Merry 9th Day of Christmas from this old house! We are still enjoying the Twelve Days, sitting in front of the lit Christmas tree, listening to Christmas music, finishing up the treats we made and that others shared with us. It has been a lovely time.

While we are still in the days of Christmas, the focus has shifted from the baby in the manger to what does this baby, God-come-in-the-flesh, mean in our everyday lives. Twelfth Night and Epiphany draw near. In some countries, Epiphany, January 6th when the Church remembers the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem about two years after the actual birth of Jesus, is the day when gifts are exchanged in honor of the gifts those astrologers brought to the Christ Child. In some countries, the children put their shoes out on Twelfth Night filled with treats for the Holy Sages and/or their camels (or elephants, depending on the country). It is a bigger festivity in some places than December 24 and 25th.

In fact, Epiphany is the earliest form of Christmas in the Church we have. The early Church was concerned more with Who Christ was than with the details of how he got here.

As we move from a “cute baby” story and into the meaning of that Baby in the world, we see that a conflict is inherent in Christ’s arrival into any situation. Back then, Herod, enraged when the Wise Men didn’t come back to tell him where they found the King of the Jews, murdered all baby boys two-years old and under in Bethlehem, in a failed attempt to stamp out any competition. Joseph had been warned in a dream and fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt before the massacre happened. They lived as refugees for several years, no one knows for sure how long, until Herod died and they could return to their country but not to their same home town (see the full story in Matthew 2:13-23).Learning to Love on the <b>Flight to Egypt</b> – Peculiar Faith

I find that the Christmas story becomes more interesting as we move through the Twelve Days. If all we had was the baby-in-a-manger story, that would be enough but to hear of all that happened after where the lessons stop on December 24th fills out the story in rich and unexpected ways. Suddenly, we are into the waters of oppression, refugees and corrupt governments. We have parents trying to guess right next steps to protect a vulnerable Child. We have poverty, fear and anxiety, things we can all relate to.

This is what makes New Year’s resolutions so meaningful to me. What practices do I want to end that are not life-giving? What practices do I want to begin that are life-giving because the story of Christmas is definitely about LIFE: full, rich life. By connecting to the rest of the story the Twelve Days tells us, I can find many places to hook into with my own small story. I can find models of courage and faith that inspire me to walk away from death and toward life.

Suddenly, losing weight or stopping smoking aren’t just random health items but part of a larger call to engage in life fully. Exercising becomes a way to participate in the Incarnation, God coming as a human in Jesus. Self-medicating through alcohol, shopping or entertainment is ultimately forms of slow suicide. Resolving in small ways to live instead of die is a way for me to say yes to God and no to the Herod’s of this world, who seem to be in every age and culture.

Goethe is said to have opined that “the dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” When we do things that will supposedly keep us safe but also keep us from stepping out in faith, we are participating in a danger that leads to a life of anxiety and smallness. Marianne Williamson’s famous quote is applicable here:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

As we near the end of Christmas and move into Epiphany and the time after Epiphany, we are invited to step into a much bigger story than many of us have allowed ourselves to walk in. We are invited out of our comfort zones and into the realm of angel messengers and unexpected journeys. We are offered gifts from unexpected visitors and a life on the frontiers of the faith, the place where the winds of the Holy Spirit blow strong but fresh.

Happy New Year, everyone! May all your resolving bring you more life.

Merry 2nd Day of Christmas from us here at this old house! The commercial holiday season believes Christmas is over, that it is a “one and done” day. In the Church, Christmas begins on December 25 and goes for Twelve Days, ending on Epiphany, January 6th. The functional meaning of the Incarnation, Jesus come in the flesh, takes more than 24 hours to absorb!

The Church in her wisdom has helped us unpack the Christmas story over the next 12 Days by focusing on the stoning of Stephen on December 26th (see Acts 7: 54-60), St. John the Evangelist on December 27 (see the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation), and the murder of the innocent children of Bethlehem (see Matthew 2: 16-18) on December 28. These are all hard lessons to follow so quickly on the heels of the story told so beautifully in song and word on Christmas Eve. 

While the Christmas narrative is indeed a beautiful story of God’s love for humanity, it has been so sanitized and romanticized that we need the stoning of Stephen, the exile of John to a Roman penal colony, and dictatorial paranoia that murdered all boys two-years old and younger to help us understand what Christ’s coming into the world really means.

The manger is not a “warm fuzzy” but rather God’s beach head landing into enemy territory. This makes carols, like “Joy to the World,” songs of resistance in an ongoing battle against all that is not of God. Maybe this is why the commercial holiday season and all the happy-ending movies are so appealing to us. We don’t like drawing a line between the manger and the cross on Calvary. The days after Christmas show us that path very clearly which is perhaps why they are less familiar to us.

