Letters from Fr. Jarvis
A Letter for Christmas
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
In August 1941 President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland as Britain stood bravely alone against Nazi Germany. On the Sunday of their meeting, the two leaders and thousands of British and American sailors gathered for worship on the deck of the pride of the British fleet, H.M.S. Prince of Wales. Churchill wanted the service to be "perfect," and he personally chose all the hymns and all the readings. In an unearthly silence, everyone listened intently to the chaplain read from the first chapter of the Book of Joshua: "As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I shall not fail thee, nor forsake thee. Be strong and of good courage."
That, in my view, is what this season of the Incarnation - Christmas, the Epiphany, and Candlemas - is all about. God comes to us, God is with us: "I will be with thee; I shall not fail thee nor forsake thee." We sing "O come, O come Emmanuel" throughout Advent because Emmanuel means "God with us."
First comes Christmas. For years I taught my students John Farrell's book, Damien the Leper. Damien sailed from his native Belgium to serve the leper colony at Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. The year was 1864; Damien was 25. Twenty-one years later in 1885 his relationship with the lepers changed dramatically: there came the day when he referred in a sermon to "we lepers." He himself had fallen victim to leprosy. Damien thus became, in a whole new way, truly one of them. That is what God does for us at Christmas; He becomes one of us.
Through Advent I have been reading a little book by Jim Rosenthal. He articulates the message of Christmas in this beautiful prayer:
Blessed art Thou, O Christmas Christ,
Then comes the Epiphany. Michael Mayne, Dean of Westminster, points out the contrast between Christmas and the Epiphany: "[Matthew's Gospel] speaks of a stable, and of some shepherds coming to a manger. By this he is saying: Here is a birth so ordinary that simple folk can understand and respond to it. [Matthew] then goes on to speak of a star and Wise Men from the East bringing treasure to this child's feet. By this he is saying: And here is a birth so extraordinary that it speaks to people of all nations. The child is like a great star illuminating everyone's lives and claiming their allegiance."
These Wise Men – these magi – were doing what wise men and women do in every age: they were searching. They longed for Something Beyond their own egos. Like the best scientists of every age they took the spiritual dimension of reality seriously; they were prepared to go to the ends of the earth in search of the truth. And their search was successful: they found the Light of the World; they found Jesus. Their lives transformed, they returned home "by a different route."
Like the three magi, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will offer gifts to the new born Child on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace, thereby acknowledging the ultimate and universal sovereignty of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Shall you and I not follow her example?
Finally, we come to Candlemas, one of our parish's most beloved feasts which we celebrate with all due splendour.
Mary "kept all these things [that the shepherds had said and done], pondering them in her heart." As so often, Mary says nothing. Actions speak louder than words and she simply faithfully observes the rituals of her religious upbringing: She presents herself in the temple for her "purification," and she brings Jesus with her for his "presentation." This presentation has been long awaited by Anna and Simeon, and we latter day saints join them in their rejoicing.
These three Great Events of Our Salvation all point to the fact that God has come into our midst to share our lives. He has promised: "I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee."
As you will have heard, Boston's Old South Church put their copy of the famous Bay Psalm Book up for auction, so it has been in the news. I'd never before read its translation of the beloved 23rd Psalm, but I share it now because I think it sums up what God is doing for us in this season:
The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
In this season of the Incarnation, God comes to us in tender love. He will not fail us nor forsake us.
A Letter for Advent
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
C. S. Lewis once said that most of us have "an inconsolable longing for we know not what." Advent is the season of longing. Our Advent longing is reflected in our Advent prayers:
In our Advent longing, our prayers should be prayers of listening. As Isaiah reminds us, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." We are listening first for John the Baptist's announcement: "On Jordan's banks, the Baptist's cry announces that the Lord is nigh. Awake and hearken for he brings glad tidings of the King of kings." While the comfortable middle and upper classes of Bethlehem slept through the greatest event in all of history, the lowly shepherds, awake and hearkening in the fields at night, heard the message of the angels. They were listening.
