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We will never win until we make peace with each other.

December 24th, 2017 No comments

 

I usually start getting into the “spirit” the day after Thanksgiving when I start playing my Christmas with Weezer EP. I haven’t even listened to it this year. Now it’s less than a week before Christmas Day and today was the first day I started reflecting on Christmas. Well, Advent and Christmas.

I guess I’ve given in to despair. There seem to be so many things wrong. I feel little joy. I try to be as upbeat and positive as possible, and I have little to complain about in terms of material well-being. I tend just to plod on through my days, doing the things I must but with little passion. Hanging on in quiet desperation, as they say. I feel that the dream I was raised to believe has turned into a nightmare. I still talk the noble talk, but everything I once thought was good has been corrupted.

I met a couple at the hospital who are very old. I can’t know for sure but they could be in their nineties. The woman couldn’t walk without a walker, and her husband was beautifully attentive. It occurred to me how lovely true love is. The woman was old and broken, but the man obviously cherished her. What did the beloved possess that could enrich the lover? Only herself, broken as she was. I usually don’t care for “Christmas” music but there was a mellow holiday tune playing and that’s when the Christmas story finally captured me.

Most of us I’m sure have heard of the so-called “war on Christmas.” In fact, Christmas in America is under attack, but not by the “liberal elite” as many would have us believe. The celebration of Christmas has come to symbolize America itself: a transcendent dream that is realized as a self-seeking obscenity. The tradition of gift giving is a remembrance of the gifts wise men reportedly brought to Jesus at his birth. It is possible that the gifts were quite valuable: gold for the king, frankincense for the one who is worshiped, and myrrh for Jesus’ predestined brutal execution. But the gifts were symbolic of the divinity and the sacrificial destiny of the Christ child. They were not meant to satisfy an insatiable desire for diversion that comes from obtaining material goods. Pope Francis described this in last year’s Christmas homily.

The mystery of Christmas, which is light and joy, questions and unsettles us, because it is at once both a mystery of hope and of sadness. It bears within itself the taste of sadness, inasmuch as love is not received, and life discarded. This happened to Joseph and Mary, who found the doors closed, and placed Jesus in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (v. 7). Jesus was born rejected by some and regarded by many others with indifference. Today also the same indifference can exist, when Christmas becomes a feast where the protagonists are ourselves, rather than Jesus; when the lights of commerce cast the light of God into the shadows; when we are concerned for gifts but cold towards those who are marginalized. [1]

Giving gifts on Christmas also symbolizes the gift that God gave humanity in the incarnation. That gift was the grant of true peace and reconciliation to a world burdened by arrogance and folly. The Christ child is the perfect model of love: totally self-emptying self-sacrifice for those who do not deserve it, cannot earn it, and in many cases do not even know they want it. It is exactly the opposite of what we have turned the celebration of Christ’s birth into. Instead of humbling ourselves in recognition of the depths of our need and the even greater depth of God’s love, we dance madly around the golden calf, never satisfied beneath the flickering torches and dissonant melodies.

The apostle Paul aptly described it in his letter to the Romans where he marked the universal condemnation: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” (Ro. 1:22-23) Our devotion misses the mark, and this has been true since the Fall (Gen. 2).

At the time Christ was born, certain sects of the Jews had determined they could overcome their innate depravity and enjoy peace by strictly following the Mosaic law. But it is impossible for humans to adhere to that law on their own unaided strength. Rather than bringing them closer to God, their doomed devotion deepened their separation. Why? Because they could not acknowledge their inadequacy.

In the same way, groups in our society are certain true peace can be achieved through the triumph of some ideology, left or right or otherwise. The paradox of our time is that we aspire to greatness through vile methods. Our motive is not peace, but triumph. Our efforts are self-defeating. Because we seek peace through violence. We act as if we can solve our dilemma by more and better exertion of the human will. And by so doing, we perpetuate brokenness. The only solution is humility.

