There’s an old Jewish story, I can’t remember where I first heard or read it. The story is now deep in my bones. It usually surfaces in me at some point during the Twelve Days of Christmas, reminding me of the hope which springs forth from the manger. Once upon a time, there was a monastery with a long history of commerce and a thriving spiritual community. But as time wore on, fewer and fewer villagers visited the hallowed halls of this monastery. Fewer people turned to the monks, who inhabited the monastery, for advice. Even the sale of their famous wines began to dwindle. The abbot began to despair for his community. “What should they do?” he wondered. They prayed daily for guidance, but the brothers only became more dispirited. The monastery itself reflected their mood, becoming shabby and untidy. At last, the Abbot, hearing that a wise Jewish rabbi was visiting, swallowed his pride and went to visit the rabbi to ask for his advice.
The abbot and the rabbi visited for a long time. They talked of their respective religions, and the fickleness of human nature. The abbot explained his problem to the rabbi and asked him for advice, but the Jewish sage only shook his head and smiled. As the abbot sadly departed, the rabbi suddenly rose and shouted after him, “Ah, but take heart my friend for the Messiah lives amongst you!”
All the way home the abbot pondered the rabbi’s words, “The Messiah lives amongst you.” What could he mean? Did the Messiah live in the abbey? The abbot knew all the brothers very well. Could one of them really be the Messiah? Surely, he, the abbot, was not the Messiah? Was it possible? Upon reaching the monastery the abbot confided the rabbi’s words to another brother, who told another brother, who was overheard telling another brother. Soon the whole abbey had heard the news. “The Messiah lives amongst us!”
“Who do you suppose he could be?” As each brother speculated on who the Messiah could be, his view of his brothers began to change. Brother Louis no longer appeared simple, but rather innocent.
Brother Jacques was no longer uncompromising, but rather striving for spiritual perfection. The brothers began to treat each other with greater respect and courtesy; after all, one never knew when he might be speaking to the Messiah. And, as each brother discovered his own words were taken seriously, the thought that he might become the Messiah would cross his humble mind and he would square his shoulders and attend his work with greater care, and he started acting like a Messiah.
Soon the neighboring villages began to notice the change which had come over the monastery. The brothers seemed so happy. Villagers flocked to the monastery and were energized by the spirit of the Brothers. And so, the SPIRIT grew, and the monastery flourished. As each new brother was welcomed, the question arose, “Could he be the Messiah?” Apparently, this monastery still prospers today, and it is often whispered both within its walls and in the surrounding towns that the Messiah lives amongst them.
There’s a story which I love to remember during the twelve days of Christmas simply because Christmas is the time to remember just how much promise arrives in the form of a newborn baby. I first heard this story from a very wise seminary professor and since then I’ have heard Marcus Borg and Parker Palmer tell it. I’m not sure that this story actually happened, but I am absolutely sure that this story is one-hundred percent true!
It’s a story about a three-year-old girl who was the only child in her family, when her parents announce that they are having a baby. The little girl is excited by the prospect of having a new baby sister or brother. Now, it seemed to the little girl like it was taking for ever, but eventually the day comes when her Mom and Dad go off to the hospital for the birth. When her parents arrive home with her new baby brother, the little girl is simply delighted. They hadn’t been home for more than a couple of hours, when the little girl tells her parents that she wants to spend some time with the new baby, in the baby’s room, alone, with the door shut. She’s absolutely insistent about the door being shut.
Her parents are none too sure about this idea of leaving their precious new bundle alone with their three-year-old daughter. They know she is a good little girl, but they’ve heard about sibling rivalry and they’re not too sure about taking this risk. As they were debating the idea, they remember that they’ve recently installed an intercom system in preparation for the arrival of the new baby. They realize that they can let their little girl have her wish, and if they hear the slightest strange thing happening, they can be in there in a flash to rescue their newborn. So, they let their little girl go into the room alone. They close the door behind her. They race to the listening post. They hear her footsteps move across the room. They imagine their little girl standing over their baby’s crib, and then they hear her say to her two-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God. I have almost forgotten.”
At Christmas, we are, all of us, that child, standing over the baby’s crib hoping against hope that the newborn baby will tell us about God; maybe because we have almost forgotten, maybe because we don’t believe, maybe because we want to believe, maybe because we’ve lost hope, maybe because we are endlessly curious, or maybe simply because T’s the season for hoping against hope that the child will tell us about the MYSTERY which we call God, because we have almost forgotten.
