When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. . . . John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, “Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.” — Luke 1: 57-80
But I remember these things as I bare my soul:
how I made my way to the mighty one’s abode,
to God’s own house,
with joyous shouts and thanksgiving songs—
a huge crowd celebrating the festival! — Psalm 42: 1-8
The Rites of Passage Shared
July 31, 2022
Over recent weeks, we’ve been exploring the Celtic understanding of blessings within our everyday lives. The ancient Celts believed that God’s blessings came to them in the common, everyday moments of their daily experiences, especially in the ways in which our Creator speaks to us through nature, through the moments of our daily lives, and across the span of our lifetimes. Last week, we spoke about the unfolding of the seasons each year as well as the spiritual seasons within our own lives. Today, we are focusing upon the sacramental moments, the significant transitions which mark our lives from birth to death. Rites of passage come in many forms and are sacred thresholds into new and uncharted territory. These special, sometimes once-in-a-lifetime moments, when surrounded in words and acts of blessing, provide us with courage and assurance that we are not alone and that our next steps are anointed and held by God. Within the Christian tradition, the early church defined sacraments as the ways in which God’s love is revealed to us through the prayerful rituals which mark special occasions in the life of an individual and the faith community. And St. Augustine considered a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” We may think of the sacraments with a small ‘s’ as those precious moments when we gather to celebrate or support one another and in which we become aware of God’s grace present in and through the lived experience.
Let us pray, O Holy One, we are here this day to be renewed in spirit, to be encouraged and inspired, and to be invited to deeper relationship with You. Open our hearts, our minds and our very souls to your loving and compassionate presence. Amen.
As I looked ahead to this day and over the past week, I was especially mindful of those rites of passage. Just days ago, I attended the wake and funeral of the sister of my childhood best friend. I spent countless hours at her home over many years and I came to know her parents and all of her 8 brothers and sisters over that time. Her mother was, in a way, a second mother to me, and she is still alive and doing quite well at 95. Sadly, this is the second one of her 9 children that has died before her. My mother and she have continued to be friends over all of these years and out grandmothers even knew each other in the final years of their lives. Many of my siblings went to school with the kids in this family. It’s one of those rarer relationships that perhaps you recall from your own neighborhoods growing up. There were families that we came to know well.
I was struck by the rituals of the wake and funeral, so familiar, and yes, consoling in their own way. Even in families which are not very religious, there is a yearning to gather with a supportive community to pray, to remember and to give thanks for the life of the one we have lost and will always love. At the funeral, her brother spoke eloquently of her amazing life and her determination over recent years in her battle with cancer. It was humbling to hear how active she remained in the midst of regular chemo treatments; she skied over the winters and traveled widely. She had been an amazing teacher for more than 40 years. And at the end of his remarks, he invited us all to stand and give her a standing ovation for a life well lived. It was deeply moving.
When I arrived home, a beautiful birth announcement had arrived in the mail of our new grandson, Aiden, including precious pictures of this newborn with his older brother and sister. The circle of life, right? Much like Michelle sang of last Sunday. It felt like a bit of synchronicity that these two events would overlap so closely….sorrow and joy, celebration and accompaniment. And in the coming months, the family will gather for his baptism to ask for God’s blessing upon his life and to celebrate his arrival within their faith community and loving family.
And then today, July 31st. After our worship today, I will be heading to Falmouth to gather with my family to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. 90 years ago she was born in Lewiston, Maine and she too has lived an amazing life as a daughter and sister, a wife and mother to 7 of us, as a grandmother and aunt, and as a dear friend to many. I have spoken of my mother before, but I can assure you that she too deserves an ovation for a life well lived. Her deep faith has inspired her to do countless acts of kindness for many, to speak out on behalf of those she has understood to be the lost and lonely and forgotten, to work for peace and for justice, and to show up for others in need. And so, it is only fitting that we mark her special day.
John O’Donohue, the late Irish priest and poet, wrote in his book Anam Cara or Soul Friend about the outward reflection of what is going on inside us: “The face is the icon of the body, he said, “the place where the inner world of the person becomes manifest. The human face is the subtle yet visual autobiography of each person. Regardless of how concealed or hidden the inner story of your life is, you can never successfully hide from the world while you have a face. If we knew how to read the faces of others, we would be able to decipher the mysteries of their life stories. The face always reveals the soul; it is where the divinity of the inner life finds an echo and image. When you behold someone’s face, you are gazing deeply into that person’s life.” Anam Cara.
Almost all of the important rites of passage we experience are usually shared by others, whether friends or family or caretakers. And, as we gaze around the room in such moments, we look into the faces of those we care about; and they, in turn, see our faces. In such moments, the face of God is revealed. It is deeply human to want to share our joys and our sorrows; we want to recognize these moments as the sacred moments that they are in the midst of our lives…we share these special times and offer rituals of words and music and action that become familiar to us and provide us some measure of comfort, a time for joy, in the midst of our day to day lives. It is important to pause and to come together at such times, whether after a friend or family member has died or to celebrate the arrival of a new life in our world or a special birthday or anniversary. And, as we repeat these rituals, we pass this beautiful legacy along to the generations that come after us. We let them know that there is an ebb and flow to life and despite the highs and the lows, the heartache and great joy, we can be assured that others will be with us and that, indeed, the One who has loved us from our birth, is there in the midst of it all.
During the winter solstice, the ancient site at Newgrange in Ireland hosts an incredible ‘threshold moment’ for only about 20 people at a time. About 5,000 years ago, peoples living in that age constructed a burial chamber in a huge earthen mound in such a way that on the morning of the winter solstice, the rising sun would pierce a perfectly-aligned opening into the chamber. The stream of light would shine through to the depths of the tomb where remains were laid to rest. Now every year, there is a lottery to select about 20 people, as many as the chamber will hold, to be inside the chamber at the moment of sunrise to witness this event just as the ancients did. Imagine standing amongst friends and strangers in utter, complete darkness— “—as slowly, a shaft of light starts to make its way, crawling across the earth floor from the opening until the rays begin to inch up the back of the tomb and illumine the whole space.
“We, too, can experience special moments of gratitude for God’s light and presence in our lives. When we gather together to celebrate the holy rituals that carry us through our lives, we are be reminded of God’s many blessings for us.”