Pope Francis tells us,

With this sign the Gospel reveals a paradox: it speaks of the emperor, the governor, the mighty of those times, but God does not make himself present there; he does not appear in the grand hall of a royal palace, but in the poverty of a stable; not in pomp and show, but in the simplicity of life; not in power, but in a smallness which surprises. In order to discover him, we need to go there, where he is: we need to bow down, humble ourselves, make ourselves small. The Child who is born challenges us: he calls us to leave behind fleeting illusions and go to the essence, to renounce our insatiable claims, to abandon our endless dissatisfaction and sadness for something we will never have. It will help us to leave these things behind in order to rediscover in the simplicity of the God-child, peace, joy and the meaning of life.[2]

In a secularized society many rebel at the thought of surrender to a deity, may even believe there is no God. But even the most committed atheist must bow to the historical reality that violence always breeds violence and only love begets love. Instead of seeking to change or fix or correct or overcome those we disagree with, we must choose to love them.

In the gospel according to Matthew Jesus delivers from the Mount a series of commandments to impossible actions and attitudes, and ends with the command, “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48) If we are to claim discipleship to Christ, we must take this command seriously. Yet how can we be perfect?

The answer is in love. We cannot, on our own merits, achieve the perfection Jesus demands. We cannot, on our own power and through our own will, create peace. But we can humble ourselves in love: self-giving even for those who call themselves our enemies. We can do this whether we call ourselves Christian or not. The apostle John affirms “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and records Jesus instructing his followers they will be identified by their self-sacrificing love (John 13:34-35). Peace can only be achieved when we have surrendered to something greater than ourselves, even if that something greater is the mutual recognition of each other’s weakness.

Love doesn’t necessarily mean affection. It does mean putting the needs of others before our own. In our situation that must mean recognizing the dignity and worth of those who identify as our foes in the midst of their brokenness, in spite of our own brokenness that impels us to more destructive actions and attitudes. We will never win until we make peace with each other.

The Christmas story tells of God offering himself to bring peace to those who could never achieve it on their own. History shows us that only this selflessness brings victory and peace. That is the true meaning of Christmas: Peace on Earth, achieved through love.

To all who celebrate this holiday, Merry Christmas. To all others, may you find peace and joy this holiday season.

[1] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-want-to-see-god-this-christmas-be-humble-29445

[2] Ibid.

“I am the servant of the Lord”

December 25th, 2016 No comments

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 NABRE

This passage is normally associated with Advent. Advent, if you are not familiar, is a time of waiting. The prophet can declare about the coming of Christ, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Is. 9:1 NABRE) All of creation had been waiting, waiting, since that disobedience that broke the love bond between God and his creatures and doomed humans to death. Waiting for the release that God promised to the wayward couple: that a savior was coming. A savior to make all things new. Advent recalls that time of waiting in darkness. And toward the end of Advent our attention is drawn to the evangelist Luke’s telling of the events that would lead to the blessed event of the coming of the light.

First, the birth of John, who would be called the Baptist, who Jesus tells us is Elijah returning to prepare the way. (Mal. 4:5-6) Then an angel appears to a maiden named Mary: a girl, probably a young teenager, who professes to be a virgin, and tells her that she is to give birth to the son of God, the son of the most High, the Holy One of Israel. Mary is stunned, but she offers herself completely to what she doesn’t understand.

This is a very familiar story. Most of us know it from early childhood. And because of this, I think, we have become under-awed at what is being portrayed. Because we are sure we comprehend the story, we stop mining it for its riches. It becomes rote, expected. I began to consider the passage more deeply when I committed to praying the Rosary daily. The Rosary is a devotion centered on Mary in which one recites a number of prayers, including the Hail Mary, a specific number of times while meditating on biblical or traditional events. The name of the prayer and its opening phrase come from this passage in Luke, “Hail Mary full of grace….” And, one of the themes of meditation in the Rosary cycle is the scene depicted in this passage: the Annunciation. In meditating on this passage and this event I came to realize that what the angel announces to Mary is also announced to me: that I am to give birth to the Christ.