There’s no Christmas tree in our sanctuary this year. We knew that come Christmas, we would not be able to gather in person to celebrate, so we didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the tree until I recorded last Sunday’s worship video. I was standing in this empty sanctuary, just me and the camera and I couldn’t see the beautiful Advent decorations. All I could see was the empty corner where our tree usually stands. It reminded me of a scene in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I’m old, so I’m talking about the 1966 cartoon, where the Grinch steals Cindy Lou Who’s Christmas tree. Staring over at that empty corner, it was as if the COVID-Grinch has stolen so much of what we hold dear about Christmas. The COVID-Grinch has stolen our family gatherings, and our crowded Christmas Candlelight Communions and no tree for us this year. So, I’m left standing here like a Who from down in Whoville whose crying “boo hoo.”
Back in the 60’s when the Grinch stepped up his antics, artificial trees were all the rage. Those early artificial trees were about as life-like as the flat animations in that old cartoon. But still people couldn’t seem to get enough of them. I remember our family’s first artificial tree. It may have been our first, but unfortunately, we had it for most of my childhood. That hideous artificial tree is what turned me into a real tree enthusiast. That poor excuse for a tree consisted of a center pole which looked like a broomstick. The pole was painted green and holes had been drilled into it where these metal branches adorned with what I can only describe as short pieces of green tinsel were poked in.
Every year, my parents would haul out this artificial monstrosity and erect it in our living room so that we could decorate it with our treasured bobbles. Needless to say, the trauma of this hideous artificial monstrosity caused me, once I was old enough to pay for them, to insist on always having a real tree. No artificial trees for me! Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a real tree. Except for that one year, when I was broke. I was sharing an apartment with four roommates who were also broke. We simply couldn’t afford a real tree. One of my roommates had the bright idea that we should check out the local charity shop to see if they had any cheap artificial trees which we could afford. Now it was just a few days before Christmas, so the pickings were slim in the charity shop. An exasperated salesclerk explained to us that all they had left were some odds and ends, as she directed us to a bin full of mismatched artificial tree-limbs and told us we could help ourselves to whatever we wanted. Inside that bin were all sorts of fake tree branches representing the various artificial tree fashions of the previous decades. There were fake pine branches made of wires and some made of plastic. There were even branches reminiscent of my family’s hideous green tinsel tree, and a few silver tinsel branches of that same genre. Perhaps the most offensive branches were the ones which were coated with some sort of white crusty stuff, no doubt designed to simulate snow. Very few of the fake branches looked related to one another, let alone looking anything remotely like a Christmas tree. But one of my roommates found a fake tree trunk, which looked suspiciously like a broomstick. He insisted that we could easily attach some branches to it, add a few bobbles, toss some tinsel on it and Bob’s your Uncle, a Christmas tree would be born out of this bin. Thinking that he was joking, we decided to join in the fun and proceed to gather together the most offensive of the branches. We were going for the ridiculous look.
I don’t really think that we actually intended to bring our insane selections home. We just sort of got caught up in the madness. Madness is the only way I can explain the monstrosity of a tree that was erected in our living room. There was nothing beautiful about our creation, except of course the laughter with which we created it and the LOVE which that monstrosity bore witness to as we danced in jubilation around it. At one point, I’m not sure if it was the insanity of our excuse for a tree, or maybe it was the wine we consumed creating it, but we actually attempted to reenact a scene from the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” for in fact the Grinch cannot steal Christmas. I will never in all my days, forget the joy which we had standing around pretended to be a bunch of Whos from down in Whoville chanting: “Fahoo Fores Dahoo Dores, Welcome Christmas.”
A couple of days ago, Carol and I came into this sanctuary to change the paraments from Advent to Christmas. For a while all I could see was the empty corner where our tree ought to be. All I could see was what was missing. I know that this Christmas many of us will have difficult seeing beyond what is missing. Who can blame us? This is a Christmas like no other we have ever experienced. So, much of what we love about Christmas, simply will not be here. There will be empty corners, empty places where you usually sit, and worst of all empty chairs at Christmas tables. It isn’t easy to see beyond what’s missing. It is as if there is a wall separating us from the Christmas of our longings. That wall is reinforced by so much of we are hearing and seeing in the media. Our screens are bombarding us with dire news. It is so very tempting for us to stare blankly at our screens. And as the wall gets higher and higher, we sink deeper and deeper into despair.
