One light in the dark world


The bible doesn’t always help alleviate a low grade angst growing at this time of year. Abduction-type images are splashed on the canvas of our imaginations: “one will be taken, one will be left” (Matthew 24:40-41). The notion of the Second Coming of Jesus can often arouse anxious feelings of impending doom and destruction. Certain Christian groups devise popular theologies that articulate with great detail and certainty how it’s all going to come crashing down on us some day.

And what is more, some will say the Bible contains implicit warnings (as in the Gospel for today, Matthew 24:36-44) that we can prevent it all from happening by our good works, by being ready, if only we can break the secret code, figure out the hidden message and solve the riddle — a la Dan Brown.

The way of Christ is never that easy. And the Gospel text will throw a wrench into any neat and tidy philosophy. In this image-rich text Jesus confronts our pretence. “You don’t know and you cannot know.” Neither did Noah when the flood came “unexpectedly.” “But about that day and hour no one knows … and they knew nothing …”

What is this ‘knowing’? If we cannot predict how it’s all going to shake down in the end – whether we are talking about world politics, climate change or our challenging personal relationships – what can we know? 

We do know certain things are best not known: How we are going to die. How the meat we are eating at the dinner table was actually produced. Many probably are better not to watch a YouTube video of the surgery they are preparing to undergo. In some facets of life, it’s simply best not to know.

And life will continue to remind us that it is futile to pretend we can: None of the pundits and polls — even early on election night in the U.S. a few weeks ago — could predict the actual result of the presidential race. 

And, in my generation it must have been the falling of the Berlin Wall which had divided Germany for over thirty years. Who could have predicted it, given the enduring and seemingly entrenched geo-political tensions of the Cold War, let alone begin in evening candlelight vigils held in German churches? A small, warm light started to melt the cold, dark and divided world.

The season of Advent fits like a glove; it gives warmth in the cold atmosphere of our lives. “Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … be ready, keep awake.” So we hear instruction from Jesus. Being ready and keeping awake are fundamentally about being aware. Awareness in the present moment.

What DO we know? Saint Paul, in an accompanying text for today writes: “you know now is the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now that when we became believers … Put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:11-14)

Putting on the armour of light is not a call to violent, combative behaviour, action which narrows the vision and snuffs out awareness. Putting on the armour of light does not constrict the soul into locked patterns of thought, but expands the scope to embrace the truth and vision of God right now.

You may have heard of the story: All along the Western Front in 1914, a few short months into a war that would eventually claim 17 million lives, a kind of miracle happened on Christmas Day – a rare moment of peace:

Trooper Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, recalls that special night: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on ‘no man’s land’.

It is estimated that over 100,000 troops from both sides honoured the Christmas Truce of 1914 that lasted some days.

Hearing the text today from the prophet Isaiah, you may have noticed some very familiar words and phrases. Because a few weeks ago, on All Saint’s Sunday, the words of Micah we heard: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (4:3). Sound familiar?

Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah share precisely the same words. And, in Psalm 46 — the great “Lutheran” Psalm we heard on Reformation Sunday last month, and also on Christ the King Sunday last week — the Psalmist echoes the sentiments of the major and minor prophets: “God makes wars cease to the end of the earth, he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (v.9).

A major message throughout the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament envision wars to cease and violent divisions among people to end. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus preaches. (Mathew 5:9; Luke 6:27-31)

Knowing is not knowledge of facts and manipulation of data to suit one’s ideology. Knowing is not formulating intellectual and persuasive strategies that demonstrate airtight logic and rational impunity. Knowing is not about getting more information. This kind of knowing keeps one distracted, in the past or fretting about the future.

Knowing is more about living relationships of love, grace and peace in the present moment; this is the biblical understanding of ‘knowing’ – more a function of the heart than of thought.

Advent heralds the start of a new church year. This season calls us to watch, to wait and wake up to the reality of Christ in our lives, and Christ coming again. Like All Saints’ Sunday, in Advent the future and the past converge on the present moment. Now.

We can enter this season full of hope. Today, contrary to what the headlines imply, the earth is less violent than it was in the past. We are not living in dangerous times any more than what always has been. In fact, according to statistical trending over the past few decades, the world over is safer and more peaceful. (see Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s article “The World Is Not Falling Apart” (Slate: 2014), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12 )

“Now”, Paul writes, “we are closer to salvation than before.” And, now, we are called to love others, to strive for peace and an end to all divisions — in the world, and in our lives. Even when it might appear hopeless. We are called, like the Germans and English during the Christmas Truce of 1914, to cross the dividing lines of our lives and sing together of a holy night, a silent night, a night still and always shall be bathed in the light of Christ.

Pray for peace. Commit to one small, act of kindness and generosity, especially to one with whom, for whatever reason, you have been estranged. Without any strings attached, no expectations of any kind about how the other ‘should’ respond, commit to an act of unconditional love. Because God is bringing all of history into the vision of peace and harmony reflected in the prophets’ writings. This is our hope. This is the present reality.

Holy Innocents

There is a rather obscure and tragic story from the bible not widely told. But it is part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:16-18).

