Category Archives: holidays

Letter 51: Giving Thanks

Furthermore, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are worthy love, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, or if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8 (Geneva)

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I am thankful that this year the whole family was able to gather under one roof to celebrate for the first time in several years.  The food was good, too.  Thank you.

For the joy of curling up on the couch with our dog snuggled next to me.  Thank you.

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For the infectious joy my wife exudes whenever she gets an idea.  It gives me a taste of what Creation must have been like.  Thank you.

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For the blue of the sky against the golds, reds, oranges, greens and purples of the trees that makes autumn in the part of the world so special.  You go for the big box of crayons!  Thank you.

For the smell of fresh baked bread, or the aroma of something wonderful wafting from the kitchen after a hard day at the office.  Thank you.

For cheese, and bacon, and that through Christ, we needn’t keep kosher.  Thank you.

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For the thrill of voices blending together.  Thank you.

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For mercies new every morning, for all gentle thoughts and mild.  Thank you.

For Thyself best gift divine, to our race so freely given.  Thank you.

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O Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious, and his mercy endureth forever.” Psalm 107:1 (Coverdale)

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Letter 44: The Christmas Earthquake

While stuck in traffic due to highway constructions, I was reflecting on some of the Advent readings my wife and I have done for our morning devotions.

Isaiah 40 is one of the classic texts announcing the coming of Christ, and it is full of terrifying imagery.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 KJV)

The thought occurred to me that Isaiah is describing an earthquake.  How else might the mountains and hills be made low, and the valleys exalted?  We use bulldozers and steamrollers to make the rough places a plain, forcibly moving earth, conforming it to our will.  This is what God is accomplishing in Christ.

Mary’s song echoes this sense of upheaval:

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (Book of Common Prayer, after Luke 1:46-55)

 

Old Simeon, too,  senses the turmoil God is unleashing on the world.  ‘And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”’ (Luke 2:34-35 ESV)

In still another Advent reading, John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 ESV, see also Matt. 3:11-13)

It seems strange that we can read these passages year after year, and completely miss the unsettling message.  God is about to upset everything.  We shall be forcibly reordered to comply with His will.  Christ comes to save, to comfort, to heal, and to winnow.  That we should be brought low for the glory of God never seems to make it to our Christmas messages.   No wonder God intersperses these states with words of comfort, and the exhortation to be not afraid.

In olden times, Christmas celebrations captured something of this tumult.  It was the time of year to remind the world of Christ’s second coming.  The Twelve Days of Christmas were often marked by the rule of the Boy Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, as the last were made first, and the first last.  After Epiphany, the old order reasserted itself, and life went on as it always has, but we were given this glimpse that something could be different, indeed, we were told that one day it would be different.

This sense of disruption carries into the very person of Christ.  He is born King of the Jews, yet there all the power of the universe lay in that manger, helpless and small, soiled in His own excrement, unable to hold up even His own head.  He existed as both God and Man in one indivisible person, an offense to the minds of Greek and Jew alike.  He would, in the end, most greatly demonstrate his power by submitting to the power of others.

This is what He offers us.  Are we willing to be upended?  When Christ came, though much and long expected, most people missed Him entirely.  Would I do likewise?  We pride ourselves on our ability to know all about God, and how to recognize Him.  But are we any different?  He comes to upset the status quo, to shake the earth, and we do not wish ourselves to be shaken.

Christmas is perhaps the most realistic religious holiday of them all.  If the story is told straight, Christmas posits that we inhabit a world filled with profound darkness and death.  For all our yearning for hope and change, they elude us.  But, there is grounds for and unlikely hope.  God Himself has intervened to set the whole of Creation to rights.  Christmas commingles joy and sorrow and invites nothing but trouble because it ends in a world without tears or night or temple, for the dwelling of God shall be with Man.

J.S. Bach concludes his Christmas Oratorio with a stirring chorale, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.”  The music is triumphant with trumpets sounding and tympani’s thundering, echoing the words of victory and vengeance.  As you listen closely, the tune is familiar, and entirely out of place.  It’s the “Passion Chorale.”  This is the point of Christmas.  This is the foundation of our Hope.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Amen.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Finale

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Letter 39: A Fourth of July Oration

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“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20 (NRSV)

On August 24, 410 A.D., an army of Visigoths under Alaric I, sacked Rome.  Few events have portended so much.  Rome’s citizens were left with only their lives with the Visigoths were through.  Rome had sat inviolate for over a thousand years.  Her armies had brought stability, order and security throughout the Mediterranean world.  Now all that was gone.  Writing from Bethlehem, the translator St. Jerome declared “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”  In his wake, Alaric left a new world of fear and uncertainty.

