Archives for December 2010

Welcome the divine glory, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

December 26, 2010

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

The familiar Christmas story that features angels and shepherds, a brilliant star and a silent night, Mary and Joseph in a stable, and the newborn child asleep on the hay – this is a story that captures the imagination. It is the source for countless carols and pageants, greeting cards and paintings, and nativity scenes. It is sung about, seen, and celebrated wherever Christmas is kept.

But this Christmas story from Luke’s gospel is not the only perspective on the birth of Jesus that appears in the New Testament.

There’s also Matthew’s version, which emphasizes the dreams of Joseph, Herod’s fear and violence, the magi and their mysterious gifts, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

There’s the opening chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, where the Son of God appears as heir of all things, victorious and triumphant.

There’s the passage in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which describes Christ born of a human mother so that we can be adopted as God’s children.

And there is also today’s gospel, the opening verses of John, which offer still another perspective on the birth of Jesus, another view of Christmas and what it means for us.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination. John’s approach is different. It is not opposite to that of Luke. It is not more or less important. It reveals the same Christ. But it is different. For where Luke engages the imagination, John’s verses can be said to engage the mind.

The symbol for John’s gospel is the eagle, because the eagle soars to the heights and has keen vision. Nowhere is such symbolism more appropriate than in the opening verses of this gospel, where immediately we are taken up to eternity and daringly witness that before anything was created, the Word already was, and this Word was with God, and this Word was God.

But what is this Word, and how does this passage deal with Christmas? Again, if Luke’s focus is imagination, John’s focus is thought. And so John borrows a term from the most sophisticated thought of his time, both Jewish and Greek. This term we conventionally translate as “Word.”

This term has a rich history among ancient civilizations living on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It does not mean simply “word” in our ordinary English sense. Instead, it means at least three things.

First, it refers to the structure that underlies the universe, what holds everything together, what makes things work. It is this Word that scientists of our time endeavor to hear and understand, whether they be physicists or biologists or astronomers. The glue that somehow unites all aspects of our wonderfully complex cosmos – this is part of what John means in today’s gospel in making reference to the Word.

The second meaning has to do, not with what is, but with what ought to be, the divine law and intention. Atoms and galaxies are obedient; they follow laws appropriate to what they are. Human beings are manifestly not obedient, yet still we understand there is a law. All people recognize this, however imperfectly, and ethicists and legislators work to express this law. So the way we are meant to live, in all its power and profundity – this is part of what John suggests in making reference to the Word.

Yet another sense of this term has to do with meaning and purpose, with a question that haunts every human heart: What’s it all about? We endeavor to connect with purpose and meaning through myriad forms of philosophy and religion, literature and art. We rage against the suggestion that the grandeur and sorrow of earthly existence is without significance. A persistent sense of purpose in the universe – this is part of what John means in making reference to the Word.

John’s focus is the rigors of thought rather than the richness of imagination. He borrows this term, the Word, from the most significant thought of his contemporaries. And he makes impressive assertions about this Word. This Word is not made at some moment in time, but always was, and always is, and always will be. The Word is with God and is God. The Word is the creator of the universe. In this Word are both life and light.

Wherever, then, people have some awareness of knowledge, of ethics, of purpose, they are enlightened by the Word, regardless of whether or not they know this is happening.

It is now that the drama begins. This Word enters the world in a new way, but remains unacknowledged, unrecognized, even by people who should have received the Word. But the Word persists, with that persistence we call love.

It is here John makes his most astounding claim. He puts together what human reason would say are incompatible. He announces that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

On the one hand, flesh: humanity in its finitude and frailty. Not the body simply, but human nature as subject to suffering, decay, ignorance, and destruction. It is this that the Word becomes by choice.

