Christmas 1

When I was a seminarian at the Church of the Ascension & St. Agnes, I heard the Last Gospel (and therefore the prologue of John) a lot, as all of you have over the last several years.  Fr. Lane didn’t say it too often – he didn’t like the Last Gospel or birettas for that matter – but Bishop Montgomery said it after every Mass, as I remember, and apparently he could recite it in French as well.  Ascension & St. Agnes didn’t have Prayer Cards on the altar, and so Bishop Montgomery didn’t have a liturgical cheat-sheet like I do; the Bishop said the Last Gospel from memory, counting off each phrase on his fingers.  The Last Gospel wasn’t always part of the Mass itself, it started off as a private devotion.  On the way back to the sacristy after the Dismissal, the priest would recite it under his breath as a reminder of the great mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus.  After a few decades of this, people started to wonder what Father was mumbling about after the Mass, and the public recitation of the prologue of John at the conclusion of the Mass began to creep into use.


The Gospel for the Sunday after Christmas is always the prologue of John; the Last Gospel cuts off two verses short.  Because we’re still in the Christmas season, this reading is sort of like John’s take on Christmas, on Jesus being born for us, for our sake and for our salvation.


But instead of mangers and shepherds and angels and the like, we get, essentially, a mystic poem.

“John takes us back to the beginning.  He echoes the words from the book of Genesis: In the beginning God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, “Let there be light.”  In John’s gospel, from the very beginning was the Word.  The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, who spoke and said “let there be light,” this same God who was from the beginning and spoke that Word, this same God became flesh and blood and dwelt among us.  John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness but shines in the very midst of it.”[1]


If you’ve ever been with us at the 6pm Family Mass on Christmas Eve, then you’ve seen the frantic act of attempting to set up the creche while the hymn Once in royal David’s city acts as a countdown clock.  One year I was handed the angel and forgot where she went until a four year old told me that she hangs on a little hook on the front of the barn.  This year a little boy didn’t want to give me a sheep, and I was totally ready to just let him take it with him, but he did finally hand it up to me.  The baby Jesus is supposed to be the last figure placed in the creche, but it never happens that way – I just sort of get each thing as it comes.  Our baby Jesus is tiny in scale, even compared to the figures around it, and I hope that serves as a reminder of how vulnerable God was willing to become, the risk God took, the risk of Christmas.  At the creche, we’re reminded of the tininess of the baby Jesus.


But then comes the first Sunday after Christmas and the prologue of John, and we’re reminded now of the immensity of Jesus, the very Word of God.  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”


That’s a massive claim John is making about a person, a person he knew and ate lunch with and might still owe him 20 bucks.  But it’s the same claim we make today, that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, that we behold His glory, that life itself is possible only through Him.


We make that claim at the end of every Mass, that God Himself set up shop here on earth to free us from the darkness that we ourselves could not overcome.  May the light and life and glory of Christ shine for you this Christmas season.

[1] The Rev. William M. Thigpen:

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Merry Christmas, everybody.  Thank God it’s Christmas, huh?  2017 has been a long year for an awful lot of people, and I think we needed Christmas to come.  2107 gave some people what they deserve.  Time Magazine named ‘The Silence Breakers’ as its Person of the Year, and so if things work out the way they should, sexual predation will no longer be tolerated as it has been; we can only pray that those who did or could say “Me Too” won’t face further victimization.  2017 has been the year of the storm: between the hurricanes and the firestorms, it’s hard to tell what’s worse.  Then there’s the barrage of shootings and terrorist attacks here and around the world.  It’s been a dark year, and I think we’re all ready for Christmas, ready for a little hope.


But how ready are we?  Last week I admitted that I hadn’t even started Christmas shopping, and I’ll admit now that I barely got started – I did get my wife something, so really, it’s all going to be alright.  And because of the generosity of our parish and many friends of the parish, I had the pleasure of delivering carloads of gifts to several local families who needed a little boost this Christmas.  There was a lot going on, and the retail and shipping businesses of the world are in the process of making a fortune on my unreadiness this year.  The Church has a whole season of preparation for Christmas – Advent is supposed to get us ready for Christmas, not just give us a piece of calendar chocolate every day, but I do wonder how many of us are any more spiritually ready for Christmas, presents aside.  But if Christmas teaches us anything, it’s that Jesus has a penchant for showing up when we are unready.


