaken to this gift of God’s personal love.”

There is the heart of the Christian mystery. To be given Jesus is to be given not a crèche figure to hold, but the very life of Jesus. To be given Jesus is to be given God, not ideas about God packaged as a creed to end the matter, but God to know and love and experience as the beginning and end of all our material being.

John Main’s slim little book is titled, “Word into Silence,” and his purpose is to get us to pray without words, occupying silence because there, he says, we are saved from superstition and from cynicism because there, he says, we find a personal inner balance, a spiritual self-control that emanates from the self of Jesus.

The centering process of silent prayer, he says, is the awakening of our own spirit to the Spirit of Jesus. It cannot be received like a packaged cd sent from outside. “Our awakening is, in itself, the awareness of our participation in the life of God, of God as the source of our personhood, the very power by which we are enabled to accept God’s gift of our being. It is therefore a free response, an utterly personal communication, a free acceptance.”

Imagine God’s delight when we receive this gift on this holy night mindfully, openly, appreciatively.

(The passage from Main comes from pages 45-46.)

II. Christmas Day

Readings for Christmas Day include Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, and John 1:1-14

The four Gospels present the arrival of Jesus in two different ways. St. Luke and St. Matthew tell us the familiar Christmas story, with Luke providing most of the splendor. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus as if he were filming the event for viewing in 3-D. Without Luke, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas.

St. Mark and St. John don’t seem to know the story of Jesus’s birth. The first glimpse of him they give us is at his baptism, when he is a grown man. But about John’s version that we have heard today, it’s truer to say that the first way he speaks of our Lord is to present him as the Word, the Word of God, in one place we hear that this Word is God, at another that this is the divine Word of wisdom as if a personal presence accompanying God at the creation of the universe, the Word that in time becomes flesh, fully human, full of grace and truth. All this John gives us in the first 18 verses of chapter one, the Prologue. Without John, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas.

A prologue is an opening speech or poem spoken at the start of a play, setting the stage for the action. In competitive cycling, a prologue is a short time trial before a race, to identify a leader.

How does John’s majestic poem set the stage for his telling the big story of our leader Jesus?

This Word, this aspect of God’s nature that became flesh in Jesus, is not like the words that we use to speak to one another, or the words that we cannot find to express a mystery, or the words that endlessly lead to more words heaped word upon word in argument or fight or debate or research. The Word that becomes flesh cannot be the words that come pouring out of a singer’s mouth on our i-Pods, or tumble out of our High Definition TVs. Nor can the Word be like those words Jesus told his friends not to babble with, thinking that more or fancier or bigger or better words could influence God to hear them.

What this Word is we’ll find suggested in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, where what that writer calls Wisdom is described in a way we can imagine John nodding his head at in agreement. Here it is: “…a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, the image of God’s goodness.” (Wisdom 7:26, paraphrased)

Can we trust human words? In some cases, yes. When two people stand in the presence of their families and friends and declare their will to live together in the covenant of marriage, being faithful to the other as long as both shall live, they trust the integrity and intention of the words, “I will.”

When I know I’m not the one to complete a task that means the world to me and I give that task to someone else to do, I must trust that person’s word when she says, “I will do it.”

In my Advent reading of a little book by Benedictine Dom John Main, I was caught up in his description of what it means to trust. “To trust another is to renounce self and place your centre of gravity in the other.”

What Zen wisdom that is! In whatever trusting life calls on me to do, I don’t lend my hope to the person I’m trusting: I invest it, I give it over, and in that movement from my control to their control, I place my center of gravity in the other.

This is what Christmas calls us to do with God. And there is the heart of the Christian mystery. To be given Jesus is to be given not a crèche figure to hold, but the very life of Jesus who holds us, Jesus who is “the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the working of God, the image of God’s goodness.” To be given Jesus is to be given God, not ideas about God packaged as a creed to end the matter, but God to know and love and experience as the beginning and end of all our material being. God to trust, placing our center of gravity in God in that movement of self-control that is prayer, not to pray in a babbling of words but to pray without words, occupying silence because there we are saved from superstition about words and from cynicism about words. And there we find a personal inner balance, a spiritual self-control that emanates from the self of Jesus.

This is what Christmas calls us to do with God: to place our center of gravity in the most trustworthy Word. This is not an exercise in words: it is a wordless standing in the light, allowing perfect love to hold our off-centered hearts into centeredness, welcoming truth that awakens us to freedom, to love.

(The passage from Main is found on pages 45-46.)

