Prepare to be Amazed

Isaiah 49: 1-6; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1: 57-66, 80

It’s good to take a break from the ordinary cycle of readings to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.  Whether it’s his, Jesus’ or even in our own families, we know there’s something special about birth.  Babies, infants, kids, have a way of pulling us adults outside of ourselves and to free us, even if for a time, of our selfishness and self-centeredness.  They are utterly dependent upon us and totally defenseless.  They are a good reminder to us just how much we’re not in charge and, despite their size, how many bigger things there are that often get missed.  Yet, as a human family we still find ways to abuse, separate, take advantage of, and use children for our own gain because of who they are rather than being a message of hope, as it is with John the Baptist and Jesus, both of which are intertwined in this beginning of Luke’s Gospel.

Of course, though, on his birth we hear nothing from him, not even a whimper.  He is the one, though, that prepares the way as we hear in Advent, for literally the advent of something new.  There is a message of hope.  Quite possibly, though, he learns how to be the one that prepares the way through his parents who are a part of today’s Gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, they are advanced in years, beyond child-bearing, and literally defined by Luke as being barren.  There’s no chance of life.  Yet, in their own way as Luke tells us, they have prepared for this moment.  There was still a sense of receptivity that God can still do great things in their lives, so both Elizabeth and Mary stand as model in that sense.

It’s Zechariah, though that has his own way of preparing for this moment of hope.  His story mirrors that of Mary in some ways when the message is delivered that they are about to give birth.  Mary, as we know, responds with a great sense of openness, freedom, and yet a sense of wonder as to how something like this is possible.  Zechariah, on the other hand, still comes with a sense of wonder, but like a good man, his wonder has more to do with how he’s going to do this.  His wonder is much more rooted in fear.  He has yet to be pulled out of himself and remains somewhat closed to the gift being given and so is silenced for nine months.  That, quite possibly, was God’s real gift to Elizabeth.  However, like any baby, when that child enters the world and Zechariah looks at him for the first time, things begin to change.  The one who prepares with fear and is silenced, now comes with a sense of freedom in dismantling his own lineage in naming the child John.  John will not be bound by that same history and inaugurates the new day.  In the end, Elizabeth and Zechariah teach their own son how to prepare by how they prepared for that same message of God breaking into their lives.  All John can do as his life proceeds is to point the way.

With the birth of a child our hearts expand.  They give us a sense of hope and wonder.  They allow us to be free to receive and to give this unconditional love.  Of course, it’s Israel’s own struggle and the great prophets that come before John try to lead Israel to that same promise, reminding them too that there are bigger things than themselves.  Israel makes the same mistake we continue to make to this day by getting caught up in ourselves, getting stuck in our own selfishness and self-centeredness.  The largeness of one’s heart can pretty much be determined by how they respond to children.  The smaller our hearts, the more prone to using them for our own advantage.  We have certainly seen that in the history of the world and continue to do so and certainly in our own country.  It’s the message that is conveyed in the gospels over and over again, about children, women, the vulnerable, the poor, all of which, for Jesus and John, pulled people out of themselves and gave the freedom to be receptive to the working of God, to mystery, to the newness of life.  It’s how Isaiah can proclaim today that the message goes to the ends of the earth.  When the heart begins to expand and we move outside ourselves, the message becomes universal.  That’s the working of God in the life of Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, but also in our lives to this day.

Our tendency is to become small and closed off.  We have no need for anything new, for wonder, for mystery, but that cuts us off from the Creator and Giver of life.  We don’t just celebrate the birth of the Baptist, we celebrate what God continues to do in our lives, despite our fear, our trepidation, our loss of wonder.  John reminds us that we too need to prepare for what great works God wants to do in and through us.  Maybe we’re just Zechariah and we just need to be silenced or find silence for some time, creating space and wonder.  Maybe we find ourselves like Elizabeth, barren in our own way.  They remind us that miracles still happen but we must be prepared and certainly receptive to the life being given.  As we celebrate this day with solemnity on the birth of John the Baptist, we pray with the family of Abraham for a greater sense of openness in our own lives and that like these characters, we may be used in similar ways to give birth to something new, something in our lives that, all we can do, is point the way to the One who continues to do great things.

 

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Nature’s Way

I started reading a book entitled Lassoing the Sun while here in Acadia.  The author, Mark Woods, spent a year traveling to twelve different national parks.  Ironically, the very first chapter, January, takes place here in Maine at Acadia National Park.  One of the points of the year was to get a different glimpse into the parks and where they’re going into the future.  People are, of course, the greatest asset to the parks, but the concern is that the greatest asset is also becoming a great obstacle, as more and more treat the parks as vacation destinations rather than the place of wonder and exploration in which they were created.

I couldn’t help but think of that as I was hiking Beech Mountain today.  There seemed to be a lot more people than the last time I had visited.  As I hiked along, from time to time I also just sat and tried to take in what was before me.  With stops, though, came the passing through of people, who often felt like a distraction to the solitude that would often accompany each stop along the way.  I often wondered if they had even recognized that I was sitting there, usually off to the side or at least somewhat off the path.  I heard two women who were discussing whether their hair color was natural.  I heard two gentlemen discussing their tax brackets.  What maybe most struck me, though, was a young family that came traipsing along.  I saw, first-hand, the intersection of generations in relation to the natural world.

There they were, the grandparents and grandkids going off to pick blueberries.  The kids were beyond excited at the view and the enormous number of berries that surrounded them, overlooking Long Pond.  It was so great to witness their excitement for something so simple as the body of water below, which sparked a wow, a sense of wonder that was exuding them.  But like the others that passed through, there were the others that were more concerned about the lighting for their photo and selfies, a phone intercepting the natural beauty before them.  They quickly tried to pull the kids out of the bushes for the perfect photo, a memory, rather than allowing the kids to be one with this natural world which has so much to teach each of us, and to simply be kids of wonder and adventure.

