Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

Epiphany: This Brightness That You Bear

January 2, 2014

Image: This Brightness That You Bear © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

They set out; and there, ahead of them,
went the star that they had seen at its rising,
until it stopped over the place where the child was.
—Matthew 2.9

Many of you know that my amazing husband, Garrison Doles, died unexpectedly at the beginning of Advent, after experiencing complications during what we had anticipated would be a fairly routine surgery in mid-November. (I invite you to read this remembrance and blessing I wrote for Gary, if you haven’t seen it.) I am so grateful for all those who encircled us from near and far while Gary was in the hospital, and who are continuing to encompass our family during this time of stunning heartbreak. Every prayer, every word, every good thought has been such a tremendous gift in this dark season.

Gary and I are astoundingly fortunate in our families, who in these past weeks have held the light for us in ways that I can barely begin to thank them for. But this Christmas, I wanted to make the attempt, to at least try to offer up some words to honor the extraordinary lengths they have gone to in order to walk this journey with us. I wrote a blessing for them; today’s image is for them as well. I gave these to them on Christmas Day.

On Christmas Day I also shared the blessing and artwork with those who joined me in the online Illuminated Advent Retreat, by way of thanks for how they traveled with me through a season that was so different than I had anticipated. For Epiphany, I want to share this with you. For the light you bear in this world: thank you. If you are in a dark season of your own, or know someone who is, may this come as a gift and a prayer that you will receive the light you need.

Blessings and gratitude to you as Epiphany draws near.

This Brightness That You Bear
A Blessing for My Family

This blessing
hardly knows what to say,
speechless as it is
not simply
from grief
but from the gratitude
that has come with it—

the thankfulness that sits
among the sorrow
and can barely begin
to tell you
what it means
not to be alone.

This blessing
knows the distances
you crossed
in person
in prayer
to enter into
days of waiting,
nights of long vigil.

It knows the paths
you traveled
to be here
in the dark.

Even in the shadows
this blessing
sees more than it can say
and has simply
come to show you
the light
that you have given

not to return it
to you
not to reflect it
back to you
but only to ask you
to open your eyes
and see
the grace of it,
the gift that shines
in this brightness
that you bear.

I come bearing a few more Epiphany gifts for you…

At my Sanctuary of Women site, you can find a brand-new retreat that I’ve designed for Women’s Christmas, which some folks celebrate on Epiphany. To learn more about Women’s Christmas and download the retreat (at no cost), click the image or link below.

Women’s Christmas: The Shimmering Hours

For previous reflections for Epiphany, including “Blessing of the Magi,” click these images or the titles below.

Epiphany: Blessing of the Magi

Epiphany: Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel

Epiphany: Where the Map Begins

Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House

In celebration of the season, the Advent discount on annual subscriptions to Jan Richardson Images (the website that makes my work available for use in worship) will be available through Epiphany Day (January 6). For info, visit:

Jan Richardson Images

[To use the image “This Brightness That You Bear,” please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

A Women’s Christmas Gift for You

January 4, 2013

Image: Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson

These three wise women are stopping by with a gift for you. In celebration of Women’s Christmas, which is observed in some parts of the world on Epiphany/January 6, I’ve created a retreat for you. Designed for you to use on Women’s Christmas or whenever you need a space of respite and reflection, the retreat (which you can download as a PDF) offers readings, art, and blessings that invite you to take a pilgrimage into your own life.

There’s no cost for the retreat; it’s a Women’s Christmas gift especially for you! You’re welcome to share it with friends. For a link to the retreat and more about Women’s Christmas, visit this page at my Sanctuary of Women blog:

Women’s Christmas: The Map You Make Yourself

A Merry Women’s Christmas and Blessed Epiphany to you!

Almost Advent

November 21, 2012

It’s almost Advent! As we prepare to cross into the coming season, I am especially excited about what Advent holds in store this time around. At the top of my list of things that are inducing Advent excitement is the online Advent retreat that Gary and I will be offering. Here’s the skinny:

ILLUMINATED: An Online Journey into the Heart of Christmas
December 1-29

Travel toward Christmas in the company of folks who want to move through this season with mindfulness and grace. This online retreat is not about adding one more thing to your holiday schedule. It is about helping you find spaces for reflection that draw you deep into this season that shimmers with mystery and possibility. This retreat offers a space of elegant simplicity, much like the one created in my Advent book Night Visions. Intertwining reflection, art, music, and community, this four-week online retreat provides a distinctive opportunity to travel through Advent and Christmas in contemplation and conversation with others along the way.

