The other new year

The first Sunday in Advent begins the new church year, which makes the Saturday before it, effectively, the Christian New Year’s Eve.

I have never heard of anyone staying up late to observe it, or using it as an excuse for overindulgence. Indeed, early on Saturday evening Greenwich Mean Time, my friend Prudy, the Benedictine prioress, wrote on her Facebook wall from England, “We have rung in the new liturgical year, we have sung Vespers and our Vigil Office, and now it’s time to go to bed!”

That’s probably as it should be. Advent is a season of watchful preparation, and hangovers aren’t conducive to that spirit.

But there’s another common New Year’s custom which adapts well to a Christian context: making resolutions. I’m not thinking of the usual “I will go to the gym every day, give up eating anything tasty, clean out all my closets, learn a new language, and lose 20 pounds by Groundhog Day” resolutions here. Those can wait for December 31.

What I have in mind are resolutions to be more prayerful, more mindful, more intentional, to start the day with prayer and end it in the same way, to think before speaking, to act with care. This Advent I want to spend as much time helping others as I do shopping, to put as much of my money into giving to the church and the needy as I do into spending on gifts and self-indulgence.  I want to be kinder and more thoughtful, more helpful, more loving toward those I meet.

I feel about Advent and Christmas as I do about Lent, Holy Week, and Easter: How can we fully appreciate the joy of the holy day if we haven’t also experienced the quiet and discipline of the season that comes before it? Quiet can be hard to come by in the stressful, jangling weeks before Christmas, but if we make the effort to seek it out and find time with God, now and throughout the year, our lives will be far richer for it.

Happy new year.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Sermon notes: Keep awake!

Sermon notes, Advent I, Year B (11/27/11). Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis

Well, wasn’t that a cheery set of readings?

Third Isaiah calls on God to rip open the heavens, and confesses that we have all sinned, horribly. Mark speaks of the approaching end of the world, and warns that no one knows when it will come: “Keep awake!”

This is not exactly the message we’re picking up from the world around us right now, unless the idea is just to keep awake long enough to be the first in line for the big Black Friday – or, increasingly, Black Thursday Night – sales.

On the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, the secular world tells us to get shopping, because Christmas is coming. On the first Sunday in Advent, the Church tells us to get prayerful, because Christ is coming. And there is a huge difference between the two.

Every age has its own vision of Jesus. Today we tend to see Christ as an all-accepting buddy – as a forgiver of sins, yes, but as a rebuker of those sins? …not so much. “Hey, that’s okay. No problem!”

In times past, though, he was seen as a stern judge, coming to separate the sheep from the goats, to gather up the elect for heaven, and send the non-elect to someplace you’d really rather not be.

Advent, then, was a little Lent, a time to repent and make ready for the return of Christ and all that it meant. The first Sunday in Advent is the first day of the new church year. It’s a time to be thoughtful, to consider what God wants for us. The lessons for these weeks deal with preparation, with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Repentance is a key part of that. The Christ who will return is not a kind of celestial Mr. Rogers, who likes us just the way we are. Think of him more as a Marine drill instructor who wants us to be the best we can be. Unlike the Marine, however, Jesus’s desire for us to change and grow better is based on pure love.

In Isaiah, the prophet points out that the relationship between God and humankind is a two-way street: “You were angry, and we sinned; but because you hid yourself from us, we stepped over the line.”

God is the potter, and we are the clay that God has shaped – but God is also our parent, who loves us. God is not some bully of a bearded sky god who flings down destruction whenever he’s annoyed; God is the Creator, who cherishes all of Creation and the people in it.

In the reading from Mark, in what is known as the “Little Apocalypse” – the big one is in the Gospel of John – we hear of the frightening time to come, when the world as we have known it will fall apart, when the powers that have ruled the Earth will pass away, and when Christ will step through the clouds of chaos to rule.

Jesus specifically says that no one knows exactly when this will all take place, except for God. The angels do not know the hour; even he does not know. (This might be an indication that math-happy preachers who predict the end of the world on a particular day can be safely ignored.) Therefore, Christ’s message: Keep awake.

