Monthly Archives: December 2012

Naming Jesus

Luke 2:15-21  After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.


Image: Unknown , Ottonian, Regensburg, c. 1030 – 1040

It used to be that when I’d find out that a couple was expecting or preparing to adopt an infant, I’d inquire right away about whether they’d decided on a name. But experience has taught me that it’s a very bad question to ask, especially if you also feel it’s your duty to offer a few suggestions! Parents are generally pretty particular and protective about choosing names. It is often a cause of friction between them, and if the relatives are butting in too, everybody is on edge. It’s not for nothing that many of our given names have little family stories attached to them.

When I was leading small discussion groups, I’d sometimes break the ice with a question about the participants’ names. Why were you named Elizabeth or Paul or Malcolm or Linda? Were you named for a hero or saint, a grandparent, a movie star? Was ‘Tiffany’ or ‘Grant’ a hot name the year you were born? Is your name brand new, invented out of wonderful sounds, like Keeshawn or Tawanda or Juwan? Or is it traditional, biblical, like Ruth or Rachael or Adam?

I, for example, was supposed to be named Janice, after my mother’s mother, Janetta. But the labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and the pain was great, and my mother — who up till that moment had not been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus — was heard to scream, loud enough for everyone in heaven to hear: “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”

Names matter to us. We try to remember names and get them right. We’re embarrassed when we forget somebody’s name. It bothers us when somebody gets ours wrong, adds an ‘e’ on Ann if there isn’t one, or forgets to add one if there is. We don’t treat our names lightly.

Names have a way of saying: Attention! Human being here. To deny people their personhood, we take their names away. When people are sent to prison, they gets a number; when Jews were sent to camps, they became numbers; when Africans were enslaved, their African names were erased and they were given different ones, left nameless, or called ‘Tom’ or ‘boy.’ To sing, then, as they did, “Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name…” was a defiant assertion of human dignity. Jesus knew their names.

If our names don’t feel right, we change them. You know, one minute he was ‘Prince,’ and the next he was ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,’ and then he was a graphic logo. We snicker, but we also understand. In some irreplaceable way, our names do more than identify us: they create us. And the simple utterance of a given name often generates the most intimate intimacies. Recall the scene in the Gospel of John when one of the women who went to anoint the entombed Jesus met a man she thought was the caretaker. She demanded to know where Jesus’ body was. He said, ‘Mary.” And she knew him.

Names elicit real presences. If you doubt the power of a name to evoke a person, go to the Viet Nam Memorial. Watch people trace with their fingers the names cut into the wall as if they were making out the features of a well-loved face in a dark room.

Names, the scriptures tell us, are also important to God. Practically any place you open the Bible, you’ll find God preoccupied with names, naming people, changing their names, explaining their names. This God won’t assign you a number. In fact, God is said to know us before we are even conceived, and that means by name. God, we are told, has inscribed all our names on the palm of the divine hand. In scripture, being called by name is a rich gift—it carries with it implications of belonging and safety and redemption and covenant love and mission and accountability.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that God had a name picked out for Mary and Joseph’s child. When he announced the birth, Gabriel also announced the name, and thus the couple was spared all the intra-family hazards of having to choose one. They never fought over which grandfather to honor, or whether to name him Joseph, Jr., or whether to saddle him with a hip name or an old fashioned one. And when eight days had passed, and the time came for him to be circumcised, they gave him, Luke’s gospel says, the name commanded by the angel before he was conceived in the womb– Jesus, that is, ‘God saves.

Naming their child was an act of obedience, one of a series of obedient responses that marked the odd experience of these parents. This obedience is the only reason Luke mentions the naming ceremony in his gospel (it only merits half a line, after all): he wants to show that neither this child nor the child’s parents are independent agents. They operate faithfully in response to the divine plan for reconciliation. Mary and Joseph name the child Jesus because even though it’s plain that neither of them understands fully what is happening, they believe God has spoken, and that’s enough for them. From the beginning, then, the child whose name means ‘God saves’ is a son of obedience as well as a son of God.

And that never changes. This association of salvation and obedience permeates Jesus’ life. It is a major concern of the evangelists too. You can invoke Jesus’ name again and again, one says, but unless you are also obediently carrying out God’s will, it will do you no good. You can be his mother, the first to call him by name, says another, but unless you are hearing and obeying God’s word of mercy, blood connections and old family stories won’t do you any good either. Even the demons know Jesus’ name, we read, and they easily invoke it; but they are still demons.

Each of us has a different name. But we have a name in common too. We who follow Jesus bear his name together. It is the name God likes to call us, even if it is also the one we find hardest to call ourselves, since we are usually better at knowing ourselves deficient and a cause of God’s disappointment than we are at knowing ourselves holy and a source of God’s delight. And yet by grace the name of Jesus is indeed our best and truest name, the name that delivers us into God’s intimacy. If we hush, hush, we will always hear the Spirit calling it, reminding us of the dignity we possess even when we ignore or squander it. Bearing this name of Jesus self-consciously, purposefully, responsively, will make us children of obedience like he was, so that we will not be children of God in name only.

The name of Jesus belongs first to the baptized, but it is not an exclusive name; it also fits every person who obediently seeks the mystery of God and the community of justice and wholeness that is the will of God. Anyone who has ever participated in depth in inter-faith dialogue or in cross-cultural movements for liberation knows well how much the name of Jesus is revered and ‘adopted’ by people whose religious lives unfold in other traditions, sometimes more so than within the Christian family itself.

