The Glory of Thisness

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith (Mt 6:28b-30, ESV)?

I have no deep or well-developed theology of holy places; I know only that they exist.  There is one in Conyers, Georgia at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.  I meet God there as often as I can — not in the earthquake or the wind or the fire — but in the silence of prayer-hallowed space and heavenly light that defies description or photograph.  There is another in Maggie Valley, NC at the Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center.  You wouldn’t imagine God there, in a converted strip motel from the 60s, but he is.  And in that holy place he has shaken me to the core.  It is a place of glory and of burden.

I have recently discovered another holy place just outside my office window at church.  Weather permitting each morning around seven o’clock, I take a chair and a prayer book and a cup of coffee to this little, fenced in side lot and meet God there for Morning Prayer.  The lot is tidy and cared for, but just beyond the fence is a wild area:  overgrown and teeming with birds, squirrels, rabbits, and things I only hear rustling but never glimpse.  Angels dance in the tops of the trees there; some say it’s just the wind, but I say angels.  The birds sing their praise and even the crows join in; some say it’s just mating calls and territorial disputes, but I say praise.  The lilies of the field (clover) grow and remind me of the providential care of God; some say weeds, but I say lilies.

One particular lily (clover) beckoned for my attention this morning, swaying this way and that in the breeze (or was it the angels again?).  And I was caught up in the mystery and glory of thisness.  God created this flower for purposes known only to him.  God created this tiny bee, giving and receiving pollen from this clover, on this morning in this side lot at this church for this priest saying this morning office at this moment.  There is always a theological danger of making God too small.  But there is the equal and opposite danger of making God too big, too distant, too uninvolved.  From time to time we must be re-awakened to the scandal of particularity, to the glory and mystery of thisness.  The God who called the universe into being, also called this clover into being.  The God who in the beginning said, “Let there be light,” said it again this morning.  The God who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, also so loved (and so loves) this  person staring back at you from the mirror and this person sharing breakfast and life with you and this person sleeping under the overpass and this colleague and this student and this waitress, and this and this and this:  the mystery and glory of thisness.  If God is not in this holy place — wherever you happen to be right now — then he is, I think, nowhere.  If God is not in this very moment — whenever you happen to read this — then he is, I think, nowhen.  But he is:  everywhere present and filling all things, treasury of good things and giver of life — omnipresent and yet particular.  This place is holy.  This moment is sacred.  This breath is gift.  This life is grace.  This is the glory and mystery of thisness.

Blessings.

 

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God and the Gatlinburg Fire

New Growth

New Growth

On the morning of 23 November 2016, thick smoke from the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) blanketed the nearby town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The wind was picking up that morning in advance of a storm front, and around 1:00 p.m. the National Weather Service issued a high wind warning for the region; wind gusts in excess of 80 miles per hour were expected and, indeed, came. These winds lifted and carried embers from the Chimney Tops toward Gatlinburg and, by 4:00 p.m., with new fires encroaching on the town, the authorities issued a voluntary evacuation notice. Two hours later they made evacuation mandatory. By 8:30 p.m. structures in and around Gatlinburg were engulfed and residents and visitors were evacuating along roads bordered by flames on both sides, with heat so intense that tires melted. Statistics only hint at the real loss: over 17,000 acres of the GSMNP charred; 2460 structures damaged or destroyed; 14,000 people evacuated; and, at present count, 14 fatalities. We have recently learned that – allegedly – two teenage boys set the fires deliberately, a foolish and/or evil act of arson.

I have lived all my life in the presence of these mountains, in the valley town of Knoxville. I have hiked their trails in all seasons. I have spent many pleasant days in Gatlinburg and not a few unpleasant hours stuck in traffic trying to get there. The mountains and the town are such a backdrop to my life – and to the lives of so many of us — that I sometimes take their presence as an unchangeable given: but no more.

I serve as an assisting priest in a parish in Knoxville. Some of our parishioners live on the outskirts of the fire zone. Some have family and friends who lived through the fire – most, to my knowledge, spared from physical injury and major, material loss: Thanks be to God. But few of those affected by the fire are spared from questions: Why would kids do this? Why was one house “spared” while the house next door was destroyed? Where was God in all this? (Yes, we ask this because we live in the Bible Belt, because, for the most part, we are a believing people.) How can we help? (Yes, we ask this because we live in the Volunteer State; it’s who we are and what we do.) What do I say to my neighbors who lost everything, while I emerged mainly untouched and unharmed? What do I do now?

