A Night of Watching

Tonight the church honors not a saint, but an event: Watch Night, remembering the Emancipation Proclaimation of 1863.

Traditions surrounding a “night of watching” on New Year’s Eve can be found in Moravian and Methodist American history through the 1800’s. The practice may have begun almost a century earlier in Bohemian regions of Europe, however, as families marked endings and beginnings.

In America these vigils were taken as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and make resolutions for the coming one. Often held in churches and surrounded by prayer and music, these gatherings usually started in the evening and lasted past midnight.

In 1863, however, the tradition took on new life and a new focus in America as slaves in formerly Confederate States gathered in churches, homes, and rooms in the waning hours of 1862 awaiting President Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclaimation to take effect.

Watch Night continues to be an annual gathering, especially in communities of color, as a way to both remember what has happened and gather strength for continuing to work for the freedoms still to come. 2020 and 2021 have been stark reminders that the Emancipation Proclaimation was not, and has never been, enough in the struggle for all in this country to live in peace and enjoy prosperity. Indeed, that first proclamation didn’t “free all slaves” in the United States…that would take acts of individual legislation in many border states and territories over time.

We need to remember that racism and prejudice still influence our civic and religious lives, Beloved.

Watch Night is an invitation for us all to reflect and resolve to partner together to do more.

Divine Behavior

Today the church remembers not one person, but rather a family: The Holy Family, Vessels of Divine Communion.

Typical depictions of the Holy Family usually include Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus. We understand through scriptural accounts as well as the conventions of the day, that Jesus had siblings as well, which should not be forgotten.

It should also not be assumed that the Holy Family is somehow a prescription for how nuclear families should look. It is, instead, descriptive of the times…and even then, not so much, as Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock certainly chaffed against the societal norms of the day.

But even with these qualifiers, the Holy Family as a unit is instructive for the kind of love that people can, and should, share within the family (biological or chosen). Joseph, the step-father of Jesus, is tenderly concerned when he cannot find his son on their pilgrimage, and is, by all accounts, kind and stalwart with Mary, keeping their engagement despite the pregnancy surprise.

Mary is a wise and protecting mother, accompanying Jesus on his travels, and sticking with him until the very end, even the cross. Truly, Beloveds, we are not meant to bury our babies, and yet she does so, not shying away from the heartache.

And though we don’t get much of a glimpse of the child Jesus, we find him appropriately rebelling against his parents, kindly watching out for his mother, and including his brother in his ministry.

Certainly it was not an idyllic family. No flesh-and-blood family, chosen or biological, is idyllic (despite what social media might portray). There were even a few arguments recorded (John 2, Matthew 12, Mark 3) that showed not everything was “Leave It to Beaver.”

And yet, they loved one another through it all.

This is why they are lifted up today: not because they were perfect, but because they loved one another in and through the imperfections.

Which, to me, sounds pretty Divine.

-icon written by Br. Mickey McGrath

Holy Innocents

Today the church remembers the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the children King Herod killed when searching in fear for the Christ child.

We sing of this in the carol “Lully Lullay,” which is meant to mimic the lullaby the mothers of Bethlehem sang to their children to keep them quiet as soldiers searched for them.

“Herod the king, in his raging…”

This still happens today. Children are still our most vulnerable population, especially when the powerful become fearful.

Children are the first to die in times of famine and disease, when food and medicine are hoarded by the powerful.

Children are still the first to die in the wars their parents wage.

Children are the first to feel it when social services are cut by the powerful.

Children are the first to feel it when we pass laws of convenience instead of laws of conviction.

Remember our Holy Innocents today:
-The children of Oxford, Michigan, of Newtown, of Columbine, of every situation where we fail to act to protect them and instead protect guns
-The children of Syria, Afghanistan, and all places torn by perpetual war.
-The children of the rural poor.
-The children of the urban homeless.
-The children of undocumented immigrants.
-The children born addicted.
-The children who fall into addiction because their futures are bleak.
-The children who have every privilege but are not loved.
-The children who are greatly loved but have no privilege and suffer in a world of status games.
-The children of Papua New Guinea tortured for being accused of witchcraft.
-The children sold into slavery around the world for the powerful to abuse.
-The children who are left without parents or grandparents in this pandemic because we are selfish.

That Snake is Poison

On December 27th the church remembers St. John, the only apostle said to have died of natural causes.

St. John played a prominent role in the Gospels, and some believe he is even depicted in the Gospel of John as the “Beloved Disciple” (though, I would contend that the Beloved Disciple in that Gospel is actually the one reading the Gospel…but more on that in a different piece of writing).

After the Ascension, John traveled far and wide as an evangelist. He is said to have ended up in Ephesus, where he died of advanced age. Lore has it that in his last years faithful congregants would carry him into the church at Ephesus where he’d bless the gathered people saying, “Love one another, my little children,” a theme of the Epistles of John.

It’s an appropriate day to have a glass of wine or grape juice. Legend has it that John was challenged to drink a cup of poisoned wine, and as he held the cup, he blessed it, and the poison became a snake and slithered out, rendering it harmless. This is why John is sometimes depicted as holding a snake in a chalice.

These saint days following Christmas highlight the “Comites Christi,” or “Companions of Christ.”

St. Stephen died tragically, St. John supposedly died peacefully, and tomorrow the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem who died tragically are meant to highlight how Christ entered a world full of blessing and brokenness, sadness and joy.

God’s incarnation did not solve the problems of humanity, but showed that humanity is worth saving, by God…even broken as it is.

