The power of love: A Good Friday sermon

The Tree of Light (photo by Martin Malina in Gillies’ Grove Arnprior, 15 March 2023)

In Matthew’s account of the Passion, there was an earthquake not only on Easter Sunday when the rock blocking the tomb was opened.[1] But there was a spectacular earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death two days earlier. The emphasis on rocks and hills is consistent with Matthew’s storytelling.

During the past season of Lent we have visited the mountains which were significant places of Jesus’ life and ministry—the five mountains of temptation, beatitudes, feeding, transfiguration and the Mount of Olives. Indeed, Matthew is the Gospel of mountains. But today, we can go no farther. 

Today, on Good Friday, Jesus makes his solitary journey of death. It’s his alone to make. He is deserted and abandoned, left alone to make the final crossing from life to death by himself. He is the Son of God who has followed his call to the end. This is the final step on his earthly path.

And we watch from a distance, from the foot of this final mountain: It’s the hill outside the city gates, called Golgotha.

The mountains have something to say in Matthew’s narrative. And today, we witness the incredible power unleashed at Jesus’ death. The death of Jesus is a force that cracks open the foundations of the earth. Literally.

The earth shook, and the rocks were split.[2]

We would think the rocks that cement the very structure of mountain ranges are impregnable, unbreakable. How can the physical make-up of igneous rock be split open? What power is this?

In the world of The Lord of the Rings by J.R. Tolkien, the Dwarves are the masters and hewers of stone. They live in the bowels of the mountains mining for precious, valuable metals. 

In a scene from the recent season-one prequel of the Rings of Power TV series, a young Elrond the Elf enters the Dwarven kingdom, later known as the Mines of Moria. But instead of getting a warm greeting from his old friend the Dwarf Prince Durin, Elrond receives a cold welcome from him. In order to remain in the Dwarves’ company, Elrond invokes an ancient rite, a competition to see who can smash more rocks with a giant hammer. Exhausted at the end of the dual, Elrond concedes when he fails at breaking his last rock into smaller pieces.

This is fantasy, of course. In the real world, average human beings don’t go around splitting apart large boulders of rock. Rocks cannot be split by the force of our hand alone. 

The mountains and rocks—symbols of majesty and glory on earth—bind all creation and all creatures together. We all share the same earth, despite all that divides us. The mountains and rocks which hold all together, have something to say to us this day. Because the earth itself grieved when Jesus died. The earth broke its heart open. What are we to make of this?

Perhaps we can consider all that contributes to death in our world, all that serves only to divide, separate and isolate us from each other: Violence, fear, anger, hatred. These are the rocks that seemingly cannot be broken, destroyed. Violence, fear, anger, hatred form part of our human condition that appears on the surface as insurmountable, impossible to overcome. These are the rocks that form the foundation of human character, human nature and society. It seems.

The effect of Jesus’ death exposes the rocks for what they are. The power of everything that separates us from God and from one another is destroyed. Jesus’ death destroys the power of death. Violence, fear, anger, hatred—the recipe for human division—are rendered impotent in the face of God’s love and mercy. The power unleashed by Jesus’ death is greater than anything imaginable or created by our own hand.

No longer are we separated from God. The death of Jesus inaugurates an age where fear and death will be no more.[3] This is God’s justice at work, here. We are united, brought into everlasting union with God through Christ.

It is ironic that the chair Pilate sits on is called the judgement seat. From the judgement seat, Pilate renders the final verdict upon Jesus.[4] It is ironic because in the end it is Jesus and his Father who renders not judgement but justice, not retribution but reconciliation. This is God’s justice at work.

What is righteous, what is good, what is just, what is loving—this is the power unleashed at Golgotha. Jesus died, not to change God’s mind about us; Jesus died to change our mind about God. God is all about reconciling creation—including us—to one another in a holy union. How we view God now must change because of Jesus’ death.

God is not a judge who brings punitive judgement, punishing us for what we did. We may be punished, yes, but not for our sins. We are punished by our sins. The consequences of our sins continue to bring us suffering for which we alone are responsible. Jesus’ death exposes those rocks in our lives that keep us shackled, imprisoned, stuck, and bound.

But Jesus’ death also splits open those very rocks so that we can now turn every new day to a God who loves us beyond any measure of our own undoing.

Thanks be to God. Thank you, Jesus, for what you did for us.

[1] Matthew 28:2

[2] Matthew 27:51

[3] Revelation 21:4; see also Romans 8:35-39

[4] Matthew 27:19

“The Power of Love” by Rev. Martin Malina

The fifth mountain: Travel lightly, let it go

Connection to heaven (photo by Martin Malina by the Kindersley Range, BC, July 2019)

Twelve-step programs for recovery, founded in the early 20th century by Bill Wilson has evolved to healing journeys not just for alcoholics, but for anyone struggling with addiction. I was just listening to a podcast of someone suffering from depression who started a group at his church called “Twelve steps for normal people.”[1] It’s become that effective for anyone who wants to recover, heal, and grow.

This orientation towards personal well-being is important, because healthy individuals mean healthy faith communities, and vice versa.

It’s the first of the twelve steps that launches us on the path of recovery for anything.[2] It teaches us how sin in general is overcome not through personal willpower or by control. We open our hearts to God’s healing more by recognizing, right at the start, that we are powerless to overcome.

For example, we don’t become charitable by willpower, by saying to ourselves, “Be charitable!” Rather, we recognize the moments when we were totally uncharitable. And we first need to weep over them. That’s what confession is: acknowledging and admitting our limitations.

The way we stay on the path with any authenticity is to experience our incapacity and our failure to do something even good. This is the genius of what Paul calls “the folly of the cross”[3]

Constant failure at loving, for example, is actually what keeps us learning how to love. Nineteenth century saint, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) called it her “Little Way”. She writes in her letters how it was failing to love every day that kept her on the path of love.[4]

We hear today the fifth and final tip for the Lenten journey: Travel lightly; let it go. How do we do that?

Even before he gets to the last mountain on our Lenten journey—the Mount of Olives[5]—Jesus had already shown his openness to expressing grief. At the death of his friend, Lazarus, Jesus wept.[6]Then, as he approached the city and made his way up to Jerusalem for the last time, the Gospel of Luke records that Jesus “wept over it.”[7]

On the Mount of Olives, the day before he died, Jesus weeps when he prays: “Not my will by Thy will be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, all the Gospel writers describe Jesus in a state of great agitation and distress. Luke writes that “In his anguish … his sweat [or tears] became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”[8] In the Psalms for Lent and Holy week, we read the words Jesus himself prayed: “I cry to you, O Lord,” and “my eye is consumed with grief.”[9]

Jesus cries. What about you?

