Sitting in Sackcloth and Ashes
Ash Wednesday Sermon 2020
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
In a few moments we will bless the ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads. In that blessing we ask that God, “Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence.”
Ashes are a sign of our mortality based on the second Creation story in Genesis, where we hear that, “the Lord, God formed man from the dust of the ground.” (Gen. 2:7a) After Adam and Eve defy God’s command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden of Eden. God poignantly reminds the first humans of their newly found mortality, saying, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19)
Ashes as a sign of penitence also finds its origin in the scripture. Throughout the Hebrew Bible people sit in sackcloth and ashes to show their penitence, or remorse, for defying God’s ways of life. In the book of Jonah, we hear that God instructed the prophet to, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (Jon. 1:2) Jonah walks throughout this great city telling its inhabitants to repent in forty days, or be overthrown. We learn that, “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes:” (Jon. 3:6) A sure sign of penitence and amendment of life.
We stand on the portal of another Lent: a season when we are called by the Church to reflect on our own mortality, not so much to be reminded of our inevitable death, but to underscore the precious value of our life. Likewise, we are called to be penitent for those sinful behaviors - those “things done and left undone” as the Confession states - so that we may fully embrace the gift of the life we have been given.
So, instead of these ashes and this day being framed in the context of gloom and death, they are really about life and the opportunity, “to make a right beginning of this season of renewal,” so that we may truly live.
The greatest existential threat facing humanity in our time is global warming and climate change. While the framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer could not have imagined the dire environmental circumstances of our day, they certainly understood that how humanity treats “this fragile earth, our island home” is part and parcel of our sinful human behavior.
In the Litany of Penitence for Ash Wednesday, we will confess to, and repent of, “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,” and “for our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.”
How do we understand those prayer petitions in 2020, considering our continued spewing of toxins from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere, resulting in warmer temperatures, causing rapidly rising seas due to the melting polar caps, and increasingly violent, destructive weather. Or the choking of the seas and marine life by plastic waste, and the wild fluctuations of rainfall causing extremes of flooding or drought? How do we understand those prayer petitions today, and how do we repent of our own culpability in creating this existential threat?
Like Nineveh, we stand condemned for our sinful ways. Will we take this Lent as an opportunity to hear God’s voice calling us to repentance? Will we acknowledge our sinful ways; our waste and pollution of God’s creation, our exploitation of other people, our lack of concern for those who come after us? We are at a critical junction in this crisis of global warming where we must sit in sackcloth and ashes and take inventory of all our behaviors – large and small - that contribute to this environmental destruction.
Maybe we already are sitting in sackcloth and ashes, but are not aware of it.
Last month Australia experienced wildfires of a magnitude never experienced before. The fires burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed at least 30 people. More than a billion animals perished.
Severe drought, wrought by the changing climate patterns of global warming, caused the forests and grasslands to become tinder boxes. Lightening did the rest.
In a NYT op-ed piece titled, “Has Australia Reached A Climate Tipping Point,” Lisa Pryor writes this: “Only a few months ago, I joked with friends who had just returned from life in the northern hemisphere that, with the state of the world at that moment, our distance from the rest of the world felt more like comfort than tyranny. Australia felt like a prosperous and benign island.
But as they say on the internet, life comes at you fast. We Australians found ourselves at the center of global events when our land erupted in flames . . . Many of us had feared that our good luck would someday come to an end, but we never imagined that the end would be so sudden, so cinematic, so biblical. We have become a portent of what the world can expect if it does not act on climate change . . . In my part of Australia, the fires are out, for now . . . [so] it would be easy to forget what the nation has gone through.”
[But the reality is] “the time has come for us to put away childish things and reckon with climate change, to do what we can to prevent a future in which extreme weather is more intense and more frequent. This time around, it was Australia that suffered, that served as a warning of our planet’s climate change future. Many other places will follow in the coming years.”
Those Australian wild fires are a poignant reminder of the mortality of not only humans, but of animal life . . . and even the life of the earth’s environment itself.
Lisa Pryor’s writing is a clarion call to penitence and an amendment of life away from behaviors that contribute to global warming and its resulting destruction . . . before it’s too late.
