Archives for December 2007

Seeing Christmas, 1 Christmas (A) – 2007

December 30, 2007

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147: 13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4: 4-7; John 1: 1-18

I once watched a television program on the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. It was said that he had the finest mind since Einstein. He had worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at the California Institute of Technology, and as a final project, had served on the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster.

The TV program talked about Feynman’s friendship with an artist, and how the artist had taught Feynman about art and Feynman had taught the artist about physics. At one point in the program Feynman held up a flower. He commented that his artist-friend had said how wonderful it was that everyone could see its beauty, that no specialized knowledge was necessary to appreciate the wonder of the flower.

Feynman agreed that this was partially true, everyone could look at the flower and see it; but as a scientist, he was able to “see” much more of the flower than most of us. He could see the beauty of the cells working together to support life; the mystery of the flower’s color, locked in its cells, that attracted insects; which, in turn, would lead him to wonder about the insect’s perception of color. In short, Feynman “saw” much more in that flower in a few minutes that most of us would see in a lifetime of looking.

Christmas, too, is deserving of that same kind of looking.

We need to “see” Christmas in ways that move beyond the sentimental and saccharin. So often we see Christmas and the familiar Christmas story by looking at a Christmas card that has a neat and tidy picture of the nativity on it. We look at it the way we might look at the flowers at the market as we pass by to get to the produce.

The prologue to the Gospel of John invites us to look at the Incarnation as Richard Feynman looked at the flower. The Church, in its wisdom, chooses the prologue to John’s gospel both for Christmas and the Sunday following each year. We are invited to let the words roll over us, like waves of music. We love to hear them, even though we may not be too sure about what they mean. John’s words can be like wonderful music that is experienced before it is understood.

The passage from John is more than just the preface to the gospel; indeed, the remainder of the book is in a sense an elaboration on Verse 18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

John has no nativity story, no animals in the barn, no shepherds and angels, but presents us instead with this hymn to Christ. This hymn is a love song, full of increasing light, celebrating the relationship between God and God’s only child and then extending that intimate relationship to embrace all humankind. These are powerful words that speak to us about the one who comes to us in power to make all things new for us – the exiles, the inhabitants of darkness.

Who is this Jesus, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us?

If we see only the baby lying in the manger, we see only part of the picture. As we did not celebrate Advent by pretending that Christ has not come, so we do not celebrate Christmas by pretending we don’t know what is going to happen to this child.

Christmas does not stand alone; it cannot be celebrated properly in isolation from the whole story of Jesus the Christ. To separate the story of Jesus’ birth from the harsh reality of the crucifixion is to engage in denial. The whole story reminds us that we must also see Jesus as the one who is not received. The very people who hoped, finally got the one for whom they hoped, and they did not recognize him and rejected him. When God came to us, it was as one who is weak and vulnerable, not just as the holy infant, but also as the adult hanging on the cross.

Yet Jesus, the weak, flesh-and-bone one, has real power. It is not the world’s power; it is not the power to make things right or prosperous. The power of Christ continues to be rejected by the world because it is the wrong kind of power. Jesus’ power is to let us be who we are created to be – children of God.

By embracing his weakness, our lives are transformed, and we are empowered. It is the one who is empty who makes full. It is the one who is poor who makes rich. It is the one who dies who gives life.

This Jesus, the rejected yet powerful one, comes full of grace and truth. The Evangelist here quotes a phrase from the Hebrew Scriptures meaning loyalty and reliability. Because of the coming of Christ, we look at the world in a new way. God’s faithfulness contrasts with our daily experiences in the world and calls us to faithfulness also.

The coming of Jesus presents us with a choice. We can be transformed by the power of the gospel to be God’s people, walking in God’s vulnerable ways. Or we can reject him and continue business as usual. Business as usual means sitting in the darkness, shielding our eyes, and turning away from the life-giving light. The story around which we gather today is one of transforming hope for a new life. We are invited to cooperate with the divine initiative, to let the light enable us to see the path more clearly, to make a new beginning as God’s people. Where that happens, heaven and earth do sing, there is joy to the world, and the waste places do break forth together in singing.

