Becoming a Candle

Reading: Revelation to John, chapters 2 & 3

Every service that we hold before the altar begins with the lighting of the seven candles. All of our prayers and petitions, our offerings, the transformation of earthly substance into vessel for the divine, and the invitation to commune with that divine-earthly spirit we call the Risen One—all of this takes place within the light of the candles. And when we are finished with our service, we extinguish them. But are they really out? Or are they meant to keep burning, and how?

When we think of the Sermon on the Mount when Christ Jesus speaks to the disciples, he says:

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Gerhard Richter

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before human beings in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

 

The foundation and meaning of the church is to bring light into the world.

If we look at the candle itself, we see it is a beautiful form, but unlit, mostly just a cold hunk of wax. This is the body of the candle.  It has something secretly within as well: running up its center, connecting above and below: the wick. When that wick is lit from without, the flame initially burns the cotton, but that first heat melts the surrounding wax. The hollow center of the wick allows the liquid wax to be pulled upwards in a capillary action, as the heat rises and the cooler air flows back to the bottom again, so that the substance of the candle, made fluid, can be raised up and nourish the flame, giving it life so that it can send out warmth and light.

As we know, candles only last so long. They always burn down. This is the price of being a candle. That the substance of its body is burned up and transformed into light and warmth. The candle needs to be exposed to air. If we take away the air, maybe hide it under something, it suffocates and goes out. The candle has to be in the world—it cannot burn while tucked away in the cupboard for itself.  The candle, fulfilling its task, gives itself away—its very being is burned up for the sake of sharing its gift of light and warmth with others.

The letters to the churches that we hear in these two chapters of the Revelation to John are assessments of how each one of them is fulfilling its task of sharing the light of Christ. In the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, the lampstands–or candlesticks–which John sees are said to be the churches themselves. And recalling the Sermon on the Mount, we know that those lampstands shall not be hidden under a basket but set up so that all can benefit from the light.

At our altar we have seven lampstands, the sevenfold church represented in a living picture in our seven candles. We might be able to experience that each of these seven letters tells us something about how we inhibit our light from shining out into the world.

We do not only light the candles for ourselves, but in ourselves, that we become the candles themselves, discovering that for which we are willing to burn up our own substance in an offering of pure love to the world, and carrying them with us wherever we go through life.

What do you burn for? What might our community burn for?

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I AM the Way, the Truth & the Life: a Good Friday contemplation

Gospel readings: John 19: 1-15; John 14

cross-of-stone-small1On Good Friday, Jesus Christ reaches the culmination of his way on earth as a human being. It is the day that he actually came for, the day he has lived towards. But it is not simply his death, but the way that he enters into the depth and complexity of the human experience of death: he is crowned with thorns, and wrapped with a purple cloak; he is mocked, and beaten and decried. And even though no guilt is found in him, the people cry out for his crucifixion. It is in this utter depth and humiliation, that Pilate calls out: Behold: the human being! Jesus Christ has reached what we might call the essence of the rock bottom experience. He gives himself over to it in full power, entering willingly into the depth of human misunderstanding of our own true nature. We all share this misunderstanding still, and we all share responsibility for the Crucifixion.

Christ goes the Way of the Cross. This way has long been devotionally practiced in this time of year by Christians who want to connect with the Lord as he walked into the darkest depths of human suffering: the human spirit mocked and beaten, its sovereignty taunted, and its nobility spit upon; and finally our very humanness violently taken from us on the Cross. The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the actual way that Christ walked to the place of his crucifixion, has been walked by pilgrims since the early centuries of Christianity. It became a practice then to pray the Stations of the Cross in pictures and scripture wherever you were. In this practice, we can accompany him inwardly as he each year enters more deeply into the human being’s suffering.

But if we wish to follow Christ, he instructed that we must take up our own cross daily, and follow him. In this we are asked to ponder what in our life creates the most suffering—for us, or for those around us. We are asked to face the truth of our existence, of our challenges, of our longings, of our limitations and even of our gifts which we have not yet found a way to give. How can we accept the truth of who we are and also give ourselves fully to who we are to become? And then in doing so, find a new relationship to those aspects of who we are?

It might be that for the modern human being, to truly open to the Spirit, and to Christ, we have to not only look at his suffering, but have the courage to go through our most personal suffering in order to liberate ourselves in relation to it. To take up one’s Cross asks that we see all of our own struggles as ours, and yet also as separate them from our truest, most eternal self. The experience that so many have today, that we are actually constantly struggling within ourselves, as Goethe expressed it in Faust:  “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast, And each will wrestle for the mastery there.” This conflict in the soul is painful, but it is also an opening, a potential to be able to both experience our life and see it from a distance, to bear our sorrows and burdens and imperfections upon our back and carry them, and ourselves, forward. To live in both the horizontal and the vertical at the same time.