People sometimes assume that, as a priest, I must have answers for all the difficult spiritual questions raised by such a disaster, or at least that I have access to a theological tradition that has such answers. Not really, not so much: I have the same Bible, the same Prayer Book, the same hymns and the same questions as everyone else. I have had, perhaps, the gift of time to think through and pray through these issues more than many, and to see what the fathers and mothers of our faith have discerned. So, while the best response to this disaster may be silent listening, sincere prayer, and tangible acts of charity, I will venture some tentative thoughts with the prayer that God may use even foolish words to bring healing.

First, this fire tells us nothing in particular about God; don’t look for him there. If – as preliminarily reported – the fire was an act of arson, it was sparked by evil, by foolish boys under the influence of the dark powers of this present age, and certainly not kindled by God. But, we can be sure that God was present in the moment the boys set the fire: his Spirit interceding with theirs to avert their deadly actions, but, in the end, granting them the same dignity of human freedom which he grants each one of us, which he granted our first parents in the Garden when they set the fire of sin to the whole world. God is never absent in the moment of decision, though he is often ignored. Evil, and not God, is responsible for this fire and for every destructive act that plagues creation.

In words from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP 1979, p. 831) we pray:

O Merciful Father, who hast taught us in thy holy Word that thou dost not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men: Look with pity upon the sorrows of thy servant for whom our prayers are offered. Remember him, O Lord, in mercy, nourish his soul with patience, comfort him with a sense of thy goodness, lift up thy countenance upon him, and give him peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I have offered this prayer many times recently because it reminds me and those with whom I worship that God truly does not willingly afflict or grieve his children. God’s unfailing disposition toward his children is love. God’s unfailing action toward his children is mercy. God’s unfailing will toward his children is salvation. The capricious God who hurls lightning bolts willy nilly, who toys with humans, who fans the flames of fire, who arbitrarily punishes this one and blesses that one, is a pagan myth and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – certainly not the one God revealed supremely in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. I think the person whose house was lost, whose family member or friend was injured or killed, needs these words. I think the person whose house was spared and whose family members are safe needs these words. I think all those who struggle, in vain, to find the hidden hand of God in the fires, to find his sovereign will in the flames – in short, to justify this as an “act of God” – need these words. Can I say it plainly? God is not to blame for this or any evil. We live in a fallen world of our own desecration, a world under the influence of fallen powers – some human and some spiritual. We live in a wounded creation, whose out-of-kilter convulsions shake the earth and cast up giant waves, whose disordered cycles withhold rain for some and send torrential floods to other, and yes, whose forests provide cool shelter and kindling for infernos. None of this chaos is God’s will.

So, is all this meaningless after all – devoid of God? Absolutely not! God is never the author of evil; rather he is always in the midst of it, battling it, bringing forth all possible good from it, through it, and in spite of it. Doesn’t the cross tell us that? In the midst of the greatest evil, God was working to bring forth the greatest good. In the midst of death – in fact, precisely through death – God was bringing forth life. In the mystery of providence, while God did not will or cause this fire, God will use it to bring forth good in ways we cannot begin to imagine. God is never helpless before his creation or his creatures. There is nothing that will ultimately thwart his will, though for the present moment he allows his creatures to act freely and sometimes foolishly and sometimes malevolently; all that is mystery beyond our understanding. But, this we know: Christ has won the victory over all the powers of evil and death; his resurrection proclaims this truth. One day, that victory will be fully implemented and the defeated dark powers will be finally destroyed. Until that day, evil will convulse the world, breaking out here in fires, there in tsunami, one day in racism, another in terrorism. But, the Spirit will break out also, bringing forth new creation amidst the old – renewing and transforming the old.

So, to my brothers and sister affected by the recent fires I say this: whether you were spared or lost everything, God loves you and desires nothing but your good; never doubt this, and when you waver, look at the cross. Where evil is present, grace abounds all the more. Seek God: in prayer, in silence, in the company of his people, in worship with the church, in the Body and Blood of Christ. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself – through your prayers, by your acts of aid and charity, with listening ears and open hearts. Join with the Spirit in the renewal of this fallen world in every way possible: work for justice, make beauty, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, live the Gospel in all places and in all times and in all ways. And pray, beloved, pray, now in Advent and in every season: Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Blessings.+

Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

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The Advent O Antiphons

stainedGlassHorizSmallFollowing is the text of a lesson I taught at Apostles Anglican Church on Sunday, 11 December 2016.  It is not intended to be read straight through, but rather to be used day-by-day from 17 December through 23 December as a meditation on the One who came and is to come.

The Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent (Thomas Cranmer)

Lord, we beseech thee, give ear to our prayers, and by thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our heart, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

 O Antiphons:     An Advent Devotion

When psalms and canticles are said, sung, or chanted in worship they are often preceded by a short refrain that often expresses the theme of the liturgical season; this refrain is called an antiphon.  For example, in Morning Prayer, the Invitatory Psalm (often the Venite or Jubilate) has a range of seasonal antiphons including:

In Advent
Our King and Savior now draws near:  Come let us adore him.

On the Twelve Days of Christmas
Alleluia.  To us a child is born:  Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

From the Epiphany through the Baptism of Christ, and on the Feasts of the Transfiguration and Holy Cross
The Lord has shown forth his glory:  Come let us adore him.

In Lent
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy:  Come let us adore him.

From Easter Day until the Ascension
Alleluia.  The Lord is risen indeed:  Come let us adore him.  Alleluia.

The typical order of the antiphon and psalm/canticle resembles a sandwich with the antiphon as bread and the psalm/canticle and Gloria as the meat and cheese:

Antiphon
Psalm/Canticle
Gloria
Antiphon

If the psalm is chanted, the antiphon often has a more varied and complex tune than the psalm tone.

Advent has a special series of antiphons that accompany the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) at Evening Prayer, from 17-23 December – a different antiphon each day.  Because each of these antiphons begins with the interjection, O, they are collectively known as the O Antiphons (or the Great O Antiphons).  It is a highlight of the year when these are sung in churches and monastic communities worldwide.

The O Antiphons are ancient, originating no later – and probably earlier – than the 8th century.  They are a product of the Western church, written in Latin.  But the real origin of the Antiphons lies in Scripture; they are filled with Biblical images and allusions that focus on various names and characteristics of Christ, the one who came and is to come.  Each of the O Antiphons is a prayer; like the closing prayer of Revelation, each is addressed to Christ and, in various ways, contains the plea, Come, Lord Jesus.

The O Antiphons offer a wonderful way to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s first advent and to stir our longing and hope for his second advent.  As an Advent devotion, you might find it helpful to pray the Magnificat each day, framed by the appropriate O Antiphon for the day.  Simply say the antiphon, then pray the Magnificat, then say the antiphon again.  Since the Magnificat is associated with Evening Prayer, you might do this before or after the evening meal, or just prior to bed, though any time will do.  You might also choose to sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  Each of its verses is a metrical version of one of the O Antiphons.  In the Hymnal 1982 the verses are labeled by day – 17 December through 23 December – to correspond to the appropriate O Antiphon.  However you might choose to use these Antiphons, I believe they will enrich your Advent reflections upon the One who came and is to come.

In a moment, we will consider the text of each antiphon.  But, before that, I would like you to hear the first of the O Antiphons with the Magnificat.  I will be using the version of both from the service music for The New English Hymnal.  Simply click on the link below.

O Wisdom

O Sapientia (O Wisdom) and Magnificat

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
and reachest from one end to another,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

My soul doth magnify the Lord;
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded:
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from hence-forth:
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him:
throughout all generations.
He hath put down the might from their seat;
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He, remembering his mercy,
hath holpen his servant Israel:
as he promised to our forefathers Abraham and his seed forever.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end.  Amen.

O Wisdom, which camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
and reachest from one end to another,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

 O Antiphons

With this background, and having heard how the Antiphons and the Magnificat “work together,” we can now consider the texts of the individual antiphons.  This version of the Antiphons and Magnificat are in more contemporary language.

O Sapientia (O Wisdom): 17 December

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

The wisdom literature in Scripture personifies Wisdom as the creative power of God; it was through and by Wisdom that God created and ordered all things.  Wisdom is not an abstract idea or principle, but a person.  The apocryphal book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the canonical book of Proverbs offer clear examples of this personification:

All wisdom is from the Lord,
and with him it remains forever.
The sand of the sea, the drops of rain,
and the days of eternity—who can count them?
The height of heaven, the breadth of the earth,
the abyss, and wisdom—who can search them out?
Wisdom was created before all other things,
and prudent understanding from eternity (Sirach 1:1-4).

22 “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
26 before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30     then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man (Proverbs 8:22-31).

Question

Consider this Second Temple description of Wisdom as an antetype.  With what, or with whom, would we identify its fulfillment?

With the advent of Christ, the Church recognized him as the personification of Wisdom, the one for whom Wisdom was a symbol.  Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the one by whom and through whom all things are created and ordered, the very source and substance of wisdom.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:15-20).

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:20-24).

O Sapientia calls on Christ, the wisdom of God, to teach us the way of prudence (wisdom) – not the wisdom of the philosophers and not the wisdom of the world, but of the ancient wisdom of God.

