Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

In the Ukraine, it is said, there's a legend about a woman who was too poor to decorate her Christmas tree, but shared the warmth of her home with a spider. The spider returned the gift: one night she spun her web on the tree and when morning came the tree sparkled with the sunlit web. For the people of the Ukraine the web symbolizes our connectedness, our fragility and the road we each travel toward death.

With Christmas Eve our Advent season of waiting ends and we celebrate the feast of the Lord's birth. Our weeks of Advent waiting and expectation are fulfilled in the hope which Christmas brings, hope embodied in Jesus the Son of Mary who is the Lord. There's a Hebrew word for hope, kaveh, which is also associated with a spider's web. In the web, in its connectedness, there is hope.

One of my former professors of nearly 50 years ago, Fr. Gerard Sloyan, has written: "Luke has composed a tale so profoundly religious, indeed so theological, that pedantic exegesis of its details could destroy its fragile beauty. This is a narrative of God's design…a tale of divine paradox."

Luke's is a marvelous story of how God interconnects with us, of how God's Son came to be with us in a stable, in ordinary human history, through Mary's pregnancy, bearing, and nurturing of a human child like us. Christmas is a season of birthing, of labor pains, yet a season also of people interconnecting in hope. Luke uses very descriptive words in speaking of Mary, as she and Joseph left Nazareth for Bethlehem: "great with child", "swollen inwardly". Mary set out for Judea, obedient to nature's laws, obedient to her country's laws, and especially obedient to the will of God. She was called to a birthing which may have prompted rumors of scandal among those who knew her, yet one which brought a whole series of amazing new relationships, relationships of affirmation and hope.
The census itself could be seen as an exercise in interconnectedness: "all went to be enrolled, each to his own city." Mary's life was certainly enmeshed with Joseph's, her betrothed. She was, literally, connected with her son, Jesus, who was born for us, his pilgrim followers, on the way.

The Advent and Christmas seasons lend themselves to our thinking back over all of our relationships and interconnections. Think of all the people, yourself included, who are "pregnant" with responsibilities and chores to be done so that Christmas can come about: the house-cleaning, the traveling, the parenting, the baking, and the financial worries which haunt and drive us, especially at this time. Sometimes it seems that the whole world around us, in St. Paul's words, "groans in travail" It is our very connectedness to those who mean most to us which can, especially at this time of busyness, become most vital. They, just like the spider's web, can be our hope and support in the midst of our frazzledness and fragility. 

With all the mixed feeling and emotions engendered by the Christmas season, as Christians our eyes and hearts this day turn towards the altar and the crèche in a pregnant silence, waiting…not just for the Word to become flesh again, but for flesh to become Word now, in Christ's Mass. We each want nothing less than to be born anew in God, to be in touch with the Holy. 

Contemporary poet, William Wendell, has wonderfully expressed the meaning of this sacred Christmas Eve in terms of family connectedness:

After a month of Silent Nights
and Jingle Bells
and White Christmases

When you're up to your mistletoe
with Rudophs
and Scrooges
and Frosty the Snowman

When you've realized that 
your six-year-old doesn't ask
how Santa can be in each store anymore

And you're tired of tinsel
and plastic Baby Jesuses
and wondering what to buy

It all comes to 
pajamaed feet on stair steps
and stage whispers of excitement
at some ungodly hour
that is somehow perfectly godly
because it's Christmas morning

And the trauma turns to tears
when you open the crumply wrapped box
mummified with scotch tape
and behold your very own
pot holder

And it occurs to you
that despite all the shopping
the millions do for Christmas

No one has ever been able to buy it

For it is eternally given
each to the other
and from Him
to us.    

Sunday, December 21, 2014

4th Week of Advent

He’d just finished a long teaching session in the synagogue.  She’d been sitting quietly toward the back of the room, taking in all he’d said.  She waited until most of the others had left, then, approaching him, smiling, she took his face in her hands and said, “Yeshua, blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!” His warm hand reached up and grasped her hand cradling his cheek as he smiled and observed, “Ah, but rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.

At that moment his mind began to wander back to when he was a young boy, to that day when he’d talked with his mother, Miriam, as she worked in the kitchen.  The kind of quiet spontaneous conversation a boy enjoys with his mom.  He’d asked all sorts of questions: the kind that young boys often ask when important issues and things that don’t make sense come to their minds, in no particular order.  
His mother had paused as he somewhat delicately asked how he’d come to be: how he’d been born, and why Joseph was his “stepfather”.  With a far-away look in her eyes, Miriam spoke softly of the day, many years ago, when she had been a young woman, not much older than he was now.  She and Joseph had just been betrothed, which for a Jewish couple such as they, meant that she was married to him, for all practical purposes.  