As Carol and I continued to decorate this sanctuary, my attention was shifted from the empty corner to the creche. It isn’t in its usual place this year. We wanted to make it easier for the camera to capture it as we were recording this service. As I look upon the scene which symbolizes the myths which have sustained generations, a gap appears in the wall and I can begin to see beyond the darkness to the LIGHT which continues to glimmer with hope.
So much of the world’s attention is captured each and every day by stories of scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness. Our focus is captured by images on screens which dominate our conversations, our thoughts, our beliefs and even our way of life. Each story which portrays scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness as the way life is, was, and ever more shall be, generates fear. Our fears re-enforce the wall, which leads to more and more actions based upon the principals of scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness, and the wall just becomes more and more impenetrable as our fears feed upon one another.
As I look upon this nativity scene, it is so very tempting to linger over sentimental trivialities only to forget the subversive nature of the parable which is symbolized by this idyllic scene. For this parable which has sustained generations is the very anthesis of our fear. The parable which sustains us right here and right now denies the very foundational blocks upon which the wall of fear is built. Whereas our wall of fear is founded on the principles that life is all about scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness, the symbols of our foundational parable, point us beyond our fear to the reality that our lives are a gift and LOVE is the point.
Life is a gift born not out scarcity, but out of the abundance of Creation. A simple walk in the woods on a snowy evening is more than enough to shift our focus from notions of scarcity to glimpses of the magnificent abundance with which we are blessed. I’m also pretty sure that the mere fact that there is a vaccine on the horizon, is not the result of competition, but of co-operation. I also know that greed won’t get that vaccine into the arms of enough people to move us beyond this pandemic. In order to vaccinate enough of the world’s population, rich countries like ours are going to need to be extremely generous, outrageously generous.
Tonight, this nativity heralds the birth of LOVE, and points us toward the reality of the passion of a person who understood that scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness create fear. Jesus lived and died to proclaim that beauty, truth, and goodness is in abundance all around us. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, and live it abundantly.” Abundant life is characterized by our generosity, our cooperation, and our passion; our passion which gives birth to LOVE.
Abundant life does not mean life without fear, nor does it mean that scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness do not exist. Living life abundantly means not allowing these things to be foundational to our lives. When we live life abundantly, what is beautiful, true and good, nourishes us so that we can be generous, cooperative, and passionate in the way we encounter our fear. Living life abundantly means seeing beyond the wall built by our fear. In practical terms it means noticing that there is no tree in our sanctuary this year and being able to see the blessing of our technology which empowers us to find new ways to be LOVE in the world. It means missing our families and being grateful that we have families to miss. It means being stuck at home and being grateful that we have a home to be stuck in. It does not mean ignoring the realities of evil, or the tragedies which surround us, or even the empty chairs at our dinner table. It does mean grieving, for to grieve is to have LOV-ed. It is that LOVE which will nourish us, so that we can see beyond our pain to the LIGHT which continues to grow; the light which is fueled by beauty, truth, and goodness, guiding us to respond to scarcity not with fear but with the realization of the abundance of blessings which continue to flow all around us, to respond to competition not with a fear of losing, but with cooperative alternatives, and to respond to greed and self-centeredness, not with fear but with generosity and compassion for our neighbours.
Tonight, this nativity points us to the birth of the ONE who lived passionately proclaiming that abundance, generosity, co-operation, flow out of beauty, truth, and goodness, to create LOVE, the LOVE which will comfort and restore us; a LOVE which resurrects our passion for life.
Christmas is a holiday, a HOLY day in which we celebrate what is good about the world. Our celebrations will not deny the suffering which is going on all around us. Our celebrations, if we let them, will empower us to see our suffering in the context of the abundance of blessings which come to us each and every day.
Yes, I do miss our tree. I miss all of you filing this sanctuary with song. I also know that a long dark, difficult winter stretches out before us all. But I trust the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being to give us the strength to meet this winter not motivated by our fears but empowered by the passion inspired in us by the abundance of goodness, truth, and beauty which surrounds us. So that we can see beyond our fears. So that we can discover new ways of being LOVE in the world.
As I look upon that nativity, I can see beyond the sadness, longing, and fear, to the beauty of the candlelight. And even in the silence of this empty sanctuary which is bigger than this building; this sanctuary in which we live and move and have our being, is a LOVE beyond my fear, a LOVE which IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also.
So, wherever you are watching this, whatever your circumstances may be, do not let the COVID-Grinch steal your Christmas. For not even the COVID-Grinch as despicable as it may be, not even this can steal Christmas, because LOVE is about to be born in us.