This is an Advent retreat for people who don’t have time for an Advent retreat (and for those who do!). You don’t have to show up at a particular place or time, and you’re welcome to engage the retreat as much or as little as you wish. You can do this retreat in your jammies!

We’re excited that the retreat is already drawing folks from around the world. We’d love for you to be among them. For more info about the retreat, visit Illuminated Advent Retreat.

I have other treasures, treats, and resources designed especially for your Advent path; I invite you to stop by The Advent Door to find out more. During Advent, that’s where I’ll be posting new reflections. I look forward to journeying through the season with you there, and returning to The Painted Prayerbook for Epiphany.

Blessings and gratitude to you as Advent approaches!

Epiphany: Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel

December 31, 2011

Epiphany © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

Merry Christmas to you, still! Because Advent is always such a wonderfully intense time for me, with offering The Advent Door and being engaged in other holiday happenings, I usually arrive at Christmas Day quite spent and ready for a long winter’s nap. I am grateful that instead of being over on December 25, when I’m finally able to take a breath, Christmas is a season—a short one, to be sure, with only twelve days, but a season nonetheless, with its own rhythm and invitations.

This year, the days of Christmas have been for me a time of resting, connecting with family and friends, long walks in the beautiful Florida sunshine, and doing some dreaming about the year ahead. Though the coming months are sure to be marked by surprises, I want to enter the year with some sense of what I’d like for the path to look like, and where I’m feeling drawn to go.

The Christmas season ends with Epiphany, a feast day in which the early church celebrated Jesus’ brilliant manifestation (epiphaneia in Greek, also translated as “appearing”) not only to the Magi but also to the world through his birth, baptism, and first recorded miracle at the wedding at Cana. Eastern Christianity maintains this multifaceted celebration of Epiphany, while we in the West focus primarily on remembering and celebrating the arrival of the Magi, those mysterious and devoted Wise Men who traveled far to welcome the Christ and offer their gifts.

As we travel toward Epiphany and savor the final days of Christmas, this is a good time to ponder where we are in our journey. As we cross into the coming year, where do you find yourself on the path? Have you been traveling more by intention or by reacting to what’s come your way? What direction do you feel drawn to go in during the coming weeks and months? Is there anything you need to let go of—or to find—in order to take the next step? In the coming months, what gift do you most need to offer, that only you can give?

Blessings and traveling mercies to you as we approach Epiphany and the year to come. I look forward to walking with you.

For Those Who Have Far to Travel
An Epiphany Blessing

If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
undertake it;
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping
step by
single step.

There is nothing
for it
but to go
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond distractions
beyond fatigue
beyond what would
tempt you
from the way.

There are vows
that only you
will know;
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you
can give—
before turning to go
home by
another way.

P.S. For previous reflections on Epiphany here at The Painted Prayerbook, click the images or titles below. Also, the special holiday discount on annual subscriptions to Jan Richardson Images (the website that makes my work available for use in worship and education) will be available through Epiphany Day (January 6). For info, visit Jan Richardson Images.

Epiphany: Where the Map Begins

Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House

Feast of the Epiphany: A Calendar of Kings

The Feast of the Epiphany: Magi and Mystery

[To use the “Epiphany” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Epiphany: Where the Map Begins

December 30, 2010

An Ancient Light © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

I love this time between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Although the prospect of moving beyond the holidays is always a bit poignant for me, I take comfort in knowing that the festival of Christmas lasts not for one day but for twelve, and there is still cause for celebration before we leave this season. This year in particular I am grateful for the opportunity to rest and reflect, and to do some dreaming as well as playing before I dive into the coming year.

In these blissfully quiet days, I have spent time curled up with a few books. One that I am especially savoring was a Christmas gift from my parents. Mapping the World: Stories of Geography, written by Caroline and Martine Laffon, is a beautifully produced book that traces some of the history of how we humans have sought to chart the universe, and our place within it, over millennia. With images of maps from ancient to contemporary times, the book reveals how maps are never neutral documents: they provide a glimpse of the beliefs, myths, legends, and sometimes prejudices of those who created them.