In our culture, we tend to be ashamed of crying, especially in front of others. Many of us may have been raised not to show our tears. We may have learned that tears show weakness and make us vulnerable. Therefore crying is not appropriate in the context of religious piety and public discourse.

The Gospels tell us otherwise. You will notice in the readings for this Passion Sunday the emphasis on the ‘face’—the human face. Tears, of course, emerge from our eyes and are displayed on our face. Our face reveals what is true in our hearts and who we really are.

“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” the prophet declares, “therefore I have set my face like flint …”[11] And, the Psalmist prays what Jesus prayed during his passion: “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”[12]

Showing your face, is showing both your grief and your love. Showing your face is an act of love. There is a relation between the depth of our love and a corresponding sense of grief. “It is the depth of our love that determines the intensity of our weeping.”[13]

In his book, Faces: The Changing look of Humankind, Milton Brener presents a detailed study of the way in which the portrayal of the human face evolved in history.[14] Noting that 90 percent of emotional communication is non-verbal, most of this non-verbal communication is expressed through the face.

What is surprising is that there are virtually no faces in prehistoric art. Its subjects are mainly animals. And where there are humans, all the figurines are headless; and where there is a head, though there may be hair there is no face. When faces do begin to appear they are expressionless, schematic and non-individualized.

A major change occurred in the sixth century BC, incidentally about the time we have some of the earliest scriptures written down, where portrayals of the face give way to a more individualized, varied and emotionally expressive and empathic presentation. 

Today we may miss the revolutionary impact the scriptures had on the first readers and listeners of the sacred text. Imagine the shock reading and hearing about human faces! The very mention of, indeed emphasis on, the face of Jesus—and the prophets, the Psalmist and the followers of Jesus—speaks to the importance of expressing emotions in the life of faith. And the life of God in Christ.

Our hearts are the dwelling places of God. Yet, all of them are made of fragile glass. Tears signify the fragility of the heart. They expose the brokenness and vulnerability of the soul.

When words fail to express what we feel, tears are a tangible, trusted way, of addressing our pain and our sorrow. Through weeping, we learn not just by speculating, analyzing, explaining it all away. Tears are the word-less “articulation of our grief, the wording of our desire.” Some would say that our tears are the “only way into the heart.” And therefore, tears are a great gift.

While our tears reflect our surrender, our conversion, our turning to God, they also point us to new patterns of learning and living.

When we let go, with tears, we share something of ourselves with another. Letting it go means sharing. “Love learns to share things.”[15] There’s a literal side to “letting go.” One who is practised in letting go spiritually, emotionally, will also let go materially. We release and surrender whatever we’ve been grasping onto tightly in our hearts. 

Ultimately our tears symbolize an opening to new life. They speak of a promise. As Jesus’ tears promised resurrection, our tears signify the journey to rebirth and healing. 

“When we admit our hopelessness and desperation, when we recognize that we have ‘hit rock bottom’ in ourselves as well as in our relationships with people and with God, we also discover the compassion of a God” who became vulnerable on the cross. When we can’t any longer, God will.

Tears open upon the wound, and ironically God enters through this very wound and brings healing to the soul and to the world. God enters through the wound in our heart not just to comfort, but more to identify completely with us in an act of infinite compassion.

The Passion of Christ is therefore the Com-Passion of God. God has undergone the vulnerability of death on a cross. The more profound and intense our tears, the more abundant God’s eternal mercy. The deeper the abyss of our human brokenness, the greater the grace of heavenly compassion.

On this last mountain—the Mount of Olives—we witness Jesus’ tears. We pray with him, and in him. And in our surrender and release, we too await with hope the sure promise of a new way before us.

[1] I invite you to listen to a 13-minute podcast episode featuring Jeff Dafler, a recovering alcoholic and author of the book Psobriety: A Journey of Recovery through the Psalms. In the podcast, Jeff takes a look at Psalm 88, and discusses what he calls “the gift of desperation,” which allows those struggling to move toward hope and redemption.

[2] The Twelve Steps

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[4] Thérèse to Sister Geneviève, December 24, 1896, in Thérèse of Lisieux: General Correspondence, vol.2, 1890-1897, trans. John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1988), p.1038.

[5] Matthew 26:30

[6] John 11:35

[7] Luke 19:41

[8] Luke 22:44; see also Matthew 26:37-38 and Mark 14:33

[9] Psalm 130:1; 31:9

[11] Isaiah 50:6-7.

[12] Psalm 31:16

[13] John Chryssavgis, Chapter Seven “Silence and Tears” In the Heart of the Desert, Revised; The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (World Wisdom, 2008).

[14] Cited in Iain McGilChrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p.257.

[15] John Chryssavgis, ibid., Chapter Eighteen “Encountering God”

The fifth mountain; Letting it go (sermon by Martin Malina, Passion Sunday 2023)

The fourth mountain: Let someone in

Bridging Kootenay (photo by Martin Malina, Kootenay River BC, August 2019)

What are the stories we tell about people? Is it, that we know and believe the story about someone more than knowing who they really are? This distinction is important because the stories we tell ourselves have power over us. The stories about others often determine our opinion of them.

Jesus’ words and actions show that the stories circulating in Palestine in the first century about others were insufficient and lacking, or even false and untrue.

The woman caught in adultery.[1] The blind man.[2] The woman at the well.[3] These are stories from the Gospels we’ve heard on our Lenten journey.

The woman caught in adultery – what would you say about her? What is the story about her? She was not faithful, she had problems, she broke the marriage law and therefore deserved punishment and death.

The blind man – what would you say about him? What is the story about him? That he sinned, that there is some moral justification for his physical disability, that either he or his parents must be blamed. 

The woman at the well – what would you say about her? What is the story about her? That she kept secrets, a Samaritan, an outsider, not ‘one of us.’

Jesus’ action in all these cases reveals the problem, not with the persons themselves but with the stories about them. Jesus changes the story about them. He reverses the process: Before coming up with a story about someone, Jesus directs us first to get real with them. He first redirects our attention away from the stories in our heads, and brings us down to earth, literally. 

In the story of the blind man, Jesus bends down to the ground picks up some dirt, spits on it and puts mud on the man’s eyes. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus bends to the ground and writes something in the dirt not once but twice. Right from the beginning of creation and the scriptural story, the earth, the soil, is primary to its growth and healing.[4]

Creation, including you and me, needs a concrete connection to the ground, especially in life (and not only in death). In all the stories we tell about others, we need to be reminded time and time again that we all come from the same source. We are all created in the image of God. We are all made from the dust, and to dust we shall return.