Our Advent prayers are therefore largely silent. Jesus encourages us to make our requests known to God, and in our formal worship together, even in Advent, our prayers are expressed in words. But our private prayer in Advent, I believe, should be largely silent. Mother Theresa was asked what it was she said when she prayed to God. She replied: "I don't say anything. I listen." Father Edward S. Gleason, in his wonderful book The Prayer-Given Life, says: "Silence is God's first language and all other languages are poor translations." Phillips Brooks put it best in his beloved Christmas hymn: "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in." "Still" not only means "2000 years later;" it also means "in silent stillness."
Finally, we listen in silence in Advent so we can hear God. Pope Francis, recently knelt at the statue of Our Lady of Fatima and prayed: "May she help us to be open to God's surprises…." I am one of those highly organized persons who always has a clear agenda of my own. If you are like me at all, you need to kneel in silence in order to hear God's agenda for your life. My life this year has been derailed from my agenda by cancer. Sickness has made me realize how narrow my own agenda was. God has surprised me with new insights, and I have become much more aware of His agenda for my life.
Last summer, speaking to millions of young people in Brazil, the Pope (echoing the first pope, St. Peter) said: "I ask permission to come and spend this week with you. I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ." That is what – that is whom – you and I long for. It is Jesus who is the answer to our "inconsolable longing." May we this Advent listen in silence and expectation so that we, with the shepherds, may hear the angels proclaim his birth and, with them, come to the manger in adoration.
A Letter for Michaelmastide
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
"I find it hard to believe that people like you throw away your money on an old building like your church." So spoke a woman I met this summer. I half expected her to utter the current cliché: "I'm spiritual but not religious." But she soon proudly told me, "I'm not into all that God stuff." Further conversation revealed that she was totally unaware of life's spiritual dimension.
It is true that we do not need a building in order to worship God. That can be done in a house or on a beach or on a battlefield or in a hospital room. This summer I was blessed to be visited by Father Godderz and other clergy when I was in the hospital. They brought me the Blessed Sacrament, and I was deeply touched and moved, extremely grateful. You don't need a building in order to worship God.
Why then do we care so much about our church building? Why have we given so sacrificially to ensure its survival? Why is this building itself so important to us? Let me suggest three (of many) reasons:
1. As the Epistle to the Hebrews (11) says: "Here on earth we have no continuing city." That is, we are not permanent residents of earth. Our journey through earthly life will someday end. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin remarks: "We are not earthly beings on a spiritual pilgrimage. We are spiritual beings on an earthly pilgrimage." And that earthly pilgrimage will end.
Therefore, as Hebrews 13 puts it, while we are on earth we are "seeking a homeland." We "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one," and God "has prepared for [us] a city." In other words, nothing on earth truly satisfies us: we long – we thirst – for Something More, Something Beyond. We try to satisfy that longing with earthly things such as money or sex or power or popularity. But such things bring – at best – only temporary relief. The longing for Something More, Something Beyond always returns.
Our church building – filled with symbols of the Things That Are Eternal, the Things That Last Forever – reminds us what it is we long for. It is in our church building that we are provided – at every Mass – with a foretaste of the Something Beyond that we long for. Naturally, then, we care about this building passionately.
In Peabody Square, midst the bustling subway station and commercial center where thousands anxiously pursue their hectic worldly lives of quiet desperation, stands All Saints' Church, its tower a reminder, to all who pass by, that there is Something Beyond all our earthly preoccupations.
2. When Jacob was fleeing his brother Esau, he made his bed one night in the wilderness with a stone for his pillow. In his dream he saw a ladder, with angels ascending and descending. He awoke and exclaimed: "This is none other than the house of God and the gate of Heaven." He then made the rock-pillow the centerpiece of a shrine and swore an oath to erect there a "house of God."
