Jungle Gyms and Mulch
Do you remember the last time you stopped for a few moments and took some time to reflect on things? It probably was not too long ago. Perhaps you got a clearer impression of things, or at least a better look at them. You may have followed an insight and gone on a journey of the imagination. Often times you and I find ourselves on spiritual journeys or pilgrimages that have odd stops along the way. During this season of Epiphany you and I are invited to reflect on God’s showing forth of Himself in Jesus, the Babe in the manger. We are asked to consider this Jesus whom we will come to know even better during this new liturgical year as the Christ and the Son of God.
Some time ago I had a little time for reflecting and looking at things. My wife and I were in Fairfax, Virginia. We went down there to baby sit Faye’s twin grandnieces, Kayleigh and Madeline. One warm and sunny day we walked the twins down to the park, where there is an extensive play area. The play area is a marked off section of solid Virginia clay and subsoil. It is carpeted with cedar-bark mulch over which sit monkey bars, jungle gyms and slides, all elaborately interconnected. The equipment is an updated and reconfigured version of what I played on over sand at the Forest Glen Elementary School in Glen Ellen, Illinois in the 1940’s. Kayleigh and Madeline’s park has good, sturdy, childproof stuff. As the twins played, they were joined by eight other children between the ages of two and four, who were accompanied by a woman in her late forties. She was the overseer of the children and was sort of a combination prophet and shepherdess. With a semi-prophetic voice she would guide, cajole, form and reform the behavior of her flock. For about an hour and a half I sat and observed this scene. Periodically this Deborah-Naomi figure would intone, “NO THROWING OF THE MULCH. You can shape it, sift it, and form it. But there is to be NO THROWING OF THE MULCH.” Apparently that is the number one rule of the playground. “Not a bad rule in life,” I said to myself as Faye and I left with Kayleigh and Madeline.
Now, when I looked at the first part of today’s gospel lesson from The Gospel of Saint John, I was impressed that John the Baptist didn’t “throw the mulch.” There was no chatter, no ³”f¹s,” “and’s,” “but’s,” or “or’s.” He did not talk about “turf” or “process” or Robert’s Rules of Order. John gracefully made the transition from his leadership and baptizing ministry to that of Jesus’. History owes John the Baptist a huge debt of gratitude. John did not put up a protest or barriers for his disciples to move on and to follow Jesus as the Christ. John the Baptist didn’t “throw the mulch.” He was content to serve as the prophet-herald-precursor to Jesus the Messiah.
Continuing to read more of the passage this week I got intrigued. So I went back and read it in the Greek. Two things emerged that caught my attention. First of all, the passage is loaded with major Christological titles. They are as follows: “Son of God,” “Lamb of God,” “Messiah” as well as the term “Holy Spirit.” Each of those titles, or terms, conveys major theological concepts: incarnation, sacrifice, salvation and the presence of the power of God. These titles and concepts are not new. Although they are found in The Old Testament, they are reformed and reworked in the New Testament gospels and epistles. Those titles and concepts have become the major tenets of our faith. The titles and concepts are grounded in Israel¹s history, experience and thought. What John the Baptist is doing is reworking Israel¹s history and tradition and reshaping a future understanding of what incarnation, sacrifice, salvation and the Holy Spirit will mean over against the life of Jesus. From this point on, the writers of the gospels will be the major sources of interpretation and the touchstones for authenticity. The Church will pound, stretch, shape, form and reform, and plunge the depths of the terms “Son of God,” “Lamb of God,” “Messiah” and the “Holy Spirit” as she seeks to understand the meaning of those concepts and tenets.
The second thing that caught my attention in my re-reading of the passage is that it is dominated by two words. They are “see” and “follow.” In the context of linear time and history, the followers of Jesus (unlike the Essenes and others) are to be seekers and believers actively seeing and following in the here and now. Both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist are saying that this is a special time. This is a time to follow and to explore how God has been revealed. Right now the disciples are to look at and to follow the concepts/titles of “Son of God,” “Lamb of God,” “Messiah” and the “Holy Spirit.” For the disciples, now is the time for epiphany, the time of revelation and reflection. How those disciples saw and followed the titles/concepts contained in today’s passage in the Gospel of John shaped history and much of Western and world thought.
In the life of the Church each season of the liturgical year focuses upon one of the above titles/concepts/tenets. Christmas is the time for thinking about incarnation (Son of God). Lent is the time for thinking about the Lamb of God (sacrifice). Easter is the time for thinking about the Messiah (salvation) and Pentecost is the season for concentrating on the Holy Spirit (the power and presence of God in Christ). Epiphany is in a sense an introductory season for thinking about the manifestation of God in all of those titles/concepts before they are broken down into specific seasons.
Now to return to where we began. During these weeks of Epiphany you and I are called to “see” and to “follow.” We are called to look at the theological concepts/titles/tenets embedded in the life of Jesus Christ and to get familiar with them as a group. Climb on them. Push and pull. Shake them; let your mind slide up and down them. Each of us is an amateur theologian. There are systematic theologian that methodically and logically work out each concept and title. I, on the other hand, am a “random abstract” and am not systematic. I am an experiential theologian. I live with an idea, constantly working it through my experiences and observations. I constantly embrace and wrestle with the significance and life of the orthodox tenets of our faith. You can take these ideas, concepts and titles and work on them anyway you want. They are the pillars of our faith and will stand. They are firmly planted in the ground that God has created, which is the life of salvation history — the life of the Church. Moreover, since the life of the Church is the body of Christ, (changing metaphors for a moment) then the tenets of our faith are firmly grounded in the life of Jesus Christ. They have endured and will continue to endure.
Do whatever works for you as long as you “see” and “follow.” Let Jesus Christ be manifested to you and allow epiphanic moments of revelation to rise up and to guide you on your faith pilgrimage. Some, like Martin Luther King, have been inspired by the tenets of our faith and have made incredible changes in the lives of millions. Others like Luther and Mother Theresa have changed both the world of thought and the lives of others. Many of you allow the tenets of our faith to inspire, comfort, guide and sustain you as you deal with the burdens of responsibility, tragedy, loss and personal struggles. To pull, climb and slide down the meanings of salvation, sacrifice, incarnation and the presence of the Holy Spirit is what you and I are called to do not only during the season of Epiphany but also throughout all the seasons of our lives. Those tenets are planted deep in the soil and subsoil of God’s will, creation and salvation history. They stand over a defined area and a covering of the ideas, needs, concerns and demands of our religious personal and social lives. As Christians you and I are constantly called to be active in the playground of our faith, sifting and shaping our needs and ideas while climbing about on our tenets of faith. So be active in the playground of your faith. Do it with gusto and imagination, without extremism, prejudice, judgementalism and condemnation. Remember these words of caution, “No throwing of the mulch.”
Amen. - Fr. Gage.