Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Short Ending to Advent

Reading: Malachi 3:1-5

Today is an anomaly. Although tomorrow is the fourth Sunday in Advent, it is also on Christmas Eve, which makes today the last full day of Advent for the year 2017. It is an oddity in the Christian calendar that only happens every so many years. It is a time the drives most people in the church crazy, because Sunday morning is still Advent with its reflection, patient waiting, and inward looking, but then, as soon as church is over, the Altar Guild, the choirs, the priest, and many of the congregation, change gears so swiftly it's almost like going from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds. Still, we have this one more full day to contemplate Advent, and today's reading from Malachi seems to be an apt one, especially given the physical, economic, and political climate in the world these days.

Many people will not read very far in this passage from Malachi without having something start in their heads from Messiah, the masterful oratorio of Georg Friedrich Handel who wrote that majestic work incorporating passages from Old Testament prophets and the gospellers of the New Testament plus a few others. It is one thing that I enjoy most about Advent, because I often hear bits and pieces of Messiah on the radio or I turn it in on my iPod to listen to the whole thing. I may hear it again at Easter, but the Christmas part is what I enjoy the most.

Part of the reading from Malachi appears in two places, one a recitative and aria for a bass who sings of a messenger coming to prepare the way for the Messiah and questioning “Who may abide the day of his coming?” The bass continues with singing of a refiner's fire and Fuller soap, methods of cleansing and purification. It does not say literally that people will be subjected to fire and very rough scrubbings, but that purification is needed to achieve righteousness which is what God asks of God's people. Halfway through verse two a choir continues with the chorale, “And he shall purify,” a vocally difficult piece with a lot of vocal gymnastics and counterpoint but also with a hopeful note when it comes to "…an offering in righteousness," the newly cleansed people of God.

Reading this piece of Malachi and observing how apt it seems to the for our time, I wonder, what would Jesus say if he were here now? It seems every day things look a little worse. With the sexual scandals, harassment, policies and budgets being made that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, it seems to be counter-Christian, although it supported by so many who purport to be Christians. I wonder, where is the disconnect?

Jesus preached often on the necessity for taking care of those who are marginalized by society, were powerless, and who had no resources with which to take care of themselves. Malachi, like Jesus, spoke of the widows and orphans, but Malachi also mentioned those who took advantage of those who worked for them, the aliens, and those who look to make themselves rich at the expense of others. It does not seem to have changed very much in the last year or so, and it seems that we will probably see worse to come. The land will be raped even further, those who depend on the land will be further impoverished, and the captains of capitalism will make even more money than they have previously, meanwhile treating their employees almost with scorn. Somehow, I do not think Jesus would be pleased.

During Advent, we've been considering how we best serve God by helping God's children to better lives and purification of our own lives by discovering what we need to change in ourselves and in our environment. We really could have used another whole week of Advent rather than just a few hours, but there's still time. It would be good if we could end this Advent with a renewed enthusiasm for and dedication to causes that help lift those who have been trampled down and encourage those who have built their own mountains of gold to share with those who need it the most.

With the joy of Christmas so close, it might be tempting to jump ahead and start celebrating without finishing the Advent work that we have been doing. We remember that Joseph and Mary were immigrants to the town of Bethlehem, with no house to come home to, probably few resources monetarily, and little or no possibility of finding shelter any place. Still, on Christmas Eve we celebrate that Jesus was born and laid in a food trough used by animals. No golden cradle, silk wall hangings, no gold columns, rich fabrics, thick carpets, and impressive furnishings. Jesus came as a man of the people, not the elite. That was part of his power, because people could relate to him, an itinerant preacher in his later life, who was not ostentatious yet compelling in his speech and way of living.

So, on this last full day of Advent, I look ahead, and I will wish every one of you a very Merry Christmas, a happy holiday season, the blessing of grace from God our Father and Mother, and a renewed sense of purpose to bring the kingdom of God to earth now.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 23, 2017.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Quiet Man

Advent often centers around the events of the annunciation and the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, one young woman and one old, both pregnant in what would be considered either miraculous or scandalous circumstances. Elizabeth would have been a miracle, given her age and given the number of years that she and Zachariah had been married but without conceiving or bearing a child. Mary, on the other hand, was engaged to a man named Joseph, a simple man, a carpenter, but they had not yet consummated the marriage, possibly due to Mary's young age, although we have no real idea what that age was.