III. Feast of the Holy Name

Readings for the Feast of the Holy Name includes Numbers 6:22-27, Galatians 4:4-7, and Luke 2:15-21

Last night, a wedding happened here. Elizabeth and Mikal made vows to each other, in the name of God and in the company of a hundred or so of their friends and family. Names were central to their entering the covenant of holy matrimony. First, I called them by name as I asked them to make their declarations of consent to have one another as husband and wife. Then they named each other as they made their vows to take and receive one another from that day forward, until they are parted by death.

Before naming the partner, each began his or her vow with the words, “In the name of God,” and then named himself or herself as the agent of the vow. Clearly, names are important to covenants that unite people.

And this day in the Christian year calls us to start the calendar year focused on the holy name of Jesus. We’re told that this name came to him not by Mary and Joseph thumbing through a book with a title like “What Shall We Name Our Baby?”, but by the archangel Gabriel announcing that headquarters had already chosen the name for this baby: Jesus.

Jesus is the English form of the latin Iesus, starting with an I, transliterating the Greek Iesou which gives us the abbreviated monogram that looks like IHS, the Greek e resembling an English lower-case h.

The original Hebrew form of the name was Joshua, or more fully Yehoshuah, a name that mean “God saves.” This name was pretty common in the 1st century. The historian Josephus, chronicler of the 1st century, mentions nineteen people named Jesus. While it’s natural for us to revere that name, the Spanish-speaking world is right not to have retired that number. Keeping Jesus in circulation as a popular name recognizes the fact that God selected a name just as down-to-earth as Henry, or Joe, or Samuel.

The readings we’re given today may be the shortest in the year. Aaron’s priestly blessing, the most ancient benediction we know, is described as the way to put God’s name upon the people. As you consider your own part in the priesthood of all believers, imagine what a whole new year gives you by way of opportunity to bless people you work with, live near, struggle with, admire, know well or barely know. Put God’s name on every person you face, and see how blessing flows, both ways.

Psalm 8, one of my favorites, sketches in awe the whole created order, complete with moon and stars, sheep and oxen, birds and fishes, exclaiming that God’s name is exalted in all aspects, all species, all spheres, all ecosystems, all climates, all continents. Encyclopedic and all-embracing is to be our comprehending love and active stewardship.

St. Paul weighs in, addressing God with a most intimate name, Abba, an Aramaic word meaning “father”, but some would say its meaning is closer to “Dad,” perhaps even “Daddy”, and is meant to be a term of endearment. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father…” (though the word there is the Greek “pater”). Writing to the Galatians, Paul says that God’s Spirit, moving so intimately in the human spirit, liberates us from slavery (whatever has us in its grip), frees us, changes our status to become children of God, heirs of God, bearers of God’s likeness.

My preaching this Christmas has been shaped by reading in Advent the little book “Word into Silence” by Dom John Main. It is a book about prayer, wordless silent prayer in which we turn our whole being towards the Other. He capitalizes the O in Other, as if giving God another important name.

Fully facing the otherness of God, he says, we develop our capacity to welcome the otherness of our neighbor. As we let God just be, so we learn to let our neighbor just be, not to manipulate her but rather to reverence her. For this reason, Main calls prayer “the great school of community.” In prayer, we discover “the true glory of Christian community as a fraternity of the anointed, living together in profound and loving mutual respect. Christian community is in essence the experience of being held in reverence by others and we in our turn reverencing them.” Some of us, on entering church, genuflect. Perhaps we should practice that towards one another, a sign of recognizing the holy in one another, in keeping with what Main is saying.

“This reverence for each other reveals the members of the community as being sensitively attuned one to the other on the wavelength of the Spirit, the same Spirit that has called each of us to fullness of love. In others I recognize the same Spirit that lives in my heart, the Spirit that constitutes my real self. In this recognition of the other person, a recognition that remakes my mind and expands my consciousness, the other person comes into being as he really is, in his real self, not as a manipulated extension of myself. He moves and acts out of his own integral reality and no longer as some image created by my imagination. Even if our ideas or principles clash, we are held in unison, in dynamic equilibrium, by our mutual recognition of each other’s infinite lovableness, importance, and essential unique reality.”

There’s a vision of church for the new year. There’s a conception of our baptismal covenant, from when the cross of Jesus was signed on our forehead naming us his. And there’s an understanding of how we practice the priesthood of all believers so as to bless all people we encounter, putting God’s name to worthy purpose.

(The passage from Main is found on pages 78-79 of “Word Into Silence”.)