Our transformation, our healing, creation’s healing, comes from the touch of Jesus as he brings our attention down to the ground upon which we live and the ground we share with everyone else.

He draws our attention away from the mental constructs we have created – the prejudices, the stories, the biases, the inflated opinions—about someone, and draws our attention instead to the person they really are as beloved by God.

These are all stories that swirl around us and others. But once we do get to know people ourselves, experience them ourselves, open our hearts to them, we find, more often than not, how untrue and unreliable these ‘stories’ actually are.

The fourth mountain on Jesus’ journey to the cross is the Mount of Transfiguration. On this mountain, you will recall from Transfiguration Sunday several weeks ago, Jesus was transfigured before his disciples. The disciples—Peter, James and John—had to experience for themselves the person of Jesus, fully human and fully divine.[5]

The Mount of Transfiguration represents for us the place in our lives where we, too, are invited to experience Jesus for ourselves. Yes, we may know all the stories about Jesus. We may recite the Gospels from memory. We may even say all the right words. Yet, the transfigured and risen Christ today invites us to experience and get to know God, personally. For God is present with us in communion with Christ Jesus. God is with us now on our journey. Let’s open our hearts to Jesus.

How does this happen? The tip for the journey on this Fifth Sunday in Lent is: Let someone in.

Last week I made two phone interviews with people involved in welcoming Ukrainian newcomers into their homes, following the Russian invasion over a year ago. One couple I talked to are hosting a family on their property in New Brunswick, near Saint John. And the other couple in their late 70s hosted a young family for several months in their basement in Kingston, Ontario.

In both scenarios, the hosts invited someone who was in crisis, complete strangers from the other side of the world, into their lives. In both scenarios, the hosts told me how good it felt to respond in concrete ways to help those in immediate need despite the social awkwardness, the cultural miscues, the disruption of personal space, the uncertainty of the future, and despite the profound language barrier.

Despite all the reasons they could come up with for not putting themselves in that position, they still did it. They let someone in. And they were and are being transformed human beings. Even if only their awareness and minds were broadened and deepened in love for themselves and others. They are creating a new story with them.

Sometimes we need help when we get stuck in fear, when we are scared to let someone in. We need someone to come alongside us in our own anxiety and stress to help us confront our fear. There’s the short video clip I watched on social media about a man standing at the foot of one of those moving escalators you see in airports.

The man stands hesitantly as swarms of people get on the escalator around him. At first you wonder why he’s just standing there, blocking the way for some others in their hustle. But then we realize he is scared. Most of the people ignore him, dismiss him as someone ‘with a mental problem’—the story about him, right?

Then, someone from the crowd—an older man—comes alongside him, stands beside him for a while. Calmly he then says to him, “Just one step forward. And another. You are on the ground. Your feet stay on the ground. Another step forward.” And he repeats this instruction while holding the man’s elbow, gently guiding him forward.

Simple, loving, concrete needs. And responses. The older man who offered help to the man locked in fear was letting someone else in, and vice a versa. The man stuck in fear experienced for himself the start of another story, a better one, about himself and the world around him. And that was made possible because someone refused to believe in the old story about another who is caught in debilitating fear. 

In healthy relationships, people let each other in. Or try. Or take the risk to let them in. And when we stumble, who comes comes alongside us? Who gives us opportunities to let them in? Who will we come alongside, and let them in?

When we let someone in—into our hearts, into our space—we begin a journey, a journey of positive change in our lives. And we are encouraged to move on until we reach the last mountain—the fifth and final—on our journey with Jesus to the end.

[1] John 8:2-11

[2] John 9:1-17

[3] John 4:5-38

[4] “…a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed life into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:6-7

[5] Matthew 17:1-8

The fourth mountain: Let someone in (Rev. Martin Malina)

The third mountain: Feed the need; eat something good.

On the Mount of Feeding in Basque-land (photo by Martin Malina, in Orio, Spain 2017)

“What is that?” I wanted to blurt out when the server placed a bowl in front of me. I was famished. I had just walked the first leg of the Camino del Norte in the scorching heat under the Spanish sun. 

It was almost 25 kilometres on foot. Not that far on paper, you might think. But in order to complete this first day of my pilgrimage, I had to scramble up a six hundred metre elevation to gain the top of the ridge overlooking the Bay of Biscay on the north coast of the Basque land. And I had to descend those hills on knees that were starting to buckle under the weight of my pack. It was a brutally challenging start to the journey. And I was tired, thirsty and hungry.

I didn’t want to complain. Out loud, anyway. “What is this?” I slurped the salty broth soup with chunks of cod floating irreverently in the stew-like dish. The food didn’t look appealing, at least from a North American culinary perspective. But I downed it like it was nectar from heaven. The cod fish soup hit the spot and gave me the energy I needed to half-crawl to my bunk for the night.

Climbing (photo by Martin Malina, Irun, Spain, May 2017)

The third mountain in Matthew’s Gospel is the Mountain of the Feeding—where on a side of a hill on the shores of Lake Galilee Jesus provided food for a multitude who had come to listen to Jesus’ teaching.[1] Jesus fed them with the simple gifts of bread and fish. Everyone ate their fill. A basic need was filled. There were even baskets left over. An abundance of simple things, for everyone.

In our world, it goes without saying that we have an abundance of food for ourselves. We complain about food prices going through the roof. And yet, I wonder if any of us have eaten less and lost weight, in response. Most of us could do well to lose some pounds. Maybe some of you have. I suspect most of us, however, still consume the same amount of food. And not of simple, basic things. We confuse needs with wants.

Between 1984 and 1991, in three covert military operations—called Moses, Joshua, and Solomon—over twenty thousand Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel to escape famine and civil war. In an Israeli-made movie based on the first, Operation Moses, the story is told of a Christian child who is helped by the Ethiopian Jewish community to adapt to living in Israel as a Jew.[2]

The first thing that happens after the plane from Africa lands in Israel is that the whole planeload of people is sent to the showers. When copious amounts of water are used to scrub them clean, the boy has a panic attack, crying: “they will punish me, they will punish me. I am wasting so much water.”  Talk about basic needs.

Even though the person who told me about this movie saw it many, many years ago, that scene stays with her to this day. It leaves an impression because many of us take water for granted. Especially in Canada, where fresh water is naturally in abundance. Safe, clean drinking water is fundamental to human life. It is a basic need, even more so than fish and bread.

Yet, one main theme in this film, suitably titled “Live and Become”, is people from different faiths helping each other. Recognizing the need to find a new home in a faraway land, Ethiopian Jews helped a young Christian boy whose mother was left behind. 

When basic needs are shared—like having access to fresh drinking water and safe homes—some of the religious and social divisions that normally separate and often cause conflict among us, evaporate in expressions of love. 

