Category Archives: Christmas

Divinized

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“The One who makes rich is made poor, taking on the poverty of flesh, that I may gain the riches of divinity. The One who is full is made empty, devoid a while of glory, that I may share that glory fully. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me?”—St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-391)

It’s an ancient theological question: Why did God become one of us?

Some Christians believe it was to fix a big problem—to pay the unpayable debt incurred by Adam’s sin. When he grows up, Jesus will bridge with his broken body the unbridgeable chasm our disobedience opened between us and God.

And if that’s what you believe about God’s purpose, you stand in a venerable stream of Christian tradition, and I won’t say you’re wrong.

I will say it’s not the only way to imagine why God took a body. There are other venerable traditions, and one of them says the Savior came to divinize us, to give us God’s own glory.

God emptied out to take humanity in. God stooped down to raise us up. God accepted limits to dissolve the limits that made it seem, tragically, as if God and humans are opposites. The mystery—the wonder—of the Incarnation is that we’re not.

In this way of imagining, what we wait for in Advent is not someone to fix us but someone to reveal us to ourselves. The gift on the horizon is not a grim course correction but a mirror, a gaze, a joyous shock of mutual recognition—there, the eternal resemblance, the beauty, the dignity, the shining, shining love.

Prayer

O to be the objects of so great an Affection! O this wealth of goodness! O this mystery that surrounds us!

 

Washing Socks

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At the church I’m serving, we distinguish clearly between Advent and Christmas. In Advent we sing Advent hymns. Pretty much only Advent hymns. Which means we don’t start singing Christmas carols until everyone else is sick of them.

There’s a good liturgical and biblical rationale for delaying the gratification, although if you’re someone who never gets sick of singing carols, there’s not an argument in the world that will sway you.

But maybe this will—it’s just safer to wait.

If you sing carols too long, you might start paying attention to the words. If you do, you’ll have questions. Take those lyrics about “mild mother Mary.” How many mild mothers do you actually know… with screaming infants at the breast?

There are other dangers too, such as the invention of goofy lyrics. Remember that old chestnut, “Good King Windshield Glass”? And surely you know “While shepherds washed their socks…”

While shepherds washed their socks by night, 

all seated round the tub, 

the Angel of the Lord came down

and gave them all a scrub.

We used to drive the nuns crazy with this one:

We three Kings of Orient are

puffing on a rubber cigar.

It was loaded. It exploded.

Bang!

We two Kings…

And so on. That’s the American version, by the way. In Liverpool they sing about underwear that sells for two pence a pair in Hamilton SquareSo fantastic! No elastic! Not very safe to wear.

And not very safe to sing!

Yep, it’s just less risky to restrict carol-singing to the brief Christmas season. Unless, of course, you know that neither Advent nor Christmas is about being safe. Unless, of course, you know risk is what it’s all about—God taking a risk on the world, a risk on us. Leaving divine glory and heavenly peace aside to become one of us. A goofy, crazy, laughable plan if there ever was one.

No matter when you sing them, may the carols of Christmas give you joy, and maybe even a few laughs. Especially if you could really use one.

Prayer Grant us joy in your birth, O newborn Jesus. And not a little goofiness. We could use a laugh. Amen.

Story and Song: Reflection at Lessons and Carols

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The custom of holding Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve originated at King’s College in Cambridge in the year the Great War ended. It was a rather fancy way to tell a simple story, high church and glorious. But whether you tell it in a Gothic cathedral with priests in surplice and cassock, or in a village church with little kids in bathrobes and paper crowns, it’s the same story repeated, wondered at, puzzled over, relished, and entered into for 2,000 years. And whether it’s sung with sophistication by boy choristers in ruffles accompanied by a masterful organ, or with a willing simplicity by a few octogenarians at a church piano, it’s the same song, sung with astonishing trust in its ancient oddness and candid faith in its startling relevance.

It’s such a good story. And so we tell it and we sing it year after year until its truth dawns on us, its power changes us, its vision redirects us, and all its promises come true. No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, it’s a story and a song for me, for you, for all.