It stuck with me all day, thinking of that interaction.  At times I found the people a distraction and oblivious to where they were and what we were a part of.  I had to tell myself time and again that I’m making judgment about them.  It all just seemed to lack depth.  As I sat there, now on the outermost rock formation, relaxing and taking it in, I noticed how artificial the world too looked around me, as if like the phone, even my eyes acted as an interception to the wonder.  There was a stillness in the air, prior to the rain moving in, and everything seemed untouched and motionless.  When no one was around, all you can hear were far off voices in the distance of people passing through.  It wasn’t until I got down into the thick of it that I began to see otherwise.  I had to go beneath what I had seen with my eyes to begin to see a world of life at my fingertips, as if all the critters were going about their business before the anticipated weather.

As the day grew on, the air chilled and the rain began to fall; I listened to it bounce off my jacket, zipped to the top.  It’s July but feels more like Fall here in Acadia.  The silence, as the rain began to fall, seemed to deepen and any distractions and noise had fallen to a hush.  Sure, I should be able to find solitude anywhere, but none in the way out in nature, in places like this, which has a way of folding you into her arms and holding you, embracing you, and for those final moments in Acadia today it was there.  It was present.  I was present, no longer needing to feel frustrated and annoyed with the people that passed through, somehow taking from me what I wanted from this time.  They too are on their own journey but it didn’t have to stop me from mine, of moving these days to being one with creation with one great act of Love showing the way.  It’s much too easy to separate from others and judge.  In reality it does say more about us than them.  If I can be grateful for anything it’s that I was even aware of what was going on within me, leading me to my own adventure and wonder in my heart.  Ever so gently and slowly, nature has a way of revealing ourselves to us in a way like none other.  In the quiet, in the solitude, the truth begins to reveal itself and the truth then sets us free to wonder and explore not only the great outdoors but the inner depths of the soul’s landscape being revealed in spite of and before our very eyes.

The Further Journey

Matthew 2: 1-12

There’s a very thin line that the magi face in their lives, whether the star stops them short when the encounter Herod or recognizing there’s something and someone more; it hadn’t stopped over Jerusalem but further along. Yet, for many of us on this journey, we become captivated by the draw of the royal palace of Herod. We stop short, as the people of Jerusalem do by an illusion of peace, one brought on by fear rather than love. Yet, it’s comfortable in the palace. We have all that we need and know what we know. Isn’t that what this journey often becomes for us? We become comfortable here, in what we know, around the people that we know, safe and secure, until we find ourselves boxed in to the comforts, no longer wanting to grow and change. It’s the advantage that kids have over us adults, that they continue to have a sense of wonder and adventure, exploring, never satisfied, and looking for something more.

This story that we hear today of the magi or kings or whatever we choose to call them is really you and me. It’s our journey towards faith and love. They must encounter it all in this journey. They feel the heat of the desert, stripping layers off themselves, being with no one other than themselves. They too face the darkness and the unknown, heading out into unfamiliar terrain, looking for something, tapping into that sense of adventure and wonder, where it is that this star would lead them. But they too must confront the illustrious palace of Herod. They are invited into the inner sanctum of Herod. He shows them graciousness. He seeks their counsel and their wisdom. He finds a way to use them for his own benefit, but by now, they know there’s something more. Whereas we often find ourselves settling for the illusion of Herod and his palace in our lives, the magi invite us to a deeper place, a life of mature faith. Yet, this may be the greatest challenge we face in moving to that place because fear becomes what we know that we begin to think the illusion is the truth, is real. The magi know otherwise. We know otherwise, when we don’t allow that sense of wonder and adventure, the desire for more, to die within us. How could we possibly give up the palace when it’s what we know?

Faith is the continuation, that constant hungering for more that drives the magi from the palace to a more humble place where they find themselves today. If there were any illusions of the star stopping over Jerusalem that day, it has all been but lost. The journey they embarked on, into the unknown of God and into the unknown of themselves, leads them to this place, to this newborn king, who seems to promise much more than Herod ever could to them. Herod could hand them everything and it still wouldn’t be enough for what this child can give, a life now rooted in love, which casts out all fear. As a matter of fact, through the love of that child, who is love, and an encounter with the truth in that crib, the magi go home by a different route. Fear is no longer an option. The regalia of the palace is no longer appealing. It’s lost its appeal and all that goes with it. What has died is not the sense of wonder and adventure, the desire for more; all of that has only been given new life. What has died for the magi, and what dies for us in the encounter with this deeper mystery, is a life once known, a life of illusion brought by fear, a life that no longer satisfies the deeper longing of the heart, which leads us, too, on a different route home.

My friends, as we gather on this feast of the Epiphany, the magi point us in a new way, beyond the palace we’ve created for ourselves and the comfort of the known, to a journey into the unknown, the deeper mystery we call love. We know that palace can be very appealing to the eyes, but the heart tells us something more, something deeper that is desired, and calls us to leave that place and move to the place of greater humility, the place of the crib; where the star leads the magi, we too are led. Otherwise, we run the risk of encounters with mystery in new ways. Maybe the encounter comes through person of a different color. Maybe the encounter comes through a person of a different faith or a different way of practicing their faith, a different way of life. The illusion of the palace eventually begins to break down and we seek more in life; what once was lost becomes found, our own magi story, leading us to a place of deeper trust, deeper faith, and deeper love, to continue to allow the incarnation, God made flesh, to change our lives, lead our lives, define our lives, no longer by fear but in and through love.