When Jesus pays attention to the woman at the well in today’s Gospel reading[3] by attending to her need, Jesus crosses social and religious fault lines. In Jesus’ day, Jewish people did not mingle with Samaritans—outsiders, foreigners. Neither did male, Jewish leaders speak with women.

And yet Jesus, moved in ways of love for all God’s creatures, reached out and touched her heart. First, he acknowledged our human tendency to feed ourselves with things that will only keep us wanting more; eating this food will never fully satisfy us. The gifts of God’s grace, Spirit and love, however, satisfy us forever. Then, Jesus showed her mercy and offered her eternal love. Jesus addressed a basic need, not a want.

On the woman’s part, she receives the love Jesus offers. She is moved that Jesus knew everything about her and still loved her. Responding to this love doesn’t necessarily make things easier for her. That’s why the love God has for us is about meeting a need not a want. 

Sometimes what we need, in love, is to be challenged to confront our fear. The woman had every right to be afraid. She could have kept quiet given her troubled, personal history. She could have kept God’s love for herself.

But she opens her heart to Jesus and responds by sharing her experience of being loved with others. The evidence of this is her courage to then go to the city and tell everyone of her encounter with Jesus. She leaves her water jar behind—a symbolic gesture—and goes into the city to start her new life. 

She overcomes her fear and becomes an effective evangelist for Jesus. Her life bears witness, through the ages, to the power of God’s love overcoming all sorts of social and religious divisions.

I still remember the sight of that large bowl of the fish soup. The chunks of the cod floating in the watery stew of vegetables. I was thirsty and I was hungry. And I was grateful for the sustenance that simple meal had given to me.

“What is that?” (photo by Martin Malina, May 2017 in Spain)

I recall our son’s good advice for trying something new to eat, something you’d not normally ‘go to’. He said, “Someone, somewhere in the world today considers this food a gourmet, a delicacy.” When we open our hearts in love for others and for the whole world, we recognize our shared, common needs, our shared, common humanity. Practising love for another will help us overcome our fears and inhibitions.

There is a food that I love eating at home here in Canada that tasted even better in Spain: the fruit. I have never eaten more delicious oranges and peaches as I did when walking the Camino. I remember almost drinking the sweet juices of a peach I savoured during a rest break on the trail in the Basque hills. I remember how good that one peach tasted.

I wonder about what a difference it makes when we become aware of what we choose to focus on. On this third leg of our Lenten journey, we are called to feed the need (not the want); eat something good. When relating to people from other cultures and other parts of the world, we can choose to focus on the good or the bad.

There is always a bad apple in the basket. But so is there in our basket, so to speak. We can choose to fixate on that bad apple, or two, or three. But there is a whole bushel-full of apples that are pretty good. Maybe not perfect, but certainly not bad.

As we make our way down the mountain of the feeding, Jesus leads the way, breaking boundaries that divide us, and challenging our fears so that we can perceive reality in a new way. And, Jesus provides for us through the grace and mercy and love of others sharing what they have with us. Our needs are being met. Before we even lift a finger to eat. Can we do likewise, for another?

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (RCL), by Rev. Martin Malina

[1] Matthew 14:13-21

[2] Live and Become, 2005

[3] John 4:5-42

The second mountain: Trust someone

Sermon on the Mount (2nd Sunday in Lent, 5 March 2023, by Rev. Martin Malina)

You can’t do this journey without trusting someone. Or, at least, trusting life—that something good lies beyond the next ridge on our Lenten journey. It’s a disposition of the heart, to nurture a trust in someone else who travels with you.

After Jesus is tempted on the mount of temptation, he begins his ministry, his calling. This part of his life is not recognized in the traditional creeds of the church. Which is unfortunate because we miss a significant aspect in the message God wants to bring to us in how to live a life of faith on earth. How to journey well.

On the Mount of Whistler (overlooking Whistler BC, photo by M Malina August 2019)

After descending the mount of temptation in the first week of Lent, we now climb the mount of beatitudes. From this mountain top[1] Jesus delivers his famous ‘sermon on the mount’. Well-known passages from Jesus’ speech include the beatitudes, the golden rule and instructions on how to pray. It is here Jesus gains the reputation of being a teacher and is therefore granted the title “Rabbi” in the Jewish faith.

It is how Nicodemus, a leader of Israel, first addresses Jesus when he encounters him in our Gospel reading for today[2]. He calls Jesus, “Rabbi”. A teacher.

But Jesus challenges Nicodemus by turning the tables on him. He says to Nicodemus, “You are a teacher yourself, and yet you do not understand this?” Does Nicodemus try to resist the implication that those have lived long can still be ‘born again’, and change? Good teachers will always challenge us to grow. 

Who are your teachers? And how do you respond? Will you trust them?

Nicodemus approaches Jesus with a little bit of uncertainty. He is learning to trust Jesus. But he is not a spy trying to test Jesus like the other Pharisees were wanting to do; otherwise, he would not need to find Jesus at night to talk to him. And, rather than ask whether Jesus was a teacher, he declares up front that Jesus was a teacher sent from God. Nicodemus’ manner and words indicate he was an honest seeker of Jesus, still trying to figure it out for himself.

And eventually he does! Later in the Gospel of John we discover that Nicodemus did in fact become a follower of Jesus. Nicodemus did learn to trust him. First, by defending Jesus publicly in front of other Pharisees,[3] and then showing up in the garden to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.[4] Nicodemus had a change in heart which allowed him to trust Jesus. He was, you could say, born again!

The life and leadership of former bishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero (1917-1980), illustrates how our hearts are changed by who we consider our teachers.

When the name Oscar Romero is mentioned, I first think of his dramatic assassination right at the altar where he was giving mass. His name is associated first with the horror of his violent death. Similar to the Creed’s exclusive focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection, by focusing only on Romero’s death we miss what had changed in his life when he sought another teacher.

At first, in his role as priest, then bishop, Oscar Romero assumed that the ways of God were in fairly close alignment with the priorities of the Roman Catholic magisterium and the Salvadoran government. For him, at this time, Romero saw in Jesus someone who could be used to defend his country’s status quo. You could say the Catholic Church in accordance with the government were his ‘teachers’.

But when he opened his heart to the love of God, his vision changed. He saw the love of God expressed by the common people. And that is when he found the courage to align himself with love. He decided to live in solidarity with the poor and learn from them the ways of God. Poor people, rather than priests, professors, and politicians, would now be his teachers.[5]

During the funeral service last week of the late Paul Bosch, a former professor of mine at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, the preacher, Bishop Michael Pryse, recalled a teaching Paul Bosch had offered to him.

