Friday, December 24, 2021

A Girl, a Mother, a Dog, and an Unattended Moment


Christmas Eve / Year C

I want to share with you a wonderful memory which happened over 25 years ago.  I was driving on a two-lane state highway in late September with nothing but time on my hands.  I had a convertible at the time and on this sun-splashed fall afternoon I had the top down and not a single care in the world.   As I made my way north out of town a school bus pulled in front of me.  Now this was in Iowa, were the only fate worse than being stuck behind a school bus is being trapped behind a hog-hauler!  But it was such a beautiful day and I was not in any particular hurry to reach my destination, so I was not upset at the intrusion to my travels.

After about two miles the school bus began to slow down for what would be its one and only stop before turning off the road and getting out of my way.  In the distance, sitting in the grass, I could see a mother and a dog waiting.  The dog (one of those whippet breeds) spotted the bus approaching and came to life.  It spun in circles, wagged its tail, leapt in the air wildly, and barked with joyful anticipation.  As the bus came to a stop the excited canine inched as close to the vehicle as it dared, while the mother sat ten yards back on a grassy hillside. 

A little girl about kindergarten age emerged–complete with book bag, coat, and other paraphernalia–and made her way toward her mother.  The dog, who obviously had not yet adjusted to having the girl be away at school after a long summer of perpetual togetherness and play, ran up to her, jumped all around her, and gave her the biggest, wettest lick on the face you could ever imagine.  Then the two of them ran side by side to the mother who received the little girl into her arms with the kind of hug that could melt away any and all cares.  Arm in arm they began to walk down the long drive that led to their home; the dog beside them, a frenzy contained in a skin of fur. 

With that the bus pulled away (and I with it), but the scene played out before me has stayed with me all these years as vivid in my mind’s eye as the day it occurred.  It seemed to me those few seconds from the time the bus approached to the time the girl ran into her mother’s embrace were as perfect as any could be.  For one instance there was nothing but joy and happiness and peace and love.  In that moment I felt as if I had received a foretaste of heaven because it was so pure and good and it was everything we wish life could be all of the time and everywhere.

The poet T.S. Elliot described an experience like this as being an intersection of the timeless with time where the particularity of place opens onto infinity.  In Elliot’s words, we perceive this kind of event only in momentary “hints and guesses,” and not through the ordinary methods of rational knowledge or sensory perception.  In order to grasp the significance of moments like these for what they truly are, he says we need to rely upon our deeper spiritual nature.  Elliot called these experiences “unattended moments,” and they come to us as surprise, as gift, and as grace.

In 1976, the writer Michael Paffard published a book titled The Unattended Moment.  It is an anthology of writings by people who had what he describes as “brief flashes of experience... so out of the ordinary... they do not seem to fit into our ordinary pattern of experience.”  Like my experience, he says unattended moments are brief, but intense.  Paffard goes on to say,

The unattended moment may come when we are travelling in a train, ill in bed, reading a book or washing the dishes; in the most humdrum surroundings we may be ‘surprised by joy’...  If we have an unattended moment at a concert or in a picture gallery or while reading a poem we are likely to think of it as an intense aesthetic experience.  Similarly, if the moment comes in a Cathedral or at some religious ceremony we shall probably think of it as religious experience.

I think T.S. Elliot would have said the birth of Jesus was an unattended moment where the finite world opens to the Infinite.  There in the manger lay the infant human God.  Could there be a clearer sign indicating in this world there is goodness; there is beauty; there is joy; there is love?  Have innocence and wisdom, vulnerably and power, ever met so perfectly?  Has there ever been an event which has inspired the human spirit as dramatically?  Has there ever been a moment as fleeting as this one that has touched the world as deeply or affected the course of history as significantly?

The Nativity is a sign indicating good will triumph over evil and light will shine in the darkness; in our lives, in our community, throughout the world, and all of history.  Its message says we are loved so deeply no pain, no wrong, no evil, nothing imposed upon us by others and nothing imposed on us by ourselves, can separate us from God’s gentle but true love.

I pondered just how many unattended moments I have experienced in my life, but I can’t seem to figure out if it is many or if it is but a few.  T.S. Eliot lamented “we had the experience, but missed the meaning.”  I am confident the Infinite breaks into the finite all the time all around us.  We are always in the midst of God’s presence and activity, but often fail to recognize it. 

It took an angelic choir to get a few shepherds to investigate the Incarnation and it took a celestial light to garner the attention of a group of magi.  Other than this handful of people, everyone else in Bethlehem missed the meaning of the birth of a child in an animal stall.  It is easy – far too easy – to do.