I caution us here not to place too much emphasis on gender. Mary was a young woman who by her admission had not had relations with a man. The significance is not that having such relations would have defiled her, but that her virginity marked the pregnancy and birth as something that could only have been accomplished by God. Likewise, the Greek word that is normally translated “handmaid” is δούλη (doule) the feminine construction of δοῦλος (doulos), meaning slave. Mary acknowledged her complete surrender to God, and it was recorded using the feminine construction because she was a female. But the same word is used by men (like Paul in Ro. 1.1: Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, “Paulos doulos Christou Iesou”, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” The broader meaning here is that Mary is a slave (or servant) of God who is incapable of performing her appointed task without divine intervention. And so are we all.

I’m going to focus on two questions. How can we each give birth to the Christ? And what does it mean to give birth to the Christ?

It is a large question to ask what is the Christ? We could spend months surveying different aspects of what scholars refer to as Christology. We can think of Christ in terms of what he is: True God and True Man, One in being with the Father, a person of the Trinity. We could go on and on but I’m not sure it would lead us anywhere we want to go. For our purposes here we might say that Christ is God made Man to pay the price for the disobedience of our ancestors so that we can once again enjoy intimacy with God.

How does a human being give birth to such a thing? As I was translating from the Greek I was struck by how fantastic and improbable it all seems. Imagine yourself as a little girl suddenly in the presence of an angel of God (a presence that fosters terror in other biblical accounts). He is telling her unbelievable, crazy things: favor with God, the Holy Spirit, the birth of the son of the Most High, a kingdom that will last forever. Who can believe it? But when you sort it all out you come to answer the question how can you give birth to such a thing? You can’t. If it is to be done, it must all be done by God. Mary’s part was to surrender and accept. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Thy will, not mine, be done.

We can also think of Christ in terms of what he does. He fulfills the prophecies surrounding the biblical theme of the Day of the Lord, the salvation of all nations, the final judgment, and the end times. He occupies at once the three traditional positions of authority in tribal Israel: Priest, Prophet, and King. As priest he mediates through the sacrifice of himself the relationship between God and his creatures. As Prophet he speaks the words of God with the authority of God. His teachings reframe the Mosaic Law around God’s intent for the Law: to create a holy people. As King he fulfills the prophecy of one of the House of David who is to rule Israel forever. I think the most essential characteristic of the Christ is that he gives himself completely for others with no expectation of reciprocation. He does not love mankind because of who men are but in spite of it. And his supreme act of obedience is the complete emptying of himself in love for the salvation of the world. In his self-giving sacrifice on the cross he demonstrates both God’s essential character as one who pours out love indiscriminately, lavishly, and the intended character of the people of God, the character that was broken by disobedience. Because in reality they are the same. Humans were created in the image of God and that means one should be able to see God’s image in his people. That is the meaning of the Christ event: Emmanuel, God with us.

When Mary conceded to allow the Holy Spirit work in her so that she could bring forth Christ to the world,  she probably had only vague notions about what the “Holy One” was to be. She certainly could not have thought that she had the ability on her own to nurture a child who had such high expectations. In the same way, when the Spirit works in us and plants the seed of faith, all that is required from us is humble assent. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Like Mary, we are spectacularly unfit for the task of bearing the Christ, and yet that is the way God has chosen to work in the world.

This past year our weakness and stubbornness, our rebellious nature, and our evil, destructive tendencies have been abundantly evident. Many are pondering the advent of a new time of darkness.

Sir Edward Grey was the British Foreign Minister from 1905 to 1916. Grey recalled in his book Twenty-five Years that on the eve of World War I, in the midst of the crisis that would propel the world to unspeakable horror war, he was in his office visiting with a friend:

A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below… My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words, “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

To many it feels like the lamps are going out all over the world. But Christmas reminds us that the light of the world is always with us. And this passage from the Christmas story reminds us that we are called to make that light visible. May we always strive to allow Christ to shine brightly in the world through our own sacrificial acts of love. Merry Christmas.