A group of ordained pastors were visiting a religious retreat centre north of Toronto early in Bishop Pryse’s ministry when he was still a pastor. Upon entering the chapel there, Paul Bosch translated from an inscription above the altar which said, in Latin: “sic Deus delexit mundum”. The standard translation of that phrase—sic Deus delexit mundum—was the well-known verse from John 3:16 in our Gospel reading today: “For God so loved the world …” 

However, Paul Bosch went on to say that the Latin verb ‘delexit’ is also the root of our English phrase, “to take delight”. In other words, not only does God love the world, but God also takes delight in what God created. God takes delight in us. God enjoys creation, takes delight in all that is.

And, if God so loved the world and takes delight in us and in everyone God created, God must also trust us. When you love someone, you trust them.

When God gave Abraham the mission to leave his hometown and journey to far away Canaan,[6] God entrusted this mission to him, because God loved him. When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, Jesus trusted his companions on the journey, because he loved them. When Jesus preaches that blessed are the poor, the meek, those who are persecuted for my sake, when Jesus teaches us to love others the way we want to be loved, God is placing an incredible, almost unbelievable, amount of trust in us. 

Martin Luther taught that the favored, preferred, definition of faith was not belief so much as trust. To have faith, is not to believe something but to trust someone. And so, on this second leg of our Lenten pilgrimage to the five mountains in Matthew’s Gospel, as we make our way down the mount of beatitudes today, the second tip for our journey is: Trust someone on the way.

And we can trust that God won’t disappoint. We can trust that despite our failure and shortcomings in trusting others, God will always trust us, will always be faithful to us in life and in death.

[1] In the Gospel of Matthew, read chapters 5-7

[2] John 3:1-17

[3] John 7:50-51

[4] John 19:39

[5] Richard Rohr, “A Deeper Way of Love” Week Eight: The Way of Jesus (Daily Meditations,, 21 Feb 2023)

[6] Genesis 12:1-4a

The first mountain: Remember who you are

The first mountain: Remember who you are

While the Gospel of Mark is about the desert, Matthew is the Gospel of mountains.[1] There are five mountains in the Gospel. And during five Sundays in Lent, we will visit each of the mountains Jesus visits on his journey to the cross:

The Mount of Temptation, The Mount of the Beatitudes/Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of the Feeding, the Mount of Transfiguration, and the Mount of Olives. And from each visit to a mountain, and based on the Gospel reading for the day, we will conclude with a guiding principle—a tip for the journey ahead.

On the mountain (photo by M. Malina on Hurricane Ridge looking at Mount Olympus, WA, 12 August 2022)

The first mountain we visit in Lent is the Mount of Temptation. And the biggest temptations Jesus faced were to believe lies about who he was. 

The Gospel reading for today[1] describes Jesus’ forty days in his wilderness journey. And in the desert Jesus encountered the father of all lies, the devil, who tempted him. The devil tempted Jesus not to believe in what God told him at his baptism, which happened right before he went off into the desert. At Jesus’ baptism, God said: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”[2]

In three different ways, Jesus was tempted by the devil to believe lies that undermined the truth of his identity—who he was. What are these lies? First, Jesus is tempted to prove his identity only if he changes a stone to bread. In other words, he is defined by what he does. The first lie.

Second, Jesus must verify what was said about him in the scriptures; he is defined by what others say about him. The second lie.

And third, the devil takes him to the highest mountain—the mount of temptation—to show him all the kingdoms of the world to tempt Jesus into believing he is who he is only by having it all! The third lie.[3]

Three lies. And three holy responses:

The truth Jesus needed to affirm in his life to thwart the devil’s temptations was that: First, Jesus belonged to God already, before doing anything. God’s love for Jesus happened before his ministry and purpose on earth was achieved. Second, God’s love for Jesus needed no verification by others; it requires no test. And third, God’s pleasure and favour did not depend on how much power or riches he had.

These temptations are also aimed at each one of us. In our day and age, we are tempted by these lies: First, we are what we do; we have value only by our achievements, success, and accomplishments. Our value stems from our action, a belief which results in always running from pillar-to-post, over-working, active all the time. Lie number one. 

Second, we succumb to believing we are what others say about us. In the early part of our lives, it’s important to listen to and imitate even those whom we admire and love. It’s how we start developing our personalities. But eventually, we must also strike our own course and be who we are without always responding in order to please others. We make decisions according to our own conscience and not according to what others would have us do. In the end we are not what others say about us. Lie number two. 

Finally, we are told the lie that are what we have. And it’s not just how much stuff we have, or what neighbourhood we live in as a sign of who we are. It’s also how much we know. Knowledge. Information. I can only be me if I have all the right ideas, or enough information. Lie number three.

Each of these lies if we pursue them without reflection and self-awareness can take us far off course; they can distract us and negatively affect our relationships to the point of not knowing who we are, with disastrous results.

And so, on this First Sunday in Lent, the first ‘tip’ for the journey is: Remember who you are.

The story is told of how little, first-born Joshua reacted to having a new baby sister. 

“Be careful,” was Mom’s advice to Joshua, “she’s just a few days old and we can’t be rough with her.” She repeated this instruction often those first days.

Late one night Mom and Dad heard footsteps down the hallway and into the nursery. Dad was on duty, so he quickly got out of bed and followed Joshua into his sister’s room. When he poked his head to see what Joshua was up to, Dad was a little startled:

Joshua was practically inside the crib with little baby sister, his body hanging over the railing and his legs dangling over the top.

“Joshua! What are you doing?!” whispered Dad as loudly as a whisper can be. “Don’t wake up your sister!”

“Shhhh!” Joshua replied, “I am listening to what my baby sister remembers about God.”

This story about children is about remembering. Remembering God. Remembering that we come from God. Maybe we need to be like children our whole life long when it comes to having confidence in our identity and remembering to whom we belong.

Remember who you are. In Christ.

You are not what you do. You are not what others say about you. You are not what you have. If you’re not these three things, who are you? 

You are a beloved child of God. You have worth and value before you do anything. You need not prove your worth by what you do or don’t do. Just as you are, you are loved. You, like everyone else, are a human being not a human doing. You can stop, rest. It’s ok. Leo Tolstoy gave some great advice for the action-oriented among us: “In the name of God, stop a moment, close your work, look around you.”[4]

Moreover, you are a beloved child of God, not the product of someone else’s wishes for you. You are beloved in your own right, on your own two feet, in your own good mind and heart. You are uniquely created, fashioned in God’s eye before you were born. You are like no other on this planet since the beginning of time and forever more. You make a unique contribution by who you are. Don’t take to heart what others say about you, good or bad. Because what they say is not the whole truth about you. Be yourself.