True, she hadn’t gone to his house to stay as yet, but that was the next step. This particular day she’d been on her way to the well to draw water, when suddenly she felt what could only be described as a Presence: something like a dream and yet as though it was really happening.  She heard words, though not verbal, spoken to her that sounded as though they were intended for someone else.  There must’ve been a mistake! “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you.  She knew that she was a good Jewish girl: Anna and Jehoiakim had raised her such.  But this was language for someone “special”, someone very close to the Holy One: not for someone as ordinary as she!
Trying very hard not to seem afraid, she nevertheless could feel herself trembling.  But the Presence continued, gently but persistently, with the astounding announcement that she would soon become pregnant, immediately, in fact, and that it would be a boy, a son, and that his name would be Jeshua.
How nice,” she remembered thinking momentarily.  “Jeshua: ‘he saves’”.  A name familiar to her among her relatives.  But then, in an instant, the impact of this registered with her.  “This can’t be right,” she thought, “my betrothal hasn’t yet been consummated!”  All these images of a great son, and thrones, and never-ending kingdoms suddenly terrified her.  “How can this be, since I have no husband,” she whispered.  I’ll be stoned if they find me pregnant before Joseph and I are together.
As she related the story to Jeshua, she’d paused briefly, sitting very quietly, then continued.  The unseen Visitor had spoken about the Spirit and about the Most High’s power overshadowing her.  Even as she heard this in her heart she could feel in her body that it had already been done.  Something was different.  Something was new.

The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”  The Visitor went on to tell her of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and all that she had verified when she’d visited Elizabeth some time thereafter.  Then came words which continued to ring in her ears all through the days of her pregnancy and beyond: “For with God nothing will be impossible.
She’d then told Jeshua how, in that strange and sudden moment as she continued on her way to the well that day, she began to make some sense of it despite her confusion.  From somewhere deep inside she’d summoned up the courage to articulate what she was now feeling: “I am the Lord’s handmaid; let it be to me according to your word.”  She’d heard and kept the word.  
Jeshua’s mind came back from his reverie, back to the present, back to the synagogue, back to the smiling face of the older woman in front of him.  From the expression on her face, as she looked him straight in the eyes, he knew that she understood what he’d just said: “Blessed, rather are the ones who hear God’s word and keep it.

+ + + + + + +

We draw this season of Advent, of waiting and expectation, to a close just as we began it.  As a community of hurt, we take a hard and honest look at all the suffering, discontent, frustration, pain, disappointment, and uncertainty which characterize our lives and the lives of those around us.  We acknowledge the persistent reality of all this, knowing that it will continue as long as we await Christ’s coming.
But we also wait as a community of hope and of faith.  We hope and believe because God’s word, through “the revelation of the mystery” and “through the prophetic writings”, assures us that “God... is able to strenthen you” and, as with David, assures us: “I have been with you wherever you went...”  During these four weeks of Advent the Holy One has spoken to our hearts: of comfort and rejoicing, of the power of the Spirit of God.  The Good News, the Gospel, is intrusive speech which changes us and others from within if we but allow it do so.

The Good News which has come to us proclaims that what we thought impossible, God has made possible.  We no longer have to remain a community of hurt.  We can be in the world in a new way.  
Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says that “...the life of faith is bracketed between the invitation to impossibility which begins things and the summons to praise which closes things...”   “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.
If you and I are to truly glorify God by what we say and do, then we have to be ready to embrace deep displacement in our lives.  We have to be able to face and live with impossibility. We have to have the “obedience of faith”, to which Paul refers, even as Mary did, in order to trust that God will make possible, even in us, what you and I thought and think at times to be impossible.
That necessitates being open enough to reorganize and reorient our lives together around that powerful word of God which nullifies all our old assumptions and presuppositions and securities.  It calls for not only hearing the Word, but keeping it, day after day, even in the face of contradiction.  
Advent’s question is: “How can this be...?
And the answer is Christmas: God as Word become flesh; Good News that in Jesus (He who saves) all our impossibilities are now possible.

All that is left is for us to generously respond:  “Let it be done...according to your word!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

3rd Week of Advent

In this third week of Advent the Church offers us Scripture texts which indicate the joy of anticipating the coming of Jesus. The penitential purple or violet color of vestments is changed to rose color.  
Psalm 126, particularly, sets the tone for this week’s joy: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed...Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” St. Paul exclaims: “Rejoice always...