That message usually gets lost. That’s true not only in the larger society around us, but in the Church. Some Christians are already singing Christmas carols this morning, skipping over the whole season of Advent (not to mention the wonderful hymns of Advent).

We tend to get caught up in the coming drama of the baby in the manger, without considering the whole story that comes first.

That story is not just about a young woman told by an angel that she will bear the son of God; it’s not just about overcoming the suspicions of her fiancé, and a long hard journey to a strange town. It is not just about a birth in a stable, accompanied by choruses of angels and shepherds.

That’s a wonderful and meaningful story, but it’s not today’s story. That story comes at the end of the four weeks of Advent. Before celebrating Jesus’s birth, this is a time to consider the meaning of his humbling himself to be born as one of us, after considering his coming again.

And as unsettling as that image is, of Christ descending upon the clouds, robed in dreadful majesty, at its core it is really one of comfort. Then as now, the world was a mess in almost every way we can imagine. Then as now, the world was filled with injustice and suffering. Then as now, God’s hand was not always immediately apparent.

But now as then, God is in control. Now as then, God calls us to work to end injustice and suffering wherever we find them. And now as then, God loves us, and shows that immeasurable love in ways that we can hardly understand.

Keep awake!


I sat down to write this as the hour of the solstice approached; it will be winter before I finish.

In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the shortest day; in some places closer to the Pole, the sun barely makes an appearance before rolling back over the horizon. In the American Midwest, where I live, the weather was gray and cloudy today, making the light even more abbreviated than the patterns of the Earth’s rotation alone would dictate.

In the Church, this is when we count the hours until the Nativity. In both the sacred and secular worlds, most of us are behind with Those Things that Ought to be Done, ranging from decorating to shopping to cleaning to cooking to doing the work involved in our actual employment and much, much more.

This year, though, the Energizer Bunny approach won’t cut it for me. This year, I’m on the sidelines, as my body is poisoned to cure to the cancer that threatens it. Part of me observes, almost clinically, the physical changes, the fatigue and string of minor ailments that accompany the chemotherapy; part of me chafes and attempts to carry on as usual. Working is like trying to swim through molasses, but I am compelled to try. My job now, however, is to wait and prepare.

Several years ago, I told my mother – herself a worker bee – that it was a form of service to allow others to help her when she needed it. She didn’t buy it. Now I tell myself the same thing. I am incredibly blessed with friends who take me places, who cook delicious meals, who bring me what I need – but I see the strain I put on others who are affected by my illness. I ache to be well.

A little while ago the Earth began its journey toward summer; the lightening will begin tomorrow morning, although few of us will notice an extra minute or two of sun. There are still many weeks of darkness before the change becomes apparent.

So, too, with my illness: the tumor has begun to shrink, and I have begun to heal, although there are months to go – and a lot more to endure – before it’s over. The changes will be gradual, but they will come.

Meanwhile, the greatest change of all is coming, the birth of Jesus, that Sun of Righteousness that lightens all: I will watch, and wait, and rejoice.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Advent weather

The sky is a glorious blue and sunshine is pouring into the house. It isn’t having much effect on the snow lying in the garden, however, because outside the temperature is just below freezing. For the past few days it’s looked like a scene from a Christmas card out there, pristine and gleaming, every twig of every tree coated in sparkling white.

Now this may not sound terribly interesting in places where winter strikes with routine predictability, local authorities are well prepared for it, and everyone knows what to expect.  Other countries cope with ice and snow without a murmur.

But I live in the middle of England, where we rarely have two days the same.  What gives British weather its unique charm is the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen next – not even, it often seems, the venerable Met Office, which has been hard at work issuing severe weather warnings for the past couple of weeks.

So it was that at the end of November, which is normally dark, wet, and gloomy, we woke up to find a blanket of snow over the country. Normally we don’t get snow till late December or January, and some years we don’t get any at all this far south, but this year it appeared, like the Spanish Inquisition, when no one was expecting it. We’ve had motorways blocked, schools closed, trains cancelled, and general chaos – and indeed in Scotland, much harder hit than most of England, they still have all of the above.

