Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holy Innocents

  Psalm 2 , Psalm 26 ;
Isaiah 49:13-23 ; Matthew 18:1-14
Psalm 19 , Psalm 26 ; Isaiah 54:1-13 ; Mark 10:13-16

It's Christmas! Even though most of the world has packed Christmas up for another year (or are in the process thereof), Advent people are in the middle of the Christmas season, one of the most joyous, happy, wonderful times of the year. We've just celebrated the birth of the messiah and remembered St. Stephen the first martyr whose feast day was mentioned in "Good King Wenceslaus." We look forward to the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany in about nine days, but right in the middle of this joy, anticipation, and celebration the church plops a commemoration that is hard to stomach.

We know Herod as the king of Israel, appointed by Rome and not tremendously popular among the people over whom he ruled. He must have felt some tenuousness about his reign since he was always looking over his shoulder to see who might be sneaking up with a knife aimed at his back. He had a number of wives but one especial favorite whom he had killed because he suspected her of plotting against him. He had a number of his children killed for the same reason. Anybody who threatened his throne was a legitimate target in his eyes, and so when told of a miracle baby born in Bethlehem, the royal seat of David's reign and line, who might have a more legitimate claim to the throne of Israel than Herod himself, paranoia said that such must be dealt with and quickly. To make sure he got the right one, he had all male babies in Bethlehem under the age of two years murdered. Better perhaps twenty or thirty children should die than for a legitimate contender for the crown come back in a dozen and a half years or so to press his claim. So the baby boys of Bethlehem had to go.

There is not much evidence that this incident really happened, although given Herod's mental state, it wouldn't have been totally impossible. Still, it isn't mentioned outside the gospel of Matthew. Josephus the historian, who apparently had a really strong dislike if not hatred for Herod, never mentioned such an event which would certainly have poked a finger in the eye (or the already bad reputation) of such a monster as one who would kill innocent children along with suspected usurpers and the like. But if it didn't happen, why would Matthew have added it?  Perhaps he needed a way to get Jesus to Egypt from where he could emerge, even if still a small child, in the steps of Moses the great leader of the Israelites? Who knows?

Meanwhile we're left to ponder a terrible, sickening story in the midst of a happy season of celebration. It really seems to hit too close to the bone, especially given the number and seriousness of the slaughter of the innocents in our own day, both here and abroad. It's been just over a year since the school shooting at Sandy Hook where twenty small children just starting their lives were slaughtered by a gunman who also killed six adults. The names of similar tragedies are engraved on our consciousness: Columbine, the Amish school shooting, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, and the list goes on. That is just a small list of murders that took place in what should have been a safe place, namely their schools. No children were killed in 1999 when a gunman walked into a Jewish day care center in Los Angeles and opened fire, but anyone seeing the live or taped coverage probably remembers seeing the terror of the children running from the scene. Four young African-American girls were killed and 22 others injured inside their church in Birmingham, Alabama, when a bomb exploded just outside the room where they were meeting. Shouldn't a church or a synagogue or a day care center be a place of safety?

How many stories of children lying in their beds dead because of stray bullets fired and missing their target only to penetrate the wall of their bedroom and kill them as they lay there? What does it take before we tell the Herods of this world that enough is enough? Simply a case of, "Oh, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," but who gets to make that choice? People simply going about their daily lives shouldn't be in the wrong place at the wrong time, they should be able to get on with their day without someone else making a decision that they personally feel threatened or angry or disrespected and need to take out their frustration on people who haven't done a thing wrong except be alive and in someone else's perceived way.

Herod's perceived reason was to protect his power, his authority. Most violence is about power, either gaining it or maintaining it. Murder to avenge some real or perceived wrong is an attempt to regain power and control, and what if some innocent gets caught in the middle? The military in a combat situation would call it "collateral damage," but is that what children caught in the crossfire or made targets simply to hurt others really are? Herod wouldn't have thought of the grief of the parents of those innocents; after all, he killed a number of his own children not to mention his favorite wife simply because he felt they were plotting against him.

Maybe what we need to do on this commemoration of a day where the story is about murdered children is to think about what kind of world children of the world today really face. There are children in Africa who have to witness the murder of their parents and their own forced induction into an armed conflict when they are barely strong enough to hold a gun much less use it. Girls around the world are raped and tortured simply because they are girls. One young woman, Malala Yousefzai, was shot in the head and left for dead simply because she espoused the right of girls to be educated and not just treated as chattels. The list goes on and on, and it never seems to get any shorter. And what are we doing about it? Hand-wringing and "Oh, dear," and even "My prayers are with them" isn't enough. Sometimes prayer has to be augmented with action, and that action has to start with facing the Herods and shielding the innocents.

Today I need to do just one thing to say "No" to Herod. Perhaps it's to write to my congressional representatives or make a contribution to help fund a safe place for children where they can be cared-for and nurtured and not thrust into a violent world with no protection. I need to remember that action can be prayer made visible. That's something to think about. Maybe that should be my Christmas present to Jesus? No wrapping required.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 28, 2013, under the title, "Say No to Herod."

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 25

The day is here!  It’s Christmas Day, and we need one more block to complete our alphabet. Today, the block is Z for Zion and Zenith.

When we hear or read scripture, we often run into a reference to Zion and wonder precisely what it is about. Zion has a number of definitions. King David captured a hill from the Jebusites and on it built a city on it. That hill was named Zion. Later Zion came to represent the whole of Jerusalem and later yet, the Jewish people or their faith. Christians saw Zion as the kingdom of heaven or as the heavenly city where God dwells and where the redeemed will forever be with God. During Advent we heard “Prepare the Way, O Zion” (Hymnal 1982, 65) that uses the city image for the people of God waiting for the coming of Christ. Well, today is the day we welcome that holy child and celebrate his birth. Today Zion is a bit closer.

Zenith usually has the meaning of a celestial body immediately overhead or the highest point a heavenly body can reach in the sky. It can also mean, however, the culmination or peak of something. An artist or writer reaches the zenith of his or her career when a new work causes people to pause and wait with anticipation for a glimpse or a reading of that work. It represents the peak, the highest point, the very top of something, and for Christians, it is the second greatest celebration in the Christian year only eclipsed by the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. Still, Christmas comes at the turning of the year when the days are beginning to lengthen and the nights get shorter, the desolation of the winter countryside with bare trees and seemingly lifeless expanses of what will later be lush green fields sprinkled with flowers is still cold and drab. When you think about it, though, Christmas really is the zenith since without Christmas there could have been no Easter; without a birth there could not have been a death and resurrection.

Celebrate the day, O Zion, fling wide the gates, rejoice and be glad. Christmas is here and we have twelve whole days to celebrate it!

May you have a blessed Christmas and a new year of hope, promise and just a dash of pain and sorrow to remind you that joy comes again, even in the dead of winter or the cold of grief. But for today, celebrate with every fiber of your being. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 24

Oh, my! Today’s alphabet block actually has two letters on it, X and Y. X brings us Xmas and Y shows us Yule and yearning.