The name of Jesus is a precious name. Many a soul has gone trustingly to an awful martyrdom or to a kinder, everyday death with this name on its lips. Many a struggling heart has found that name sweet in times of illness and strong in times of fear. Many courageous, persevering men and women have invoked its righteous beauty in the face of injustice and oppression. We pray privately and communally in that name, assured by scripture that God responds as faithfully to it as Jesus did to God. We sing stirring hymns in church about the glorious name of Jesus, and about how every knee must bend to it.

But we are generally timid about naming Jesus explicitly outside the small circle of our faith communities, and sometimes even inside them. Some of us hesitate to name him to others (and to each other) because we think we don’t believe enough, or believe correctly, or believe at all. Some think it is hypocritical to speak of him if one’s actions do not match in every particular one’s rhetoric. Some of us fear ‘imposing’ his name on others, as if merely speaking of Jesus were coercive or imperialistic. Or we worry that if we invite people to glimpse this cornerstone of our hope, to grasp the reason for our commitment to the world, they will hear in our naming of Jesus only the narrow-mindedness of the ultra-conservative right or the fanaticism of the fundamentalist.

Of course, we can’t help but be acutely aware that in the name of Jesus every imaginable human horror has been and is still being devised and perpetrated. We know all too well what happens when naming Jesus is divorced from obedience to the God whose ways are not our ways. But the solution is not to keep still about him and about the way we know and experience him. If we are silent about Jesus, withholding from the world the reasons for the way we think and live, we concede the field to the demons who happily speak his name in the world, but only in order to lie about him.

In the silence deepened by our reluctance, God only knows what those demons might say—that Jesus prefers white, well-to-do people? That he stands against the violence of the Palestinians, but not that of the Israelis, or vice-versa? That he is satisfied when the state punishes killing with more killing? That he shows his wrath at Western homosexuality by striking millions of heterosexual Africans with AIDS? That he thinks the answer to gun violence is more guns? If we fail to name him as we have come to know him, at the sound of his name named by such demonic voices, knees will bend all right, but it will surely be in loathing, or in ridicule, or in dread.

But what if we were in the world naming him differently? What if we were less timid and more aware of the difference naming him as we know him could make?  What if we encouraged each other to name him, telling stories of how we got this name, telling the world why we think it is a lovely one, why he is ‘God saves,’ and not ‘God condemns,’ why he is worthy of our allegiance. Maybe the more we name him, the more his obedience will live in us, the more his life will be reproduced in us, and the more his compassion will go out from us to the world God loved.

I Christmas: Turn Around and You’re Grown (Luke 2:41-52)


–The Child Jesus with A Walking Frame, Hieronymous Bosch, 15 c.


n the 1960’s, Kodak ran a commercial during “The Wonderful World of Disney” that became one of the most beloved in the history of advertising. It was a simple photo sequence that captured the progress of a baby from infancy through girlhood, adolescence, young adulthood and marriage, ending with the young woman coming home from the hospital with a baby of her own in her arms.

The pictures were accompanied by a song called, “Turn Around.” Parents everywhere blubbered openly when it played.

Where are you going my little one, little one?

Where are you going, my baby, my own?

Turn around and you’re two,

Turn around and you’re four,

Turn around and you’re a young girl

Going out of the door.

Where are you going my little one, little one?

Little pigtails and petticoats,

Where have you gone?

Turn around and you’re tiny,

Turn around and you’re grown,

Turn around and you’re a young wife

With babes of your own.*

The ad and its soundtrack were impossibly sentimental, but something about them struck a deep chord. Little ones grow up, we all know, and they do it, it seems, when you are distracted for a split second.

Only a week ago it was Christmas. The Babe in the manger hadn’t even opened his eyes. Last week, he wasn’t old enough for strained peas. This week he’s an adolescent. How did we get here so fast? Turn around and he’s born, turn around and he’s grown…

Grown, and something of a prodigy. He’s wowing the teachers in the Temple with precocious questions. He’s a willful kid too, and he’s giving his parents fits. I’m told that Luke uses the same word to describe Mary’s anguished confusion in this episode as he uses to describe the consternation of Dives, the rich man who ends up in hell in the story of the beggar, Lazarus. Luke knew something about the underbelly of parenting, I guess.

In the church I grew up in, we called this Sunday ‘Holy Family Sunday.’ It was a celebration of the ideal family, the one we were supposed to imitate in our own. I could never figure out what was so ideal about them, though. It didn’t seem very ideal to me to misplace your kid in a big crowded public place. And when his careless parents find him,hb_32.100.123 Mary doesn’t seem to remember or much care that Jesus is Somebody Special. She’s as frazzled as any ordinary mother would be and yells at him as if he were a run-of-the-mill pre-teen. Jesus’ reply is curt, even dismissive. This sounded more like my own family, certainly not a holy one.

But the preachers of my youth didn’t seem to notice. They especially played up the last line of the story—He went down with them and was subject to them. ‘Go and do likewise’ was the moral of the story, as far as they were concerned; and every parent in the sanctuary nodded in agreement while we kids slumped in our seats. The Holy Family is a family in which parents are good and caring, and their kids submissively obey them.

