Our Sister Phoebe, a Deacon

Theological musings inspired by the Spirit and totally Ellen…

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

There is Life After Christmas…

Today is the third day of Christmas, a season the retailers would have you think starts in October and ends December 24th, but throughout the centuries, Christmas began on the feast of the Nativity and was celebrated for twelve days – the last day, the twelfth night, being the feast of the Epiphany when Christians traditionally celebrate the arrival of the three wise men to the place where the Holy Family resided after Jesus of Nazareth’s birth and when gifting of presents to one another in remembrance of the gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child, originally began.

What more can be said of a holiday that everyone knows, many celebrate, and for many, is held sacred and dear?

Christmas decorations are being pulled down, trees are kicked to the curb, and SALE signs replace gawdy displays in storefront windows; carols are forgotten until next year.

Now is the time to sing those carols!  Now is the time to ponder anew on the birth of a child that would become one of the greatest and yet unknown men in humanity’s history.  Now should we light the candles and raise cups, cherish our time with loved ones.  The greatest gift has been given to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we in turn, can offer this gift to others as witness to a faith that ever changes with new possibilities and strengths, even in those times when we think faith is not there.

Every year at this time I remember back to my childhood and how I called the time after Christmas the ‘dark time.’  All of the peace on earth and good will towards all seemed to get kicked to that curb with the trees stripped of tinsel and lights, baubles.  The smiles and cheerful exchanges of “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Holidays!” have dissolved.

This time after Christmas and through January seemed so dark to me.

But how wrong I’ve been!

There is light and something bright and new in the world and it comes every year at this time.

The birth of Christ reminds us that from humble beginnings and a small child will come great love and salvation.  Shouldn’t that be something to smile about?  Something to look forward to every day?

How wonderful it would be if we could just learn to keep Christmas in our hearts all year ’round – the darkness and disappointment would be nothing.

Merry Christmas!





Let it be With Us…

I don’t think any of our great Oscar-winning film directors could do justice interpreting the story from Luke that was this morning’s Gospel lesson – we know it as the Story of the Annunciation, found at Luke 1:26-38, when an angel appears to Mary of Nazareth and informs her of God’s plan and her important part in that plan.  How can you truly capture the beauty, profundity, and humanity of that brief moment in history that changed all of our lives?

Artists working in every medium have interpreted the Annunciation of the Lord – the Italian masters with their elegant madonnas seated before prayer desks and reading scripture in Tuscan porticoes and villa gardens, the Flemish school with its serene and clever-looking Maries receiving their heavenly messengers in opulent, well-appointed bed chambers and libraries in town houses overlooking canals.  Each of these paintings proclaim the good news that came to Mary of Nazareth and became even greater news for all of us.

It is, in my opinion, the nineteenth century painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that conveys the story best of all.  It was executed between 1849 and 1850 and is entitled Ecce Ancilla Domini! – Behold the Handmaid of the Lord!, or The Annunciation. I came across this picture when I was a teenager and that painting has stayed with me.

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849-1850, The Tate Gallery, London

Rossetti has captured the moment Gabriel appears to Mary.  The setting is a sun-lit, sparse bedroom.  You can almost feel the heat of the morning, a spring morning.  None of the opulent clutter and color of the medieval and renaissance masters are here, for everything is clean and white in appearance, from Gabriel’s sleeveless tunic to the linens on Mary’s bed – but there are touches of color.  There is a blue drape hanging near the bed and a bright red scarf upon which a lily is embroidered.  Gold flames encircle Gabriel’s feet – the presence of the Lord, or the means by which the archangel has appeared?  Or both?

The archangel is in mid-step, approaching the bed where Mary is cowering.  She looks a bit apprehensive, a bit perturbed.  Off in the background and ready to light is a small white bird, a symbol of the Holy Spirit – barely noticeable yet present in the moment.  We’ve experienced that ourselves, haven’t we?  Moments and instances when we knew, we absolutely knew the Holy Spirit was with us.

And it was so with Mary, in life and in this painting where we see Gabriel’s left hand raised in greeting.  In the archangel’s right is a lily, a symbol of purity, that is offered.  Mary, as I’ve mentioned, is up against the wall in a corner, looking apprehensive and perturbed.  She looks to me as if she wants to be as far away as possible from this heavenly being.