Several times we’ve seen words that are in foreign languages, Greek or Latin. Why are they important? Because our tradition as Christians comes from a time when Greek and Latin were major languages spoken across a wide area and by many people. If not their native tongue, Greek and Latin were the languages of those who traveled to different parts of the Roman Empire and the Middle East. They were the languages of commerce and conquest, but also languages in which Christianity grew. Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, was common in his part of the Middle East, but in Rome or Alexandria or Athens it would not have been understood. Much of our New Testament was written in Greek and even the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek and handed down to us. So during Advent we look at the gift of language and its place in our heritage.

That brings us to Xmas. Many Christians cringe when they see something with “Xmas” written on it. “You’ve taken Christ out of Christmas!” they exclaim, usually fairly loudly. But looking at history and at language, it can take on a whole different point of view. There is a letter in the Greek alphabet that is called chi, and pronounced like the sound of ch as in loch. The actual letter for chi is χ, our mysterious X. So what’s it doing in Xmas? For many years, it was considered cool to have a pin or a ring with a monogram on it, initials that stood for a person’s name. Centuries ago the church gave Jesus a monogram consisting of two letters, the X of chi and a Ρ (rho, sounding like r in rod) to stand for the first two letters of the title he was given, Christ. The symbol of chi and rho for Jesus’ monogram looks like a long-tailed P with an X centered on the bottom stroke of the P. It’s often seen in churches, as carvings, on hangings and paraments, vestments, and even on the burse that is placed on top of the veil for the chalice and paten as they wait to be filled for the Eucharist. So what does that have to do with Christmas? The church often used and uses shorthand just as we do, and in Greek, the chi (X) symbol would recall the title of Christ which shares the same initial sound. Coupled with the rho, the result is the sound CHR – sounding more familiar? So when people use Xmas, they aren’t necessarily being offensive and rubbing Christ out of Christmas; they may be returning to an earlier version of the church and referring to Christ by his monogram.

Around Christmas we often sing the carol “Deck the Halls.” In it there is a line that says, “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” but what are they talking about? Trolls? Those are either mythical characters or people who stir up trouble on the internet, right? In this case to troll is to sing with enthusiasm. But Yuletide carols? Yule was an ancient word for a period of time that somewhat corresponded to the period of midwinter. Later it was narrowed down to Christmas Day or what now corresponds with the Christmas season until Epiphany. Benjamin Britten used the term in his Ceremony of Carols in the piece “Wolcom Yole.” Now it is usually used to indicate a nostalgia what we think of as the way Christmas used to be celebrated in what the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore calls “. . . lavish food and secular jollity, situated in a largely invented ‘Merrie England*.’ ” It does serve to recall the past, even if a glorified fiction of that past.

In a sense, we have a yearning for things that make us feel warm and safe. We yearn for a time when life seemed uncomplicated. Perhaps that is why Yule conjures up images of music and dancing, feasting, games of charades and elaborate costumed tableaux in period books and movies. But beyond the yearning for those “Good Old Days,” which might not have really been all that good, we can also yearn for a home where we once lived or even a relationship that has been severed for some reason. Advent invites us to deepen the relationship we have with God or perhaps the one we have felt was lost. Perhaps now is the time to take the steps to change the yearning into reality.

It is almost Christmas. It’s time to mend fences instead of yearning for the ones we used to have. Whether we write it Xmas or Christmas, we keep Christ in it. That’s the important thing.

* Found at, accessed 12/15/13.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 23

The end of our alphabet is almost here. Today’s block is the letter W, for word, worship, wreath and Wachet Auf.

The first verse of the Gospel of John is one of the most beautiful in the whole Bible. In Greek it reads ν ρχ ν λόγος (hen arche en ho logos), and in English we know it as “In the beginning was the Word. . . ” It’s a mystical sort of introduction to a gospel full of signs and wonders, a hymn that places God before time and in time, revealing himself as the Word and with the Word. That revelation wasn’t enough, it seems. God’s answer was to clothe Godself in human flesh in the persona of Jesus, the Messiah who was to bring about a new creation in the world. The word “word” however, has also come to mean a belief about the Bible itself in its totality, Genesis through Revelation. What was the Word of God has become, to some, the words of God, inerrant scripture that has one meaning and contains God’s literal words to humankind, in short, “What it says is what it means.” Whether one reads the Bible as the Word of God, God’s revelation through the eyes, ears and hearts of those who retold the stories before the written word came to be put down and then translated and recopied many times, or whether one reads it as the literal Words of God protected from errors by God, the word of John puts Jesus before time and the creator of time. Read the first eighteen verses of John 1. Let them sing as a hymn to a mystery revealed.

Worship is defined as a feeling of reverence or adoration for a deity or sacred object. Every culture has had its gods to worship and its ways of expressing that reverence. Some, like the Mayans, were pretty brutal which makes our Christian worship seem rather tame by comparison. We gather in a church, chapel, school gymnasium, office complex or even a family home. We read scripture, we pray, we sing, we listen to words of wisdom and inspiration and, quite often, we celebrate the Eucharist. The purpose is to connect with and show reverence to God and to allow God to feed us through the liturgy, sermon and hymns. The shepherds came to see the Christ child and probably stayed to worship him a bit. The magi came and gave kingly gifts as an offering to the object of their veneration, that same Christ child. Through our participation in corporate worship we praise and thank God. During Advent we have special services (see Day 19) in addition to our regular worship schedule, plus we may spend a little extra time in private prayer and reverential meditation. However and whenever we do it, we come to worship God but we receive from God even more than we put in ourselves.

The Advent wreath is probably the single most identifiable symbol of the season of Advent. We have them in homes and churches, usually circular in shape but of varying composition like pottery, greenery or brass. The commonality comes in the use of four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent, three in either purple or Sarum blue, depending on preference and whether or not the community observes Advent as a penitential season or one that emphasizes more expectation, and the fourth in rose pink, lit on the third Sunday and representing a sort of small break, like a breather, before the final Sunday before Christmas. In the center of the wreath there will be placed a single white candle which will be lit on Christmas. It is the Christ candle, and it reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world. This candle is also brought out for each baptism during the year and every Sunday during the Easter season. Whether in family or corporate worship during Advent, the wreath is a reminder of the season and the journey to Bethlehem.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a prolific composer of church music in the late 17th-early 18th centuries. A number of his harmonizations and arrangements appear in our hymnal and pieces such as “Sheep May Safely Graze” are staples as offertories and special music. During Advent we sing a hymn called “Sleepers, Wake!” which has the hymn tune name of Wachet Auf, “Wake up!” The words echo a parable that Jesus told during his ministry about some wise and foolish virgins and the bridegroom who returns home to find only some of them prepared for his arrival (Matthew 25:1-13). Of course, the bridegroom is Jesus himself and each of us becomes either a wise or a foolish maiden depending on whether we prepare adequately so that our lamps are lit and the house ready or we sleep and hope to wake up in time and with enough oil to light his way. It’s a good thought for Advent, continuing the theme of preparation.

Heavenly harmonies, a fragrant and glowing wreath, heartfelt worship, all are signs that point to the earthly coming of the Word. Be ready!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 22

The letter V is the next block in the Advent alphabet. It represents virgin, veni, vision and visit.