If you’re a little restless in spirit, if every now and then you’re blindsided by a longing you can’t quite name, if you’ve ever felt far away from yourself, as if you’re missing some meaning you were made for, if you wish you could clear away what’s standing between you and the joy you know is for you—if that’s how it is with you, restless and far from yourself, the story and the song are yours. The story, about a people in lonely exile, yearning for a light, for someone to bring them home. The song, your own heart’s cry for a breakthrough, for joy at last—O Come, O come. Rejoice, rejoice. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’re exhausted from the effort to climb to the top, if your heart’s a little soured from doing the things it takes to get there and stay there, if you’re asking yourself what it’s costing you, whether you might be happier some other way—if that’s how it is with you, tired of climbing, the story’s yours, and so is the song. The story, about a God who comes down, lays his glory by, abandons privilege to become small, and all for love. The song, a wondering, a question for Christ, a question for you—‘Is it love that leads to leaving?’ If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’re feeling stymied as you survey an unjust world, if you’re angry and depressed about how little things change, if you’re tempted to throw in the towel—if that’s how it is with you, edging to the brink of despair, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about the fear and panic engulfing a proud tyrant’s city, while in a village just nine miles away—light-years away—heavenly peace holds sway as an infant sleeps at his mother’s breast. The song, a vision, the powerful down from thrones, the poor up from the dust, justice no longer denied. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’ve made a mess of something, maybe your life, if there are unkempt places in your heart you’d rather never come to light, if you know what you deserve and fear an accounting, if you think you’re not good enough for God to love you—if that’s how it is with you, hiding something, ashamed, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story of a truce between earth and heaven, of pardon and peace and the erasure of shame, a story in which the feared judge turns out to be like us, helpless and vulnerable, knowing our weakness well, from the inside out. The song rejoices in a Child who pleads for us, a heaven born prince with healing in his wings. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

If you’re sad tonight, if you carry a heart pierced with the fresh pain of recent loss, or an old loss still vivid and sharp, if you’re acting brave but really want to curl up and cry—if this is how it is with you, grieving, bereft, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about a hard journey, following a star on sheer faith, keeping company with others in the long cold night as life and love are somehow born again. The song is sure: the Child feels for all our sadness, you are not alone. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

And if you’re joyous, at peace and full of hope, if you’re amazed by all the love you’ve received and all the love you’ve given in your life, if even your sacrifices are wellsprings of joy, if your thanks cannot be counted—if this is how it is with you, awestruck and grateful, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story about love in the beginning, about love in the end, about light in darkness that darkness cannot overcome, about the unaccountable graciousness that makes you God’s child, the apple of God’s eye. The song is glory in the highest, love’s come down to earth for us, and earth repeats the joy. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.

Dear friends in Christ, the church doesn’t offer certainty or safety. Faith won’t fix your problems or pay your debts. We have no armies, no power to force right where there is wrong. No doctrine or rule in our tradition can change a heart or mend it. We have nothing efficient to offer the world. But we have a story. We have a song. The story of fierce love, the song of tenacious hope, the surprise of a God in flesh appearing. The Christmas story, and we tell it tonight to you, in this good company. In good company, we sing it with you tonight. With all who need to hear it, with all who need to sing it, we share it with love. No matter who you are, no matter where you find yourself on life’s journey, it’s yours. A gift to you from God.

May it save your life, heal your heart, soothe your pain, shield your gladness, awaken your desire, strengthen your hope, and give you joy that never ends.

Treasure: Christmas Day

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“But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19

 The Savior is born!

A thousand angels broadcast the news. They fill the sky and sing. Shepherds praise the Lord. They scurry around, they come and go and tell. Christmas dawns bustling and loud. Everyone has something to say, noisy and glad.

Mary doesn’t say a thing. But the door of her heart stands dangerously open. It all comes in—gladness, hope, consequences. Inwardly, she turns the prism of each sight and sound, each extraordinary thing, every possible meaning. With each turning, new light, greater affection.

She is the still point in the resounding amazement.

Oh, the things she knows…

She is the field in which God buried a treasure. And some day, when we’re paying attention, we will stumble upon it. Some day our hearts will leap at its worth. Some day we will sell all we have for it.

Maybe today.