May you each of you see beyond the walls built of fear to the LIGHT which continues to glow. May that LIGHT help you to see the abundance of blessing which are all around us. May you rejoice in the gift of your life, so that LOVE may continue to grow in, with, through, and beyond you. “Welcome Christmas, fah who rah-moose. Welcome Christmas, dah who rah-moose.” Let us live this LOVE-given gift of life abundantly. Merry Christmas.
Not so very long ago, a young woman, let’s call her Dora, short for Doreatha, which comes from the Greek phrase “gift from God.” Dora spent most of her childhood dreading Christmas. Christmas in Dora’s family was a volatile affair. Dora’s father never needed much of an excuse to drink too much. Most of the holidays were consumed by the fallout from his excessive drinking. After far too many devastating Christmas Eves which ended in tears, Dora figured out that the best thing she could do to protect herself from the trauma of her family’s gatherings was to stay away from home on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, Dora was blessed with friends from church who regularly welcomed her into their home each Christmas Eve. Beth and Michael had three small children the youngest of which, little Sophia, was Dora’s goddaughter. With her family of choice, Dora new exactly what to expect on Christmas Eve. First a trip into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, which they would trim together before sitting down to a traditional feast, followed by Michael’s dramatic reading of the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. When the children were safely tucked into bed with dreams of, well not so much sugarplums dancing in their heads, but rather visions of packages which would magically arrive whilst they slept, Dora and Beth would slip out quietly to attend the Christmas Eve candlelight communion service.
Well, one Christmas Eve, Dora found herself alone in the house trying to amuse her goddaughter Sophia, who was very, very, unhappy. Her parents had decided that the unusually cold weather, together with the deep snow, made the conditions far too severe for a three-year-old to trudge through. Sophia and Dora were given the task of getting the living room ready to receive the Christmas tree. Sophia was not pleased at all about being left behind. But it didn’t take long for the boxes of decorations to catch her attention. All through the Advent season, little Sophia had been learning the Christmas story. As they tackled the sorting out the decorations, Sophia began to regale Dora with her own version of the Christmas story. As they unpacked the shepherds, wise guys and angels, Sophia told Dora how: “Once upon a time, before they had picture books or televisions, there wasn’t anything fun to do, because there was no Santa to bring anybody any presents. And there weren’t any cars, so Mary who was going to have a baby, had to ride on a donkey and Joseph walked because he had longer legs. And they walked and they walked all day long until it was dark and then, when they got where they were going, they were very hungry, but there wasn’t any food, so they went into a stable, where they talked to the animals until they weren’t hungry anymore. It was dark but they weren’t afraid because there was a big star shining up in the sky so they could see what was happening. And soon it was time for a big surprise. But not the kind of surprise that Santa brings, this was a really big surprise.” Sophia’s eyes lit up as she told Dora about this big surprise. She said, when the animals fell asleep, “then the baby was borned.” Sophia asked Dora, “Do you know who the baby was?” Dora played along, asking, “Tell me, who was the baby who was borned?” Sophia climbed up onto her lap and whispered into Dora’s ear: “The baby was God!” With that, Sophia jumped down and began to dance around the room. Rarely is the good news told with such earnest appreciation for the amazing surprise.Continue reading →
Well, here we are facing the darkest of winters. Rising death tolls together with the reality that we must wait many more months before the vaccines will make it possible for us to gather together in person. So, on this the final Sunday of Advent, with most of us needing to forgo our regular Christmas celebrations with loved ones, here I am on your screen with nothing but a story to give you hope, love, peace and joy. I have only a story to comfort us all in the darkness in which we have ben gestating for months, for practically all of this year. But I do not appear here to proclaim just any story. For generations, people have insisted that the story of the birth of Jesus is the most amazing birth story ever told. Jesus’ birth narrative heralds the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth, God incarnate, fully divine and yet fully human.
However, not everyone agrees that this is the most amazing birth story ever told. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ birth can’t even claim to be unique. Historically, Jesus’ birth story is just one in a long line of birth stories. Jesus’ birth story, some claim, is only considered to be unique because it is our story. A story that we tell over and over again at the expense of other birth stories which are just as great. It is not all that difficult for the cynics to buttress their denials about who and what Jesus was, simply by Googling the “greatest birth story ever told”, selecting one or two of these greatest stories and putting them together to expose Jesus’ birth story as simply one story in a long line of ancient birth stories.
