The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

The word, ‘mystery’, Paul mentions four times in the text assigned for the Day of Epiphany.[1]He calls receiving God’s grace “the mystery of Christ.”

A mystery is not something that ought to scare us. Like how we feel when reading a whodunit and murder-mystery novels so popular. We have lived in a culture that sees mystery as something bad, something to avoid, something that is opposed to a life of faith. If something is mysterious, it can’t be of God.

That, what appears on the surface, at first sight, is division, discord, disharmony, a profound and inherent disconnection in our lives and in the world.

A negative view of mystery also implies that to know God means there is nothing more to know. To claim some cerebral notions of God—we call this doctrine—and to conform our knowing with others means there is no longer anything to learn. Change, growth, diverse thinking—the consequence of something that is difficult to understand—these have been an undesired mystery.

The journey of the magi suggests we need to take another look at “the mystery of Christ.” The prophet Isaiah, from another text assigned for the Day of Epiphany,[2]encourages us all to “lift up your eyes and look around … then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” There is apparently a great benefit in seeing anew.

Isaiah speaks as if this ‘seeing’ is more than a mere observation of what is immediately in front of you. This spiritual seeing is about perceiving a deeper reality. Some would say it is seeing with the eye of the heart, or the mind’s eye. Sight, here, is not just a biological function of the eyes, but involves deeper more subtle capacities within us.

From the perspective of faith, mystery means, “endless knowability.”[3]Mystery is not something we cannot ever know; or, conversely, some riddle that we must solve once-and-for-all. Rather, mystery is a journey of learning more, growing, a continual expansion of our awareness, knowledge and perception.

The reason Matthew includes the story of the magi in his rendition of the birth of Jesus is to describe what is true for anyone on the journey of life and faith. 

For one thing, we never arrive at the fullness of truth on this journey we are on. That was the credo of the old science, that somehow once we figure something out, it never needs to be revisited or rethought. This approach affected the way of the church; that is, once you are confirmed or become adult or affirm your faith or join the membership … well, you’ve arrived. You are saved. And you don’t need to do anything more. Or change, or grow in faith, or explore different dimensions of the faithful life.

To say, “I don’t know”, in response to a question meant there is something wrong with you and your faith or your understanding. To confess “I don’t know” according to the credo of the old science was an admission of weakness, that something was not just right, or complete, with your faith. And this was shameful.

And yet, Paul challenges such arrogance (ironically since he was an arrogant guy himself) by focusing our attention on the “boundlessriches in Christ” whose intent is “to make everyonesee … the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” [emphasis mine]

The magi of old studied the stars to gain understanding of God’s creation which included the boundless reaches of the universe. They sought the incarnation of God’s grace in Christ, and so followed the star. But when they arrived at the site of the nativity in Bethlehem—the apparent destination—was their journey over? Truly?

Far from it. Not only did they have to deal with Herod and his wiles, they continued by a different road. On earth, what is the destination of your faith? The destination of our yearning, searching, and endless knowing doesn’t mean the journey is over and done. And we have nowhere else to go. We continue on, seeking new expressions of God’s grace and God’s presence in Christ.

In a TV series called “See”, starring Aquaman superhero Jason Momoa, a post-apocalyptic humanity is blind. No one can see. Everyone is completely visually impaired (with few exceptions). The producers and actors do an excellent job of conveying to the viewer how individuals and communities arrange their lives to move and live without sight.

In a powerful scene, a ragtag group led by Jason Momoa is forging down a forest path, his sword cutting the air in front of them. It all seems to be a tranquil setting when suddenly he shoots out his arm to stop them from moving one step farther.

“What wrong?” another asks.

He shakes his head lifting his unseeing eyes ahead. “It doesn’t feel right. It is not safe.” Being physically blind has developed other, intuitive, senses – smell, the feel of the air, sound—to paint a picture of the truth in front of him.

