Treasure (December 21, 2012)

…Opening To…

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. (Luke 2:17-20; context)

…Filling Up…

The first question, which these final verses of our story brings, is this: to whom did the shepherds report? I’m really curious. Did they run through Bethlehem Paul Revere style (“The messiah is coming! The messiah is coming!”)? Did they go to the local census bureau (after all, that’s why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem in the first place) and tell them to add another Israelite to the rolls? Did they go to the religious leaders and tell them that their hopes had been fulfilled?

Without answering this question, I’ll pose another: what kind of reaction did the shepherds receive? Luke tells us that everyone who heard their report was “amazed at what the shepherds told them.” But “amazed” is neither a positive nor a negative word. I can be amazed at an acrobatic catch in a football game or at how horrible the food is at a restaurant. I suspect that the shepherds received quite a few responses that went along the lines of: “That’s amazing; ridiculous, but amazing.” Others probably said, “Get off my stoop, you mangy shepherd.”

In the end, we are privy only to one response, and that is Mary’s. She commits the shepherds’ news to memory and considers it carefully. Another translation renders this as “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Think about it. Mary has just given birth to the Son of God. For nine months, since the angel appeared to her on that fateful day, she has carried the Incarnate Word within her, the physical embodiment of God’s good news to the world. Then she delivers him. But is her body now void of this Word? Thanks to the shepherds, no. They bring the first message of the Gospel back to Mary and she fills herself with the good news again.

Each of us bears the Gospel inside of us. The good news of Jesus Christ is treasure hidden in our hearts waiting to be shared. So go out and proclaim with the shepherds. Glorify and praise God because Christ is born.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you have given me the gift of pondering in my heart the call you have placed within me. Help me to discover that call and move it from its interior resting place to its active phase in my life. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, as living vessel for holding the light of your son, as was the manger on that holy night.

The Divine Comedy (December 20, 2012)

…Opening To…

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. (Luke 2:13-16; context)

…Filling Up…

Yesterday, we talked about the shepherds being unlikely people for God to confide in. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of the guitarist-whose-band-is-really-about-to-explode-if-they-just-get-their-act-together whom you brought home to mom and dad. They were looked on with suspicion by the city-dwellers, but even with that cloud above them, they were also something besides outcasts.

They were normal. They were just normal guys who happened to look after flocks for a living. This brings me to a wondering question about the verses above. I wonder what exactly they saw when they came upon Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. I wonder this because, even with the pronouncements about his fate and parentage and divinity, Jesus was human, as well. He was just a baby lying in an irregular crib. His mother was no doubt wracked from labor, but also filled with joy at the safe delivery of her son. His adoptive father was no doubt alternating between worrying about the comfort of his fiancée and comparing the impossibly small fingers of the infant to his own.

Into this scene, the shepherds burst. Can you imagine a grungy garage band of complete strangers busting into the delivery suite at a hospital? Well, that’s about what happened, except it was a barn since delivery suites were a few millennia from construction (not to mention garages). If the scene weren’t shrouded in both the gossamer of mystery and the wool of tradition, it would be comical.

Indeed, it is comical – in the academic sense of the word (a surprise conclusion that subverts expectations (I just made that up, by the way, but it sounds academic, right?)). In this scene, we are witness to the punch line of a divine joke. But remember what Paul says about God’s comedy. “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” The messianic expectations of the people of Israel looked for a military savior with a strong jaw and lots of chariots. What they got was a baby with impossibly small fingers.

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you for the gift of your Son. Help me to look for him in surprising places where I do not expect to find him. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, as living vessel for holding the light of your son, as was the manger on that holy night.

Unlikely People (December 19, 2012)

…Opening To…

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12; context)

…Filling Up…

While Mary and Joseph were searching for shelter in Bethlehem, shepherds lived out in the open in the fields nearby. They built sheepfolds by extending the mouths of shallow caves with rocks and branches. There’s a good chance that Mary and Joseph, rather than stumbling into a barn as I presumed yesterday, found their way to one of these caves in the rocks, which functioned as a stable. So, it’s possible that Mary and Joseph were roughing it the night Jesus was born – roughing it like shepherds, which means the “Good Shepherd” might have been born as one.

The shepherds weren’t homeless exactly, as their livelihood kept them outdoors all the time. But the local populace didn’t look on them with much favor. People viewed shepherds with distaste and distrust. The shepherds cast themselves out into the fields to tend the sheep, and the people in the town then cast the shepherds out of the circle of worthwhile company. Suffice it to say, if a young woman brought a shepherd home to mommy and daddy, her parents would not be pleased.

To these people, God chose to send the angels to disclose the message of Jesus’ birth. Rather than entrusting those in the inner circle or upper echelons of society with this news, the angels went to an unlikely group. Two chapters into the Gospel, and we are seeing a pattern: God uses unlikely people to proclaim God’s message. Elizabeth gave birth to Jesus’ herald, though she was thought unable to bear children. Mary gave birth to the Incarnation of that message, though she was still a virgin when she became pregnant. And now the outcasts of society are receiving the breaking news.