O Adonai (O LORD):  18 December

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Adonai is the Hebrew term for LORD.  When you see Lord written in all capital letters – LORD – in our Old Testament translations it is a rendering of Adonai.  But, interestingly, Adonai is not what would be found in the Hebrew text.  Instead, you would find the personal name of God – YHWH – which we sometimes write and say as either Yahweh or Jehovah and translate as I Am.  To the Jews, the personal name of God was/is so holy, so revered that it must not be uttered aloud or written.  So, when YHWH is intended in the text, Adonai is substituted.

This Antiphon identifies Jesus with the most holy name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God who revealed himself and his name to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, who liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, and who gave the Law on Sinai.  And it calls on Jesus to come and redeem his people – us – with an outstretched arm just as Adonai redeemed the Israelites from Egypt.

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospel of John – a confrontation between the Jewish authorities and Jesus – Jesus claims for himself the personal name of God, claims to be Adonai, YHWH:

56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (John 8:56-59).

Jesus, I Am, YHWH, Adonai:  this is the one to whom we sing in the O Antiphon:

O Adonai, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Question

From what do we need to be redeemed?  Of course, there is a theological answer, but there is also a personal answer.  From what do you need to be redeemed, right now, in this moment?  Guilt?  Fear?  Sin?  Anger?  This Antiphon calls us to examine our lives and perhaps to pray for Adonai to continue his work of redemption in us.

O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse):  19 December

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples:
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Questions

Do you remember David’s plan to build a temple for the Lord?

  1. How did that work out?
  2. What did God promise David?

In 2 Samuel 7, God refuses to let David build a house for God, a temple.  Instead, God promises to build a house for David, son of Jesse – a dynasty to rule Israel forever.  But, things did not go smoothly in the kingdom.  David sinned with Bathsheba and God promised discord in David’s family from that time forward and a division of the kingdom.  David’s son Solomon expanded the borders and material wealth of the kingdom, but also initiated a decline in true worship by introducing the foreign gods of his foreign wives.  His foolish son, Rehoboam, refused to listen to wise and mature counselor and precipitated civil war that divided the kingdom, north and south.  There was still a king of the house of Jesse on the throne, but now ruling only over two tribes, collectively known as Judah.  Within 350 years Judah had become so politically corrupt, so morally bankrupt, so far from God that it fell to the Babylonians.  The house of David seems to have crumbled; the dynastic tree of David cut down to just a stump.  Listen to how this selection from Psalm 89 describes the situation:

20 I have found David, my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him,
21 so that my hand shall be established with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.
22 The enemy shall not outwit him;
the wicked shall not humble him.
23 I will crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him,
and in my name shall his horn be exalted.
25 I will set his hand on the sea
and his right hand on the rivers.
26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
27 And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
28 My steadfast love I will keep for him forever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
29 I will establish his offspring forever
and his throne as the days of the heavens.
30 If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my rules,
31 if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with stripes,
33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love
or be false to my faithfulness.
34 I will not violate my covenant
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His offspring shall endure forever,
his throne as long as the sun before me.
37 Like the moon it shall be established forever,
a faithful witness in the skies.” Selah

38 But now you have cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
40 You have breached all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.
43 You have also turned back the edge of his sword,
and you have not made him stand in battle.
44 You have made his splendor to cease
and cast his throne to the ground.
45 You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame. Selah

46 How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire (Ps 89:20-46)?

Is all hope lost?  Has God forsaken his covenant with David of the house of Jesse?  No.  Let’s jump ahead to the end of the story, to Revelation 5:1-5:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev 5:1-5).

The Root of David – Radix Jesse – is none other than Jesus Christ, who died, who rose again, and who reigns forever, an everlasting King from the house of David, from the root of Jesse.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples:
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Questions

God seems to delight in bringing forth life and growth from “dead” stumps, in giving new hope when all seems lost.

  1. Can you think of some Biblical examples of this?
  2. Where has God done this in your life?  Where do you need him to do it now?

Perhaps this O Antiphon is a good prayer for anyone struggling with hopelessness.  The Root of Jesse stands as a sign that God rescues his people, that resurrection follows crucifixion.

O Clavis David (O Key of David):  20 December

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel:
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in the shadow of death.

Key of David, Scepter of the House of Israel, the one who shuts and no one can open and who opens and no one can shut:  this imagery begins in Genesis and develops throughout Scripture.  In his final blessing to his sons, Jacob says to Judah:

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons shall bow down before you.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:8-10).

Judah holds the scepter, the ruler’s staff over all sons of Jacob – over all Israel.  But, there is a hint that Judah’s rule goes beyond Israel to include the obedience of “the peoples,” i.e., of the nations.