 Virgin is an easy association to make during Advent. We ascribe the title to Mary who was engaged to Joseph and we base it on a translation of one word in the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14). We are accustomed to read it as “Behold, a virgin shall conceive. . .” but the word often translated as “virgin” is almah, young woman. There is another word Isaiah could have used, bethula, which is always used when “virgin” is meant. That doesn’t preclude Mary from being a virgin or wearing the title of virgin. Instead, it focuses on Mary as being a young girl, perhaps not long after puberty, in a time when girls were married sometime between the ages of twelve and sixteen. If anything, it makes it all the more remarkable that Mary would simply say “Yes” to a strange being who appeared in her own house (or maybe on the roof) and told her God wanted her to be the mother of God’s son. Imagine being a sheltered young girl being faced with such a choice. It makes the story of the annunciation and all that follows it that much more special.

Occasionally on classical music radio during Advent they play a version of a familiar hymn tune with unfamiliar words, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” If they use the English words, it would be “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”[1]. It is based on the O Antiphons (see Day 15) and is an invocation to God using the name “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” During ordinations, baptisms and the Feast of Pentecost we usually hear some version of “Come, Creator Spirit” or “Come, Holy Ghost”, which, in Latin would be Veni, Creator Spiritus or Veni, Spiritus Sanctus. In any event, it is a good thing to remember that no matter what the season, veni, come, is always a good request to make.

Vision has a lot of different meanings. One is the ability to see, whether clearly with the eyes alone or with the aid of corrective lenses for various defects. Another is an experience of being shown something that cannot be seen with normal human eyes but which is clearly visible to someone to whom the vision is sent. Examples of these are the mystics like Julian of Norwich who, in one vision, was shown a tiny thing about the size of a hazelnut and which she was told contained all that had been made. When she questioned how it could exist and not fall apart, the answer came to her: “It lasts and always shall, for God loves it; and so all things have being through the love of God. It lasts and always shall, for God loves it; and so all things have being through the love of God.[2]” The Biblical prophets often had visions, messages from God that they were to pass on to specific groups of people about specific actions or lack of actions. The Transfiguration is another kind of vision as are those of John the Divine in Revelation. Vision is the inspiration of anyone who sees something in a new way, a better one, and it makes a change in their lives. During Advent, we pray for the vision to see the birth of Jesus as a new beginning and a new promise. But seeing a vision does no good unless action follows, so there is the challenge.

Visit recalls the journey of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth which came at the beginning of our Advent season and study. We also look for the visit of the shepherds to the manger at Christmas and that of the Magi with gifts at Epiphany. But”visit” also crops up in our prayers from the BCP during Advent, particularly the one for the fourth Sunday of Advent that begins, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself. . . .” [3] The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus which means coming or arrival, so we are to be reminded that Jesus is coming, we need to be ready, like the guest room for a very special arrival.

 Advent proceeds toward Christmas with visions, invocations, remembrance of the Virgin Mary, and an encouragement to expect a visitation, not only on Christmas but every day. We move closer to the revelation of the messiah veiled in human flesh, born in a stable. Keep awake! The king is coming!

[1] The Church Hymnal Corporation, The Hymnal 1982. 56
[2] Ockerbloom, John, transcriber. Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, (1901) Kindle ed., Ch. 5, para. 4.
[3] The Church Pension Fund, The Book of Common Prayer, (1986), 212.

Following Jesus

Commemoration of St. Thomas, evening reading

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ -- John 14:1-7

Jesus was trying to prepare his followers for what was to happen but, I'm pretty sure, it was like many of the things he said to them; they just didn't quite get it. A much-loved elderly person talks to us about death but we aren't ready and don't want to hear it. We fob them off with, "Oh, don't say that. You'll be with us for a good long time yet," even if deep down we know that probably sooner rather than later they will be gone. The disciples weren't ready to hear about Jesus leaving them, After all, he was an adult still in the prime of life. How could he talk about leaving?

When we get ready to go on a trip, we visit AAA or Mapquest or program our Garmin or cell phone app to show us how to get where it is we want or need to be. Jesus gave them the equivalent, "Believe in God, believe also in me." Believing in God was something they could and did do, and, in a way, they did believe in Jesus. They'd seen miracles happen, they'd heard his teaching, they'd eaten with him, drunk wine with him, traveled with him by boat and by foot yet they still really didn't totally get the picture. Good old Thomas, sometimes willing to blurt out what everybody was thinking but for one reason or another never said aloud, "Where are you going and how are we supposed to follow you?" Sounds like what we've been asking for the past two millennia.

Thomas has gotten the name of "Doubting Thomas" from the episode after the crucifixion and resurrection when the other disciples declared Jesus had appeared to them but Thomas wasn't convinced (John 20:25). Earlier, however, at the death of Lazarus, the other disciples had tried to persuade Jesus not to go to Lazarus' bedside because it would put Jesus in a dangerous position, Thomas spoke in defense of going back to Judea with the words, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." Funny, that statement gets a lot less press than "I won't believe until. . . ." We read but don't seem to connect with other incidents where other disciples had moments of doubt such as when Peter was walking on the water and all of a sudden had a flash of doubt and started to sink. We don't call him "Doubting Peter" or even "Peter the Denier" for the three times he denied knowing Jesus as he stood outside by the fire as Jesus was beaten, taunted and judged, yet we label Thomas "Doubting Thomas" on the basis of one statement. Perhaps the doubting part of Thomas is the part that strikes a responsive chord in each of us.

Thomas is said to have left the Middle East after the ascension and taken the message of Jesus eastward, ending up in India. India is the home of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, believed to be founded by and named for Thomas about 52 CE. Today Mar Thoma has spread throughout the world, definitely reaching sheep not of Jesus' immediate fold. It seems that Thomas the Doubter found the way and showed it to others, which is precisely what Jesus told his disciples to do. While he did not die with Jesus, as he offered to do in Judea, he died in Jesus' service. That's not a bad way to go, even if it is at the point of a spear, the reported instrument of his death.

Thomas' question to Jesus about how they were to follow him when they didn't know his agenda or his itinerary is one that is easy for us to relate to. We like to be in control of where we go, when and how, but sometimes we just can't do that. We have to trust someone else to get us where we need or want to go and that is hard. So many times this passage has been taught as Jesus is the only way to get to heaven to be with God after you die. Yet there is another passage where Jesus proclaims "I have other sheep, not of this fold. . . "(John 10:16). We aren't precisely sure about whom Jesus is speaking, whether it was other tribes of Israel, groups such as Pharisees, Gentiles or even aliens on other planets. Perhaps it is up to us to use the broadest possible interpretation of that proclamation.

God has many names and many sheep. God knows them all; that's God's job. Ours is to be open to the possibility that we aren't the sole judges of who is and who isn't. As Christians, it's our job to keep on our own journey to God as part of one particular fold and to do the best we can for other sheep that God will recognize but we won't.

Perhaps the lesson of Thomas is not to immediately label someone as something that may not be totally accurate, like "Doubter" or "Not of God's fold." And, perhaps, instead of trying to find our own way, it might not hurt to stop and ask for directions, whether on the freeway or on the way to God.

Originally published at href
=""> Speaking to the Soul on href=""> Episcopal Café Saturday, December 21, 2013, under the title "How Are We to Follow Jesus?"