I know I would – at first.

After all, it is very human to be afraid of what we do not understand, nor is logical to our modern mindset.  I don’t know what I’d do in the circumstance, I really don’t know – except be frightened.

What would you do?  Would you shriek in terror and cower against the wall, clutching a pillow for defense?  Would you roll over, pull the covers up over your head and ask Himself to shut the door on its angelic way out?  Would you yawn, mumble, grab the alarm clock and check the time?  Make it a WTF moment?

What would you do?

What Mary does is astonishing.

She accepts what is given to her,  a place in humanity, with obedience, surety sight unseen.

Mary receives some very sobering news from Gabriel.  She has found favor with God; she will conceive and bear a son whose very existence will transform the world.  The author of Luke tells us that she accepts the news, not that she ponders it for a moment, but simply states, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.”

God has made the decision and it is good enough for Mary.

Now, did Mary understand what had been decided for her?  Did she know what she had gotten herself and the world into?  I wonder what would have happened if Mary had simply said, “No.”  Would God have gone about looking for another girl in a small Judean village?   What if no one had said yes to God?  Our world would be a lot worse than it has been in the past and recent times!

Mary’s unconditional acceptance of God’s will would ultimately lead to the greatest sacrifice of all – giving birth to a child who would grow into manhood and sacrifice himself for us out of acceptance of God’s will, out of love for God and out of obedience to God.

She would watch him die a criminal’s death.

During that agonizing day, did Mary reflect back on the morning the archangel appeared to her, remembering how it all began?

The news was undoubtedly unsettling to Joseph and to her own mother, Anna, yet they, too, accepted the Lord’s will.  One can imagine that Mary settled into her role as wife to Joseph the Carpenter and as the child grew in her womb, felt the baby move, anticipated the birth of this, her first child, and dreamt about what the child would look like, consider his future, ponder all the things young mothers are wont to do.   Perhaps the archangel’s message never strayed from her thoughts.  She knew she was not your typical young mother in first century Palestine.

Mary’s acceptance, obedience and sacrifice have her a place in the kingdom of heaven set apart from the rest of us.  She has been called the Queen of Heaven and revered as a mediator, our lady of sorrows who wipes away our tears and comforts us; she is the mother of us all.  She is above all, the Christ Bearer, a child theotokos that no woman alive in the past or present could equal, yet we have been held to her standard by some to this day.

What if I told you, as I mentioned before in an earlier post, that Mary was like you and me?  She was a Jewish girl who lived an ordinary life until that moment, expected all that came to girls of her time, and received something entirely different.

And yet, she was a girl.

She is that apprehensive girl, she is a person who loves God and wants to please the Lord by doing what is asked of her.  She is someone going about her business when God spoke and she responded.

God speaks to us and we respond.  We may not have been chosen to bear the savior of the world, but even so, we respond as best we can and within our means to do so.


By returning God’s unconditional outpouring of love and loving Christ and transforming that love into a community of faithful that has withstood many trials and tests over time.  Here it is close to the middle of the first decade of the 21st century and here we are, days away from commemorating the birth of his Son, and today remembering a young girl who said let it be.  Let it be according to your Word.

I invite you to look at this marvelous painting by Rossetti I’ve described here, or any of the countless painting and illustrations of the Annunciation and meditate on what this young girl of Nazareth did and how simple acts of acceptance, obedience and sacrifice improved our lives.  That about what it would be like to be visited by a stranger who carries good news from God – news that you or I could make a difference to others and to the world.

We can hide under the covers or stare in trepidation at the messenger before us and wonder what’s up, but ultimately, I hope you and I will, knowing that it is right and good, give ourselves completely to God, and be like Mary, saying let it be with us according to God’s word.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,


Its Not Me.

As it happens on the third Sunday of Advent, we turn to the most Christological of the four Gospels, John, for our lesson: John 1:6-8. 19-28.  Again, the lesson introduces us to John the Baptist.