The Met Office has three levels of warning for severe weather: be aware, be prepared, and take action. They seem oddly appropriate to Advent, to the time of waiting and watching for whatever it is that’s coming, the unexpected ways that God breaks into our lives. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

Sermon notes: The Peaceable Kingdom

Sermon notes – Advent II, Year A (St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/Ladue, December 5, 2010)

Let’s go back for a moment to this morning’s reading from First Isaiah, to the part that begins, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

When I read this passage yesterday, the thought bubbled into my brain that perhaps Lewis Carroll had it in mind when he wrote about the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, would certainly have known these verses; in addition to being a distinguished mathematician, academic, and author, he was also the son of an Anglican priest, an ordained deacon in the Church of England himself, and a man who took his Bible seriously.

Furthermore, the White Queen is chiefly famous for being able to believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” and I count at least seven apparently impossible things in that passage: Four groups of assorted carnivores and herbivores living together in harmony, two venomous snakes ignoring nature and instinct, and every single one of them obeying frail human infants, and doing exactly what they’re told.

It almost sounds like some kind of Wonderland. But this is a far better place: it is the Peaceable Kingdom, the beginning of a new age that is to be ruled righteously under a new law, with a new King who works through love and freely given obedience – not through fear.

This vision of the Peaceable Kingdom brings together dangerous beasts and tame ones, and permits them to live in harmony. Their essential natures may not be changed, but they will learn to control those natures, to dwell together in justice wherever the new King rules.

The vision is no guarantee that the Peaceable Kingdom will come about in all the world – but it is about the opportunity for peace and a new way of approaching things for those who are open to such change.

And so it is also an ideal text for a Sunday in early Advent, before we get down to the details of the birth of Jesus – angelic visitations and Joseph’s issues and various aspects of the unpleasantness of the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Peaceable Kingdom gives us a vision of what life could be if we follow Christ.

The beginning of the passage presents us with a new shoot from an old tree, that new king from the branch of David. He will judge the poor and deal in righteousness, and maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward wickedness and injustice.

From there we have the wonderful passage that brings together predator and prey in peace, and the promise that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”

As I read it, this kingdom will not come about by conquest. It will be a voluntary association. We will have a choice to join together with God – or not – in God’s kingdom. This is the antithesis of the Roman Empire, so harshly marked by force and cruelties. This is an opportunity to be a part of the Kingdom of Love.

That makes this passage the truest prophecy of the coming of Christ. For, as it turned out, the Messiah did not come as everyone had confidently hoped and expected – a mighty warrior, sweeping all before him, conquering as the Romans and the Babylonians and the Assyrians had conquered, putting the faces of all enemies of Israel into the dust.

Instead, he came as a frail and vulnerable baby. He came, in fact, much like the little child in the passage from Isaiah, surrounded by enemies and dangers.

Jesus did not make all things right for his people in an instant. He worked with them as individuals or in small groups. He forced nothing on them; he asked for their faith, trust, and belief in him. He healed them, he comforted them, he gave them hope and salvation.

Two millennia later, Jesus still offers us every hope and comfort but forces nothing on us – and two millennia later, some people are still surprised by the nature of God’s kingdom.

Jesus still asks for our faith and trust and belief. That, of course, can be a challenge. Like all those who had certain firm ideas about what the Messiah would be and do 2,000 years ago, we still have our own set concepts about how we, as faithful Christians, should find the world working today. We may still find ourselves confounded by the necessity of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

I was recently diagnosed with inflammatory carcinoma, a rare and aggressive breast cancer. I have excellent medical care, a strong community of support, and a firm faith in God’s love and care. I believe that this can be beaten.

In a way, it seems right that I learned of it just before Advent, the season of new beginnings, new changes, new hopes. As those who yearned for a powerful Messiah in Roman times learned, those changes may not take the forms that we expect – but God is in them.

I am entering this new Church Year in a spirit of seeking, of trying to trust and to accept what’s ahead for me. I am trying to look at all things in a new way, from the familiarity of ancient scriptures to the beauty of the just-born.