Allow me to demonstrate by using just one of these ancient birth stories. There are so many to choose from, so let’s use the one which predates the birth of Jesus by only 60 years, when Julius Caesar had established an Empire the likes of which the world had never seen before. Gaius Julius’ prowess on the battlefield was matched only by his cunning in the senate and together these powers had won him the title of “Caesar.” But as great and marvelous a leader as Julius Caesar may have been, history tells us that he and his wife were not blessed with children so eventually Julius appointed his niece’s son Octavian to be his heir. It is Octavian’s birth story that the Ancient Romans claimed was the most amazing birth story ever told. This birth narrative heralded the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth.
Octavian went down in history by his nickname. I should really say by his imperial name, for as the Emperor of Rome, Octavian became known as Augustus Caesar and it is his birth narrative that was the greatest birth story ever told, according to the Romans. Augustus is Latin, for “one who should be praised or worshiped.” Caesar means Emperor. The legends surrounding this praiseworthy emperor of Rome are truly astounding. Born just 60 odd years before the birth of Jesus, it is said that Augustus was a son of god twice over. For not only was he the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who when he died, was by virtue of being the ruler of Rome declared by his people to be a god, legend has it that Octavian’s mother had a dalliance with some god or other. It seems that on the day Octavian was born his mother had a dream that she was raised up to the sky and her intestines were spread all over the earth. His father also had a dream that the sun rose and set on his dear wife’s womb. Well, when the priests were consulted about these dreams, it was decreed that little Octavian must be the progeny of a god. But which god you may ask, well ancient sources are blurry on the subject, some say it was Jupiter himself, others suggest his father was the god Mars.
The poet Virgil gives us a pretty clear indication of just who Octavian, known as Augustus, was in the eyes of his people. For it seems that on the very night that Augustus Caesar was made Emperor a strange star appeared in the sky. When Romans described the appearance of the star in the sky they said, “We saw the son of God, aka Julius Caesar, ascending to the right hand of God the father, Zeus.” The people believed that this was a sign that Julius Caesar’s spirit was finally able to leave Rome and head off into the heavens, blessing the reign of his great-nephew Octavian, aka Augustus, as he went by displaying a magnificent star in the sky. Writing of Augustus’ actual birth, Virgil’s poem insists that, “Augustus would be a divine king, the one the world had been waiting for, the one who would bring salvation to all the earth, freeing the people from fear and establishing a universal empire of peace.”
If the truth be told, Augustus Caesar did live up to his birth legend. After all, as Emperor he did establish the Pax Romana and peace was upheld in his empire. He did it by conquering and terrorizing the conquered. Pax Romana was known as “peace through victory.” Once you were conquered by the Romans, you had better behave yourself peacefully or they’d publicly execute you so as to set an example to your kinfolk. It was just as Virgil said, and I quote: “Caesar is the Son of God. Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus. Augustus is reigning in the fullness of his glory; the entire empire resounds with the sound of the advent proclamation.” Does any of this sound familiar? Such an august man/god as this requires a birth narrative which heralds the arrival of the Saviour of the world.
Imagine what it must have been like for the early followers of the man Jesus of Nazareth; a peasant, rabbi, radical, and disturber of the peace, executed as a political threat to the Pax Romana. The followers of the Way knew that their beloved leader was the embodiment of the antithesis of Caesar; for everything which Caesar was, Jesus was not! Jesus of Nazareth went to his death insisting that peace through victory was no peace at all. Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed the radical notion that peace, true peace can only be established and maintained through justice. Peace, true peace, is the result of everyone having enough. Jesus called for the kind of distributive justice, which ensures that the poor and the powerless, the marginalized and the despised have all they need in order to live in peace. It was such a radically dangerous notion that the powers that be could not let it live. So, the Romans did what the Romans always did when the Pax Romana came under threat, they nailed the radical, peace disturbing, rabbi to a tree and let him hang there until he was dead.
