Letters from Fr. Jarvis
A Letter for the Great Feasts
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
"You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." That is Peter's response when Jesus asks him directly, "Who do you say that I am."
At Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, we joke about how our students - all budding theologians - would answer that question. If Jesus asked them, "Who am I?" they would more likely respond: "You are the escatological manifestation of the ultimate kerygma of hope at the ground of our being." The study of theology can be dangerous….
Ultimately, of course, we must all answer Jesus' question, "Who do you think I am? Who do you believe me to be?"
Summer will be in full swing by the time we get to the Great Feasts this year. After Corpus Christi we launch into a summer succession of wonderful readings from St. Matthew's Gospel. Jesus' question to Peter, in fact, comes in Matthew 16:16 which we shall hear as the Gospel on Sunday, August 24.
I challenge you to take the next ten weeks to consider how you will answer that question.
The mainline churches in our country are declining because their members are neither hearing nor answering that question. Is Jesus just a benign teacher who long ago in a different world taught some pretty things about love? Or is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God?
I often tell the Yale students whom the rector encourages me to invite to preach at All Saints': "Do not underestimate those you will be preaching to at Ashmont. This is a congregation that understands that Jesus is our window to God, that he shows us everything we need to know about God. They understand that Jesus is present - at work among us - in the Blessed Sacrament, that he is known to us in the breaking of the bread."
Many of my students are touched by All Saints': "I felt something in your congregation. They really seem to get it." One told his classmates: "Those people in Dorchester understand Jesus better than those of us who are studying theology here at Yale for three years. They know Jesus is more than a great teacher who lived long ago and said nice things. They understand that he is alive and active in their lives now, that he is God in human form."
I would like to think that's true. But we must constantly confront ourselves with the question that Jesus puts to us as much as he put it to Peter.
Endicott Peabody, the founding headmaster of Groton School, put it this way: "Christ did not simply speak the truth: He was the truth: true through and through, for truth is a thing not of words, but of life and being."
We are all - lay people and ordained - called to be preachers, to tell people about Jesus. Phillips Brooks, the great rector of Trinity Copley Square and Bishop of Massachusetts, lectured at Yale over a century ago and reminded his hearers that they must tell the story of Jesus: "It is [a story] of something that happened long ago, yet which concerns them. It is something that happened in one special time and set of circumstances, yet is universal." We are called to introduce our families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers to the Person who is central to that story, the Person who can be their life companion, the Person who can transform their lives. That Person is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
A Letter for Holy Week & Easter
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
"The service was so gloomy," was the response of a young man I invited to All Saints' some years ago on Good Friday. We all want Easter without Holy Week. We want the Resurrection without the Passion and Cross. We want the pretty stuff and not the ugly, the easy stuff and not the hard. It is always a delight to see the church full on Easter – for whatever reason. But, that said, I feel sorry for those who have missed the pilgrimage that leads to Easter: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. If you have been on that pilgrimage, your Easter will have a hundred times more impact and meaning.
The Holy Week-Easter pilgrimage is a single unified journey. On that pilgrimage we join Jesus' most intimate followers. We are there. We participate.
On Palm Sunday, we are there as Jesus voluntarily and deliberately turns to Jerusalem, a decision that will inevitably lead to his death. We are there as he challenges the hypocrisy of the religious and political establishments. With the crowd, we hail Jesus ("Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"). Like Jesus' friends, we are delighted to acknowledge him when he is popular, but we fade away when he is not.
On Maundy Thursday we are there as Jesus invites his most intimate friends to join him at a Last Supper. We are there as he blesses and gives them the bread and wine which he calls his body and blood, his real and continuing Presence. We are there later that evening, when one of his friends betrays him and another denies him thrice. We are forced to consider how we ourselves betray and deny Jesus.
We return to All Saints' in the middle of the night to spend an hour at the all-night vigil at the altar of repose. We come in response to Jesus: "Could you not watch with me one hour?" (I always find this the single most moving religious experience of the year.)
