Saturday, November 29, 2008

“Keep alert; you do not know when
the hour will come.”

(Mark 13:33)

Year B Advent I

Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
November 30, 2008

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80: 1-7, 16018

I Corinthians1:3-9
Mark 13: 24-37

With inward pain my heartstrings sound,
my soul dissolves away;
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
And bring, and bring the promised day,
And bring the promised day.
(Early American Hymn-from An Advent Sourcebook, p. 4)

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we begin another Church Year. It is the season of Advent, which means literally “to come to”--primarily God to us--and us to God. It is a season of waiting, of hoping, of longing--and, especially in these times, impatience, despair and frustration. Hoping and longing. Already and not yet. Trying to keep our focus, our intention on waiting in hope is the work of this season. But what are we waiting for? And, when we are impatient, why does it seem that God does not hear our cry?

Advent always begins for me with a vision of the cosmos--deep space, “galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses”1 --a peaceful and silent scene of God’s pristine creation. Close your eyes just for a moment and imagine it.

But then I see the ring of space junk around the earth and I remember again the Story, beginning with the creation and the stories of Adam and Eve how for their disobedience they were expelled from the garden, and how that propels the whole story of Salvation History. Look at the windows around the church, you will see it there. We hear it each week in the eucharistic prayer. And we will see it play out writ large over the seasons of the Church Year between now and Pentecost.

I think of the People Israel; their Exodus from slavery, their wanderings in the desert, both physically and spiritually; how they received the Law, then begged God for judges and kings, and still they wandered from God. And God sent them prophets (lots of prophets) who came with dire warnings and imploring prayers:
But you [God] were angry, and we sinned...We all fade like a leaf
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away...Do not be
exceedingly angry, O Lord... (Isaiah 64: 5, 9)

The Psalms are full of both the exhortation to wait patiently upon God and the cry of impatience in bad times:
Restore us, O God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved. (Ps. 80:3)

And we want to cry out:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Then came John the Baptist, preaching a baptism of repentance. “Make straight the Way of the Lord!” John the Forerunner, preparing the way for Jesus to come. Of John Jesus said:
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more
than a prophet. (Matt. 11:9)

And God did rend the heavens and come down--though not in a way that anyone expected: the First Coming of Christ.

That was not the end of the waiting--30 years before Jesus’ public ministry; three days in the tomb before his resurrection. Yet there were many times in his earthly ministry that Jesus did “rend the heavens” to heal the sick, give peace to those in mental distress and raise the dead, and finally trampled down death by his own death to gift us with eternal life. Eventually the disciples could look back, as we can, and see that they were never alone--and neither are we. Jesus was there all along--from the beginning, “the Word made flesh” --and he is here with us now, walking with us on our journey through hard economic times and wars and change and transition. “And remember,” he has promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age. This is the gift of the First Coming of Christ.

And Jesus ascended to heaven and the disciples waited until God sent the Holy Spirit upon them and the Church was born. And from its beginnings, has been waiting with expectation and longing (and, at times, great fear) for the Second Coming of Christ. St. Paul encourages us with the words he used to encourage the Church at Corinth:
[Christ] will strengthen you to the end, that you may be
blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Cor. 3:9)

And the Church is still waiting for that great and terrible and joyful day when Christ will come again. We say so every Sunday in the Creed, that we believe that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. But, says Jesus,

...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the
angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father... (Mark 13:32)

Three times in this Gospel passage Jesus exhorts us: Keep Awake! And we need to hear it in an age of anxiety when we would rather hibernate in the dark days and nights or rush headlong into whatever is left of the shopping season to take our minds off the news. Keep awake! Watch the Advent wreath each week as we light another candle. Listen as the music of this season gives us both expressions of Christ coming again in glory and the most tender consolations of his lowly birth. Hear the story again. Stay alert! Keep awake!

And if you are wondering what this all means or what this kind of waiting looks like, we need look no farther than our Communion anthem today to find out. Paul Manz wrote “E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come” by the hospital bed of his dying son in the late hours of one dark night, so the story goes (perhaps now embellished by urban legend). With words from the end of the book of Revelation, it is at once a “Rend the heavens! cry and an act of waiting in hope, and even of letting go, knowing that God will act at just the right time. God did act, and the child lived.