And, then, in Revelation 1:12-18 we read:

12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Rev 1:12-18).

The first and the last, the one who died and is alive forevermore, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, is the one who holds the Scepter of the House of Israel, for he reigns over all things.  He holds the Key of  David because he and he alone has the power to open and shut Death and Hades, and no one can oppose his will.  It is this one, Jesus, to whom we pray:

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel:
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in the shadow of death.

Questions

  1. Do you remember any mention of a key or keys in the Gospels?  See Matthew 16:13-19.
  2. How might this relate to the Antiphon?  Can we see the Church – and perhaps even ourselves – in this Antiphon?

 O Oriens (O Dayspring/Morning Star/Dawn):  21 December

O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Oriens – morning star or dawn.  We cannot hear this without thinking of the Canticle of Zechariah in Morning Prayer, so appropriate for Advent.  Let it be our commentary on this Antiphon.  Notice the reference to the breaking dawn from on high as we reach the conclusion of the canticle.

16   The Song of Zechariah     Benedictus Dominus Deus
  Luke 1: 68‑79

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

In his own way, Zechariah sings the O Antiphons:

O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Rex Gentium (O King of the Gentiles/Nations):  22 December

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

Rex Gentium – King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles:  this characteristic of the identity and mission of Christ was central to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel and of his own vocation.  Here is how he describes it in Ephesians 2:11-22:

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:11-22).

For Paul, this is absolutely crucial and non-negotiable.  If the Gentiles are not included under the Lordship of Christ (Rex Gentium), if they do not form one, single body with the Jews, then the Gospel is emptied of its power.

So it is, around the throne in the Revelation of John we hear this song to the King of the Nations – A Song to the Lamb (BCP 1979, p. 93):

Splendor and honor and kingly power
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is,
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain,
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation,
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.
And so, to him who sits upon the throne,
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor,
for ever and for evermore (Rev 4:11; 5:9-10, 13).

Christ is Rex Gentium, the king of all nations:  every family, language, people and nation – a single kingdom of priests.

And so we pray:
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
 
O Emmanuel (O God With Us):  23 December

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

We come at last to the most familiar of the names of Christ associated with Advent, Emmanuel – God with us.  Isaiah prophesies his coming:

17Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Is 7:17).

Matthew is clear that this prophecy and this name apply to Jesus of Nazareth, even before his birth:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

So, when we pray through the O Antiphons, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we seek the return of God-with-us:  not that he is now absent from us, but we seek him in his fullness.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Magnificat

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

Closing

These O Antiphons begin on 17 December and are sung the week prior to Christmas as a final act of preparation for the first advent of Christ.  There is a secret hidden in the arrangement of the Antiphons.  If we take the first letter of each of the Antiphons we have the sequence SARCORE.  Now, arrange this backwards with one strategic space inserted and we have ERO CRAS, Latin for Tomorrow I Come.  The O Antiphons begin with hope and plea:  Come, Lord Jesus.  They end with promise:  Tomorrow I come.  They give the church a beautiful way to draw Advent to a close and to lead us into Christmas worship of the One who came and is to come.

Photo:  John Roop, Window at Monastery of the Holy Spirit

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A Contrarian View: Christmas-during-Advent

Bless me, for I have sinned. Through my fault, through my fault, through my own most grievous fault, I have willfully begun listening to Christmas music in Advent, and – God help me – I probably will continue.

Anglicans, among whom I gladly make my home, honestly can be a bit prickly, a bit fastidious at times, myself chief among sinners. Nowhere, it seems, does this tendency rise more prominently to the fore than in Advent – well, in discussions of Advent and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in about equal measure. I’ve lost count of the number of times Facebook Anglicans have reminded me already that THIS. IS. NOT. CHRISTMAS. To which I want to reply, LORD. HAVE. MERCY. or, more truly, GET. A. LIFE. (Enough of the capital letters and one word sentences, already!)

Look, I like Christmas music: Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, the Carpenters, Mannheim Steamroller, George Winston, Narada, Windham Hill, and the list goes on. I can’t play all this beautiful music in only twelve days and I find no reason to limit myself. On my Advent playlist you’ll find Advent At Ephesus (glorious), Gregorian Advent (contemplative), some version of Lessons and Carols (wonderfully Anglican), The Gift (Tingstad and Rumble), Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, Narada Christmas, December (George Winston), Miracles (Kenny G.), In Quiet Silence (Society of St. John the Evangelist), and a holiday mix of classic, secular Christmas standards: yes, all this on my Advent playlist. I am expansive; I can live in two calendars simultaneously: Christmas-during-Advent.