In college I worshipped at a church over whose entrance were carved the words: Non est hic allud nisi Domus Dei et Porta Coeli. "This is none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven." Jacob knew, and we know, that God cannot be contained in any earthly structure. But he knew and we know that God has revealed himself in special ways in certain places at certain times. For generations, people have found God at All Saints' and hallowed the church with their prayers. We are aware of that when we kneel to pray, when we light a candle at one of the shrines. We realize that All Saints' somehow participates in the eternal: people were praying there long before we were born, and they will be praying there long after we are dead
When I was a student in England, someone said to me, as I lighted a candle at a shrine, "This is a holy place; people have been lighting candles and offering up their prayers here for over 500 years." When I light a candle at the Shrine of Our Lady of Dorchester, I am aware that I am joining with those who have gone before as well as with my current fellow parishioners. You can palpably feel that the shrine is sanctified by all those millions of prayers. It is a holy place within a holy place.
We cherish our House of God at Ashmont because in it we catch glimpses of the Something Beyond, the Something More that we are longing for. Our House of God becomes for us the Gate of Heaven. Through that gate, we can glimpse what it is we long for: that City of God which is eternal – what Hebrews calls our true "homeland".
3. There are always going to be people, like the woman who spoke to me this summer, who are stone deaf to religion; I have a number of friends in that category. To me they are like people who say, "I don't like classical music." Only people who have never "heard" classical music could say that. In every generation there are people who are deaf to life's spiritual dimension. I was recently perusing the just-published fourth volume of the Letters of T.S. Eliot. I was struck by a letter he wrote to Paul Elmer More in which he observes that some people's religious instinct (the longing I have talked about above) seems somehow to have been stultified: "[These people] may be very good, or very happy; they simply seem to miss nothing, to be unconscious of any void – the void that I find in the middle of all human happiness and all human relations, and which there is only one thing to fill." That one thing, of course, is God.
You and I cannot force people to experience life's spiritual dimension, any more than we can force them to hear classical music and embrace its beauty. All that you and I can tell such people is that we have glimpsed Something More, Something Beyond, and that our hearts yearn to be attached to what is lasting and eternal in the midst of our fleeting earthly lives.
A Yale professor has called All Saints' the finest church building in New England. Many of you have made enormously sacrificial gifts in order that this House of God and Gate of Heaven will, for generations to come, stand as a testimony and witness to the Living God midst the hustle and bustle of earthly life.
You can take some justifiable pride in joining with the staggeringly generous anonymous foundation that has made the restoration and renewal possible. You are joining in doing what no previous generation has ever attempted: to restore and enhance All Saints' and to ensure, by an endowment fund, that it will bear witness to the Glory of the Eternal God to generations yet unborn.
A Letter for the Great Feasts
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
Et regni eius non erit finis. These are the Latin words inscribed over the high altar of my favorite London church, St. Mary's Bourne Street. They come from the Angel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary: "And of His kingdom there shall be no end." They are the elevator speech for the Great Feasts which we are about to celebrate: the Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, and Corpus Christi.
We live in a world in which, all too often, evil seems to triumph over good, death over life. We all experience setbacks, defeats, tragedies in our lives. Good, in our own lives, does not always triumph over evil. But the Great Feasts remind us that, in the end, God "wins". Gabriel delivers God's promise that God's kingdom (his triumph, his rule) in the end prevails. Of His kingdom there shall be no end.
God does not promise you or me that, in our own earthly lives, good will prevail. Nor shall we witness the final triumph of good over evil. Moses led the people of Israel to the Promised Land, but, you will recall, he died before he himself could enter it.