And praise God for that!  Imagine a world in which Jesus didn’t show up until we were ready for Him.  Mary and Joseph were surely not ready for Jesus to be born, any more than any parent is truly ready for the arrival of their child.  Having a child is a life-changing experience.  As our presiding bishop pointed out in his Christmas message to the church, if you’ve ever been in a house with a new baby, you know that this seemingly powerless being somehow, nevertheless, takes over the whole house.  Every routine is broken, every priority is moved down, all that had been usual is made new.  There’s so much stress and fear and anxiety wrapped up with so much love and light and hope.


And then imagine that you had that baby in a cave on the edge of a town of about 300 people under the occupation of a brutal foreign power and that your first visitors are a bunch of unwashed shepherds.  Not a good way to start out, and not a sign of efficient preparation.  But Jesus was born nonetheless.


That’s because Jesus came not because of our readiness, but because of our need.  He came because human sin had rendered the world unready and unsuitable.  He set aside the unceasing worship and praise of choirs of angels in order to become fragile, humble, and vulnerable.  He exchanged the spotless raiment of heaven for the all too physical realities of childbirth and livestock and adolescence and rejection and suffering and death.


Jesus came because we were unready for God, yes, but also because God was ready for us.  Jesus was born into this world so that God could physically touch the human experience, so that everything that happens to us could somehow happen to God.  Jesus was born so that God could know what it’s like to learn and to grow and to have a tummy ache, or what it’s like to go hungry and thirsty and have no roof over His head, or know what it’s like to fear and be hunted and taken captive.  Jesus was born so that God could be with us in every way; Jesus died and rose again so that we could be with God in every way.


It has been a dark year.  But we are here once again to celebrate the birth of Christ, because in that dirty cave in that podunk town was born the light of the world.  The King of kings and yet born of Mary; the Lord of lords in human vesture; Christ our God to earth descended, to be the light in our darkness, to be our life, our sweetness, and our hope.  I won’t ask you if you’re ready for Him – He’s already here.


Merry Christmas, everybody.

*The theme and a few sentences of this sermon came from Fr. Bret Hays.






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Advent 4

The other day I noticed that the Princeton Garden Theater was playing one of the all time great movies, The Princess Bride.  Turns out The Princess Bride was released in 1987, which I at first thought was twenty years ago but is actually thirty years ago – I’m getting old.  Westley and Buttercup, we can all agree, are the perfect couple, Westley’s signature line of “As you wish” gave him away when he came back as the Dread Pirate Roberts, even when tumbling down a hill.  And so as much as I would be willing to talk about The Princess Bride at any time, that signature line of Westley’s actually ties into today’s Gospel.


“In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that unless prevented by appropriate measures, a man and a woman who found themselves alone together would inevitably have sexual relations.  This is why the culture prescribes that men (fathers, husbands, brothers) watch, guard, and protect the women in their care (Sir 26:10-12).


“There are a variety of strategies for carrying out this concern.  One is to ensure that a woman is always in the company of other women and children (girls and boys) younger than the age of puberty.  Another is the structure of the houses where the inner room or courtyard secluded from the view of people (men) in the outside world is reserved as the proper place for unmarried women.


“In Luke’s account of the annunciation, a presumably masculine angel visits Mary who seems to be quite alone.  Very likely, she is in the innermost quarters of her family’s home, the proper place for an unmarried young woman.  The angel is an intruder, and the scene would strike any Mediterranean person as suspicious, angel notwithstanding.”[1]


And so Mary finds herself in a compromised position, and one in which could bring shame upon herself, her family, and to Joseph, her betrothed.  “Notice that despite all the honorable assurances from the messenger, Mary is still properly concerned about her honor status: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  She is fully aware of the significance and consequences of the angel’s message.  In a flash, she recognizes the new challenges that will emerge in her betrothal and the crisis into which this pregnancy could throw both families.


“The angel reminds Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  (Theologians) recognize in the angel’s explanation two indications that God is going to play the role of traditional husband for Mary.  He will “empower” her (“the spirit will come upon you”) and “protect” her (“overshadow you”), two duties of a Middle Eastern husband.  The meaning is not lost on Mary…


“Her concluding remark is a typical Middle Eastern cultural response when one has lost an argument, or decides to conclude a discussion that is going nowhere.  The sentiment “let it be done to me according to your word” is more commonly stated, “As you wish.”[2]


Poor Mary knew that she had been put in an impossible situation.  She probably figured that no one would believe this story, and she certainly knew that the worst-case scenario is that she would be publicly shamed and stoned to death.  Best case would likely be publicly shamed and not stoned to death.  But then her faith and her curiosity kicked in: if God put her in an impossible situation, surely He would do the impossible to ensure His purposes were fulfilled.  And, if the angel was to be believed, her cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant, and so Mary could rush off to confirm that with her own eyes.


