Today the church celebrates one of our calendar-contingent feast days: The Feast of the Ascension.
Or, in German, Himmelfahrt (which is much more fun to say).
In Norwegian it’s Himmelfartsdag (even more fun to say).
But, I digress…
The Feast of the Ascension follows the Biblical pattern of 40, and finds itself a square 40 days after Easter. That Biblical pattern of 40 is meant to be a touchstone for those who pay attention.
40 days and 40 nights of the floating ark. 40 years of wandering for Israel. 40 days of temptation in the desert for Jesus.
This is not coincidence, Beloved, but rather a repeating tracer by Biblical writers to say, in a concise way, that 40 is “when you’re at your wit’s end” and you can’t take anymore.
When it comes to the Ascension, though, it’s flipped. The Biblical account notes that Jesus appeared to the disciples, and a few random folx, for 40 days and then exited stage left. It’s kind of like the Divine has “had enough.”
Because if Jesus had stuck around, the disciples never would have. We love to get attached to things and then depend on them for the hard lifting, right?
If Jesus had stuck around, the church would never learn to lean on one another (I mean…they’re still struggling to do that 2000 years later, right?).
Just like birds are kicking the chicks out of the nest in these May days, saying, “You’re made for this!” the Ascension is a way to explain that Jesus isn’t showing up in the same way anymore.
So you, Beloved, have to.
In fact: you’re made for this.
-art by Bagong Kussudiardja (Indonesian, 1928–2004), Ascension, 1983
But I am a parent, a father even, and in picking up the new book The Beauty of Motherhood by Kimberly Knowle-Zeller and Erin Strybis found echoes of my own experience in these pages.
Organized in a similar fashion as To Bless the Space Between Us by another deep-thinking writer after my own heart, John O’Donohue, The Beauty of Motherhood provides reflections, prayers, and practices that correspond to that age-old question by the pensive writer of Ecclesiastes, “What time is it?”
As any parent knows, each stage of development in those early years is also a stage of development for the parent walking with that child. This book surrounds the stages of “infancy,” “toddlerhood,” and “childhood” with words that bless, console, and encourage moms and mothering figures, bringing intention and attention to the movements of the heart.
I always balk when people tell young parents to “savor every moment,” because honestly you’re usually too tired, confused, or even annoyed to enjoy one moment, let alone every one. This work provides some scaffolding to that sentiment, though, easing the pressure that phrase can cause. A parent need not savor every moment in real time, but with the help of these authors can bring memories and moments that may have slipped away, giving them new life through these reflections.
A special part of this work, and one that is all too familiar to so many but rarely talked about, are the parts where the anxiety and heartache surrounding “waiting for motherhood” is given voice.
Motherhood is a mixed bag. These authors know this well and are attentive to the prismic emotions that comes with it.
The Beauty of Motherhood is a book that, while geared toward those first years of being a mama, could certainly help one awaken meaning at any stage of mommy-ing. My own boys have long since abandoned calling their mom “mommy” (a sad milestone of its own!), and rarely call me daddy anymore. But having something that notes that threshold makes a difference to these parenting hearts, even if for a few paragraphs.
This is the perfect gifts for moms and moms-to-be, and I would contend makes a great gift for grandmothers, too, especially as they watch their children live into parenting in their own way.
Trying to encapsulate the distinctive reflections in this book in a succinct post is difficult, so maybe I’ll let the author’s words do their own speaking here at the end.
When talking about exploring nature with their young son Jack, one mom is brought to a fallen tree trunk where green moss is growing tenderly on bark, “a burst of color amid a muted landscape.”
“What’s this, Mommy?” the young Jack asks.
“It’s beautiful,” the mom replies. (p. 120)
And that, Beloved, is kind of what it feels like at the best of times to be a parent, a mommy (and a daddy).
And it is.
This daddy saw himself in the beauty of motherhood here.
“Preached at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Epiphany this last weekend. Went in with one sermon, but ended up doing this one…
Our ancient mothers and fathers conceived of God as being a bit wild. Why do you think the angels always open with the words, “Fear not!”? We’ve domesticated God, equating God with Santa Clause, the giver of gifts and tally-taker of who is on the nice and naughty list. But God’s encounter with Moses was not the red of a flannel suit and rosy cheeks, but a bush on wild-fire, defying physics and tantalizing the imagination.
We’ve domesticated Jesus, pretending he votes our values (or we vote his), putting him in stark white robes so that he looks like the pastor we’ve always dreamed of (with considerably more hair). But perhaps Jesus is more John the Baptist than John Smith.
We’ve domesticated the Holy Spirit, relegating her to a peaceful dove who gently alights upon shoulders and inspires beautiful paintings. But maybe the Holy Spirit is more gadfly than dove, aggravating more often than alighting. For this example, I appreciate my Celtic ancestry. They referred to the Holy Spirit as “Ah Gaedh-Glas” or “The Wild Goose,” sending the Celts on a wild goose chase, literally, as they sought out the Spirit to inform their lives.
And if God is wild, then the kingdom of God is wild.”
Today the church honors three 17th Century musicians for the ages: Philipp Nicolai, Johan Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt.
This year I’m going to focus just a bit on Paul Gerhardt because he is, in my estimation, not only the best Lutheran hymnwriter to date, but a superb theologian.
St. Gerhardt was born in 1607 near Wittenberg, and he studied theology there in the mid 17th Century even while the Thirty Year’s War was a plague upon the land. He got work out of University as a tutor, and ended up marrying one of the daughters of the family he taught (kind of a no-no today, but back then was not unheard of).
