Behold

Galilee Retreat Centre, Arnprior Ontario (photo by Martin Malina, 2021)
sermon audio for “Behold” by Martin Malina

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[1]

What are the voices that you have heard and inwardly digested this holiday season? What messages have you taken to heart? 

The song of the angels, the carols, the music? 

The voices of industry, the marketing experts telling you what you need to buy in order to be happy? 

The voices of politicians telling you to be afraid, and not to be afraid? 

The voice of your heart, the whisper of truth, languishing under the heavy weight of delusion and despair like a tiny candle’s flame flickering and grasping for oxygen?

Of all the disruption and renewed vigilance we have been called upon to observe during this Christmas, beleaguered by the Omicron-variant, whose voice have you listened to?

We have good examples from scripture, especially Mary mother of Jesus who had to pivot big-time dealing with the sudden news of the angel telling her what was in store for her. This is Mary who faced incredible change in her life in such short order. 

And she allowed for some reflection on this question in her life and amidst all the turmoil: Not once but twice — first when the shepherds visited the holy child at his birth and then again years later after Jesus was found conversing with the teachers in the temple — “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”.[2]

What words do you hear, do you ponder and treasure in your heart now that the seasons shift again? 

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

In this short verse, we witness an intimacy within the Trinity. We get a sense of the profound love between Father and Son. This dialogue is between two persons. And we are privileged to behold such a holy moment of love expressed in the Triune God who considers Jesus ‘the Beloved’.

Jesus’ baptism is the first time in the Gospels we hear a conversation — or part of one — between God and Jesus. This loving conversation will sustain and hold and animate all that Jesus does in the thirty years of his life on earth. God is about this interface between one and the other, the connecting point between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, between Creator and Redeemer through the Holy Spirit “that descended upon him … like a dove.” A dove.

I have missed the birds. Where have they gone? Just before Christmas we put all kinds of seeds and feed on our bird houses and stands in front of our house. Memories from summer of flocks of them descending upon our property filled us with joy and expectation before Christmas. But we really haven’t seen them besides the stray nibbler. Heck, not even the squirrels have come by! The dove represents the presence of God “in bodily form”. Well, this Christmas, it doesn’t seem like God visited.

Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered about whether God was missing-in-action this Christmas. I asked the cashier at my local grocery store a couple of days ago, “How was your Christmas?” Scanning my groceries, she kept her head down, shrugged, and said, “It was quiet”. And I took that to mean not particularly a good ‘quiet’. Has God missed the boat with us this Christmas, indeed this last year? We began and ended last year in this paralyzed state, and started this new year mired again under the threat of the pandemic.

We may need the Epiphany — the revelation of God. The season of Epiphany begins after the twelfth day of Christmas every year on January 6 according to our calendar. Epiphany means ‘revelation’. God is revealed to us anew, just as God was revealed in Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of God. We may very well need the Epiphany this year like no other before.

When you think about it, most of the Christmas crèches and manger scenes don’t show us much of the baby Jesus himself. At the birth, we may feel the wonder of it all, the spiritual tenderness of the scene. He is swaddled and cradled, his presence illuminated only by light. 

But we cannot really see the face of the Christ child. The Christ child’s face is not normally the dominant image. The Christmas vision of the newborn Jesus is often one of Mary kneeling by the improvised bed. We are like bystanders from a distance who see the baby’s face only through the actors, mother and father, animals and angels.[3]

We may need the Epiphany to behold the face of Jesus for ourselves! Ancient Celtic Christians believed that in gazing at a newborn’s face, we see the very image of God.[4] Perhaps that is why we, young and old, are drawn to babies. And you can hardly hold a baby in your arms without gazing upon their face. Infants give us a felt sense of God’s loving presence. Babies draw us to God’s love and grace. There is no other relationship to speak of that more accurately captures the truth of God’s love than our relationship with a new born. 

Conversely, through the infant’s eyes, in some mysterious way, God beholds you. When a baby’s eyes fix upon your gaze, when the infant looks at you with those small, penetrating, gentle, inquisitive eyes, God sees you. And loves you. Oh, yes, this year especially we need Epiphany.

And maybe, just maybe in the days to come, you shall hear the voice of Jesus say to your heart — “You are mine, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And when we are God’s beloved, we begin to live and ‘see’ through God’s eyes.[5] The voices of the human crowd, even the negative ones, will have little power to hurt us. And we will begin to perceive the world around us through the sight of a holy child who looks with gentleness and love upon everyone we meet.