On Good Friday, we join Jesus' mother and the Beloved Apostle John at the foot of the cross to witness his protracted and agonizing death. We watch as Christ – the complete human revelation of God – dies. We realize that his death is the final and complete expression of God's love for us. "It is finished," cries Jesus. He has completed his earthly life in this ultimate act of divine love.
The Easter Vigil begins in darkness as we hear the prophecies – and especially as we hear the story of Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea, the intervention of God that frees the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. In the baptisms that follow, we rejoice in the promise of new life. Then suddenly we are "surprised by joy" as we hear the proclamation: "Alleluia! Christ is risen!" Christ is truly alive and present amongst us as we celebrate the First Mass of Easter.
The Holy Week-Easter Pilgrimage is a single continuous event. No part of it may be omitted. It is a pilgrimage "through the night of doubt and sorrow," a pilgrimage from darkness to light, sorrow to joy, death to life. For your soul's health you need to be there for each and every phase of this pilgrimage. Nothing in the world is more important. Set the time aside well in advance: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 p.m.
Boys in my school practiced long and hard for the athletic games that lay ahead. The practices were demanding and painful, and the mantra was always: "No pain, no gain." The same may be said of the practice of Christianity. The only truly joyful Easter comes at the end of a pilgrimage of suffering and death. As William Penn succinctly put it: "No cross, no crown."
A Lenten Letter
To the Beloved in Christ at Ashmont
The first message of Lent is that you and I are going to die. Death is Lent's most important message. As the ashes are placed on our foreheads, we hear the words, "Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return."
We may not like this stark reminder of the only certain reality in our lives, but authentic Christians embrace the reality of their own death. Death provides the essential perspective on Christian life. Christians do not run away from this reality. It is when we face the reality of death that we are, in fact, liberated. When we stop running and accept the reality that we are dust and shall return to dust, we see life in a whole new perspective. We realize that we have only a limited time to do something significant with our one and only earthly life. We take each day as possibly our last. And we therefore try each and every day, as Mother Teresa put it, to "do something beautiful for God." That's why T.S. Eliot saw the prospect of death not as a dismal end to joy, but as a whole new and exciting start in life: "In my end [death] is my beginning."
The second message of Lent is that we need to retune ourselves. As we approach Lent, the Red Sox will be returning for spring training. These amazing professionals have to get back into shape, hone their extraordinary skills for yet another season. Lent is our spring training. We need to get back in shape. Nelson Mandela said, "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying." He added: "Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again." That, my dear fellow strivers, is the essence of Lent. It is the season in which we try to get ourselves back in shape spiritually, in which we struggle to "get back up again."
The third message of Lent is self-denial (fasting, or giving up something we enjoy). We deny ourselves, we fast, for two principal reasons: First, we empty ourselves of something that satisfies us because it creates a space for God, who is the ultimate and only source of true satisfaction. And second, we remind ourselves that many in our global village world live lives of perpetual involuntary fasting: they cannot obtain enough to eat or drink. We tend to avert our eyes and ears from such people. Our self-denial, our fasting, helps to remind us of the deprivation of such people, hungry, thirsty, or homeless, our fellow humans living lives where there are no choices, no goodies, no extras.
To face the reality of death, to retune ourselves, to deny ourselves requires grace – the power of God's help – for us to achieve. We cannot do it on our own. Pope Francis reminds us of the good thief crucified along side Jesus. The thief cries out, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom." To which Jesus replies, "Today you shall be with me in paradise." Pope Francis adds: "Each one of us has his or her own history: we think of our mistakes, our sins, our good times and our bleak times. We would do well, each one of us…to think about our own personal history, to look at Jesus, and keep telling him, sincerely and quietly: 'Remember me, Lord, now that you are in your kingdom! Jesus, remember me because I want to be good, but I just don't have the strength….' Jesus' promise to the good thief gives us great hope: it tells us that God's grace is always greater than the prayer that sought it."
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."