I have spent much time this year thinking about maps. In retreats, workshops, worship, and conversation, the question has surfaced again and again: In a world that we enter with no map in hand, no blueprint, no book of instructions, how do we find our way? In the Wellspring service, the contemplative worship gathering that Gary and I lead, we recently finished a five-part series titled “Mapping the Mysteries of Faith.” As we explored this theme and the questions that it stirred, the conversations we had at Wellspring were rich and refreshing. We didn’t leave with many answers—that’s not the point of the Wellspring service—but I found myself reminded once again of how crucial it is to have the company of wise travelers as we make our own maps.

With Epiphany on the horizon, I find myself thinking of the magi, those ancient travelers who went in search of the Christ. Wise to the heavens, they still possessed no map, no ready-made chart that laid out their course.  As Matthew tells it, all that the magi had to illuminate their terrain and guide their way was a star. This was where their map began: with a burning light, with a step taken, with the company of others gazing in the same direction.

In that spirit, here’s a new poem. Composed while I was curled up among the books, it’s for Epiphany, and for you.

Where the Map Begins

This is not
any map you know.
Forget longitude.
Forget latitude.
Do not think
of distances
or of plotting
the most direct route.
Astrolabe, sextant, compass:
these will not help you here.

This is the map
that begins with a star.
This is the chart
that starts with fire,
with blazing,
with an ancient light
that has outlasted
generations, empires,
cultures, wars.

Look starward once,
then look away.
Close your eyes
and see how the map
begins to blossom
behind your lids,
how it constellates,
its lines stretching out
from where you stand.

You cannot see it all,
cannot divine the way
it will turn and spiral,
cannot perceive how
the road you walk
will lead you finally inside,
through the labyrinth
of your own heart
and belly
and lungs.

But step out,
and you will know
what the wise who traveled
this path before you
the treasure in this map
is buried not at journey’s end
but at its beginning.

As we travel through these Christmas days toward Epiphany and the coming year, where do you find yourself in your map? What are you giving your attention to? Are you looking in a direction that enables you to see possible paths? Is there a turn you need to take in your map? Where might you begin? Who can help?

As we travel toward Epiphany and beyond, blessings and good company to you.

[For previous Epiphany reflections, visit Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House; Feast of the Epiphany: A Calendar of Kings; Inviting Epiphany; and The Feast of the Epiphany: Magi and Mystery.]

[To use the “An Ancient Light” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Feast of the Epiphany: Blessing the House

December 31, 2009

The Wise Ones © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Epiphany, Years ABC: Matthew 2.1-12

In the rhythm of the liturgical year, the season of Christmas comes to an end with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning manifestation or appearance. In Western Christianity, we observe this day primarily as a commemoration of the wise men who journeyed to see Jesus. In the East, Epiphany is a major feast day that celebrates not only Christ’s manifestation to the world through his birth and to the magi in their visit but also the way in which he showed himself forth in his baptism and in his first recorded miracle, the changing of water to wine at the wedding at Cana.

In doing some reading about the Feast of the Epiphany recently, I’ve been intrigued by a custom that is often mentioned in connection with this day of celebration: the blessing and chalking of the house. Many versions of the ceremony that I’ve come across include these elements:

-The reciting of a blessing upon the house (or other dwelling) and those who inhabit it

-The blessing of a piece of chalk that is then used to write a formula above the entry of the house. The formula incorporates the current year with the initials of the wise men (whose names are not recorded in scripture but were given by tradition as Caspar [or Gaspar], Melchior, and Balthasar). This coming Epiphany, it would be written this way:

20 + C + M + B + 10

(Some folks note that “C M B” can also stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” which means “May Christ bless this dwelling.”)

-The sprinkling of the door with holy water

Although it seems to be an ancient practice, I haven’t found any explanation of the origin of the custom. I suspect that, like many rituals, it has several layers of meaning and that its origin has more than one source. Certainly it has much resonance with the visit of the wise men to the home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the manner in which they blessed it with their presence and their gifts.

So I’ve been thinking about house blessings as Epiphany approaches, especially since Gary and I will soon be in search of a house of our own. We’re engaged to be married next spring, and I’m daily praying that God will lead us to a (spacious) abode that will welcome two adults, each of whom needs a studio at home (and a copious measure of personal space), and Gary’s teenaged son. (Did I mention we’re looking for something spacious?)

At the same time that I’m thinking of (and praying for) a physical dwelling that we will inhabit and bless, I also find myself imagining the coming year as a house—a space in time that is opening itself to all of us. How will we inhabit the coming year? How will we enter it with mindfulness and with intention? How will we move through the rooms of the coming months in a way that brings blessing to this world?

With these questions in mind, I offer this blessing for you.

