One of my favorite photographs of the children’s Christmas pageant last year is a picture taken while the children sang Santa Lucia. Most of the children are standing on the chancel step, all dressed in children sized choir robes. K is in the center, wearing a crown of candles, portraying St. Lucia. J, K’s brother, stands at the first pew, holding a row of candles. J has his head turned, looking back at his sister. E is at the microphone, telling the story of St. Lucia. M, little I, L, J, H, and P, are standing around K, each preparing to sing when the narrative is finished. The expression on the face of each child is so reminiscent of who they were a year ago. These beautiful children are a significant part of our mission and our ministry.
The feast day of Santa Lucia was Friday, December 13. Her story is remarkable. It is also typical of what happens to prophetic voices throughout history. Lucy lived in Sicily in the third century. She was a rich, young Christian of Greek ancestry. Raised in a pious family, she vowed her life to Christ. Her father died when she was young. Her mother arranged a marriage for her. For three years Lucy managed to keep the marriage on hold, preferring instead to devote herself to her faith. Legend has it that to change her mother‘s mind about her faith, Lucy prayed at the tomb of Saint Agatha, and her mother‘s long illness was cured. Her mother agreed to end the engagement and allowed Lucy to devote her life to God.
Lucy’s rejected pagan bridegroom denounced Lucy as a Christian to the governor of Sicily. The governor sentenced her to forced prostitution, but when guards went to fetch her, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. The governor ordered her killed instead. After torture that included having her eyes torn out, she was surrounded by bundles of wood which were set afire; the fire went out. She prophesied against her persecutors, and was executed by being stabbed in the throat with a dagger.
Legend says her eyesight was restored before her death. [i]
Although it is not exactly clear how the tradition moved from Italy to Sweden, the country has a long tradition with Saint Lucia. The first recorded appearance of a white-clad Lucia in Sweden was in a country house in 1764. The custom did not become universally popular in Swedish society until the 1900s, when schools and local associations began promoting it. Stockholm proclaimed its first Lucia in 1927. The custom whereby Lucia serves coffee and saffron buns dates back to the 1880s, although the buns were around long before that.[ii]
Lucy, and her mother, like a number of Christian saints, gave all their wealth to the poor, not out of guilt, but out of gratitude.
We have spent a number of weeks reflecting on the ways in which we at Christ Church are profoundly blessed. We are blessed with a fine congregation of gifted members and we have an amazing sense of mission as a Community-Centered Church. As a Community-Centered Church we share our building with many, many people. As a Community-Centered Church we are active in ministry and mission work in the Dearborn area and in the world at large. As a Community-Centered Church our mission and our ministry flow in and out of the church building. We share, with gratitude, the blessings we have been given by the grace of God.
Striving to live as God calls us brings with it inherent challenges. Like Lucy, this effort to live as God calls, can result in judgment and persecution. We see signs of this all around us and down through the ages, living a prophetic life is risky.
The prophet Isaiah knew very well that the prophetic life was risky. Actually the book of Isaiah was written over the course of about 240 years, possibly even over 540 years. It was authored by at least three different people who have become known as Isaiah. Portions of Isaiah are also found in 2 Kings chapters 18-20, which help to date it. There are two different identifiable periods in Isaiah. The first takes place at the end of a war in the year 740 BCE and the second takes place at the end of a war in the year 555 BCE. We know this because of references made to kings and battles within the text. [iii] Regardless of its history, the message of Isaiah is one of God’s judgment and God’s salvation. In Isaiah, you don’t have one without the other. [iv]
So, what does God’s judgment and God’s salvation look like?
Isaiah tells us in the text from our reading today that God’s judgment occurs whenever there is something that separates human beings from that which God desires. Therefore God’s judgment is not about a judge who pronounces edicts on broken laws, per se. God’s judgment is solely about relationship. And in relationship, with God and others, we find our salvation. To live in right relationship with God and others we are to look first at our own actions and words and consider, how am I living as God desires? How am I loving God, loving others, and loving self, as God desires? Of course as Episcopalians we have a clue into what God desires when we remember our baptismal covenant: respect the dignity of every human being, see in others the face of Christ, strive to live as the hands and heart of Christ in the world, continue to grow in faith.
As a Christian community we live this kind of an active faith when we focus our energy on our mission and our ministries. Jesus affirms this as our call and our primary task. In our reading this morning from Matthew Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s question, are you the Messiah, with this: tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. And the Letter from James reminds us that we are to live an active faith – put our faith into action – live lives focused on our mission and ministries.
We have clear evidence here, by the vibrancy of our mission and ministries, that we are living active lives of faith. But nonetheless we still have work to do. The questions for us this morning are specific: Where are the places – in our individual lives and in our congregational life as a Community Centered Church – where our eyes remain blind and we fail to hear where God is calling us? Another way to frame this is: How are we sitting in the judgment seat, – ‘cuz you know we are – each one of us has a default button called “judgment “- and it takes us off course and derails us. Stifled in the judgment seat, how are we failing to do our part to bring forth the kingdom of God? How are failing to live with gratitude and generosity in how we share our gifts, but also in how we treat one another? In verse nine of the Letter of James we are reminded that: “the Judge is standing at the doors!” (v. 9). In other words, if you do not want to be judged by the Judge, you had best leave judgment to God. We are to not judge one another but rather we are to bear each others faults and failings with patience. St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “We are to pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on us.” But that notion must be framed through the lens of our baptismal covenant wherein the work we do is anchored in respect and dignity.
God is the judge, scripture tells us, but Isaiah reminds us that likewise God has our back, and God will continue to prepare the path before us. Surely that is God’s salvation – preparing the path, God sends forth help, that we may live as God desires.
Let us seek the messenger, Emmanuel, and follow.
[iii] The Interpreter’s one volume Commentary on the Bible: Abingdon Press, 1971
[iv] Feasting on the Word, Year A, third Sunday in Advent