A few weeks ago, when we commemorated the April 4th death of Martin Luther King, Jr., I was re-reading his amazing final speech, words that will inspire Christians for all time. Here's what MLK Jr. said the night before he was assassinated:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
And so I'm happy tonight. I am not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
King knew he would die before justice triumphed. He realized that his herculean labors would not bring justice before he died. But he had glimpsed the Promised Land: he believed (no, rather, knew) that good would eventually prevail. That was enough: "I know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.... Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
Every year, we are given the four Great Feasts to remind us that God will prevail in the end. In our fleeting earthly lives, we are asked to enlist in the army of that God. As in all wars, some battles will be lost and other battles will be won. But we share MLK Jr.'s belief – certainty – that we are on the winning side. We are not promised that we shall prevail in our own lifetimes. But we are promised – especially in the Great Feasts – that God's Way will prevail in the end. The battle will not have been in vain.
In the Great Feasts we see the same glimpse of the Promised Land that King saw. That is enough. We must never let ourselves be down-hearted or dismayed. In times of discouragement this winter – when I occasionally wondered with ugly self-pity whether it is all worthwhile – I remembered the words of the great hymn:
Come, labor on. Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear! No arm so weak but may do service here: By feeblest agents may our God fulfill His righteous will.
Come, labor on. No time for rest till glows the western sky, Till the long shadows o'er our pathway lie, and a glad sound comes with the setting sun: "Servants, well done."
God never promises you and me success – or even peace and tranquility – in our short earthly lives. What He promises is that our labor – invested in His service – will never have been in vain. Inspired by the Great Feasts – in which we, like MLK Jr., can glimpse the Promised Land – we can carry on with courage. Our reward will be that we have done what God asked us to do; our hope will be that we shall hear his words: "Servants, well done."
A Letter for Holy Week
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
My Lent started in January when I began 28 radiations and 56 chemo therapies at the Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven. Happily, the doctors worked out an arrangement whereby I could continue to teach at Yale and get these treatments in New Haven. I'll have surgery in Boston after my final class at Yale.
My troubles with cancer are trivial in comparison with the sufferings that many of you and your loved ones have endured, but I have grown from the experience. Let me share with you a few "moments" on my journey this past long Lent:
First, I felt the power of prayer in a vivid way. I want to thank so many of you who have assured me – repeatedly – of your prayers. I received similar support from faculty and students at Berkeley Divinity School. I actually felt your prayers. I attribute the relatively modest side effects I have experienced (after being warned of how terrible they would be!) to your prayers. I felt palpably lifted up by the prayers of others throughout my Lenten journey.
I was staggered by the kindness of strangers. Many, many people have asked me daily, "How are you?" But the person I shall best remember is Nadine. Yale provided me a van ride every day to the hospital. I always hoped my driver would be Nadine. Her radio was always tuned to an Evangelical preacher as we drove along. She always said: "God bless you; I'm praying for you." Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Attitude is critical. One of the doctors went on and on about the likely unpleasant side effects of radiation and chemo. He concluded by saying: "Remember: this stuff is poison!" I tried to think of it rather as the healing gift of God through modern medicine. As I went under the enormous radiation machine, I said the Angelus and thanked God for the care I was receiving. I often recalled the advice given me years ago by an Irish Catholic priest: "Offer it up!"
There is no life without suffering. If Mary's heart was broken at the foot of the Cross, we should not expect that we shall be spared. The issue is not whether we shall suffer, but rather how we shall bear that suffering. Even in the midst of my comparatively modest suffering, there were moments, I confess, when I looked into the abyss and wondered whether it was worth it. At such moments I could turn to Our Lady as my model. Mary suffered the worst thing a person can suffer: the death of her child. She was there when her Son cried out: "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Yet she found the strength to stand steadfastly at the foot of the Cross as He died His slow and agonizing death.
As rotten as I have felt at times, I always tried to remind myself of how fortunate I am. What if I lived in the Sudan? What if I could afford no medical care? What if I had not been able to get warm when my immune system went haywire and I shook with cold. In the midst of all our sufferings, we can usually find much to be thankful for. And as Eucharist Christians, we know that we should never cease to give thanks.