Herod was infuriated that the Magi had tricked him. Their agreement was that after paying homage to the newborn Messiah, the Magi would come back to Jerusalem and report to Herod where this new King was. Instead, they had gone home by a different route.

Enraged, the evil and paranoid dictator massacred all boys under 2 years of age in the Bethlehem area — just to be sure he would not have any competition from any Messiah, for years to come. Machiavellian in spirit, such brutality is reserved for the annals of history when humankind was barbaric and unenlightened, right? Surely, we have evolved to higher levels of sophistication. Or?

Last week alone, 132 schoolchildren and nine staff were massacred in a vicious attack by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan. Then, in a Nigerian marketplace, some children were murdered by suicide bombers. All this tragedy, just in the past week.

The world today, never-mind first century Palestine, watches the anguish of grieving parents burying their children. And, in the words of Primate Fred Hiltz (Anglican Church of Canada), “we are left wondering how such evil intent to kill innocent children continues to stock the earth.”

The world, it would seem, has never been an easy place to bear and raise children. The dangers have threatened throughout the ages. Not only two thousand years ago, but to this day, we shake our heads and wonder: Why would anyone want to bring a child into the world today?

I think we could, then, sympathize with Mary’s initial response, after the angel Gabriel visits her with the astounding news that she will bear the Christ child. The Gospel text for today simply indicates that Mary was “perplexed” (Luke 1:29) by this encounter.

I think we can relate. What the angel proposes is both irrational and incredible. One would have to suspend belief — in at least two ways:

The angel’s message basically boils down to two instructions: First, “Do not be afraid!”
and then, “You will bear Christ!” Why? How so? “How can this be?”

“Do not be afraid!” “Fear not” — This message is actually repeated in the bible some 365 times (one for each day of the year). But this time is a dark time, and a dark place. How can we not be afraid!

At the same time, the Word instructs us to “fear the Lord”. Fear, in this sense, is humility before the Divine. Fear is respect before that which is indescribable, uncontainable, Mystery. “Fearing the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Those who fear the Lord, as Mary then sings, upon them mercy endures forever (Luke 1:50). In the end, fearing the Lord is about trusting in God above all else.

What kind of God do we worship? Look at Jesus: Our Lord is known for having taken children in his arms, blessing them and upholding their awe and wonder in the love and trust of those who care for them (Mark 10).

Sometimes I think we get things mixed up about God — that somehow God is like a dictator who keeps a checklist of who’s following the rules and who isn’t — and then punishing those who are deviant. God, in this view, is like some cosmic police-officer.

But if Jesus shows us who the Father is, then the picture is entirely different. “Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God” (twitter: @RichardRohrOFM). Jesus shows us that the God we worship is nothing like what we had come to expect in the likes of ruthless, dictators personified in power-obsessed Herod.

We don’t have to be afraid — afraid of God — because of who God is: “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8).

The second message may be even more perplexing: “You shall conceive in your womb a child … by the Holy Spirit … and he shall be Son of the Most High”! (Luke 1:31-35)

Scholars have long puzzled over the past tense on the lips of this soon-to-be pregnant woman. Mary, who before giving birth speaks of her offspring’s approaching mission as already accomplished — finished and done (i.e. “the Lord has scattered the proud; has brought down the powerful; has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things”, etc.) She announces how the wrongs of her dark history have already been made right. (Luke 1:51-54).

The use of the past tense to announce a consummated future, is a statement of profound and deep faith. This grammatical curiosity from the Word of God suggests life-changing ramifications. Our challenge, I believe, is in the spirit of Mary’s faith, to cultivate the ability to see God’s promises as already having come to pass.

When we can express our faith from a trusting-in-God heart, how wonderfully this can change our whole outlook on life! Because we have to wait for it — something that, beyond our agency, will surely come to pass!

We are almost there. The liturgy in Advent forces us to wait for singing the joy of Christmas, unlike our culture that is already getting tired of Christmas when it hasn’t even happened yet. In church during Advent, we haven’t sung the Christmas carols for a reason.

Not only because Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th. But also because, as I’ve heard it said, Mary’s song must be the first Christmas song. Because it sets the right tone. It sets the tone of faithful praise and adoration. It brings truth and grace into sharp relief. It announces that the promises of God will come to pass:

For the lowly, the humble, those who respect the Lord. God will make things right for those who trust in God and God’s word.

How would you sing, this Christmas? How can you, now in your life, bring forth words, as well as a heart of thanksgiving, affirmation and hope? How has God been merciful in your life? Make a list, and check it more that twice!

My hunch is that even though life may indeed be difficult for you — whether burdened by grief, by sorrow, by depression, by financial ruin, by ill-health or a pending diagnosis, whatever — there are moments, even now, even barely perceptible, where you can point to a glimmer of grace, a memory of joy, and a hope that surpasses all understanding.

This is the song to carry you through the season. Because sleeping below our awareness of reality is the truth that God has already fulfilled his promises. And now, it’s simply a question of accessing the power of that truth, releasing it from your heart, for your life and for the benefit of a world shrouded in darkness.

Thanks be to God!