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 21

Day 21 brings us the letter U for unconventional, unknown, unveiling, and unity.

Advent is an unconventional season, at least in the world’s eyes. Culture encourages us to be busy, busy, busy, baking up myriad cookies, cakes and pies, shopping from morning ‘til night in search of that perfect present for that friend or loved one (or even just something that will do for Uncle Erasmus who is never pleased with anything), writing witty and interesting notes in Christmas cards to people with whom we only exchange greetings once a year, and so on. Advent encourages us to do just the opposite: to slow down rather than speed up and to reflect more than spend. Advent asks us to think about why we are celebrating this season and that which follows it. What is important in life? More “stuff”? A reputation as a perfect hostess for the perfect Christmas party? A beautifully decorated house redolent with the scents of spices and warm baked goods in profusion? No, Advent’s unconventional nature tries to teach us to look to the manger not as a nice little display in the front of the church or even on the mantelpiece or table by the window but as the coming of a light into the world that can, if tended carefully, can set the world on fire in the best possible way. Being unconventional can be very liberating – and very challenging.

In Acts 17:23, Paul recounts walking through Athens and finding an altar marked “To An Unknown God” among the many altars and temples dedicated to specific gods. His comment was “You are ignorant of the very thing which you worship” (17:23c). In a way that still can apply to us today, even those who claim to know and love God. But do we really know God? We certainly know attributes of God: loving, judgmental, protective, punishing, omnipotent, allowing bad things to happen, etc. I can describe my late brother as Caucasian male, 78 years of age at time of death, approximately six feet tall, weighing….” but can I do that with God? No, I can’t. To that extent, God is unknown, just as it was to the Athenians. We knew God as a being beyond our comprehension, we could envision God as a pillar of fire or acting as a mother hen over her chicks but God is neither cloud nor hen. Jesus came along and suddenly we had a glimpse of God we hadn’t had before. Who could imagine the creator of universes lying in a bed of straw, a helpless newborn infant? Jesus later taught, “If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (John 14:7). We many not know God completely, but God is no longer as unknown because we have seen Jesus who was God’s son and also a persona, an aspect of God.

There’s a line in the carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” that speaks to the mystery of Advent, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity” (Hymnal 1982, #87). The prophets had foretold the coming of a messiah, but the one they seemed to be looking for was a military and civic leader, a king who would lead the people into righteousness and on a Godly path, who would follow the ways of peace rather than war and acquisition, and who would put the welfare of the people above his own desires. Then along comes this newborn infant, born in a stable instead of a palace, with probably a cow or two, perhaps a sheep or two, maybe even a cat or two as witnesses to the birth. No royal fanfare outside a palace and a grand announcement, but there were angels in the sky befuddling some sleepy shepherds, men who were among the poorest of the poor, with news of the birth of a savior, a messiah. That quiet birth, even with its rather spectacular announcement was the unveiling of God in the flesh.

We speak of unity, one-ness, as a goal to be achieved, but what exactly is that goal? For some it is the unity of the church, everybody believing one set of concrete beliefs and following one set of concrete practices. For others it is a singleness of purpose, such as world peace or eradication of malaria or elimination of poverty and want. We want unity, but we want it on our terms, it seems. Advent invites us to consider unity as a means to begin to heal the world and to welcome the Christ child into that healing. Think of our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters who volunteer to work on Christmas so that Christians can take that day off and the Christians who do the same for Jewish and Islamic brothers and sisters on their holy days. None have changed their beliefs, but they make their actions speak for those beliefs, just the way they’re supposed to. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to convert one another and start just working together. After all, God has many names—including Ha Shem, Allah, and probably many others we don’t know or use ourselves. Unity is like a potluck dinner; everybody brings their own gifts to the table to share with others. Everybody gets fed, nobody goes hungry, and everybody eats together. Think of a whole world like that. I think that’s the unity God is looking for, and Advent is a good time to begin working toward it.

The more I think about Advent, the more I wish we could celebrate it all year long.

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 20

The next Advent alphabet block is the letter T, standing for tradition, tidings, theophany and tree.

Traditions are all around us. They are the beliefs and practices that are passed down from one generation to the next. They can be family traditions, cultural traditions or religious ones. If it isn’t Christmas without Grandma’s special sugar cookies, there is no celebration of Punxsutawney Phil (or Agua Fria Freddie) prognosticating the approximate end of winter, or fireworks on the Fourth of July, then those days are just days like any other. Some families eat turkey for Thanksgiving and ham for Christmas. Some might do it the other way around, both or neither; it’s all about what they usually do. Some put up the Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, others wait until Christmas Eve and yet others do it sometime in between. Traditions are like that. Even the celebration of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are traditions wrapped in traditions. They comfort us in times of trouble because we don’t have to think about what to do, we just do it the same way we’ve always done it because, well, because we’ve always done it that way. They bring people together – but they can separate them as well. Like with most things, it’s all in how they are used. Still, we celebrate traditions, even if we don’t always remember quite why.

The story of Jesus begins with lots of tidings, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy,” is a message we hear and think of angels flying about, singing joyfully in the night sky. Tidings (which are plural) are news, information, and/or notification. In the case of Jesus, it was good news, glad tidings, while the messenger bringing the news of the defeat at Marathon definitely brought ill tidings indeed. Oddly enough, it’s one of those words we usually only hear at Christmas – and Advent. It’s a traditional word used in a traditional story told in a traditional way. But we recognize it for what it is, a notification of a great event that changed the world.

Theophany is a word that isn’t in everyday conversation any more than tidings, but it is a word that is appropriate for consideration during Advent. It comes from the Greek, theo- for God and –phanein, to show. Together they point to a manifestation of God that can be seen and heard. Remember the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites on the exodus? That was a theophany. The burning bush that spoke to Moses? Another one. The calls of the prophets were often theophanies. Probably the one we most think of this time of year is the appearance of Jesus, the visible and audible presence of God on earth. He was God and yet not God, a theophany that is also a Christophany, a revelation or manifestation of Christ after his resurrection. There are also angelophanies, appearances of angels who speak God’s message. In any case, a theophany is God made manifest in some manner or other, as the hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” (Hymnal 1982, #135, among others) delineates. We celebrate the theophany of God among us in the observance of Christmas, welcoming a newborn infant into the world, a world that will be changed by his presence. He is Immanuel, God with us, theophany.

 Trees aren’t specifically Advent-related, but they do make their appearance in homes during this season. Born in the time and place where Advent meant winter, a cold, dark, dreary time where most green things were dead or dormant. But there were evergreen trees, trees that remained green all year. They were a sign of life in world that seemed to illustrate death, so it seems natural that a tree would be invited into the house in the heart of winter to remind people to remember that spring would come again. Many churchmen decried the practice as Pagan (which it originally was), but gradually it became part of the Christian tradition. Nowadays artificial trees have somewhat replaced natural trees in many homes, the candles that used to decorate them have become tiny LED lights, either clear or multi-colored, but Christmas trees are firmly entrenched in the traditional celebration of Christmas.

 The glow of decorated trees and tales of glad tidings are parts of our traditions this time of year. If there are special services in the area, they are a wonderful way to add a new tradition to the season. Above all, look for the theophanies that tell us God is among us, even in very tiny and unexpected ways.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 19

Day 19 brings us to the letter S, which stands for scripture, sin, Sabbath, and seasonal services.