And remember what the Word is: the structure that underlies everything, the way we are meant to live, the purpose of existence. The Word who creates and who sustains the entire marvelous universe, from unimaginable galaxies down to unimaginable subatomic particles – this Word becomes flesh, a baby who wets and cries and shivers in the cold.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination, electrifies the imagination. John’s verses, on the other hand, engage thought and blow the circuits of the mind by audaciously uniting, and uniting forever, what human thought sets apart as opposite: our frail human flesh, with its ills and weaknesses, its ignorance and destruction; and the Word, which come forth forever from the Father and underlies all creation, all ethics, all meaning and purpose.

Luke and John demonstrate different approaches to the truth of Christmas. They are not opposite, and one is not more important than the other, but they are different. Their differences appear in what we have already considered, and also elsewhere in their respective accounts.

Do you remember how Luke’s Christmas story ends? Mary treasures the angelic message delivered to her by the shepherds, and ponders its significance in her heart. The shepherds return to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard. Thus Mary appears as a model of contemplation, the shepherds as a chorus of praise. It is not hard to imagine Mary as reflective, realizing in new ways who her child is and the purpose he was born for. Nor is it hard to imagine the bright-eyed shepherds dashing off, full of joy, different people than they were only hours earlier. Thus we have a picture on earth of the life to which we are invited in heaven: the contemplation and praise of God.

Recall now a point in John’s verses where he shifts attention undeniably to himself and his audience: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

Luke appeals to the imagination; John appeals to the mind. And here John entices, teases, and excites the mind with the claim that we can see God’s glory. We can see it in Jesus: his birth at Bethlehem, his cross on Calvary, his resurrection appearances at Easter, his love alive among his people.

This is the glory that flames forth in the heart of blessed Mary.

This is the glory that makes shepherds sing for joy.

This is the glory available to every heart and mind that welcomes the truth of Christmas.

So then, allow your imagination to be delighted by Luke’s beautiful story. Let your mind be enlivened by John’s announcement that the Word has become flesh. Ponder the depths of divine mercy along with blessed Mary. Sing with the shepherds of Bethlehem, for the angel’s message is meant for you as well as them.

Welcome the divine glory today and all the year round, for it is ours to see Jesus, both now and throughout eternity.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

The best news, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2010

December 25, 2010

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 9; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

People spend a lot of time waiting: we wait for services to be delivered, we wait in line to be served at the post office and the bank, and we wait for next year, hoping perhaps it will be better, and possibly fearful that it won’t be. “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” is an expression of dread, and one on the lips of many who worry about their jobs, their futures, and their health.

Our culture tries to address all this with panaceas, things to make waiting more tolerable. We have things we can buy to wear in our ears so we can listen to music while we wait, we have online banking so we can avoid the lines, and we can even print our post office postage online. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is countered by shopping, eating, dieting, exercising – the list is inexhaustible. Then why are so many of us anxious and cynical?

By now most of us just want a little peace and quiet to savor Christmas, even if we haven’t finished the to-do list. But then, there’s the stuff to take back and exchange, the year-end financials to file, the decorations to take down and put away, the …

Wait! What was that in the second reading this morning? “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”

That may not have been in any of our presents under the tree, but it truly is the greatest of gifts, something totally unearned, undeserved, and if this is the dropping of the other shoe, let it be!

We don’t have to make ourselves happy. We don’t have to classify things as “fun” or “not fun”; we can see them all as part of the gift of life. We don’t have to solve the unsolvable or try the most expensive remedy. God gives to us as we are, for how we are, for what we are. God gives us a babe born in a manger not to mock, but to affirm our humanity. A babe born in a manger is hard to resist and opens our hearts to tenderness and awe – and there is nothing we can buy or bake that will do that in the same way.

An older man recently got a Christmas card from someone he barely remembered. Years ago the man had been a teacher in a tough school in a hardscrabble industrial community. One of his students told him he was going to quit school and go to work in the car factory; he’d make good money. The man told him not to do it, that he would live to regret it. The boy’s father came to school the next day and scolded the man for interfering in family matters. The father told the man all the children in his family had gone to work and quit school, and they had all earned good livings.