And so it seems that faith is not always easy, even for a saint who was so obviously favored by God, so full of grace.  Most of us can surely relate: in the changes and chances of this life, even when we are fully centered on God, even when we pray constantly, figuring out the will and purposes of God can be a monumental challenge, especially when those purposes put us in what seems like a compromised position.  It’s at those times we can remember those words of Mary: let it be unto me according to thy word.  As you wish.

[1] John J. Pilch:

[2] Ibid.

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Gaudete Sunday

Well, we’ve made it.  We’ve made it to halftime, Gaudete Sunday; what is meant to be rest stop on the long Advent road to the Nativity of Our Lord.  The name Gaudete Sunday comes from the first line of the Introit in the Mass (we’ll use it at the 10am), Gaudete in Domino semper, “Rejoice in the Lord always”.  You’ll note that it’s also the first line from the reading today from blessed Paul.  All the other Sundays in Advent we wear purple, of course, because that is the color of penitence, of royalty, and as my friend Fr. Sammy Wood once pointed out, of a bruise.[1]  But we lighten up a little today; we get a liturgical Gatorade and PowerBar, and we recharge for the good times ahead.

So how many of you have finished your Christmas shopping?  How many of you are more like me, and haven’t started?  I don’t even know where to begin at this point, but I guess I’ll sit down tonight and make a list, check it twice, and rejoice that Amazon exists.

St. Paul had a wish list for the Christians in Thessalonica, we just heard it: rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.  On the face of it, it sounds like a happy little list, a recipe for being nice and cheerful.  But, of course, it’s not that at all; it may be the most difficult wish list of all time.

Let’s look at each command on its own.  To rejoice is to be full of joy, to be elated, to be exuberant in happiness.  Apparently Paul thinks that Christians should feel this way all the time, but how many of us can live up to that kind of standard?  When I was a teenager, I had some big-E Evangelical friends who would feel bad about feeling bad because they weren’t rejoicing all the time.  But another definition of rejoice is to cause joy; so even in terrible times we can rejoice in the Lord, the Lord can cause us to be joyful because He is with us.  We can also be the cause of the joy for others – our words and actions can rejoice the hearts of those around us.

Then Paul tells us to pray constantly, which on first blush sounds like bad advice.  Should we be praying instead of, say, concentrating on work or a book or on a conversation with a friend?  If we don’t close our eyes all day and recite the Book of Common Prayer, are we failing Paul?  Well, I’m not sure.  Paul could be uncompromising at times.  But I think what he meant here is that we should develop an attitude of prayer.  We do that by being aware of God’s presence and His availability to us.  Brother Lawrence, the 17th Century monk, called this “practicing the presence of God.”  And if we practice the presence of God, we begin to speak to Him more and more – praying, as it were, constantly.

If the first two weren’t enough, Paul then tells us to give thanks in all circumstances.  Right off the bat, we want to remember that Paul isn’t saying we should give thanks for all circumstances, but rather in all circumstances.  As Scott Hoezee points out, it’s wrong to “give thanks for all circumstances, because that would mean giving thanks for sin and suffering and death, which are contrary to (God’s) will.  God does not want us to call the Holocaust good.

“How on earth can we do that?  Only if we genuinely believe that “God works all things together for good for those who love him….”  The only way we can believe that promise in the face of the horrors of human existence is “in Christ Jesus,” that is, in the light of what God has done for us in him.  We will be able to give thanks in all circumstances only if we believe that Jesus proves God’s commitment to turn even the worst into the best.”[2]

So I’ll probably sit down tonight and start making a list.  I’ll pray constantly that I remember everybody, I’ll rejoice that gift cards are always a welcome gift, and I’ll give thanks that my loved ones know my circumstances, given that Christmas Eve is on a Sunday this year.

And I’ll think about St. Paul’s Christmas wish list for us: rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.    Three responses, really, to the actions of God; three responses to that unspeakable gift of God that is Christ Jesus.

