Friday, December 4, 2009

Last glimpse

Last photo of Jim, taken at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Chenango Bridge, Saturday, November 14, 2009, shortly before he was stricken with chest pains and died approximately two hours later.

(Sent by Lynda Helmer, who wrote: "This attachment is a photo of Jim. My brother was the photographer for Dorothy Pierce's ordination and, by the grace of God, happened to snap this photo. It was taken of Jim literally moments before he became symptomatic. I love the photo because it really shows him doing something he really loved to do....celebrate a new ministry.")

Rejoice in the Lord alway - Looking ahead to Gaudete Sunday

Advent III-B — December 14, 2008
Grace Church, Utica
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
If we were to take our cue from the angels, then the closer we come to Christmas, the more our hearts will be filled with joy. The news the angels brought to those unsuspecting shepherds keeping watch over their flocks, was a message overflowing with joy. I think it’s fair to say that the heavens had not had as festive a celebration since the time of Creation.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” The song of the angels testifies to that truth. But what about things here on earth? Joy may be fine in heaven, but there are a lot of circumstances and realities in this life that seem to place angelic joy above our reach. Beyond the light of Christmas lies the shadow of Good Friday. The baby born in Bethlehem, will become the man who will die in agony on Golgotha. Yes, God comes into our world on Christmas, but what kind of a world is it? Finding joy is not always an easy task. Some people do it by escaping into Santa-land fantasy. For others, however, it’s a depressing time— depression often brought on because of the contradiction they experience between the joy they hear about and the real world in which they live.

The Third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known as “Gaudete”— a day to rejoice. That word, “gaudete” is a Latin word, the first word in the traditional introit or entrance hymn for today’s liturgy. On this Sunday we’re just past the mid-point of Advent, and we’re invited to anticipate the joy of Christmas. This mood is reflected in the lessons that are read, in the rose-colored vestments that are used, the flowers, and in the rose or pink candle on the Advent wreath. The more popular designation of this day, of course, is “Rose Sunday.”

In the second lesson St. Paul urges us to rejoice, always. We might well wonder how that is possible. If we’re among those who find it difficult to muster up some joy for a day or two at Christmas, how can we even think about rejoicing always?

Paul is speaking here not of a superficial kind of happiness, but of a quality of joy that is much deeper and more profound— an enduring joy more lasting than contrived ‘holiday cheer.’ He’s referring to the kind of joy that can be ours when we know in the depths of our souls that God is here and at work among us. It’s a joy that springs from the hope which is ours, a hope rooted in the certain faith that God’s purposes are being worked out in this world, and that God’s will will not be thwarted.

When you read about the early Church, it’s impossible to miss the joy that rings throughout every aspect of its life. In its liturgy, in its theology, and in its ongoing life even in the midst of persecution, the keynote is joy— the joy that comes from knowing Jesus as Savior and Lord. We’re told that the early Christian martyrs even faced death with joy— offering thanks that they were given the privilege of dying for the faith. They knew, not only in their minds but more importantly in their hearts and souls, that they were on the winning side. The battle had been fought, and in the resurrection of Jesus it had been won. They knew in their hearts that victory was theirs.

Today I fear that our religion often comes across to the world as gloomy and somber, because the world often hears Christians speaking more of sin than of redemption. Let’s admit that it’s tempting to spend our time wringing our hands over the darkness in the world and keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of despair over the state of the human race. But that temptation is a manifestation of our pride— the pride that continually tempts us to take sin more seriously than we take God’s forgiveness, to be overly impressed with our limitations to the extent that we virtually overlook the greatness of what God has done and is doing among us. That’s the reason we often miss the joy of the Christian life--- because our vision gets foggy and we lose sight of the fact that God is here and continues to work out his purposes.

Of course it’s true that God’s Son came into the world because of our sin. But that wasn’t the only reason. Christmas means more than simply the first tragic step to the Cross. For God to assume our flesh and share in human life was an essential component of the world as God envisioned it. In sharing our flesh Jesus drew all of humanity to himself. The early Fathers, the theologians of the Church, used to speak of Christ being made human so that we might share in his divinity. We might think of our spiritual growth in terms of allowing the divine spark in us to shine more brightly so that it can radiate more of the life and love of God.

The source of Christian joy is the mystery of God’s active, searching and creating love. If that’s true, then when God comes to us in the birth of Jesus, how else can we respond but with joy and thanksgiving? Paul can call us to rejoice always because he has known and experienced God’s liberating and transforming power in his own life. Paul had spent a number of years trying his best to rid the world of every vestige of Christianity; but his life was changed and he was transformed into an apostle and evangelist for the cause of Christ.

There is a painting by a Dutch artist, entitled The Numbering at Bethlehem. It depicts a typical mid-winter scene in a Flemish town. The streets are covered with snow; a wreath hangs over the door of one of the shops where a merchant and a buyer are haggling over prices. A young man flirts with a girl out on an errand. A farmer and his wife butcher a pig for someone’s dinner. A laborer struggles with an overloaded cart of firewood. In the background children are skating on a pond. A crowd of people are standing in front of the local tax office to be counted for the census and to pay their taxes. It’s a typical, everyday scene of mid-winter life in the village.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Numbering at Bethlehem. 1566.
Oil on panel. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium,

But if you look closer, you see down toward the bottom of the canvas, in the middle of the street, unnoticed by everyone, a humble man carrying a bag of tools, and leading a small donkey who is trudging through the snow. Sitting on the donkey, shivering from the cold with an old blanket thrown over her shoulders, is an unassuming young woman. It’s Joseph the carpenter and his young wife Mary, come from Nazareth to pay taxes. Emmanuel— God with us.

And isn’t this the way that God usually comes, not only on Christmas, but each and every day, moving in silently, without fanfare, coming into the midst of life in all of its ordinary and everyday events. Here is God— in the love and friendship that people give to each other, in the strong hands and hearts that hold us up when we’re about to fall, and yes, in the birth of a baby— here is God touching us and loving us and bringing us the joy of salvation.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

© James M. Jensen