What does it mean to rejoice?  This season of preparing for Christmas is a busy, often chaotic, time. Although we’re bombarded with carols of joy during this season, many people whom we know face staggering depths of depression.
The joy of which the Scriptures speak isn’t the same as pleasure, nor satiation, nor even the emotional heights which we call happiness.  True joy is the steady assurance that our life’s inconsistencies and puzzles will eventually be resolved: an assurance that what has already happened and is about to happen will enable you and me to sort out life’s conditions.  True joy doesn’t consist in possessing something, but rather is the delight we experience in being in harmony with God and of sharing God’s love with one another.
I think it can be safely said that our society today isn’t a joyful society.  You can figure that out simply by observing people pushing and shoving each other in the shopping malls during this season. There are a lot of bored, distracted, exhausted people wandering around the stores and streets: certainly not a good advertisement for joy.  
You and I, as a community of faith in a primarily joyless culture, are invited to participate in the almost scandalous, subversive activity of Advent joy.  We’re called to do what the society around us is unable or unwilling to do.  Genuine Christian joy undermines frantic activity.  It shakes us free from a world that keeps us constantly fatigued and joyless.  And the basis of our rejoicing is the conviction that something special has been and is being disclosed to us by God’s graciousness.  The good news of God’s Word to us is that the Promised One has come and is coming again: coming to transform us and our world from the bottom up.  “...He will do it,” says St. Paul!
Scripture speaks of this promised change in concrete terms, proclaiming that a “new heavens and a new earth” will be created; that rejoicing will prevail over sorrow and distress; that people’s need will be met; that things will endure; that people’s efforts will bear fruit, not frustration; that fear and violence will end, harmony and peace will prevail. Isaiah’s reading (61:1-4; 8-11) speaks of healing for those crushed or oppressed or despairing; of the canceling of debts; and of release for prisoners: of general amnesty for all.  A total transformation is foretold, a newness because of which all will rejoice. Such change and transformation is the work of  “the Spirit of the Lord” who initiates the process which leads to comfort, to restoration, to righteousness, to rejoicing.  It’s the Spirit who brings newness to all those places where everything is hopeless.
St. Paul is clear in his direction to the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24): “Do not quench the Spirit.”  Throughout the whole epistle the Holy Spirit is seen as the power which formed and continues to transform God’s people.  The Spirit has made this church community exceptional and noteworthy, in the midst of a world which is dis-spirited.  And so, Paul advises them and us not to resist or squelch the Spirit in our times of challenge and suffering.  It’s this “Force”, this resilient free power of God, the Holy Spirit, who will work an utter newness in us and in the world so closed to God’s entrance.  As in the Book of Genesis, the Spirit of the Lord blows upon chaos to make a new creation.  This Holy Spirit now comes to blow upon our hearts and to usher in a new world, a new creation in us. During Advent you and I wait each day for this transforming Spirit whom our tired, bored, joyless, and closed hearts finally won’t be able to resist. The Holy Spirit works, here and now, in us, close and personal, through a real person: Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Lord who comes.  
The question which we usually focus on in this Gospel is “Who are you?”, which the leaders of Jerusalem asked twice of John the Baptizer. They want to label John, to categorize him.  If they name him, they can dismiss him.  But John refuses to play their game.  Deeply aware that “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease”, John reminds the leaders and us that we’re asking the entirely wrong question.  The real question for them and for us is: “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is the One who has come and given everything he has for us, in love.  He is the One who, by dying, sets loose the Spirit of God on us and on the world.  He is the One who calls us, invites us, to show that same kind of giving love to one another.  In the end, he is the one who will draw us all into the completeness of God’s being, which is love.
In these last two weeks of the season of Advent the Holy Spirit enables us to reframe and reform our hopes and expectations, even the questions which nag us.  The Christ is the One among us whom we don’t yet know. He is the unseen, unknown Power which disturbs our sense of control and predictability.  He, the Powerful One, is always beyond our comprehension. This One whom we do not know is already among us through His Spirit: meeting us, inviting us to be one with Him.  He calls us, as he called John the Baptizer, to recognize Christ as the source of our true joy, to embrace him in one another through compassion, justice, love, and joy.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2nd Week of Advent

Last week Advent was described as a time of waiting in the midst of suffering, pain, frustration and inadequacy as a community of hurt. Nevertheless, there was also the element of hope and expectation, based on the assurance given by the One who is yet "our Father", the faithful God, the Master for whom we watch, the One who will ultimately appear to decisively renew the world as we know it.

Today's Scriptures are replete with Advent promises and of affirmation that they will be kept. Isaiah promises homecoming. John the Forerunner promises One greater than himself. Peter promises that this One, "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ", will bring "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells."