The only problem with their plan was Jesus’ dream just wouldn’t die. The dream of this new kind of peace, this peace through justice, which Jesus had called the Reign of God, simply would not die in the hearts and minds of this itinerate preacher’s followers. Jesus’ dream of the Reign of God lived on. Years later; decades later, in fact a whole generation later, when one of this Jesus fella’s followers sat down to write the account of Jesus’ life, he did his best to find a way to ensure that the dream would never die. And so, to this day, the dream lives on thanks in part to the writing of an unknown scribe who wrote down what the people were saying and teaching about the dream, long after this Jesus of Nazareth was gone. We don’t know who wrote it, tradition has called him Luke, but no one really knows who it was. We do know that this persuasive writer employed a style of storytelling which Jesus was particularly fond of himself. Jesus of Nazareth persuaded people to change their way of being using a type of story called a parable. A parable is a story which uses elements which are very familiar to the listeners. A parable takes familiar elements and uses them in ways which turn the listener’s perceptions upside down. One minute the listener is on familiar territory and in the next minute everything the listener thought they knew is turned upside down and a new way of imagining the world is revealed. The anonymous-gospel-storyteller which we call Luke was clever; clever enough to know that any great person worthy of belief or praise must have a great birth story.
So, if a birth story is what it takes for listeners to know the truth and to believe, then let me give you the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke’s birth parable which is worthy of the one who proclaimed a different kind of peace. You may have your peace through victory, but the Prince of Peace of whom I speak; now there is a Saviour worthy of praise. Son of God, you bet, but were as Octavian might have been born of noble birth, the kind of Saviour I’m talking about was of the people, born as the apostle Paul declared, “born of a woman”. Not anyone special, her name was Miriam, and lord knows there are Miriams everywhere just like her. This Miriam was just a slip of a girl, not more than about 12 or 13 years old. We don’t know exactly how she became pregnant; people talked about her and about Jesus as if there was something a little dubious about the way in which it happened. But then in the Pax Romana, young girls fell pregnant all the time and Miriam wasn’t from a noble family. But they were righteous enough to find a good man to take her on, even though he knew that she was pregnant. It was as if he’d seen it in a dream and so this man, this man let’s call him after that dreamer of old, let’s call him Joseph, it was like he had a dream or something of how things should be. Anyway, no matter what the powers that be threw at them, they coped, even if it meant travelling down to Bethlehem the city of the great King David to be registered. So far from the halls of power, so far that it might have been an outbuilding on the edge of a city, amongst the poorest of the poor, a child was born.
A star, you bet your life there was a star. Right up there in the sky above the place where he was born, and the star was so big and so bright that the powerful came and bowed down before the baby who would become the hope of the poor. Finally, good news for the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and the despised, good news for unto you is born in the City of David a Saviour who will be the Prince of Peace, who will bring peace on earth and good will to all.
Yeah, here’s a birth story like no other. Here’s a birth story about humble origins, about margins, about poverty, about struggle and oppression, about simple people living their lives as best they can and accomplishing great things. The anonymous-gospel-storyteller which we call Luke has created a subversive birth parable. A parable in which Jesus, not Caesar is born of a virgin and is the Son of God. The trouble is after 20 centuries, you and I hear “born of a virgin” and “Son of God” as unbelievable church doctrines. But in this parable, these are not doctrines but subversive political statements. They are declarations that Jesus embodied a different kind of god. In Jesus an oppressed and marginalized people experienced a radically different vision of the DIVINE, a vision which turned the whole idea of the DIVINE upside down. Caesar offered a vision of a god who is born in a mansion. But this new vision of the DIVINE was born in a manger. Caesar is a god who enslaves. CHRIST is a god who sets free. Caesar is a god who lives with the oppressors. CHRIST is a god who lives among the oppressed. The stories of Jesus’ birth are subversive parables designed to say a big NO to the powers of Empire; to turn the world we thought we knew upside down and point to a new way of being in the world.
The stories of Jesus’ birth represent a politically subversive call for us to enlist in a cause where we care for our neighbour, look out for the stranger and embrace the flesh and blood of those who are suffering, oppressed, persecuted, starving, homeless, those who have no voice. Christmas itself is a call to embrace the parables of Jesus’ birth as our call to turn the world as we know it upside down and usher in a new way of being in the world; a way of being that rejects the horrors of Empire and embraces the kind of justice that gives birth to peace.
Forget your grand and glorious birth stories. You won’t find the DIVINITY you seek in the halls of power. The DIVINITY you seek, is out there in the muck and mire of the world, in the stuff of life. The peace you hunger for won’t come from the rich or the powerful. They are too busy defending their power and holding on to their wealth. The peace you hunger for will only come at the expense of the powerful. And for those of us who are rich and powerful; that’s rich enough to have screens on which to watch this, for us peace we long for requires that we sacrifice our wealth and power. The peace we long for will only come when our love inspires us to share. The peace we hunger for will only come when everyone has enough. Peace through justice is the only kind of peace that has any power to satisfy, to last. If you are looking for a god worthy of your worship, look not to the powerful. Look to the power of god that lives and breathes in you; the divine power that drives your hunger for justice and peace. It was born in you and it lives in you and it lives in you.
