Becoming the Word Made Flesh

As holy week approaches, a recurring question of this time in the Church’s year comes to me: why do people come to church services around Easter? Perhaps it is a sense of duty, of something that should be done, like paying taxes or walking the dog. Or maybe there is a family member to be satisfied, a cultural heritage of religiosity that demands that to be true to one’s family of origin one must ‘do the religious thing’ before heading off to an Easter Sunday brunch. I have also wondered though if there is more going on in people’s sudden appearance at this time of year and that it has something to do with our need to remember.
The Church’s liturgy is resplendent with memory. The ancient tales of antiquity’s nomadic and oppressed people of God, the anamnesis of the broken body and bread of Jesus, the signs and symbols of the ‘something more’ of God that permeates our world yet whose life in us we are sometimes dull to realizing, all of them are on display through the course of an hour and half’s worship. Yet the enduring problem of such other-worldly acts, both for people who come to experience them weekly and for those whose experience of them is intermittent, is that the act is mistaken for the reality that is being remembered. We come to worship in the context of community not to complete something, a duty or a cultural behavior, but to start something entirely different altogether. We come to worship to remember what it is to be human, to remember what it is to long for the deep things of God that hitherto in our busy and distracted and indeed self-satisfying lives have gone unnoticed.
The life of the worshiping Church is where we come to remember in order to re-member our life with the world’s life. To be immersed in the ancient song and ritual of the temple is to offer us the opening to be re-oriented to our true vocation: to be salt and light for the world. To hear the words of millennia-old scripture and witness the vibrancy of people who gather to proclaim a good word to the world is to prepare ourselves to become Word made flesh. For it is our fleshliness that counts in the end. Our capacity to become divine in the world for which God became flesh in order to be reconciled to is our best hope for the world to see God for itself.
When we set out, prepared in advance by our liturgical labor together, to meet the world as it is in all of its holiness and utter profanity, we make our way on the road to Galilee, the place of the nations, the place where worldly things are. When the divine life in us shows up in our homes, in our family relationships, in our workplace tensions and hopes, on our street corners and in our shopping malls, in our prisons and our schools, in our gated communities and our housing projects, the Word becomes flesh all over again. Hope is spoken to an amnesic world, and the God of glory may come in to heal and redeem his people. And so, as the week we call holy beckons us to sit in the sanctuary and enter into again the silence of a slaughtered God, our hope is set on what this unnerving demonstration of true power – the power of a love that gives itself away for us – will do to us as our flesh shall also see God.
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Pope Francis, remember Jenny

Two weeks ago, a woman who had become known to our church community through the course of the past several months suddenly passed away on the sidewalk in front of our church building. Her name was Jenny. Jenny was a particularly private person and at the time of her death we didn’t even know her name, let alone much about her life. We did know her, though, for her gentleness of spirit  and her smile. She was one of so many who make their dwelling on the streets of our city and one of the number who make their way to our particular community of faith.

For our church, Jenny’s passing has only deepened our resolve to reach out in friendship and service to those most in need, at times right there on our doorstep. Yet her death has also opened up a more mutual space of relationship and identity for us. A couple of days after Jenny died, family members from across the country began to get in touch. We were able to gather with them for an evening’s service of memorial in the side chapel that Jenny had sometimes known as her church home. The family members who came joined us around the communion table as we were reminded in that simple meal of bread and wine how our difference is subverted by the Spirit who binds all humanity into one.

Within the little time that has passed since these events, another church’s doorstep has become the focus of some attention as the Roman Catholic Church announced that it has a new pontiff, Francis. Pope Francis is known to be a man who has chosen to live into a simpler expression of his vocation, electing when he was formerly the Archbishop of Buenos Aires not to live in his episcopal palace but in a simple apartment, cooking his own food and travelling to work by bus. Francis is also known as a champion for social justice and of the poor and has denounced the “demonic effects of the imperialism of money.”My request to the new Bishop of Rome is simply this: Pope Francis, remember Jenny. There has been so much focus in my own Episcopal tradition on civil rights issues from an internal church perspective – the rights of women and of openly gay men and women to be in positions of church leadership – that the struggle for life free from oppression and degradation beyond the institutions of the Church has fallen away from the forefront of our focus. The Church of Rome has also been beset with internal struggles, from the alleged corruption at the Vatican Bank to the institutional failures surrounding a myriad of abuse scandals. My hope for Pope Francis is that he may remember his vocation to remember the poor and help all Christians re-discover forms of living that embrace simplicity and justice in the same movement.

For me, the question of how we retain the memory of Jenny’s life and loss is to ask how we are to be the Church in the liminal space between street and sanctuary. In the night, Jenny would straddle that edge between the street and the sanctuary, sleeping under the eaves of our church entrance. In the day, she died on a small strip of grass with that sanctuary space as most likely her last image of life on Earth. The between-space, that for us marks a death, is now the place where we are called to find the Lord of life. As we seek him there, may we dare to hope that by pitching the tent beyond the church walls something might be changed, starting with ourselves.