Courage and Joy

Last night, the hustle and bustle of getting ready, and anticipating the birth. Last night, the noise, the anxiety, the smelly stable, the animals, the shepherds, the chorus of heaven singing in the starry, silent night. “Joy to the world” indeed!

Today, however, the child is born. A little more breathing room, perhaps. A little more time for realizing what just has happened. Time, amidst the burping, squawking infant feeding for quiet reflection, to ponder this miraculous birth, this wondrous event that will change everything! “What child is this?” indeed!

As things begin to sink in, to settle, one may ponder the last several months as I am sure Mary and Joseph did — how it all began to take shape. It all started, of course, when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her the news of God’s intention (Luke 1). 

Looking back, this was the critical moment. In the reverie it almost feels like the Mission Impossible theme song should start up: “Should you choose to accept your mission ….” Da-Da, Da-Da-Da, Da-Da. 

Everything depended on that moment of decision on Mary’s part. The course of history hung in the balance. So much at stake. What does she do? How will she respond?

During Christmas, Mary mother of Jesus figures prominently in the story-telling. Traditionally, Mary has been imagined by Christians as a passive, placid, sweet and quiet girl. Certainly she is portrayed like this in many a Sunday School Christmas pageant.

But the biblical record suggests something more. Listen to the famous poem, the “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov who captures the immensity of the moment:

“We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, 

almost always a lectern, a book; always

the tall lily.

       

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,

the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,

whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions

courage.

       

The engendering Spirit

did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

She was free

to accept or to refuse, choice

integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations

of one sort or another

in most lives?

         

Some unwillingly

undertake great destinies,

enact them in sullen pride,

uncomprehending.

More often

those moments

when roads of light and storm

open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.

But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept

like any other child–but unlike others,

wept only for pity, laughed

in joy not triumph.

Compassion and intelligence

fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous

than any in all of Time,

she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’

and gravely, courteously,

took to heart the angel’s reply,

the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb

Infinite weight and lightness; to carry

in hidden, finite inwardness,

nine months of Eternity; to contain

in slender vase of being,

the sum of power–

in narrow flesh,

the sum of light.

                     

Then bring to birth,

push out into air, a Man-child

needing, like any other,

milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed, Spirit suspended, waiting.

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.”

How did she handle the moment of decision before the Angel Gabriel? I must conclude, with both courage AND joy. Often we don’t consider the two together. Either someone has a whole lot of courage, determination, and serious intent about their business. Or, someone tends towards the frivolous, uncontained in their happiness and joyful demeanour — even being silly, unfettered from the cares of the world.

During the memorial service for the late Dorothy Mueller last week, we recalled a moment in Dorothy’s early life in Montreal with her husband Henry. One night all dressed up for going out dancing on the town, she and Henry came across a street fight where a couple boys were beating up another. Without missing a beat she crossed the street, strode right up to the offending boys and demanded that they stop their violence. Which they did.

Not many of us would demonstrate that level of courage in the public arena. And take the risk to stand up out of passionate concern for the underdog, the downtrodden, the suffering, the poor.

What else is impressive is that she showed that courage while out on the night, dancing. Along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled with joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and others, have suggested that the most appropriate contemporary equivalent to “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) may be “The Word became poor.” (1) Like Mary, like Dorothy, we too need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the poor and the needy.

Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. When Mary, with courage and joy, accepted the mission presented by the Angel Gabriel, the God-human relationship was now restored in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Indeed, “The Word became flesh.” Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to all humanity. To us.

God was now human in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the divine-human dance. At Christmas we ponder the love of God that seeks to fully understand each one of us. We ponder this great love which brings God’s comfort, mercy and encouragement no matter the depth of our grief, the extent of our suffering, the measure of our pain and loss. Jesus came into the darkness of the 1st century world. And, Jesus continues to come into the darkness of our lives.

At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, the world, our lives, still have problems. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, and to each according to our needs.

Perhaps, on this Christmas Day, we can start by giving thanks to God for Mary — her courage and joy at being the first to receive Christ.

(1) cited in “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, WJK Press Kentucky, 2014, p.138

Advent 4 – children’s sermon

We’re almost there! Less than a week until Christmas! Are you excited?

I brought in this candle to show you, because it is special. At Christmas in worship we light lots of candles to show that Jesus is the light of the world. And comes to shine God’s light in our dark world.

Can someone light the candle? What does it smell like?

That’s right! A tree! Actually, a balsam fir, it says on the jar.

For some people, they wait until Christmas Eve to cut down a tree and bring it into their home. Then they put real candles on it, light it the first time late Christmas Eve and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” while standing around the tree.

Smelling this candle reminds us of all sorts of things …. Memories of last Christmas …. Smelling this candle reminds us of so much more than we can see right now. This candle’s smell is bigger than the odour itself; it reminds us of something much larger than the candle itself.

Every thing we do in worship — light candles, say prayers, eat the holy meal, sing and listen together — reminds us and points to something bigger, something larger than ourselves.

Smelling this candle reminds me that very soon a real Christmas tree will be soon giving that wonderful scent of balsam needles in this very space. We can look forward to that! And being joyful about Jesus being born at Christmas! And coming again!

