[Today’s post presents the sermon I gave on New Year’s Day in the Abbey church.]
A few years ago the movie Into the Great Silence gave a glimpse into life in a Carthusian monastery. To the surprise of many, those Carthusians may have been silent, but their world was anything but. In fact, their silence allowed them to hear the ordinary things that many of us never hear.
That movie also reinforced the stereotype that all monks keep silence. That may be true for Carthusians, but it’s certainly not the case with Benedictines; and at Saint John’s I dare say we can chatter away with the best of them. Still, Saint Benedict did give silence a priority in his Rule, and he outlines it in chapter six. “So important is silence,” he wrote, “that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk, because it is written: ‘In a flood of words you will not avoid sin.'”
Right now some of you may be thinking that maybe it’s time for me to be a good monk and sit down and shut up. I have to admit that I too was tempted by that thought. And after all the noise of the last year perhaps it would be a good thing to ask Pope Francis to dedicate 2017 as The Year of Silence, starting now. But then it occurred to me that on the Feast of Mary the Mother of God I should at least say something, and it need not be a “flood of words.” And so, in the interest of brevity, I offer these few thoughts.
First of all, I find the blessing from the Book of Numbers chapter 6 really curious. Remember that Moses was not allowed to look at God lest he die. To reinforce that, the law of Moses banned the worship of graven images. And yet the Book of Numbers asks us to imagine the face of God and the eyes of God and the voice and hand of God raised in blessing. These are the very human and material attributes that the Mosaic Code bent over backward to avoid. Was this a concession to a people who could not imagine a relationship with an abstract being or some mystical force pervading the universe?
Then we turn to the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, where we continue with the story of the birth of Jesus. Mary is indeed the mother of Jesus the man, which all of the gospels stress emphatically. But she is also the mother of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like Mary, we are left to ponder what all of this might mean. How could this possibly be, since it runs counter to the ban on graven images in the Ten Commandments? Has God defied his own laws?
Whatever else the mystery of the Incarnation may suggest, it does say one thing quite explicitly: God so loved us that he sent his son to be one of us. Jesus has not only become like us; he has become our very brother. And in the process Jesus becomes the embodiment of what God promises in the Book of Numbers. In Jesus God blesses us and keeps us. In Jesus God lets his face shine upon us and is gracious to us. It is Jesus who looks kindly upon us and gives us peace.
So what does this mean to us on a practical level? For one thing it means that Jesus reaches out to touch us in order to transform us. In the Orthodox tradition theologians have termed this divinization. Plainly stated, in Jesus God became human so that humans might become God. And it’s a transformation that begins here and now, and not someday, later on. Even now the life of God enters us, and we have life in abundance. It’s life that we share and celebrate now.
The Incarnation of Jesus says yet one more thing that we can appreciate. Jesus did not become the Son of Mary in order to be some abstract life force in the universe. He does not intend to remain aloof and irrelevant to our lives. And unlike the Carthusians, Jesus does not take a vow of silence. Instead he walks with us; he speaks to us; he listens to what we have to say; he stands beside us in good times and in bad. In short, Jesus reaches out to be one with us. He reaches out to be our brother.
That, it seems to me, is what the mystery of the Incarnation is all about. Jesus came to share in our humanity and to share with us his divine life. He came to transform us so that we might live life to the fullest. But of course on this feast of Mary the Mother of God I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Ask Jesus yourself, and you’ll be more than surprised by what he has to say to you.
+On December 26th, the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr, I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass.
+On January 1st I was again the main celebrant at the Abbey Mass, and today’s post is the sermon from that occasion. In case you think it odd that I preside twice in such a short span of time, the logic is simple. Because of my travels I am acutely aware that I don’t take my fair share of household duties in the monastery. So when I’m home I try to squeeze in as much as I can. But I’ll never catch up, and I have to acknowledge my debt to generous confreres who do so much. They do far more than I, and I am grateful.
+Every now and again a comment will elicit an interesting response from readers of this blog. Last week I noted that in the Christmas pageant that preceded the Christmas Eve children’s Mass at the Abbey parish, the staging gave mixed impressions. To those sitting in the front pews Mary had a baby, while two shepherd beside her held dolls that were clearly lambs. To those of us in the back pews, however, they all looked like baby dolls, suggesting that Mary had given birth to triplets. One friend shared the story of his granddaughter who played Mary. Unfortunately, en route to the manger the head of baby Jesus fell off. That too was not in the script, and my imagination has run wild with that thought ever since. Hopefully the trauma did not discourage the little girl from becoming a mother — or an actress.
+It’s just about time to put away my favorite CD of all time — Holly and the Ivy, by John Rutter and the choir of Clare College at Cambridge. Over the holidays I’ve listened to it at least twice a day. I confess that I’ve also listened to it in July. It never tires!
+The first photo in today’s post is of an icon by Aidan Hart, in the Abbey church. The next photos are of pieces housed at the V & A in London. First are three glass windows (ca.1520) crafted for the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, near Cologne. Next is a Virgin and Child in limestone, Italian, ca. 1160. At bottom is a Virgin and Child, also Italian, ca. 1450.