Behold, your servant!

A few weeks before Christmas, little Benjamin was thinking about what he really wanted for Christmas. This year, it was a Star Wars Lego set. All his friends had this, and he really wanted one.

And Benjamin wanted to write a letter to Jesus for this gift. His mother said he should really be writing a letter to Santa, but no, Benjamin was serious. Better Jesus; he thought, better chance he’d get this gift by communicating directly to Jesus instead of Santa.

So, Benjamin starts writing: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been a very good kid, and …”

He stops. No, Jesus won’t believe that.

He crumples up the paper, throws it away, and starts again: “Dear Jesus, most of the time, I’ve been a good kid…” He stops again. No, Jesus isn’t going to buy this.

 He starts again: “Dear Jesus, I’ve thought about being good…” He thinks a bit, then decides he didn’t like that one either. Benjamin throws on his jacket and heads outside, frustrated and upset.

He walks to the church around the corner. In front of it is set up a large manger scene. And he has a brilliant idea: He grabs the wooden figurine of Mary in his arms and rushes home with it!

He wraps the sculpture in blankets and stuffs it under his bed, then heads over to his desk and starts writing a new letter: “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again, send me that Lego set! Your friend, Benjamin.”

At least Benjamin was honest. Before God in all our vulnerability, as the light of God’s gaze rests on us, we may feel inadequate and not good enough. We, then, will stay stuck in negative self-talk and complacent in-action. “How could God use me?” “Not only a sinner but quite unexceptional. Doesn’t God see all the dirt in my life, all the dark corners that even I don’t want to look at?” “Not me!”

“Behold, your servant.”[1]Mary’s first words after hearing the angel’s call for her to bear God’s Son. The New Revised Standard Version replaced the older English “Behold” with the phrase, “Here I am”. Of course, “Here I am”, based on Mary’s initial response to the angel as a precursor to her Song of Praise[2], is now a popular song in our worship book. “Here I Am, Lord.[3]

Interesting that Mary begins her prayerful response to God simply by acknowledging God’s astonishing choice of her: a common, teenager with no pedigree, status or exceptionality to her name. “Behold, your servant.” Yes, God sees her. God favors her. God beholds whom God created, in Mary.

“Behold, your servant” is a statement of profound love. Mary’s very being is seen by God. The light of God’s love shines upon her common, fragile, vulnerable nature. Yes. But the dirt doesn’t matter to God. She is deemed a worthy recipient of God’s good intent and purpose.

As God first beholds Mary, we see in her what is true about God’s relationship to us. As God be-holds, Mary holds the Christ child within her. As God be-holds us with unconditional acceptance and love for who we are, so we hold the presence of the living Lord within us. Not only are we called to receive Jesus, we are called to conceive Jesus in our lives.

A truly remarkable message at Christmas, every year! We become Christ-bearers, to give birth to Jesus’ life and love for this world through how God has uniquely created each one of us–through our words, eyes, hands and heart.[4] We need to be reminded of this truth often.

A pre-Reformation era tradition in Germany has recently gained more popularity: It is a ritual that has been practiced mostly in small towns, villages, and rural areas. What happens before Christmas is that each family brings a small statue of Mary to a neighbouring family, where that statue remains in a central location in the household until Christmas day.[5]

This ritual reminds everyone who participates a few important truths: First, your neighbour gives you a statue; you don’t get one for yourself. This part of the ritual is meant to convey that before we say or do anything in response to God, we must acknowledge, as Mary did, that God’s gift first comes to us. Jesus himself later told his disciples a lesson in love: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[6]

And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the statue is a visual reminder that each of us is Mary, preparing a place in our own hearts for the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

You see, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus in that small place within her where the light of the world was gestating and growing – there was a pure heart. Yes, Mary was sinful as any human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she reflected the image of God.

Is that not so, with us, too? Each one of us holds the capacity, within ourselves, to carry the presence of the living God in Jesus. What difference would that conviction make in, not only appreciating the place in our own lives where God’s Spirit indwells, but in others?

The statue of Mary in these households reminds families, that despite all the conflict, stress, misunderstandings and sin so obvious in every kind of family, especially at this time of year, we can also look for a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst and within our very selves.

We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar biblical characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being.[7]

We can regard one another, though we are different and unique, with a knowledge and belief that each of us holds a space and a place within that is being renewed, transformed and united in God.

Someone once said that to be of help to anyone, you must first be able to see the good, however small, in that person.[8]  Then, and only then, can you be effective and genuine in your caregiving. Can we see, first, the good in others? Can we practice doing so this Christmas?

We can be strengthened in this course, nourished at the Table and emboldened in faith to know that God, before anything, “beholds” us in God’s loving gaze, just as we are. God sees the preciousness in each of our lives before dealing with the dirt, and loves us anyway.