To accept the fact of death in our lives as a necessary ending that allows a transformation to take place is to face the truth. We go the way of the Cross, and this way follows Christ through truth to the new life that he finds on the other side of the Cross. We can too.

 

The Word That Heals

Gospel reading: Matthew 8: 5-13

This reading tells us of an extraordinary healing, one that does not even require being “on location” as it were, but can be accomplished from afar; one that does not require medicine of any kind other than the administration of the Healing Word, and one could guess, it would be effective anywhere in the world. If only each and every one of us had this power! Or even the faith of the Centurion, who is able, on behalf of his beloved servant, to confidently beseech Christ to “speak but one Word,” to work transformatively through the creative power of speech to heal what ails.

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Firefly, George Seeley (1907)

Human beings are speaking all the time—all day long—save for when we are asleep. (Even then sometimes!) But this our nature: we are the word beings of the cosmos—with incredibly complex and wonderful language capacities. We make things happen with our words. In fact, any time we speak is an act of creation. But we are not always speaking out of our higher selves—speech, like everything else in human life is subject to our freedom, and it matters how we are united with ourselves when we speak. We surely do not heal with every one of the words that leaves our mouths. But we all know the feeling when we DO speak in a way that helps someone else. It strengthens our humanity, and warms our hearts. Think of Jesus’ word at another moment:  “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the person, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this is what can defile the person.” (Matthew 11). In a time when spurious words and downright lies pour out of the mouths of leaders and public figures, it has never been more important for us to make our use of words into a holy undertaking.

Every human being walking the earth is in need of some kind of healing. We have been sundered from ourselves—every one of us lives in a state of separation at least some of the time. Sometimes we think of this state as being cut off from God—and it is, because if we are cut off from our spirit selves, then we are also cut off from God.

And this is why Christ came, why he took on an earthly body and existence, and lived as we live, and died as we die. He came to overcome death by uniting himself with us, to offer a new power of wholeness within the human being, to heal all of our broken places.  An essential part of our healing is to realize that not only can we be healed, but we are to become healers as well. We are to learn to take up the power of the word that brings wholeness again.

The Act of Consecration of Man is a sacrament dedicated to this purpose.   Our true human power is awoken, cleansed, healed—the power we use whenever we speak—our power to create and heal the world around us, between us, and within us.

Like the Roman Officer, this healing power is available to us—we have but to recognize it in freedom, and unite our selves with it, over and again, ever deeper. We can recognize the power of the sun, embodied in Christ, shining forth from the altar, and we can lift ourselves up to its rays of light, to be warmed and strengthened to become who we are meant to become, and to meet the challenges that life call us to meet.

During the service, we are invited to commune with this power. The prayers spoken in preparation of Communion reflect the faith of the Roman centurion, which we too practice, when we hear: “Sick is the dwelling into which you are entering, but through your Word, my soul becomes whole.”

Wholeness makes peace possible. We seek inner peace, and we also long to bring peace into the world. To stand at peace with the world does not mean to let the world go by without engaging it. Rather, it is to be able to stand, and to bear witness to all that happens in the world, and increasingly, to offer something new into the progress of the world out of ourselves—as witnesses, and as servants of the healing Word.

John the Baptist Who Prepares the Way

Gospel Reading: Matthew 11: 1-15

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St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Joshua Reynolds (1776)
 A human being lived on the earth of whom it was said, he was the highest born of women, but not yet an angel. John lived at the threshold of humanity’s becoming.

In the course of the year, he is the one human being upon whom we call from the altar. In the epistle at St. John’s, he is addressed and it is said of him that he carries the Father spirit in the sphere around his body. This expression is a picture of being enveloped, of living within something larger. In this case it is all of creation. John’s thoughts are one with the divine. We may manage this some of the time; but he lives there.

His thinking is alive with God. As one who from a very early age dedicated himself to a life of prayer and service to others that they may know the nearness of the Kingdom of God, he  grew to become someone not limited by the demands of the physical body, able to be nourished from simple nourishments–wild fruits and honey and clothing himself with rough camel hair and a leather belt. He went to the desert in solitude with God; he was then called to the River Jordan to baptize any who heard his message: change your minds and hearts, for the Kingdom of God is near.