Joseph was an important figure. His story and Mary's parallel to some extent and yet are somewhat different. Both received visitations from angels, both were told incredible things, and both were given the name of an impending child who would be Mary's conception but not by Joseph, her husband-to-be. Joseph also received a visitation where he was told to complete the marriage to Mary even though Mary was pregnant, because this was to be a very special child whose name was going to be Jesus. Mary was wide awake when her angel came; Joseph was sound asleep when his visitation came in a dream. Mary followed the annunciation with a visit to a cousin, while Joseph stayed at home. Mary gave forth a beautiful acknowledgment and praise to God for the message that the angel had brought her. Joseph simply went and did as he was told. It seems Joseph was a quiet man, a silent man, one who plays an integral part but who yet says not a single word in the Gospels.

I've been thinking about Joseph lately. He accepted a wife who was pregnant but not with his child. That is hard enough for a lot of men to accept, but when told, even by an angel, that the father of this child was God, I do not see how Joseph could be anything but incredulous and probably thunderstruck. I wonder, does he think about who could have been the baby’s father? Oh sure, he took the word of the angel, but it probably took a very big suspension of suspicion for him to accept it.

Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem to answer a census. We know there was no census in any of the years that Jesus could conceivably have been born (ca. 4BCE - 4CE), but it served as a way for the gospel to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where the house of David had been established centuries before and where prophecy had said the Messiah would come. Even while looking for a place to stay in a very full town, Joseph never said a word that was recorded. The child came and, yet, Joseph said nothing. Of course, at that point in time, Mary did not say anything either, so evidently it was not very important to the story of the miraculous birth.

There is the story of the wise men who arrive at Epiphany with gifts, but still the parents are silent. An angel comes to them and tells them that they need to leave because there was a warrant out to kill babies of a certain age who were perceived to be threats. They went to Egypt and stayed for a while. Unquestioning, they did as they were told, seemingly without argument or even comment.

Joseph seems like a background character, but he was the earthly father figure involved in Jesus’s upbringing and a role model, teacher, and mentor, to Mary’s son. I wonder, did Mary and Joseph ever speak to Jesus of his unusual birth? Did they ever tell Jesus that Joseph really was not his father, or did they just go along presenting Jesus as Joseph’s son like a regular family? Did Joseph officially adopt Jesus? How did Jesus find out that God was his father, and when did he discover this? To me, it seems rather unusual for a human child, which Jesus was at this time, to instinctively know the spark of divinity within him, although we can guess that it happened when he was a very young child. Perhaps it was closer to the time when he was lost at the temple for three days. We just don't know.

What we do know, though, was that Joseph was present through part of Jesus's life, and represented a father figure, maybe even a model for some of the men in the parables. It's impossible to know, but Joseph must have been a very good and strong man to accede to the request given by the angel and to continue throughout his lifetime to love, teach, and support a son who was not his and yet was as close as his own child would have been.

Maybe what I learned from Joseph was that sometimes words are necessary. Acceptance? Of course. Faithfulness? Definitely. Strength? Yes. Joseph had to be a strong man, a good man, and one who put the well-being of others before himself. I am sure Jesus did not learn everything he had to learn from some supernatural force like angels or visions or whatever. I am sure a lot of what he had to learn especially in his very young life came from his parents, both Mary and Joseph. Joseph could teach carpentry, and could also serve as a religious model of a of a pious Jewish man who knew the rites and traditions that had to be done, knew the Scriptures, and followed them to the letter. Joseph was perhaps a quiet man, yet without him and his example, perhaps Jesus would have been just a little bit different as a human being. Pure speculation, but it is something to consider.

So, this week I think I will concentrate on Joseph. Maybe if I listen hard enough I can hear him speak. What I do know, though, is that he is a role model, who seemed to use actions rather than words to live his part in the nativity story.

I think I am learning to see Joseph in a whole new light.

God bless.

Note: Joseph is the patron of the church, carpenters, fathers, and social justice.  He is also the patron of the dying.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 16, 2017.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Music of Advent

When it comes to liturgical seasons, my favorite by far is Advent. I love it for its contemplation and its quiet expectation, sort of like being pregnant. There are times of discomfort, but even some of the discomfort is a reassurance that a new life is coming into the world, and that's a good thing. Advent has that feeling because, of course, we are expecting the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But Advent makes us wait, makes us think about what we’re getting into once the baby Jesus is here.

