The Second Sunday in Lent
The Rev. Ted Berktold, Rector Emeritus
Gen. 12: 1-4a; Ps. 121; Rom. 4: 1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17
Thanks to Patrick, the Saint credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, this weekend is a time of civic celebration; of parades and parties, of special food and drink and revelry, of shamrocks and green top hats that will soon disappear for another year. As a nation, we don't pay attention to Saint Paul or Saint Peter or Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus, but we get into Saint Patrick. His story is very much a part of our story. In the fourth century after Christ, the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Small groups of Christians who had gathered in homes eventually became large congregations meeting in public buildings like this. That way of being a Christian was not the way everyone was a Christian, of course. On the fringe of the Roman Empire lived the Celts, and you have to ask yourself why Celtic Christianity is coming back to us now. It's everywhere; pilgrimages that bring Christians from around the world to the British Isles to reconnect with our spiritual base; books about Celtic spirituality by the authors of that time, people like Bridgette and Wilfred, Cuthbert and Hilda of Whitby.
First and foremost, this was a family religion, and it appeals in our society of compartmentalized individuals desperately seeking community, trying to be a family again. Whatever it means to be a village, we want it, but that is not really how we live most of the time. Even people who live in authentic Irish villages miss that way of life. Thanks to the Internet, we chat with people on the other side of the world and befriend them, but don’t know the name of our next-door neighbors. Sometimes we don't even know the people we pray with. When the Goths sacked Rome in the fifth century, Roman culture began to die. It took centuries, but it started then. Wondering where Christianity would survive if Rome fell, some Mediterranean believers sailed up the coast of Europe to Wales and the west coast Ireland. The locals called them by their Roman title, patricians, "the noble ones". Patrick is the Gaelic word for patrician. He was probably a bishop from Gaul who came to Ireland after a time in England.
The tradition of mixing work, study, and worship molded these new Christians into stable communities that offered hospitality and assistance to travelers, and a place for locals to study the arts and copy the scriptures and the classics. Just as we welcome everyone here at Saint Mary's, everyone without exception, they too were known for their hospitality. Here is a prayer from that time:
We saw a stranger yesterday.
We put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the Listening place,
and with the sacred name of the triune God
he blessed us and our house,
our cattle and our dear ones.
As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often goes the Christ
In the stranger's guise.
Not only were the Celts friendly, they had an unshakeable belief in the afterlife, so it was an easy link to Christianity, centered as it was on a Savior who had died on a cross but now was eternally alive in their midst. They readily absorbed the message of John in today's gospel (3:16) "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life." This was an old tribal religion, a complex faith with priestly Druids. They were a little like the Magi of our Nativity story; wise people, warriors, poets. The alb worn by clergy and lay ministers comes from them. So does the bishop's staff and the lighting of candles for religious reasons, instead of light. The stole and chasuble, signs of status and power, come from the Romans. Some of the art of that time is the most beautiful decoration of the Word of God ever produced, like the Book of Kells, and the Gospels of Lindisfarne. They would use a single page for just one letter, surrounded with microscopic design we cannot duplicate today that might take a lifetime of work to produce.
Their other great passion was to journey. We are several generations removed from the people who came West on the Oregon Trail, but we can still think about what their journey meant. They gathered together in wagon trains to come here, sharing hopes and dreams about the life ahead, but when they actually hit the trail, it took all their strength just to make it. Their experience on the trail was as formative as their arrival in this valley. In the Bible, the People of God began life together as a wandering people. Abraham set out for the Promised Land. "Go from your country and your kindred and father's house to the land that I will show you," said the Lord, in today's first lesson from the book of Genesis (12: 1). Moses led the Israelites to freedom. The story of the Exodus in the Old Testament is their formative story, as is Jesus’ journey to his passion, death and resurrection in the New Testament. Many of the prophets were wanderers, trusting in God's leadership. In the scriptures the twelve were sent out by Jesus, and then the seventy-two. Paul was on his way to Spain to preach the good news when he was martyred in Rome. Religious people are pilgrim people, from the first Israelites, to the early Christians, to us as we prepare to send forth yet another J2A youth pilgrimage. We're always on the move, on an interior if not a literal journey, always seeking that which will draw us closer to God; always seeking that which is holy. Responding to Jesus' command to "Come, follow me," some Celtic pilgrims set out in tiny frail boats to share the Good News and let the wind, waves, and tide direct their course, knowing their journey was as likely to lead to drowning as to a landfall.
These were people of deep faith. Unlike our modern age, they had no misconception that all mystery could be explained away one day, and everything understood. We Episcopalians have a great deal in common with our Celtic Christian ancestors. In a world of legislation and dogma, we dare to embrace mystery. We call the bread and the wine Christ’s body and blood. We learn wisdom from traditions other than our own. It is difficult to be open when you see others so sure about what to burn and what to save, what to teach and what to denounce. But our past tells us to dare to include the wisdom of others and to nurture a loving, caring, inclusive religious environment. So we welcome everyone. Celtic spirituality is popular today because it helps bring us back to a time before the Christian family went its separate directions; a time when God was at the center. "Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart" is a song anybody can sing, in any denomination. The words of this eighth century hymn turn the jewel of God in every way possible, so that we see the divine light more completely. “Be thou my best thought, my wisdom, my true word, my king. Heart of my heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.”
But we're not just in this with God and one another; we're in it with all of creation, according to the Celtic view. A song attributed to Saint Patrick links our faith with everything. "I bind unto myself this day the strong name of the Trinity." That's orthodox enough for institutional Christianity. You can't get in trouble for saying that. He goes on for two more verses praising the Incarnation and Baptism of Christ, the Cross and the Tomb, the things we list in the Creed. But then he can't stand it anymore. He's a Celt. He starts to bind unto himself the virtues of the starlit heavens, the sun's life-giving ray, the whirling wind, the stable earth, the deep salt sea around the old eternal rocks. Then comes the wonderful conclusion of the hymn: “Christ within me, Christ behind me, before me, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger's guise. We discover what is sacred in what is ordinary; a human birth that gives us the Savior of the world; something extraordinary, yet so ordinary it happened to each one of us. We are as much a part of our historic faith as are priest and bread and wine, the scriptures and the stained glass windows in these walls, chalice, cross and baptismal font. We find God in Christ, and we find Christ in one another.
Thank you for the strength of your faith, which makes all of this available to those who come here on their pilgrimage; those who come to our parish hall for breakfast on Saturday morning, the children who discover God in the classrooms downstairs and here in worship, and all who enter this sacred space for the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation each Sunday. At life's end, when we commit ashes to the ground or to the sea or to a columbarium like the one on the back wall of our chapel, we say this Celtic blessing: "May the Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." We keep God at the center, from baptism to burial, born from above by the Spirit for life eternal. May Christ be with us on our journey, Christ be the place our souls find rest. Amen.