Isa. 9:2-7 • Ps. 96 • Titus 2:11-14 • Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Our inestimable liturgy is perhaps not so grand after all. The organist drops his foot on a pedal. The soprano sneezes. A young acolyte, asked to fetch a purificator from the sacristy, places his hands on the altar rail with gymnastic poise and leaps over the rail to the horror of his onlooking mother. There is, however, a liturgy so grave in character, so rich in possibilities, so frightfully vulnerable, that nothing can mar it: the burial of the dead. The occasion invites our best and most sober solemnity. Hurt and sorrow make us more human. We render a most sincere and painful offering. The community stands together, shares this sorrow, holds out the prospect of hope. Then, beautifully and sadly, we say goodbye; we think of love; we hope in God.
What of the other sorrows just short of death that rend our hearts, scar our minds, even leave our bodies battered and weak? Consider the men and women of America’s armed forces who are returning from our foreign wars, photographic images pressed in the mind, haunting regrets, strange and killing words such as operation, engagement, counterinsurgency. Our brothers and sisters return home and then what? Could we offer them a liturgy?
Under the open sky, returning soldiers gather in full uniform, mud and blood still fixed to boots and shirts. The holy Church gathers in solidarity. The bishop opens bottles of wicked wine in preparation for a sacramental soaking. He douses everyone in bloody Zinfandel. Let all the people muddy their boots. We are all together in love and hope. If someone weeps for what he has seen or done, let him weep. Finally, we gather around a great fire pit, thinking of the paschal flame. Then the bishop, our vicar of Christ, does what Jesus would do, and Jesus loved the prophet Isaiah. The bishop cries out: “Dear men and women, all the boots of the trampling warrior and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” Thusly the participants strip away the boots of battle and the rags of war, throwing them to a destructive and life-giving flame. For some time the fire burns, its whirling and sparking speech the only word.
Then the sermon: “I am sorry for your suffering and sorry for mine. Right here, gathered at this holy flame, we do not have to fear. I bring a gift which may at first seem small, but it will help you and save you. Today, in the city of David, and in the towns and cities of our land, in a manger of old, and in the meager home of your heart, a Savior is born. I am bold to call him Savior because he saves us from our all-consuming loss. He forgives us, wipes away every tear that has ever fallen from our eyes. He is here. Simply, he is present. He loves you. Don’t hide anything, for there is nothing to hide before this flame of love. He is preparing you again for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, mercy. He is a healing balm and a mantle of hope.” Let the sermon be brief. The important thing is to put the old man to the flames and awaken a new and living heart. So we start again, thinking less about mud and blood and more about the possibility of living, a real full living in the face of sorrow and death, a confident conviction that we were made and are being remade for something better. We were made for love.
Look It Up
Read Ps. 96:6. Consider the power and splendor of his sanctuary cum hominibus.
Think About It
Throw your sorrow to the fire.