–Christ among The Doctors, Cataln, 14th c.


Of course this is Kodak sentimentality passing for Christian instruction. Not only is this not a story about a Holy Family, it’s also not a story about being submissive. It’s a story about the time that comes when one must disobey. It pinpoints the moment when an authentic calling renders human absolutes relative. It’s a story in which we learn that sooner or later choices have to be made that override the obligations even of blood kinship.

Luke shows us this moment in Jesus’ life by playing on the word ‘father’ in the exchange between the boy and his mother. Mary asks, ‘Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching…’ Jesus responds, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ In this moment, Jesus shifts his allegiance from Joseph (‘your father’) to God (‘my Father’). This child is becoming an adult, and we know he’s on his way because he is sorting out competing loyalties; he is negotiating the tensions between ordinary expectations on the small stage of a nuclear family and great aspirations on the larger stage of a ministry to the world; he is making choices and accepting the obligation and pain that comes with a life-claiming, life-shaping call: ‘I must be about God’s work.’

Eventually Jesus will return home with his parents, for the time being, the story says, and ‘obediently.’ And then the gospels are silent about him for the next eighteen years. But the die is cast at twelve. According to Luke, Jesus was born for one purpose only, the common human purpose—to grow up; that is, to achieve an adulthood shaped around chosen priorities. Here Jesus is already clarifying what his will be—only those things pertaining to God’s house and God’s business. The priorities Jesus chooses will lead him to demand a wrenching reordering of everything. We know how that goes: The mighty cast down, the rich sent away empty; the meek inheriting the earth, the last moving into first place, mercy trumping everything else.

Jesus’ commitment to God’s work will also demand a new kind of kinship that persistently condemns the ordinary idolatry of clan and family. His first and final allegiance to God’s house over all other allegiances to every other house – personal, religious, political, national – will eventually mark him for a state execution; and in the meanwhile his own family will be embarrassed, confused, and disheartened by the things he says and the company he keeps.

But all this is in the future. It will come soon enough. In a split second of Marian distraction, he will be fully-grown. In another blink of an eye, he will be dying on a cross. But for this split second now, he is a boy, learning the Law and beginning to walk in the pathway that will be his life.

Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') 1849-50 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

–Christ in the House of His Parents, John Everett Millais, 1849-50


In the Christmas season, I hear many smart, faithful Christians say they don’t believe any longer in the New Testament’s infancy narratives—especially Christ’s miraculous birth from a mother who was also a virgin. As I grow older, I find these ancient stories easier and easier to believe, at least to believe in that way theologians call ‘a second naïvete.’ My problem is not with the divine child in the manger, but with the precocious, willful boy in the Temple who is figuring out that God’s business merits the unswerving dedication of a whole life. As Will Willimon once noted, it is harder to believe in a life ‘unreservedly shaped around the priority of God’ than it is to imagine that a virgin could bear a son. It’s not that hard to embrace the possibility that God came as a human baby if God stays a baby and does not grow up to be a man who is God’s alone, and does not demand that we choose to be God’s too.

Former UCC General Minister and President, John Thomas, tells this story:

“Bethlehem, Pa., was named by its Moravian founders after their first communion service was held on Christmas Eve. Today ‘the Christmas City’ offers a delightful array of Moravian Christmas traditions [to the public] every year… [Annually], a Nativity scene is erected on the plaza between the library and city hall, dominated by a huge lighted star on the mountain overlooking the Lehigh River to the south.”

One year, John continues, while he was serving a church in nearby Easton, “the newspaper reported that the figure of Jesus had been stolen. Jesus was eventually located… where the vandals had left him and, to avoid a recurrence, the city mothers and fathers bolted him to the manger after they returned him to the plaza.”

Most of us, as John comments, are “happy to keep Jesus bolted to his manger.” Who wants him grown up and walking around, “meddling in the greed that denies children health care, or a decent home, or a safe school? Who wants him challenging our easy resort to violence as the only way to personal and global security? Who wants him asking us awkward questions about why we treat the creation as little more than a convenience store filled with raw materials to satisfy our endless desire? Who wants him holding up a mirror to the deceits and betrayals of our personal lives? Better to keep him bolted [to] that manger.” (2)

Yes, indeed. We hate to see the Infant Jesus grow up so fast. He’s such a pretty little baby. We want to savor the Kodak moment forever. But it’s not just because he’s so sweet and cuddly that we hate to see him outgrow his crib. It’s also because deep sown we know that when the infant becomes a boy, and the boy becomes a man, we will be asked to grow up too.


*“Turn Around,” by Harry Belafonte, Alan Greene, and Malvina Reynolds

And Love Is Everything: A Newtown Carol



Sweet on the breeze of angels,

songs in the night ring clear:

Heaven to earth is singing

anthems of peace and cheer.

Unbrightened, in reply

poor earth sends up its groaning:

Peace is an orphan here.


Swift on a path of longing,

roused by the angel song,

shepherds run to the stable;

hope makes their going strong.

The manger cold and still

meets eagerness with anguish:

Here hope is killed by wrong.


Brighter than sun and planets,

sign of the ancient vow,

Star of the East is shining,

even the wise men bow;

but shadowed hearts in mourning

see only rays of darkness:

No light shines on us now.