One could see a harshness in John, because of the clarity and power of his word, but in reality, his was a love for humanity so great, he gave everything so that we might not miss our opportunity to take the next great step in human development. His humility was complete: he found himself also unworthy to baptize Jesus–but it was this humility that made him worthy.

We call upon John that we may receive his witness and his strength to give ourselves to that which is most essential in our lives, to be able to commit like he does to the working of the spirit, and to love our own humanity and that in those around us, that we grow into the human beings we are to become, those who love God and all of Creation unerringly, unremittingly, uninterruptedly.

Pentecost: Become Holy Spirit

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Gospel Reading: John 14: 23-31

Christmas is a festival of the Divine Trinity. This great act of Christmas begins with a gesture of offering—an offering made from the divine to, amazingly enough, us. To the humanity created to be “in God’s image.”

The Father sends the Son into the world, and the Son is able to send us the Spirit. When we think of the divine bending down into our smallness—it is humbling. Almost unbelievable. But this is the depth and breadth and height of God’s Love for us. That God was willing to become man so that we could find the Spirit.

This is a process of waking up to this highest Love of God within us. We are so slow, but it is dawning!

We have arrived at the festival of Pentecost in our Holy Nights contemplation series, preparing for the coming year through the Christian festivals. Pentecost (or Whitsun) is the festival of the Holy Spirit. In our Creed we can learn something of this Holy Spirit—who, even up to and including the deed of the Annunciation and Conception of Jesus, worked within humanity to make it possible for such a birth to take place that the Son God could become Man. But following the description of Christ’s overcoming of  death, and his Ascension, when he becomes Lord of the heavenly forces upon earth and the fulfiller of Creation—we hear an enigmatic statement:

He will in time unite for the advancement of the world with those whom, through their bearing, he can wrest from the death of matter.

Human beings have something to do. Our “bearing” is that upon which the advancement of the world depends. What is this bearing? To bear ourselves is how we carry ourselves through life. This indicates that there are in a sense two aspects of the human being: the one who is borne forth by the other. One could perhaps say: our spirit which carries our body, an indication that it matters which part of us is the guiding part. Does the body guide the spirit or the spirit guide the body? Our “bearing” also expresses an orientation. On what star do we orient ourselves as we move through life? To walk a spiritual path must always be a free activity. It unfolds out of the individual who strives towards something.

All of this can be seen in this bearing, through which Christ can unite himself with us to advance the world. The future depends greatly upon us.

But these efforts make possible the evolution not only of the world, but also of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who worked for millennia from behind the scenes, from the heavenly into the earthly world—just think of the Prophets who were the mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit—now is able to work through Christ, and receives a new name which reveals that something has changed:

Through him can the Healing Spirit work.

Though the word HOLY indicates healing, it is altogether different to express it clearly this way. This is a reflection of the change in the human being: through Him in us—spirit Healing can be brought into the world. And thereby, the Spirit itself grows and is able to express itself anew. For the Holy Spirit is actually all of us, becoming our fully realized spiritual selves.

In the gospel reading, this is expressed in the sentence: Whoever truly loves me, bears my Word in themself. We can also say: Whoever loves me reveals my Spirit.

We do not become copies, but those who express God through our unique expression of self. This is what defines Christianity: that the perfection and making whole of God’s creation is for us to become fully human, fully individual, every single person an aspect of God that otherwise would not be expressed on earth. It is our task to become fully ourselves and love like God loves: to make the world whole.

Ascension: Where is Christ now?

Gospel Reading: John 16: 23b-33

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Ascension by Salvador Dali

Through the light of these Christmas days, we are turning our gaze to the coming Christian year. We have arrived at Ascension, the festival of Christ’s Ascent to the Father and into the realm of the clouds. This ascent of his has long been understood to mean that Christ returns to heaven, as reflected in the Nicene creed spoken in most churches: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” It is a kind of mystery language because it speaks in pictures.

It seems clear heaven is a place as we traditionally learned about it: the up there, the not here, the holy realm away from the shadowed earth. The expression about being seated at the right hand of the Father can even sound to our ears like the description of a specific location in Heaven where he has ascended to, describing what he is doing there: he is seated. It sounds as if he is passive there, which can hardly be the case.

What is it that our Creed says of the Ascension, and the new role of Christ after Easter’s forty days? “Since that time he is the Lord of the heavenly forces upon earth and lives as the fulfiller of the fatherly deeds of the ground of the world.”