And finally, you are a beloved child of God, not because of the size of your financial portfolio and not because you have all the right ideas. But because your heart beats and you breathe the air that everyone else breathes on earth. You have value even without anything anyone may acquire in life.

On this first leg in our Lenten journey, remember who you are. Because when we know that we are unconditionally loved, we can love others in kind, without placing false expectations on them:

We make our love not dependent on what they do or don’t do for us. We make our love not conditional on what they have. And we love others not based on their reputation, pedigree or good word in the gossip circles.

Imagine a world where all of us remembered who we truly are in the unconditional love of God!

[1] Belden C. Lane, Desert Spirituality and Cultural Resistance; From Ancient Monks to Mountain Refugees (Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2011), p.22.

[2] First Sunday in Lent, Matthew 4:1-11, Year A (Revised Common Lectionary).

[3] Matthew 3:17

[4] Christopher L. Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Michigan: Zondervan, 2017), p.185-190.

[5] Cited in Daily Prayer for All Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), p.49.

Be Real

Read Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Burning the palms for Ash Wednesday (photo by Martin Malina 20 February 2023)

A year ago, my niece introduced a new social media app called BeReal to our teenaged daughter. How it works: BeReal sends a notification to you only once a day with a three-minute deadline to photograph whatever you’re doing in that moment. And then you need to post it to your online community. The thing is, you don’t know when that notification will arrive. The initial appeal was to show to the world only an ordinary, real—not staged—part of yourself and your life.

But, after being on the market almost a couple of years now, BeReal has declined sharply. Usage is down a whopping 95% from its peak last summer. Other apps have tried a similar approach and have also failed.[1]

The appeal of BeReal was its authenticity. It tried to counter what other apps such as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat tend to create in the social media world: users showing only the best version of themselves. What BeReal wanted to do was address an unfortunate consequence of social media usage in general, a condition known as FOMO: the fear of missing out, because viewers only see the best in other people’s lives. And because they aren’t experiencing the same, many believe their lives aren’t as satisfying or as good.

The source of the problem is that people want to showcase only snapshots of their lives of which they are proud: places they visit on vacation, highlights of their day, venues they attend with others at restaurants and sporting events, selfies with celebrities, sayings and rants they want to publicize to ‘get a response’. These are the parts of ourselves we wish to show to the world. We want others to see how impressive we can be. Basically, bragging, showing off. 

We say we like authentic people but want only to show ‘the best’ of ourselves to the world. That is the deeper issue here.

Faithfulness to the Lenten journey counteracts this tendency in us. And it has a staying power unlike BeReal. The church has observed Lent for almost two thousand years. It is a healthy spiritual observance to temper these natural human tendencies in us all. 

Not to feel bad about ourselves. Not to believe we are unworthy. I’m not advocating putting oneself down, nor am I promoting self-renunciation. What I’m driving at is genuine humility, self-discipline, and unbounded love.

Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. We wear ashes on our foreheads. The ashes represent our mortality, our humanness. Wearing ashes does not symbolize the impressive part of ourselves. Do we have the nerve to resist wiping off the ash from our foreheads the moment we leave the church building? And keep it on as we stop at the grocery store or grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant on our way home from church?

Authenticity is finding the balance between the joy we have in believing that there is a glorious destination for our faith, on the one hand. And on the other hand, engaging the reality of the cross in our lives.

There is no spiritual bypass to get to that joy, that hope, that destination we seek. There is only the way through the wilderness, as Jesus led the way for us. Staying true to the path in the wilderness requires from us an active engagement with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. As is.

Lent invites us to engage the truth of our humanity. And this difficult journey—within ourselves and with others—calls us to be intentional, proactive and disciplined on this journey. No bypass. As Jesus went, so we must follow.

If you object, saying you don’t venture onto social media nor use it at all, I have observed a similar dynamic in the tradition of wearing your “Sunday best” to weekly worship. While there may be some benefit, spiritually, to ‘cleaning up’ once a week, this strategy fails as soon as we lay judgement on others who don’t dress up for church. Thankfully we’re past that time when it was a big deal.

Perhaps at the start of this journey, each of us can take stock in areas of our own lives where we tend to present only the best version of ourselves. And it’s hard, especially in the church, to show our real selves—to be real—which includes being open about our own vulnerabilities. But when we are, we receive a great gift from others – the grace, acceptance, and love of Christ. And it may even come as a surprise! And when we least expect it!

Lent invites us to spend the next forty days to explore this tension between the hope we have, and the real journey through the cross of Christ.

[1] @SashaKaletsky (twitter), February 8, 2023.

Little deaths

Stepping through? (photo by Martin Malina, Arnprior Grove 12 Feb 2023)

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…”[1]

9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”[2]

Today we stand on the mountaintop with Jesus and his disciples. We scan the horizon and see other mountains in the distance. There, on another mountain far away, lies our destination. And we realize that the journey to get there will be long and hard.

It begins the moment we step off this mountain. It begins as all holy journeys do, by a path of descent.

We begin Lent in a few days. Lent is the season of ‘descending’ because it is not easy going down the mountain. It’s harder on your body going down than it is going up. And Lent traditionally is the season of learning the faith. But the journey we take necessarily involves an unlearning of sorts, before the real learning takes place. It’s a bit of a paradox: That in order to find life, you first have to deconstruct something that has been entrenched, lose it. Jesus himself says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3]

Physical death is the ultimate low point in that paradox. But throughout our earthly lives, we experience ‘little deaths’ – losses, changes, ego-humbling events. Life is ‘done unto us’ through suffering that invites us to unlearn something we’ve held on to deeply for a long time. In those deaths, we are invited to respond and move towards new life. Because the low point is also the turning point, when the path begins to ascend.

But we’re not there yet! Today we stand on the mountaintop. Before Lent starts, before the journey through the valley of the shadow of death begins, the disciples experience glory on the mount of transfiguration. They see Jesus in a way no other human beings have. This is the stuff of legend. You’d think they should run down that mountain and shout what they have witnessed from the roof tops!

But Jesus calls them not to tell anyone just yet. He tells them not to respond impulsively, according to their human inclination. Jesus is asking them to hold themselves back, keep it to themselves, not to tell your friends, not to publicize the spectacle of glory they had just witnessed.

We’ve devised all sorts of interpretations around this strange instruction: The time was not right, Jesus still had to accomplish a few more things before letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak. For Lutherans, it’s the cross. Jesus had not yet made that final journey to death, and resurrection.