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Advent 2

Forbes magazine, that font of capitalist wisdom, entitled its seventy-fifth anniversary issue “Why We Feel So Bad When We Have It So Good.”  It sported articles by some of the media luminaries of our time: Peggy Noonan…, George Bush, and Dan Rather; the Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, writing of the disillusionment that comes from our cultural fascination with affluence; and the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, warning us of the weary discontent haunting a nation surprised to discover that “economic and material goods are no compensation for social and moral ills.”[1]

Sounds pretty bad.  Sounds like we are, as a society, joyless.  It also sounds like Forbes magazine was being rather prophetic, like a voice crying out in the consumerist wilderness.  Not unlike the two great prophets we heard from this morning, Isaiah and John the Baptist, Forbes is able to identify and call out a problem; but very much unlike our prophets, it’s not able to fix it or provide any comfort to the afflicted.

We just heard Isaiah report the words of the Lord: O Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  “In the sorrows of life, who does not long for comfort?  Who would not melt with gratitude at the tender comfort of God?  Yet what is comfort?

“When we want it, sometimes what we want is just what the good shepherd gives his lost sheep. We don’t want to walk along the road of our life to the Lord.  We want God to carry us.  But a child that is carried all the time will never learn to walk, to leap and run.  That child, weak enough already to be carried, will get only weaker as the carrying goes on.

“And comfort isn’t a matter of giving weakness. It’s a matter of giving strength—strength for walking, even over very rough roads.  In fact, the “-fort” in “comfort” comes from the Latin word for “strong.”  The “com-” in “comfort” is from the Latin word for “with.”  To give comfort to someone is to lend him some of your strength.  He is more able to stand on his own feet and walk because you are with him.”[2]

And yet, on the face of it, we haven’t known John the Baptist as a comforting figure (and most of us probably haven’t known much about Isaiah at all).  The Baptist can come off as a bit of a raving lunatic: how many people have you known who wander out into the wilderness to preach about repentance and to call out the sins of the mighty among us?  Let me ask that another way: how many do you know who do those things without the hope of being paid to do those things?  Who might expect death rather than cake?

And John the Baptist words rarely evoke comfort, at least the way we tend to read and say them.  My favorite quote from the Baptist is him calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.”  Not very nice.  “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie,” sounds like the ominous plot of a Michael Bay movie. 

That is, until we remember who stood in those sandals the Baptist was unworthy of.  Who it was John was trying to prepare us for.  John the Baptist was stirring his people up, for sure, but he was stirring them up for hope, for the hope and strength and comfort that is God walking among us.

‘I have baptized you with water,” said the Baptist, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  All who come to Jesus become His own; because we have received the baptism Jesus offers, we have the comfort of being cleansed from our sins, the freedom to pursue righteousness, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  What immense strength comes from that.  O Comfort, comfort my people,’ says our God.




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Advent 1

The great St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a little about a lot of things and a lot about a few things.  Being a late convert, someone who, let’s say, might have preferred that what happened in Hippo stayed in Hippo, he wrote incessantly about his struggles with sin and his constant need of conversion and repentance.  That’s to say that he was a regular person in that regard, though regular people rarely write it all down.  Augustine also wrote brilliantly about time, the theology of time, and yet his most famous quote about time is this:  “What then is time?  If no one asks me, I know; but if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I do not know.”


Time is a popular subject in the Bible  It’s a one way street, though – people are always asking God about time.   “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13)  “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Hab 1)  “‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1)


It’s seemingly constant.  It’s the Biblical equivalent of having toddlers in the backseat of the car asking “Are we there yet?”  It shows human beings to be impatient, grasping, ignorant, small creatures, like gnats buzzing around the ears of God.  But it might also show humanity at its best.


We are all too aware that, as Paul Mills writes, “We are temporal creatures with a finite lifespan.  Western lifestyle is dominated by considerations of time to such a degree that the clock is rivalled only by the printing press as the most influential invention of this millennium.  In societies less obsessed with temporal flow, we are known as ‘people with gods on their wrists’.  Time travel is a pervasive theme of our science fiction.


“Yet, with Augustine, although we instinctively know what time is and can sense its passing, we have extreme difficulty in defining it. We perceive time as approaching us from the ‘future’, passing across the vanishingly brief boundary of the ‘present’, into the ‘past’, but we cannot sense whether the past and the future exist as realities other than for their moment in the present.


“While some biblical writers depict history having cyclical features, the overriding picture is of time within this universe being linear, having both a beginning (at creation), and a definite end (e.g. Acts 17:30-1).  We do not know the exact time of the end, but it is already known by the Father (Mark 13:32).  History has a fixed end-point, and therefore a destination.  This contrasts particularly with the Hindu notion that time is endlessly repetitive and cyclical, which can result in apathy about the consequences of our actions within time.  Rather, the belief that time is linear encourages purposive action (Psalm 90:10, 12).” [1]


Said another way, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.”  Jesus was with His disciples in Jerusalem when one of them admired the majesty of the Temple.  “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus.  “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”  People being people, a few of Jesus’ disciples cornered Him and asked, “Tell us, when will these things happen?”