As the continuing Christian community we gather around these promises, our certitude undiminished by delays or appearances. This is something hard for a predominantly scientific culture to accept. Science orders, quantifies, controls. It reduces promise to prediction. But the promise on which we focus during Advent speaks about the intention of the One who makes the promise, not the merely the mode. Promise, in this sense, goes beyond time and chronology: "…with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." It allows the One who promises great leeway and counts unflinchingly on the reliability of that person. At the same time, it also invites and enables the receivers of the promise to trust the promise, to grasp for no other certainty. Such an Advent promise is a kind of relationship which gives both parties freedom and asks for a kind of trust and faith not subject to verification.

John the Baptizer appears at the beginning of Mark's Gospel as the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. He preaches a repentance and forgiveness symbolically enacted in his immersion of people in the waters of the Jordan River. Repentance (Greek, metanoía), as John presented it, is a call to turn loose the old age and all its loyalties and values, to make a radical turn away from such. And forgiveness, he proclaims, is full release from all old debts. 

The sins which bind us all arise from selling out our spirits and imaginations to lesser gods,  to idols. God's forgiveness sets us free from the whole oppressive system of indebtedness which prevents us from being truly human and which contributes to our attempt to continually control situations and people.

Proclaiming God's saving promise, John is an outsider: a nobody who emerges from the wilderness…and dresses the part! He's an outsider not only geographically, but also in that he keeps his distance from the seductive allurements, including religious ones, of the surrounding culture. Raw and abrasive, John preaches from a different vision. His appearance on the scene marks a time when old ways of living are radically called into question, even as new ways aren't yet very clear. That's what Advent is: a sort of threshold moment, an occasion for embracing uncertainty, for understanding ourselves from a new perspective, for making new decisions about our relationship with God and others.

John the Forerunner invites us out into the wilderness with him, so that we can experience the wisdom and fresh assumptions which it reveals. The rest of the dominant society, lost in merry-making and mall-milling preoccupation, resolutely resists this. It wants us well-fed, not connoisseurs of locusts and honey, not people crowding food banks to beg for necessities. It wants us well-dressed and in style: and woven camel's hair isn't "in" this season! It wants us well-housed, not in makeshift cardboard shelters and beds on the sidewalk or in the park. It wants us conformed to the old loyalties of the "haves", the 1 %.

John points beyond himself: to the One mightier than he, to the One whom he serves. It's the same One you and I are called to serve, simply on the basis of his promises. John doesn't name Jesus. Christmas is the time for naming Jesus. Advent is the time for waiting and hoping, in the power of that Spirit which Jesus promised to send us in order to lead us into all truth and life. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

1st Week of Advent

An anonymous poet has written: "I saw the sign on the highway ‘Prepare to meet thy God.’ But when I got a little closer There were no further instructions."  Advent is a season like that: one where we prepare, we wait, we discern what the “further instructions” are!

 Contrary to the dominant and prevailing view in American culture, Advent doesn’t begin with unbridled celebration or a shopping spree! Rather, Advent deals with a community of hurt, with you and me, real people who know pain, depression, inadequacy and failure, particularly at this time in our country when tensions, especially racial and ethnic tensions, are running at least as high as back in the 1960's. Such a community of hurt knows the One to Whom it speaks in prayer in its time of suffering. We call upon God, the Lord of hurt, whom we trust to bring our suffering to an end.

 Since our hope and prayer is directed to the One whose reign is never really in doubt, our community of hurt is also a community of hope. We passionately hope for the end of our troubles. Our living faith assures us that God reign will surely come. The hope which we express isn’t wishful thinking, but a concrete hope, based on the words and actions of the One we follow, every bit as real as the pain we feel. Hurt and hope go together in our lives, even though you and I don’t like to accept that reality. We’d like to think that, somehow, we can have the one (guess which?) without the other. Yet it’s precisely the reality of our present hurt which motivates us to have hope.

 Advent is meant to shatter our fantasy worlds, and to teach us to acknowledge, to speak, and to take action about our pain and the world’s; to look in hope, not to ourselves, but to Jesus. Advent asks if you and I are open enough for a newness to be given, if we’re trusting enough of the faithful God to let go of this world. Advent should lead us to reflect on Jesus‘ observation (Mark 13:2) that “Not one stone will be left here upon another…” Larry Parton, in a now-defunct little magazine called alive now!, wrote: “The one we wait for is the one who will get in our way. He is the one who will disturb us and our peace. He is the one who will stop cooing and begin to talk about things that will trouble us.” Realizing that, do we, as 1st century Christians did, still dare to pray without ceasing throughout our Advent wait: “Maranatha -- Come, Lord Jesus”?