Close by the cradle, Mary

bravely the secret sings:

Love is a sea of sorrow,

love is a broken wing;

love has no guns, no forces,

love cannot win a battle:

And love is everything.

It’s O and O and O


O, O, said God, when at one word

the day burst forth from night:

O light, O lovely, God declared,

astounded by the sight.


O, O, cried Mary in alarm

when God begged her assent:

O mystery, O yes, she said,

unknowing what it meant.


O, O, the kneeling sages wept,

their tears with stars entwined:

O love, O ken beyond the ken

of star-pursuing minds.


O, O, the longing church has sighed

through all things ill and well:

O Day, O Mystery, O Lord,

O come, Emmanuel!


And when our healing comes at last

we’ll hear a word we know;

for heaven makes but one sweet sound:

it’s O and O and O!

O Antiphon: Clavis David

20 Dec O Clavis David

O Key of David,

and scepter of the house of Israel,

you open and no one can close,

you close and no one can open:

Come and rescue prisoners

who are seated in darkness,

and the shadow of death.


If you’ve ever spent any time in a prison in the United States, you will not read this antiphon as a universal desire for Christ to come and break down barriers and walls and liberate us all from the things that keep us bound.

If you’ve been in prison, on one side of the bars or the other, you will not gentle-down or spiritualize this plea. In a country where locking the cell door and throwing away the key is a national pastime, to reduce this antiphon’s desperation to the longings of our inner selves or for generic freedom is an evasion worthy of divine reproach.

The church that utters this cry from the most desolate regions of its soul knows about real prisoners in real prisons. It has languished in them itself, after all. One powerful strand of its history is nothing less than the history of outlaws and jailbirds.

This church knows that prisoners don’t need kindness or pity or understanding or even better conditions, although all that would be good. What they need is rescuing.

Rescuing from their own brokenness and despair and anger and violent impulses and whatever else it was that got them locked up in the first place.

Rescuing from the zealotry and self-righteousness and racism and unreasoning fear and inequality of our justice and penal systems.

Rescuing from the bloodlust of too many citizens who think prison is too good for prisoners, that they should be tormented, strung up, flayed alive, disappeared forever in some horrible way, not allowed to live, and even to live it up (they believe), in country clubs, while the law-abiding pick up the tab.

Rescuing from the willful aversion of the eye that never sees the fact that many prisoners are getting exactly what the bloodthirsty among us want them to get: torment, a living and indescribable hell.

Rescuing from the ordinary relief of citizens like you and me who, thanks to all those who are willing to throw away the keys, can go about our business, most of the time, without giving any of this nasty, vexing, implacable problem a single serious thought.

None of this is to deny that many prisoners are dangerous, implacably bent on harm, perhaps even irredeemable insofar as social rehabilitation is concerned. It is not to say that we should breezily unlock every cell, let everyone go, and inflict their harm on the law-abiding. It is not to forget victims of crime and their families, whose own sentences are indescribably unjust, life without parole.

No, this is not to romanticize prisoners. It is to dare to name them kin and children of God, as Jesus commanded, and to acknowledge that the darkness and the shadows of death in which they sit is not only of their own making but also of ours, and that we deepen the darkness and thicken the shadows by our forgetting them. By our being glad we can forget them. By our rarely, if ever, praying with tears for them. By our throwing away the key and going about our lives loving other neighbors and even other enemies, but not these. Anyone but these.

We refuse to know, or care very much, because we are implicated; implicated not because we played a role in their incarceration, although honest analysis might show that we all do; but because whether we like it or not, we share a human life and the human lot. If what prisoners need is to be rescued, then so do we. As they are rotting away in jail, so are we.

Which is the point: In the end, the antiphon is about our spiritual condition. We who live outside prisons are not free unless, paradoxically, we are making decisive moves to get ourselves locked up in prisons alongside real prisoners— locked up spiritually or physically, it doesn’t matter, as long as it is a real incarceration of mind, body, soul; as long as it ends up that we cannot even breathe while things are still as they are in this nation, and this world; as long as we learn how desperately urgent it is that someone with incontestable authority (for that is what the antiphon means by opening and shutting) should come, and come soon, to rescue us all from this madness.

Rescue won’t happen from a distance. The unlocking we beg for in the antiphon is not remote control unlocking, much less a spiritualized unlocking of good thoughts and wishful thinking. It is an unlocking by proximity, by a human hand.

And not just any human hand. The key in the lock is turned by a wounded hand, the hand of an arrested, judged, flayed, gashed, and humiliated man, a death row prisoner, a dead man walking. If anyone has the authority to wield that key, he does. And by extension, we who claim to have died with him do too.

We have the authority. We have the key. But it can’t be done from afar. At least some of us have to go. If the gospel is to have any credibility at all, key in hand, at least some of us have to go.

Housekeys: The Flight Into Egypt


Eastman Johnson,  A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862)

Matthew 2:13-22

Unlike Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s has no journey home to be counted, no overbooked inns, no shepherds, no manger, no swaddling clothes. Instead, Matthew has Joseph and Mary already living in a house in Bethlehem, their own house, presumably; and it is there that the Magi visit the child Jesus and give him gifts.