Jesus gives a long discourse about the signs and wonders that will proceed the end of days, everything from the Gospel being proclaimed to all peoples to persecutions to the stars falling from the sky, but then He says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”


Jesus here sees humanity at its perhaps annoying best: the buzzing falls out of “When will this happen?”, and it sounds more like, “We love you and long for your return.”  “Are we there yet?” sounds more like “Your absence from us is dreadful.”


“Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come,” becomes less of a warning and more of a comfort: “I am coming,” says the Lord, and so stop worrying about when.  Because ‘when’ becomes both a producer of anxiety and an easy out: a countdown clock both makes us buzz around like gnats and lets us ignore our duties to each other and to the Lord.


This Advent, take the time to mark the time, to notice its passing, to make use of the time our Lord gives us, and give Him thanks for not letting us know what time He’ll get back.






[1] Paul Mills:

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Christ the King

A happy and blessed Christ the King Sunday, everybody. The Feast of Christ the King is our Feast of Title, despite our church being older than the feast itself. Ritual Notes, the ultimate guide to all things liturgical, tells us that churches named Christ Church should have August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration as their feast of title, but I don’t know any Christ Churches who use it. We will celebrate this afternoon with our usual Solemn Evensong and Benediction, followed by an actual feast.

The Feast of Christ the King is also interesting in that “Jesus does not claim this title of king for himself. He sets out to gather up disciples. Andrew. Simon Peter. Philip. Then he encounters Nathanael, who exclaims, “You are the King of Israel!” As he will later do with Pilate, Jesus neither accepts nor denies the title. Rather he points to the future, when “you will see greater things than these.”

“The title King of the Jews comes most definitively from what might be an unexpected source: the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea and no friend of the Jews. “Are you king of the Jews?” he asks Jesus. Not getting a satisfactory answer, Pilate uses his own, earthly authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. He presents Jesus to the angry crowd: “Behold your king!”
“Here is one commentator’s provocative, haunting perspective on the scene: “With his ‘Ecce Homo,’ [Pilate presents] a mocked king, crowned with thorns, covered with welts and spittle, to a crowd clamoring for his crucifixion. ‘Behold the human condition,’ says Pilate, ‘this is what fallen man is—a pitiful caricature of the divine image.’ This is the king of the Jews.”

“Covering all the bases, Pilate has an inscription written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek and put on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” When the chief priests object, he shuts them down. “What I have written I have written.” Pilate uses his authority not to rescue Jesus from certain death, but – perhaps unwittingly — to declare his kingship in words that have lasted millennia.

“It may be for this reason that Pilate was venerated in some early Christian traditions. The Ethiopian Church venerates Pilate and his wife on June 19. In our tradition, Pilate is the only human other than Mary, the mother of God, named in the Nicene creed. The classic depiction of Christ on the cross, whether suffering and broken or clothed in splendid apparel as Christus Rex, typically includes Pilate’s inscription.

“King of the Jews is not a title Jesus claimed for himself. He does not preach himself as king; rather he preaches the kingdom of God. He says again and again “the kingdom of God is like…” using parables and images to convey what we must imagine and pray for. Thy kingdom come.”1

It is this humble and self-sacrificial king who left eternity and entered history, who speaks His commands gently, who favors the little guy, to whom we pay our homage today and every day. We do that by very simply doing what He told us to do today: feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner.

How are we doing with that? Well, we need help visiting the prisoner; turns out it’s actually quite hard to visit prisoners. But the sick, the shut in, we do okay at that. We gave 325 people complete Thanksgiving meals this past Thanksgiving, and who knows how many of our neighbors will benefit from the Truck event the Thursday before, and our parish is one of the larger contributors to the St. Mary’s Food Pantry. The Bordentown Laundry Project helps keep clean clothes on bodies old and young in our city. And we welcome the stranger every day into this building, our sanctuary.

It may at times seem unfair that we serve a King who we don’t see in the flesh, at least not like Pilate or the Apostles or so many did 2000 years ago. Our consolation today is two-fold: one, we will one day see our King face to face, He promised us that; two, Jesus tells us today, we can see Him everywhere we look and in everyone we serve, for “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

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