The Church gives us not one day, but twelve, to celebrate the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Join me in taking that time. Don’t be overwhelmed or fatigued by the cultural trappings that have surrounded us since August.

Persevere in hope and joy; don’t abandon them like Christmas trees discarded on Christmas afternoon.

For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

— The Rev. Mary K. Morrison is pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, Calif. 

Our story, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2007

December 25, 2007

Isaiah 62:6-12Psalm 97Titus 3:4-7Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

On Christmas morning couple of years ago, I was walking down Eleventh Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, to prepare for the eleven-o’clock service at my former church. There, at the curb, was someone’s Christmas tree, laid out for the trash truck. Now, can you imagine this? It was 9:30 a.m. on Christmas Day, and one of the neighbors – who, thankfully, will remain anonymous – had already taken down the decorations, the lights, the glass balls; removed the screws that attached the trunk to the stand; and carried their symbol of the Christmas celebration to the curb for the Department of Sanitation to remove along with yesterday’s junk mail.

Nine-thirty in the morning on Christmas Day.

It makes sense, you see, in our culture. It makes sense that a Christmas season that starts, at latest, in September and builds into a consumer frenzy in November should come to a crashing climax on Christmas Eve. We mailed our cards, bought our presents, and given our parties. We’ve sung the carols, enjoyed the meals, shared the gifts. Now, let’s relax. Let’s put away all this stuff, clean up all the mess, and enjoy that welcome sense of relief. It’s time to move on. Good grief, New Year’s Eve is barely a week away!

Yet, that is not what we celebrate liturgically. This is not the first time this winter that the church has proclaimed a countercultural message. Remember, during Advent, we were told to keep awake, to be still and know that God is God, to prepare in solemnity for the coming of Christ. That alone made us Christians feel a bit Scrooge-like, didn’t it?

And now – when our culture says Christmas is over – we are reveling in twelve days of it. And we’re only at day one.

We, in the church, are telling a different story from the one told by our culture. I’m told that some towns, in an attempt to thwart laws that prevent municipally sponsored manger scenes, have erected a kind of stable out of wood, in which they’ve placed a manger filled with hay, and laid the statue of a babe in it. Just to be sure you don’t think this could be the Son of God, they show Santa Claus kneeling in homage.

That’s our cultural norm, I’m afraid: Jolly old St. Nicholas, who comes to give good children gifts – and bad ones lumps of coal. And jolly old Fifth Avenue, that sells the best gifts money can buy.

Our culture’s idea of Christmas is all about spending, buying, getting more and more stuff. It’s about rewards and punishments, based on worthiness. It’s almost demonic.

Yet, our Christian story is not about gifts – although it may well include gifts, as tokens of our love.

Our story is about the redemption of the world.

Our story is about singing praises to our heavenly God, who created us out of dust.

Our story is about this God who became human, one of us.

Our story is about a God who frees all those who trust from Satan’s power and might.

And our story is not over, not complete, not fulfilled. That’s true at the level of the Christmas story, which began with the Annunciation. Don’t tell the retailers, or else next year they’ll set out Christmas decorations on March 25!

The Christmas story has slogged through morning sickness, and hormonal changes, and nine months of pregnancy – pretty ordinary stuff, hardly festive. Then, one day, the story bursts forth into joy. That’s Christmas: out of quiet, humble, simple beginnings comes an event that will rock the world.

And Mary and Joseph don’t seem to get it. Mary’s probably decided by now that the encounter with the angel months ago was some kind of hallucination. Here she is, with her working-poor husband in a stable, giving birth among the animals. Then shepherds appear, praising God. That’s a lovely thing, I imagine her saying. Aren’t the people friendly here in Bethlehem? And still, she doesn’t seem to grasp just who she holds in her arms, who suckles at her breast.