As I stated a moment ago: maybe we already are sitting in sackcloth and ashes, but are not aware of it.
One of the significant impacts of those wildfires is that enormous amounts of carbon gas loaded with ashes was released into the stratosphere. This of course exacerbates the very conditions that allowed the fires to begin in the first place.
But, it also resulted in something with a more profound meaning for we Christians on this Ash Wednesday. Scientists have tracked those ashes and they have circumnavigated the globe. They are in the jet streams that circulate over the entire creation. Which means those ashes have fallen down on us, they have been imposed on all of humanity. We can imagine them on our own heads. These ashes are the burned remains of the trees and grasses, the ashes of the billion animals that died, and the ashes of burnt human bodies.
Through those ashes we are called to hear the voice of God speaking – just as it did through Jonah - crying out against us and the sinful ways we are destroying Creation. Those ashes are a heartbreaking messenger of our wickedness. They are a thundering call for our penitence and an amendment of life, so that not only we, but all humanity, all those who come after us, and all Creation may live.
In those ashes of all that died, we are vividly reminded that we must work to promote life.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
 Lisa Pryor, “Has Australia Reached A Climate Tipping Point?,” The New York Times, February 24, 2020
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
We conclude the Epiphany season today with the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus before his inner circle of disciples: Peter, James and John. This epiphany – or revelation of something that had not been know before - is the final one of Jesus’ earthly ministry, concluding a series of epiphanies beginning with his revelation as the Messiah to the three Wise Men, his Baptism by John in the River Jordan, and his turning of water into wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana.
The Transfiguration is significantly different from those other epiphanies because in addition to revealing Jesus being the Messiah, it also reveals what will occur in his death and Resurrection.
The literal interpretation of transfiguration is metamorphosis; a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means. An alternate definition of metamorphosis relates to insects and amphibians whereby they are transformed from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. Two examples of that are frogs and butterflies.
Frog eggs hatch as aquatic tadpoles, and eventually transfigure into semi-aquatic frogs. Similarly, we see the transfiguration of caterpillars as they enter into their cocoons and emerge as butterflies. If you have never seen a transfigured butterfly emerge from its cocoon, visit the Costa Rican rainforest glasshouse at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, which has an incubator case for cocoons, and does regular releases of newly transfigured butterflies into the rainforest biome. It’s a glorious sight to behold!
The transfiguration of a caterpillar into a butterfly, from one entity into another, is why the butterfly has become a powerful symbol of the Resurrection, symbolizing Jesus’ death, being placed into the tomb, then emerging as the resurrected Christ. Frankly, I’m glad that the early Christians choose the butterfly to represent this mighty act of God, and not the frog. I just can’t imagine dozens of colorful paper frogs being hung over our heads in the nave for Easter!
Human beings do not undergo metamorphosis, at least not in the literal, physical sense . . . well, unless you have the mind of Franz Kafka, who wrote a novella called “The Metamorphosis;” a story of a man waking up one morning to find he has been transfigured into a giant insect. But that’s an allegory and not a train of thought I want to follow for this homily.
But, we humans can be transfigured spiritually. We can go from leading one way of life to another. In fact, the season of Lent, which begins this Ash Wednesday, is a season that is laser focused on our spiritual metamorphosis and transfiguration.
Let me read you the “Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent” that we will use during our Ash Wednesday liturgies.
Dear People of God,
The Holy Scriptures tell us of God’s loving purpose in creation: to raise up a holy people worthy of eternal life. Because we have fallen far away from that purpose, God has worked patiently to draw us back sending prophets and teachers to warn and to guide us and coming at last into this world in Jesus and sharing our human life and death so that we might know the full extent and power of God’s love and forgiveness. In the waters of Baptism and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has called men and women of every time and place into the Church, the Body of Christ, to offer worship and praise, to bear witness to God’s love, and to work with God for the healing of the nations.
Yet, we continue to fall short of the holiness for which we were made and to turn aside to our own purposes, weakening our witness and failing to fulfill the ministries to which we are called. We stand in constant need of the forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed and which he commissioned the disciples to offer.
