Little vexed me more as an aspiring, struggling pianist many years ago than a trusted friend — also a musician — telling me to learn to “enjoy the journey.” It’s taken me nearly twenty years to even begin to grasp what he meant, noting my temptation towards quick fixes, thinking more often about arrivals, and craving a predictable stability in daily life that is worse than unachievable. It is entirely unrealistic. Worst of all, it is just another pet idol of mine.
Which brings me, of course, to the institutional church, from which we all benefit as we sit here this morning in the beautiful confines of St. George’s Chapel at the Bishop’s Ranch, bathed in a most blessed rain slowly eroding a long drought. How on earth — building on millennia of tradition with roots in Benedictine and desert spirituality along with Roman bean-counting governance and parochial proclivities — did we get the idea that Christianity should be institutional? At the very best, I suppose, we might say we need a vessel — and we might imagine that in the naval sense of the word — to help us sustain our essential needs while we attend to the inevitable spiritual journey of the inner and relational life. But I, as a parish priest and veritable church governance junkie, encounter too often the severe limitations of institutional Christianity, and I cannot quite convince myself.
This time of year, we remember a young woman, probably barely into her teens, literally bearing Christ not in the comfort of her own home in Nazareth with supportive, familiar faces and hands tending to her, but somewhere on the road outside of Bethlehem, in the midst of strangers. According to Luke’s account, at least, as a Galilean Jew, she had entered the somewhat foreign and hostile domain of her ancestral Judea with her betrothed, knowing full well she would bear her child, begotten under most dubious circumstances, while en route. I can only imagine what my wife might have said to me, in those interminable weeks leading up to the birth of one of our children, had I told her we were going on a long journey, and we would not be home before labor. There are probably more than a few suitable Japanese expressions for husbands spouting clueless ideas!
Yet Mary, the Godbearer, almost never has any significant interaction with Jesus in the gospels unless they are somewhere other than home. There is that precious glimpse of Jesus’ teenage years while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he incurs Mary’s fury for worrying her when he lingers behind in the Temple. There is that argument in a kitchen in Capernaum over a wedding party running out of wine. And there is, of course, that image of Mary with her suffering son about as far from home as they might imagine ever being: on a hill called Golgotha.
|“Madonna of the Bamboo Grove” from Four Japanese Madonnas, an online collection curated by The University of Dayton|
Our predilection to reify Mary may at times obscure her witness to what it means to be truly Christian. It is not simply a matter of sitting in comfort, as we can this time of year, and sing Veni Emmanuel, unless we mean it like an expectant mother in the midst of labor. Nor is it simply a matter of hanging out for the Second Coming in the beauty of our institutional churches, unless we expect that coming to mean not one beloved stone being left upon another. The only stability we are meant to cultivate is that radical trust in the promises of God. Institutions, comforts, and even homes come and go. They can be as fleeting as a long-practiced piece of music, the fading tones of a performance, or the echoes of applause.
The Christian life is like Mary’s, after all, uncomfortable and dusty on the road, with no room at the Inn and unexpected meetings with total strangers, and the comforts and faces of home only a wistful memory. Our idolatry of stability, of sitting comfortably on the laurels of our accomplishments and conquests, explains a great many things wrong with our civilization today and across the ages. Journeys are powerfully vulnerable moments in our lives, but also the most profoundly real as we are exposed to the elements and uncertainties of a capricious universe. And so it is there that Christ comes – sometimes to us, but more often because we carry him and give birth to him there. It is there we also vent our fury at his mystifying talk about God and something he calls a kingdom. We, too, are vexed by his wandering ways and upside-down teachings. . . and we sometimes find ourselves receiving his body after the world has had its way with him and our journey — along with his — seems to have reached an abrupt end.
I suppose my greatest struggle with music and journeys all those years ago was with the “dirty laundry” of missed notes and frustratingly difficult passages and the lonely hours trying to master an instrument, a phrase, a chord, and, above all, myself. The truth of my friend’s counsel was that there was no short-circuiting, no circumventing that process. And then my even harder learning was to value that long journey when at last I would push a piece out in front of an audience, knowing even then that it might fail or I might fall to pieces in a pile of nerves. But that, too, is the journey of the true Gospel, the true Church, and all of us when we are sometimes approaching what we might call true Christianity. No amount of institutional comfort can save us from the journey we must undertake in this pregnant time. No amount of bean counting and careful preparation can forestall or circumvent the dangerous, uncertain, and sometimes seemingly endless labor of pushing Christ out into the world.
But as vexing as that is at times, it is our calling. And we, like Mary, undertake the journey risking a radical faith in the whispers of angels and the ephemera of dreams. I still take no comfort in clichés like “the journey is the destination.” But then, who said I am to be comfortable? This late in Advent is an ironic call to discomfort (“Comfort, comfort ye my people”), because nothing new comes without upsetting the old and the known, and until we learn to leave our idols at home and carry the living God with us on the road of life, we will not know our salvation.