by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn |
There are three classic songs or “Canticles” of Christmas: The Magnificat(Mary’s Song), The Benedictus (Zechariah’s Song), and The Nunc Dimittus(Simeon’s Song). We usually add a fourth with the Song of the Angels to the shepherds. Lakeland is walking through these four Canticles this Advent Season. First is Mary’s Song, the Magnificat found in Luke 1:46-55 for November 27th. Go to www.lakelandcommunitychurch.org for more about our resources for celebrating Advent at home.
Coincidentally, there are four classic stages to the spiritual journey: 1) Awakening 2) Purgation 3) Illumination and 4) Union. For a nice presentation of these four stages consult M. Robert Mulholland Jr.’s Invitation To A Journey, Formatio IVP, 1993.
Speaking with musician Chris Lea about the Canticles, I noticed an overlap between the classic four stages of the spiritual life and the four canticles of Christmas. Curiously, each stage corresponds to each of the Canticles exactly how I arranged to preach them. Go figure. Each of the four weeks of Advent I will post a new article about each stage in the spiritual journey and its canticle. Here’s the first installment.Mary’s Song, The Magnificat and Awakening
Mary is a young betrothed peasant woman. The angel Gabriel visits her and tells her she will conceive by the Spirit of g-d and give birth to the world’s Savior. Awakening is always an encounter with the unbidden g-d. G-d comes at us, unannounced, mostly unwelcomed, strange and threatening. When we encounter g-d in Awakening we may be blown away – quietly or “violently.”
My personal Awakening was a bit of both. At sixteen years of age, dealing and using drugs, one cold lonely January Monday night I feel to my knees in front of my dresser next to my bed. I was tired and strung out and all I prayed was “God help me.” I meant it, but didn’t expect anything. But I was desperate. I thought g-d was far away, unconcerned, unaware and mostly unable to do anything for me.
But in that moment, something washed over me. I can only assume it was the unbidden g-d crashing into me. I woke up from my nightmare. I began to mutter and sing and cry and laugh. I was scared and freaked out. I was losing control and liked it. I went to sleep that night expecting my “awakening” to just be some ridiculous teenage moment. But the next morning everything was different. I felt alive. I had been raised in the church and even knew what it meant to be “saved” but I wasn’t expecting what happened to me that night.
Robert Mulholland thinks Awakening is a two-sided experience: an encounter with the living God, and an encounter with the true self (page 80). I tend to think Awakening is more akin to St. Bernard’s first of four loves: loving one’s self for self’s sake. This means g-d crashes into us and we realize we are lovable, we are “worth more than sparrows.” G-d loves us. To repeat, I think this first stage of Awakening is more about us loving ourselves. This is not bad. This is necessary. That cold January Monday night in my room was the best necessary first step for me: I am loved. I love me. That’s huge. May everyone wake up to love their self.
Mary Awakens to find Gabriel telling her in so many words “G-d loves you Mary.” Mary had ‘found favor with God’ probably because she was a good, honorable Jewish girl. Mary must have been moral according to Torah, the Jewish Law. She knew all about YHWH. But this visit from Gabriel was magnificent – and terrifying! It took her totally by surprise. (‘Don’t be afraid Mary!”) G-d comes unbidden to her, and she wakes up to love and hope. She discovers who she is (true self) as much as a young person can at that age.
Mulholland states the Awaken stage consists of two emotions: comfort and threat. Yes, I agree. Mary and I both experienced comfort (hope). But we are immediately asked to bravely renounce our self-control. This moment of Surrender is a huge threat to our self-governance.
“Decide! Who is your Lord?”
“You Jesus, only you. You are Maestro, you are my Master.”
I think Americans who experience Awakening are what most of us would call “Christians.” There are Christians and then there are Followers. As someone once said, “No one says ‘no’ to God, just ‘not yet.'” I was technically a Christian. I believed the right information. I knew my Bible. I had been baptized and took the Lord’s Supper. I am not sure anyone can really experience Awakening until they are an official believer. Look at the Apostle Paul’s Awakening: knocked off his horse to the ground. He was a perfect Jew, a Rabbi, a Pharisee. He knew all the right stuff about YHWH, Torah and Jewish history. Yet, the light of Christ was so bright it blinded him for days. Perhaps those who think they know more fall harder.