Therefore from very early times, the Church has set aside the season of Lent as a time when God’s people are called to repent their sins and to renew the promises made at their baptism. It is a time when we were called to examine our way of life, to put aside all luxuries and self-indulgence, and to live a life of greater discipline, centered again on our Baptismal covenant of faith and witness and our commitment to seek justice and peace for all people.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self -examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. ”
Hear these phrases:
“to raise up a holy people worthy of eternal life.”
“Because we have fallen far away from that purpose, God has worked patiently to draw us back.”
“[We are] called to repent [of our] sins and to renew the promises [we] made [at our] baptism.”
“[We are] called to examine our way of life, to put aside all luxuries and self-indulgence, and to live a life of greater discipline.”
These phrases are all ones calling us to transfiguration, to a metamorphosis of life, transfiguring us from living in ways antithetical to what God desires, to a way of life that is in alignment with what God desires.
What spiritual disciplines will you engage in this Lent so that you may be transfigured into the person God desires you to be?
It is traditional for many folks to give things up during Lent; to put aside some of those luxuries and self-indulgent items that we enjoy, engaging in self-discipline from our desires, and even addictions, for things like meat, alcohol, caffeine, deserts and chocolate. This is all well and fine, but too often I get the sense that this is really a diet, and not a spiritual discipline that will draw us back to God. How might we re-purpose this giving up of things as a vehicle to not just lose weight, but by their absence, making room for God in our hearts, minds, and even our bellies?
Other folks commit to a renewed program of exercise, so that they may be physically healthier. (Which – if successful - is about as close to a physical metamorphosis we will achieve as humans.) This too is well and fine, but again I often sense that this Lenten discipline is a do-over of our failed New Year’s resolution to lose weight and be more toned. How might we make this discipline a way to truly transfigure ourselves so we may have a closer relationship with God? Maybe meditating on a passage of scripture as we walk the treadmill? If we do, maybe, just maybe, by meditating on God’s word, this would have a longer lasting impact than our failed New Year’s resolution.
I encourage you this Lent to take to heart what the “Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent” requires; engaging in “self -examination and repentance; . . . prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” And, equally as important, renewing our Baptismal “commitment to seek justice and peace for all people.”
What will you engage in this Lent to achieve your own transfiguration?
At Jesus’ Transfiguration, God’s voice comes from the cloud and tells the disciple, ““This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the most critical transfiguring discipline of all; listening to and following Jesus. It is by listening to Jesus and emulating his life, that we achieve our fullest and greatest metamorphosis. In practicing his ways of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and radical love, we are authentically transfigured. And trust me, when that happens, you will feel it, you will know it, and people will see it in you. When we listen to his voice and walk in his ways our faces shine like the sun, reflecting the glory of God and our transfigured life in Christ. And that is the most wondrous metamorphosis of all!
Have a blessed Lent.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Good grief! It’s that Gospel passage again: Murder, slander, divorce, adultery, swearing oaths; lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Note to self: When this passage comes up again in three years . . . schedule a guest preacher.
Well, here goes.
How do you think the crowds received Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount pretty tough message? Did it motivate them to metanoia; a change in one's way of life? Of did they just say, nope, can’t do this, it’s too hard, and then just wander off to brunch?
What’s your response? Taken literally Jesus’ interpretation of the Law is an amazingly high bar that he sets for human behavior. If just being angry, or insulting someone and calling them a fool results in your burning in hell, then the occupancy rate there is going to be SRO!
What is Jesus actually saying here?
Some Biblical commentators refer to these pronouncements on the Law by Jesus as being antitheses – or oppositions - of the Law. They believe that Jesus is modeling a greater righteousness over and above the Torah.
But that defies Jesus’ statement preceding today’s Gospel passage where he states, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17) By his own witness Jesus’ teaching is not opposed to the Law or the Prophets, rather his teaching is their very fulfillment.
The reality then is that these sayings we have heard on murder, slander, adultery, divorce and swearing an oath are not antithetical to the Law at all, they are intensifications of it.