But this boy heeded the teacher’s advice and stayed in school and graduated. Later he got into some trouble – bad trouble that put him behind bars for a long sentence. While incarcerated, he wrote to his former teacher and told him, “You were the only person who ever acted like you cared what happened to me, and I have remembered that even when life has been pretty ugly.”

That is the story of Jesus being born into the world. God is concerned about us, cares about us more than anyone else can.

Biblical scholars tell us that all of the titles ascribed to Jesus – Messiah, Prince of Peace, Anointed One – were all titles ascribed to the Roman emperor. The Emperor had to use raw and terrible military power to protect those titles. They were inscribed on Roman coins and statues as constant reminders, and legions were summoned to defend them when necessary.

Jesus’ entry into the world, proclaimed by the angels and witnessed by shepherds, is a soft entry that mocks the political order. The shepherds witness the babe, then tell a few friends, then disappear into history. But countless millions take up their witness and even today, this very day, some for the first time will realize it is true, that God born in the flesh is good news, the best news, and the most precious of gifts at Christmas.

There is so little we truly need once we embrace the babe in the manger, and even less that we want. Jesus becomes the answer to all our longings and hopes, the resolution of our dreams, and the failing of our fears. Time and again we are reminded of God’s goodness toward us, and the birth in the manger is the beginning of a journey that will end with the cross, the true sign of God’s outpouring to us.

Well might we join with the angels and proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 

— Ben Helmer lives with his wife in Holiday Island, Ark. He will be delivering this sermon on Christmas Day at St. James’ Episcopal Church in nearby Eureka Springs.

The work of Christmas, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2010

December 24, 2010

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

On this holy night, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who, according to Luke, was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, because the town was full of out-of-town visitors who had come to pay their taxes. But if you look around, you will see that we’ve made much more of this celebration than the observance of a simple birth story.

This time of year is profoundly fraught with multi-layered meanings; family traditions; economic success for merchants; in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice; the pause between the end of the lunar year and the longer solar year; and our year-end tendency to want to evaluate this year before embarking on another. All these things, along with a group of fictional stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, find their way into our consciousness, our decorations, our gift-buying habits, our parties, and into our expectations. Our culture treats Christmas with massively sentimental attention. We watch Hallmark specials on TV, we resurrect “A Christmas Carol” with its ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; and we long for our families to match these sentimental visions. We can even get sentimental over a puny little Christmas tree, like the one in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

None of this is bad. Traditions instruct us, delight us, and remind us of our values. But Christmas trees and Rudolph don’t have anything to do with the birth of a Savior. What is this story meant to tell us? If we really want to look at Christmas past, imagine the morning after Jesus is born:

The stable is full of animals. The cow is loudly asking to be milked. The straw smells like animal dung and the funk of childbirth. Stunned and exhausted new parents wake up to an entirely different reality from yesterday: there’s a baby in their lives now. They rub their eyes: were those really angels making all that noise last night? And what about those shepherds – they found us in this dim little stable because, they said, a host of angels showed them the way. The new life lying in the straw between them is somehow the cause of all the commotion. True, every baby is a miracle, but this baby – Mary and Joseph can’t stop staring at him, touching him, holding him, like any new parents – they know that God has plans for this baby, and they’re a little afraid.

We often regard this sweet scene through a Hallmark-special fuzzy lens, as though it were only about another sweet baby. But this nativity scene, the morning after the dazzling holy night, isn’t just the end of Mary’s pregnancy and the start of a new family. The baby in the manger is none other than Emmanuel, God with us. The people who walked in darkness have, indeed, seen a great light – and we’re not just talking about the shepherds and the star. The light emanating from this sleepy domestic scene is the light of God, come to be with us, come to dwell in us, come to transform us. The response of faithful people to this new reality is to learn from Jesus, to emulate Jesus, to become bringers of God’s light ourselves. We celebrate the gift that God has given to us in Jesus when we subvert oppression, especially in the life-affirming ways that Jesus employed – by teaching, healing, giving voice and vision to those who have been in darkness. The work of Christmas begins, but does not end, tonight.