And, I put up the Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving:  no, not the Advent Tree – the Christmas Tree. It is beautiful and the ornaments represent a lifetime of memories. I want to add that beauty and joy to my life before, during, and after Christmas. I choose to worship the Lord in the holiness of beauty (and yes, this is an intentional misquote) in Christmas-during-Advent.

In Phil Rickman’s novels, Merrily Watkins, vicar of Ledwardine and exorcist of the Diocese of Hereford, doesn’t mind so much when people use Jesus Christ as an expletive. “At least it keeps the name in circulation,” she says. I feel the same about the Christmas-during-Advent season. At least it keeps the name in circulation in an increasingly secular society. Yes, at the malls we may hear I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas ad nauseum, but we also hear Silent Night and Joy to the World, and that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps there is some subliminal evangelism taking place. At the very least, the name of Jesus Christ is kept in circulation in a culture that is too often deaf to it and too rarely utters it. Yes, commercialism can blur our focus on the Story, but it can also take the focus off ourselves and temporarily manifest as generosity, selflessness, and compassion. I suspect that in the Christmas-during-Advent season, many people drop loose change into a Salvation Army kettle who never think about or give to charity during the remainder of the year, and that’s not a bad thing. I wonder if some other world religions have Christmas envy, wishing their faith had made such inroads into secular culture. Do you really know any B’hai carols or Taoist hymns? But I’ll bet many adherents of B’hai or Taoism can sing Christmas carols.

Now, don’t misunderstand my seasonal inclusivity. I love Advent in all its pre-Christmas purity as much as any prickly Anglican; it is, to me, one of the most meaningful seasons in the church year and one of my favorites. I try to enter into it fully and gratefully. I simply refuse to use it as a cudgel to bludgeon my other secular or non-liturgical friends, or even my Anglican brothers and sisters. Several years ago, my family and I began a discipline of Advent fasting. By the fourth week in Advent – trust me on this – you wouldn’t want to come eat at our home, unless you are vegan (Lord, have mercy). But, if you invite me to your home for a Christmas-during-Advent party, I will gladly eat whatever you set in front of me, thanking God for your hospitality and his abundant blessings. You will never know I’m fasting and I will never mention it. I will even (force myself to) enjoy the sumptuous, party fare before returning to hummus and rice cakes. If you ask me, I’ll even bring my guitar and play Christmas music; I’m particularly proud of Christmastime Is Here, from a Charlie Brown Christmas, by Vince Guaraldi – great jazz chords. Why should my observance of Advent sanction scruples that lead to rudeness? You’re eating that during Advent? Sorry, I don’t sing Christmas songs during Advent! Why is your tree already up during Advent? I don’t want to be the Grinch who steals joy because his heart is three sizes too small. I want to be the changed Scrooge who truly keeps Christmas all year, even during Advent.

In church and in my heart, I observe Advent: wreath and candles, lessons, O Antiphons – the works. At the mall, on the street, in my friends’ homes, in my music and in my home, I celebrate Christmas-during-Advent with all the trimmings. I have no trouble doing both. So, please, I beg you, dear purist, prickly Anglican friends: LEAVE. ME. ALONE. to observe Christmas-during-Advent. (This is written with a gentle and loving smile on my face.  Receive it in like manner.)

May you have a holy and blessed Advent as we remember the first advent of our Lord in great humility and await his second advent in great glory. Our king and savior now draws near: O, come, let us adore him.

Blessings.+

Image:  Public Domain

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Anglican Pastor

Fr. Greg Goebel, Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South, is the founder, editor, and contributing writer of Anglican Pastor (www.anglicanpastor.com), an online source of articles and reflections whose goal is to

“…explain Anglican experience, and provide the Anglican Pastor’s perspective on worship, faith, and life. Writers for this site are active Anglican priests, and the focus and scope of the material is based on experience in the parish.

Anglican Pastor started from the thought that writing for the parish could be shared with others, so that it might be useful outside of the parish. The first site was “Rector’s Notes” which then became Anglican Pastor. Even though it began with one writer, it has evolved into a team writer approach. We always write from the pastoral perspective, but we choose various topics and areas. We also invite contributing and guest writers from time to time.

We hope this is a site you can use and share with new Anglicans, or anyone who wants to hear about our way of being Christian” (excerpted from http://www.anglicanpastor.com/about).

Canon Greg+ has graciously offered to host First Blessings on Anglican Pastor.  Beginning on 13 October, previously published posts will appear on Anglican Pastor, one each day for 13 days.  Following that, I plan to post twice monthly, God willing.