The Year as a House: A Blessing

Think of the year
as a house:
door flung wide
in welcome,
threshold swept
and waiting,
a graced spaciousness
opening and offering itself
to you.

Let it be blessed
in every room.
Let it be hallowed
in every corner.
Let every nook
be a refuge
and every object
set to holy use.

Let it be here
that safety will rest.
Let it be here
that health will make its home.
Let it be here
that peace will show its face.
Let it be here
that love will find its way.

let the weary come
let the aching come
let the lost come
let the sorrowing come.

let them find their rest
and let them find their soothing
and let them find their place
and let them find their delight.

And may it be
in this house of a year
that the seasons will spin in beauty,
and may it be
in these turning days
that time will spiral with joy.
And may it be
that its rooms will fill
with ordinary grace
and light spill from every window
to welcome the stranger home.

Wherever you make your home, may it be blessed, and may you enter this Epiphany and the coming year in peace.

[For other Epiphany reflections, please visit my previous post. If you’re working with the lection from John’s gospel for this Sunday (Christmas 2), please see this reflection.]

[To use the “Wise Ones” image, which is from my book In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season, please visit this page at For all my artwork for the Feast of the Epiphany, please see this page. Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Inviting Epiphany

December 30, 2008

Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson

I’m working on a reflection for the gospel lection for Epiphany, but in the meantime, I offer you this festive trio to get the celebration under way. Wise Women Also Came was one of the first collages I did when I started to discover, many years ago, that there was an artist lurking in me. I created this as my Epiphany (i.e., belated Christmas) card the year I graduated from seminary. I made it out of plain construction paper; this was before I had discovered the wondrous world of art papers. (A trip to The Japanese Paper Place, now simply called The Paper Place, while visiting my sister in Toronto changed all that; you could say that walking into its stunning space was, well, an epiphany.)

These wise women made their way onto the cover of my first book, which I was writing during the same time that I was getting to know my inner artist. They also made an appearance in Night Visions, my first book to wed my writing and my artwork. This time a poem accompanied the women:

Wise Women Also Came

Wise women also came.
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
would open
under the light of the moon.

Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
no permission
from any king.
They came
by their own authority,
their own desire,
their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to lead
to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
inconsolable lamentations.

Wise women also came,
and they brought
useful gifts:
water for labor’s washing,
fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.

Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her
in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings
into her ear.

Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.

Next week, in the wake of an intense season of travels and other endeavors, I’ll resume working on a new book. It’s something of a sequel to Sacred Journeys, the book I was writing when these wise women took shape. Though I rarely find writing easy (when folks ask me if I enjoy writing, I usually say, “I enjoy having written”), I’m looking forward to reentering the rhythm of working on a book in a focused fashion. It seems an opportune time to revisit these wise women as I seek a blessing for the path, and the book, ahead. I wonder who will show up this time, and what epiphanies they will have in store.

Who have been the wise women in your life? What epiphanies have they instigated? Here at the ending of the year, what wisdom do you want to gather up from the past twelve months and take with you into the coming year? What blessing, what gifts, do you need to receive for the path ahead? What gifts do you need to offer, that only you can give?

Peace to you in this time of turning.

[To use this image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Merry (Continued) Christmas!

December 26, 2008

Presentation the Temple © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Christmas 1: Luke 2.22-40

A blessed Feast of St. Stephen and a Happy Boxing Day to you! Advent tends to be such an intense season for me that this year I find myself particularly grateful that Christmas is not just one day, concluding at midnight last night (at which point the radio station I was listening to abruptly ceased its Christmas music) but rather a period of twelve days. There’s some variation as to when the Twelve Days of Christmas begin; some say Christmas night, others begin counting on December 26; regardless, it’s finished by Epiphany on January 6. The point, however, is that Christmas invites us to not wrap up our celebration of the Incarnation too quickly.

This period offers us several feast days that add texture to the season. Two of them commemorate folks who were important in the life of the early church; today is the Feast of St. Stephen (the first Christian martyr), and tomorrow is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist (to whom the fourth gospel is attributed). December 28 offers us the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which bids us remember Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the male children in Bethlehem. This feast in particular calls us to acknowledge the shadow side of Christmas and to be mindful of our call to relieve the suffering that persists even amid the joy of the Incarnation.

This year, as I recover from the blessed intensities of the Advent season, I’m giving particular thought to how I might linger in my celebration of Christmas, how I might find some festive rest in these days. In this period between Christmas Day and Epiphany, are there any practices I might take on that would help me savor this season? Might those practices become new traditions in my own observance of the fullness of Christmas?