One of the best-loved of all Christmas hymns is “Joy to the world.” Listen to the first verse, where we sing “the Lord is come” – very much like the memorial acclamation in the Eucharist, when we say “Christ is risen.” “The Lord is come” says that Jesus comes to us here and now, not only on that first Christmas 2,000 years ago. The universe shifted the moment that Jesus was born, shifted toward the reality of God’s presence in and with and for God’s creation. We are faced with the task as Christians of making real that revolutionary love, here and now, in the time and place we belong to. Christmas present should look different and better than Christmas past.

The other part of the first verse of “Joy to the world” that challenges us is this: “let every heart prepare him room.” How have you made room for the living Christ amid the busy shopping days and decorating and parties? The only way for us to “prepare him room” that matters to the world is when we make room for Jesus to challenge us and change us, to develop us and transform us into Christ’s own hands and feet and strength and love for this time and place. To “prepare him room” means giving up some of our attachment to having a “perfect Christmas,” one that touches all our personal buttons and fulfills every tradition and wish. To prepare him room means, perhaps, less retail and more giving; less concern about having a perfect dinner table and more feeding the hungry; less decorating and more real celebration of who Jesus is, the one who is always being born in our hearts and who desires always to be with us.

Christmas doesn’t end tomorrow. Christmas doesn’t end with Epiphany, or Lent, or Easter; Christmas is God’s continuing gift of God’s presence with us, and Christmas is our challenge to prepare room in our hearts, and in our lives.

So what about Christmas future?

As we pack up our ornaments for another year, fill the garage with boxes labeled “Christmas,” think about how your life in January and February can continue the work of Christmas. As you pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the Frosty the Snowman videos, imagine who is lost, who is hungry, who needs peace in March and April. When the shepherds are back with their flock in the box, remember their surprise and joy, and find someplace to offer the song of the angels to someone who needs it in June.

Howard Thurman puts it this way in his poem “The Work of Christmas”:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Merry Christmas.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Depends on God’s giving, 4 Advent (A) – 2010

December 19, 2010

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

At this time of the year, expectation is very nearly overcome by exhaustion. Whether that expectation is Christmas dinner and a pile of ill-afforded presents, or the Coming of the Son of Man, the lead up now seems interminable, like an overlong engagement, and the pressure to do the right thing by the right people seems overwhelming.

The Christmas tree, which somehow wandered into the living room before Thanksgiving, looks a bit shabby now, or if it is artificial, it probably needs dusting. Perhaps the dog tore into one of the packages. There’s still last-minute shopping to be done, a turkey to be bought – is Thanksgiving now like Christmas, or Christmas like Thanksgiving? – and we still haven’t decided whether to invite old Uncle Harry over and endure his endless war stories.

The gospel today reminds us of another person whose anticipation may have been exhausting. Joseph is informed by God’s messenger that his young fiancé is going to have a baby, and he is ordered to keep quiet. He isn’t the father, Matthew implies. Perhaps we are a bit more used to such a situation today, and we may commend Joe for sticking with Mary despite her questionable morality. But after all, morality is subjective, isn’t it?

A first-century Jew thought otherwise. And quite apart from the moral issue, a matter of the Law, Joseph was faced with the practical matter of just how one hides a pregnancy, a teenage pregnancy probably. And then there was the matter of Joseph’s own feelings. It looks as if the pregnancy occurred after he became engaged to Mary. How could she do such a thing? And if the messenger was right, and he wasn’t dreaming dreams, the child to be born had Yahweh, the God of Israel, as its father. What on earth would such a child be like, look like, act like?