One of the things I like most about Advent is the music that I hear. No, I'm not talking about the Christmas carols in the big box stores (and even the little stores) that start playing on December 1st and stop pretty much by midnight on Christmas Eve. By Christmas, I'm tired of carols, although I do love singing them at the proper time. I never hear Advent hymns and carols though, unless I am at church or listening to CDs on my various devices. There's one that I have just about worn out, and that's a service of Advent music and lessons from King’s College that I bought years ago and love dearly. The sound of the choir of men and boys, the words of the scriptures leading up to the birth of Jesus, all the sounds echoing off the vaulted arches of a historic place – it’s the most wonderful thing I can think of.

Another thing I love about Advent is Messiah. Many places will wait and present it at Easter, but somehow doing the Christmas section in Advent is like the trailer for a really good movie. It gives us a taste of what's coming and makes us think of what that birth means.

"On Jordan's bank the Baptist’s cry" (Winchester New), is one of those hymns that I can't wait to sing. It's a song encourages us to look forward to the days of Advent and that tells us so eloquently that the assurance that what the Baptist tells us is true. There is one coming who is greater than John and who will be our "… Our refuge, and our great reward." It is an exposition of what the coming Messiah will bring to us and what we will joyfully celebrate. After all, Advent is a celebratory season, as well as a penitential one, in its own quiet way. The four Advent candles, one lit each Sunday until finally the Christ candle is set alight on Christmas Eve, and the darkness, while surrounding us physically, is dispelled with the joy and the light and the scents of Christmas.

Another one of my favorites seems like an odd choice for an Advent hymn, and it makes me stop and wonder why it's included. "Lo, he comes with clouds descending" (Helmsley) is not about the Christmas birth but a return to earth from heaven of the Christ who bears the scars of his violent and painful death on the cross. This hymn is based on Revelation, something we don't normally associate with Christmas or Advent. It seems to be something more suited to Lent or perhaps the season after Pentecost. But it is kind of a balance to the quiet anticipation to Bethlehem as it makes us think about the road beyond the manger, a road we will walk during Lent, celebrate at Easter, and then look beyond to the Messiah's return and what it will mean to the earth when it happens. I still love it, and almost wish that we could sing it sometime other than Advent, just because it's a message that transcends seasons.

Also on my list of favorites is what we call the "O Antiphons,” a series of eight verses begun on December 17 and ending on December 23 or 24th, one verse being sung each day, and each verse giving out a title or an attribute of Jesus, like root of Jesse, wisdom from on high, key of David, etc. It's chanted in plainsong, a very old liturgical way of singing, that has no harmony but has everything sung in unison. With the unison singing, it's easy to contemplate the words without distraction because once you learn the melody that's all it needs. It encourages us to rejoice, and to welcome the coming Messiah. It's hopeful, and it is simple enough to be remembered throughout not just the Advent season but afterwards. “O come, O come Emmanuel,” the opening phrase of the first verse, is translated from the Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.

So once again it’s time for me to break out my iPod and fulfill my Advent tradition of listening to my wonderful CD from King’s, although I admit I sneak it in a few times during the year simply because it is so lovely. If you have a service lessons and carols for Advent at your church, do go and listen, invite a friend, join the singing (which is a form of prayer), feel the anticipation, and let the world’s cares and fears dissipate for a little while. We need the rest, we need to catch our breaths, and we need the peace. That’s what Advent offers us.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 9, 2017.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Tortoise and the Hare -- Advent Style

The story about the tortoise and hare is a familiar tale of a famous Greek storyteller named Aesop.  It starts out with a hare bragging about how fast he could run and that nobody could beat him. The tortoise listened, but didn't seem overly impressed. In fact, he challenged the hare to a race! Of course, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, the hare being so much faster than the tortoise, so of course he would win. The other animals laid out the course through the forest and the great race began. The rabbit took off like a shot and ran and ran and ran as fast as he could. He stopped about midway ad thought  “There's a nice place to play; I’ll just play here for a while since I've got lots of time.” He played in the green grass and then he decided he was still way ahead. “I'll take a nap,” he thought. So, the hare laid down under a nice shade tree and had a very nice nap. When he woke up and thought, “Okay, the tortoise should be about caught up by now, so I'll just run to the finish line.”  When he got there, surprise, surprise, surprise! There was the tortoise waiting for him on the winning side of the line.

I thought about the story as I was sitting in a restaurant on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, listening to Christmas carols, seeing a Christmas tree and lots of decorations around the restaurant, which, by the way, was Chinese. I wasn't ready for it. Granted, I've seen trees lit up and yard ornaments moving and Christmas decorations in stores since Labor Day. But somehow sitting in a Chinese restaurant the second day after Thanksgiving and seeing a fully decorated restaurant playing Christmas carols was just too much.