In the spirit of seeking some rest in this time, my reflection on the lectionary this week will be abbreviated. This Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary gives us Luke 2.22-40 for our gospel reading. Luke tells us of how Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple, which, according to the law, would have occurred forty days after Jesus’ birth. They went not only to present Jesus but also for Mary to go through the prescribed rituals of purification following a birth. In the Temple they meet the prophets Simeon and Anna, who have long waited for this moment.

When I created a mixed media series called The Advent Hours a few years ago, I included a depiction of this moment in the Temple; it’s the image above (somewhat cropped for my purposes here). In creating it, I borrowed from medieval artists who rendered this scene, particularly the artists whose illuminated prayerbooks inspired this series. This is what I wrote to accompany my version of the Presentation in the Temple:

A light for revelation, Simeon says of Jesus when Mary and Joseph go to the temple to engage in the rituals required after the birth of a child. Medieval artists sometimes conflated the Presentation in the Temple with the Circumcision of Jesus, which would have happened several weeks previously. Although Simeon wouldn’t have actually held the knife, as these medieval artists sometimes depict, he has cutting words nonetheless: And a sword will pierce your own soul, too, he says to Mary. Then the prophet Anna arrives, and she sings of redemption, and perhaps Mary remembers: A light, he said; a light for revelation. A luminous Word.

So how might these Christmas days invite you to linger with the luminous Word whose birth we are not done celebrating? Where do you find yourself in the wake of December 25th? What were the gifts of Advent? What were the challenges? What do you need now? How will you get it?

December 26 finds me feeling both sentimental and expectant. Not to mention tired. But recovering. In the wee hours of yesterday morning, I posted my final reflection for this year’s journey toward Christmas at The Advent Door. As with last year, publishing my Christmas reflection, and ending the Advent pilgrimage, offered a poignant mix of relief and regret. Intense as they are—and in part because of their very intensity—I love the days of Advent, love diving into their richness and finding what new words and images they have yet to offer me. I’m always a little sorry to see those days go. But—they’ll come around again next year, inviting us once again to find new gifts in the ancient story of the Word that came, and comes still, as light and life.

If you didn’t make it all the way through The Advent Door, I invite you to pay a visit there as we move through these lingering days of Christmas. Until Advent rolls around again next year, I look forward to finding what the coming months have to offer and exploring that here at The Painted Prayerbook. I am grateful beyond measure for your presence on the path.

Merry (Twelve Days of) Christmas to you, and a wondrous new year ahead!

For What Binds Us

August 31, 2008

For What Binds Us © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 18/Ordinary 23/Pentecost +12: Matthew 18.15-20

If you have arrived here via The Text This Week, welcome! For my new reflection on this passage, please visit Where Two, Where Three.

Writing this, I’m sitting on the porch of a house on an island off Savannah, Georgia. Inside the house are the women with whom I spend each Labor Day weekend. From time to time I can hear their voices from where I sit; they are in the kitchen fixing dinner, or watching the game on TV, or talking at the table. These women are some of my closest friends from seminary. I have loved them nearly half my life. The seven of us are scattered across the Southeast: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. We cross paths rarely during the rest of the year, but, in a tradition that began while we were still in school nearly two decades ago, we gather annually for several days of talking and eating and talking and eating and reading and napping and eating and did I mention talking?

Each of us is engaged in some kind of ministry. Most of us serve in settings beyond the local church, but all of us are connected with a congregation. And so, whenever we’re together, much of our talking has to do with church, and with all that comes from being part of a community still learning to be the body of Christ. Our stories reveal our awareness of the possibilities and painfulness that come with those relationships. We know how these communities can both call forth and stir up all that we are capable of as humans; we have seen the glory and the gore that come in attempting to be the church.

In our gospel lection for this Sunday, Jesus speaks to the challenge and the wonder of being in community. He recognizes that being his follower, being part of his body, will not relieve us of brokenness. Jesus is clear that being Christian doesn’t mean avoiding conflict, and that discord should not be allowed to fester and infect the entire body. He lays out a plan that requires his followers to engage a brother or sister who has done harm. His plan is one that seeks to preserve the dignity of the one perceived to have done wrong and to restore his or her relationship with the community.

Jesus’ blueprint for dealing with conflict is an ambitious one. It places a lot of trust in a church’s ability to discern what constitutes a sin and to deal with one another in ways that are both forthright and loving. I appreciate that he thought his followers could be this mature.