Then to complete this chapter, twelve days later, wise ones from the East appear, bringing gifts of unimaginable splendor. Great monarchs, in rich robes, traveling many miles in large entourages.

And Mary, who just days before, was bartering with a local tradesman, exchanging some wild onions she picked for some goat milk – Mary now has a chest of gold, some precious ointment, and some expensive incense.

This marks the end of the chapter, not the birth of the infant savior. And the church commemorates this event on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

On Epiphany Eve, you see, Mary and Joseph received gifts they could not imagine, did nothing to earn, and really did not deserve. Heavenly and divine gifts, to be sure. Gifts you and I each have received, as well. Gifts we could not imagine, did nothing to earn, and really did not deserve. Gifts of grace, of redemption, of love.

The gifts themselves had a monetary value in their culture, of course – but that’s not the point. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh – these gifts served primarily to point to the significance of another gift they had already received: the gift of God’s grace and redemption and love in the birth of Jesus.

So today and for twelve days hence, we revel in the chapter called “Christmas.” And we do so knowing that the birth of Jesus was the highlight of the story – but not the end of it.

Like so many stories, we really will not grasp the meaning of it until it is completely over. We focus on the beautiful image of a tiny babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. We reveled in that evocative image so much that we missed the point: “born on earth to save us, him the father gave us.”

And so the Church gives us, not one, but twelve days as a kind of “second chance” on Christmas.

Twelve days, to see behind the sense of obligation the underlying love that each gift given represents.

Twelve days, to realize how much we are loved by God.

Twelve days, to appreciate how little we deserve that love.

Twelve days, to comprehend that we have done nothing to earn that love.

Twelve days, to believe that God loves us unconditionally.

Twelve days, to revel in this good news of great joy.

Twelve days, to understand what it is to worship Emmanuel, God with us.

Twelve days, to feast on the joy of our redemption.

Twelve days, to spread the word, as tidings of comfort and joy.

Twelve days, to sing, with one accord, our praises to our heavenly Lord.

Twelve days, to let the flames of love lead us to the joys of heaven.

Twelve days, to comprehend how much we, each of us, are capable of giving and receiving the one gift that endures: love.

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation, Oradell, New Jersey.

Ready or Not, Advent 4(A) – 2007

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Here we are, on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just around the corner. Ready or not, it’s just about time for the Christmas story, told by carol, by pageant, by Sunday school children in bathrobes and tinsel halos. And when we say “the Christmas story,” we usually mean Luke’s version of the Christmas story. You know, the one with the shepherds kneeling at the manger, sheep illuminated by all the heavenly host. The spotlight shines on Mary and the baby. Joseph is there too, of course. Although Joseph usually doesn’t get any speaking lines, unless he gets to ask for room at the inn, or to inquire “please, isn’t there somewhere my very pregnant wife can lay down?” But that’s a story for Christmas Eve.

Here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we also hear the Christmas story, but it’s the one told in Matthew’s gospel. Here, in Matthew, we hear the Christmas story from the point of view of the father. Well, er, not the “father” exactly.

Joseph is decidedly not the father of Jesus. And when Joseph hears that the woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant, and he’s not the father, he assumes what any normal person would: Mary has been unfaithful. And Joseph, being a righteous man, plans to dissolve in form the engagement commitment that apparently has already been dissolved in fact.

But Joseph soon learns that the disruption of his plans for a nice simple home life with his bride and his dreams of becoming a father are not actually the stuff of soap opera drama. His question of “Who’s the father?” is actually part of a much larger, divine drama in which he will play a pivotal role – but not the role of father, exactly.

How fitting that Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is about the father who isn’t one. You see, Matthew’s got this thing about fathers. Matthew has very strong opinions about how people who follow the Son of God should regard earthly fathers and the Heavenly One.