Here is portrayed something quite different. While still having to do with heaven, it is not a heaven that is far away but that has the capacity to be present on earth. In Christianity this is described in the phrase: “The Kingdom of God has drawn near.” There are heavenly forces which can and do work within earthly life! And there can be many servants of these forces, but there is one Lord. The Son, Christ, has gained rulership over these forces being able to work. He is not far away then, but he too must be here, working. The picture of his Ascension into heaven must carry now another way of thinking about where and what heaven is.

We know something of this from our own lives. Wherever we are can feel like heaven or like hell. We have elevated moments like a sunset behind a fresh snowfall or gazing at a newborn child when we can say: this is like heaven on earth! And those lower moments of deepest suffering, when we say “this is hell on earth. What we do to contribute to this reality matters more than we realize most of the time.

He who is Lord there now—who has ascended to the right hand of the Father—perhaps this is not static after all, but rather captures the image of the right hand as the hand that acts and works into the world, where the left pictures a more receptive nature—he now fulfills the deeds of the Ground of Creation—Creation continues now under his regency and guidance. The Son has assumed the primary leadership for the continuation of the Creation. And the Son has come to help us rightly take up our role as human beings as helpers there. In our newly named era in human and earthly history, the Anthropocene, this has become abundantly clear: what we do determines the very fate of the earth and our own future.

Ascension is the festival in which the one born at Christmas, who is baptized at Epiphany 30 years later, who walks into the depths of our humanity in his Passion for us and who dies on the Cross, who liberates the Dead and overcomes Death itself at Easter, who teaches the disciples about the Kingdom of God which has drawn near—he now expands himself to encompass the whole of the earth as his new body, and invites us to work in his name, and help make heaven alive on earth, to fulfill the work of the divine here on earth.

We join with him in raising our thoughts, our feelings, our devotion to the healing of the rift between spirit and matter, within us, between us. We can every day practice Ascension, to create of the daily course of our lives elevated moments in service of the heavenly forces working—or longing to work—on earth.

The Light that is Life: Easter

Gospel Reading: John 11: 1-44The-Raising-of-Lazarus.jpg
Easter is the revolutionary act that changes the course of human and earthly history. A God enters the world and becomes a man, and then, though it were possible to do otherwise, allows himself to die on a cross. And why? Because Easter.

Something utterly transformative happens through the Easter event. Without death, there could be no resurrection. Or could there?

When Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill, he chooses to stay in Galilee, rather than go to him and heal him. It is for the glory of God, that God may be revealed. This is hard to understand unless we have a picture that death is not a permanent end but a transformation that brings about a birth in another form.

Lazarus, with his sisters, is a close friend of Jesus. This is not a statement of personal preference and sentiment but expresses rather the intimacy and connection they share with Jesus and what he has come to do. They are, to the best of their abilities, united with his mission.

What is this mission? simply said, it is to reveal God. But not through the expression of his divine power that would force humanity into submission or a place of dependency upon this God King who has come to earth.

Rather, he has come to awaken us to the divine within, to our power to become more than our egotism would allow us to become. To become what we were meant to become–those created in God’s image. God is love, and so we too were created to become those who can love like God.

After his calling back from death, Lazarus receives a new life. He goes on to become the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, the one who can stand beneath the Cross (with Mary) as a witness to Jesus’ death, and Christ’s birth into a new connection with the earth and human beings. He is able to hold this tremendous spiritual act and report on it and much more in the Gospel he writes and the Revelation he  receives later. This new life gives him eventually a new name: John.

We do not appear to have died as we walk around the world and live our lives. But many of us come to a point when we recognize that we are not yet fully alive, and we seek a higher kind of wholeness.

When we come to the service, and stand up and walk to the altar to receive Communion, we enter into this mystery of Love. We make ourselves open to the transformation that this Love offers to us, as his resurrection body and blood are offered to us, and finally, his peace.

I stand at peace with the world… This peace is also offered to us, in that we engage with him who overcomes the forces of death within us, and strive to be those who through our humble earthly bodies are able to reveal the divine.

Passiontide at Christmas: Entering the Earthly Body with a New Word

jesus-mosaic2Gospel Reading: John 8: 1-12

Learning to enter Passiontide with Christ is to learn to enter into all the darkest places of earthly and human life. He holds them all within his aura of love, within his own being. He has said yes to the earth and humanity as his body, and so he has said yes to all the ways that body is out of balance, all the illnesses it carries, all the ways it is not yet fit to carry and support the free unfolding of the spirt within. He says yes, and writes into it, by bending down to the earth, new words of power that allow us with him to overcome the influence of death, and being imprisoned in the past.