So rather than right away assume the worst in us and others, and then like little Benjamin act out on that vision; rather than initially write off others who annoy us because they are different—those strangers and people we don’t understand and maybe even fear …

Perhaps we need Mary to remind us again of her response to God’s beholding of each of us. Perhaps we need to appreciate anew the gift in others that may not on the surface of things be always apparent.

Perhaps God is coming to us again this Christmas, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world”.[9]

Indeed, love is coming. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

 

[1]Luke 1:38

[2]The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55

[3]“Here I Am Lord”, Daniel L. Schutte (Fortress Press: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006), #574.

[4] Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Brother-Give Us A Word” (22 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org

[5]For more information about the tradition of ‘carrying Mary’ at Christmas, please read Anselm Gruen, “Weihnachten — Einen neuen Anfang” (Verlag Herder Freiburg, 1999), p.39-41

[6]John 15:12-17

[7]2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Ephesians 3:16-19

[8] Yuval Lapide: “Bis du nicht das Gute in einem Menschen siehst, bist du unfähig, ihm zu helfen.“

[9] John 3:16

The unknown journal of Ebenezer Scrooge

After attending the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) theatre performance of Charles Dickens’ classic tale “A Christmas Carol” last week, I wondered: What if Scrooge kept a daily journal? So, in my journal this week, I wrote this imaginative piece entitled, The Unknown Journal of Ebenezer Scrooge:

“It started out as a good idea. Keeping a daily journal was easy for a man who kept meticulous financial records. His ledgers were perfectly lined, his pen craft impeccable.

“Ebenezer Scrooge was on a mission to clean up all of life’s messiness. He wanted to resolve all his problems. He wanted to tie up all the loose ends and complete any unfinished business:

“The brackets on his library shelves downstairs needed reinforcing. The kitchen silverware needed polishing. The large knocker on his apartment door needed sanding and some fresh paint.

The door’s deteriorating condition had recently created spectral images on his imagination in the fading light of day. Like on this Christmas Eve when coming home from work, he saw the face of his long-deceased partner, Mr. Morley, embedded in the decorative door knocker.

“Then, there was the unresolved issue of his assistant Bob Cratchit’s pay in the New Year. Scrooge waffled between giving him a decrease, or keeping it at the same level. The money was tight. And, Scrooge was still beset by disturbing dreams about Tiny Tim – Cratchit’s youngest boy. He wanted to understand what to do with the feelings of despair swirling about these nocturnal predations of the mind.

“All these he would diligently record. These matters, after all, needed his scrupulous and perfectionist ministrations once he would have the time, or by unsuspecting fortune he was granted insight and resource to solve.

“Scrooge lifted his journal onto his lap, feeling the rough leather-bound book. He was surprised by how heavy it felt. Curious about the turn of his thoughts, he flipped to previous days in the month. Then quickly he turned to the first half of his nearly-finished tome, recording events in the last year. Finally, he opened to the first few pages when he started the journal several years ago now.

“Back then, the door knob still needed fixing, the shelf brackets still needed reinforcing. The silverware was never polished enough. And worry about money figured into most of his notations throughout. Nothing changed.

“What is more, a persistent, dark pessimism shrouded his lists of unfinished, unresolved, ‘problems.’ His writing reflected a clear, negative tendency. Something was always missing, incomplete, imperfect. There was never enough. Scarcity, he realized with startling awareness, was a constant undercurrent in his approach to life. And had been, for a long, long time.

“Scrooge pulled on his night shirt and climbed onto his giant canopy bed. As he pulled the covers tight around his chin, he wondered if he should bother keeping a journal at all. The lights dimmed. And he thought he heard the rattle of chains ….”

Charles Dicken’s epic story survives the ages and continues to inspire people at Christmastime because there is something in all of us that can relate to it. The light of Christ coming into the world exposes the darker contours of our souls. In the weeks, and now days, leading to the Christmas celebration, we may feel and struggle with the tensions in our own hearts: Between generosity and self-preservation, between a joyous liberation of spirit and the confining constriction of fear.

Into these tensions, the Lord’s message is clear. The Gospel pushes us into the realm of light – under the spotlight of God’s vision. All is revealed.  We have nothing to hide, and nothing for which we have to strive and toil and protect. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”[1]

During Advent, we hear again the story of Elizabeth’s meeting with her cousin Mary. Both are pregnant, expecting the birth of babies. Even the babies feel the excitement of their mothers, “leaping with joy” in the womb.[2] The Magnificat, which we read responsively this morning, is Mary’s song of joy in response to the message of the Lord’s promise to her. Joy is a central theme both in the four weeks of preparation leading to Christmas, and also an important characteristic of faith.

It is God’s will for us to enjoy the good things in life. Without denying nor avoiding the hard, challenging and often disappointing events of life, we are called to see the good, and rest in the joy of living. Jesus came, after all, that we might have life “abundantly”.[3] The dominant disposition of faith is joy.