Beauty from Tragedy

December 25th, 2015 No comments

The Civil War: beauty from tragedy, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

The Washington Times, Thursday, December 22, 2011 – The Civil War by Martha M. Boltz

VIENNA, Va., December 22, 2011 — Many musicians and writers of poetry will admit that some of their finest work comes when they have experienced a death or a tragedy of some kind, that the writing of poetry has an almost cathartic effect on the writer.

Such is the case of one of the best known and most beloved carols associated with Christmas, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which came from the pen of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) and was written on Christmas Day, 1864.

His had been a tortured life in last few years before that day. On July 11, 1861, his wife Fanny had clipped some long curls from the head of her seven-year-old daughter, Edith, and wanting to save them in an envelope, melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle to seal the envelope.

Somehow the thin fabric of her clothing caught fire, and she quickly ran to Longfellow’s nearby study for help.  He immediately tried to extinguish the flames with a small rug, and when that failed, he threw his arms around Fanny to smother the flames, causing him to sustain serious burns on his face, arms, and hands. His heroic act did not suffice, and Fanny died the next morning of her injuries. Longfellow was unable to even attend the funeral.

Photographs of Longfellow taken or made after the fire usually show him with a full beard, since he was no longer able to shave properly due to the burns and scarring.

The coming of the holiday season in the Longfellow house became a time of grieving for his wife while trying to provide a happy time for the children left at home. It was during Christmas 1862 that he wrote in his journal, “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

He had also suffered another disappointment when his oldest son, Charles Appleton “Charley” Longfellow, quietly left their Cambridge, Mass. home, and enlisted in the Union Army much against the wishes of his father.

In mid-March, Longfellow had received word from Charles, saying, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer.”  The determined young man continued, “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

He was 17 years old and went to Capt. W. H. McCartney, who was in charge of Battery A of the 1st Mass. Artillery, asking to be allowed to enlist. McCartney knew the boy and knew he did not have his father’s permission, so he contacted the senior Longfellow to see if he could obtain it on his behalf.  Longfellow conceded and acceded to the request.

It was only a few months later that Charley came down with typhoid fever and malaria and was sent home to recover, not rejoining his unit until August 15, 1863.

Following the Gettysburg battle, which Charley had fortunately missed, the conflict made its way into Virginia, and it was at the Battle of New Hope Church, in Orange, VA., part of the Mine Run Campaign, that the young Lt. Longfellow sustained injuries, which seriously disabled him. He was hit in the shoulder and the ricocheting bullet took out some portions of several vertebrae. It was reported that he missed being paralyzed by less than one inch.  Longfellow traveled to where his injured son was hospitalized and brought him home to Cambridge to recover.

The war for Charley was over.

And so at Christmas of 1864, a reflective and sad poet sat down and began to write the beautiful words that we sing each Christmas:

 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

 Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Till, ringing, singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Remembering that this was written during the Civil War, even though not published until 1872, we see the concerns of the War were much on Longfellow’s mind and heart. Thus there were two other verses that appeared in the original as verses four and five and are not song today, since they emphasize his feelings surrounding the War:

Then from each black accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound,

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn,

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow’s heartfelt words of loss and hope were published and well received. John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), an English composer, was similarly affected by the poem, and it was he who penned the music that we know and sing today, slightly rearranging the verses or stanzas as he did.

While he was an organist and a music teacher, Calkin probably is best known as the composer of the music for Longfellow’s poem.

It is a glorious carol and provides the enduring concept that despite tragedy, loss, and even warfare, there is within most of us the hope and wish for “peace on earth, good-will to men!”