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!

Santa is not God – the true gift

During Advent, the church has fasted. Not from food! Rather, we have refrained — tried to, at least, in our liturgies — from singing Christmas Carols. This was part of our preparation as we made room in our hearts by waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus.

But now, the wait is over! Christmas is a time for singing, a time for the carols. It is well to gorge on them now while they are plentiful, because it will be another year before we will sing them again.

Martin Luther, who loved Christmas, claimed that “music is a fair and glorious gift of God.” Music, he said, “makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. The devil flees before the sound of music as much as before the Word of God” (from the foreword to the “Wittenburg Gesangbuch” (1524), Martin Luther’s hymnbook).

So, I would like you to ponder with me what is this ‘gift’ of Christmas so well expressed in the music of the season. I invite you to listen to lyrics from a couple of different popular, contemporary Christmas songs — that are normally not sung in church. But each of these songs have something to say to us about the gift of God at Christmas — the Gospel message about the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Let’s see if you can identify them. Listen first to the words that we’ve probably heard in shopping malls since shortly after Halloween. It’s pretty easy to guess this one …

“You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town, yeah
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming to town!”

(Answer: Santa Claus is Coming to Town)

How does this popular song reflect (or not) the nature of God’s gift and grace at Christmas? And I’ll give you a hint: God is NOT Santa Claus. Yes, both Santa and Jesus are coming at Christmas to a town near you. But that’s where the similarity stops. Why?

Does God make a list? Does God check it twice? Does God try to figure out who’s naughty and nice, in order to determine who get’s the gift of Jesus’ love and presence?

If you look at all the characters in the New Testament, characters that meet Jesus, starting with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the tax collectors, those fishermen disciples, women, lepers, outcasts …. do they deserve the gift? If Santa was making a list of who’s been naughty or nice, we’d probably have to exclude everyone in the bible!

“They were people who were considered taboo, contagious, disabled, dangerous or excluded for all kinds of reasons” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.56). They were poor, ordinary folk, whose sin, whose imperfection was visible, apparent. According to the message of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, they would have received a piece of coal in their stocking!

Santa is not God. The greatness of God’s gift is precisely because it is not conditional on our hard work to be ‘nice’. The greatest gift at Christmas is not something for which we must toil or earn by our hard work. But something that is given, that is already there, inside us!

Okay, time for the second song. Hear if you can recognize it by the lyrics; it tells a beautiful story …

“A poor orphan girl named Maria
Was walking to market one day
She stopped for a rest by the roadside
Where a bird with a broken wing lay
A few moments passed till she saw it
For it’s feathers were covered with sand
But soon clean and wrapped it was travelling
In the warmth of Maria’s small hand
She happily gave her last peso
On a cage made of rushes and twine
She fed it loose corn from the market
And watched it grow stronger with time
Now the Christmas Eve service was coming
And the church shone with tinsel and light
And all of the town folks brought presents
To lay by the manger that night
There were diamonds and incense
And perfumes
In packages fit for a king
But for one ragged bird in a small cage
Maria had nothing to bring
She waited till just before midnight
So no one would see her go in
And crying she knelt by the manger
For her gift was unworthy of Him
Then a voice spoke to her through the darkness
Maria, what brings you to me
If the bird in the cage is your offering
Open the door and let me see
Though she trembled, she did as He asked her
And out of the cage the bird flew
Soaring up into the rafters
On a wing that had healed good as new
Just then the midnight bells rang out
And the little bird started to sing
A song that no words could recapture
Whose beauty was fit for a king
Now Maria felt blessed just to listen
To that cascade of notes sweet and long
As her offerings was lifted to heaven
By the very first nightingale’s song.”

(Answer: Garth Brooks, “The Gift”)

The gift is an experience of grace, of something wonderful happening to us and in us and around us that is beyond our own efforts. All we need to do, is bring it forward, and offer what we have that is true to who we are — including our weaknesses, our limitations, our lowliness.

And God makes something beautiful out of our simple offering — the gift of our hearts, our minds, our hands. Like the healing of the bird, and its free song, it is a gift of pure love, a love that is shines unrelenting in the darkness and brokenness of our lives.

Last week at our children’s school concert, as is usual fair at these events, each class and grade goes on stage and presents a seasonal skit or song.

Near the end of the program, the audience was delighted to receive Ottawa singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff on stage with his guitar, surrounded by the grade 2-3 class. They danced and sang a simplified version of Craig’s popular song: “Love is Louder Than All the Noise”.

In the second verse, he writes:
“Was your messy heart chosen
or was it overlooked?
Are you the crazy in the corner,
writing it in your book?
A cynic with a cynic’s hook
waiting for the sky to fall?
Were you to be taken from me
by word by craft or by bomb
I would rage into an army
and bring you back with songs…
We said love is louder
than all this, all this noise.
Love is louder than all this noise.”

In the singing that we enjoy in this festive season, may our hearts, our minds and our hands sing loudest of the love of God. This greatest gift doesn’t come from our belief and ability to impress, nor from the resourcefulness of our own doing, nor from all the glitter and glamour.

The greatest gift of Christmas comes from a simple desire to love, and the openness of heart to be loved.