And, boy, they are intense. When we hear these commands on this standard for human behavior we get very uncomfortable with them. Is Jesus serious? And if so, what does it mean if I have not been able to meet the standard he sets? Am I liable to the hell of fire?
Are these intensifications to be taken literally? Are we literally to gouge out our eye, or cut off our right hand rather than commit an infraction? And if so, then what about the whole issue of divorce (and re-marriage) which we Episcopalians allow? Are we being defiant toward Jesus’ instructions to us? Are we cherry picking the scripture?
There is a lot of material packed into this text. And there are numerous historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary considerations to examine if we are to unpack and truly get to the heart of what Jesus is saying. It entails a lot of work. The alternative to doing that work is to respond to our discomfort by attempting to water the scripture down, make it palatable, or simply ignore it. There is no shortage of people who have taken those routes, but that’s being disingenuous. If we are serious about our faith, we are to work toward comprehending what is going on in this difficult text.
These commands of Jesus must be taken with the utmost seriousness, but any attempt to take them literally leads to absurdity. This is true, as well, of the Beatitudes that precede today’s text.
No one who lives their life with their eyes open can honestly say that murder, libel, slander, adultery, divorce and false vows do not happen all the time, or that the poor are blessed in their poverty, or that those who hunger and thirst have a leg up on the well-fed. To believe that would be at the very least, to engage in flights of fantasy, if not downright delusion.
The reality is that to actually live life by the standards that these intensifications of the law establish, is impossible for we humans.
What these sayings do express is the intrinsic rule of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God; a Kingdom that is a place we know as the already, not yet; a Reign whose beginnings are inaugurated in Jesus Christ and whose fulfillment will only occur when He comes again.
What these intensifications are, then, is a vision of the eschatological Reign of God that is yet to come.
They are a revelation of what will definitely be possible in God’s Reign, versus a snapshot of the realty of our current human circumstances. When Jesus delivers these, “you have heard it is said” sayings, there is no understanding or expectation on his part for our literal adherence to these Kingdom laws. That is simply not possible for humans to do in our fallen state. They are, on the other hand, goals to strive toward as we continuously amend our lives, and look to the day when all Creation is restored to how God intended it to be.
Let’s examine one of the sayings to see how we might apply it to our life in this already, not yet phase of the Kingdom.
“Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
I don’t know about you, but while I have not literally murdered anyone, I certainly have been angry with people at various points in my life. And in my anger, I have said – and certainly thought – things that are insulting to another person. And frankly, I seem to have little or no control over those actions and thoughts. I am like St. Paul, who said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19)
Jesus understands that we humans often do what we know is not right. But he also says that anger and hostility are outside the bounds of God’s Reign; Jesus equates those things with murder.
That would be a Catch-22 we could not get out of were it not for God’s grace.
Jesus doesn’t leave us stuck in this conundrum of understanding our brokenness, but then leaving us to suffer the consequences of hell fire. Rather he tells us how we are to reconcile our broken relationships. “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” So, even though following the intensification of the Law is an impossible standard to adhere to 24/7, Jesus encourages our attempts toward its fulfillment. He does this knowing each time we strive to be reconciled to those people we are at enmity with, even when we do so imperfectly, we draw incrementally closer to living the ways of God’s Reign.
This is invaluable guidance to those of us in America today. We are a nation that has made a blood sport out of anger and insult toward others. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was recently awarded to someone who thrives on this murderous behavior. Degradation of people different from us - who we don’t like - is the norm on cable, talk radio, Internet blogs and tweets, never mind plain old every day gossip. It’s murder by a thousand tweets; a thousand posts; a thousand slandering tongues.
We followers of Jesus are not helpless in the face of this moral degradation. As I said last week, we have something critical to proclaim and work toward in the midst of such brokenness.
While recognizing our own proclivity to these behaviors, we know that with God’s help each of us can live our life differently. And by so doing, we bear witness to our citizenship in God’s realm. This is true and possible for every human being, regardless. Metanoia happens.
Regardless of the topic – enmity, divorce, adultery, violence, evil – Jesus leads us away from the behaviors that are not of God, guiding us into the ways to those that are of God. We just need to choose that as our way of life.