After the Magi leave, an angel warns Joseph in a dream that Herod is coming after the Child. The tyrant is prepared to slaughter many children to be sure he’s rid of one. Joseph should take his family and run for it, the angel says; cross into Egypt. Stay there until the tyrant dies.

Here’s what I wonder…

After he woke up, and while he was still shaking from the dream, and after they had packed a few things and saddled up the donkey, did Joseph take the key to the front door of his house in Bethlehem, string it on a rawhide cord, and tie the cord around his neck?

Or did he give the key to Mary after he boosted her onto the beast, handing up the child first, and then the key? Did she tuck it in the travel bag underneath the diapers and the talcum powder and the brand new copy of Goodnight Moon?

At the end of their street, did Joseph stop and turn around? Did he look back at the house they had just abandoned, one ear cocked for the hot breath of the horses, the other for the boots of bloody soldiers, conscripts most of them, kids, just following orders?

Did he find it surreal that he, a terrified man fleeing with his family, was also, in that very moment, wishing he’d gotten around to fixing the creaking tread on the stairs, the one Mary said would come right up some day and trip her, sending her headlong down the narrow flight? Did he say to her with his eyes, “Hold onto that key. Don’t lose it. I’ll fix the stairs, really I will. As soon as we get back…”

And when they made it over the border and found a place that rented to people without papers, did he wrap the key in a cotton cloth and place it in an olive wood box with leather hinges and a brass latch, and place it in a niche in the wall, and cover the niche with an old calendar from a company selling insurance?

And on days when no one would give him work, or during the night when Mary was out cleaning offices, or that first time he realized that his toddler couldn’t remember anything about home and was acquiring an Egyptian accent, did he take the key from its niche behind the calendar and lay it on his palm and rock over it, singing songs of Zion in a foreign land? Did he dream at night of return? Or did the good St Joseph drink himself into a stupor over what was lost? Did he buy too many lottery tickets? Did he take out his rage on the furniture?

And when the news finally came that Herod was dead and they could go back home, did he take the key from the box, knot it back on the cord, and tie the cord around his neck? Or give it to Mary to put in her bag, this time tucking it into one of the little boy’s sneakers so that it would be easy to find if they got to their door very late on a moonless night?

And when they crossed the border again and discovered that the danger had not passed—because for the refugee, the exile, the poor, the person with the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong opinion, the wrong sexuality, the danger never passes—and Joseph decided not to go to Bethlehem where they had a house with a door that the housekey fit, but to settle up in the Galilee, what, I wonder, became of that key?

What did he do with a key that was useless in a new lock in a new house, a key that opened no doors in Nazareth? What became of the key that worked only in the lock of the front door of the little house in the little town of Bethlehem?

Here’s what else I wonder:

Whose necks do such keys hang from now? In whose bags packed for a midnight dash to the border are they tucked away underneath the baby’s shirts and the sippy cup that quacks like a duck when you squeeze it? In whose small boxes are those keys resting? Who is rocking on tired knees singing songs of home over them, like lullabies to a baby, or anthems to a flag, or offerings to a god?

And what traumas are being inflicted, what grievances are being nursed, what resentments are building, what terrors contemplated, what weapons amassed in the name of keys and locks and doors and houses and memories and dreams and towns and lands and borders and nations?

How will it end, this Christmas story? For this cold hard story is as much the story of Christmas as the one about lowing cattle and awestruck rustic men. How will it unfold, and how will it end, this story of Jesus, barely begun?

And is there an angel lingering over earth fierce enough to rouse us from our deep and heedless sleep? Is there any message frightening enough to alert us to the danger we’re in? Is there any light from heaven bright enough to show us this old story as our neighbor’s story, and as our own?

A Communion Service for Christmas Day




*Carol On This Day Earth Shall Ring         

*Lighting the Christmas Candle

Lift up your heads; the day of peace is here!

God has visited us with healing!

All the ends of the earth can see it,

And the distant coastlands rejoice!     

The Christmas candle is lit.

The light of Christ!

Thanks be to God!


[A traditional Gloria may also be sung, chanted, recited here.]

Come, let us praise our God!

Glory to God in the highest,

and peace to God’s people on earth!

We worship you, we give you thanks,

we praise you for your glory! 

Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Child,

you take away the world’s sin!

Have mercy on us! 

Lamb of God, you sit at God’s right hand!

Receive our prayer!

For you are the Healer and the Holy One,

the world’s hope and the heart’s desire.

You preside in love forever, with the Holy Spirit,

in the glory of God, the Sovereign. Amen.


Reading      Isaiah 52:7-10

*Carol   Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light          

Reading     Luke 2:1-20

*Carol   O Come, All Ye Faithful

Shared Reflection [or Homily]


[Short sung refrain, carol, or a recited statement of faith.]


[A few moments of reflection, could be undergirded by instrumental music.]

Prayers for the Church and World

[Congregational response:  Lord, hear our prayer!]

In peace, let us pray to the Lord for the church and the world:

That the heart of the world might rejoice today

at the birth of a merciful savior, let us pray to the Lord…

That the works of justice may capture every human heart

and lead to peace, let us pray to the Lord…

For an end to war and all violence,

that all people may live in hope and safety,

so that free of fear we may build a new tomorrow, let us pray to the Lord…

For the health of the earth, and the integrity of all creation, let us pray to the Lord…

For the sick, the troubled, the sorrowing and the dying,

that they may know the comfort of God’s mercy, let us pray to the Lord…

For our enemies and for all who have done us harm,

and for all whom we have harmed, let us pray to the Lord…

For the church throughout the world, that we may love God,

God’s world, and one another; welcome and serve all people,

and show forth the mercy of our Savior, let us pray to the Lord…

And now, in the words our Savior gave us, we are bold to say:

Our Father…

*Carol Angels We Have Heard On High 

Holy Communion

*All who are able may rise.