Who is this one heralded as the Prince of Peace? Jesus of Nazareth, who had a dream of peace which he proclaimed as the Reign of God; a reign which would see to it that the rich are sent away empty because they already have enough, a reign in which and the hungry are filled with good things, a reign where justice and not victory is the way to peace. A reign dreamed of and embodied by a poor peasant, a radical rabbi, who the powers that be could not abide, so they killed him hoping to put an end to his dream. But the dream will not die. Resurrection is the rebirth of this dream, over and over again, in the hearts, minds, and lives of the followers of the ONE whose birth we celebrate in the midst of darkness. This dream will be born again, and again, even in the midst of this pandemic as the poor and the oppressed, the forgotten and the neglected, the sick and the dying continue to long for LOVE, right here, right now.
Let the dream of Jesus be born right here and right now, in you. Let it be said of you that you lived this dream; that the dream of the Reign of God, a dream where justice leads to peace, a dream where LOVE conquers all; a dream where joy is found in the LOVE, we share to warm the darkness.
May the LOVE which is DIVINE be born in, with, through and beyond you. Let it be said of you that you, that you too are a Child of God, a Princess, or a Prince of Peace, a Mighty Councillor, Emmanuel, God with us. BE Joy to the world!
Years ago, my friend Henry and I worked together in the travel industry. In addition to working as a graphic designer, Henry was also a Jewish rabbi. I learned a great deal from Rabbi Henry about the celebration of Christmas when he invited me to join his family for dinner on Christmas Eve. Rabbi Henry explained to me that it was the custom amongst some of his Jewish friends to gather on Christmas Eve for a commemoration they called Nittel Nacht. Nittel Nacht customs date back to the days of pogroms in Eastern Europe, when people calling themselves Christians persecuted the Jewish people. On Christmas Eve, Nittel Nacht customs revolve around keeping a low profile. Nacht means night in Yiddish and Nittel is said to be a Yiddish word patterned after a Latin word for birth. So, on the night when Christians celebrate the birth of CHRIST among us, some Jewish people gather quietly, often in silence, during which they refrain from studying the Torah. Rabbi Henry explained that their own Nittel Nacht customs had grown over the years to include inviting gentiles over to share a meal. The idea being, that if there were gentiles in the house the perpetrators of the pogroms would just move on. Henry told me that he saw Jews and gentiles breaking bread together as a fitting way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who lived his life as a faithful Jew and with his life gave birth to Christianity.
Henry and his wife Rachel were, at the time new parents, and I hadn’t yet seen their newborn son, so I was delighted to accept their invitation. That’s how this particular shishka found herself holding a newborn Jewish baby named Joshua, on a Christmas Eve long ago. While holding baby Joshua, the irony escaped me, but I have since learned that the Hebrew name Joshua when translated into Greek and Latin then becomes, “Jesus” in English.
Joshua’s older sisters little Rebekah and Rachel, explained to me that I needed to be very quiet on this Nittel Nacht, because if we were very good girls, their Daddy would put a Christmas movie on the VCR. They were hoping for their favorite Christmas movie “A Christmas Story,” which is also a favorite of mine. Rabbi Henry declared that there’s something wonderful about a shishka, nursing baby Joshua, laughing with two little Jewish girls about a silly Shabbos goy, who is desperately scheming to get a Red Ryder bb gun for Christmas, when everyone knows that such a toy would result in a little boy “shooting his eye out!”. Imagine my delight when Rachel announced that every Nettel Nacht they were inspired by “A Christmas Story” to order out for Chinese food: “Deck the halls with boughs of hori, ra ra ra ra ra ra ra”……it was piking duck and laughter all around. As the narrator of “A Christmas Story” insists, “That Christmas Eve still lives in my memory because all was right with the world.”
On that long ago Nittel Nacht, I held all potential of new birth in my arms. Generations of bad blood between peoples and nations can disappear as we learned one another’s stories even as we create new stores of our own. LOVE is born among us.
Joshua the name in Hebrew means “God is Generous.” Such a god is LOVE itself. Let this and every Christmas celebrate the miracle of new birth as it awakens the DIVINITY which lives in all of us, so that LOVE can come again, and again, and again. Let the awe and wonder inspired by the newborn laying on the straw, open us to the infinite possibilities of LOVE.