The Law given through Moses forbade the individual from taking of another human life, but it allowed for justice to be carried out by the community. No individual human being had to be solely responsible for the death of one who broke the Law, but justice could be served by the group, in fulfillment of the Law. Thus stoning evolved as the “right” punishment within that community. Each community member could cast a stone—an expression of the sin committed—and only after many had thrown would death come. It was “death by earth”—or death by the weight of the sin—an over-identification with the earthly—as perceived by the many members of the community.

This Law was born in a time in which there was a clear mission to protect the purity of the hereditary stream, so that the one human being could be born—after forty-two generations—who could receive the Being of the Son God into himself. This was the mission of the Hebrew people, and though we can experience such a thing as adultery being punishable by death as gruesome, this law had its reasons.

In the Gospel reading, however, we can observe that it had gone on and become inappropriate as the community had lost its way. Those who bring the woman before Jesus and would stone her do so only to catch Jesus in a trap. Maybe they still carry concern for her law-breaking but it seems they are far more interested in catching someone who seems to be usurping their power. They have not recognized him as the one has come who they have been preparing to receive. He seeks to reveal to them a new impulse that shall lead them forward and help them find justice in the right way, if they can but rightly perceive. It is a clash of cultures.

When they ask him to either confirm that she should be stoned or to show himself blasphemous against the Law of Moses, he does neither, but refrains from outer speech and instead writes something into the earth. His speaking is instead through action, and the words he uses hidden from sight, perhaps only readable in the future.

The answer he gives is not an answer to their question but rather a whole new statement which they seem to take into their souls: the one who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone. The Law is in a sense already fulfilled, because instead of following it without question, the authorities gathered there seem to turn now to their own inner conscience. Is this not the goal of the Law, to birth this in the human being and make outer laws unnecessary as the moral human being evolves and grows to act independently in a  way that is right for everyone? The question that is not voiced but seems to resound is: Can I throw a stone if I myself am also a sinner? The individual who participates in the meting out of justice now suddenly matters.

A new path of transformation is inaugurated. The individual is liberated to a new responsibility for oneself. Even the one who has broken the social agreements she lived within, she too is given a grace pass. She is offered instead of punishment a chance to restore herself going forward. These radical acts are moments of Christmas. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Light, the birth of the One who is Himself the Being of Light, the light that heals all that is sundered because within the light all can be rightly seen. Christ, referring to what is now born into he world through his being said:

I AM the Light of the World. Whoever walks with me does not walk in darkness but will have the light in which there is life.

In earth and human darkness, we long for the light. The need for an outer Law lessens as the God Light is born in the human soul, and true deeds of goodness shall flow into life. As this light grows stronger, perhaps we will become ones who can read the future word that has been written into the earth.

Epiphany: Orienting on the Star

Reading: Matthew 2:1-12img_5443

We prepare our souls to receive the light at Christmas during the festival of Advent, and we carry the Christmas light into the rest of the year through the festival of Epiphany. These two festivals, each four weeks long, hold the twelve days and nights of Christmas like two spirals–the one moving inward, the other spiraling back out and into the creation of the new year.

The three kings give us a picture of how we might enter the Christian year: not as marked by festivals like fixed stations which are always there, but as a journey we take each year that takes us into the new. The kings are not simply wandering, nor do they have a map which gives them a destination to head towards, but rather, they follow a Star–what at Epiphany we call the Star of Grace. It–unlike any other star in the heavens–moves before them, revealing the journey as they go. To follow it indicates that they have recognized the being behind that star. It is this being which speaks in their souls as something higher than any earthly king, before whom they bow down in highest reverence, offering their finest gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They recognize that even the highest on earth cannot offer what the Star of Grace brings to the earth.

King Herod presents another kind of kingship, an earth- and self-bound one. He is so consumed with his own power that he is unable to recognize anything higher than himself. He is unable to offer anything of himself and would rather murder innocent children than risk having his power undone.

A child who is feared by a powerful man and a star that moves both give us an opportunity to stretch our usual understanding of the world. The wise kings follow a star through which shines a bright new future for the true human spirit. The Star of Grace heralds the birth of this spirit who comes into the world as human spirits do: as a vulnerable child. At Christmas we can receive this great offering of the divine world, and through Epiphany, we can learn to orient ourselves anew, as ones who offer ourselves in devotion to the becoming one.