The newborn Child be with you!

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts!

We lift them joyfully to God.

Let us give thanks to God, our God!

It is right to give God thanks and praise.

We are right to praise you, Maker of heaven and earth,

for you have always loved us.

Even when we strayed like sheep, you loved us.

You planted hope within us and sent messengers

to keep that hope alive,even in the worst of times.

At last, in the fullness of time,

in the stillest night, you sent us our healer.

Born on life’s margin, he was one of us,

full of our joy and subject to our frailty,

our brother and your delight.

He welcomed everyone who was unwelcome elsewhere.

He kept faith with you, even when it cost him his life.

You vindicated him, and he lives, our healer still.

From his fullness we all receive mercy after mercy, grace after grace.

Therefore, most wonderful God, with the Christmas angels

and the faithful of every time and place, we praise you, saying [singing]:


[A traditional Sanctus may be sung, or a Gloria in excelsis Deo refrain from a popular carol may substitute.]

Holy, Holy, Holy God, Lord of heaven and earth!

The cosmos shows us your glory!

Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed is the Child who comes in your name.

Hosanna in the highest!


You may be seated.

[These remembrances may be interspersed with an alleluia refrain or the refrain of a familiar carol.]

Now we remember the Garden, Adam and Eve and God’s footsteps.

We remember that long ago we sinned and were left without a home.

We remember Abraham, and Sarah, Moses, the sea, the desert.

We remember the manna, and water from the rock.

We remember the prophets, the longing, the promise.


We remember an angel interrupting a young woman’s day.

And we remember Joseph’s dream.

We remember a hard journey, inns with no room.

We remember poor things –a manger, a child, some straw. 

We remember the cold, the shepherds, the night.


We remember midnight glory, God in human face outshining.

We remember Jesus.

He came to us then.

He is with us still – we are not alone.


And when he was all grown up,

in the middle of another night when the end was near

and betrayal was in the air, he shone all the brighter with love for his friends.

He ate with them, taking bread, the staff of life.

He gave thanks to God for it, called it his body, and shared it all around.

He drank with them, too, taking a cup and blessing it,

pouring it out like life-blood for the forgiveness of sins.

He said to them: Whenever you do this, remember me.

Calling on the Holy Spirit

Send your Spirit upon these gifts, O God –

fruit of the earth and work of human hands!

May they be for us life-giving food and drink.

As we share in their goodness, give us love for each other

and make us willing servants of your justice in the world.

Sharing Bread and Cup

Meditation in Music

[During or after communion. Could be choir, piano, organ, or whatever you have!]     


All may rise.

Let us give thanks for all we have received.

We thank you, O God,

for making yourself known to us in the human life of Jesus.

Keep us always in the joy of this Christmas Day,

like Mary and Joseph, like angels and shepherds –

servants of your love and bearers of your grace.

Glory be to you in the church and in all creation,

now and forever. Amen.

*Carol                                              Joy to the World!


Beloved, do not be afraid! Today a Child is born to us.

God is alive among us, closer to us than our own hearts.

God will never leave us or lose us.

Unfailing love will always save us,

and the blessing of God is forever upon us,

Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

*A Sign of Christmas Joy, and Sending

Now offer each other a sign of Christmas joy, and go in peace!

O Antiphon: Sapientia

17 December

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, you ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come and teach us the way of prudence.

17 Dec O Sapientia


Now there’s an unsexy virtue. Do you know anyone who sets her heart on becoming prudent? Works at it everyday in her spiritual exercises? To become loving, yes, that’s a lovely goal; faithful too, or patient, even humble. But prudent?

The very sound of the word is off-putting. It sounds … prudish. Careful, surveying the scene, looking for trouble to avoid. Who wants to be like that—calculating risks, playing it safe, and sourly disapproving of the bold?

Too bad about prudence. It’s a lonely virtue, like meekness, forbearance, and long-suffering, misunderstood and underrated. But without it, the world would be doomed. Already is, almost, since it is singularly lacking. Which is why we pray in Advent that Wisdom, who appears among us as a Child, will hurry and teach it to us.

So what is it? Prudence is one way to worship God with your whole mind, as the Great Commandment says we ought. We tend to neglect this part of that charge in favor of the more familiar and comfortable loves of heart and soul. (We don’t love God very much with our bodies, either, but that’s a story for another day.) But there it is: love God with your mind, your intellect, your reason.

Prudence is thinking things through and distinguishing among things correctly. It’s telling good from bad, excellent from mediocre, ultimate from penultimate—as well as slogging through the proverbial gray areas, the complexities of the middle ground and the forgotten ground. The prudent person willingly spends time among the perplexities, listening and thinking, and then thinking some more.

Prudence studies the evidence of love and the rumors of life, skimming dross from the surface to reveal glints of gold beneath. Like a skilled shopper at a big department store sale, she sorts through everything that’s on offer until she finds clothes that fit God’s taste and style. These she buys.

