2 Christmas 2020: Who Makes Meaning?

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Paul Gauguin, “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?”

A Link for this Sermon in video format follows below

In the beginning…

In the beginning…
was the word
was formless void
was light
was the spirit moving over the deep
was a big bang.

In the beginning…it is the beginning.
We have crossed over to the new year
in secular time.
On the Church calendar we are
not quiet yet into Epiphany – and still
in Christmas season.

But we know, even if the tree is still up,
that this is the second-to-the-last stop
on the train to a new beginning.
We are at the beginning of a new year: 2021.

This is as close as we ever get to a fresh start.
It is the beginning.
So I want us to notice something about New Year’s
because it is instructive
to so much else that we do
when we gather as “Church.”

Today is actually no different
than any of the preceding 365 days.
No different than the preceding
Millennium of days.
No different than the preceding
billion years of days.

In the history of the Cosmos
today is not even another day,
it is an unmeasured event in a string of events
that has no measure or shape.

We measure time
in units that are relevant to us –
to our daily life
and experience
but such measurement is meaningless
in the universe.
The Cosmos is indifferent to our sense of time.
But even so, cosmic indifference
means nothing to us
because we make meaning.

That is what we do,
we human beings we make meaning.
You know, we hang time upon the sun
and a season upon the moon
and a moment pregnant with meaning
upon the New Year.
That is what we do,
we human beings: we make meaning.

In the endless strand of Cosmic events
we use time
to chop up meaningful moments
like a knife slices scallions for the salad.
That is what we do,

we human beings, we make meaning.

But ritual – from which we make meaning –
is such a struggle for many people these days,
and religious ritual
seems especially onerous.

Think of the teenager
who has grown up with ritual
but sees it as empty and rote –
a drudgery that adults drag him or her through.

To the uninitiated in religion,
those who did not grow up with church ritual,
what we do for worship may seem like
standing in a crowd of people
speaking in another language –
the novice can pick out familiar words every so often
if he or she listens really hard
but otherwise, it is completely alien.

In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer,
on page 880, you will discover the “Rules
for Finding the Date of Easter Day.”

I am going to read this out loud even though
it is a lengthy quote.
Here goes.

“Easter Day is always the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox on March 21.

This full moon may happen on any date between March 21 and April 18 inclusive.  If the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter Day is the Sunday following.  But Easter Day cannot be earlier than March 22 or later than April 25.

To find the date of Easter Day in any particular year, it is necessary to have two points of reference – the Golden Number and the Sunday Letter for that year.

  1. The Golden Numberindicates the date of the full moon on or after the spring equinox of March 21, according to a nineteen-year cycle.  These Numbers are prefixed in the Calendar to the days of the month from March 22 to April 18 inclusive.  In the present Calendar they are applicable from A.D. 1900 to A.D. 2099, after which they will change.
  2. The Sunday Letteridentifies the days of the year when Sundays occur.  After every date in the Calendar a letter appears – from A to g.  Thus, if January 1 is a Sunday, the Sunday Letter for the year is A, and every date in the Calendar marked by A is a Sunday.  If January 2 is a Sunday, then every date marked with b is a Sunday, and so on through the seven letters.

In Leap Years however, the Sunday Letter changes on the first day of March.  In such years, when A is the Sunday Letter, this applies only to Sundays in January and February, and g is the Sunday Letter for the rest of the year.  Or if d is the Sunday Letter, then c is the Sunday Letter on and after March 1.

To Find the Golden Number

The Golden Number of any year is calculated as follows: Take the number of the year, add 1, and then divide the sum by 19.  The remainder, if any, is the Golden Number.  If nothing remains, then 19 is the Golden Number.”

Okay, you get the idea.
This is like the difference between
using a computer to send an email
and understanding how a microchip works.
If you’re like me, Easter Day is on the calendar
so who knew how complicated it was to find it.

I was ordained a priest on the spring equinox,
March 21, 1981.
That means this March is the fortieth anniversary
of my priesthood – holy mackerel!

Anyway, the preacher at my ordination,
who is a dear friend of mine,
took the congregation through a hilarious,
imaginative scenario
in which I was hiding out in the hills
of Southern Indiana
with a small tribe of Episcopalians,
after some kind of devastating holocaust.