The First Martyr

Today the church remembers St. Stephen, Deacon and Proto-Martyr.

It may seem odd to place the feast day of a martyr so close to The Nativity, but the reality is that Jesus came into a world of violence, no matter how loudly you sing “Silent Night.”

The pairing of the birth of the Messiah with the first martyr was intentional: Christ’s arrival is meant to redeem and reform our violent ways…but we’re not there yet.

St. Stephen appears in the Acts of the Apostles as a follower of Jesus whose defining characteristic is love. Even as he was being stoned to death, he prayed for his persecutors. We don’t know anything else about this disciple who apparently led a short, but noteworthy, life.

St. Stephen is joined by two other feast days directly on the heels of The Nativity: the Holy Innocents and St. John. All three will form a few days of peaks and valleys as the 12 Days of Christmastide play out. St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents will remind the us of the tragic nature of our world. St. John, the only Apostle said to have died of natural causes, will remind us that not everything is bad. This back-and-forth swing of the feasts of the church provide a rhythm that calls us to both work for justice, as not everything is well, and thank God for life and creation, because not everything is bad.

By the way, you sing of St. Stephen every year in the Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas” who, if you recall, “looked out on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, clean and crisp and even…”

St. Stephen is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that love is powerful, and it’s what we cling to and are held by in this life.

-icon written by Theophilia

Christ Climbed Down From His Bare Tree This Year

Christ climbed down
From his bare tree
This year
And ran away to where
There were no rootless Christmas trees
Hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
From his bare tree
This year
And ran away to where
There were no gilded Christmas trees
And no tinsel Christmas trees
And no tinfoil Christmas trees
And no pink plastic Christmas trees
And no gold Christmas trees
And no black Christmas trees
And no powderblue Christmas trees
Hung with electric candles
And encircled by tin electric trains
And clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
From his bare tree
This year
And ran away to where
No intrepid Bible salesmen
Covered the territory
In two-toned Cadillacs
And where no Sears Roebuck creches
Complete with plastic babe in manger
Arrived by parcel post
The babe by special delivery
And where no televisioned Wise Men
Praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
From his bare tree
This year
And ran away to where
No fat handshaking stranger
In a red flannel suit
And a fake white beard
Went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
In a Volkswagen sled
Drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
With German names
And bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
From Saks Fifth Avenue
For everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
From his bare tree
This year
And ran away to where
No Bing Crosby carolers
Groaned of a tight Christmas
And where no Radio City angels
Iceskated wingless
Thru a winter wonderland
Into a jinglebell heaven
Daily at 8:30
With Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
From his bare tree
This year
And softly stole away into
Some anonymous soul
He waits again
An unimaginable
And impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
The very craziest
Of Second Comings

-Lawrence Ferlinghetti-

O Emmanuel

Today we cry out, “O Emmanuel!”

Or, in other words, “God: be near, not distant!”

It’s as if we finally have figured out what our true heart’s desire is: to know the Divine better.

Like Aaron at the base of the mountain, when we aren’t attuned to the Divine in the world (and ourselves and others) we make golden calves like money, fame, vanity, and yes, sacred texts and religion.

Those last two are the sneakiest golden calves of all…

Today we plead that God be made known. We look to the skies to spy it in real time, all the while God arrives under the most normal, unassuming, ungodly way…which gives us insight into the Divine mind, if we pay attention.

(Painting by Mary Sullivan)

O Rex

“O Ruler!” are the words sung by the church today. “O Rex!”

In our most honest moments we admit that we both like leadership, and like to rebel against it…humans are fickle.

We’re all ruled by something. Even the most unique individual allows that uniqueness to guide them to a fault. The most “don’t tread on me” flag waving person has a hook in their nose and their ideology is steering the ship.

What rules in your life?

At its best this call is a plea that our basest desires will no longer rule us, and that something more holy will do it. Perhaps peace will rule. Or love. The best of the Divine attributes!

At its worst, well, we’ve turned Jesus into just another self-styled tyrant to whom we demand others give their allegiance…

-art by Vincent Crosby

O Dawn

“O Oriens!” the church cries on the morning of the Winter Solstice. “O Dawn!” is what it literally means, both a bit ironic and exasperated on this shortest day of the year.

You know, my son Finn was born with two “true knots” in his umbilical cord. In ancient days this sign would have probably been taken as an omen of either his greatness or his mischievousness (and it would have been right on both counts!).

But living in a scientific age we have no need for these signs, right?

Well, I’d suggest the opposite. In another year with so much death, and with depression so rampant, we need reminders of our greatness, Beloved.

It’s all a reminder that, with every dawn, with every dayspring, something amazing is possible.

The dawn, the bright and morning star, is an ever-rising sign that something amazing is possible.

So stick around, Beloved. In case you didn’t know it, it’s good you exist and, well, amazing things are always possible with every dawn…

(Art by Edward Fielding)

O Key of David

“O Clavis David” or “O Key of David” is the chant the church cries today.

This is less of a plea and more of a reminder from us to God that a promise was made, long ago, that from the house of the shepherd-king David another shepherd would come and unlock the doors of God’s reality, bringing heaven to earth…or at least starting the process.

We search constantly for the keys to unlock the universe: the Secret, the right prayer, the magical path.

I wonder, though, if really the key we need isn’t one to unlock the heavens, to unlock the universe for our own gain, but rather the right key to unlock our own selfish hearts…

Maybe we’ve misunderstood this message all along.