There is enough brokenness, war and anger in life without making the Christmas story into the Hunger Games. We want the Child of Bethlehem to read like a children’s book instead of like a War College strategy textbook. Maybe that is why, once we get to the main part of the story, we want to leave it quickly, before we are called to pursue the logical consequences of what God-with-us in human flesh really means. We want our God to always be a cute, cuddly baby, not the Crucified Christ.

The three days after Christmas Day remind us that we can’t have it both ways. The Babe in the manger grows up to confront all the inhumanity and injustice in the world, to call it by its real name, and to break its power over us. Joy to the world; the Lord has indeed come!

 

 

 

Nearly the Fourth Sunday of Advent here at this old house and time to decorate the tree. It has been up with just the lights on for about two weeks. Decorating progressively helps us understand in a tactile way the journey through Advent each year. I realize some people have limited time and so must put up Christmas decorations all at once. We have always made it a priority to do it gradually over the four weeks of Advent as a symbol of moving closer to the Feast of the Nativity.

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent always focus around Mary and her going to see pregnant Elizabeth. This year, the lectionary readings are from Luke and so we will hear the Magnificat from Luke 1: 46-55 tomorrow. “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Such ancient and familiar words! It is always good to hear them around the time of the Winter Solstice when the days are their shortest and the nights their longest (in the Northern Hemisphere).

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

This morning, I was reading my weekly devotion from “Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource” Volume 1. The three books in this series offer art, poetry and song related to a theme for each week’s lectionary reading for the day. I want to share a quote by Jann Cather Weaver from today’s pages:

We must be careful with the representation of Mary and Elizabeth. Certainly we are not meant to recognize pregnancy as the only divine role for women. In the hidden her-story of the gospel, women fulfilled their discipleship in an abundance of ways: by materially supporting Christ’s ministry, by defying fear of death to stand beneath the Cross, and by being the first witnesses to the Risen Christ…The expected births of both Mary and Elizabeth were ambiguous and troublesome. Both women understood their pregnancies as a time of question-rejection-and doubt. After the scorn of barrenness, Elizabeth remained secluded for five months; after the scorn of unexpected pregnancy, Mary stood to lose her legal and social rights as Joseph considered ending his betrothal to her. Mary and Elizabeth were women living in a time when, not unlike aspects of today, religion had become fossilized, seeking to control society rather than transform society. They, however, sought to live radically faithful lives in response to the call from their God. Not unexpectedly, these women lived lives like those of their soon-to-be-born sons. Do we think John and Jesus just “knew” how to live radically faithful lives? how to be preachers? how to be as eloquent as the Magnificat? how to be healers? John and Jesus knew how to live radically faithful lives because they were sons of two women who had faithfully faced a terrifying yet expectant reality.

I don’t know about you but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about John or Jesus being babies, toddlers, little kids growing up into teenagers and young men. Today’s quote made me think of the influence Mary and Elizabeth had on them from a human perspective and it is staggering. Fearless women raising fearless young men. Women who risked losing all in society to be faithful to God then raised young men to risk all, their lives included, to be faithful to God.

As Christians, we can get nervous making Jesus “too human.” We fear that we are somehow diminishing his Divinity. Yet, if we make him “too divine,” he could walk perfectly because he always had the “God card” in his back pocket, how can Jesus be a model of human living for us? Hebrews 4:15 would make no sense if Jesus wasn’t also fully human: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.”

Tomorrow in the Gospel, we will meet two fearless women, women who literally changed the course of human history with their faithful responses to God even when it was tough to swim up-stream from the rest of society. We see women who influenced their sons in ways we will never fully know or understand. 

The Magnificat is a battle cry for those who live in hope. Let us do our part in this time and place in history to live saying yes in radical ways to God’s invitations, whether they come through an angel or by other means.

 

It is snowing here at this old house. All week, it was in the 50s and 60s but this morning, we woke up to light snow falling. It snowed most of the day so we ended up with about 3″ at this old house, less downtown, where it was more rain than snow.

My daughter is in town and we did an afternoon of errands and Christmas shopping. Despite the weather, it was hard to find a parking spot everywhere we went.  Even this morning, there were a number of people out hiking the trails behind this old house. We are a hearty bunch out here!

I don’t know about you but I am really ready to hear the readings tomorrow. For the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C, we get to hear some upbeat texts:

Zephaniah 3:14-20
3:14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

3:15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

3:16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

3:17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing

3:18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

3:19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

3:20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Isaiah 12:2-6 (a Psalm of praise within the prophet’s writings)
12:2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

12:3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

12:4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

12:5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.