All this she does not obsessively, in an anxious effort to get control over life, but “mightily,” as the antiphon says, strongly confident that there is in fact a discernible God-hinting pattern, and that the gift of reason graced by faith will be able to perceive it.

MMstudyingByWeydenPrudence is not content to say, “We shall never know.” It is of course true that we shall never know, completely. But prudence is avid for as much knowledge as she can get by peering intently through the mirror Paul talks about in I Corinthians 13. Even if our seeing is ever only dim, prudence believes that looking will yield something true enough.

True enough for what? To choose. This is the key. Prudence chooses, she decides, she commits, she sets out. And orders things.

This is where the “sweetly” part comes in. Because in that choosing, in the ordering of decisions and actions, in the reorientation of life that deep and godly knowledge directs, prudence is prudent enough to know that despite faithful application of graced reason to the maze of worldly possibilities for making life good, we could be finally mistaken in our judgments and in the choices that flow from them.

Her action is thus as humble as her seeking, which doesn’t mean it is not loud or long or deep or keening or ecstatic or prophetic; only that in all things it is profoundly charitable and meek, in the way Jesus was meek, in the way we are all meant to be foolish in order to be wise. Prudence is, in the end, not so much an egghead, a scholar, a weighty theologian, nor even a conventionally wise person filled with common sense–perhaps she is that least of all. No, she is the one who engages doggedly in a great and necessary folly. Prudence is a great and wise old fool.

After all,

Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. [1 Corinthians 1:20-25]

If God Can Find A Corner Small: A Carol for Christmas



If God can find a corner small,

a town constricted as a tomb,

to house the sweeping Life of all,

we too can find a little room.


If God requires but little space,

an unassuming mother’s womb,

to birth God’s spacious Gift of grace,

we too can be a little room.


If little room is room to spare,

a stable’s manger plain and rough,

to cradle everlasting Care,

we too have room, and room enough.


And even if we still mistake

a mansion’s pomp for God’s embrace,

whatever room we sinners make,

Good Love will gladly fill the place.


You can sing this carol to the tune, ANDREW, Hymn 467, “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth’ in The New Century Hymnal. [You will need to repeat last line of each stanza of the carol in order to fit the tune’s meter]

A really lovely LM tune, NORWICH, was composed for that same text (“Mothering God”) by Carolyn Jennings. It is at # 735 in the Lutheran hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. And a wonderful choral setting of this same tune is by Zebuloma Highben, and can be found at Augsburg Fortress. I like this tune very much for this carol.

For a more meditative mood, you might use CONDITOR ALME, alternating verses between a soloist and the congregation, or choir and congregation.

What You Can See Through Tears


— Niccolo dell’Arca

John 20:1-18

Someone said to me a few days ago, “Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”

By “this year,” of course, he meant 9/11; and he meant the war in Afghanistan, the crazed violence of the Middle East, the fear of Muslims, the fear of flying, the fear of the future, the free-form fear ignited by color-coded homeland security alerts.

By “this year” he also meant the anger of grown-up little boys molested by trusted Fathers, and the duplicity of the Fathers of those Fathers who for indefensible reasons did not, when the children cried out, put aside every other consideration and run raging, weeping and full of tenderness to their aid.

“Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”

The question implies that in a year such as this one has been, it will be at best a perplexing exercise to sing lusty alleluias about the death of death. It implies that this year we’ll need to put up a struggle so that the undertow of grief won’t drag our high hosannas out into a sea of sadness.

It also suggests that perhaps we hepped-up Easter preachers should be careful when we claim that because of the resurrection, everything we think is so gosh-darn bad is really not all that bad after all, when all is said and done! Christ is risen from the dead: Presto change-o! All’s right with the world.

Watch out, this question warns, that Great Easter not become a shallow dismissal of the unspeakable pain, the mindless destruction and the utter helplessness we have known together “this year.”

I experienced something like that dismissal recently, as I participated in an ecumenical Good Friday service in Boston. At the end of the service, a young layman employed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sang movingly, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  But he couldn’t let the question hang in the trembling air, as it was meant to do, unanswered. He proceeded instead to assure us breezily that although things have been hard in the Catholic Church lately, the resurrection of Jesus is going to make it all OK. The bad acts of a few bad priests will not destroy the Church: after all, he explained, one of the Twelve betrayed Jesus, but the rest did not. And after that betrayal, they just chose another man to take Judas’ place, and with the number full again, the good work continued. So, friends, he concluded, don’t worry! Never forget: the tomb is empty!  Not to worry. Presto change-o! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

“Easter is going to be a hard sell this year, isn’t it?”

Yes, I suppose it is. But isn’t Easter always a hard sell?

wpe2With all due respect to the faith-challenges of this terrible year, Easter is no more a hard sell today than it was in 1069, when a preacher in Cologne, Germany, finished his Good Friday sermon on the text, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” and dismissed the gathered faithful — whereupon they all poured out of the cathedral and began looking for Jews to kill. The killing continued for weeks. It was the first instance of that pious Christian anti-Jewish violence that we have come to know as the pogrom.

Easter is no more a hard sell this year than in 2000, when, if you believe that year’s domestic violence statistics, in the home of at least one family of someone you know (but would never suspect), a husband threw a hard fist at his wife, and both of them lied about it later in the emergency room.