Which brings me back to that opening vision of Advent: the stars of night, but this time unspoiled by space junk. I see new heavens and a peaceful earth, restored and healed. And surprises beyond our deepest longings and expectations. These are the gifts of the Second Coming of Christ.

So what do we do in the meantime? We wait. And if the times are too hard and the waiting becomes unbearable, we cry out to God:
O that you would tear upon the heavens and come down!

Or we can pray again that Early American hymn:

With inward pain my heartstrings sound,
my soul dissolves away;
Dear Sovereign, whirl the seasons round,
And bring, and bring the promised day,
And bring the promised day.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

“The souls of the righteous are in the
hand of God...”

(Wisdom 3:1)

All Faithful Departed
Jan Robitscher
St. Mark’s Church
Berkeley, CA
November 3, 2008

Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 130
1 Cor. 15:50-58
John 5:24-27
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Yesterday we celebrated All Saints’ Day with festival hymns and banners, and great confidence that those whom the Church calls Saints (Apostles, Martyrs and those who lead heroic lives for the faith) dwell with God and we with them--the Communion of Saints. And we said bravely that “we look for the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.

But then the music fades and the banners are put away, we are suddenly left in silence. What then? What of those near and dear to us? After all, the earliest Church called them “saints”, too. And yet we wonder: How is it with them? Where are they? Do they remember us? Will we remember them? How will we ever fill the hole they have left? We feel so alone. Perhaps it is for these reasons that the Church invites us to gather and offers us the commemoration of All Faithful Departed.

The mystery, the human anguish, the sense of loss, the desire for continued communion... these things have from antiquity found their ritualized form of expression in each culture and age...1 One expression of these is a Mexican saying that we die three deaths: the first when our bodies die, the second when our bodies are lowered into the earth out of sight, and the third when our loved ones forget us.2 These are fearful questions that are reflected in our society by an almost absolute silence about death. But this is not the response of Christians, and here is where we can learn from the practices of different cultures. In Mexico, in the mixture of Christian traditions and indigenous cultures, death is not feared; rather, it is celebrated. Tonight we have chosen to share in a part of that celebration. Look over there! See the Día de los Muertos altar we have constructed together. Many photos stand as a testimony to those whom we love but see no longer. Like icons of the better-known saints, they are windows to God in whom they now live and move and have their being, though in a different way than we do now. That is one way we can overcome the “three deaths”.

Another way is through the music which the Choir offers tonight. Jacob Clemens non Papa lived from 1515-1555, almost all of his short (and at the end, fraught) life of 40 years in the Netherlands. Little is known about his life except that he was a priest, a composer of many choral works including masses, motets, Psalm settings, and the Requiem which comprises most of our liturgical music tonight.3 While we don’t know for whom this Requiem was written, we do know that Clemens (the appellation “non Papa”--not the pope of the same name--is more humor than humility) has infused it with an intimacy and emotion that was not common in his time. Each part begins with the liturgical chant and then continues with Clemens’ beautiful polyphony.4 I hope you will allow the music to surround you; to hold and enfold you like a lullaby and give you the words and notes to go with the pictures on the table or in your mind’s eye of those who have died.

Music reaches into us in deep and profound ways, but it, and the picture-altar we have created are not the only ways to overcome “the three deaths”. Our readings all attest to God’s unfailing care of us for this life and for the next. Indeed, all the words and actions of our liturgy bring us the Good News that “life is changed, not ended”. It is Jesus who begs an invitation to come to us in Communion to fill the holes left by our departed loved ones. And it is the Holy Spirit who prays in us when we are not able to find the words... which leads us back to the music of this night’s liturgy.

The Funeral Ikos, of the contemporary composer John Tavener, which we will hear at the end of the Liturgy, gives us another way in which to hold our loved ones before God. Here, in words gathered from the Orthodox funeral of a priest, we encounter the questions I posed at the beginning--and the answer. At the death of a loved one we are always left wondering: Why? How are they now? Do they remember us as we do them? All of these questions are a natural part of the mystery of death and of our grief. But we must listen to the very end! For, like a procession, this piece begins far away. Yet even as the questions grow more urgent and the description of death more real, the Alleluias after each verse grow more confident until they become a cry of victory. And at the very end we hear that our departed loved ones dwell in God’s presence, and we are invited to join the procession:

Let us all, also, enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:

Alleluia, Alleluia, alleluia.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant...?”
(Matt. 24:45)
Theodore of Tarsus
by Jan Robitscher
2 Timothy 2: 1-5, 10
Ps. 34: 9-14
Matthew 24:42-47
All Saints Chapel
September 18, 2008

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember.
(from an anonymous Irish text)

Today we remember the life and work of Theodore of Tarsus who died on this day in 690. Today is also an Ember Day. Encompassing both in one liturgy is a lot, and you may well ask, “ What do these Theodore and Ember Days have to do with each other, and why is it so important to remember them?