And that – after all these self-centered reflections – brings me to Holy Week and the Great Events of Our Salvation. Is anything more important to you than being there on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7 as we commemorate together Jesus' last supper and His death and resurrection? On these three nights we bring all our sufferings, all our joys, and lay them at the foot of the Cross, praying that we may die with Christ in order to be reborn with Him to newness of life.
I look forward to sharing with you this pilgrimage from darkness to light, from sadness to joy, from death to life.
A Letter for Lent
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
Our calling as 21st century Christians is very different from the calling of 20th century Christians. We who call ourselves Christians today are in the minority – we are surrounded by a pagan culture that is quite similar to the culture that surrounded the first Christians. The real religion of most 21st century Americans is money, entertainment, and self-gratification – very similar to the "bread and circuses" that were the real religion of the Romans.
You and I are called to be missionaries to this pagan culture. When the Jews were overrun by the Babylonians, they realized that they had a new calling: to be a faithful remnant. That is our calling. The Bible tells us that the Jews sometimes became despondent, doubtful about whether God was with them: "By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept." You and I are tempted to give up in the face of what appear to be overwhelming odds, but Jesus tells us that we must carry on. He reminds us that the tiny grain of mustard seed — despite appearances — eventually blossoms into a great bush. The early Christians went against what appeared to be hopeless odds and they prevailed.
What then does it mean to be missionaries in our time? What does it mean to be apostles – to be "sent" (which is what apostle means) — in our time? What does it mean to be the faithful remnant who courageously stand against the culture? As we prepare for Lent, let me ask you to consider three things you can do to be a 21st century follower of Jesus:
First, talk about Jesus. Study after study of Episcopalians reveals how bad we are at this. Most of us do not pass the "Jesus Blush Test:" we find it hard to say the word "Jesus" outside of a church service. We need to get over this hang-up. We need to realize that our principal calling is to bring people to Jesus. People will not come to Him unless we invite them. Each one of us is an apostle, "sent" out to tell people about Jesus and to bring people to Him.
Take one small baby step this Lent. Decide you will talk to one person (a non-believer) about Jesus and try to bring him or her to Jesus. The easiest way may be to bring them with you to church, and introduce them to a Christian community. You and I are called to be missionaries, and we must understand what missionaries have always understood: that people are brought to Jesus one by one.
Second, equip yourself for this task of apostleship by trying hard to become closer to Jesus yourself. Decide you will attend mass without fail on the Sundays in Lent and the three great Holy Week services. Make use of resources like Forward Day by Day, the Wednesday evening parish Lenten program, the daily masses, confession. Decide to set aside a definite time (start with five minutes) and place (at home or work) when you will pause for silent prayer alone every day. Determine that you will read one of the Gospels. You will have ideas of your own about the best way for you to do this, but don't be easy on yourself.
Third, ask for Our Lady's help. Sunday after Sunday, we ask her to "Pray for us sinners now&elip;." Do you mean it when you say those words? At Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana, Mary pushes her Son to provide more wine for the celebration. Her request to Jesus is the catalyst that brings about the miracle. Join with Christians of all ages in the Salve Regina: "Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy. Hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee we lift up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us; and after this our exile, show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus." Mary's shrines at All Saints' are ablaze with candles every Sunday. Light one yourself as you ask Mary to help you. She is our "most gracious advocate:" she is always there for us and she always helps.
Make this Lent and Holy Week your best ever: dare to answer Jesus' call to go forth and bring others to Him.
A Letter for Christmas 2012
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
Counting One's Blessings is the aptly chosen title of the just-published collected letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900-2002). At first, I was intimidated by the book's 600+ pages, but I have found it an easy and delightful read.
Queen Elizabeth's life was by no means an easy one. She lost her brother in World War I. She married the King's second son, Prince Albert, and became Queen as her husband suddenly became King George VI when his brother abdicated. World War II began in the second year of their reign. The Germans repeatedly bombed Buckingham Palace. After the first bombing, the Queen remarked: "Thank God! Now we can look the East End [the heavily bombed dock area of London] in the eye!" The King and Queen probably saw more of the horrors of war than anyone else: they repeatedly visited Plymouth and Coventry and other cities after heavy bombings. In 1952, King George died at age 56 – his life shortened by the exhaustion of the war and the years of austerity that followed. After helping her young daughter adjust to the duties of the monarchy, the Queen Mother lived another fifty years to die at 101, probably the best loved and most admired person in Britain.