Scripture is the basis of what we, children of God and followers of Christianity, are and do. Other religions have their scriptures on which their beliefs and practices are based but to Christians, the Bible is the authoritative source. We share the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, with our Jewish brothers and sisters and, to a certain extent, our Islamic ones as well. The scriptures are the story of humankind’s relationship with the deity they call God, the God we refer to as Father and sometimes Mother. Scripture takes us through the ups and downs of that relationship: times of creation, times of sin, times of judgment, repentance and reconciliation. We read the history of salvation, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the growth of the religion which bears his title, Christ-ian. We hear a lot of scripture, especially Hebrew scripture from the prophets, during Advent. The prophets tell us of what is wrong but also gives us hope for things being made right. And the scriptures tell us of Jesus teaching us just how to do it.

One of the great topics of scripture is sin, a word that isn’t very popular these days. We may call it wrongdoing, misdemeanor, wickedness, transgression, or even crime, but in reality the plain old word “sin” is the most descriptive. Sin is something that separates, whether it is people from other people and even people from God. Sin is a destructive choice, one that puts self above others, including God. It’s no wonder we don’t like the word and shy around about using it. Still, if people hadn’t sinned, there would have been no Advent—or Christmas or Epiphany or Easter. Without sin, we would have no need for a redeemer.

Sabbath is an important word not only for Advent but for every season. God created the world in six days and then took the seventh day off. Christians observe Sunday as a day of worship and rest, or at least, that’s what it used to be. We’ve become a 24/7 culture and we must be busy doing something, even if we call it “recreation.” It never occurs to us that God rested on that seventh day; he didn’t play golf or shop in the local stores or online ones either. The idea of Sabbath is to slow down, to rest the body and mind. It isn’t easy; things keep popping up that need doing, especially since we are so busy during the week with work, family and the like. Still, Sabbath is important. Think of Advent as a Sabbath season, a time to slow down, to spend more time thinking, especially thinking about God. It sounds almost hilarious to think about slowing down in the season just before Christmas with all the preparations that entails, but that’s precisely why we need some Sabbath time. It’s making time for God.

The church marks different seasons, like Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Each season has particular propers, prayers and hymns. Some seasons, however, have special services and Advent is one of them. Some churches and many cathedrals do a yearly Service of Lessons and Carols during Advent. It’s like the Easter Vigil in that it features a number of readings from various parts of the Bible from Genesis onward. The Lessons and Carols intersperse the readings that trace salvation history and the prophecies of a messiah and a redeemer and up through the birth of Jesus with topical pieces of music for soloists and choir as well as congregational hymns. Among the treats of the season is listening to the service on BBC radio from King’s College Cambridge.

A second special service done during Advent is the Blue Christmas observance. For many people, Christmas is not a time of joyous preparation. Perhaps a loved one has recently died or the person has undergone some other kind of loss that can lead to depression and feelings of hopelessness. Culture generally gives the message that such feelings have no place in this time of frenzied celebrations and that can deepen the feelings of hopelessness and grief. The Blue Christmas service, usually held on December 21st, the longest night of the year is a quiet one that speaks to comfort and support of those whom culture ignores or gives the message that they need to just get over whatever it is that is amiss. The emotions and feelings of those in grief or depression are honored while being offered hope and healing through acknowledgement of the journey on which they are walking. It is a powerful service for all its gentleness. It can be a lifeline to a suffering soul.

Some churches hold a rather more exuberant celebration a friend’s church calls “The Banging of the Pans to Chase Away the Dragons of Darkness. There are prayers, hymns or Taizé chants, perhaps a video, and then everyone goes outside to bang loudly on whatever pots and pans they have brought. Like the Blue Christmas service, it is held on or around December 21st, and by all accounts, every year it has successfully chased the dragon away because the nights after the service have gradually begun to get longer. The service concludes with a copious consumption of hot chocolate. Hot cider or even hot tea might also be as efficacious. 

 Sin is a human failing, but Advent offers scripture and special services that offer hope and healing, joy and exuberance. Taking time for a bit of Sabbath time will help as well. Above all, it’s about remembering God and God’s children, all of them.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 18

R is the eighteenth letter of the Advent alphabet. Words that begin with R are reflection, resting, retreat and reconciliation.

Reflection involves thinking and consideration. Ever walk into a grocery store and try to decide between two brands of the same product? That could be considered a reflection, in a very broad sense because a choice had to be made based on what was important: price, sugar content, nutritional value, etc. Reflection is also a spiritual practice that also involves thinking and consideration. Theological reflections can happen with even the most simple and sometimes the most un-spiritual things that can be imagined. Take, for instance, an advertisement in a magazine for a particular brand of cell phone. The ad read, “All you’ll ever need.” Really? Is a cell phone all anyone would need? Is that what our culture is telling us? What is your personal position on this? Does it ring true for you? What does our religious tradition (hymns, scripture, lives of the saints, etc.) say about all you’ll ever need? Does this train of thought make you more aware of something in your own life, induces you to some action, perhaps making some change in how you see things? Congratulations. You’ve just done a mini-theological reflection. And it probably didn’t hurt a bit. Advent is a great time to learn new spiritual practices – and practice them.

Resting is the fourth step of a Lectio Divina reflection. The Latin term for it is contemplatio, contemplation. As you sit quietly following reading (lectio), meditating (meditatio), and praying (oratio), try to feel God’s presence sitting with you. Listen for what God wants to say to you, or simply sit with God in companionable silence. During this period of contemplatio, as with theological reflection, a new direction in life, a new way of thinking or a new understanding may occur that motivate you to action. That might be God’s way of encouraging you to try something new—like trying another theological reflection or lectio divina. Or maybe it could be something life-changing and unexpected, a revealing of a passion that hadn’t been noticed and one that can meet a need in a world with a lot of needs.

Some churches have retreats at various times of the year, Advent being one of them. Retreats are times where a person turns off the cell phone and the tablet, finds a quiet place and spends time in prayer, meditation and reflection, either alone or in a group. Retreats can last a month or just a few hours. They can be lead by a priest, a religious, or a lay person. There are even online retreats for those who can’t get away but who are interested in this type of spiritual practice. Getting away from everyday life, though, is often a life- and sanity-saving experience, offering a chance to be quiet with no outside demands, learning new spiritual practices, and most of all, a chance to experience external silence which can lead to a better understanding of how to quiet internal noise that can get in the way of prayer, meditation or other spiritual practices. Most importantly, retreats can reconnect a person with God in a deeper, richer way. During Advent, that can be a true gift to oneself.

Reconciliation is a state of putting people back together after some sort of rift in the relationship. One of the greatest examples of reconciliation took place in South Africa where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought together victims of apartheid and all its accompanying evils with the perpetrators who had injured them in some way. The purpose wasn’t exclusively to get the tormentors/killers to confess or to apologize for their wrongdoing so much as to give the victims an opportunity to face their nightmares, speak their truth and be heard. Often apologies did come, but for the speakers, reconciliation and healing was begun simply by speaking words they could not speak before, and to the people who caused their suffering. Each of us has no doubt had to face someone, either someone we’ve wronged or someone who has wronged us, and spoken our truth, not necessarily to make amends or to be forgiven but because we needed to face the situation and move off dead center. We reconcile to God the same way, by speaking of what we’ve done for which we need forgiveness. It isn’t for God we confess those wrongs, it is for ourselves. Advent is a good time to practice confession, make amends and practice reconciliation.