As he described it, there I was
desperately trying to figure out The Golden Number
and the Sunday Letter
so we knew the date of Easter.
Judging from everyone’s reaction to this image,
no one thought I was likely to be able to do it.

Keep those calendars coming!

The point is, we go to great lengths to mark time,
to preserve ritual,
and  to nurture tradition.
That is what we do, we human beings,
and it is how we make meaning.

Behind every one of our religious rituals
is an elaborate matrix
of ideas and traditions,
as well as people, that are set aside
just to execute that ritual.
If we hold them up under the light of day,
standing naked in comparison to our daily chores,
these rituals look like a rubber chicken
used for silly gags.

Under the florescent light
of the 21st century,
our ancient rituals look like museum artifacts
rather than living moments in time.
In other words,
they no longer  seemfilled to the brim
with meaning.

Take the bread and wine ritual, for example
and put it out on the sidewalk.
Take it away from subdued candle luminosity
and away from the filtered light of art glass.
Set it on the concrete
with the noise of passing traffic
and without the soundtrack
of church music and singing
that swabs it with aural afterglow.

What is there then?

Cheap wine and odd bread
without butter or mayonnaise.
You see what I mean?

New Year’s day
is a day like every other day
since the beginning –
whenever that beginning was
and whoever its author.
But we make New Year’s meaningful
by giving it power
by giving it clothing
by giving it drama.

It is the beginning
from which we can have a fresh start.
We can loose weight now,
even though just yesterday we could not.

We can spend our time differently now,
even though yesterday we were unable to.
We can quit smoking now,
even though yesterday we didn’t stand a chance.
Today is different –
it is the beginning.

You see how we do that?
It isn’t fake.
It isn’t rote.
It isn’t stupid.
It isn’t just made up.
It isn’t arbitrary
or irrelevant.

Rather, it is powerful,
it is meaningful, it is ritual.

We bring ordinary grape juice
that has been transformed by nature,
and it not only becomes wine
but somehow becomes Jesus, too.
We take ordinary wheat
transformed by a natural process into bread,
and we allow it to become life.

We take the historical Jesus,
a human being with extraordinary wisdom & gifts,
and we allow him to become our guide
to more abundant Life.

Heck, our rituals are so powerful
they can transform a cold stone or brick building
into a sacred space,
simply with the deposit of thousands of prayers,
staccato silences,
private tears,
healing touches.
Presto, a sacred space.

The same thing can even be done
with a group of unrelated strangers.

Have them pray together,
sing odd songs with one another,
repeat certain ceremonies,
take bold internal risks,
makes some personal investment,
bond them with the vulnerability of intimacy,
the tensions of working with strangers and others
and the challenge to grow their hearts a size bigger,
and the unexpected happens.
They become a spiritual community
where encounters with the holy happen
and the people involved actually change
as a result of being together.

Ritual is powerful.
It is transformative.
It is healing.
It is a weapon in our struggle
for freedom from all that imprisons us inside.

So, if you have cheated yourself
out of ritual lately,
and diminished its influence and power
by dismissing it as – well, just ritual –
then give yourself a New Year’s gift
and allow the joys
and power of ritual
to return in 2021.

Today is just January 3rd
but through ritual
it is the beginning.
It is your beginning.

One of the unrecognized thefts
of the pandemic,
has been ritual – especially
for communities of ritual.
That has robbed us of a powerful source
of change, healing, and growth.
It is time to take them back
even before the pandemic is ready to let go.

Obviously we cannot meet at 78 Castle Street
and do what we used to do
without every really thinking about how fortunate
we were to do it.
But we can take ritual back
by adding them back into our own lives
at home,
around the home,
among friends,
and out in the world.
We can do what is possible
for the moment
and be creative with adding ritual
to the long, flat landscape of pandemic.

Prayer stones
daily walks
daily walking prayer
weekly letter-writing
daily journaling
set times of meditation, prayer, or contemplation
set phone calls or zoom with a friend of group…
there are so many things we can do
and doing them as a ritual
gives them a power
that will surprise us.

It is a new year, a new beginning –
make it so.
It is within your own special power.