Many questioned the Empire’s switch to Christianity.  Could the old gods be angry?  Still others saw the collapsing world around them, and looked for someone, anyone really, who could offer them the old security.  From across the Mediterranean came a firm voice that offered a final coda from the ancient world to stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of barbarism.  Addressing the crisis of his time, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, gave the world his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei, The City of God.

Now the great crisis of the Fifth Century will seem far removed from our own day, and a subject entirely inappropriate for a commemoration of Independence Day.  Yet, its lessons stand as an important reminder to us of our obligations as citizens, and concerning the nature and role of government.  On this day we celebrate our freedom.  Let us remember what a frail things freedom is, that we would use it well.

As Augustine saw it, the world was a dangerous place.  As Christians, Augustine reminded his readers that they were first and foremost, the people of God, and ultimately the citizens of His City.  He was quite aware, however, that we had yet to possess this city.  For now, he wrote, we live in the City of Man, which is at war with the City of God.  As such, we are by nature aliens and strangers in this world.  Our hope lies elsewhere.

Jeremiah 29 records a letter the prophet sent to the Jews taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Israel had linked its religious identity with their political identity.  To be a revived people of God, they must then become a revived nation.  But here they were in exile, in a strange land, with strange customs, subject to other authority.

Jeremiah disabuses them of these hopes.  They will remain in exile for seventy years.  Instead of pining for a lost nation, and hoping for what cannot be, he urges them to settle in to their new surroundings, lay down roots, raise families, and flourish where they are.  Jeremiah goes further, urging the exiles to pray for the welfare of the cities where they now reside, and intercede with the Lord on its behalf. (Jer. 29:7)

He makes the point that their identity as God’s people is not dependent on whether there is a Jewish nation.  They can be God’s people where they are, if they embrace the tension this creates.  He urges us to engage our neighbors, from a position of exile.  Here furthermore grounds these efforts in the hope and knowledge that God remains in control, and that He has a plan that is unfolding. (v. 10-11)

The tension should inform our lives as citizens.  Too often, we head to one extreme of another.  We can withdraw, deciding that the world is too evil, and await the coming Kingdom.  Or we can wrap the Cross with an American flag, and confuse our home with our salvation.

God does use purely secular authorities.  Isaiah 45 sings of the Persian emperor Cyrus as God’s instrument.  Similarly, God explains how he used the Babylonians to carry out His work.  Indeed, it is Caesar’s need for more taxes that brings the pregnant virgin to Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy.  As the Psalmist says, even man’s wrath praises Him.  (Ps. 76:10)

So how are we to live our lives here?  We live here, but the ground of our being lies elsewhere.

At least we should follow Jeremiah’s instructions, to build a life here, to not hold back, but we should also hold up a mirror, shining God’s light on this darkened world.  We should be prophetic voices, reminding the world of God’s justice, and seeking to bring our world as close to that vision as we can, even while realizing that we shall always fall short.

But we do not despair, in this, the country of our exile. For all the celebrations and gnashing of teeth, we too often lose sight of this tremendous truth, that we are citizens of heaven, and from thence comes our salvation.

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Letter 28: Of Dead Christmas Trees, Charlie Brown

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Today in the office’s annual holiday luncheon, which seems as good a point as any to reflect on the Christmas season just ended.  There are still some forlorn decorations and goods for sale in the clearance rack at various retailers, testimony to dashed hopes and extravagant dreams.

As I’ve gotten older, Christmas has receded as a holiday.  As a child, of course, Christmas is the major holiday of the year.  It forms a colossal combination of birthday, Halloween, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving in one month-long package.  It served as an open invitation to dream, greedily, of what to request of Santa.  There was much excitement Christmas morning as the wrapping paper was carefully cut open, folded, and put aside, so we could tear into the contents.  It was indeed a magical time.

But now, I’m not sure what to do with Christmas.  It brings on an overburdened schedule, as every organization on earth seeks to hold an event to celebrate, which “demands” my attention.  Concerts, plays, special services, parties, family gatherings, and still more parties.  Then there are cookies to bake and cards to send.  And of course, there are the decorations, inside and out.  Were Christ to come again at this time, I think we would miss Him entirely, so great is our busyness.

What has any of this to do with Christ’s coming into the world?  I round out this season feeling empty and uneasy.  I can well relate to Charlie Brown.  Lucy suggests that we need involvement, to give us that Christmas spirit, but it doesn’t work.  I just feel more empty, and tired to boot.

What should I be feeling at Christmas?  Joy?  Peace?  Hope?  Love?  Re-reading the Christmas stories in the Bible, I see wonder and anxiety.  How does Mary explain her pregnancy to Joseph, to her family, to her community?  What will Joseph do?  How will he cope with the disruptions the blessed event causes?  Will the child survive the threats against him?  Who is this child, who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate, and was made man?