The ‘You’ is then not just for you. God turns to the whole of creation and says to all: “You are mine, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


[1] Luke 3:21-22

[2] Luke 2:19,51

[3] Diana Butler Bass, “Mary and Jesus” in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie, cited in Diana Butler Bass “The Cottage – December 22: Advent Calendar” (substack.com, 2021)

[4] Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus, cited in “The Cottage – December 7: Advent Calendar” (substack.com, 2021)

[5] Richard Rohr, “A Mutually Loving Gaze” Week One: Nothing Stands Alone (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 3 January 2022)

The Light for Change

At the beginning of a new year, ‘change’ is on our minds. We consider dieting, exercising, forming healthy habits and other disciplines. And maybe even some plans are made. A couple weeks ago, we ordered a new scale. And it arrived promptly at our door on New Year’s Eve. Good timing. Now, will it work? And I don’t mean the scale.

I saw this funny cartoon in one of my social media feeds. It shows lots of people crowded in a church building all leaning intentionally to block the door. Outside knocking on the door is a figure that is supposed to be Jesus. The caption underneath reads: “Don’t allow Him in. He will change everything!”

Church people aren’t usually the type to welcome change. We don’t normally associate Jesus with change. Or, rather, we don’t acknowledge that walking with Jesus will. 

And yet, Bishop Michael Pryse confesses that in this COVID time he has seen something different in the Eastern Synod. He writes, “In the last nine months, I have learned that our church has a much greater capacity to change than I ever thought imaginable. We pivoted and established new models for ministry in a matter of weeks. We figured out new ways to engage in worship, learning, pastoral care and outreach ministries! I was amazed!

“And I hereby pledge to never again utter the words, ‘How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?’ ‘Change?’ The last nine months have proven that we can, and we did!”[1]

How does growth and change happen in each of us? And do we want to let this growth happen in our lives? Or do we resist it at every possible turn?

A cherished tradition at Christmas is the candlelight service, when worshippers gather in a darkened room and share the light of Christ. Passing candlelight is not easy but is also the way the One Light is conveyed to the whole assembly. When everyone’s candles are lighted, we all participate in the One Light of Christ. The small light we hold is no different from the first candle, the source. We are not Jesus, but we participate in his energy, his life and his light.

Symeon the New Theologian said, “Just as if you lit a flame from a flame, it is the whole flame you receive.”[2]

The Baptism of our Lord indicates that, in our baptism, we have the capacity to experience, first-hand, God’s presence directly. Our very lives reflect the ‘whole flame’ that we have received. To what degree we experience God depends on God’s loving initiative—grace, on the one hand; and our response on the other hand.

Sixteenth century Spanish mystic John of the Cross takes up the analogy of a smudgy window to make the connection between God’s grace and our response. A smudgy window, he says, is less able to transmit the sunlight shining through it. The more cleaned and polished the window, the more identical it appears with the rays of sunshine. While the nature of the window is distinct from the sun’s ray, a clean window better participates in the ray of sunlight that passes through it.[3]

It is not easy to wipe the smudge off. Sin is so entrenched within our ego that it might very well take a lifetime and beyond for all the dirt to be cleaned out. Since the time John of the Cross mused about smudge and light centuries ago, other poets and writers have commented on how the light gets to us and is reflected from us. 

More recently, Leonard Cohen wrote about how there is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. Whether it is through our weakness or strength, we turn towards the light in whatever way we can, to do better. The pinprick of light already shining in us slowly burns and cleanses. And we change.

In the end, the personal encounter with God changes us, so that others may experience Christ more fully in us. Our job, in the end, is not to horde the light for ourselves. The experience of the Christmas Eve candlelight service would be spoiled if no one passed their candlelight along. Our purpose is to share the candlelight to our neighbour, so they, too, may have the joy of holding and reflecting the light of Christ in their lives. 

As I said, passing the light is not easy. It’s tricky. And never a perfect art form. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well for us, or for our neighbour. Wax gets spilled. Wicks get snuffed. But, still, we try and try again. 

In the end, our participation in God’s energy, life and light means more than dwelling on debates and disagreements about our essence and/or Christ’s essence. It’s about participating in, and being changed because of, our personal experience with the Light – with Jesus. Twentieth-century American poet, W.H. Auden, offers what I consider a prayer for our imperfect response to, and sharing of, God’s grace:

How should we like it were stars to burn

With a passion for us we could not return?

If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.[4]


[1] Bishop Michael Pryse, “Adieu—‘to God’—2020” Canada Lutheran (Vol.35, No.8, December 2020) p.30.

[2] Symeon the New Theologian was an eleventh century Byzantine Christian monk and mystic revered to this day by Eastern, Orthodox Christians. Cited in Richard Rohr, “Christ Born In Us” Incarnation (Daily Meditations, December 25, 2020), www.cac.org

[3] Cited in Rohr, ibid., December 10, 2020.

[4] W.H. Auden, “The More Loving One” www.poets.org

To value the bruised reed

Not many today can echo the confidence of the Psalmist (29). Because confidence in God’s message does not come easily to those who struggle — struggle in faith, struggle against some great opponent within and outside themselves. And the Psalmist comes across as confident.

The Psalmist repeats the phrase, ‘the voice of the Lord’ seven times, introducing seven of the eleven verses in Psalm 29. Indeed, so the Psalmist claims, the voice of the Lord has accomplished so much, is everywhere and can do anything. The voice of the Lord can shake our world, break strong things and shock us with incredible visions!

