A Sermon on Luke 2: 33-43
Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC,
November 20, 2022
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
In the Name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
The Church year is dying today, right before our eyes, a little liturgical lesson, reminding us that everything comes to an end, that nothing on this earth is forever. When we meet again in this chapel or in the sanctuary, the old year will have expired, and the new arrived to take its place. That new year will open on a note of awe, of hope, and also a note of wonder—But can this coming Advent season truly register with us in a world of deadlocked politics, of revenge and revanchism even before the lame duck session ends? Can Advent still point us to a meaningful, a heartfelt, Christmas?
As the trees outside are losing their golden and red leaves, the beauty of fall is cruelly stripped away, leaving only bare branches mutely reaching out for renewal, for rebirth. Nature itself seems to sigh with acceptance of an end, reluctantly embracing the season of cold emptiness to come.
Endings are very important in literature, telling us that nothing, and no one, lasts forever. That even the most glorious reign, the most successful career, must come to an end. The greatest saga ends with the death of the hero, be she Joan of Arc, or Beowulf, or King Arthur. No hero of myth gets out alive. We all, every one of us, face the end.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson closed his Idylls of the King with “The Passing of Arthur,” the capstone, the finale, of his Arthurian saga. In this story, Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, seizes his father’s kingdom, and tries to take Guinevere as his wife. Lancelot rescues Guinevere, but Arthur is forced to war—against his son, against his closest friend, Lancelot, in a series of ever more chaotic battles, in which “those who falling down Look’d up for heaven, and only saw the mist.”
Arthur kills Mordred, but is himself terribly wounded, and of his knights, only Sir Bedivere is with him to return his sword, Excalibur, to the Lady of the Lake who gave it to him when he was young, full of fire and promise. But Bedivere cannot bring himself to throw Excalibur in the lake, and fails to do so twice, lying to Arthur, who each time spots the lie immediately. Finally, Bedivere obeys, and the sword is caught by a woman’s arm rising out of the water. She brandishes it three times before she and the sword disappear forever.
Only after renouncing the symbol of his worldly power can Arthur yield himself to the three queens who have woven themselves in and out of his life, trusting them to heal his wounds, or to bring him to honorable death.
He lets go of everything, and, to steal a phrase from the literary scholar Elizabeth Sandifer, he “falls out of the world.” Before he departs, though, he reminds Bedivere, and us, that
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. . . .
More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of.”
The tragedy of Arthur ends with the old warrior firmly placing his trust in God, and asking his last friend for prayers.
And now we must return to Golgatha, the Place of the Skull.
Another ending is under weigh there; Jesus of Nazareth, who, especially in Luke’s Gospel, which we are still reading this evening, preached of mercy, of love, of forgiveness, has fallen into the hands of the authorities, and has been sentenced to crucifixion. It’s a lingering death, one where the victim survives for as long as his strength holds out, and Jesus, even as he holds himself so that he can speak, does so in a prayer. He prays to his Father to forgive them—all of them, from Judas to the guards watching the ghastly show—because they do not see their own cruelty, do not recognize their own guilt, and have lost sight of mercy, of love, of forgiveness.
Then the surprise occurs. The two men crucified on either side of him get into a conversation. One man, who the dubious Gospel of Nicodemus tradition names “Gestas” (that is, “complainer,” or “moaner”) mocks Jesus, echoing the very authorities crucifying them, derisively says that as the Son of God, Jesus should just rescue them all. The other is named Dismas in some early noncanonical gospels, a name meaning “sunset” or “death.” He is often referred to as the repentant thief.
So, going with the traditional names, Dismas rebuts Gestas, asking him if does not fear God, pointing out that Jesus is innocent of the crimes for which he is dying, while he and Dismas are guilty, and deserving of death.
Then Dismas turns to Jesus, and asks him to remember him when he “comes into his kingdom.” Jesus replies to him, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”
Unlike Arthur’s men, and their foes, Jesus does not call on God for heaven only to see mist. For him, despite all he has been through since the Last Supper to this moment, he knows that his end is in fact a beginning; that he is not lost, that the ordeal is not in vain, and that he, and his new disciple will be in God’s Kingdom before night has fallen.
For us, it is hard to accept tragic endings. We want to believe that we can save ourselves, or be saved by the ingenuity or devotion of friends, or science, or well—just about anything. We want to believe that we can write our own endings.
Not for ourselves, not for those we love.
But we can do what Arthur did as his ending drew close to him. We can prioritize our spiritual lives over earthly power and prestige, over what Wordsworth called “getting and spending” in which “we waste our powers.”
I’m not saying we’re all called to be contemplatives, and meditate in marathon sessions. Honestly, I’m terrible at meditation, despite years of trying. But we can center our lives on matters of the heart, and in doing so, we can open our hearts to God, and listen in those hearts for the promptings of God, the God of our understanding, the God beyond our understanding.
We can pray for those we love, for those who have harmed us, those we have harmed, and we can pray for all who are in need, or suffering from sickness.
Where we have means and opportunity, we can back our prayers with our actions, reaching out to those for whom we pray.
And we don’t have to wait until the end of our stories are in sight to do it. Jesus prayed effectively with and for people throughout his life and ministry. He healed, he consoled, he fired the hearts of those who met him. He made heroes out of cowards, saints out of sinners—including poor old Dismas, whether or not that ever really was his name.
People of St Barts, this parish did all of those things for me as I was on my journey to ordination. The people of this parish, clergy and lay, supported me, encouraged me, joined me at my ordination, and welcomed me back home as your deacon. Seven years later, I have learned so much from you, and I am so grateful to be with you in this fading year.
The old year is near its end, both liturgically and visibly in nature as the temperatures are dropping. Instead of hunkering down in the cold, I invite you to fight the cold with its own weapons—get out there, and bring joy to those you love and those who love you. And remember King Arthur: “More things are wrought by prayer/Than this world dreams of.”
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
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