But have we given enough thought to what effect this instruction had on the disciples themselves in that moment. The disciples, like all human beings, are not robots. We can’t just blindly obey without feeling anything. Faith and discipleship are not a switch we turn off and on heartlessly, coldly. It would have been painful to obey this instruction to keep a lid on it. You experience something great and wonderful, and you want to tell everyone about it! Right away!

What would a child do in a playroom with all sorts of intriguing, colorful toys and things to do? And you tell them: You can play with all the toys in this room for however long you want to play with them. But, there is one thing you are not allowed to do: You cannot for any reason look behind that small cupboard door. Well, what do you think that child will do when the adult is not looking?

A child might be a slave to compulsion. But maturing people of faith who have gone through many a valley and who are practised at letting go will grow from that childish way. Maybe never fully, but that is the trajectory of growth. We will learn to manage those impulses, however imperfectly. And we will obey, not blindly and not just because “I was told”. We will obey because we trust the promise and the experience that something good and healthy comes out of not always caving into compulsion.

That is the journey of Lent, of learning. Of first doing without in order to receive the better. First comes the path of descent, the letting go. But truly let go. Then the wilderness of the in-between time, the valley. Then, finally, the blessing, the resurrection, the promise fulfilled.

There are stories from the bible we normally read during the season after Epiphany which concludes today. But this year, because we are in a different lectionary year, we did not hear the story of Jesus turning water into wine at Cana during a wedding.[4] So I’d like to briefly comment on this today before we launch down the mountain into Lent.

At the end of this story, the Gospel writer concludes that “in Cana of Galilee [Jesus] revealed his glory.” And I suspect most of us interpret ‘glory’ here to mean that something spectacular and miraculous happened. Yes, it did. I’m not denying the miracle of changing water into wine. But before we run away with some theology of glory removed from the reality of life, we need to recall the context of the telling of this story—the reason Jesus stepped in, in the first place.

“When the wine gave out” and “They had no wine”, the wedding party had a problem. They were left bereft, lacking something they had considered essential to their party. They faced the abyss of panic and desperation of loss. What will they do now that they had none? That’s when Jesus acts.

Before we can talk about the glory of God, we need to understand that the promise fulfilled, the blessing given, the grace of God comes only after the loss, the letting go, admitting the mistake, embracing the suffering of doing without. 

The limitation and ‘little death’ happen first. The Winter comes before the Spring. The dark night of the soul yields the beauty and grace of dawn. You can’t talk about God’s glory without also mentioning in the same breath what was lost. You can’t find unless you lose. God’s glory is revealed in human weakness[5], emphasis on ‘in’.

There is no bypass on this journey. We are not superman who can jump from one mountaintop to the next. You see what I’m getting at? The glory of God only makes sense in the light of the Cross of Christ. 

“Jesus is a person and, at the same time, a process. Jesus is the Son of God, but at the same time he is the way. Jesus is the goal, but he’s also the means, and the means is always the way of the cross …. The cross is the pattern of life and a path for our own liberation.”[6]

This is the journey of Lent ahead. We stand on precipice now, looking down into the valley, seeing the winding road we must travel to get to the next hilltop. The journey is long and arduous. But Christ goes with us. We won’t get lost because the One who goes with us knows the way. And he will help us.

[1] Psalm 23, KJV

[2] Gospel reading for the Transfiguration of our Lord, Year A, RCL; Matthew 17:9

[3] Matthew 10:39

[4] John 2:1-11

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:17-31

[6] Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus’ Way” The Way of Jesus (Daily Meditations,, 19 Feb 2023).

Stone-picking and Pineapple Love

A Labour of Love (photo of our pineapple plant by Martin Malina 8 Feb 2023)

6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field …”[1]

Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. So let me begin by talking about what Jessica loves. I believe she loves me, yes. But she also loves pineapples.

Yes, pineapples. Almost ten years ago, for a classroom experiment (but also because she loves pineapples), Jessica cut off the head of a pineapple—the part with the green stalk coming out from the top. For a week or so she left the top part sitting in a bowl of water until some tiny roots emerged. Then she planted it in a pot of earth. And left it.

At the start of the pandemic almost three years ago, she brought the plant home from the classroom. I was shocked to see that a woody stem had grown about two feet tall. But it needed to be supported by a stick to which it was tied. Otherwise, it would fall over. On top of the stem was a tuft of green leaves. And there were some leaves grouped together at the bottom near the earth. Kind of ugly.

Over the summer months we kept it inside, watered it and cared for it the best way we could. But nothing happened. It didn’t die. But it also did absolutely nothing. It didn’t grow more leaves or taller. 

So, without doing any research whatsoever I acted on my green thumb intuition. Big risk! I pruned it. I cut it off down to that bottom growth. And then continued watering it, keeping it by a sunny window and watching it grow over the past few years.

Then, I did the research, a little bit anyway. I learned that pineapples don’t actually grow on trees. They’re grown from the center of a leafy plant. The conditions for growing pineapples must be ‘just right’. Growing pineapples is a complex process and therefore most of it is done by hand. It is labour intensive, since there needs to be a high percentage of sunny days with temperatures between 18 and 35 degrees Celsius. If it’s too cool the taste will be sour. If it’s too hot, they’ll be extra sweet. They grow best in sandy, loamy soil. 

And those conditions are not perfectly met in our home. It’s now been at least a decade since Jessica started her experiment. And, while there is sign of life and growth in this journey, we still haven’t harvested our first pineapple from this plant.

Saint Paul writes in today’s Epistle reading that “God gives the growth”, and uses an organic, natural analogy to make the point that spiritual maturity and growth in Christ take time. Just like it takes a long time to grow anything—a tree, a plant—so, too, growing in faith is a process. It requires the long view.

Even if all the rules are followed, growing ‘by the law’ does not guarantee fulfillment in faith. Loving something cannot be done ‘by the book’, because it will be by nature an imperfect effort. In fact, I don’t believe we will ever harvest a single pineapple from our plant. But we continue labouring anyway, and we stick to it because love comes from the heart. And, you never know …

Paul concludes his sermon by telling the church in Corinth that “you are God’s field.” In the bible, we are called many things: sheep, Christ’s body, children of God. But here we find an interesting analogy: God’s field. We are the ground in which God’s plants are watered and nourished, and out of which grow the fruit of God’s purpose.

We are the field. In my first parish which was in the middle of southern Ontario farmland near Stratford, Jessica and I once visited friends on their farm in the Springtime. On a relatively dry day, we spent an afternoon walking on the fields which would be planted soon with soybean seeds. 

We picked stones. The frost of the winter brought to the surface rocks and stones. Farmers will sometimes go through their fields in Spring and remove the stones which they then pile along fence lines and corners of their properties.