And, therefore, his enthusiasm can either inspire some, and intimidate others. After all, how can we not notice? How can we miss what God is doing? God’s voice is loud, impressive and spectacular! You’d think there’s something terribly wrong with us if we can’t see the power and presence of God all around us. How can the Psalmist be so forthright and confident? His haughty display of faith can leave us feeling inferior or not good enough.

The church finds itself now in the season of Epiphany. The word means to ‘show’, or ‘reveal’. The season’s theme is all about our vision, being able to recognize the Christ. If only it were that easy!

The Baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his ministry. And is slotted as the first Sunday after the Day of Epiphany.[1]In the experience of his baptism, Jesus alone saw the heavens opened and the dove descend. And it was only Jesus, in the moment of his baptism, who heard the voice of God.[2]This profound experience was meant for him.

We, too, whether at our baptism, or at the start of a new year, find ourselves at a new beginning. And we, too, may be looking for guidance and for a sign of God’s presence and power in our lives. As we seek our way, do we not yearn for the confidence that Jesus and the Psalmist in their own unique situations express in hearing and seeing the ‘voice of the Lord’—whether from the heavens or in the glory of creation itself? Especially at significant turning points in our lives? What do we see that is meant for us, personally?

At this ending of the Christmas season recall with me how some of the main characters received divine guidance and revelations. And I notice a recurring theme:

Specific guidance came to Mary and Joseph, to the wise men, to the shepherds, to Elizabeth and Mary and Zechariah – each and every one of them through dreams, visions, and stars.[3]Not exactly ways in which we normally expect to receive God’s guidance. The Christmas story teaches us how God will communicate with us. God’s revelation to you may very well come from beyond the normal sense of our day-to-day lives.

Writer-poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “When you reach the end of what you should know, you will be at the beginning of what you should sense.”[4]In other words, when we come to the end of what we know in our heads, then we will be at the beginning of what we should experience and see in our hearts. So, maybe, those who struggle in any way — those who have come to the end of all they know — have something to show us.

We begin the new year by seeking the value in ‘bruised’ things – in us, and in the world. The prophet Isaiah writes in poetic fashion about God’s servant who will not break a bruised reed nor quench a dimly burning wick.[6]In bringing about God’s justice, the servant will honor even that which is weak, broken and imperfect within us and in the world.

In the second reading for today we must again review the story of Christ. Peter, the orator, tells the gathering at Cornelius’ house the message about the Cross and the empty tomb. And, that the character of the faithful life is forgiveness and mercy.[7] Not triumph and victory.

We begin the new year by seeking the value in bruised things – in us, and in the world. The glory of God comes only by way of the the broken things, the weak. Because only in those places and at those times do we touch the heart of forgiveness, mercy and love.

Last Spring, my wife Jessica’s special needs class travelled to Toronto to participate in the Special Olympics Invitational Youth Games. All the students in her class, each with a varying degree of developmental disability, played together on a soccer team. The team from Arnprior District Highschool played several games over the weekend against teams from all over North America. They lost every one of them.

But that wasn’t the point. Maybe the point was revealed in an incident that happened and how it was resolved:

One of the students from Jessica’s class was playing forward and was threatening to score a goal against their opponent, a special needs class from Arizona. One of their players was being inappropriately aggressive on the field with the student. It got to a point where there was a kerfuffle between the two of them.

The play was called and both teams retreated to the sidelines. Jessica’s student had held it together and did not overly react even though the other player had been provoking him the entire game by his aggressive behaviour. And the student’s maintaining composure alone was a huge accomplishment for the young lad.

But weren’t they surprised when the whole team from Arizona was soon standing in a semi-circle at centre field beckoning all our students to join them. When the circle was complete, the boy who had been aggressing took a step forward toward Jessica’s student, looked him in the eye, and said, “I’m sorry.”

Without hesitating, the student also took a step forward toward the Arizona boy and quickly added, “That’s ok, I’m ok.” The act of confession and forgiveness between the two of them was supported by their respective teammates. In a way, it was a collective effort; both sides encouraging the boys to do what was right and good. And after a big group hug at centre field, the teams resumed their play.

God is showing us all the time where truth and goodness lie. The problem is not that God isn’t doing anything. The problem is not our lack of ability to perform. 

Maybe the problem is more that we are not seeing where God is and what God is doing for the good of all in the world today. May God clear our vision to value the ‘bruised reed’ within us and in the world today. May God encourage our steps forward together.


[1]On the 6thday of January, and the 12thday of Christmas, every year.

[2]Matthew 3:13-17

[3]Luke 1-2; Matthew 1-3

[4]Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

[5]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Revelation” inBrother, Give Us a Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, www.ssje.org, , 8 January 2020)

[6]Isaiah 42:3

[7]Acts 10:43