In our reading from Deuteronomy today Moses says to the Hebrew people that God has, “set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . choose life so that you and your descendants may live."
May the way of life given to us by our Savior, be our choice as well, so that we – and all people - may truly live.
Purity, Preservation, Flavor!
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
“Jesus [told the crowds], “You are the salt of the earth;”
What kind of salt are you? Are you an old salt; a seasoned sailor who is often a raconteur, regaling people with tall tales of adventure.
Or maybe you’re someone who needs to be taken with a grain of salt; a person whose words need to be heard with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Then again, maybe you are the salt of the earth; a person who is solid, truthful, reliable, and has integrity.
What kind of salt is the Church? Well, that varies.
There are churches who tell pretty tall tales about what it means to be a Christian.
Certainly, there are no shortage of churches whose words about the Bible need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. And then there are churches that are solid, truthful, reliable, and who strive to live with integrity.
What kind of salt is Christ Church?
Salt is essential to life. Yet too much salt is dangerous; a threat to life resulting in all kinds of illness, like hyper-tension and strokes. But, conversely, without salt in our diet we would die. And as an amateur chef, I will observe that food without salt is pretty bland, and despite the best attempts of the nurses in cardio re-hab to convince me otherwise, even inedible.
In the ancient world salt was highly valued. The word salt is mentioned over forty times in the Bible; maybe most famously in reference to Lot’s wife, who disobeying God’s instructions to not look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, was turned into a pillar of salt. What kind of salt was she?
The Greeks called salt theion, which means divine. The Romans made up a little jingle about salt. Had electronic media existed back then, it could have been an advertisement for Morton’s. It went like this: “Nil utilius sole et sale,” which translates as, “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.”
Being a beach lover, I totally agree!
When Jesus told the crowds gathered to hear his Sermon on the Mount that they were the salt of the earth, there were three associations that his hearers would have made.
The first is purity. Salt being glistening white made that connection an easy one. The Romans said that salt was the purest substance on earth, because it came from the interaction of two pure things, the sun and the sea. Salt was used to purify things which had become impure. When the waters of the city of Jericho had become tainted, the prophet Elisha threw salt into them to make them potable.
The second association with salt was as a preservative. Up until the last two centuries, with the development of canning, freezers, and vacuuming sealing, salt was the most common way to preserve foods, especially animal flesh. Without salting – or curing of some sort – animal flesh has a very short shelf-live before it begins to deteriorate. Salt preserves it, so that it can be eaten weeks, and even months, later. So, salt prevents rot and corruption.
And finally, salt would have been associated as giving flavor to things, which I already mentioned.
Keeping those three associations in mind – purity, preservative, and giver of flavor – what kind of salt are you? How does the salt of your life and your faith, purify, preserve, give flavor?
Unless you live in total isolation, it’s no secret that we live in a world losing principles of purity: an era where acts of decency, honesty, morality, and integrity are in decline, placing the culture in a tail-spin. In fact, on some days it feels as if we have crashed. No follower of Jesus can be the salt of the earth if they condone, or remain mute, when they encounter this loss of purity in our lives. We cannot be salt of the earth if we turn a blind eye to such behaviors, allowing them to co-opt us, in the process becoming tarnished by them. We are a part of the world, and as a part of the world we cannot withdraw from it, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Followers of Jesus must be in the world, setting the example of a better way of a pure life, while simultaneously, as the letter of James says, keeping ourselves, “unstained by [that] world.” (James 1:27)
Which means as the salty followers of Jesus we must be agents of preserving, being an antiseptic to those corrosive, corrupt behaviors and words that bring rot and decay to our lives, our culture, our religion, and our nation. If we are to be the salt of the earth we must witness to the wholesome power of the salt of Jesus’ good news to preserve our souls.
Followers of Jesus also must bring the excitement of the vivid flavor our faith has to offer to a culture whose taste buds have gone dead. This flavor is the joie de vie that comes from knowing all of us are beloved children of God.