We Christians haven’t always been so good at this. In the presence of brokenness among the body, we have often either avoided making a direct response, or we have inflicted punishment that precludes ongoing relationship.

To engage one another in the way that Jesus describes in our gospel lection poses challenges on several fronts, not least of which is that we don’t always agree on what constitutes a sin. For another, we each have our own sins to reckon with, and times when we act out of our brokenness rather than our lovingness. It’s often so much easier to point toward what we see as sinful in another’s life than to deal with the ways that we ourselves bring harm to the body of Christ. Jesus knows this, too. It wasn’t so many chapters ago that he said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3)

Dealing with the sources of conflict in the church requires such profound humility on our part. We find this kind of humility in this story of Abba Moses, a desert father who spent much of his earlier life as a robber:

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.)

Being people of humility and forgiveness doesn’t mean doing away with discernment; after all, Abba Moses also cautioned, “Do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour.” The health of the community requires us to be vigilant about rooting out the sources of harm. Yet Christ calls us to do so with a spirit that acknowledges our own brokenness and shortcomings and seeks to restore relationships wherever possible.

Engaging one another around the most difficult challenges of living together means that we have to know each other. It compels us to see one another with a clarity by which we not only recognize one another’s shortcomings but also know each other’s stories. This clarity grows elusive in a culture where face-to-face connections are becoming more difficult to form and maintain. It requires effort and intention to seek and sustain such seeing. My days with the women of this Labor Day group remind me how much the effort is worth. These women call me to remember what is possible among people who know one another this well, who know the questions to ask, who know how to challenge and sustain and accompany and love one another into being.

Jesus recognized the power of this kind of knowing. For all the challenges of conflict in a community, the power of concord is stronger. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus goes on to say in this passage, “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Where we find a place of connection amid conflict, where we gather in the name of the one who calls us to be his body, where we give ourselves to knowing one another: that is not only astounding, it is a miracle that moves heaven and earth.

Jesus underscores this by telling his followers what he has recently told Peter: that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Jesus’ phrase about binding and loosing come from the rabbinic tradition, in which rabbis had the power to discern whether a questionable action would be permitted under the law. Yet in the context of this passage about our life together as followers of Christ, his words about binding and loosing prompt me to ponder what connects us, those threads that seem so strong and slack by turns. I think of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “For What Binds Us,” how she describes the scars that grow from our loving of one another, how those scars become cords that create “a single fabric that nothing can tear or mend.”

So, on this September day, what binds you? What holds you together with others? What do you fashion from the scars you carry? What do you long for in your relationships? What are you willing to do to find or create it? Who can help?

In your binding and loosing, in the conflict and concord that come in your loving: blessings.

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A Postscript to Pentecost

May 11, 2008

Happy Pentecost to you! On this occasion of Pentecost’s unusual confluence with Mother’s Day, I’ve found myself thinking about the frequency with which Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears front and center in artful depictions of Pentecost. In the first chapter of Acts, the author makes a point of noting that “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus,” were among those who gathered in the upper room, devoting themselves to prayer. The text implies her prayerful presence at Pentecost, and artists across the centuries highlighted her among the gathered assembly. Because of her presence and leadership among the disciples, along with her role as the mother of Christ, Mary became known as Queen of the Apostles as well as Mother of the Church.

The artful images of the Pentecostal Mary illuminate an intriguing resonance with the story of the Annunciation. In Luke’s gospel, we read of how the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. As with the Annunciation, paintings of Pentecost, such as this one in the St Albans Psalter, typically depict a woman open to the Spirit who appears—as so often in Christian iconography—in the form of a dove.

In much the same way that many medieval artists portrayed Mary reading at the Annunciation, they often depicted her in a similar fashion at Pentecost, as in this page from a 15th-century French Book of Hours. Another French Book of Hours depicts Mary kneeling at a prie-dieu as she reads, a motif that often appeared in artwork of the Annunciation.

As a blissfully incurable lover of books, I take great delight in these images of the literary, Pentecostal Mary who remained steeped in the Word throughout her life. These images also challenge me to ponder how I’m opening myself to the God who comes to us as both Word and Spirit. What do they stir in you?

On this day and all the days to come, may the Spirit breathe through the mothers and others who care for the children of the world.

(Artwork: Annunciation to Mary [detail] from The Advent Hours © Jan L. Richardson.)