Paul writes in our second lesson some of the earliest script in the New Testament.[4] Written around 50 C.E. the Christians in Thessalonica are merely a generation removed from Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. They are waiting for the immanent return of Jesus. And this letter is written to a people with a growing anxiety. The proverbial elephant in the room is growing larger with each passing year: Why hasn’t Jesus yet returned in glory?

So, in essence, Paul is addressing a relevant question of faith – even to us some two thousand years later: What do we do in the tension of living between the promise of Jesus’ coming again, and the harsh reality of ‘not yet’?

Paul’s answer revolves around the inner attitudes of thanksgiving and joy. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” he admonishes the faithful.[5] Even when things don’t seem just right. Even when there doesn’t seem to be enough. Even when there are still things to be done, problems to solve, imperfections to address.

The true message of Christmas does a frontal attack on our inherent pessimism. This wake-up call can be disarming. The inaugural Prayer of the Day for Advent calls us to be pure and blameless at the coming of the Lord.[6] Even our liturgies can make us feel worse. For, how can we give thanks in all circumstances when we are hurting so much, are so fearful or angry?

By the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge has a conversion of heart. He becomes generous, joyful, free, helping others. How does it happen? A man steeped in his own negativity makes an almost incredible U-turn by the end because of the intervention of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. An intervention of divine proportions breaks into and breaks apart the shroud of pessimism encasing his heart.

Even when we find ourselves stuck in the mire of circumstance, we can begin by appreciating that all of life, especially the good things, are a pure gift of God. Even amidst the direst of circumstances, are there not pinpricks of light, nuggets of grace, whispers of love that pierce our field of vision?

We can, in this appreciation, learn to let go, and release our claim on our lives which are not our own. They are gift. With open hearts, we learn to walk lightly in faith, trusting that God will indeed complete the good work begun in each of our hearts “by the day of Jesus Christ.”[7] All our days are God’s. Our very breath is a gift of life from the Creator.

And what is more, Paul’s earliest message to the Christian church, a message that will endure until the day of Jesus Christ, is one of grace. “The one who calls you is faithful,” Paul tells us, “and God will do this.”[8] On our own strength, and by our own will, we may very well not be able to engineer our own perfection, or the perfection of our lives.

By ourselves, we cannot make the world a better place. By ourselves, we cannot solve all the world’s problems.

But together, God can through us. God did; God does; And God will.

[1] John 1:9

[2] Luke 1:41

[3] John 10:10

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:18

[6] First Sunday of Advent, Year B in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.18

[7] Philippians 1:6

[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:24

A funeral sermon at Christmas

In these days leading to 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 according to the biblical record this characterization is not entirely true. Her song — called the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) — suggests a courageous, brave, even revolutionary figure in the bible. Not only does she accept this radical calling of God to bear the Christ-child, she affirms the great reversals of Gospel truth. 

While she says ‘yes’ to God, she implies ‘no’ to the power structures of the day — the rich will be sent away empty, the proud will be scattered, the powerful will be brought down. 

It’s significant that your loved one’s middle name is Mary. Our names are important. I believe they are windows into our souls. And her life reflected, did it not, the style of Mary’s character in the sense of her courage, her almost impulsive stance towards defending the poor? You already told stories of how she often defended the underdog, the downtrodden, putting herself on the line, making herself vulnerable in order to do the right thing.

You told me how one night in her youth all dressed up for going out dancing in Montreal, she and your father 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. Never mind your poor father who was convinced she was going to get herself seriously hurt.

Not many of us would do that in the public arena. So, the gift of her life encourages us to consider our own disposition towards those whom God favours. Her life is a testimony to the practice of unconditional love to all people. And the risk it sometimes entails.

Mary’s Magnificat is also often sung. Music is an excellent medium for expressing praise and true joy. Dear family, you spoke of your mother’s support of the arts and culture. Your family carries on in various ways this important tradition, this legacy. 

One wonderful memory you hold of your mother at this time is the beauty, the poise, the elegance and the joy with which in the early part of life, she danced. Danced with your father. Dancing was what they did in Montreal in the early years as they courted and were married there. 

Out on the night dancing, was what they were doing just before, in the story you told me, she defended the young man being beaten on the street. It seems your mother demonstrated the truth that along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled and our spirits charged by expressions of joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.

We need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the needy. Your mother’s life reflected this both/and stance: The freedom of joyful sharing with others including a great sense of humour, and demonstrating a singular passion for justice and working hard for another. She needed this gift to endure the trials and tribulations of her life.

Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. What had throughout history not worked so well as far as the relationship between humanity and God, was now resolved in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to humanity. To us. 

The divine 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. 

At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, you mourn your loss. You feel this loss deeply. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, to each according to our unique needs.

And for your mother, today, after almost 50 years of being separated by death from her dance partner in your Dad, she resumes a beautiful dance with him in heavenly glory. For joyful reunions, thanks be to God!

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!