One final thought about the little girl and the school bus...  The rational part of me informs my romantic side the blissful scene I witnessed between a mother and her daughter was in no way indicative of the entirety of their home life.  Surely they have their share of hardships, fights and unhappiness.  But none of that mattered during the brief respite of bliss I witnessed on that fall afternoon. 

Though it was in no way as significant as the Nativity, the two are similar in one narrow sense.  Both impress upon me what a line from Eucharist Prayer B attempts to describe: “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation.”  Praise God for such epiphanies, and praise God for this night!  My Christmas prayer for you is this season and all your life will be filled with unattended moments.

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Magnificat


Luke 1:39-55

Advent 4 / Year C

Mary and Elizabeth, cousins, meet.  Both are pregnant through unique circumstances.  Elizabeth is identified as being “old”, most likely in her early 30’s.  Until now she has been unable to conceive.  Her pregnancy is cause for great joy.  Mary is young, probably in her early teens.  While she consents to bear God’s child, her pregnancy is a source of scandal. 

When Mary leaves her home in Nazareth to visit her cousin, it is unclear who knows she is pregnant and how they feel about it.  Those in the know might have included her parents, Joachim and Anne, as well as Joseph, the man to whom she is betrothed.  Perhaps she leaves town to keep her pregnancy a secret, or at least to avoid harsh criticism.  In the years to come, town gossip holds the father of her first child is a Roman soldier.  I speculate Elizabeth may be the first person to view Mary’s pregnancy as a blessing.  Hers is quite a leap of faith.

Mary responds to her cousin’s warm welcome by signing a song – the Magnificat.  Being a so-so biblical scholar, it has always bothered me how a young woman on the spur of the moment could compose such a rich and thoughtful text.  Surely Luke, the gospel’s writer, learns of this encounter from Mary herself.  How, I wonder, does she remember the words of an off-the-cuff song she sang decades earlier?

I puzzled over this this past week and then it occurred to me this is not a “once-and-done” song.  It is something Mary probably sings over and over and over again, perhaps to welcome the new day or as a lullaby before falling asleep. 

Hannah lives eleven centuries before Mary.  Like Elizabeth, she has trouble conceiving a child until God intervenes.  When her son, Eli, is born she breaks out into song – the Song of Hannah.  Mary’s song is very much rooted in Hannah’s.  In fact, the Magnificat is like a Rite 2 version of what Hannah sings.  It is leaner and more concise, but espouses the same theology and ideas.  So Mary has a template to work with.

I also wonder if the song is a work of her own creation, or did someone teach it to her.  Could it be that Anna sings the Magnificat to Mary when Mary is a child?  If so, then Mary’s song is not a spontaneous creation, but rather an expression of something from the tradition of her people rooted deeply in the fiber of her very being. 

And while I am speculating about all of this, let me add one more possibility.  If this is a song Mary sings all the time, then it is something her child Jesus hears again and again, perhaps every day of his life.  Imagine how the Magnificat comes to shape his sense of self and worldview.

From it Jesus grows up knowing his mother feels blessed to have him.  He grows up hearing of God’s goodness and God’s mercy.  He grows up with a sense God cares for the poor, the hungry, and lowly, but shuns those who flaunt their wealth, power, and prestige.  He grows up knowing God has made a promise to his people, a promise God will keep forever.  If you pause to consider Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ actions you will see on them the fingerprints of Mary’s song because he has been formed by it. 

At every baptism, the celebrant asks the parents and sponsors these questions:

Will you be responsible for seeing the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?

Mary’s example of repetition can guide us in how to raise our children and grandchildren in the Christian faith and life.  I always enjoy hearing our children learn to say the Lord’s Prayer in church.  Typically, they are just a little louder than the rest of us because they are excited to be a part of the liturgy.  Think about how knowing the Lord’s Prayer begins to shape and form them for life.

And think about the questions of the Baptismal Covenant:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

What would it look like to rehearse these at home with your children and to talk about one way you lived into some aspect of this during the day?  Again, it would shape and form you and your children in a very specific way.

The only record we have of Jesus’ childhood involves going to the Temple with his family for festival and accidently being left behind.  Beyond telling us Mary and Joseph are not exactly ‘helicopter parents,’ it lets us know Jesus is raised in a faith tradition.  He knows the Scriptures and the stories of his people.  He participates in the rich liturgical life of his time.  And he develops an interior spiritual life marked by prayer and contemplation. 

When we think about Mary we can focus on many different things.  This morning I give thanks for how she raised her son in the life of faith.