As it turns out, they were walking into a narrow canyon ideal for an ambush. The ambushers, of course, were also blind. But as soon as they heard the subtle sounds of someone walking far below them—the scrape of a foot on stone, the crunch of dried leaves or the snapping of twig, they would aim their cross bows in the direction of the sound and shoot with deadly accuracy. Jason Momoa’s group was saved by a knowing that was deeper and richer than mere physical sight.

God has given us capacities beyond what we have known. There are unfathomable depths to our being in this universe and an immeasurable limit to our understanding. In describing a life of faith, Paul writes that we have confidence walking our journey of faith, “not by sight.”[4]There is more to it than a visual, observable certainty.

When someone asks you a question about your faith, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t know”, you need not say it as an admission of weakness. You can say, “I don’t know” with confidence because you are still on a journey of learning and discovery. Scientists today who study the stars will suggest with confidence that the universe is always expanding. New stars and solar systems are being discovered. We are endlessly knowing. The journey isn’t over. It never is.

And, what is more, scientists today will readily admit that there is indeed something at work in the universe that goes beyond the mere, yet important, crunching of numbers. Something they cannot put their analytical fingers on, yet something people of faith have been claiming since the beginning of time:

That our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the collision and interaction of molecules. That everything that happens in our lives is somehow intertwined, that there exists an almost imperceptible connection between ourselves, our past and our future, a connection that is leading somewhere, a connection that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.


[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

[3]Richard Rohr, “Mystery is Endless Knowability” Paradox(Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, Tuesday, August 23, 2016)

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7

A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

Christmas – God goes home

Were you home for Christmas?

It is customary to be at home, or go home, for Christmas. For some, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without being home. And, in this meaning, ‘home’ refers to a specific, geographic location, a space usually defined by a building: the homestead back on the farm, the house you grew up in and is still in the family, the house you lived in for many years, etc.

Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be home for Christmas” echoes in the back of our mind, providing a mantra for constructing our idea of what Christmas must be like. Being home brings comfort and a feeling of stability. To do or say otherwise might threaten our very notion of what Christmas means. In discussing whether it is time to celebrate Christmas somewhere new and somewhere different, someone will always say: How could we do Christmas anywhere else than here — at home?

I heard over the holiday the story of a childhood memory of Christmas. When this person was a young child, her parents took her and her siblings to travel from Ottawa to the Eastern Townships to be with an aging and infirm family member. Friends criticized them: “How could you spend Christmas in a motel room and nursing home far away,” they judged. “You’re spoiling Christmas. Especially for the children.”

Contrary to our nostalgic sentiments, the first Christmas story points another way: Mary and Joseph make a home where there is no home – a stable behind a packed inn in a town far away from hometown Nazareth. The recluse shepherds have to leave the familiar abodes of the fields surrounding Bethlehem and go with haste to visit strangers in town. And the magi travel great distances, following a star, from the East and arrive to visit the Christ child after some time has passed since that Holy Night.

The Christmas story is more about traveling away from home, away from the familiar and towards the unknown, the new, the unfamiliar. If we assume that being away from home at Christmas would be unsettling, then we might be surprised that the dislocation of the main characters in the Christmas story does not appear to destabilize them.[1]

Brian McLaren argues that what matters most in religion “is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. Religion is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth.”[2] This is the meaning of the magi’s journey:

Religion is at its best when we, with the wise men, follow the star shining upon the place of Jesus’ presence in the world today. Like Jesus’ disciples who were to “go into all the world”[3], we are called from time to time to leave places of comfort and familiarity, in order to discover the new things God is revealing to us and participate in the mission of God.

Our comfort and stability come when, no matter where we find ourselves at Christmas time, we find our home in Christ. There is something true about a nostalgic portrayal of the nativity: the happy family and visitors huddle around the manger made of straw, a soft light shedding its warmth on the pastoral scene; what is right about this is that there is a home – a home whose hearth is Jesus Christ himself.[4]

As I pondered the idea of being home at Christmas, I found this wonderful definition of home: “Home is the abiding place of the affections.”[5] Home speaks of a shared intimacy, vulnerability, truth-telling and love. The abiding place of the affections is not limited to any one physical space, but is more a function of healthy relationships. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”[6] Whenever deep speaks to deep,[7] heart speaks to heart, that is home. And that is where God is.