How do we, like Joseph, do right by Mary and the child she gives to us? For we, too, can react from the ground of the secular world in which we live. We can be equally cynical about what God was doing through Mary. Our feelings, our self absorption may intrude. The demands of faith may be just too much, an optional extra for which we have no time, and an investment of faith and action that has no room in our cluttered, busy lives. Regarding Christmas as a story helps us push it to one side, to be picked up or laid aside as time permits.

Yet the faithful Joseph was a Jew. He believed in a God who acted first and required a human response of obedience and awe. He didn’t believe in a God who waited around for human suggestions or obeyed human laws like the law of nature. This God didn’t think much of those who thought that God was bound by what humans conceived as unbreakable laws. The God of Abraham did as He thought fit.

While we rush around creating Christmas and getting it all wrong, Joseph walked in faith, expecting God to get it right, to shield Mary from the censure of prying eyes, to heal his bewildered feeling, and to ensure that the child born, while truly God, was winsomely and engagingly human. Humble Joseph calls us to that very same faith and commitment.

The problem for Joseph, and perhaps for us, is that he expected God to act in power and might as God did on Sinai after he brought Israel out of Egypt, as God intervened to rescue Israel. This time there seemed to be a difference. God was intervening in vulnerability and weakness in the form of a baby. Such a version of God isn’t much to our liking. We like a bit of force from God, and we like a bit of muscle when we think we are representing God. We just can’t get our minds around loving-in-weakness being the solution. Joseph probably wanted to lock Mary in her room, subjecting her to hours of criticism, and then once the baby arrived, divorce her. He didn’t. He looked after her, loved her, and struggled down that road from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her. Once the child is born and reaches maturity Joseph just fades away and is mentioned no more. If Mary is extraordinarily faithful in accepting God’s calling to be Mother of the Eternal King, the Messiah, in his own way, Joseph shares in that faithfulness to a remarkable degree.

It is not too late to get Christmas right this year, to stop, reflect, realize that all you have done since Thanksgiving has maybe been many things, but it isn’t Christmas. This year, perhaps in the next few days, you can stop thinking that all depends on your presents and your cooking. It all depends on God’s giving.

Like Joseph, you may expect, but not control. And when God acts by dwelling among us and taking our humanity into himself, then keep Christmas joyfully during the twelve days, give a present a day, stretch out the feast, and give thanks that we are saved in and through the Child.

 

— The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. (“Father Tony”) Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Stirring up, 3 Advent (A) – 2010

December 12, 2010

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

When cooks attending services in villages all over England would hear these words from the Collect of the Day, they would hurry home afterward to stir up the fruity batter that had been fermenting in their kitchens for weeks, the prime ingredient for their Christmas plum puddings and fruitcakes. Although the reading of this Collect used to occur in November, since 1979 it has fallen on this Sunday in December. The traditional English batter for Christmas puddings and cakes would be too thick by now to stir, but we still refer to this as “Stir Up Sunday.” How many sermons have been preached on Stir Up Sunday on what needs to be stirred up in our souls, to be prepared to receive what God is birthing among us at Christmas?

Years ago, Bishop Harold Robinson, retired bishop of Western New York, addressing the Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told a story of a bike tour he and his wife took through the English countryside. They kept finding the most curious signs. One said simply, “This is a sign.” That was all. Another read: “Do not move this sign.”

These signs are comical because they have no purpose beyond themselves. A sign is meant to point beyond itself, or it has no meaning at all.

John the Baptist, restless, in the depths of Herod’s prison, no doubt convinced of his impending execution, begins to doubt, or at least to wonder, “Did I get it right?” John had never held back. His incendiary sermons and actions had been relentless, proclaiming the coming wrath of God and pointing to the one with far greater power, who was to come after him.

John is always portrayed in icons with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ: John the “pointer.”

But as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he knew of Jesus confused him. It didn’t conform to the message of repentance and the wrath to come that lay at the heart of the prophecy he had been sent to proclaim. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are YOU the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ response is plain and clear. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These are all the signs foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah, signs of the “year of Jubilee,” of the inauguration of the kingdom of God among us.