It is often said that the essence of the Christian life is to live thankfully. After yet another visit to bombing victims in 1942, Queen Elizabeth wrote: "It was terribly moving when we went to visit & try to help these poor people, who in one night lost everything, home possessions & sometimes their children. But always one heard, ‘I'm alright, but poor Mrs. Jones next door is far worse off’ etc. I never heard a grumble, and indeed the good neighbor was uppermost all the time. Truly one felt grateful for such a good and real Christian spirit." Over and over in her letters, we see the Queen inspired by her people to live her own life thankfully.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited Britain in October 1942 to be the eyes and ears of her husband. The Queen gave her her own bedroom at battered Buckingham Palace; Mrs. Roosevelt noted that its blown-out windows were boarded over. Returning to America, she told the president about the draftiness of the freezing palace, about the black line painted around the Queen's bathtub so the water would not exceed three inches, about the canned Spam served to her (on gold plates!), since the King and Queen lived by the same food rationing as their subjects.
What is so amazing about the Queen's letters is the absence of whining and complaining. No one worked harder in the war – no one was ever more relentlessly "on duty" than Queen Elizabeth, and yet she was constantly counting her blessings, constantly bringing good cheer to those she met and visited, constantly reminding herself and others to be grateful.
As I look again this season at the Christmas stories in the Bible, I am struck by the terrible conditions in which God entered into our human lives in the birth of Jesus. God was born to a poor couple from a despised outlying province of the Roman Empire. At the exact time of his birth they had to travel far from home because of a census. There was no room in an inn for Mary as she was about to give birth, so God was born among the cattle in a stable. Not long after that, the couple and their new Baby had to flee as refugees into Egypt. We romanticize these stories, but they are stories of cruel hardship.
What is absent from all these stories is any sense of complaint. There is not a single self-pitying moment in these stories. Evidently, Mary and Joseph understood that life is not a rose garden. They quietly and simply moved ahead, dealing faithfully with whatever came next.
The Queen Mother was a person of deep faith – a faith that palpably motivated her whole long life. She was always counting her blessings, living gratefully even in the darkest of times. In 1939 she wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury: "Sometimes one's heart quails at the thought of the things that lie ahead, and then one counts one's blessings – and things don't seem so bad!"
Peter Gomes, the late Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard, once was asked to preach to the present Queen, Elizabeth II. She thanked Peter after the service, and said, "Have you met mummy?" She then introduced the Queen M other who chirpily remarked at age 95, "Oh, thank you so much, Dr. Gomes, for your sermon. I do so like a bit of cheer on Sunday morning!" Recounting this encounter later, Peter remarked, "That great lady knows that the Gospel is good news, and her life radiates the good cheer that comes from understanding the good news."
That is our calling, as we celebrate Christmas, the Epiphany, and Candlemas. Midst all the trials of human life, we are called to count our blessings and to radiate – to everyone w e encounter – the good cheer that comes from being with Jesus.
A Letter for Advent 2012
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
Dear Friends,Advent season in the 21st century American church often gets reduced to a feel-good focus on the coming birth of the baby Jesus. But the original focus of Advent – reflected in the Advent Prayer Book readings and hymns – was the Second Coming of Jesus in judgment: "the last day when He shall come again in glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead." We pray: "Give us grace to heed [the prophets'] warnings and forsake our sins that when Thy Son Our Lord comes He may find in us a mansion prepared for Himself."
