21 December 2011

Last Advent Evening Prayer

tonight, observing the feast day of St. Thomas.  Absolutely beautiful, as usual.  There's something about that liturgy that cannot be bettered.

Here's the homily:

Today’s the darkest day of the year.  And on this darkest day, the church remembers the darkness of doubt - the darkness in which St. Thomas lived after the Resurrection.  Oh, he heard from the others that the Lord Jesus had kept His promise, that He had risen from the dead.  But Thomas’s darkness, doubt, fear could not be alleviated by mere words.  He wanted more.  He wanted proof.  Something he could touch with his hands.  Flesh he could dig his hands into.
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place (or more literally, plunge!) my finger into the mark of the nails and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
I don’t think of those words as a cry of stubbornness.  I think they are a cry of honesty.  He simply can’t pretend to a belief he doesn’t have.  What it will take to convince him is what it took to convince the others:  an actual encounter with the Risen One Himself.  You can surely relate - when a promise seems too big, too good to be true, you want something solid before you venture out on it and make yourself a fool.
Gideon was at the same place.  God appointed him to save Israel, but he felt so alone, so inadequate, so impossibly useless for the task.  A farmer turned warrior?  He wanted proof that God was with him, that the living God would use him and achieve victory through him.  So the fleece.  First it was wet and all the ground dry.  But the problem with signs is that we always seem to need other signs to back them up.  So the second request and this time the fleece dry and all the ground wet.
The great Lutheran theologian and preacher, Johann Gerhard, begins his Christmas homily with Gideon’s fleece, in which he sees a sign bigger than what Gideon saw.  The fleece being wet with dew, he saw as the Virgin conceiving, as Isaiah described it:  “Drop down dew, O heavens, from above and let the skies rain down the Righteous One!”  And then, when Mary had given birth to “the Christ dew” she became, in Gerhard’s earthy words “a dry pelt.”  She had given the Christ dew to the world and now His blessings came upon all, but she herself remained a Virgin until death. 
But we’re wandering from St. Thomas.  Or maybe not.  He wanted a sign bigger than a bunch of his fellow disciples telling him that the Virgin’s Son had truly defeated death, had risen in incorruption, had been raised as the firstborn of a new creation.  He wanted to touch for himself.
Oh, how great is the tender compassion of Jesus!  After letting Thomas stew for a solid week (that will teach him to miss the Divine Service on Sunday - for faith comes only as gift, never as possession), on the Lord’s Day again Jesus shows up and this time Thomas is no truant.  He is there with the others.  And Jesus turns to Him after greeting them all with peace.  He turns to Thomas and He bids him touch:  Put your finger here, and see my hands; put out your hand and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe!
Did he do it?  Whether he did or not, the disbelief dissolved and he sank to his knees confessing:  “My Lord and my God.” When in the Divine Service, the Sacrament is elevated before your eyes, it is not held up towards God as if offered in sacrifice, but so you can see it.  Do you know what the traditional prayer at that moment is?  Thomas’s words:  “My Lord and my God.”  For there before you on the altar, in the pastor’s hands, and finally in your mouth is the self-same body and blood of Him whom Thomas was bidden to touch all those years ago.  Now come to you, to chase away your fears, your doubts, your darkness.  The Dayspring, the splendor of light everlasting, breaks on you there at the altar. 
But, you say, Thomas got to see.  We don’t.  True, for he HAD to see and touch and handle.  That’s what makes him an Apostle after all – one who is an eye witness to the resurrection.  But you just take to heart how your Jesus thought of you in that moment.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?” He said.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  That is the final beatitude to come from Jesus’ mouth.  And it’s for you.
Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed.  That is the very essence of the Church’s life from the moment of the Ascension until the moment of the Savior’s glorious return, when He who is both Lord and God shines a brightness on this earth that shatters the darkness of sin and death forever. 
Till that moment arrives, we live the blessed life of faith – of not seeing and yet believing.  The Apostles’ witness equips us for this, makes us mature as we hear and heed their words so that we’re not tossed about by every silly notion that men come up with (and which can figure prominently on TV - the "wise" sharing their folly!), but instead learn to speak the truth of God’s word to each other.  We know faith is born of the promises.  And so we speak the promises to each other and thus grow up into our Head, into Christ, who makes the whole body work together and grow, building itself up in love. 
People loved by God, Christmas is almost here!  It’s a feast for those who have not seen and yet have believed.  For even if you HAD seen the baby in the manger, you couldn’t have seen that He was the Heavenly Dew, the Righeous One rained down on earth into the pure Virgin.  Christmas is a feast not for the eyes, but for the ears.  An outcast couple, a poor child, a few rag-tag shepherds.  But they believing everything they heard from the Lord’s angels and so they are blessed indeed.   We can join them in their blessedness this holytide as we hear the story anew, and take to heart that to us as Child is born, to us a Son is given.  His name is Jesus, the Child of Mary, the Son of God.  From manger to cross, from cross to crown.  He has come to bring light into our darkness; to fill us with splendor of light everlasting.  By faith you behold it now; with your very own eyes you will see it on that joyous Day that has no evening in the Kingdom of the Father. 
It was not St. Thomas's prayer, but it might well have been:  Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.  Amen.


Christopher Esget said...

Beautiful homily.

I agree about Evening Prayer - except maybe the Magnificat. The melody is a little too trite for me - but still, it's probably the best service in our book.

Larry Luder said...

Beautiful. I really, really, really love reading your blog. It was so good,I went to the St Paul website and print out your Homily for the feast of St. Thomas, Apostle and sent it to a friend. I couldn’t find a audio of it. That would have been sweet. Thank you kindly for your pen. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

William Weedon said...

Chris, what some call "trite" others call "singable." ;) (Truthfully, I kind of agree with you).

Larry, thanks for the kind, kind words. And merry Christmas to all you and yours as well!