Prayer

On Christmas Day, Saving God, move us to loud rejoicing; but grant us also the stillness of Mary, her open door, the art of treasuring, and a glimpse of the things she knows. In the name of her newborn Child, we pray. Amen.

So Weird: Meditation for 4th Advent/Christmas Sunday

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Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-18

In our house, when I was growing up, the baby Jesus didn’t appear in the manger until after we got back from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We were strict constructionists—no carols in Advent, and no baby in the cradle ‘till the night he was born.

But that was just about the only biblically correct thing about our crèche. Remember the part in the Bible where it says that a large fuzzy spider crawled along Joseph’s shoulder? No? Well, there was a large fuzzy spider in our manger scene anyway. And an angel in a tutu wearing big clown sneakers straddling the roofline of the barn. And a little model Ferrari parked next to the camels. And a purple wind-up Godzilla that spit electric sparks on the Virgin Mary’s head.

When you have little kids in the house and you’ve put the crèche on a low table, a purple Godzilla’s not the weirdest thing that’s likely to show up to adore the Child.

But then, all the characters in the Christmas story have a touch of weird about them. Take the angel Gabriel. He’s scary. Every time he appears in the Bible, he says, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ You don’t have to say “Don’t be afraid!” if nobody’s scared. Gabriel has to say it all the time. That’s because he scares people. You’d be scared too if a bright pulsating creature with ginormous wings dropped in on you out of the blue. Even if he were to appear as an ordinary person, which angels sometimes do, he’d still be a strange guy you don’t know—in your house.

Then there’s Mary. After Gabriel calms her down (‘Don’t be afraid, Mary!’), he tells her that God has decided she should have a miraculously conceived baby who will be the son of God and a king with an endless reign… and would that be okay with her? In one of the greatest understatements of the Bible, Mary is said to have been ‘perplexed’ by this. Perplexed? That’s what you are when you’re looking at an unusually high electric bill, not when you’re being informed of a virginal conception. Mary also ‘ponders.’ We’re told she meditates on everything that’s happening. While it’s happening. Giving birth in a livestock shed in the dead of winter, she’s pondering. Smelly animals nose around her newborn, she’s pondering. Angels play trumpets overhead, shepherds with garlic breath crowd her personal space, and she ‘ponders all these things in her heart.’ Mary ponders. You and I would be hysterical.

And Joseph. Silent Joseph. He says nothing at all from his first appearance in the biblical record until he disappears altogether, sometime after Jesus turns twelve. Not a syllable. He probably didn’t have time to talk. Angels were always interrupting his sleep. He kept having to load up the donkey at a moment’s notice. Off to Bethlehem. Off to Egypt. Back again. Without a GPS. Maybe he was just too worn out to say anything.

And the shepherds. You want them in your Christmas carols and on your greeting cards, but not in your house. They tramp in all that … manure. They tell off-color jokes. And they are known to have sticky fingers. Count the silver when they leave. You’ll be missing a few forks and the soup spoon.

No, Godzilla isn’t the oddest character in the crèche. They’re all a touch strange. But it’s probably a good thing for us that they are.

If Gabriel had been a pudgy-cheeked cherub who never made anybody nervous, we might not have known that it’s good for us to be scared by the Holy every now and then. To tremble before an awesome God. We sing about being scared— ‘Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.’ ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand.’ But when was the last time you actually shook in God’s presence, or hid your face before God’s holiness, or begged God to go away and leave you alone, or stood mute before God’s power in the world, in someone else’s life, or in your own? The last time the world suddenly became a lot larger than you thought? Deeper and more mysterious than anybody thought? When your certainties vanished? When you fell to your knees?

And if Mary hadn’t done so much pondering, we might not have realized just how much there is to ponder in the way our lives unfold. How much mystery is tucked into life’s smallest details. How available God is to us in the facts on the ground, in the stuff of being human. If Mary doesn’t show us how to ponder everything that’s in a heart, we might never hold some seemingly insignificant experience up to the light, turn it ‘round and ‘round like a prism, and discover there, in every facet of mess and glory, the presence and activity of the living God.