Perhaps what John has forgotten for the moment, are the different roles to be played by him and Jesus.

John is the hinge on the door of the gateway into the Kingdom of God. John, we are told, is the greatest of all who have come before Jesus, but all who live in the Kingdom of Heaven, creation transformed by the life of God-with-us, will know fuller life and purpose than John. John is like the doorman, who opens the door and ushers the rest of us through, pointing the way to life more glorious than what we have yet dared to expect or imagine.

Consider that hinge on the gate into such fullness of life as somewhat rusted – stuck in place. It takes the force, the harshness of the message of John the Baptist, to bust that gate open. But what lies before those who pass through with Jesus is life of an entirely different quality and tone.

Life transformed – brand new! Not just a return to the “good old days,” but as St. Paul will declare, “Glory to God whose power working in us will do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine!”

We are so busy these last days of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, bringing out and setting up the decorations and traditional trappings of this beloved holiday season, intent on revisiting the warmth of Christmases past, that we are too often distracted from the profound wonder of what God is birthing among us.

John points not to the best of what has been, but to a world transformed, the very advent of the Kingdom of God.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims the vision of barren desert rejoicing and blossoming abundantly, with joy and singing! Weak hands being strengthened; fearful hearts given hope; waters breaking forth to create flowing streams in the desert; the way home through that desert being transformed into a broad and straight highway that even a fool can travel safely through.

How much do we dare hope about the gift being given us this Advent and Christmas? Are we looking for the best of what we’ve experienced before, or dare we look for more?

Today, John the Baptist stands among us still pointing. He is not pointing behind us, that we might return to the “good old days.” John points us toward a transformative future.

The great challenge facing our congregations today is not how to revive or resuscitate faith communities gone stale. The challenge facing us is to offer the church and the world fresh visions of a renewed and transformed world – the Kingdom of God drawn near to all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, and not just the “faithful.”

The Kingdom of God being revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is different. It is far more than we have yet imagined. And unless we are yearning in this moment to discover something brand new among us and before us, we are likely to miss the point of all this entirely.

John the Baptist stands among us this day pointing to life transformed in Jesus. May we awaken Christmas morning to the joy of opening up that life, unexpected, more than we had dared even ask for. And thereby, through our life together, that life will be given not to us alone, but to the whole world.

And that’s the kind of “stirring up” we can all use!

 

— The Rev. Steve Kelsey is a retired Episcopal priest, living with his family in Arizona. He is currently serving part time with a team of ministry developers among the Diné (Navajo people) in the Navajo Nation.

Become a living church, 2 Advent (A) – 2010

December 5, 2010

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

On the 12th of October, 2010, 33 trapped Chilean miners ascended to the surface of the earth. As spectacular as that event was, their exodus might never have happened were it not for the miners’ faith in action. Theirs is a story worth telling. It will deepen our appreciation of what should be a gentle season, namely Advent. It will empower many to reflect on the variety of December things people do, and let them see how some of those things enhance their spirituality, while certain other habits of our culture can do it violence.

There is no evidence that the miners understood themselves to be “theologians” per se, but that is not important. What really matters is what they did to successfully endure their entombment. These thirty-three inspired men made a deliberate choice about how to live, turning their nightmare into a challenge by forming a mini-society and dividing labor based on each person’s skills. One, for instance, was a natural leader with years of experience. Another had some expertise in first aid and hygiene. A third was chosen to be their spiritual leader or chaplain. Saint Paul would recognize this as their appreciation of one another’s diverse gifts, necessary for the miners to become a functioning body. By becoming such, they offered the mutual support they needed to renounce their individual panic and despair, identify tasks, and become a community of faith.