 There is a pattern to Advent: be awake, be aware, prepare through stillness, prayer, meditation and look with expectation. The trick is to do them.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 17

The Letter Q in the Advent calendar encourages us to think about Quirinius, questions, and quiet.

Quirinius (or Cyrenius) is a rather shadowy character found only in passing in Luke 2. It is noted that he was “Governor of Syria” at the time Caesar (Augustus) called for a census of all the people who had to return to their home town to be properly counted. Now the Romans did a lot of counts, using it primarily for a tax calculation, so that in itself might not be too puzzling but why did Luke throw Quirinius into the passage when he really didn’t seem to have much use? Luke wrote his gospel in about 60 CE, not exactly a first-hand account. Since the years were not numbered continuously but rather using the number of years of the reign of the current authority in power, Luke was attempting to nail down the year as closely as possible. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was indeed a governor of Syria beginning in about 6AD and could have conducted the census but Herod the Great died in 4BCE – too early for the two to have been contemporaries. Did Luke make a mistake and mix up two counts done by Quirinius at two different times? Possibly. At any rate, Quirinius is part of the nativity story, even if in shadow and with the scratching of heads. He was known as a political and military leader, acknowledged by Rome and included in Josephus’ Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people. Meanwhile we simply read Luke 2 and go along with it.  Still, biblical scholars still search for the link between Herod, Caesar Augustus and Quirinius which would definitively nail down the precise year in which Jesus was born.

As with the problem of Quirinius and the dating of Jesus’ birth year, there are many questions that can come up around the story of the birth of Jesus as well as the rest of the Bible. Why would people be ordered to go back to their home town for counting if they lived somewhere else? Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem near Jerusalem or the other Bethlehem in the northern part of the country? Were the prophets in the Hebrew Bible really pointing towards Jesus in their prophecies about a messiah and a coming king? Where did Cain’s wife come from?  There are lots of answers, some more plausible than others, some so far out in left field that even the longest home run wouldn’t get that far. Still, people ponder the questions, some coming to one conclusion or another, some being perfectly content with the ambiguity of not knowing concretely. Questions are good; it’s a sign that we are thinking about something and not just accepting everything we are told. Like the media news, there are two sides or opinions or beliefs – and maybe four or twenty or more. Questions help us decide which the right one is. Still, as our teachers told us, the only dumb question is the one that is not asked. God doesn’t mind questions either, especially when we ask them in prayer, Lectio Divina, study or even just observing life.

Quiet is a word descriptive of Advent, even though there are lots of sounds that we notice during the season like bells, carols, readings, and a host of others. Advent is quiet in that usually outside the churches or even homes where the Advent wreath is found it isn’t noticed by the outside world. We say it is a time of reflection, meditation and preparation, but unless it results in acts of charity or love, it really doesn’t show very much. Stores certainly don’t recognize it; some Christian churches don’t either. The world seems to want to jump immediately from Thanksgiving to Christmas and then pack Christmas away about the time the torn wrapping paper is barely picked up off the floor. Advent gives a time to stay thankful a bit longer, look at the deeper meaning of what Christmas is really about, and prepare for the entire season of Christmas – 12 days and not just a single morning or even afternoon. Advent has lots of joyful noise, like the greetings extended to family who travels from far points to be together for the holidays, bells ringing next to red kettles, maybe the crunch of snow as one walks or drives through it, carolers singing outside the house, and Christmas music playing on the radio or iPod, but mostly it’s about preparing oneself. That takes a little time and a little doing, but with persistence, quiet can be found and used very constructively.

Enjoy the quiet of Advent as we prepare for the exuberance of Christmas. It will be here before long, and we want to be ready. Some modern-day Quirinius (like the family) may ask us to return to our home towns to be counted among the gathered relatives, and questions may pop up that need some thought. Now’s the time for all that to happen and for us to enjoy it.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 16

The sixteenth letter of the Advent alphabet is P, which represents penitence, prepare, ponder and pageant.

Until recent years, Advent has been considered a mini-Lent, a time of penitence, the act of repenting, feeling regret for sins or even particular acts which show that regret and sorrow. In monasteries and convents penitence, especially during Lent and Advent, was strict with meatless days, extra hours of prayer or even corporal acts like self-flagellation. Penitents visiting particular shrines went at least part of the journey completely on their knees rather than walking as a sign of their penitence and repentance. Even though today things are usually not as spartan or rigorous, penitence still has a place in our Advent observances, even more so than our usual daily ones. We can say the General Confession each morning which gets the day started without the burdens of yesterday, we can give up something (a cup of Starbuck’s, for instance?) and put the money that would have been spent into a gift for a child whose name is on a tree in the church or the mall, we can make donations of time to food banks and homeless feeding programs (or backpack ministries like Backpacks of Love  at St. Aidan’s in Alpharetta, Georgia). The thing is to do something for someone who doesn’t expect it and who may not be able to reciprocate. The best way to show penitence is to make amends – or honor God by caring for the less fortunate children of God.

 Prepare is one of the watch words of Advent. Jesus tells the stories like the Wise and Foolish Virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom to come. Half of them have extra lamp oil, just in case, but the other half just figure he’ll be along before their oil runs out. That half guessed wrong and were excluded from the feast. Other stories tell of people needing to be prepared for the coming of a person of importance like a master or a trusted person such as an apostle, prophet or even someone who may give an unexpected message. It’s more than making sure the fruitcakes are made ahead of time enough to age properly or that there are enough cookies for not just the kids’ school party or the coffee hour at church. It’s much more than making sure all the proper people get the proper gifts and the house and church are decorated properly for Advent and then riotously glorious for Christmas. It’s about an internal preparation, making the Christ Child welcome in the heart and life, and then extending that welcome to those same people we are encouraged to remember at this time of year (see the preceding paragraph).  It all ties together – if we prepare the right way and for the right things.

We don’t use the word ponder a lot, but during Advent we tend to have our attention called to it more frequently. When the shepherds arrived at the manger scene and told the message they had been given by the angels, we read, “But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, NRSV).  Pondering is a heavy word, indicating more than just a passing thought or two on a subject. Pondering indicates giving something a lot of thought, meditating on it and teasing out what the thought means to us in terms of our understanding, lives and ministries. Pondering also invites God into the conversation, as we practice in Lectio Divina. There’s a line in the hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” that we often sing but maybe could pay more attention to: “Ponder anew/what the Almighty can do/if with His love he befriends thee.[1]” Now there’s a thought well worth pondering.