And if Joseph hadn’t been so silent, so retiring, we might not have seen how silly it is always to want to have something clever or wise to say, to interject something about everything, to be the center of attention in every conversation. If he isn’t silent, we might not discover how liberating it is to have no need to comment, no compulsion to be heard, no urge to intrude upon a drama and steal a scene. We might miss a chance to notice how seldom we hold back and make room for someone else to be seen and heard, or how much we need to have someone make that space of dignity for us. If Joseph had been a chatterbox, his son Jesus might not have developed that beautiful capacity of his just to let things be. Jesus might not have disappeared to hilltops at night to be still and listen to God and catch the sounds of human suffering and hope rising from below. Maybe it was the example of Joseph’s silence that kept Jesus from being provoked when, bloody and accused, he stood before Pilate and the crowd. Maybe Joseph’s relinquishment of the need to be a Somebody enabled his Child to stand before the powers of the world and, in his infinite self-possession, vanquish them, without uttering a single self-defensive word.

And if it weren’t for the stinky, shifty shepherds, some people might think they have to spiff up to go to the manger and meet God. They might never go at all if they think it requires clean hands, trendy clothes, a spotless conscience. They might miss the chance to know the God who welcomes everybody who comes, even and especially the odd and undesirable. Welcomes everybody and everything who comes for whatever reason, even if it’s to try to steal the silver. Without shepherds who steal the silver we might never come to love this God who doesn’t seem to mind being taken advantage of. Who would hand over the whole treasure to us in a heartbeat. Who does hand it over to us in the life of a shivering Child. Who never demands a thing in return except that we hand ourselves over to each other in mercy, justice, and love.

In my family’s crèche there was a spider crawling on Joseph, a Ferrari parked next to the camels, an angel in sneakers perched on the roof, and a plastic Godzilla, purple and proud, spitting sparks on Mary’s head. It was a weird scene. But then, so is my life. And so is yours. And so is the world’s.

And, the Story goes, for some unfathomable reason—call it love—God can’t resist joining us in our weirdness. And so, the Story goes, the Word became flesh and lived among us. And because he became all that we are, weird and wonderful, nothing that we are is out of bounds at his cradle. Nothing and no one. Not you, not me, not purple plastic Godzilla.

Odd as that is. Strange as it seems.

In Season and Out

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By the time you read this, Advent will be a memory—although we never really leave Advent, do we? We are always longing for love to materialize, always waiting for promises to come true, always scanning the signs of the times, always living under the judgment of a God who prefers mercy to sacrifice, always creating highways in the human wilderness to announce the good news about God’s unshakeable commitment to the earth and all who dwell upon it. Advent may be over, but Advent never leaves us. Desire for joy and justice is the permanent subtext of our lives.

Christmas will have come and gone too—although we never really leave Christmas, do we? We are always adoring on bended knee at cradles occupied by unfathomable babies, always surrounded by glory-singing angels, always offering ourselves and all we have in praise, always finding God most tenacious and tender among the suffering, the homeless and the poor, always subverting the violent power of kings with humility, with the insistence of stars, with the simple truth. Christmas may be over, but Christmas never leaves us. Human life is forever divinized. God forever wears a human face.

By the time you read this, it will be (almost) Epiphany—the season when eyes of faith flood with the most wonderful light, and the beauty of the One who lives and breathes in Jesus’ ministry is irresistible. All season long, the veil lifts and God is known in the wonders Jesus does, the words he speaks, and the kinds of people he calls to his side to share his company and his daily work.

You too, come and see, Jesus says. Come, see for yourselves. And if we go, and if we see, and if by his grace we stay, we will never leave Epiphany, nor Epiphany us.

Come and see, he says. And if we do, we will become like him, all light from light.

According to Matthew

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–Joseph Sleeping, Gentile da Fabriano

According to Matthew, angels do not sleep: in the small hours they intervene, scattering the sleep of others.

They harry exhausted fathers and tip off shrewd men who hail from far away.

According to Matthew, the world is a place where good people’s dreams bulge with warnings, and hope is barely one hard breathing step ahead of tyrants bent on harm.

According to Matthew, there is an inexhaustible supply  of tyrants.

Angels have to work overtime; even then children die.

Only one escapes this time.

He will grow to be the sort of man who accepts angelic ministrations in wilderness and garden, but no more intervention.

Even forewarned, he will not flee; not even put up a fight.