In this coming season of Epiphany, we indeed discover God anew. We discover the revelation of Jesus in the world today. We discover with joy that God is at home in us and in this world.

“See, the home of God is among mortals; He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.”[8]

Christmas means that the game for us has changed. For, no longer do we need to wait until the end of our life to go to heaven and be with God. For that matter, we don’t need to go anywhere at all.

Rather, Christmas means that God came home; that God and heaven have come to us. To where we are. And no matter where we are. For now, and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] Cynthia L. Rigby in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.118.

[2] Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian” (Convergent, 2006), p.xi-xii, 12-13.

[3] Mark 16:15

[4] Cynthia L. Rigby, ibid.

[5] David Marine, cited in Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015) p.172.

[6] Matthew 18:20

[7] Psalm 42:7

[8] Revelation 21:3

An Epiphany reflection

Two kings stand amid the sand dunes under the star speckled desert sky dressed in their regal attire. Their camels peer over their shoulders at the third ‘wise man’ holding the hand of Frankenstein. Yes, Frankenstein. 

The two confront the third, pointing accusatory fingers at what they do not understand: “Right, we’ve picked up the gold and the myrrh … What on earth is THAT?!”

We know the story (Matthew 2) of the magi who visited the infant Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yes, frankincense. 

We might have an idea of what gold is. But frankincense and myrrh? Basically, these are fragrant spices. But they are not the kind of gifts we would normally give anyone today, let alone a king or queen, president or prime minister. Because we are not familiar with these kinds of gifts, we get tripped up over the words and confuse them with other things. Today we know more about Frankenstein than we do about frankincense. Yet, in Jesus’ day, these were very special gifts.

Let me show you a gift I received this Christmas season. It is three bars of hand-made soap. One of the bars of soap actually has gold flecks in it, as well as frankincense and myrrh essential oils. It is called the “Gift of the Magi Soap”. I suppose there are other things about this gift that can remind me of God, the Christmas story, and the reason Jesus came to the world. 

For example, three bars of soap stand for the Trinity: God is the Father who created everything and everyone; Jesus is the Son who came to wash us clean from our sin; and the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to be the people God has called us to be — to love and care for all people. Of course, the three bars also remind me of the three wise men bearing their special gifts for the baby Jesus.

These days, we will not bring frankincense or myrrh to give to Jesus. Some may bring gold. But the point is not what kind of gift it is. It is that we are willing to bring something special from our own lives to give back to God. It is our offering, whatever it is — our love, our passions, our money, our time, our talents. Maybe even myrrh and frankincense, who knows? 

In this new year, let’s spend some time first thinking about what we can give to God. And then do it. We don’t need to be kings, queens, presidents or prime ministers to give anything of value to Jesus. Because in our baptism we are all princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. And, because our various gifts are important to Jesus and his mission on earth today.

Grant us peace

This evening we find ourselves at the threshold of all that Christmas anticipates. Our sight is therefore narrowly focused on the immediate. After all the waiting and the long journey, Mary and Joseph have finally arrived at the place of nativity, in Bethlehem.

And, like any expectant father and mother, they find themselves embroiled in the hustle and bustle that immediately precedes birth. Christmas Eve is therefore all about a sense of ‘place’.

Everything happens here, on this holy night. We are drawn to this place in this time to remember and re-enact what happened on that very first, special holy night. At one moment in history, God entered the world on that first Christmas. In a specific time, at a specific place — the town of Bethlehem.

The children re-created the version of the Christmas story according to Luke. And they made sure we got into the roles and felt that sense of place — the innkeeper’s door, the manger scene in that town surrounded by shepherd’s fields under a starry night.

