Read Part I here. Part II is my homily for the closing Eucharist of the College Retreat at Camp Allen.
Here we are. In the place where we started. Around an altar. At the end of a wonderful weekend. I’ve got to thank you for your generous welcome of this Sconnie in your midst. Matt and Alex did a terrific job leading our weekend. Beth, the Matts, and others of you made the job of abbot both easier than it had any right to be, and a lot of fun. Thank you all for your friendship and conversation and the shared rhythm of prayer throughout this weekend. You have done far more than talk about relationship - you have lived it graciously. Most of all, thank you for making the college retreat t-shirt Wisconsin red and white, so I can wear in back home on campus. Go Badgers! I go home with a heart full of stories and encouragements to share.
It’s been a wonderful weekend, and this is the end. But it’s not the end, is it? And it’s not really another beginning, either. So where are we? Just now in this moment, we are gathered for the Eucharist - to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus - and so we can only describe the moment in which we are as the center, where God’s presence and ours meet in a special way. With the help of the Spirit and sometimes in spite of ourselves, here we are, standing at the center of it all.
Gathered for the feast, we listen to words of the gospel, and we find in its words an unexpected, kindred spirit. [The occasion is one of two feasts - I'll let you guess: Groundhog Day or the Presentation of Jesus. Of course, it's the Presentation, that time when Jesus came out of the temple, saw his shadow, and we got an extra six weeks of Lent. That's right, isn't it?] It's the presentation of Jesus, and in the gospel we meet two characters, Anna and Simeon, given over, as we have these three days, to praise and expectation. Simeon, an old man, staring at Mary and Joseph and the babe in her ams with a kind of joyful disbelief. Disbelief that this moment might mean encounter with God.
The holy family has come to him, in the temple, to be purified and to present the infant Christ; Simeon only wants to see Jesus. He wants to see the child with his eyes and hold him with his arms. Simeon wants to see God’s face. Long before Thomas famously demanded to put his hand in the side of the crucified Lord, Simeon asks God if, too, he might touch and behold the Messiah of God. Simeon’s prayer was an echo, an ache, of thousands of years of Jewish prayer before him: to hold in his hands the promise of God.
And then the most remarkable thing happens: he does.
With the child in his arms, he sings (Luke's gospel is better titled 'Luke: the Musical') the song we’ve been singing all weekend, “Lord, you now have set your servant free.” For Simeon, it’s another way of saying that he’s ready to die. He's free from fear of death. Having seen and held the Christ, Simeon is okay dying because there is no more important thing in his life than this moment - this promise and its fulfillment. To see and hold the salvation of God is the single greatest prayer of his heart and that of his community.
Like Simeon, all weekend in our own monastic community, we have been anticipating this moment, learning to live as if the moment we are about to share - the Eucharist - is the most important moment in our life. I wonder if you have ever thought of the Eucharist in that way. That the reason you wouldn’t dare answer your phone if it rang, or check the box score on your app as you put out your hands is because, for followers of Jesus, there is no moment more compelling, more sufficient, more true. This is glimpse and foretaste: “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Like Simeon, we know that to see and hold - to touch - the salvation of God is the most important thing about us.
And then, an unexpected thing happens.
The unexpected thing is that seeing and holding the most important thing about us does not, as we thought, make the rest of our days unimportant. To meet the Lord at his table does not leave us despising all our other meals. On the contrary, we sit down at a random mealtime over hot dogs and smile, because the memory of this meal is fresh on our hearts. We show kindness to the stranger, because we know that she, too, is beloved of God, destined for a higher seat, even, than ours at this table. We grow hungry to share the song and the feast with all those for whom the table has also been set. We long to hear their voices make our own song more beautiful. And we sing and we laugh in places the world has taught us are not places proper for singing and laughter, because we are learning to believe that we have been freed from the fear of death and the life-sentence of saving ourselves and the world. We are learning to believe that love poured out in impossible places is not, by any means, wasted.
In a world desperate and anxious, at the same time given to fantasies of self-importance and terrified of its own insignificance, we have seen and held the one who has saved us from our desperation and anxieties, taken our attempts to be salvation for ourselves, and placed in our hands, instead, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: the Body of Christ. Touching the body, we feel ourselves reoriented in relation to the world by a new kind of gravity, an orbit of forgiveness, a hope made possible by God’s mercy.
As we see and touch the salvation of God, we receive the freedom to love without fear, because the most important thing about ourselves has already been determined; it’s not ours to botch. The Kingdom of God has come near - ready or not - and with it the knowledge that you are loved by God in a world beloved of God. And we, with the world, were made for praise.
“Lord, you now have set your servant free.” Free to sing the praises of God for the life of the world. Free to serve and love, even in the face of situations the world has learned to call hopeless. Free to live out the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Free to put on Christ. For this you were made: praise God!