It may not always be completely obvious to us, but, in the words of the sermon hymn, “For the glory of the Lord now o’er earth is shed abroad; and all flesh shall see the token that the word is never broken.” Lord, give us the vision to see your new creation.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

“Blessed is she who believes”

maryandelizabethLuke 1:39-45

I will never forget the first time I felt my baby kick.

There had been fluttering feelings before that, flutterings that might have been the baby’s tiny arms and legs – or that might just have been due to some other internal adjustments in my rapidly changing body.

But that first real, solid, unmistakable kick is different. It is proof that you carry another human being within you, the irrefutable evidence of a new life being formed. That moment filled me with an almost inexpressible joy that still touches me in memory  years later.

The Gospel reading today captures some of that feeling. When Elizabeth heard Mary call out to her, the child in her womb leaped up for joy. “And blessed is she who believed that the Lord’s promise to her would be fulfilled!”

Luke’s gospel, alone of the four, has a heart for women and their concerns. Consider the coming of Jesus: Where Matthew is concerned about Joseph’s property rights, and John goes off into metaphysics, and Mark ignores the subject of Jesus’s origins entirely, Luke gives us ordinary people, swept up by the extraordinary.

His sympathies are evident right from the start, with accounts of two miraculous conceptions and the two women, in very different circumstances, who experienced them. Luke gives us Elizabeth – who is “getting on in years,” – barren and disappointed in her hopes and prayers for a child; and the young, unmarried Mary, and brings them together in a “sisterhood is powerful” moment.

The pair represent two of the different kinds of shame that could attach themselves to women in that time and place. The first is Elizabeth’s failure to bear a child over the course of many years: children were wealth in that society, sons were prestige, and a promise that one would be cared for in old age. The second is Mary’s pregnancy by someone other than her contracted husband-to-be, a shocking circumstance that could, at least theoretically, lead to her death by stoning.

After the Annunciation, Mary sets out for Elizabeth’s house in the hill country of Judea, perhaps to absorb all this startling information, and perhaps to seek comfort, support and understanding from a sympathetic friend.

Mary learns that the news concerning Elizabeth is indeed true. And Elizabeth is the first to recognize Mary as the mother of our Lord: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” says Elizabeth. “And blessed is she who believed.”

Mary is given extraordinarily powerful words to say in return, the Magnificat. Its themes set the tone and the theme for Jesus’s ministry as it is portrayed by Luke: a concern not with the mighty, but with the marginalized in society: the poor, women, lepers, foreigners, outcasts.

In Mary’s song, a strong God sees all, and helps the faithful and poor to rise above the oppression of the unfaithful and powerful. God keeps even those promises made many generations back, and will keep them for all time, from generation to generation. God is our savior, the rock on which we stand in times of trouble.

In a way this final Advent reading brings together the themes of the Gospel: the miraculous, the concern for the lowly, the fact of Jesus as Savior. And it does it all with a sense of joy and praise, that those who have faith will receive God’s mercy and God’s help. “For blessed is she who believes.”

(Taken from a sermon preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis, 12/20/09)

All contents © 2009 Grace Prayer Network


Think Pink!

Think Pink!

The Third Sunday in Advent: That’s the one with the pink candle, right? Why is that?

Well, technically it’s rose, not pink – but it is significant.

Advent III is also known as “Gaudete Sunday” for the theme that pervades the day’s prayers and readings. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” and both the traditional introit for the day and the epistle begin with that word:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice; let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.

Back in the days when Advent was considered a “little Lent” (as it still is in the Orthodox churches) instead of Christmas Lite, the rose candle – and vestments and hangings indulged in by some fortunate parishes (hey, you can use them on Laetare Sunday in Lent, too) – represented a lightening of the penitential mood expressed by the traditional violet of the season.

After all, the season of Advent is  the lead-up not only to the sweet story of the Nativity of Christ, but to his Second Coming as the judge of all.  As Christians, we are to be prepared for that eventuality – and considering the Last Judgment certainly ought to bring on a penitential mood for most of us.

Today, nobody gives up much of anything (except, perhaps, sleep) in Advent. But as the gloom of winter closes in and the difficulties of this life distract us, remember the good news, and the message of this Sunday: Rejoice!