12:6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Philippians 4:4-7
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Luke 3:7-18
3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

3:10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

3:11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

3:13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Good news, indeed! Light the pink candle on the Advent wreath.Image result for free photos advent wreath

I am ready for some upbeat news. Perhaps you feel the same way. Between the exhaustion the commercial holiday season imposes on this holy season coupled with news headlines from near and far, I need to hear the ancient texts that give me real reasons to rejoice right now.

With the world gone mad and people frightened and acting very badly because of their fears, perceived and real, I am deeply weary.  How about you?

As I get older, the external trappings of the commercial holiday season mean less to me. The real reason for the season, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, is becoming more important in my thinking, now and throughout the year. John 3:16 -17 makes no sense if we don’t begin to grasp the mystery of Jesus living as a human being among us.

Advent in the Church is meant to be a time of reflection and quiet followed by 12 Days of celebrating the Feast of the Nativity. For most of us, Advent is anything but quiet! It is extra activities and chaos layered on top of our day jobs and family obligations.

Here is a mini meditation exercise I ran across the other day that can help us return to ourselves in the midst of it all. You can do it between activities or at your desk at work:

Close your eyes. Take three deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly.

Then, rejoice! Christ has come, Christ is with us now, and Christ will come again.

 

 

It is getting darker earlier each day here at this old house. Winter solstice is coming! Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness of this time of year corresponds so well with the themes of darkness and growing light in Advent.  Isaiah 9: 2 is one of those great Advent readings:

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.

On my walk this morning, I was thinking of the stories I inhabit. Some of them are from my life; some are ones others have shared with me. Some are recent; others go back decades. I find that the stories I ruminate the most over are the ones that don’t feel finished in my mind. There seems to be an unanswered question or an unsettling encounter that was never resolved. Those are the stories that deeply carve ruts in my mind and heart.

Today, I was thinking also about the Story of Advent into Christmas. Tomorrow in worship, we will hear of John the Baptist and his time in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord. John was Jesus’s cousin, older by about six months. There is some evidence that John was part of the Zealot community in Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. This community was like a monastic hermitage, where people, in this case Jewish men, went to live in the wilderness to avoid the “corruption” of the Temple worship system. (There really is nothing new under the sun, is there?)

Scholars who have excavated Qumran note its close location to the traditional site on the Jordan River, in modern day Jordan, where John was baptizing. (There are some very ancient steps at the site which may be the ones Jesus walked down into the water to be baptized by his cousin as they date from that era.) Some have even postulated that Jesus was part of that Zealot community because of his association with his cousin, John. All speculation, certainly, but from what the scholars know of the Qumran community’s lifestyle, John and even Jesus could have been there, either as members or visitors.

We know so little of the story of Jesus’s growing up years, with the exception of one incident when he was 12 (see Luke 2: 41-52). It is as if someone ripped out the middle of a great novel! We get the beginning, a paragraph in the middle and then the ending, which is still being written today in each of our lives. This Story isn’t over yet and is being written by all people in all times and places in history. What difference does this Story make to the stories I reflect on during my walks? To the story of my life? How does the story of my life fit into this greater Story of God’s work in the world?

Advent seeks to help us answer those questions. One of the things the Western Church has neglected to some degree, at least compared to the Eastern Orthodox Church’s emphasis on it, is the Incarnation of Jesus and what it means in our daily lives. Jesus coming in the flesh, entering time and geography, having a human story to live while he temporarily laid aside living in the eternal Story from which he was begotten of the Father, must make a functional impact on my life or Christmas is nothing more than a really good Hallmark movie.

If Jesus took on human flesh, then John 3: 16 makes sense (For God so loved the world). If we insist on keeping Jesus as a “super human” who never needed to sleep or go to the bathroom, John 3:16 has nothing practical to say to us. However, if the material world was worth redeeming from its fallen, not worthless, state,  such that Jesus came and inhabited the world as fully human while remaining fully God (a mystery indeed) then the way I live in my body and care for the earth make a difference. If God thinks those things are important, then they need to be important to his followers as well.

As I am feeling the weight of the commercial holiday season (even without a TV forcing it on me even more!) and trying to balance all my regular work commitments with additional fun activities, I need to know this greater Story in my flesh. I need to understand that all that I am doing or trying to do between now and January 6th has a reason behind it, that it is more than a hyped-up family time. I need worship more than ever in these weeks ahead to remind me that the Story we tell in these days gives meaning to my small story and the stories of all people.

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate deity,
Pleased in flesh with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.

 

 

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