GIVEN THAT WE'VE ALL just had a face full of Christmas lights, most folks would be surprised to learn that in the church, Epiphany is traditionally the season of light (not lights—you can put them away). Epiphany is designed to put us in the position of those who first met Jesus on whom light slowly dawns. What? You mean the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy? He’s the one to redeem Israel and bring justice to every last human being on earth?! There is so much light here it is hard to see all at once. Epiphany acts as a light dimmer, waiting for our eyes to adjust, trying to keep us only slightly uncomfortable, but not overwhelmed.
Some churches have a practice of announcing a sermon series for January that can attract new people—something on sex or politics, for example. Advertise it at Christmas and then deliver with your best in the new year. That’s when folks are open to new things, and best of all for us, God illumines us at Epiphany. Learning who God is throws light on who our neighbor is—one in whom divine light shines, who is therefore endlessly deserving of our respect and adoration.
Embrace Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., talks about money in January. It seems suicidal. But folks are financially hungover from the holidays, and need help. And the gospel’s words about money are good news all the time, not just in “stewardship season” or at the year-end budget rush.
[ January 1]
All Rachel's Children
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS don’t often last. They are born in good intentions, but we are weak, fragile creatures, and habits are hard things to break.
One of my favorite moments in Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert occurs early on in the film. A tired, hungry Jesus (played by Ewan McGregor), nearing the end of his 40-day fast in the wilderness finds himself caught in a windstorm. A leaf keeps blowing playfully, catching him in his hair. In this most human and relatable moments, Jesus becomes annoyed and screams at God.
I’ve definitely been there.
Last Days in the Desert, which opens this Friday, imagines what some of that fast would have been like and explores the riddle of Jesus’ humanity and sonship.
For me, as a mother, the incarnation becomes tangible thus: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus” and [not listed in Gabriel’s announcement] he’ll be brutally killed in front of you. It becomes tangible when I again picture this mother at the foot of a cross where her son hangs. He is the savior of the world, carrying out God’s perfect plan through his death and resurrection, yes. … But he is her baby.
“A time to wait.”
I’ve always struggled with Advent as a time of waiting and awakening. What exactly are we waiting for and what do we need to be awakened to? Are we waiting for the baby Jesus? Is it a sentimental journey of ‘feel good’ when Christmas comes so I can contribute to the treasury of empire? Am I to wake up to some coming event that will happen in the future?
The historical Jesus has already come. God has entered our humanity. St. Paul says that humanity is now God’s temple (1 Cor. 3: 16-17). If we really believe that, are not we — who call ourselves “Christian” after our founder — the incarnation in our time? I think we need to wake up to that reality. As my spiritual mentor Richard Rohr says, following the mystics, “We already are that which we are seeking.”
The Cross is an inexhaustible mystery, but among the many things it does so well is make visible the love of God.
In Jesus Christ, God is not an abstraction, concept, or idea. The Unknowable is made known. The Invisible is made material. All mysticism is now grounded, and all agnosticism now countered, in this particular Person; there is now, paradoxically, a Measure within Measurelessness.
"For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body." (Col. 2:9) "For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ." (Col. 1:19)
Conversely, whatever is not revealed in Jesus is not the Triune God.
Contemporary Christians (of all sorts of persuasions) tend to de-couple God from Jesus.
"God doesn't just hate what you do. God hates who you are." — A Well-Known Contemporary Preacher
What this pastor says above, as well as much of what he says in the sermon from which this line is taken, comes from reading the Bible as if every sentence in it can and should be read as bearing the same weight as all others when we answer the question: "Who is God?"
When we read the Bible with the first Christians we begin to understand that the way they read these texts is not the way an uber-rationalist modern reads them.
Since Jesus himself was the one who taught the apostles to read the Old Testament, the way the churches they founded read the Bible is important for us, too.
God never was only the words he utters, or the ones we utter about God — just like we are never the sum total of everything we have spoken or what has been spoken of us. There is so much more to the mystery of any person than mere words; how much more so the mystery of the divine persons.
Immediately following the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope came the predictable speculation. From the United States and other wealthy nations, folks wondered what the new Pope would say about issues related to gender and human sexuality. What about birth control, homosexuality, and women’s leadership in the church? Did the new Pope really support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in Argentina, as some reported? Others, including many from Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia responded to Pope Francis’ commitment to a simple lifestyle and his commitment to economic justice. While some fretted about his relationship with the Argentinian military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, most have been impressed with his social witness. In one of his first public acts, Pope Francis entered a youth detention center in Rome and washed the feet of young offenders.
Lots of observers might wonder, “Why is the church expending so much energy on controversial social issues? Shouldn’t the church focus on spiritual matters rather than concerns of the flesh? Why does the church need to meddle in matters that lie beyond its purview?”
