Incarnation

It's the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel ... Peace

Close-up of the glyphs on the Mayan calendar.
Close-up of the glyphs on the Mayan calendar.

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.

What Are You Singing: Away In A Manger

Ramon Grosso Dolarea / Shutterstock
Nativity scene. Ramon Grosso Dolarea / Shutterstock

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.

The Marrow Road

Photo: Jesus healing, © V. J. Matthew / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Jesus healing, © V. J. Matthew / Shutterstock.com

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.

God Occupies a Baby Crib

Photo: Depiction of a baby Jesus, © R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Depiction of a baby Jesus, © R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

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.

 

Phone Foul: The Importance of Being a Good Listener

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.

The Freedom to Choose Life

There is so much life for us to enter into now that Christ is born. Our baptism into the life of Christ means that we inhabit a world of new beginnings. God is always seeking to communicate with us. Discernment is an essential part of hearing and receiving God’s words. The voice of God is full of power, but God does not force God’s self upon us. Rather we have to decide how we use the freedom God offers us. The triune God, who created order from chaos in the beginning, still desires to form us, to overturn our understanding of freedom and order.

We cannot escape God’s knowledge of us. This is cause for both thanksgiving and awesome trembling. It’s also an invitation to seek to know God as intimately as we are known by God. The basis of knowing God is love. As we grow in our ability to love God, our capacity for learning how to love others also expands. The Holy Spirit helps us recognize the communal nature of God’s love and call. How we live our lives affects those around us. The degree to which we seek to know and love one another is the degree to which we will understand this truth. The chaos in our world seems to call forth self-appointed prophets proclaiming doomsday and telling us “the time is at hand.” The specific prophecies might be wrong, but it is true that the time’s at hand. It is always the time to turn and freely choose new life in Christ.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

[ January 1 ]
Is That It?
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148;
Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

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The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: Charity worth Laughing At

Illustration of Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.
Illustration of Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.

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.

A Christmas Reflection: Grace

"Lying in a manger." Image via http://bit.ly/rD9s7H
"Lying in a manger." Image via http://bit.ly/rD9s7H

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.

Hit the Hallelujah Button: With the Cathedral Choir from New Jersey

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.

Hallelujah Chorus from RVR Video Productions on Vimeo.

Why the "War on Christmas" Doesn't Translate Across the Pond

Christmas lights in London's Trafalgar Square, St. Martin's in the Field behind.
Christmas lights in London's Trafalgar Square, St. Martin's in the Field behind. Via http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/839615

I’m not sure we can quite get our heads around the latest ‘war’ being waged in the United States – the ‘war on Christmas’.

Visions of the 101st Airborne heading towards the North Pole abound. Anti-reindeer defense weapons, covert elf anti-merriment operatives and a unilateral ban on all copies of A Christmas Carol (in its various media iterations)? Is that what we have come to?

Surely — and thankfully — not, but given some of the rhetoric that is thrown around in the media at this time of year, you might be forgiven for thinking so!

Given that most reporting about religion in the UK and Europe usually includes the phrase “an increasingly secular country," you might think that the "war on Christmas" back on the old sod is even more sustained and sophisticated than in the United States.

Picture heavily fortified nativity scenes being assaulted by atheist flash mobs chanting “HAPPY HOLIDAYS!” if you will.

Well, I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve yet to witness such a terrifying scene on the streets of London.

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