Archive for December, 2008


December 24, 2008

Last Sunday as we celebrated the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the Lessons focused on Mary and her pivotal role in the incarnation of God’s Son which we’ll be celebrating at Christmastime. Our First Lesson tells of God’s promise to David to raise up descendents for him so that his kingdom, his “throne,” will endure for ever.


And the Gospel is the story of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would indeed be the Mother of God’s Messiah, a descendent of that very same King David. These stories set us up for the final days’ countdown to the Feast of the Nativity – or Christmas…the Christ Mass we celebrate on Thursday.


But I found my attention being drawn again and again this week to the canticle suggested for today – Mary’s Song, or the Magnificat, which comes in Luke’s Gospel soon after the Annunciation. We often say that the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect prayer, or the perfect outline for prayer…and so it is. But, in my opinion, Mary’s Song runs a pretty close second, which is one reason we use it as a canticle nearly every day at Evening Prayer. So I just want to reflect on it a bit with you this afternoon:


It begins: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Mary’s first response after hearing the good news from the angel and having it confirmed in her visit to Elizabeth was to praise God! She rejoices in God because she has been looked upon with “favor,” with “grace” by that same God. And that recognition simply draws praise from her!


She goes on to acknowledge: “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She has a sense that this unique role she’s been called to will single her out, and that the momentous event she’s about to become part of will make her special…that people will look to her in a special way. Yet, she always points back to God – the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his Name! It’s all about God for Mary.


And that God, she goes on to say, “…has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.” God’s essential and eternal nature is one of mercy. Indeed the whole reason for the Incarnation, for God’s saving act about to be begun in Jesus Christ is because of Gods’ mercy. God’s Son will be sent out of his great mercy toward humankind and as a remedy for the plight we are in, requiring such a savior.


Yet, this mercy does not make God somehow weak. “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit,” Mary sings, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” You see, God’s mercy also entails judgment.


Those too conceited and proud to acknowledge God will be scattered one day. The mighty ones of the Empire who stand on the backs of the lowly will be cast down one day. Those whose bellies are empty now will be fed one day, but the tycoons and the fat cats who were too busy to pay attention to the hungry will find themselves “empty” one day.


Why is all this happening? Mary concludes that it is because of God’s faithfulness. “He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”


Even the judgment of God is related to mercy and to faithfulness. The Lord promised Abraham in the 12th Chapter of Genesis that he would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him, that from him would come a great family, and that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed.


God continued that promise down through the patriarchs and the prophets, down through the family of David, and now – in a special way – to great David’s greater son: Jesus, the Christ!


So, let’s look at the pattern of Mary’s wonderful song and see what kind of outline it can provide for our own prayers. It begins with praise; it continues with gratitude; it acknowledges the reality of sin and the necessity of judgment; and concludes with an assurance of God’s faithfulness down through the centuries, a faithfulness we can rely on in our lives as well.


Our prayers should always be offered in the context of praise. If we know God and realize all that God has done for us, when we come into that Holy Presence (as our Prayer Book Catechism puts it) “God’s Being draws praise from us.” Mary said “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” I often begin my prayers with words like these from another great canticle, the Te Deum: “I praise you, O God, I acknowledge you to be the Lord; all the earth worships you, the Father everlasting!”


And then, of course, we express our gratitude, our thankfulness for our “creation, our preservation from harm, and for all the blessings of this life.” Everything we have comes from God! We would not open our eyes in the morning or indeed draw the next breath were it not for God’s sustaining hand. And the whole motivation for our “good works” and for living holy lives is in thanksgiving for God’s grace and love.


But we often squander that love. And that’s why some time in our prayers needs to be devoted to contrition and confession – being sorry for our sins…and naming them. We name them more for ourselves than God (for God already knows them!)…but we identify them so that we can work on them with the help of the Holy Spirit within us.


And while our petty little personal sins are problems and we need to tend to them, look at the kind of sins about which Mary is concerned: pride and conceit; power and privilege; injustice toward the poor and the hungry. Let’s confess our complicity in those sins as well!


But we won’t end our prayers there! We’ll conclude with another kind of gratitude. With being thankful that, even when we are unfaithful, God is not! God created and sustains this Universe by a word of power. God raised up patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and martyrs. God sent Jesus to redeem us from sin and death, and the Holy Spirit to gather the Church and sanctify her members. We can rely on that faithfulness even as did Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Joshua, Isaiah and Deborah, Peter, Paul…and yes, even our Lord’s Mother, Mary of Nazareth!


As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let’s remember the role she played in this whole salvation history. We don’t worship Mary…but surely we honor her. May her prayer be ours this Christmas:


For, in Christ, (God) has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendents for ever.”


And that, praise God, includes you…and me! 


Amazing Grace

December 8, 2008

We concluded our Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations here in Kyoto, Japan last evening with a Eucharist presided over by our Japanese member, Fr. Renta, at St. Agnes’ Cathedral of the Nippon Sei Ko Kei (the Anglican Church in Japan).

He told us if was the first time he had celebrated the Eucharist in English, but one would never have known that by the lovely way he presided. He also preached a moving homily on the parable of the Good Samaritan. He reflected on just how differently the “man who fell among thieves” might have lived his own life after being rescued by the Samaritan…and how perhaps he too became a minster of compassion, having been the recipient of such grace from a stranger.

To illustrate this dynamic, he told the story of a young Japanese man who had dropped out of middle school and generally made all the wrong choices as a young man. He was so depressed and ashamed of himself that he attempted to commit suicide by drenching himself with gasoline and preparing to strike a match.

However, his estranged father intervened, threw his arms around him, and also became covered with the flammable gasoline. “Go ahead and light the fire, my son,” the father shouted, “but I will never let you go!”

Unable to take his father with him into death, the young man dissolved into tears and, subsequently, began to lead a new life, eventually becoming a person of real notoriety and respect in the community. Renta said that it was because, for the first time, he knew he was loved by his father!

What a modern day parable of the Good Samaritan! What an anticipation of the Christmas miracle as God embraces us, even in the midst of our sin, and to the point of death, to show us how much we are loved.

May our lives too be transformed by an awareness of and appreciation of this amazing grace!

Three “Happy Trees”

December 1, 2008

Susanne and I are in Kyoto, Japan for the last meeting of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations. The last because this commission has been rolled together with the doctrinal one due to budget constraints in the Anglican Communion and, ostensibly, because the line between ecumenical and inter-Anglican relations has become increasingly blurred in recent years and the thought is, one group should attend to both.

I’m not sure this is a good idea because there is so much going on ecumenically around the world that I think we need a discreet body to meet annually and serve as a clearing-house and think-tank so that our ecumenical work has some consistency and cogency around the Communion. For example, are we saying the same thing to Methodists in the US as the Church of England is saying to British Methodists in ecumenical agreements? Perhaps the new group can do this, but I wonder if the work load will just be too heavy and scattered.

Today we were able to to tour Nara (not far from Kyoto) and visit a Buddhist temple (the largest wooden structure in the world) and a Shinto shrine the grounds of which were covered by over 1,000 tame deer (preserved because they are seen as sacred in their ancient mythology). The peace and serenity of these holy places was palpable, even with hundreds of tourists and pilgrims walking about.

My favorite learning was that the three primary types of trees in Japan have symbolic meaning. The pine represents “long life and eternal youth” because of its ever-green nature. The bamboo represents “honesty” because it stand tall and straight. The plum tree represents “courage” because it is fruitful even in winter. They are called the “three happy trees” of this land!

May we find our happiness in such virtues as long life, honesty, and courage!