 What is Advent without the Children’s Christmas pageant?  Every year, millions of children take various parts in their recreation of the Christmas story from the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary to (quite often) the visit of the Magi to the little family. Sometimes the pageant is left until close to Epiphany but most seem to have it somewhere late in Advent. How many parents have contributed dressing gowns and towels to clothe the shepherds and Joseph while someone’s doll (or even someone’s very small infant) is borrowed to play the featured role of the baby Jesus? It’s a time for grandparents to sigh and remember their own children in the same sort of play, while the parents happily take pictures of their child playing Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper or even an angel. Even the most “Bah, humbug!” of folks can enjoy the story the little ones provide. It’s also a reminder of the children Jesus came to teach about the kingdom of God and the little children he called to him when others would have merely pushed them aside as unimportant, without a voice or even any attention.

“Prepare the way, O Zion, your Christ is drawing near!” as the hymn tells us (p. 65). It’s almost time. 

[1] Hymnal 1982, Church Pension Fund, New York, p. 390

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 15

The alphabet block for today is O, representing Oratio, oblation, oasis and O Antiphons

 Oratio is the third step of Lectio Divina. After slow and thoughtful reading of a passage of scripture (lectio), there was a period of reflection (meditatio) on a word or phrase that seemed to stand out. After a few minutes of refection, which should include not only engaging the mind but also the heart and the spiritual ears, comes oratio which means prayer. What thoughts seem to want to be expressed to God? What questions? What emotions have been brought forward? Prayers don’t have to be fancy or even organized; think of it as a conversation with a dear and trusted friend. One result could be a drawing closer to God, a deepening love and feeling of being loved. There is one more stage, rest (contemplation), which will bring the exercise to a close.

 Oblation is a word that means something offered to God. One of the Offertory Sentences which can be used in the Episcopal Church is “Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord” (p.377). The offerings are the gifts presented in the alms basins (offering plates) and the oblations are the gifts of bread and wine that are presented to the deacon or celebrant and placed on the altar for consecration. In a deeper sense, though, an oblation is, as the Catechism puts it, “. . . [A]n offering of ourselves, our lives and labors, in union with Christ, for the purposes of God” (p. 857). We present our whole selves – not just what we dig out of our wallets or purses or even tear from our checkbooks. While it isn’t a specifically Advent-ish thing, it can be a door to opening ourselves to God in another form of spiritual practice. Even at home, during meditation, preparing for Lectio Divina or prayer, offering one’s whole self to God sets the stage for reception of what God wants us to see, know and do.

Oasis may seem like a funny word for Advent but it fits in some odd ways. An oasis is a place of rest, where one can stop, rest, reorganize, reorient themselves and prepare for the rest of the journey. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, gaudete being the word for “Rejoice” which was the first word in the Latin opening introit (statements that begin the liturgy for the day). The vestments and church hangings may be changed to rose pink for the day but and the third candle lit on the Advent wreath is pink. It marks a sort of oasis in the journey from Advent to the nativity. The last part of the journey is still ahead, but on this Sunday, we can rest, reorient ourselves, give thanks and rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4 KJV).

Most congregations sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at least once during the Advent Season. While not an actual translation, the hymn is based on what are called O Antiphons . An antiphon is a verse that is sung before and usually after a hymn, canticle or psalm. The O Antiphons are verses sung before and after the Magnificat, the song Mary sang at the visitation of Gabriel, at Vespers (an evening service from which our Evening Prayer grew), one on each the seven days before Christmas, beginning on December 17th. One antiphon is sung each day and each represents either a name or an attribute of God that comes from the Hebrew Bible. “O Wisdom,” “O Lord of Might,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David,” O Dayspring,” “O King of Nations,” and “O Emmanuel” describe aspects of God that are Christians believe are made manifest through the birth, life and ministry of Jesus.  The antiphons themselves have been in use in the church since at least the eighth or ninth century.  In Latin, the first letter of the first word (Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Oriens, Rex Gentium, and Emmanuel) read backwards is Ero Cras which, in Latin means “Tomorrow I come.”  Rather appropriate, isn’t it? The next day after the last antiphon is sung is Christmas Day – the day we celebrate as the day of Jesus’ birth.

We reach an oasis point in our Advent preparations. We practice our Lectio Divina, we offer ourselves to God daily and we recall the names and titles which God has been given over the millennia and which for us represent the presence of Christ as king, son of David, savior and Lord. Take time to rejoice!

All About Priorities

In the second year of King Darius,in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts. -- Haggai 2:1-9

The Babylonian Exile was over and Judah had returned to find its former homeland and city in ruins. When they returned, one of their first tasks was to begin rebuilding the Temple but in the eighteen years later only the foundations had been rebuilt. The people had decided that the Temple could wait; building a beautiful city to live in was more important. Things weren't going well for Judah. It seemed that God wasn't happy with them and as a result, the crops failed and the people suffered.They didn't seem to get the hint. Along came Haggi, a prophet with a message. It was a simple message but an important one to people who had become so self-absorbed that they forgot faith -- and God.

The Temple was the house of God, the place where God was present and, as such, was an important symbol for the people. If they looked at a temple every day, it was a lot easier to remember God and the way God wanted them to act. Haggi had the mission of getting the people to get a move on building-wise. Unlike most prophets who prophecied about justice or mercy, Haggi's one message was "Build it, now." God had promised to be with the people and the Temple was the place and the way for it to happen.

There might have been a few Judeans who remembered the Temple as it was before they were dragged off to Babylon, and Haggi was to remind them of what it had been: a great house, with cedar panels and silver and gold in abundance. But who listens to old people when there's a new city to build? Haggi had a very hard job ahead of him.

 The Babylonian exile had been punishment for forgetting about God and here, eighteen years after being released from that exile and sent home to rebuild the Temple of God, they were right back where they started. They definitely had their priorities in the wrong place.

It seems like that is a failing that hasn't changed much. We may not have a mandate from God to build a Temple, we do have one to build a world where peace and justice flow down like rivers in a barren land. We aren't told to build beautiful cities, just functional ones where people are not stratified as to income or position but where each one is honored as a child of God. We aren't told to see how much we can accumulate, whether money or goods, but to share that with people who have little of either, if any at all.

During Advent we have more and more visible ways of doing some kingdom-building than at almost any other time of year. The angel tree at the mall (or in the narthex), the bell ringers outside the mercantile emporiums, food and clothing drives to resupply quickly depleting food and clothing banks, alternative giving that donates an animal or an anti-malarial mosquito net or even a part of a water purification program in someone else's name, all are ways of building that kingdom, brick by brick, beam by beam. And that is the thing God has enjoined us to do and has sent modern-day prophets who look about them, see what is wrong and report back to us what needs fixing.

The heirs of Haggi are people we don't usually want to listen to. They tell us things that make us uncomfortable or that seem to threaten our self-satisfaction in some way. But that is precisely how God uses them: to afflict our comfortableness enough to get us out of our self-centered ruts and accumulative ways and into a more righteous and beneficial way of doing things. We keep talking louder and louder, trying to drown them out, but they will not be silenced. Endangered animals, global warming and its results, people's inhumanity to fellow humans, all are part of the prophetic message. Our selfishness and sense of priviliege has gotten us to this point and the prophets warn us that we've gone about as far as we can go. We need to see the foundation of the Temple and get busy rebuilding.