Over the entrance of practically every cathedral in Europe the Last Judgment is depicted in stone. Jesus is enthroned at the center, passing judgment at the end of time – rewarding good, punishing evil. I used to think this was a gloomy way to enter a church: Can't we start with something sweetly appealing – some pretty Nativity scene, Gentle Jesus meek and mild, the Good Shepherd? Why begin with the gloom of the Last Judgment?
You don't hear much about Judgment from the pulpits of America. We Americans prefer mushy talk about the love of God. We have recently invented the concept of God's "unconditional love." We have redefined God so that God is unable to do anything except love us unconditionally – no matter what we do. For our own purposes, we have created a sappy, limp-wristed Jesus who cannot do anything but flaccidly dispense love.
But the God that Jesus tells us about – dare we say, warns us about – is a God of love and judgment.
The concept of the Last Judgment is not difficult to understand. We have all been given tests in school. A loving teacher is trying to teach us something, has assigned us homework to help us understand, has offered us extra help, has encouraged us. Ultimately that teacher gives us a test to see if we have learned what we need to know. The purpose of the test is not to punish us. The teacher is not out to "get" us. The teacher does not want us to fail. The teacher wants us to succeed, wants to tell us, "Well done!"
How we do on the test is ultimately up to us. If we willfully learn nothing, waste our time, and squander our talents – in spite of the teacher's encouragements and warnings – we shall have chosen to fail. We shall have misused the free will that is ours as human beings. We shall have brought judgment on ourselves.
Over and over, Jesus tells us that we can bring such a judgment on ourselves if we misuse our lives. In one of many parables on judgment, Jesus in Mark 13 compares God to the master of a house who has gone away: "Watch, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house will return – in the evening or at midnight, or at the cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep .Watch!" Jesus repeatedly warns us that our lives will be judged.
It is true that there are two quite consoling aspects of the cathedral depictions of the Last Judgment: First, Jesus, enthroned, is always shown with the holes in his hands and feet from his Crucifixion. Jesus, as judge, understands the human condition. He has suffered grievous injustice, he has experienced the dregs of human existence, he knows the depths to which we humans can sink. Second, Mary is seated at Jesus' right pleading for Jesus to have mercy. Mary "prays for us sinners" in life and death. But these two factors do not remove the undeniable reality that we shall, in the end, be judged.
It is important to remember that the Last Judgment does not just concern us; it concerns the whole universe – whether human life has any real meaning and purpose. The cathedrals depict the Last Judgment at their entrances because the Last Judgment is a statement that there is an Ultimate Justice, that human life is ultimately fair.
We can observe unfairness all around us in our earthly lives. Good people die of cancer and automobile accidents or in wars. Evil – greed and selfishness – often seems to triumph. We have just seen a campaign season in which candidates discovered that lying and false accusations pay off. Human life is unfair. Good is often not rewarded and evil is often not punished.
At the Last Judgment, wrongs will be righted and goodness rewarded. There is an Ultimate Justice. Sometimes it seems a long way off. I see an older lady from the projects purchasing lottery tickets every morning when I go to buy my newspaper. Several weeks ago, I saw her the morning after a Muslim man of 22 had won $24 million in the lottery. "Why did God do that?" she asked me. "It ain't fair. What's the matter with God?" In a thousand different circumstances, we all utter those words: "It's not fair."
James in his Epistle tells us, "Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts for the coming of the Lord." "Establish your hearts" really means: "Plant your hopes here. Take courage! Stand firm!" God is God, and God operates on his own schedule; it does not conform to our schedule.
You and I live in an in-between world on our short and trouble-filled human pilgrimage. We are not yet at the end of our journey; we are on our journey. And sometimes that journey takes us into dark valleys. Sometimes we are like farmers looking out at their dead snow-covered fields in the winter of discontent. We lose our vision; our hope dims. We wonder if God is faithful.
St. Paul himself was tempted by these dark doubts, this loss of vision, this dimming of hope. But, in the midst of – and despite – all the reverses in his own life, Paul writes the Christians at Corinth (who themselves knew discouragement): "I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you so that you are not lacking any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of Christ who will sustain you to the end . God is faithful."