Easter is no more a hard sell this year than it was or is in any year when a person gets fired because of a losing battle with the bottle, or gets laid off because of a company’s losing battle with the bottom line; or a placement is denied to fit foster parents because they are gay; or somebody steals your perfectly pleasant fourteen-year-old when you aren’t looking and replaces her with a pot-smoking monster who hates you and whom you don’t like very much either.

Easter is no more a hard sell this year than in any year in which human beings perpetrate and suffer all manner of violence and illness, when natural disasters wreak havoc, good kids lose their way, death-loving zealots win too many hearts to their bloody causes, and indifference permits evil to prosper.

A hard sell this year?

The truth is that we always celebrate Easter in the throes of one disaster or another, personal, communal, and global. Easter cannot prevent these things, and Easter must not gloss over them. Pain, sorrow, terror and outrage are, along with ordinary pleasures and extraordinary ecstasies, the stuff of our real human life; and our real human life matters so much to God that God shared it. Our real human situation – our life, our suffering, our mortality, our hope – matters so much to God that, as another preacher has pointed out, “Easter, our greatest godly celebration, takes place in a grave.”

giottonaIf the Easter message promises, and I believe it does, that all will be well beyond our wildest dreams, it does so only through the medium of scars and tears, dust and ashes. The Easter miracle is the power of God’s love and life in the human condition, not in spite of it, or against it, or above it, or beyond it. The gospels claim that Jesus’ resurrected body was so strange that the disciples were not always sure whether the man appearing before them was the same man who’d been dragged to the gallows only a few days before. Some of them were sure only when they saw nail-marks in his hands, the gash still gaping in his side. The risen Christ did not shake off the signs of his earthly service and suffering. His glorious face is eternally grooved by human tears.

Easter is not fairy dust flung over horror to “make nice.”  It is not the way our spirits lift at the annual rebirth of nature. It’s not comfort derived from our the common wisdom that brown things green up after bad winters. It is not a coping mechanism. It is not a basketful of bunnies and chickens and eggs reminding us that no matter what, life goes on and tomorrow will be another day.

Easter is instead the gift of power — power to live fully- free, fully-open, fully-vulnerable, and fully-engaged human lives in the bad winters, in the unthinkable disasters, in the terrifying destruction, on the brutal cross of shame, in each and every human grief and sorrow, in the painful groaning of the whole created cosmos for liberation and new life.

The writer, James Carroll, tells the story of a holy teacher who lost the power of words. He had spoken healing comfort to the dying all his life, but the dying still sickened and died. He had comforted the poor, but poverty still clung to them. He became discouraged, and at last, despairing, he fell completely silent, and settled at the edge of a vast wasteland, alone.

One day a desperate stranger crawled across the spiky stubble to the door of his hermitage and begged him for a word, just one.

“I am ages alone,” the stranger said, “and I am dying from being unspoken to.”


The stranger insisted, “Your wordlessness is killing me. I see that it is killing you too.”

More silence.

At last, the stranger asked the hermit, “Do you want me to die?”

The hermit began to weep. From the deep cave of his being came a terrible moan. His old heart grasped the sound and pushed it up to his cracked lips. His lips formed it into a single shattering word: “No.”

Both men died that night. They might have died dead, but they didn’t. They died alive.

Easter is the gracious power that allows you and me, while we live, to resist a retreat into wordless despair and to overcome fear — not the fear of dying, but the fear of living humanly, feeling, perceiving, thinking, open, vulnerable, connected, committed and engaged. Easter is therefore also the power that, when we die, allows you and me to die alive. It is the power to hear, to believe and to act out in our own living, serving and suffering God’s thunderous “No!” to the most tortured question you, I, and the world address to heaven: “Do you want us to die?”

If we derive from Jesus’ resurrection only an optimistic ”faith perspective” on hard things, but are not driven by our Easter joy right down into the heart of suffering where Easter matters most; if down there we do not steadfastly offer Easter’s preposterousness, its tenacious hope-against-hope; if the lusty alleluias of our Easter liturgy are not also the thunderous “No’s” of God to the despairing deaths that stalk the world; if Easter indulges even the mildest indifference to the immense reservoir of human suffering — if it is evasive, it is not Easter, and we blaspheme when we sing.

Mary_Magdalene_sculptureBut if we do go down there, if we go down deep, and if we mourn and weep…  Well, consider Mary Magdalene. She went to the grave of Jesus while it was dark. The stone was gone, but she neither understood nor believed. She ran to the disciples who raced back with her, looked in, saw the linens, credited her story of a missing corpse, and went home. They didn’t invite her to go home with them. Or maybe she refused to go. She stayed there “in the garden alone,” as the old hymns says. Then, we are told, there in the dark she started to weep. She just stood there, glued to the spot, facing the tomb, deep in the grief and the horror. And she wept.

She wept and wept and wept. She could have wept forever.

But then she began to see.

It is amazing what you can see through tears.

What looked like an empty tomb is full of angels.

A gardener speaks, and faith knows that voice, registers those features.

In a room where the first time we looked there were only frightened women and men, peace materializes.

In broken dreams, broken bodies, and broken bread, you can see through tears that there, there, precisely there, the Great Wide Mercy dwells.