Monday, April 13, 2015

O Come, All Ye Faithful

Scripture for Easter Day includes Isaiah 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

Once a month, I go to each of the two nursing homes here in Williamstown, to celebrate communion with a hardy little circle of residents who have come to what the activities calendar calls Episcopal Mass. Seldom is there an Episcopalian to be found in either circle. Some come because they’re drawn by the promise of a mass, and they know how to respond when I lead off with “The Lord be with you.” Others seem drawn by the promise of a church service, whatever its flavor. The prevailing wisdom is that there are no denominations in the foxholes: We are one in the Spirit, and no one asks to see our union cards.

On my March visit to Sweet Brook, I expected to see the usual set-up of a table and a row or two of chairs at the near end of the dining room. Instead, I saw a staff meeting going on there, while at the far end there was a semi-circle of residents. I thought to myself, “Humph. Looks like they aren’t expecting me.” Then I spotted one familiar face and then another, convincing me that that was the Episcopal Mass, movable feast version.

Always, even when attendance is at absolute low tide, we sing a hymn to start and to end. I asked if someone wanted to pick the hymn. Foster, who never misses a service, Foster (who would turn 103 that next Sunday), Foster called out a hymn number. I could tell it wasn’t #93 (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”), and it wasn’t #4 (“Amazing Grace”). No, it was #61, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

This being the 25th of March, I said back (with a touch of surprise), “A Christmas carol!” To which Foster replied, “No, it isn’t.” At that moment, my better angel put his finger to my lips and I said nothing. Why argue with a 103-year-old who wants to sing a Christmas carol in March?

But my self-conscious angel blushed, stealing a glance over my shoulder to see if that staff meeting was still underway. It was. “Sheesh, Elvin: you’re going to lead nine really elderly people in singing this a cappella?” As if reinforcing this worry about appearances, I noticed the activities director had quietly left the room.

“Why not?” I heard myself think. “Besides, if I don’t start this carol, Foster will—and if I lead, I can choose a range I can sing in.” So off we went, and in just seven seconds we were in Bethlehem, beholding the birth of the King of angels.

And I couldn’t help but smile. I noticed others in the circle were smiling, too. I’d lost track of that staff meeting, except to wonder if they too were smiling.

Suddenly, it came to me what day it was. March 25, nine months to the day from December 25. March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel (the fellow in blue in that window in our east aisle) appeared to Mary, telling her she would conceive and bear a son, and would name him Jesus. He would be great, and would be called Son of the Most High, bringing to earth a kingdom that would have no end.

And when Mary protested that this just wasn’t the right choice, she wasn’t yet married, hadn’t even known a man’s touch, Gabriel answered, “Nothing shall be impossible with God.”

The Prayer Book appoints a prayer to be offered on the Feast of the Annunciation: “Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection…”

And here we are. Some are present today because they have been brought here by his cross and passion. On Maundy Thursday, they allowed their feet to be washed as a lesson in servant ministry. Good Friday, they spent time considering the enormity of God’s all-embracing love. In the Easter Eve Vigil, they renewed the vows of their baptism.

Some may be present today for other reasons, like family unity, curiosity, or outright bribery.

But here we are, making our responses to the call, “O come, all ye…” Come, you who wonder what to make of the claim of his resurrection. Come, you who are confident in the assurance of his resurrection. Come, you who resist the possibility of his resurrection. And here we are, one way or another, because of the glory of his resurrection.

If “glory” feels like it’s more a first-century than 21st-century word, perhaps “joy” is what fits the pull of this day. The joy that was breaking out in that circle of smiling elders, the joy that lights up Christmas, is the power at work today, the power that is the pulse of the heart of God. For nothing shall be impossible with God.

Joy that, no matter how hard some may try, God’s love, God’s reconciling love, God’s all-comprehending love, God’s fully forgiving love, cannot be killed. For nothing shall be impossible with God.

Joy that was the prize and the goal that Jesus saw always before him, and for the sake of that joy endured the cross, its shame and its cruelty. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, teaching us to lay claim to the central gift and power of God: Joy that is born of love, raised by love.