I can't build a whole temple by myself, but I can add a brick or two to the construction. To build a world where God dwells among us -- that is the temple. Every kindness, every gift to someone who can't hope to reciprocate, every word of encouragement to someone who has lost hope or even lost faith adds to that world where God is not some guy in a white dress and with a long white beard sitting on a throne somewhere a gazillion miles away. God will be present among us as God was during the exodus, during the return from exile, and during all the ages since Creation. It's time for that up-close-and-personal presence again. It's all about priorities and where we place them.

Brick by brick. Build it, now.

Originally published at   Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 14, 2014.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 14

N in the Advent alphabet blocks represents name, nativity, night and Nutcracker.

Name is what people call a person – or a place or a thing. It can be a common name like table or cat, or it can be something specific like Felix or St. Ignatius. It’s the way a person is known, more than just what their mother called them when she wanted them to come in for dinner or how their friends, acquaintances and business associates refer to them in person or in reference. A person respected in the community was said to have a good name while someone who was a criminal or even just a local scoundrel could give a whole family a bad name. Names have meaning; Michael comes from the Hebrew word that means “One like God,” while Sarah means “Lady” or “Princess.” Jesus, the name we all know from the gospels, is actually the Anglicized form of a Greek rendition of an Aramaic name, Yeshua, which actually is a contraction of Yehoshu’a, the name we know as Joshua and which actually means “Yahweh is salvation.” Philippians 2:9-11 tells us, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Now THAT is a name.

Nativity is a word that means the occasion of one’s birth. Christians use it in particular to refer to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem there is a church known as the Church of the Nativity, a basilica with origins back to the 330s when Helena, mother of Constantine, toured the Holy Land to identify sacred sites associated with Christianity. Since at least a century before that, the place where the current Church of the Nativity stands has been revered as the very spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Helena and Constantine’s church burned although parts of it remained, and the Emperor Justinian rebuilt and expanded the building in 6th century. It is the oldest Christian church in continual use, and is surrounded as well as shared by monasteries of Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks. Most of all, it is a visible reminder of an event that happened over 2000 years ago but which is celebrated and re-enacted during December of every year. The nativity is the culmination of Advent’s promise, the incarnation of our Lord on earth.

How do you describe night? It’s a period of time where the sun is not visible above the horizon; it is dark outside and is usually cooler than it was during the day. Quite often things slow down, people are a little less frazzled and a little more willing to sit and talk. Things that happen at night often seem more significant or more mysterious or somehow different than the same things that happen in daylight; babies are born, people die, crimes happen, criminals get caught. Stories told at night around a campfire or a chiminea seem more thrilling, scarier and more entertaining than stories told in a brightly-lit room. Night is a good time to unwind, to mediate, to sit and think about important things, sacred things. Isn’t it sort of amazing that two of the greatest liturgies of the church take place at night: the Great Vigil of Easter and what we have come to call Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It is the Christmas Eve service that marks the end of Advent because tradition has it that Jesus was born at night. On that night, the stars seem to shine brighter and feel closer, sounds are sharper and clearer, and it feels like the veil between heaven and earth is as thin as gossamer. The Great Vigil of Easter is a wonderful service with great and deep meaning, but Christmas Eve, well that’s a different thing. It’s very special in its own way.

What Messiah is to singers and A Christmas Carol is to actors, The Nutcracker is to dancers. The story begins with a Christmas party at the home of Clara’s family. As a gift, she is given a magnificent nutcracker, but naughty boys snatch it away and being to play catch with it, breaking it in the process. As the others go up to bed, Clara stays and holds the broken nutcracker and falls asleep with it in her arms next to the Christmas tree. She has fantastic dreams full of mouse armies, dancing flowers, exotic dancers from around the world, a handsome prince and a Sugar Plum Fairy. At the end Clara awakens still under the tree and with the Nutcracker Prince in her arms. It’s the kind of drama that seems meant for children but which adults as well see as an annual event. How many young girls have dreamed of dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy and who have started their hoped-for careers as Clara? It isn’t only Clara who has dreams.  The music is among the most recognized in the world. It may be a Christmas tradition, but it can be an Advent treat – a lesson in what a bit of kindness can do.   

 Advent nights bring dancing and singing as the days until the celebration of the nativity count down.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent Alphabet 2013 - Day 13

The next block in our alphabet for Advent is M, representing Mary, meditatio, myrrh and Messiah.

Mary is a critical part of the Advent story. Her name, Miryam, is the same as that of the sister of Moses, but comes to us in its present form through the Greek and Latin Maria. In a different time and place she could have been Susan or Seo-yeun or Sofia or Anna, but God chose a young Jewish woman living in first-century Palestine to become the mother of the Son of God. Mary chose to accept the task but it wasn’t an easy one. She wasn’t yet fully married, although a betrothal was almost as good as a marriage. Yet, to be pregnant and betrothed, well, that was probably fodder for back-fence speculation and whisperings, just like it would probably be today. Yet Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, became the parents of a very special child, and to this day, one of the titles for Mary is theotokos, Mother of God.

Meditatio is the second step or stage in the process of Lectio Divina. It follows the first step, lectio, where a short passage of scripture is read slowly and thoughtfully with note being taken of a word or phrase that seems to call out for attention. In meditatio, the practitioner sits quietly and examines that word or phrase. Why did it seem important? What would it have meant to those who first heard the passage as a prophecy or a letter or a teaching? Does it suggest or echo other parts of scripture? What do the words mean personally and to the culture in which the person lives? What emotion or thoughts does it provoke? This is when an open heart and mind are particularly helpful because in it the person is not just thinking but hopefully listening with the heart as well. It is there that God often speaks, quietly and without fuss. From there the person moves to the next phase, Oratio.

Myrrh is a spice, the dried resin from a desert tree, a variety of the species Commiphora that grows in Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Egyptians used it in mummies and ancient physicians as treatment for everything from leprosy to baldness. Today it is considered potentially beneficial in treating tumors, parasites and stomach ulcers although it’s most familiar use is in perfumes and incense like that used in churches. When the magi brought gifts to the Christ child, among those gifts was myrrh, It was a princely gift, to be sure, but symbolically it also represented the spices used on the dead. It is possible that it was added to the sour wine (vinegar) that was offered as to Jesus on the cross as a narcotic. When the magi brought it to Jesus, they brought a gift that could be sold for a goodly sum of money, money that would be needed by the family to escape to and live in Egypt when Herod threatened the life of that small boy child who had been born in a manger and welcomed by shepherds, wise men and angels.

One of the things that mark Advent is music, both special hymns at church and even the ubiquitous “seasonal” music on the radio and in malls. Usually sometime during Advent, in just about every town large enough to field a group of singers to form a choir, an oratorio by a guy named George Frederic Handel, written in 1751 and which has one of the most easily identifiable pieces of choral music in the world. Messiah has over 50 arias, recitatives and choruses with two purely instrumental pieces. The libretto consists of scriptural passages from the prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, Haggi, Malachi, and the books of Job, Lamentations, Psalms, Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, I Corinthians, and Revelation. Some churches perform Messiah at Easter because the story doesn’t end at Christmas with the Hallelujah Chorus but goes on to the joy of the resurrection. Still, for many, it is part of their annual Advent observances and, perhaps, a reminder of what Christians celebrate as the true meaning of this season and the one that follows it – Christmas.

It is the season for fragrant gifts and prayerful study. It’s also a season for music and singing. Sing along!