Those are the key words for Advent: God is faithful. J.B. Phillips translates Paul's words this way: "God is utterly dependable." That is the Advent Good News about the Last Judgment. Hold on. Take courage. God is faithful.
A Letter for All Saints & All Souls 2012
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
This is my first opportunity to write to you since the death of my beloved and only sister Faith on May 8 shortly before her 71st birthday. I want to begin by thanking you all for your many expressions of support. And I want to share with you some of the thoughts I have had during the four months since Faith's death.
First, I was surprised by the grief I felt. I had the two most wonderful parents, and yet I did not feel the same depth of grief at their deaths. I suppose one expects one's parents to die, but not one's younger sister – in my case the only remaining person who had known me all my life.
Many of you have suffered far greater losses – the death of a child, for example, or a lifelong spouse, the loss of a parent during one's childhood – and therefore many of you have suffered far, far greater grief than I will ever know. Happily, my grief was not complicated by regret (the saddest words in any language are "If only "). Though I felt great sadness, there was no regret at something said or unsaid, done or undone. Faith and I both had strong opinions about almost everything, and we frequently disagreed. We could hurt each other’s feelings. But we never doubted our love for one another and we never fell out for long. It is best to resolve differences as soon as possible in life. Hard as that may be sometimes, it is better than regret.
"Just keep going," is the advice often given to people in grief, and I had a very busy summer: I organized a conference at Yale for college chaplains, and I attended conferences in Los Angeles and Melbourne (my eighth roundtrip to Australia – which is a long, long way away!). I had eight days of vacation: four in Victoria, British Columbia (where I visited, among other things, the Butchart Gardens, so beloved of my gardener sister) and four nights coming across Canada by rail. I was also writing up a storm: articles due, as well as sermons and speeches for this fall.
So I "kept going." But what surprised me was how the sadness returned and lingered – and how tired I felt. Yale started up again on August 20 (how I longed for the fall term at Cambridge University which began in October!), and I returned to Ashmont from the first week wiped out.
I am now into the swing of the fall term in New Haven (though I shall see you all at the weekends) – teaching and counseling. Maybe it's the busyness, more likely the passage of time, and I am on a more even keel. But let me share with you three observations (my sister used to say, "You turn everything into a sermon!"):
1. Faith made everything as easy as she could for us. All her papers and instructions – not just her will – were in immaculate good order. Her funeral service was planned by her to the last comma, including instructions that the homily was not to exceed five minutes! This willingness on her part to anticipate her own death saved us all those awful family discussions (and arguments) about "what she would have wanted."
2. I was deeply touched by those who attended her wake and service, especially boys of my school whom I haven't seen in years. In times of grief, there is very little one can say, but just "being there" is wonderfully comforting. I had a dear friend, Nona Evans, who was killed in a car accident in college. I got to her parents' home shortly after Bishop Tucker, the saintly retired bishop of Ohio, arrived. He simply sat down with the parents, held their hands, and wept. In doing so, he followed St. Paul's dictum that we should "rejoice with them that rejoice and weep with them that weep."
3. I am struck by how many things remind me of Faith. I found myself in the Butchart Gardens gift shop thinking of several things I wanted to buy for her. A hymn from her funeral sung by coincidence at St. Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne's great Anglo-Catholic parish, reduced me to tears. Hardly a day goes by that I don't catch myself saying, "Remember to tell Faith ."
The happiest event of my summer was the Baptism of Faith's fifth grandchild, named after her husband: Craig Edward Smith III. Ruth Godderz's exquisite photographs captured this joyful occasion on June 30th at the One True Parish. Faith was very much present with us – along with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, the "great cloud of witnesses" – as we welcomed little "Teddy" into the Christian family. I could say, "Faith would have been so pleased." But I believe in the Communion of Saints and so I say what we all felt: "She is delighted."