The Easter stories offer a direct answer. Whether we agree with the Pope or not, Christians care about human bodies. The resurrection story implies that bodies matter. Jesus’ resurrection is not merely a spiritual thing – the apparition of his ghost, or his ongoing spiritual influence. The Gospels all insist that the resurrection includes Jesus’ body.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
~ Isaiah 9:6
On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.
The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.
Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw? With whom would I want to share my last breaths?
For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.
Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.
If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.
He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.
And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.
I’m sure most of us have played the scene in our heads one too many times: little baby Jesus, presumably Caucasian, lying in a tiny crib-esque manger comfortably padded with hay — even though the song specifically says “no crib for a bed” — while the animals, which are perfectly behaved, quietly and reverently look on. Cue the wise men, in their strange, exotic garb, and sprinkle a few angels in there — you know, the ones that look like babies with wings and white togas.
That was my impression of the nativity scene as a kid, and the popular children’s Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger” didn’t do anything to help. It seemed to perpetuate the picturesque nativity image of most of the figurine depictions in our living rooms.
But, if only for a few minutes, put aside the notions that the “manger” probably wasn’t as clean and cozy as we thought, that it probably wasn’t a silent night — have you met a baby that’s gone through its first 24 hours without crying? — or that Jesus probably wasn’t snug in a crib conveniently left in a manger.
Even though the song may seem like it only deserves a cursory glance, as it was originally published in theLittle Children's Book for Schools and Families in 1885, I purport there’s something more to the childhood classic.
I've been thinking, as Advent goes on, what it meant for God to lay aside infinity and put on a body that was not just tiny, inarticulate, and helpless, but also already marked, to the marrow of its little bones, with the seeds of death.
He must have felt in his own flesh this dramatic comedown — from omnipotence and omnipresence to a being that had about threescore and 10, max, even if it hadn’t going to be cut off halfway by self-sacrifice and Roman capital punishment. And that must have given Jesus infinite tenderness and patience towards the waves and waves of people who, during his short ministry, were always coming up to him and asking, directly or just by their presence, for him to heal their bodies. In Luke, the Gospel focus of the new liturgical year, there are more than 20 healings by my count, compared to two times when someone asks Christ how to get eternal life (and only one of them actually wanted to know).
Those healings of all those bodies matter, millennia later. One big reason they matter is because healing matters. Another is because, by showing God's power over death as well as by going through death ahead of us, Christ teaches us not to be dominated by fear of it.
There is a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the Virgin Mary that describes the baby Jesus as “God’s infinity, dwindled to infancy.” The line captures perfectly the beautiful but also shocking idea, central to Christianity, that the infinite God who created the universe also chose to descend, dwindle, become small, become helpless, become dependent on human beings.
Hopkins is right: the baby Jesus is not merely a sentimental or cute idea but is potentially radical, transformative, and controversial.
If I hadn’t been so concerned about what I was going to say to the vet when the receptionist answered the phone, I would have heard the receptionist tell me loud and clear that I was through to a dental practice.
I hadn’t listened. In not listening I got everything I said wrong.
In the business I am in, of ministry and pastoral care, listening is such an important thing. I can prepare all the fancy theology and exegesis imaginable but if I don’t listen I might be getting it all wrong and embarrassing myself in the process.
Scrooge repented, promised to “honor Christmas in his heart” all year long and to never forget the lessons of the three spirits.
He celebrated Christmas day with his nephew, sent the Cratchit family a prize Christmas turkey and then given Bob Cratchit a raise. He became a second father to Tiny Tim, was known as a good man in the city and was remembered for his ability to keep Christmas well.
But, as Dickens pointed out, this didn’t come without some laughter and derision.
Some people who knew Scrooge as a misanthrope before, now saw the old, mean man as a fool. The radical conversion Scrooge underwent caused some to question whether this new Ebenezer was still of sound mind.
This is as it should be.
At the center of the nativity picture is that baby in the manger.
That baby Jesus will be many more things as his life, death, resurrection and eternity continues but here in the straw, and central to everything he will do and be, he is a symbol of grace.
This is what Christianity boils down to. This is it at its most naked. Shed the tragedies of Christian history, the boredom of what you’ve experienced in Church (how was that possible!), the legalism that has oppressed your youth or whatever else has damaged your perspective of God and you are left with this amazing concept of grace.
Put most simply, grace is the “unmerited favor” of God.
Each day leading until Christmas we will post a different video rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" for your holiday enjoyment and edification.
Today's entry is a traditional orchestration and performance of Handel's famed chorus by The Cathedral Choir of New Jersey. The video is taken from the 66th rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus" performed by the choir on Dec. 5, 2009 at Hawthorne Gospel Church in Hawthorne, NJ.