As Canon to the Ordinary, Fr. Greg+ was instrumental in shepherding me through the discernment and ordination process.  It is a blessing to me to continue our association in this new way.

I invite you to join me at Anglican Pastor.  I have always found the writing there to be theologically and pastorally rich and helpful.

I also plan to maintain the separate First Blessings site for those rare occasions when I wish to post an article that might not be in keeping with the ethos of Anglican Pastor or the interests of its readers.  Frankly, I cannot imagine what that would be, but you never know.

Blessings.

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A Baptismal Affront

Thebaptismal font Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ (Article XXVII).

For several reasons — Clara and James prominent among them — I’ve been thinking much about baptism lately.  These two beautiful children recently became my sister and brother in Christ:  a little water, a little oil, some vows made by parents and Godparents, some prayers offered and the courts of heaven and Apostles Anglican Church resounded with joy.  Every baptism is a mystery and a wonder, perhaps especially the baptism of an infant.  But the concept and practice of infant baptism is also an affront.  It assaults and insults me with the claim that this precious new life is but dust and will one day to dust return, that death is the common lot of all men because all men bear the consequence – if not the guilt – of Adam’s sin, and that true life depends on new life in Christ. “You must be born again – of water and the Spirit,” Jesus said and says still, and the church insists this applies to all – “innocent” children and hardened adults as well. Infant baptism weighs in the balance and finds wanting all our cherished convictions about human nature: that each child is a tabula rosa on which we may write only the good and pure, or that men are inherently good and pure from birth. Instead, every baptismal font proclaims that every infant presented there is a cracked and tarnished icon of God: an image bearer, yes, but one with the perfect image of a holy God distorted by every selfish and errant choice made by every ancestor far and near, throughout the genealogy of all the world – begotten in sin, born in sin, and living in a sin-conditioned world. Every helpless, speechless child carried to the water by others, spoken for by others, speaks volumes to us all: you are broken and you are helpless and you are utterly dependent on the gift and grace of Another. Baptism is never more fully sacramental than when an infant is presented, for there the work is clearly and solely God’s: no false pride of adult choice or will or wisdom – just helpless acquiescence to the weak ministrations of men and the mighty acts of God. Such a baptism shames us in our weakness and glorifies God in his strength, a strength shown chiefly in the stooping down of love.

If you do not find infant baptism an affront, I think you are not paying attention. It is a slap in the face of our culture – of any culture. And precisely in that lies the truth and the power and the beauty of this sacrament; it shows the depth of our vanity and the breadth of God’s love. We cannot walk – as the Prodigal – to Him, yet He runs – as the Father – to us. We cannot repent – as the good thief – and yet He promises us paradise this day and every day. We cannot say the words of the vows, yet we hear God speak – a thunderous whisper – This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased. If you do not find infant baptism an affront – and a joyous and marvelous gift of our gracious God – you are not paying attention. Thanks be to God for this sacrament.

Infant baptism is no less sacramental than adult baptism; it is not merely a sign or seal of something that will or might happen later.

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God (Article XXVII).

Something happens when an infant is baptized, and I find no reason to suppose that that something is different in degree or kind from what happens when an adult is baptized:  new birth, new creation, forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, full membership in the body of Christ.  If not these things, then what?  If not these things, then why bother?

Some argue that an infant cannot have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and therefore cannot fully receive all the blessings of baptism.  Perhaps the child receives only the promises of good things to come upon his or her adult affirmation of faith?  I cannot agree.  There was faith abounding at the baptism of the infant:  the faith of the parents and Godparents that God loves this child even beyond their own human love, the faith of the church that proclaims the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and that intends for this child to be baptized, the faith of the priest who prays the prayers and pours the water and anoints with oil.  Most of all, there is the faithfulness of Jesus into whose death and resurrection this child is baptized.  Yes, at this moment it might be vicarious faith.  But so was the faith of Mary and Martha that resulted in life for Lazarus.  So was the faith of Jairus that resulted in life for his daughter.  So was the faith of Tabitha’s friends that resulted in her life.  Need we multiply examples?  God honors faith.  For some — adults obviously — baptism might be the result of a personal faith.  For others — infants — baptism might be the beginning and source of faith.  God alone knows; we have no need to.

In his book A Place of Healing for the Soul, Peter France writes about his own struggle with faith before and even during his adult baptism into the Orthodox Church on the Island of Patmos:

Fortunately for me the Orthodox Church accepts that nobody is ever completely ready for or worthy of a sacrament.  The ceremony that was taking place was a help in getting there rather than a celebration of arrival.