So perhaps my unease is not unreasonable.  There should be a sort of ambiguity in our minds come Christmastide.  For the wondrous gifts of Christmas come only through the Cross.  The coming of the Christ Child will bring the rising and falling of many, even in our own lives.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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Letter 15: Veni Emmanuel

f2def50dc61dee3d095d9cd167a283e9As with so many other things, the progression of this blog is interrupted by Christmas. The festive season sweeps all before its path, demanding that all pay it attention. Even those who do not celebrate it must account for it, if only to launch legal action to blocks others from imposing Christmas on them.

Nearly every year, I find myself frazzled and spent by this time. Too many activities, constant buying, and the even more difficult business of preparing my own wish list leave muttering with Scrooge that I will boil in his own pudding the next idiot who wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” and bury him with a spike of holly driven through his very heart. I suspect that I am not alone in this.

We have built up in our minds, I think, the image of the “perfect” Christmas. This is fed, in part, by depictions in the media, retailers, advertisers, and even the church. We must be surrounded by family. Everyone must be happy, and receive many appropriate gifts. We must celebrate with various social relations, co-workers, lodge members, fellow parishioners. We must be charitable, and if we do give, we become a magnet to every worthy cause, who seek further beneficence from us.

What have these things to do with Christmas?

Take family, for example. The Christmas story is remarkable for its lack of family. Contrast the birth of John the Baptist at the end of Luke 1 with the birth of Jesus that takes up most of Luke 2. John’s birth was a community event. God manages to scare up some shepherds for Jesus, in addition to whatever animals were present. Since Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David,” presumably, he knew somebody in Bethlehem, but he curiously seems to have made no effort to reach them, since they are not present. Worse, there is the possibility that he did tell them, and they refused to help him, given the suspicious circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. The first Christmas featured plenty of family disappointment.

Gifts? How retails love to hear the word. Images of wise men are summoned up, and for those more leery of such appeals, the reminder that Jesus is God’s gift to us. But the wise men come later on. Joseph has found a house to live in by then, and Jesus is several years old, since Herod will round up every child under five years of age. And the gifts are really an act of worship, recognizing, as they do various facets of Christ’s identity and mission. Myrrh, as John Hopkins points out in his carol, is used chiefly to embalm the dead, hardly a useful gift for a child. Gold, yes, but myrrh? The “first” Christmas featured less than useful or even tasteless gifts. Anyone want a prepaid funeral plan for Christmas?

The first Christmas was shabby and filthy. It smelled. When I was a child, my aunt and uncle kept a farm in Vermont, which we would visit every summer. We walked carefully through the barn, to avoid the “cow pies.” You would occasionally see either the horses or the cows peeing in their stalls. All of this surrounded the Christ child that night.

Indeed, the visions of joy and serenity fail to grapple with the undercurrent of fear and distress that permeate the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are all told, “Do not be afraid.” Then Joseph is told to flee in the middle of night to take the child out from the clutches of those who wish to kill him. Herod is positively terrified of the child. Simeon warns Mary and Joseph that the child will cause tumult everywhere, and closes with the ominous words, “A sword shall pierce your heart as well.” The wise men depart by another route. Fear and danger are everywhere. John captures this in Revelation 12. A monstrous red dragon awaits the coming Christ child. The streets of Bethlehem ran red with the blood of children.

Historically, the Church seems to have recognized the great tension inherent in Christmas, even without all of our modern pre-occupations. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr. Stephen, of course, was the first martyr. Two days later, the Western Church honors the Holy Innocents. Christ’s coming brings death, even His own. The celebration is tempered with sorrow.

For the past several years I have wrestled with how to best celebrate this season. I am haunted by a feeling of emptiness. The joy and excitement that I think I should be feeling are far from me. My efforts at producing the expected spirit have fallen flat.

So I go back to the stories of the first Christmas.

In re-reading them, I am impressed at the disruption and the disappointment. For all of the Jews waiting for Messiah to come, it is amazing that none of them are in attendance. This becomes a recurring theme of Jesus’ life. He is not the Messiah they are looking for. Jesus slips by unnoticed, not unlike today.

Do I miss Him?

I am coming to the conclusion that worship is the key to Christmas. The point of our celebration should be Christ, and honoring, and worshipping Him. Perhaps this is not such a digression from our considerations after all. Prepare for the Coming King, do him homage. I think you will that many of the things we usually do this time of year fall away.

Read the old story. Meditate on the words. Sit in the stillness. Appreciate the light and the darkness. Marvel with Mary, tremble with shepherds, worship with the wise men, weep with the mothers of Bethlehem, sing with the angels.

Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new-born King!

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