In June, about a month before the Lambeth Conference, I spent a week doing a Benedictine Experience retreat at Canterbury Cathedral. Much of the retreat went to praying for the Lambeth, that is, when we were not working around the Cathedral, visiting the place of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom or studying. But I also took a lot of time simply absorbing the place that is Canterbury Cathedral. I tried to absorb the communal prayers and memories which saturate every stone, window, statue and altar of the place. Part of my prayer was before the long list of Archbishops of Canterbury. Among these was Theodore of Tarsus, whom we remember today.
O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember.

It was by a convoluted route that Theodore became Archbishop of Canterbury. When Deusdedit died, Wighard was chosen, but he died before he could be consecrated in Rome. Then the pope decided to choose his own man, Adrian, an African-born abbot from Naples, but he refused and proposed Andrew, who was well qualified except for his health. Stories vary, but one goes that the pope tried again to force Adrian, but this time he put forward a healthy, sixty-six year old African-born Greek monk (not a priest) named Theodore who had been schooled in Antioch and Rome. The pope finally relented, but said the Adrian had to accompany Theodore to England.

Once there (complete with proper Roman tonsure), Theodore set about a circuit of the entire nation. One thing he must have discovered is that Christians there were familiar with the celebration of Ember Days. These had existed from the earliest Church, partly to counter Roman agricultural ceremonies and mostly to enjoin all the faithful to a time of fasting and prayer to thank God for the gifts of nature, to use its gifts wisely and to help the needy. The practice of Ember Days was brought to England by Augustine of Canterbury. It was not until the 11th century that Pope Gregory VII made a definite arrangement of the Ember Days: the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after St. Lucy’s Day (Dec. 13), Ash Wednesday, Pentecost and Holy Cross Day. Later, ordinations were held on the Saturdays of Ember weeks, with prayers for fruitful ministries. They are now an occasion to pray for all vocations and to “rekindle the fire” of our worship and ministry.
O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember.

In 672, Theodore presided over the first council of the whole English Church. This was a major feat, as the Council of Whitby, at which Abbess Hilda persuaded the various factions to adopt the practices of the church in Rome, was only nine years earlier. He could have introduced yet a third way, of the Christian East, but instead strove to unify the Church as it was. In addition, he established boundaries for dioceses, revised canon law and ordained bishops where needed. In short, Theodore took what he found--a “disorganized missionary body” and left it “a fully ordered province of the universal Church”1

And remember Adrian? He became head of a school Theodore founded in Canterbury to train both Celtic and Roman Christians, and he, too, did much to unite the two groups.

Beyond the “physical” marks of unity that Theodore brought to the English Church lies something much deeper. Theodore was originally from Tarsus (yes, the Tarsus of St. Paul) and it was Theodore’s theology, grounded in the Schools of Antioch and Rome, and much influenced by two giants: Ireneus and Ephrem the Deacon. This was perhaps his greatest gift to the Church. Ireneus gave us the wonderful words, “The Glory of God is humanity fully alive!” Ephrem gave us poetry and hymns to express the mystery of the Incarnation (see hymn #443). Both are hallmarks of Anglican theology right down to the present day. Thanks be to God for Theodore, the “faithful and wise servant”!

So what do Theodore, Ember Days and remembering have to do with each other? Listen to a bit more of the celtic poem I have been quoting:

O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember
The Lamb of God, sore taken,
The Lamb of God forsaken,
The Lamb of God under clay,
Three days till Resurrection Day!

Here, in remembering--in re-membering Christ crucified and risen, is the deepest memory, steeped in the stones of Canterbury Cathedral and of every church and altar; of Theodore and all the saints; in the Ember Days and in all our days; in each of us gathered here and in the hearts of all God’s faithful people; in all our celebrations of the Eucharist.