Apparently most, if not all of the miners, had a Roman Catholic background, so they knew how to pray together for God’s mercy. But more than that, what appears to have happened is that they developed a religious life of real substance. Their religion was not about abstract, formal ideas concerning the nature of God and the human soul. It was about the things each individual had to do again and again for the sake of the others in the group, following a structured daily pattern. Each man was also bound by his commitment to a higher authority than himself. There was no choice. The possibility of survival depended on it.

There are two ancient associations that come with the term “religion.” One who is “religious” is a person who has agreed to be bound. The second association is the idea of a repeated series of practices that must be done daily for the well being of others who are likewise bound. So it makes sense, then, that when we hear of people in a community living under a set of vows, we also understand that a member of such a group is “a religious,” as, for example, a Benedictine or Franciscan monk is “a religious.”

The miners were profound and effective at practicing religion by having a shared vocation. It was founded on the common values of selfless humility and submission, and the need for each individual to put aside all personal wants in order to cooperate with each other and follow the directives of their leader. They trusted their foreman, Señor Luis Urzua, to direct their life together. By doing this, the miners taught the world that God trusts the faithful to live in commitment to their neighbors’ well being.

During the entrapment, observers all over the world were inspired by how the miners worked at their vocation to survive their situation. What was so invaluable about the miners’ “theology” is that it did what abstract conversations– like sermons – cannot do. Ideas alone cannot find their proper homes in the ongoing story of salvation; they need the flesh and blood that can anchor them to their places so that specific events can happen and become real history.

The miners were the kind of people John the Baptist loved because they were so down to earth. Yes, two thousand feet down under it! There they repented of their ordinary behaviors in life and started moving in a spiritual direction.

Many of the details of exactly what the miners did to survive, and how they did it – especially during the first seventeen days of utter darkness and silence from above – will never be known. There will no doubt be varied accounts of how they rationed their supplies, bolstered their spirits, and practiced the necessary hygiene to preserve their health. But in the end, the fact is that the miners emerged leaving the on-site medics with incredibly little to do. In fact, one of them, Edison Peña, came to New York City to run a marathon less than a month later.

So this is a story of a victory in faith that does not need embellishment. It already is a parable, a “story lesson” of what we are called to be as a church.

The gift of this story from Chile is infinitely better than what we get from a world that places a high value on its material standard of living. The miners’ exodus to salvation is an example of how their flesh and blood was exercised to make them fit and ready for their return. They taught that salvation is more than anything humankind can do for itself; it is something initiated by a God who loves us, and who expresses that love by inviting covenants with us for our cooperation with God and one another.

As long as we, the people of God, are living our mortal lives in faith, we are called on a journey that begins the day of our baptisms and continues to the blessing of a good and holy death, because we know that it is the gateway – or escape capsule, if you will – to eternal life.

Like Lent, Advent is a good time to reflect on what is not needed to live in the wholesomeness of a holy journey. But the messages Christians get in this 21st-century civilization tend to persuade them to spend their resources on baggage they don’t really need. So it is a good idea to take time to reflect a bit on what we can do without. What kinds of unnecessary baggage are we carrying? Stuck for an answer? Then just imagine yourself asking the miners, “What did you discover that you could live without?” Meditating on that for a while could be helpful.

During the miners’ first seventeen days in darkness, with no signs from above, they decided to believe anyway that their gift of life was not to be forsaken and they would not give in to despair or suicide. Instead, they got to work. They became a living church down there. By the miners’ faithfulness, a transfiguring glimpse of people in the restored image of God was ours. Pray for the grace to remember it.

 

— The Rev. David Somerville is a retired U. S. Army Chaplain with credentials in hospital work and the pastoral care of people with the issues of recovery and adaptation after a life-changing diagnosis. He has been in the priesthood for more than 40 years, is currently interim priest-in-charge of Saint Athanasius Church in Brunswick, Ga., in the diocese of his canonical residence. He enjoys model railroading, traveling and tandem bicycle riding with his wife.