So, what is that got to do with the tortoise and hare? There are people who can't wait to celebrate Christmas. They love Christmas. They love the lights, the trees, the scents, the parties, the food, the gifts and even the shopping. There are folks who have the house and yard are decorated by Thanksgiving weekend or shortly thereafter. They're usually all ready for Christmas before December 1st even arrives. They start off at full tilt and keep going – like the hare.

Then there are others who don't decorate the tree until a week before or even the night of Christmas Eve, even though the presents are bought and wrapped, the cooking has been is been done, and gifts have been shipped off to friends and relatives who will not be around the Christmas tree this year. Those are the tortoises, not because they lack Christmas spirit, but because they take it slowly they don't rush into it. Many of them wait  to begin celebrating Christmas at all until Christmas Eve around midnight, but then they'll celebrate for another 12 days.

There's nothing wrong with being a hare when decorating for Christmas if that's a family tradition. I know my family always put the Christmas tree up on Thanksgiving weekend, and usually so do I. I like the lights and the sparkle of the fake crystal ornaments, and it makes an otherwise sad time of year for me a little happier. I don’t think Jesus would condemn me for that. But in my religious practice I'm more of a tortoise. I don't sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve, I try not to hear them, (especially the one that everyone hopes to avoid hearing until Christmas Eve at least) but I can't escape hearing the music on the radio when I go out to the stores or even visit friends. I'm an Advent person.

Advent people are more like the tortoise than the hare, at least liturgically. Their homes often have an advent wreath instead of boughs of greens with red bows, lots of colored lights, and baby Jesus in the manger already. Advent people look for the coming of Jesus in a way that is more reflective and a bit more introspective than some other Christians do. For Advent people it's about the waiting. It's about preparing, and by preparing they don't mean pouring the brandy on the fruitcake or making the Christmas putting and setting it aside to age. It is about preparing inwardly more than outwardly for a great festival season of the church.

The comparison of the tortoise and the hare may not be totally fair, because it really depends on things like family tradition, church tradition, or even personal preference. The important thing is that come December 25th, the tortoise and the hare are both at the finish line or, in the case of the tortoises, at the second start line because that's when Christmas begins.

It's almost aggravating to have heard Christmas music on the radio starting December 1st and increasing in number of Christmas versus non-Christmas songs as Christmas approaches. Then, come Christmas morning, you may hear carols but by evening not a carol to be heard; meanwhile, the Advent people are just getting ready to start singing Christmas carols and they will sing them until January 6th which is the epiphany. Also, when a person goes into stores on Christmas Eve, the Christmas stuff has already been moved to the seasonal clearance aisle and the store is now full of red hearts, chubby cherubs, chocolate candy boxes, and appurtenances of Valentine's Day which can range anywhere from a teddy bear with “I love you” embroidered on his chest to very frilly lingerie.

Whether a person is a tortoise or a hare when it comes to when they start celebrating and when they start preparing and when they start getting ready for Christmas is less important than the fact that it becomes less of a commercial event and more a spiritual one, which is the intent of Christmas. Our pagan brothers and sisters would say we should celebrate the returning of light on the winter Solstice, when night is longer than the daylight. Then each day afterwards there's a little more light and a little less dark. We can do that; in fact, some Christian churches have a celebration on Solstice which culminates with them but going outside and banging away on pots and pans and whatever is handy to make a joyful noise that will frighten away the darkness. That's kinda cool, and is fully within the Advent tradition of clearing away things that that block the light coming in to us, just as the light came to the world in the manger in Bethlehem.

So, let us be joyful, let us be happy, but let us also slow down a little, do a little more preparation inwardly, and walk rather than run towards Bethlehem. Christmas will still come, and we will still participate in it fully completely and joyfully, but will also have done some work to prepare our own gifts for Christ rather than strictly contemplating gifts for mom, dad, sister, brother, cousin, or friends. We think more of Christ and less of self. We need to do the inward work and be a bit of a tortoise. Christmas will still come in due time.

Okay, I'm going to put up my tree now. I'm a little later than usual, but that's okay. I will still have weeks to enjoy it, and maybe a little extra time that I took before putting it up will make me inwardly more prepared for the glory that is to come. Advent is here. Christmas will come.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 2, 2017.