Is an infant ready or worthy of baptism?  Of course not, but then, who is?  If France is correct — and I think he is — then baptism for an infant is a help in getting there — getting to a personal expression of faith in Christ — rather than a celebration of arrival.  It is for all of us.

Blessings.

Photo:  Public Domain.

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That’s Not the Gospel

DSC_6006My parish hosts a monthly Eucharist at a local residential care facility.  This month I offered the following reflections on Mark 9:14-29.

Priests spend a fair amount of time in hospitals visiting the sick and praying with them and for them.  Some of those we visit are young and generally very healthy and are expected to make quick and full recoveries; they almost always do.  Praying for them is “easy” because our prayers for healing are answered and we look competent and maybe even a little holy.  Others we visit are terminal.  If the patient and his family are reconciled to death and have Christian hope, these visits, though emotionally fraught, carry great blessing.  The prayers we offer are theologically straightforward:  prayers for Christ’s presence, for peace, for comfort, and for a good and holy death at God’s right time.  As priests, we look pastoral.

The difficult prayers are for those whose lives really hang in the balance; we all feel they should live, but we all know they might not.  Something just seems wrong about the situation:  a young child is seriously injured or a man in the prime of life is stricken with heart attack or stroke or cancer.  In these cases, the family’s expectations for priestly prayer can be quite high.  Even though we know it’s not true, it can feel like the priesthood – or at least the validity of our priesthood – is on the line.  We do not worry about looking competent or holy or pastoral.  We may worry about looking the fraud.

So, I can sympathize with Jesus’ disciples in the text this morning.  Jesus has taken Peter, James and John up on the mountain for the glorious experience of his transfiguration.  He has left the other nine disciples below.  A crowd quickly forms around them with everyone clamoring to see Jesus.  Out of that crowd, a father steps forward bringing his demon-possessed son for healing.  Expectations are high.  Jesus has a great reputation as a healer and exorcist and he has empowered his disciples to do similar work in his name.  They must feel that their discipleship is on the line, and maybe even Jesus’ reputation.

Try as they might, the disciples cannot exorcise this particular demon.  You can just sense the tension in Mark’s account:  disappointment, frustration, and anger from both the father and the crowd.  The disciples don’t look competent or holy or pastoral at all.  They look like frauds.  And they may even feel that way.

Then Jesus comes.  The father complains that the disciples were not able to do anything and then pleads with Jesus:  “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Jesus’ response is the climax of this story: “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”

What happens next – the father’s response – is, I believe, a case of tragic misunderstanding, and one to which we are all too susceptible.

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Why would the father say this?  What is it he thinks Jesus is saying?

 My disciples couldn’t exorcise this demon because you – the boy’s father – don’t have enough faith.  You don’t believe enough.  So, if you’ll just try a little harder, work at it a little more, screw up a little more faith, then I’ll heal your boy.  It all depends on you, now.  All things are possible for one who believes.

But this can’t be right, can it?  Can you imagine a priest standing by the bedside of a person at the verge of death and telling that person or his family that he could get up and walk out of the hospital totally healed if he – or they – just had more faith?  Try a little harder, work at it a little more, screw up a little more faith, and then God will heal you.

But that’s not the Gospel, is it?  The Gospel says that we can’t try a little harder and that even if we could it wouldn’t matter.  The Gospel says we can’t work at it a little more and that even if we could it wouldn’t change things.  The Gospel says that the issue is not my faith or my faithlessness but the faithfulness of Jesus.  Listen to Paul in Romans 5.

 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rom 5:6-11).

That’s the Gospel:  while we were still weak – not able to try harder or work a little more or muster up more faith, in fact, while we were still God’s enemies – Christ died for us, for the ungodly.  Jesus was and is faithful to the nature and mission of God, which is to show compassion to sinners and, through his blood, to make them his very own.

So, the father in our story missed the point, I’m afraid.  Jesus was not telling him to have more faith, but to trust in the faithfulness of Jesus.

“If you can!” Jesus says.  Well, of course he can.  Everything is possible to him because he believes in God the Father who sent him, because he has faith that the Father will answer his prayers, and because he is faithful to his Father’s will.

This is the only thing that gives me – or any priest, I suspect– the courage to stand by the hospital bed of someone whose life hangs in the balance and pray for healing.  If the outcome depended upon my feeble faith, I would never dare to ask.  But it doesn’t.  It all depends on Jesus:  on his faithfulness and compassion.  It all depends on the Gospel.  Whatever happens as a result of prayer happens not because we worked for it, but because Jesus loves us, because Jesus is faithful.  Amen.

Blessings.

Photo by Carole Metz.  Used by permission.

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