Stone-picking is an arduous and painstaking task. You basically wander across the expanse of the field picking up the rocks into pails which when filled you need to dump along the side of fence. And go back and fill another pail. Talk about commitment to your land! It’s a work of love.

This is God’s work. God wanders through the wasteland of our lives, painstakingly picking up the rocks, pulling them from our “hearts of stone”. We are the field. God is the stone-picker. God is faithful, combing through the nether regions of our lives, working the field, year after year. Year after year.

It’s a process. Growth takes time, maybe even a lifetime. But God’s love and faithfulness never fail. God never fails at doing His part: forgiving us when we make mistakes—when we judge others, when we fail in our relationships, when we can’t love for whatever reasons.

God continues His work, turning the soil of our lives, showing mercy, being faithful, envisioning, and growing us to, the life we can have and will one day have, bearing abundant fruit.

[1] 1 Corinthians 3:6-9

Practising mercy

audio for sermon ‘Practising mercy’ by Martin Malina
Candlemas (photo by Martin Malina 2 Feb 2023)

If you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted …[1]

I stopped at the pronoun “your”. Your food. Not someone else’s. The food you had set aside for yourself. That is the food you give to the hungry. Feeding the hungry is about recognizing and acknowledging what we have first received.

I know a couple of households on our street—families with children. The moms got to know each other and have had a friendship defined by their helping each other out.

For example, just as breakfast plans were underway early in the morning one of these moms would run out of milk or eggs, essential items in anyone’s fridge. But they would simply run across the street to ‘borrow’ a couple of eggs or half a carton of milk. 

I wonder how much of that happens anymore. Not just to those two, but in general. Relying on a neighbour for help. Feeling confident in crossing the street, knocking on the door, and asking: “Can I borrow a couple eggs?” 

The pandemic certainly magnified this cultural trend underscoring a belief in self-reliance. Hoarding toilet paper. Doing it on my own time and whenever I want to do it. Using my own resources to make it through life. Survival of the fittest—the smartest, the opportunist, looking out for one’s own.

We’ve truly become a society in which relying on a neighbour’s help is not in vogue. It makes us vulnerable. It puts us in someone else’s debt, and we don’t like that. It shows weakness. Lack of personal organization. Not the qualities we seek in a me-first, success-oriented culture.

In the Psalm for today,[2] we read that the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. Merciful. What does it mean to be merciful?

One meaning of mercy is to “provide relief”[3].  When you provide relief for someone, you’re not necessarily solving the bigger problem for them. You are not counting the cost nor expecting to change the world. You are just in the moment with them. You are simply being merciful, cultivating compassion, relieving the suffering a bit.

This year we left our Christmas Tree up until February 2nd. For a couple of reasons. For one, my brother, his wife and daughter visited us last week for dinner so we could finally celebrate Christmas together! But we also wanted to observe an old tradition in the church.

February 2nd is one of the most ancient Christian holy days — the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus — also called Candlemas.It commemorates the events in the Gospel of Luke when Joseph and Mary brought their newborn son to the Temple in Jerusalem. The purpose of the temple visit was Mary’s purification, a cleansing ritual forty days after the birth of a son. Upon arriving at the Temple, they encountered Simeon, an elderly blind prophet awaiting the Messiah. He took the child from them and proclaimed:

My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
                                              a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.[4]

This event marks the final festival in the cycle of light. Weeks ago, Advent began with lighting candles in anticipation of Jesus’ birth. Christmas, then was accompanied by angelic beams on the family in a manger. Epiphany celebrated the star directing seekers to his birthplace. 

And, as the season following Epiphany unfolds, the light expands, inviting the first disciples to “come and see.”[5] The final movement in the arc of light is Candlemas, where the entire world is set ablaze with God’s manifestation of love. 

Christian feast days are, of course, theological. But they are laden with cultural meanings as well. In the Roman world, and in Europe where Christianity would flourish, early February was an important time in the cycle of seasons, as it is here in Canada. Candlemas falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is the time when many of Europe’s ancient tribal people believed the earth woke up to new life. It marked the season of lengthening days — and was associated with fertility, the lambing season, and the returning of light. 

The tradition of Candlemas came out of this intersection of the Jewish story of Mary’s purification and Jesus the Light with the primal seasonal celebrations of Mother Earth and brighter days ahead. Thus, on February 2nd, it became a practice that many Christians would bring candles to the church to be blessed — and then walk through towns or villages in candlelit processions.

The long weeks of winter candle festivals — from Advent to Christmas through Epiphany — end with us bearing light into the world. In a way, it all began so passively. Waiting for God to act, to birth peace and justice in the world. God did something for us, gave us a gift of life and light. 

And the cycle concludes with a remarkable challenge — words that millions of Christians today hear from the Gospel: You are the light of the world.[6]

Yes, God created the light. Jesus is light in the darkness. And yet we — fragile and flawed human beings — are the light of the world. Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.”[7] Just like your food, it’s your light.

We are the light. [8]

How do we be the light and show mercy? What is the quality of faith that starts this journey for us? One place is right here, at the Communion table.

We come to this point of the liturgy every Sunday with this posture and maybe these words in our hearts and minds: “Here is my offering. Take it. Use it. Transform it. Make it beautiful.”

And so, we gather together and bring the stuff of our lives. We bring to the table our gifts and place them in the offering plate. We also bring all those things that may remain unnamed: our fears, worries, mortality, even sickness. We bring our dreams and our wounds. We place all of that on the altar and ask Christ to take it. To change it and make it useable. To transform it into something that can reflect the life of Christ—his wholeness, his hope.

Then, once the prayers are said over the bread and wine, bread and wine that symbolize all our named and unnamed offerings, we receive it back again, transformed. We receive it as something that can infuse us with his very life. So, what’s broken in us can be restored. What’s not enough can become enough. Our wounds and fears can be transformed into gifts—gifts we can offer the world so those who are hungry can be fed. So those who are suffering can find relief.[9] Find mercy.

We are defined, then, not so much by what we do in our self-sufficiency culture. We are defined by what we first receive. 

I want to close with a prayer, which is a poem by Wendell Berry:

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me please to carry 
this candle against the wind.[10]

[1] Isaiah 58:10

[2] Psalm 112:4

[3] Kathie Goertz Thompson, “Faithful High Priest” in Eternity for Today (Winnipeg: ELCIC, 31 January 2023).

[4] Luke 2:30-32

[5] John 1:46

[6] Matthew 5:14

[7] Matthew 5:15-16

[8] Diana Butler Bass, “Candlelit Faith: An Ancient Tradition, Full of Meaning” in The Cottage (, 1 February 2023)

[9] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Books, 2022), p.114-115.

[10] Cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.