It was that small, dusty, ordinary, rather plain and dull place that was to receive the greatest gift of all time — the gift of God incarnate. Bethlehem was the scene of the glorious host of heaven entering into the world. But, “How could anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the condescending yet prevalent attitude expressed by an early disciple of Jesus (John 1:46). How could it be that Bethlehem and its ragtag cast of characters would receive this gift?

Indeed, receiving gifts is just as important as giving gifts at Christmas. I think, in our achievement, accomplishment and success -oriented culture, it is more difficult to truly open our hearts and unconditionally receive a gift of great joy. When we don’t feel like we have to somehow return the favour, or earn it by our hard work. I think for many of us busy-bodies, to stop and just be — before any active response — is tough to do.
We are so used to ‘providing for’, doing it, giving it, expending our energy, performing, succeeding; or, God-forbid failing at succeeding, accomplishing by our acts of heroism — to care for another, to make it happen for others. We are compulsive in our drive to be a champion of something or another.

You’d think we were the Messiah coming to save the world by observing some of our actions.

I heard from several of you this Advent how you haven’t this time around either decorated or baked or ‘checked off the list’ all the things you’ve normally done in years past. And this was cause for moments of anxiety: “Would Christmas be the same?” And what a gift it was to hear from you confess that, indeed, Christmas has come to you at a more meaningful level as ever before.

Could it be, because we are slowly learning, simply, to receive the gift that comes, despite us?

One of the oldest prayers and carols in the Christian tradition, originally expressed in Latin: Dona Nobis Pacem — give us peace. “Peace on earth” is the purpose of Christ-coming. The peace we seek in our lives. And for that to happen, we need first to relinquish our Messianic compulsions. We need to recognize and accept our human limitations. And that is good. Because when we can release our grip — or at least loosen it for a moment — could we, then, have peace.

O Little Town of Bethlehem signifies this gift of peace. Why? Precisely because it is un-spectacular. It is not an exceptional town in the region of Nazareth. You would not find Bethlehem listed prominently in the Frommer’s tour guide books from the 1st century. Maybe that’s why it took the Magi some time to get there. It’s like one of the ‘if you blink you’ll miss it’ crossroad hamlets that dot the rural landscape of our land.

If you drive down highway 41 south from Pembroke through Eganville towards Denbigh, you pass by one of those blue-coloured town signs with the word “Khartoum” written on it. Khartoum, Ontario — do you know it? It is actually a town — but you might count three houses driving by amidst the pine, spruce and rock-lined, winding roadway. Khartoum is like the Bethlehem of Ontario.
Perhaps because expectations are low. Why so many don’t have peace at Christmas is because expectations are so crazy and unreasonable at this time of year. Again, assuming ‘we make Christmas happen’. But this is not the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not make Christmas happen.

The Gospel — the good news — of Christmas is that the baby Jesus had to rely on this ragtag cast of characters to survive. The holy child, the divine made flesh, the almighty God — became vulnerable. God had to wait. God had to receive the gift of these imperfect characters, these unimpressive, un-extraordinary people. Jesus the baby had to receive their gifts of protection, love, care, and support. In order to be the greatest gift for us, God had to receive our imperfect gifts. God waits to receive our imperfect gifts, our offerings, our giving.

I’m learning something as I begin the second half of my life: The art of letting God come to me. It’s not dissimilar from the the concept espoused by those who coach sports, who advise: “Let the game come to you.” They make reference, of course, to players and teams on a winning streak who play loosely, who are not trying too hard, who don’t hold their sticks or bats too tightly; And, who nevertheless concentrate, who are in the flow, in the zone. Yes.

But they are not making it happen. They are not driving it too hard. Doing too much. Nor are they over-stating their presence, pushing it. Let it come to you, rather than trying to make it happen — this is the practical yet difficult challenge at Christmas.