— sbm

All contents © 2009 Grace Prayer Network

Counting down

As December deepens and darkens I find I’m working to three different calendars.

There’s the secular one, which involves writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents and having to sing Christmas songs well before Christmas at various carol services, and there’s the church’s one, with each Sunday reminding us of the people who were watching and waiting for Jesus’ first coming just as we watch and wait for his coming again.

But there’s a third one, less obvious but running deeper than either of the others; one I’ve inherited from my ancestors a long way back, Celts and Saxons on the north-west edge of Europe who watched the days shorten and the sun disappear behind heavy grey clouds. I’m not counting down to Christmas, but to the winter solstice.

It’s a commonplace sneer that Christians have stolen a pagan (or Roman, or Mithraic – take your pick) festival to which to attach the birth of Jesus. I think it works the other way round; it’s a human instinct to need to dispel the darkness. I feel it now in a small way – I’ve just got up to turn the light on because at half past three in the afternoon the light’s already fading outside. How much more my ancestors, shivering in wooden or stone huts in the gathering dark, must have longed for the light and enacted rituals to bring it back, or held feasts to banish it for a little while.

And this same sure human instinct led the church to celebrate the birth of Jesus at just the moment when our northern hemisphere has turned back towards the sun and the light begins imperceptibly to creep back. It’s Advent, and we’re still in the dark, waiting – but soon the Sun of Righteousness will rise!

— mzw

All contents © 2009 Grace Prayer Network

Emily Mellott writes about Advent

advent_annunciationThe Rev. Emily Mellott writes:

A little bit earlier every year I get cranky: There are Christmas carols playing in every store, and it’s not even December…Thanksgiving…Halloween yet! (Now, I like Christmas carols, but once they start, it seems like either “Little Drummer Boy” or “Winter Wonderland” follows me to every store, and gets stuck in my head!) So I complain to friends about rushing the season, and wonder out loud if, as a culture and a country, Americans are just bad at waiting.

Because waiting is what Advent is supposed to be about, isn’t it? Marking the time of anticipation as we wait for the coming of God in flesh. And that is, in fact, what we do together in our faith community as we light candles and read stories of anticipation and pregnancy in scripture. And it’s what we do at home, or even in the stores as well – marking the time and building the anticipation for the visits or the meals or the presents –whatever Christmas brings us.

But Advent – the word, more than the season – also means “coming.” The coming of God in the present tense, not only the future. So it makes sense, when I walk into a store, for the Little Drummer Boy to remind me that God has already come, in surprising flesh, to live with us. And, when the tune gets stuck in my head, I try to remind myself that God is like that, too – with us, close and persistent, even when we’re trying not to hear.

This month, this Advent season, as we build our anticipation for the feast of Christmas, let’s look also, for the surprising, curious signs that God is already here, already come, in ways we never expected.

— eam

(Previously published in December 2009 in CrossRoads, the monthly newsletter of Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard, Illinois.)

Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

st-john-baptist-grecoThe Church and the World are frequently in a state of disconnect, but never more so than during Advent. Since Christians have to live in both locales, that’s an issue.

Over at the mall, and in most other places, commercial Christmas is in full swing. Even on our local classical music station, owned (for the moment) by a liturgical Christian denomination, the fare has been dominated by cheesy Christmas muzak since the day after Thanksgiving.

In church, though, this is the time of year when the lectionary sounds oddly like the libretto to Part I of Handel’s “Messiah;” the music we sing and hear there is more anticipatory than celebratory. This week, the Second Sunday of Advent, the theme is one of prophets and prophecy, from Malachi to John the Baptist, of fiery refining (it sounds painful) and of the flattening of the landscape.

The Collect asks for “grace to heed (the prophets’) warnings and forsake our sins.” It’s a timely prayer, because – when it comes right down to it – most of us have limited appreciation for calls to repent now and avoid the rush. The Bible bears this out; John the Baptist was not the only prophet to come to a sticky end.

We can and should enjoy the seasonal cheer, but we should also remember who and what we await, and the words of the prophets: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

— sbm

Here’s an essential piece of Advent music: Veni, veni, Emmanuel.