It’s in Matthew 29 that Jesus instructs his disciples, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.” Starting with Jesus, whose Father really is the one in heaven, Matthew gives those who want to follow Jesus plenty to think about in terms of reorienting our earthly relationships, including those between children and earthly fathers.

Jesus teaches his followers to orient their allegiance toward God, and all other loyalties need to fall into their rightful places in light of our relationship with God. That means privileges usually given to fathers in Jesus’ day, such as treating children as property in many ways, and authority granted to fathers, such as making decisions binding on all members of the household, were to be removed. This means a radical redefinition of family, which Jesus himself exemplifies.

In Matthew 12, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, and he replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” You’ll notice that in Jesus’ family configuration, there are only brothers and sisters and mothers, and these are whoever does the will of the only Father, the one in heaven. Earthly fathers become brothers, giving up their earthly privileges over others, and, like those who had less power than they in Jesus’ day, they too find their meaning and purpose in the will of the one Father in heaven.

As if to emphasize this reconfiguration of family, especially of fathers, Matthew’s gospel shows us a few earthly fathers. And it’s not a pretty sight. There are some real bad dads, starting with Herod the Great. This earthly dad had some of his own children murdered in order to protect his position as king. And when he hears that some visiting magi have identified a Galilean peasant’s son as a potential rival, he orders the slaughter of the children of an entire village.

One of Herod’s surviving sons, called Herod Antipas, is another bad earthly father. When he sees his step-daughter dance, he makes an oath that she can have anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. Children need appropriate boundaries, as any child psychologist will tell you, and Herod just can’t say no. When his darling child asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, he can’t bring himself to disappoint her. In Matthew 7, Jesus asks, “Who among you,” asks Jesus, “if your child asks for bread, would give a stone?” Well, Herod, bad father that he is, will give his child, not food and protection, but serves up a gruesome and tragic dish instead.

But even when Matthew isn’t showing us truly horrible earthly fathers, he still pushes us on what our relationship to one another should be, even to our earthly fathers. For example, early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to follow him. They do, and they leave their earthly father standing alone in his boat.

We get a hint at what Jesus means about becoming a new family with one heavenly Father by watching these two throughout Matthew’s gospel. When they’re acting like followers of Jesus, that is, as true sons of Jesus’ Father, they’re called “brothers”: “James and his brother John,” or “the two brothers.” But, when they’re acting like they’ve never heard of Jesus, for example, when they’re trying to get the best seats in the kingdom, or falling asleep as Jesus prays in Gethsemane, they’re called “Sons of Zebedee.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to break our familiar patterns, and that even now we may put the desires and demands of blood relatives ahead of our loyalty to our one heavenly Father and his son, our brother, and his family.

When Matthew shows earthly parents who are doing right by their children, they are bringing them to Jesus, they are asking for their children to be healed, they are letting Jesus bless them. When parents care for their children by putting them in Jesus’ care, they are acting as sons and daughters of the Father in heaven. When any one of us cares for the least, the lost, the vulnerable, the weak, the little ones in our midst, we are acting as sons and daughters of our one Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus.

It’s at the beginning of this story that the spotlight shines on Joseph, who shows the baby Jesus the kind of care that is in line with what the child’s Father, and ours, desires. Joseph shows the kind of care that all of us are to show to those who are most vulnerable in society. Joseph follows the command of God. Joseph risks his own sense of what looks proper to the neighbors. Joseph aligns himself with someone others would call unrighteous. Joseph acts decisively when the child’s safety is at risk. Joseph is willing to act in such a way that Jesus will grow up knowing that his first allegiance is to God, and that means his family will be bigger, broader, and, yes, stranger than any family Joseph could provide. Joseph is no earthly father to be sure, but shows us precisely the sort of love our heavenly Father wants us all to show.

May we, like Joseph our brother, know and show the love of our Father in heaven, this Christmas and always.

Written by the Rev. Amy Richter
The Rev. Amy E. Richter is Missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland. E-mail: arichter@ang-md.org.