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5 NRSV)

July 17th, 2015 No comments

puye

Every human being suffers a deficiency which consists of disharmony with the universe, which can be characterized as being disconnected from God, but which manifests in a seemingly endless array of afflictions. No one is perfect. No one is in complete harmony. But one can move toward harmony, not by seeking to make imperfections perfect, but by moving toward the Source of harmony. Not by celebrating darkness, but by walking into the light.

Dipped in Magic Waters

June 28th, 2015 No comments

This is like the cartoon with the angel one shoulder and the demon on the other. What James Earl Jones is promoting is abandonment to a faith that defies logic and reason. The brother in law is warning of the worldly consequences of trust in the unseen. What a difficult decision this is! Most of us choose the world. But when we choose faith, it is as if we have been dipped in magic waters.

Thoughts on Holy Saturday

April 4th, 2015 No comments

A week of great significance for Christians. A memorial of the fulfillment of the God man’s mission. The LORD told Moses that the Passover was to be a “day of remembrance” of the Hebrews’ rescue from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 12:14). A remembrance, or memorial, was more than just a reflection, more than just remembering. To participate in a memorial was to participate in the event that was commemorated; to actually be there. So on the memorial of Holy Week we participate in the events that occurred in the last days of Jesus’ life on Earth.

The instance of the redemption of the world. On Good Friday Jesus suffered on the cross. The physical suffering was intense but we should not focus on that. Crucifixion was one of the most brutal punishments ever devised by man but Jesus’ physical agony was minor compared to what most who were condemned suffered in crucifixion. The greater agony was the separation from the Godhead. Throughout eternity the λόγος had lived in perfect shalom with the Father and the Spirit. Now he had to experience the wrath of God; that wrath that is not represented in fury but by God turning away, disappointed by man’s stubborn rebellion, shaking his head. “All right then,” he says, “have it your way.”

I have lived that agony. I have turned my back on God and devoted myself to idols: drugs, booze, sex, success, esteem. Each of these has brought me to the cross, hanging in agony, crying “Why have you forsaken me?” But I suffered for my own willfulness, not for my redemption. This is what it means to be really dead. Lost in self-consuming, unappeasable hunger. Completely separated from love.

And then, on Saturday, dead in the ground. Beyond human aid. Lazarus in the tomb. The years of living a loveless life. The tomb covered over. How can a dead man ask for help?

jesus-alive

When Jesus broke through the barrier of the tomb on that Easter morning the stone that covered mine was blasted. I stumbled forward, wrapped in burial garb, brought once again to life. But this time not to my life. To the life of the God man. To new life. I was reborn.

Sometime between when we go to bed tonight and we awake in the morning death will once again be overcome. When I rise in the morning I will rise to new life in Christ. Not the old life of self-consuming frustration but the new one of self-sacrificing love. This is how everyone will know you are mine Jesus says: if you love as I love. Think about it.

Dust

March 1st, 2015 No comments

What About Me?

February 21st, 2015 No comments

mirror

Titus 3

We are sinners saved by grace. So we should be courteous to all. We should not judge wrongdoers because without God’s grace we are wrongdoers also. So we should devote ourselves to good works and “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” We should strive for unity and harmony and avoid division and have nothing to do with those who stir up division.

In this God is not speaking to you, but to me. This is not an admonition for you or for “them”, rather something for me to reflect upon.

Thomas Merton Prayer

January 13th, 2015 No comments

I Surrender All

January 4th, 2015 No comments

One Surabaya church — Manwar Sharon Church — lost 40 members in the crash. Around 100 relatives gathered for a prayer service in a hall at the Surabaya airport where the Rev. Philip Mantofa urged the crowd to hold onto their faith, despite their pain.

“Some things do not make sense to us, but God is bigger than all this,” he said. “Our God is not evil … help us God to move forward even though we are surrounded by darkness.”

Before breaking up, those gathered stood together and sang with their hands reaching upward: “I surrender all. I surrender all. I surrender all to God our savior. I surrender all.”

 

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