This teaches me a lesson. If you don’t want God to use you to proclaim the Gospel, you better become perfect right away. Of course, none of us can be perfect. So, we are all consigned to be God’s unlikely messengers. We’d better get used to the idea.

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you for sending your angels to unlikely folks like shepherds. Help me to rely on you to receive the giftedness that turns me from an unlikely messenger to a vessel of your proclamation. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, as living vessel for holding the light of your son, as was the manger on that holy night.

While They Were There (December 18, 2012)

…Opening To…

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

[Joseph] went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Luke 2:5-7; context)

…Filling Up…

We always assume (again because of our Christmas Pageant knowledge of this story) that Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus the first night that she and Joseph came to Bethlehem. This makes sense – surely, someone would have taken them in if they had been hanging around the stables long enough, especially considering Mary was nine months pregnant. Surely, someone would have had compassion on this family!

But the text doesn’t say that Jesus was born that first night. It simply states: “While they were there” in Bethlehem. Could it be that Mary and Joseph were homeless for a few days, a week, a month or more? Could it be that Jesus’ lowly birth in the manger was even lowlier than we think it was? Could it be that Mary’s final weeks of pregnancy were spent looking for shelter when none was to be found?

We romanticize the story of the nativity to our own detriment. The carols and the pageants all speak of a mild mother and animals that are surprised by what they find in their trough. But what if Mary and Joseph discovered the stable only after being out on the street for days or weeks? What if Mary was desperate, not mild? What if her water broke out in the cold of a desert night and Joseph had to hammer the lock off the stable door because the barn was the only warm place he could find? Would Joseph have felt like a failure or, perhaps, a criminal? Would Mary have been nauseated and horrified because she was going to deliver in a room full of animal waste?

But into this desperation, this failure, this nauseating horror, Christ was born. He was healthy. He was warm. He had a roof over his head. And to think that we often dismiss God’s presence when we are desperate. To think that we do not look for Christ in the midst of our failures. We forget that God is with us when horror closes in.

But remember, during all of these things, Christ is born within us.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your holy Son took on the full range of humanity that he might redeem all of humankind. Help me to seek him when I am in danger or in doubt or in the dark. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, as living vessel for holding the light of your son, as was the manger on that holy night.

Time and Place (December 19, 2011)

…Opening To…

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. (Luke 2:1-4; context)

…Filling Up…

We come to it at last: the story we hear every Christmas – the second chapter of Luke. We know the story so well that we can find it difficult to really enter into it. We tend to look at it as we view the Christmas pageant: a cute story filled with cute characters and barnyard animals. But does it really impact our lives?

But if we look at the way Luke starts the story – not the way the Christmas pageant does – we find an answer to that question. Yes, this story impacts us here and now because of the great stirring of the world there and then. Notice the particularity that Luke provides in giving us the details of time and place. The event of the Incarnation didn’t just happen during some ephemeral “once upon a time” or in some fairyland. This story happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria and in the city of David called Bethlehem.

By giving his readers these details, Luke lets us know that he is not telling a fable or a morality tale or an allegory He is telling the Gospel, the story of the life of Jesus Christ the Savior. Yes, this story might be miraculous. Yes, this story might include things that are difficult to believe because they sound far-fetched or outside the realm of day-to-day normality. But this story happened. This story is true.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your story has been happening since before you began speaking creation into being. Help me to enter into your story in my own time and place so that I can be a part of your good news. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, as living vessel for holding the light of your son, as was the manger on that holy night.

His Name is John (December 14, 2012)

…Opening To…

Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon miraculous Elizabeth?
Her salutation Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.” Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him. After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.” At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God. All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him. (Luke 1:61-66; context)

…Filling Up…

Yesterday’s reading ended with Elizabeth’s family and friends wanting to name her baby after his father, Zechariah. But she disappoints them saying, “No, his name will be John.” They don’t understand. The naming convention of the day directed parents to pick a family name, and John appears nowhere on their list. Zechariah (who, you recall, has been unable to speak since he sassed the angel at the beginning of the chapter) writes on a tablet: “His name is John.”

I don’t know if there is any significance to what I’m about to point out, but it’s there, so I’m going to say it anyway. Notice that Elizabeth uses the future tense (“his name will be”) and Zechariah the present (“his name is”). The future tense is a bit weaker – his name isn’t “John” yet, so there’s still room for discussion. I imagine that with this passage, Luke goes with the flow of his patriarchal times. When he uses the present tense, Zechariah in effect puts his foot down – “His name is John, end of discussion.” Who knows? Perhaps relatives and neighbors still wouldn’t have been satisfied. But at that moment, Zechariah begins to speak again. The first thing he does? You got it. He praises God. Everyone forgets their squabble about John’s name, and they wonder at how powerful this child will be.

Now compare this to Jesus’ naming ritual in the next chapter (2:21). Not a soul complains that he isn’t taking Joseph’s name. Is this because everyone knows that Joseph isn’t the child’s biological father? Perhaps the baby just didn’t look like a “Joseph.” Or perhaps no one makes a fuss because “Jesus” is not simply a name, but a mission statement – “God saves.”