John’s ministry is full-blown when we meet him.  He is at Bethany near the Jordan River baptising and making new converts to his call to repent.  It is on quite a few peoples’ minds that this prophet out in the desert may just be the Messiah the people of Israel were waiting and praying for – chiefly, the Pharisees, who have sent the priests and Levites to question John.

Are you the one who was foretold, they ask?  Are you the Messiah?

No, it isn’t me, John replied.  He wasn’t worthy enough to untie the dusty, dirty sandals of the one who would follow.

Just who was John?

We know he was a cousin of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Prior to his ministry, John may have been a member of the community at Qumran in the Judean Desert, but this is not proved.  As with other community members, John had priestly connections and believed in imminent divine judgment; he opposed Jerusalem and the Temple, and used water as part of his ministry and the focal point of it.  The quotation from Isaiah 40:3 may have given the community its rationale for being in the desert:  “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.'”  However, these links between the community at Qumran and John are not strong and the Gospels have John working independently from it, or any other religious group.  John’s work anticipated and overlapped Jesus; indeed, it will be John who baptises Jesus.

John’s ministry of baptism was directed to the oppressed people of Israel to make a new beginning with God.    As I mentioned last week, the location of this work was very significant: the desert wilderness was a place of new beginnings; people were called to come to John in the desert and seek forgiveness not by a Temple sacrifice, but by a ritualistic cleansing.  Just as the Israelites came out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, came through the Red Sea out of Egypt, now people were making a new covenant with the Lord, a new commitment, by confessing their sins and being washed with the waters of the Jordan to begin a new life.

This work put a chasm between John the Baptism and traditional Jewish values and law at the time Temple authorities sent the priests and Levites to question John.  No, John said, undoubtedly over and over, he was not the Messiah, but was preparing people for the one who would come after him, someone more powerful than he.  That someone was Jesus.

John’s ministry marked a transition between the old age and the new age that would begin with the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth after his baptism in the Jordan.

No,  it wasn’t John.  It was someone greater.

But one cannot deny John’s place in history as a great prophet and as a leader who turned peoples’ hearts and minds to what was truly important – love of God and one another.

Go in peace,


A Man From the Wilderness

The church year renews itself and for 2011-2012, we use Cycle B, which is the Book of Mark for our Gospel lesson.  Yesterday, we read the beginning of Mark, Chapter 1, verses 1 through 8.  This text quotes the Hebrew scripture for the day, Isaiah 40:1-11, including the powerful “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The desert was where things happened.  And where people ran to hide – Moses fled there after he killed the Egyptian overseer; Elijah hid from Jezebel; David hid in a desert cave from his enemies; Jesus went there after John the Baptist was executed.  In the early centuries of the Christian church, men and women seeking solitude to pray to God and live contemplative lives left the cities and towns and lived in the desert.  John the Baptist undertook the ministry bestowed on him by God in the desert.

We don’t know why John chose the desert, but it’s a good guess that he knew he was called to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, to prepare hearts and minds for the advent of Jesus of Nazareth.

John was preparing people for a new way of thinking, of doing, of being.  His plunging of people into the waters of Jordan reenacted the people of Israel being delivered from the Pharaoh, of coming through the Red Sea.  This was an act of salvation, deliverance and commitment.  By rising up from the water, the men and women who came to John made a promise to God to live differently than they had before – honoring God before all else in life, make a new start, just as the Israelites had when they crossed through to the promised land.  John was also called to prepare people for the moment when this new idea would be taken a step further, and that would happen when Jesus arrived on the scene.

John is one of those prophets that intrigues and frightens.  Let’s be honest: if a man wearing camel hides, dirty, disshevelled, gaunt, sunburnt, came walking up the center aisle of your place of worship, what would be your first reaction?



Would you know he was a prophet?  Would you ignore him like so many of us ignore the homeless and the different folk that sleep on our sidewalks and under our bridges, in shelters made out of refrigerator cartons?  The people who ride transit all night to stay out of the cold and rain?

Would someone like John be welcome in your faith community?

Sometimes the message is even more disturbing than the messenger.

It’s easy to look past the person and pretend he or she doesn’t exist.  But what if the message is so compelling you can’t forget it, can’t shake it?  That’s what John was doing.

And when Jesus came along…hold on to your hats.


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