Following Jesus and being good salt means we bring to others those qualities that gives life its flavor and zest: the qualities of compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, non-judgmentalism, community, beauty, grace, and abundant love. When we do so, others can see that ours is a faith of pure radiance! Ours is a faith where one is called to enjoy the fullness of life, including laughter and joy. In fact, if you can’t be joyful and have fun being a Christian, we may as well as give up the whole enterprise! Joy is essential to being good salt.
We live in an age of high anxiety. We worry, (to the point of despondency) over many things - income inequality, corrupt business practices, the environment, the deplorable impurity of our political landscape, rogue states developing nuclear weapons, the coronavirus – all these heighten our anxiety and threaten to consume us, to the point of becoming, as Jesus said, “salt [that] has lost its taste . . . no longer good for anything.” Losing our saltiness leads to a demise in our sense of self-worth, of believing we have value. Depression sets in, which breeds its progeny of despondency and despair. More and more people give up on the possibility of a better life, a brighter future. Many turn in-wards, seeing no value in community. Many others turn to addictive behaviors like opiates and alcohol to escape from the darkness of their reality.
We followers of Jesus have something critical to proclaim and work toward in the midst of such brokenness. Being the salt of the earth means we are called to be diffusers of hope, promise and joy, and we do so not by being Panglossian – offering empty words of optimism - but by actively working toward bringing about structural and behavioral changes in our society; changes that will allow people to have hope, living life fully, experiencing joy. Proclaiming purity, preservation and flavor as paramount to human life, we become witnesses to the fundamental Christian belief that each and every human life has infinite value, is redeemable, and is worthy of dignity and respect. No exceptions, no excuses. That is what it means to be the salt of the earth. That is the message of the good news of the Gospel.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone.” Let the saltiness of that truth, be the salt of our lives. Amen.
Feast of the Presentation Sermon
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
I am a person who lives by rituals. Now you may be thinking, “Well, of course you are, you’re a priest. Priests perform rituals.” Which, of course, is true, but I want to embrace a more comprehensive definition of ritual to describe what I mean. Merriam-Webster defines rituals as being three-fold: a system of rites; a ceremonial act or action; and an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner. I am a person whose life is defined by all three.
One of my daily rituals is grinding coffee beans and making a pot of fresh coffee in the morning. That is a ceremonial act – almost religious in nature - regularly repeated in a precise manner. And trust me, don’t mess around with it.
A few weeks ago, I had readied our coffee maker and turned it on to brew. When I came back a few minutes later anticipating a delicious cup of steaming hot java . . . there was no liquid in the pot. When I lifted the lid, there was a slurry of grounds and water floating to the brim of the coffee maker, ready to overflow onto the counter. Evidently some grounds had become clogged in the little hole in the filter basket, preventing the water from flowing into the pot. I’m not sure who was the hotter mess; the coffee maker or me.
Some errant grounds had disrupted my ritual, ruining my ceremonial act, causing havoc in the precise manner with which I start my day. And I just about lost my mind. Okay, I confess. I’m a caffeine addict.
Performing rituals comforts us. Rituals give structure to our lives. In times of turbulence and despair, rituals sustain us and give hope. I know of many people who love the rituals of the Book of Common Prayer. Someone once likened the BCP to a pair of comfortable slippers you put on after having walked in uncomfortable shoes. The ritual of saying the familiar words of our worship soothed this person.
In her best-selling book, “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert says this:
“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.”
Recently I was speaking with a woman whose mother had died. She and her family were sitting Shiva. As we chatted about the loss of her mother and the pain she felt no longer having her, she told me that the rituals of mourning the dead eased the pain and loss: the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish at the funeral, the wearing of a small strip of torn black cloth, sitting of Shiva with the consoling presence of family and friends. These rituals provided comfort and solace, as well as hope for healing from the pain of grief.
Today’s Gospel story from Luke, for the Feast of the Presentation, informs us that Mary and Joseph were people of ritual. They were devout Jews who followed the prescriptions of their faith. If you include the verse just preceding where we start our lesson today , we encounter three distinct rituals that Mary and Joseph engage in.