Christian writer and teacher, Henri Nouwen, wrote: “Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid, and let God …be our companion”. Allow God — whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend — come to us. (Henri Nouwen, “Gracias!” in “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M Nouwen”)

A birthing experience will force all closely involved into a receptive state of being — as uncomfortable as that might be for some of us control freaks. We do need to just let it happen when it will. Let the gift come to us.

The unconditional love, unconditional positive regard, the faithfulness of God in us, the trust of the baby Jesus — these truths bring us all to a level playing field. There is no them-and-us. There is no outsider in God’s realm. There is no hierarchy of social standing. There is no moral-achievement program here. There is no ladder to climb.

Rather, God climbs down the ladder to us, just as we are. Because God’s love for us is so great. That is the message of Christmas. That is the peace that we seek.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill among all people! Merry Christmas!

Bethlehem: house of bread

There’s only one problem with the nativity set. Do you notice? All the characters are in place and accounted-for. 

But no stable. No barn. No shelter for the Christ-child, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Magi. Not to mention all the animals.

I think in the nativity set around the altar we accounted for this obvious ‘missing piece’ by placing all the matching pieces right beside a figure of a church building. There’s something that feels right about doing that, despite the historical disconnect between modern church building and the first century birth we celebrate this holy season of Christmas.

Because Jesus needs a house. Significant, isn’t it, that Bethlehem in Hebrew means, “house of bread”? Bethlehem, the town of David (Luke 2:4), was foretold by the prophets of old: “But you, Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” –Micah 5:1. Bethlehem was the ‘house’ into which Jesus was born. And Jesus, then became the house wherein all who sought God would find comfort and rest.

Is this not what we celebrate at Christmas? Our homes, places of comfort, places where we find our roots, our grounding, places where we meet and live with those beloved to us. These nativity scenes adorning the altar normally form part of our Christmas decorations in our homes. They, in a sense, bring Jesus — the house of all people — into our houses, our homes. Into our lives.

At Christmas we sing for Jesus to come into our lives. But do we think of what it would mean for us to make room for the Christ? And welcoming the stranger?

In a verse from the hymn, “Christ Be our Light” we sing —

Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone. 

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today. (1)

Many times in the Gospels, Jesus describes the “kingdom of God”. One of my favourite images is from Mark (4:32), where Jesus compares God’s reign to a small seed that ” … becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This image gives an all-encompassing, expansive vision of what God intends: a home for all creatures great and small.

Of course, the problem is, that so many people don’t have this shelter, this safety, this home. And it’s not just a spiritual reality. It’s also a material, earth-bound reality.

After all, Jesus himself, was a refugee. After his birth, Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary had to flee the threat of persecution in their home country. In Matthew (2:13) we read: “… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Jesus, Christians believe, is the Son of God. And this God we worship experienced, on earth, what it means to be a refugee and to be homeless.

Jesus, the comforting house and home for all — like the giant tree housing all the creatures of the earth — knew what it was to be without home, without shelter.

Elsewhere in Matthew (8:20) as Jesus exercises his ministry of compassion, healing and grace to the downtrodden, he reminds those who listen: “Foxes have holes and birds of air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

We are called, therefore, to care precisely for those who are homeless, who are refugees today as if we are loving God. Sri Lanken theologian D.T. Niles stated: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” (2).

Where do we find this ‘bread’ today? Because we will not travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus, like the Shepherds and the Magi did over two thousand y ears ago. Today we may ask God as the righteous did of old: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to least of these … you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

And, in so doing, we reveal the truth that the author of the last book of the Bible expressed: “See, the home of God is among mortals!”(Revelation 21:3). God’s home in Christ Jesus is here on earth, among those who need the “bread of life” (John 6:35). 

Our job this Christmas as all year round is to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Because Jesus has come into this world. He is out there. And he calls to us. Waiting for us to respond. To be and make home for us all.

(1) “Christ Be Our Light” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006 #715

(2) Joseph R. Jeter in David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberley Bracken Long, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.65