The spiritual journey is difficult. As G.K. Chesterton put it “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.” (quoted by D. Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, page 1) Those who cannot or will not allow the unbidden g-d to knock them to the ground, or doubt the announcement of g-d’s love, his favor for them cannot and will not wake up. The soil is just too hard packed. Nothing can take root there.
“It is impossible to please God without faith” declares the writer of Hebrews (11:6). And what is faith but stepping out on just a bit of information – not all the information (otherwise it isn’t faith by definition).
So what shall we do to Awaken? I am probably talking to the wrong reader here, right? No “unawakened” person is reading this probably. Nonetheless, here’s what we must do: be like Mary – live honorably, learn your Bible, be in the church fellowship, get baptized, get your doctrines down, and learn what you believe and don’t believe, pray, serve, and learn who you belong to… and be very very very open to the unbidden g-d.
This is what we are doing with our children at Lakeland these days: preparing them for Awakening. So don’t be alarmed if your “Christian” son or daughter suddenly becomes a Christian at camp or at a friend’s church, or kneeling in front of their dresser in their room. This is Awakening.
Next week, Purgation and Zechariah who is the opposite of Mary.
by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
Once again, I took down all the Halloween decorations late last night. This morning I nailed up a long white ribbon over my front door. A white ribbon isn’t as dramatic as jack-o-lanterns and skeletons and candy. But I like its simplicity. Like the martyrs who go before us, they are hidden and nameless for the most part. Their blood is the seed of the gospel. Today is All Saints’ Day.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann says we in America (the western mind) misunderstand what a martyr is. We think a martyr is a someone who died for their faith. But he says we are all martyrs because a martyr is first a witness. Think of Stephen:
“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7)
Stephen is a witness to Jesus. He tells not only his private story but the story of the whole Hebrew nation. A martyr “sees.” Do we see Jesus? Can we say
“Look! I see the heavens open and Jesus feeding the children in Haiti! …I see girls with fistulas being cured by Jesus! …I see my brothers and sisters in China secretly worshipping our Father! …I see water for the thristy, I see the Living Water! …I see special needs children loved …I see someone standing up for the poor inner city students who want to attend a suburban school and get out of a dropout factory!”
Schmemann: “A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions…” (p.113 Life…)
What a difference this view is from our simplistic and truncated view of the Christian as someone who just mentally agrees only with the doctrine of atonement as salvation. We say ‘a Christian is someone who has managed their sin problem properly.’ That is sad. That is dead. However “true” it might be, it is dead. No wonder secular folk do not want to become Christians – there is no Life exhibited by those who say they are believers. The average Christian in America basically looks just like a secular person… same tastes, same entertainment, same affluence, same vacations, same acquisitions… Where is the witness? Where are the martyrs?
We should think of ourselves as witnesses first. We see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father! We are martyrs because our old life has died and we are hidden inside the mysteries of the Unbidden G-d.
Contrast the Christian martyrs with our secular heroes. For secular heroes we put up statues and monuments, plaques and medals; arenas are named after them, their faces go on coins and bills. We have solemn holidays for them. All this secular honor is nice and appropriate of course. Many secular heroes are even Christians.
But those who live and die for their faith are martyrs. Our story is simple and silent. Our graves are mostly unmarked. We cry out, “Lord forgive them for they know not what they do!” We intercede for our persecutors’ salvation. We forgive them. We are Christians – we have no enemies. For seculars all glory is fleeting. For Christians witnesses our honor comes only from our eternal Lord.
I hope nobody notices my little white ribbon. Yet it is my small rebellion. I want my neighbors to know I celebrate All Saints’ Day. I love this day. Perhaps someday I too will join them; and I pray like St. Therese d’ Lisieux that I might achieve great sainthood by becoming nothing, a grain of sand trampled underfoot and forgotten.