In verse 21, we read that, “After eight days [from the day of his birth] had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21) The ritual of circumcision for male Jews was the sign of the Covenant made between God and Abraham. In Genesis God tells Abraham, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.” (Gen. 17: 10-12a)
The ritual of circumcision is arguably the most important ritual in Judaism. Mary and Joseph engaging in it with Jesus was a critical part of their identity. It was their link to the Jewish community and the Covenant.
We then read that, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’”
There are two significant rituals embedded in these verses: the requirement to present a firstborn male – both human and animal – to God, and the purification of a woman after child-birth.
These were rituals that fulfilled God’s commands in the Torah. In Exodus God says, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.” (Ex. 13:2) and in Leviticus, “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days . . . On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” (Lev. 12:2-4) So the total time a woman was ritually un-pure after the birth of a male child was forty days, ergo the celebration of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, forty days after Christmas.
When presented to the priests at the Temple, male animals were sacrificed to God. Human children were redeemed by the purchase of a sheep or two turtledoves, depending on the wealth of the parents. These would then be sacrificed to God, in lieu of the child. Joseph and Mary sacrificing two turtledoves indicates that they were of limited financial means.
All of which to say is that Mary and Joseph were people of ritual.
An essential part of Judaism is honoring God in all of life. As observant Jews, Mary and Joseph strived to do so.
Mary and Joseph performing these three rituals of circumcision, presentation, and purification honors God. They give their lives meaning and substance, and they connect the Holy Family to a community.
Rituals and observance of religious requirements have fallen on hard times. (Although I would observe the ritual of coffee making is at an apex in our culture!) For example, the demands of busy schedules, dual-career marriages, and after-school activities mean that people eat fewer meals together. This results in the simple ritual of offering grace before a meal, recognizing that our daily bread comes from God, is rare.
The marking of events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. We have left little room for mystery and encountering the transcendent in our secular, technology driven lives. How much time do we spend each day in front of television, computer, and smartphone screens, versus engaging in the simple rituals of sitting quietly, being in the presence of the holy, talking with our beloved family and friends, playing with children, reflecting on a passage of scripture, or being aware of the joy and wonder of all God’s good gifts to us in the Creation?
Among other things, the lack of ritual results in our being less connected to community, of believing that life has little meaning beyond mere existence, of ignoring the presence of the holy in all things. This then leads to growing feelings of despair, of not having hope during stressful times in a better future.
We need to reclaim the importance of ritual in our lives. Ritual gives us a way to dramatize our gratitude for the goodness and mystery of life. It is a vehicle toward authentic relationships and community, of giving life meaning, and of offering hope for a better future in times of darkness and despair.
Ritual’s ability to do these things is incarnated in the two other characters in our Gospel story - Simeon and Anna – and their encounter with Jesus.
When Simeon, who is described as “righteous and devout” – in other words devoted to the rituals of the Torah - encounters Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, over-joyed that God’s promise of a Messiah – the one who shall liberate Israel and save all humanity - has been fulfilled. Simeon calls him, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and [the] glory [of God’s] people Israel."
For the majority of her long life, Anna engaged in the rituals of fasting and prayer in the Temple. Like Simeon, her fervent prayer was for the redemption of Israel from brutal occupying empires. When she sees Jesus, she is overwhelmed with gratitude and she praises God, speaking to all she encounters about the child who would bring about “the redemption of Jerusalem.” In other words, she rejoices.
Two faithful Jews, ever-hopeful that God’s promises would be realized, despite the darkness and despair that enveloped their people, have seen that moment come to fruition in their lives. The rituals that they practiced sustained them, and led them to this moment of redemption; it was hope-fulfilled.
We too need to reclaim ritual, if we are to reclaim hope.
An alternative name for today is Candlemas. Our use of lots of candles in our worship symbolizes Simeon’s calling Jesus, “a light for the Gentiles.” As John’s Gospel tells us, “in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4)
Lighting candles is a ritual of hope. In performing this ritual, we are reminded that we are one community in Jesus Christ, and that his light, which no darkness can ever overcome, shines ever brightly. In that knowledge, the ritual of lighting candles comforts, sustains and strengthens us.
In the ritual of lighting these candles, we reclaim the hope that Christ brings to the world. And that hope will sustain us today, tomorrow, and for eternity.