O Countenance like the Ember,
bid me remember!

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I am currently in the midst of a week-long Benedictine Experience at Canterbury Cathedral. But before that, I spent two nights and a day at Salisbury and the weekend in Cambridge--both good experiences which gave me some time to prepare for the retreat part of the trip. Now I am staying at the International Study Centre, right in the Cathedral Precincts--a lovely new conference centre.

Our days (we are a group of about 30 people) are a reflection of the Benedictine life: Morning Prayer at 7:30 a.m., followed by breakfast, a little break and then a morning conference given at first by famed author Esther de Wall and then by Fr. Robert Hale. Then Eucharist at noon followed by lunch and another short break. Then we do some work around the Cathedral, followed by Evensong at 5:30, dinner, evening conference and Compline. It is a balanced day of prayer, study, work and rest, just as St. Benedict laid out in his Rule.

We are so fortunate to be able to do this at Canterbury Cathedral, which was for many centuries a Benedictine monastery. To be able to absorb the Cathedral, wandering its sacred spaces, hearing the music of the Choir of men and boys, and having our own services of Eucharist and Compline in the Cathedral is truly a privelege.

This has been a time of deep reflection and prayer, especially for the upcoming Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world, which will meet here in Canterbury next month.

The week has gone very fast. Tomorrow is our last day and on Tuesday I move on to Norwich and, in a few days' time, Scotland.

If possible I will try to write again on this trip, or will write more reflections when I at home.

Monday, June 9, 2008

On Pilgrimage

For the next two and a half weeks I will be in the U.K. The major reason for the trip is to join a group making a Benedictine Experience retreat at Canturbury Cathedral from June 17-24. A Benedictine Experience is a way of giving persons, both lay and ordained, who are devoted to ST. Benedict and sometimes are associates of religious orders a way of experiencing the Benedictine life of prayer, work and study.

One of my hopes is to spend time praying for the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops which will take place in Canterbury in late July/early August, specifically for peacful dialogue about the issues facing the world-wide church in the 21st century. On either side of the retreat week I will visit friends in England and Scotland.

I hope to be able to post some entries while I am in Canterbury and will add pictures later. In this way, perhaps you can share a bit of my Benedictine Experience.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Do you not know
that I must be in my Father’s house?’”
(Luke 2: 49)

Feast of St. Joseph (transferred)
Jan Robitscher
All Saints Chapel
March 31, 2008
2 Samuel 7:4, 8-16
Psalm 89:1-4m 26-29
Romans 4: 13-18
Luke 2: 41-52

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
When I was a child I used to listen to my father’s LP collection, which included a wonderful Christmas recording by the Robert Shaw Chorale, happily now on a CD. I remember listening (and trying hard to imitate) the wonderful contralto, almost tenor voice of Florence Kopleff singing The Cherry Tree Carol to the beautiful Kentucky Harmony tune.
When Joseph was an old man.
an old man was he,
he married Virgin Mary
the queen of Galilee.
He married Virgin Mary,
the queen of Galilee.
(from The Cherry Tree Carol)[1]
I’d love to sing it all, but that would make a long sermon, indeed! Not until later did I discover other versions of this carol, my other favorite being one sung by King’s College Choir. I was Presbyterian, and it was through this carol that I became acquainted with Joseph as an important biblical character in his own right. Perhaps this seems strange, as the carol (with it’s many versions) tells a story much embellished over the scant biblical accounts--but it was a way into the lives of Mary and Joseph, whose feasts (transferred) we celebrate today and tomorrow. We will hear much more about Mary tomorrow. For now, let’s take a moment and dwell on Joseph.

Joseph was a man of royal lineage, from David. In spite of this, he was a person of humble work as a carpenter. So he has become the patron of workers, especially appropriate on this Cesar Chaves Day. He is only mentioned some 15 times in the Gospels and, at that, is silent. In the Western Church, Joseph was almost completely absent from the celebrations of Christendom until the 14th century, and only added to the Litany of Saints in 1729. In 1870 he was named Patron and Protector of the Universal Church, and many churches and cities bear his name, including our own San Jose. He still remains in the background of Eastern Orthodox spirituality (where he is called Joseph the Elder), though he does appear in iconography and his supporting role is considered essential to the working out of the divine plan.[2] In the Counter-Reformation, however, his image was recast as a younger, more vigorous man, but this never really “took”.