Being of great skill both in writing and composing, St. Paul’s hymns appeared in a music publication of the day compiled by the cantor at St. Nicholas’ Church in Berlin, one Johann Cruger.
At the ripe old age of forty five, Gerhardt finally formally used that theology degree, was ordained, and entered the pulpit as the Senior Pastor at Middenwalde, near Berlin. From there he moved on to St. Nicholas in Berlin as an associate pastor, but quickly became the congregational favorite because his sermons were wise, witty, and relatively short.
Pastors: take note.
Unfortunately Reformation strife was continuing throughout Germany, and in-fighting and back-biting were common as the theologians tried to figure out what was, and wasn’t, orthodox from the Lutheran lens. To his credit, Paul refused to sign a pledge not to discuss controversial things from the pulpit.
The Gospel is often controversial. Congregation members: take note!
Because he refused to promise not to say tough things from the pulpit or bring up doctrinal issues, he was removed from St. Nicholas and went without a parish for some years.
Side note: lots of pastors find themselves in a similar situation today, no?
To add tragedy to tragedy, during this tough period his wife and a son died (three previous children had already died). He only had one son left.
In May of 1669 he was appointed as archdeacon of Lubben, a really harsh parish who didn’t really care for how wonderful he was, and he lived there with his only remaining son for a few years until he died in 1676.
Saint Paul Gerhardt wrote 113 hymns in his day, translating difficult doctrines for the modern ear with modern (for his day) melody.
Finally, I want to reinforce what I said in that first thought: that all three were not just hymnwriters, they were theologians. The theology we sing affects the theology we trust, Beloved. The tune is the hook, but the words are the bait, the thing we swallow, the thing we start to subconsciously believe.
In other words: be careful what you sing because it will become what you say you believe.
Out of the three of these hymnwriters, Paul Gerhardt is the one you’ll know the best if you grew up in a Lutheran church. While we sing the works of all three of these giants of the hymnic faith, Gerhardt is no doubt the greatest Lutheran hymnwriter.
He also, no doubt, had the most unusual facial hair.
Want to look up some of their tunes?
In your Evangelical Lutheran Worship you’ll find Nicolai on hymn 308 (“O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright!” sung at Epiphany), 436 (“Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” sung at Advent), and 786 (“O Holy Spirit, Enter In” Nicolai only wrote the tune for this one, and I’ve rarely sung it).
Heeraman’s work can be found on 349 (“Ah, Holy Jesus” sung every Lent), 675 (“O Christ, Our Light, O Radiance True” sung in Ordinary Time), and 806 (“O God, My Faithful God” sung in times of crisis).
And the seminal Gerhardt tunes can be enjoyed on 241 (“O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” sung at Advent), 273 (“All My Heart Again Rejoices” sung at Christmas), 340 (“A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth” sung during Lent), 351 and 352 (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” sung during Holy Week…a favorite of mine!), 378 (“Awake, My Heart, with Gladness” an underappreciated Easter hymn), 568 (“Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadows” a very sweet evening hymn), 761 (“Evening and Morning” a lovely song on trust), and 788 (“If God My Lord Be for Me”…sung in times of trial).
-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
Today is the feast day of a giant of theology and philosophy, Saint Augustine, Teacher.
Fun Fact: Augustine was voted by his classmates, “Most Likely Non-Disciple to Get Lutheran Churches Named After Him.”
Augustine was born in Algeria in 354 to a Christian mother (Monica) and a pagan father. He was a good student, and in his early years practiced Manichaeism, a dualistic religion of Persian origin that was very “in the now” of his day.
He fathered a child early on in his life, and he named him Adeodatus which means “Gift of God.” History is quiet on the kind of father he was, but it’s important to note that this happened because all of this early material would lay the basis for his most famous work, Confessions.
Eventually Augustine ended up in Rome where he taught rhetoric and was wooed into the Catholic faith. There he was catechized under St. Ambrose and was baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter in 387.
Shortly thereafter Augustine returned to North Africa and lived a monastic life with friends. In 391 while visiting Hippo, he was chosen by the small church there to be their pastor.
All indicators point to his reluctance to take up the role, but eventually he was ordained into the priesthood and consecrated Bishop of Hippo, a role he kept for 35 years. He traveled extensively in the ancient world, and wrote volumes while he did so.
His book The City of God contains his reflections on society and the body politic in the aftermath of Rome’s collapse. In it he also defends Christianity and sets forth a vision of an ideal Christian society.
Spoiler alert: it looks nothing like America.
He established a Rule of Life and an order, Augustinian, was begun in his name. Martin Luther would adopt this Rule and this order.
Augustine died after he came down with an intense fever in the year 430. His remains, well, remain in the Church of San Pietro in Pavia, Italy.
Augustine is the model of the “second chance” life. And, quite honestly if you read Confessions, a third and fourth chance, too.
He is one of the most human of the saints because his foibles and misadventures are documented for all to see. He remains a gift to the church, even with all his flaws, and is a constant reminder that contrition and confession enable us to be born again.
-historical tidbits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
“They either hate me or praise me and I can’t deal with it,” he said, half laughing to himself.
“Are you serious or just joking?” she asked in a tone more serious than not.
He stopped laughing and became reflective for a moment.
“Well,” he said slowly, “both tend to throw me off kilter. The criticism tears me up and makes me eager to prove it wrong. The praise puffs me up, but secretly I know it can’t last. We all disappoint.”
She nodded. “They both manipulate your ego. I get it.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
“How about this: hold both praise and criticism loosely. And then,” she said, staring into his eyes, “you can’t be controlled. By them, by your ego, by anything.”