ADVENT: RHAPSODY IN BLUE
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
November 27, 2011
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
“Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven… “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware; keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The First Sunday of Advent: The Advent wreath is in place, the liturgical color has changed from green to blue, the liturgy omits the alleluias, and the Gospel today is about waiting for the second coming of Jesus.
In recent times, Advent has undergone a shift, with less of a penitential focus and more emphasis on hope and anticipation, as our new vestments reflect. No longer the same purple as used in Lent, the bright blue evokes the night sky in which the Star appeared, or the waters of Genesis and the beginning of a new creation. Blue is also associated with the Virgin Mary, for this is her season.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that at the end of the age, God will come “in power and great glory.” While respecting the tone of watchful preparation this season demands, I want to talk about glory as part of Advent: the glory of our Church, and the glory of God and God’s creation that can rock our world.
It was a glorious experience on many levels to be part of the consecration of a bishop at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on November 12, but the glorious aspects were in different forms than I had expected.
My role was a small one. At the Eucharist, with another deacon from D.C I would set the table, which included putting the huge, solid gold chalice in place, be at the Bishop-elect’s side at the Table, and do the dismissal at the end of the service (therefore getting the last word.)
Of course, the setting was magnificent: The sixth largest Cathedral in the world, the seat of the Presiding Bishop and the Bishop of Washington, the traditional venue for funerals of presidents, and the pulpit where Martin Luther King gave his final Sunday sermon, just days before his assassination.
The setting also contained some surprises. On the exterior of the Cathedral, one of the figures is of Darth Vader, a fictional villain from the “Star Wars” movies. In the 1980’s, the Cathedral sponsored a competition for children to design a decorative sculpture for the walls. The third-place winner submitted a drawing of a futuristic representation of evil. So Darth Vader is there on the northwest tower with the other winning designs: a raccoon, a girl with pigtails and braces, and a man with large teeth and an umbrella. What a glorious infusion of humor and wit amidst the traditional, stately images that adorn the great building.
Following damage from an earthquake in August and then from a construction crane falling on the building, November 12th marked the reopening of what is officially named the Cathedral Church of Peter and Paul. Tickets for the event were at a premium, and some churches had to raffle off their allotments. That is, all except for a place in Minneapolis Minnesota, called St. John the Baptist in Linden Hills. They were given enough for everyone who wanted to attend, all 175 people who made the trip, ages 16 to 82 (including parishioner and Mayor RT Rybeck). They came to see their beloved rector of 17 years transformed into a bishop. (In the capacity crowd of 3,000, I spotted RT’s hair immediately.) These large numbers were partly due to the fact that the Bishop-Elect had already dazzled the Diocese in the walkabouts, and in her interviews with the press. My favorite comment was this one: “We have to teach our teenagers that you can be a Christian without being a jerk about it.
Thrilled and privileged to be asked to be the chaplain to the Bishop-Elect, my longtime friend and colleague, Mariann Budde, I served as a kind of a liturgical lady in waiting. Before the service, we walked around the Cathedral, marveling and gasping at the glorious red, orange and light green flowers that tumbled from every available surface: the pulpit, the altar, the lectern; the baptismal font overflowed with roses; flower wreaths twirled around the huge columns at the entrance. What an expression of God’s abundance, and God’s delight in beauty.
There were lighter moments as we talked with our good-natured Bishop Prior from Minnesota. He told Mariann that he’s noticed that on Sundays when the Bishop visits, more people seem to be dressed in purple and he wondered if this was something subconscious. Endearing myself to him forever, I suggested that maybe it was the Vikings?
What I did not expect was that this event would change the face of the Church and even the face of God for me.
The Church often presents as a somber place, with sober-faced clergy, dutifully engaged in a liturgy that is dignified and historic. Most of the bishops and other clergy present that day at the National Cathedral were indeed models of restraint and propriety, stately in heavy gold and maroon brocade vestments, holy in countenance. Not much smiling. And I thought about the tone of church.
For u, there can be those Sundays for when the Scriptures puzzle more than enlighten us, when the music just doesn’t speak to our hearts, and when the sermon leaves us cold. And sometimes, of course, we are not in a place where we can do anything but sit here. For me then, maybe because of my utter emptiness, those have often been times when God’s voice is clearest.
However, a consistently somber tone can color our image of God, as One who is serious, all business, full of grandeur and power, but up there, remote and inaccessible, dignified to a fault. This is not the God we know in Jesus, who weeps at the pain of loss, and loves a good party.
At the National Cathedral, things were about to change.
After several pre-processions which had brought hundreds of dignitaries and clergy including dozens of bishops to their places, there was a pause, our procession began, and I preceded my friend down the center aisle. The organ thundered, the smiling congregation began singing at full volume, the flowers beamed, and it hit me in the face: This is the Church – God’s church — in all its power and glory and magnificence and love. This is also a tremendous responsibility being placed on my friend behind me, and how deeply I knew she was up it.
The only sensible response to all this would be tears, and as we started down the aisle, I heard Mariann crying as quietly as she could behind me, and I joined her.
In these frustrating days of political squabbling and turmoil, what was so glorious for me was that the Church had gotten it right, had recognized the right person to lead them, had acknowledged talent, preparation, hard work, call, vision. Now the marriage of talent and opportunity was happening. It was a glorious realization, confirmed by her sermon the next day, which the Washington Post printed in its entirety.
As the service progressed, the glory was Mariann’s face, her manner. She was not somber; she was smiling. She was effusive in her pride in her sweet family – her mother, her husband, the two tall grown sons who sang like angels, and the six aunts and uncles who had come from Sweden to see this first-generation American take the reigns of the second largest Episcopal diocese in the country. The glory was in her humility, coupled with her enthusiasm for the job. It was in her gratitude as she thanked Bishop Spong who had ordained her, and the congregations which had formed her, her voice cracking as she named St. John’s. It was there as her family vested her in the not-somber, Technicolor bishop’s garb given by the grateful people from Minneapolis who were almost beside themselves with pride and impending loss, and as she joyfully accepted the crosier from her predecessor, John Chane.
The glory was there in the 20 African-American women in maroon choir robes and purple hats dancing and singing, up and down the aisle of the great church, and in Mariann celebrating the Eucharist, effortlessly moving between English and Spanish, as the Presiding Bishop with tears in her eyes, watched this whisp of a woman of 52 who barely looks thirty.
Mariann’s husband Paul read a poem from her favorite poet, David Whyte:
“See with every turning day,
how each season makes a child of you again,
wants you to become a seeker after rainfall and birdsong,
watch now, how it weathers you to a testing in the tried and true,
admonishes you with each falling leaf, to be courageous,
to be something that has come through,
to be the last thing you want to see before you leave the world.
The face of the Church, the face of God, can be joyful, full of glory, as Jesus says. As much about crying and laughing and music and flowers and purple hats as it is about anything else.
I came back from DC privileged to be part of this great church, this formidable faith, as well as this beautiful parish with so many people I love, renewed and re-committed to somehow helping us all have more energy for our faith, even if it is in the intensity of our questions. For the Church is as much about questions as it is about answers; as much about young, bearded rectors full of commitment and talent as it is about politicians who tell us we’re going to hell for championing love. Advent is being awake to the power and glory of God, while also watching attentively for the quiet and subtle entrances God makes into our lives each day. This Advent, we embrace it all: Handel’s Messiah and Silent Night; the symphonies and the solo pianos, our own rhapsody in blue.