That we know so little about him may be the reason behind the profusion of apocryphal stories, carols and customs about him, among them that he was a widower before marrying Mary. He is often pictured with a walking staff with lily blossoms, indicating that he was divinely chosen. And customs range from the “Joseph Table” which Italians and others used to to thank St. Joseph for favors granted and to feed the poor, to burying a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your yard to sell the house!

So what is it about Joseph that we are celebrating? What draws us to him?

Throughout the biblical narrative, Joseph was open to hearing the voice of God and was obedient, without knowing the final outcome. When the angel of the Lord revealed to him in a dream that Mary was with child “from the Holy Spirit” and that he would be called Jesus, he immediately and without question took Mary for his wife and took up his role as Jesus’ foster father. (Matt. 1:20-21) So he is also the patron of fathers, families and doubters.

When the angel warned him again of Herod’s impending slaughter, Joseph gathered his family (the name Joseph means “God gathers”) and fled to Egypt until he was told it was safe to return.

Joseph respected God. He went to Jerusalem to have Jesus circumcised and took Mary and Jesus to the Temple for her purification. And every year they went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the story of young Jesus in the Temple, with his parents searching for him “in great anxiety for three days for him. (Luke 2:48). Jesus’ own explanation “...I must be in my Father’s house” must have been bewildering and even hurtful for Joseph--as for any parent who wants to give their child “roots and wings”--or perhaps by then he understood who and whose Jesus was. That Joseph treated Jesus as his own son is attested in several places where the people of Nazareth say of Jesus, “Is this not the son of Joseph?” (Luke 4:22)

Perhaps most of all, Joseph was a person who, through his own love for Jesus, gave him the primary metaphor for God: a patient and loving Father.

We have no record of Joseph during Jesus’ public life, his death and resurrection, so most historians believe he died sometime before then. For this he is the patron of a “happy” (or peaceful) death.

Of all these qualities of openness and obedience to God, compassion and faith, what is it about this simple, silent man that attracts us to him? In the end, it is Joseph’s self-giving love that draws us most: Love of his family in spite of the stupendous circumstances that brought them together; Love of the honest work of his hands, which dignifies all labor; love of Jesus, who was himself Love Incarnate. Would that we could all be mirrors with such a reflection!

And if you are wondering by now what the connection is between St. Joseph and the Easter season. Well, there isn’t any--at least not directly. We will find it in another version of The Cherry Tree Carol. Several years have passed since Joseph married Mary and, by a miracle, she had her cherries from the tree. Joseph has faded from the scene. Mary asks Jesus “how the world will be”. He foretells his death and then says:

4. On Easter Day My mother
My rising will be,
O the sun and the moon, mother,
They shall uprise with Me.

The Cherry Tree Carol
Kentucky Mountain Ballad[4]

When Joseph was an old man,
An old man was he,
He married Virgin Mary
The Queen of Galilee.
Then Mary spoke to Joseph,
So meek and so mild:
“Joseph, gather me some cherries,
For I am with child.”

Then Joseph flew in anger,
In anger flew he:
“Let the father of the baby
Gather cherries for thee.”

Then Jesus spoke a few words,
A few words spoke He:
“Let my Mother have some cherries,
Bow low down, cherry tree.”

The cherry tree bowed low down,
Bowed low down to the ground,
And Mary gathered cherries
While Joseph stood around.

The Joseph took Mary
All on his right knee,
“What have I done Lord?
Have mercy on me.”

Then Joseph took Jesus
All on his left knee:
“Oh tell me, little baby,
When thy birthday will be.”

“The sixth day of Januar[y]
My birthday will be,
When the stars in the elements
Will tremble with glee.”

[1] transcribed from a field recording by John A. Lomax in the Archive of Folk Culture, Library of Congress, AFS 1010 Al, Joseph and Mary, sung by Jilson Setters (James W. Day) at Ashland, Kentucky, 28 June 1937. From Elizabeth Poston and Malcolm Williamson, A Book of Christmas Carols. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1988).
[2] Sandra Miesel, Finding St. Joseph.
[3] The Cherry Tree Carol Part 3: Mary's Question Terry: Words (adapted) from various collections. Melody traditional.
[4] from Christmas with the Robert Shaw Chorale , CD from the Musical Heritage Society.