**Next week, we will skip to the beginning of Luke 2. Sadly, we just don’t have time to tackle Zechariah’s song to his son, which concludes chapter 1, but I commend it to. Click the “context” link above to read it.**

…Praying For…

Dear God, in you I find my mission, my life, and my joy. Help me to live into the fullness and freedom of moving in concert with your continual creativity. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with a song in my heart about the way you are reshaping this world in the image of your kingdom.

Three Months Together (December 13, 2012)

…Opening To…

Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon miraculous Elizabeth?
Her salutation Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home. When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.” (Luke 1:56-60; context)

…Filling Up…

I love the detail about Mary staying with Elizabeth for three months. If we add that to the six months that Elizabeth was pregnant when the angel came to Mary, we arrive at John’s full gestation time. As John was coming to full term, Jesus was just starting to show up on the sonogram, distinguishable from the background noise by a large nascent head and tiny nose. Their mothers, one would imagine, shared every meal over the course of Mary’s visit, which means that the same nutrients nurtured both John and Jesus in the womb.

I imagine that Mary learned how to be pregnant by watching Elizabeth. (After all, What to Expect When You’re Expecting was still 1,984 years from publication.) I imagine that Elizabeth made a soothing herbal tea for Mary when the younger woman developed morning sickness. I imagine that Mary did Elizabeth’s chores when the elder woman’s back began to hurt in the later months. I imagine that they probably also wept and shouted and complained both to and at each other.

These two women carried within them our savior Jesus Christ and his herald John, who is called the Baptizer. And for those three overlapping months I think Mary and Elizabeth nurtured and supported one another, and held their hands on each other’s abdomens to feel the babies kicking. (John surely kicked more because he was bigger, and because that was his nature.) With their care of each other, these two unlikely women set up a pattern that assured that their infants came into a world of nurturing love. The world outside the family unit might have been dark and dangerous, but in the fold, there was joy.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you nurture me as a mother cares for her children. Help me to reach out my hands in love to support and nurture those that you place in my path. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with a song in my heart about the way you are reshaping this world in the image of your kingdom.

What the Story is Really About (December 12, 2012)

…Opening To…

Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon miraculous Elizabeth?
Her salutation Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

“He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55; context)

…Filling Up…

Halfway through Mary’s song, which we began talking about yesterday, her tone shifts. She continues to praise God, but now she moves to concrete examples of why we should praise God. Her list takes the common assumptions of the world and turns them upside down. God lifts up the lowly; God fills the hungry with good things. At the same time, God sends the rich and powerful away. With these words, Mary speaks prophetically about what will happen due to the infant growing inside her.

Just so we don’t miss the fact that Mary is speaking about her son’s paradigm-shifting life (and death and resurrection, for that matter), she ends her song by recalling the promises that God has made throughout God’s relationship with the people of Israel. In effect, she says that God is trustworthy and that makes God praise-worthy.

In all of this, Mary’s song isn’t just plopped in the middle of the first chapter of Luke. Rather, by putting this song on Mary’s lips, Luke is able to comment on the story that is happening from within his own narrative. It’s quite masterful, really. In effect, through Mary’s words Luke says: “Lest we forget what this story is really about, here is what God is doing in all of this.”

Through the helpless infant and through the man who doesn’t fight back, God changes the game. Mary’s song praises God for this fundamental upheaval of the world’s systems. And we continue to sing her words because, through us, God is still working to bring about all of God’s promises.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you always fulfill your promises to your people. Help me to work with you in lifting up the lowly and bringing good things to the hungry. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with a song in my heart about the way you are reshaping this world in the image of your kingdom.

Magnification (December 11, 2012)

…Opening To…

Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon miraculous Elizabeth?
Her salutation Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery. (Thomas Merton)

…Listening In…

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.” (Luke 1:46-50; context)

…Filling Up…

Mary’s song has been called “The Magnificat” for as long as anyone can remember. In the wonderful old translation of her song, the first half of which is quoted above, the opening line was rendered, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Magnification is such a great image for how we can show to others God’s presence in our lives. Magnification takes something difficult to see and makes it more visible. Of course, the microscopic nature of most magnification is where the metaphor breaks down.

But we can see evidence of this train of thought in the wonderful new translation that we have been using all month. It reads: “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.” In the depths of who I am. What a powerful statement. Only by digging down to the very core of our beings can we begin to understand just what God has done for us, the true and ongoing reasons for our joy. I recall Psalm 42, which uses the image of water to explore God’s presence. “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts,” says the King James Version. Only at the deepest places within are we able to resonate with the depths of God.

In her song, Mary understands just how deeply immersed in this creation God is. She knows that the core of her being calls out to the core of God’s. And all of God’s being calls out to all of creation. After her encounter with the angel and her meeting with Elizabeth, Mary is able to verbalize what the depth of this calling means to her. She responds by magnifying the Lord with the lens of her own soul. She reaches spiritual depths that are akin to the physical depths, which we can view only through a microscope. And at these depths, she hears the deep calling.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you have looked with favor on your servant. Help me to look upon others with the love you have for me and help me magnify you in their lives. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, with a song in my heart about the way you are reshaping this world in the image of your kingdom.