Once upon a time, when two of my nieces, Ashley and her sister Sheri Lynn, were pregnant at the same time. Ashley was expecting her first child, Sheri Lynn her second. My niece Sheri Lynn’s little girl is my great-niece, Isabella and Isabella was just 3 years old when she and her pregnant mother, Sheri Lynn, travelled from Vancouver to Toronto, so that Isabella could be the flower-girl at my wedding. Before they arrived, the story was already being told of Isabella’s response to the news that her Aunt Ashley was going to have a baby and that that baby was going to be a little boy. Isabella proudly announced that her Aunt Ashley’s little boy was going to be her new little brother. Well-meaning adults tried to correct Isabella by gently telling her that her Aunt Ashley’s little boy would in fact be her cousin and not her brother. But Isabella insisted that he would be her brother.
Various family members tried to convince Isabella that the baby her Mommy was expecting would be her little brother or her little sister, but the little boy which her Aunt Ashley was expecting would be her cousin. But no matter how hard or how often they tried to explain it, Isabella went on insisting that her Aunt Ashley’s new baby would be her new, baby brother. One day, while they were visiting, I snapped up the opportunity to look after Isabella while her mother did some sightseeing. I had some errands to run and it was marvellous to have a little 3-year-old along to help me. It gave me the opportunity to do some great-auntie stuff. And that’s how Isabella and I ended up in the local Christian bookstore trying to find a lightweight nativity set which she would be able to carry home with her on the airplane. I wanted Isabella to learn to tell the greatest story ever told in her own unique way.
After a lot of negotiating, we settled on a rather large cloth nativity set which folded up into a stable which doubled as a carrier-bag for all the various characters and animals. Once we’d purchased the Nativity set and one or two items which only a 3-year-old could convince me were necessary, we headed out to the car so that Isabella could make fun of my feeble attempts to figure out just how her car-seat worked. Isabella insisted that we open up the nativity set right away, so that she could play with it on the way home. So, as she got herself up into her car seat, I struggled to remove Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, some wise guys, a sheep, a donkey, a cow and a little swaddled baby, from the confines of some pretty horrendous 21st century packaging. I don’t know who comes up with such impossible packages. I can never open them without problems. Mary and Joseph almost didn’t make it and Isabella had to remind her dear old auntie Dawn that there are just some words that good girls are not supposed to say, or her Mommy would get really mad.
Suitably chastened, I rescued Mary and Joseph and suggested that we put all the characters into the cloth stable until we got home. Isabella reluctantly agreed to put all the characters away, except for the small swaddled baby. Compromise is everything when you are dealing with a 3-year-old. So, I warned Isabella not to lose the baby Jesus, and I got into the front seat and we headed for home.
On the way, Isabella told me her version of the greatest story ever told, which involved Santa Claus following a star, checking his list twice, and giving Jesus lots of gold because he was poor and needed some new clothes because his Mom didn’t pack enough in his suitcase when they went to the airport. So, Joseph was going to go to the store and buy new pyjamas for Jesus. So, everyone better be good, and watch out or else they won’t get any new pyjamas for Christmas.
Now, clearly, I had some work to do, but just as I was about to teach Isabella the greatest story ever told, she asked me if Auntie Ashley would have her new baby in time for Christmas. I told her that she would indeed have her new baby for Christmas. Isabella then told me that she was going to buy some new pyjamas for her new baby brother. I was about to remind her that her Auntie Ashley’s new little baby would be her new baby cousin and not her new baby brother, when Isabella announced that she has two little brothers. Auntie Ashley’s little boy and baby Jesus are her brothers. Who in their right mind would dare argue with that logic?
The truth is that Jesus is indeed Isabella’s brother and so of course her Auntie Ashley’s little boy is also her little brother as well. As I was ruminating over this gospel truth, Isabella announced that “all little boys are my brothers, and all little girls are my sisters.” Out of the mouths of babes.
This year, may we all remember that all baby boys are our brothers and all baby girls are our sisters. They all need pyjamas, they all need to be nurtured and to be loved. They need to be taught and to be treasured, to be freed and to be empowered and they are all looking to us, their big sisters and their big brothers, to help make LOVE happen over and over and over again. May the HOLY ONE who IS LOVE continue to live and move in, with, through, and beyond you and yours during these challenging times. Shalom, dear ones. Shalom.
What a strange Advent this has been. In the midst of this pandemic, so many of our rituals and customs have been set aside as we struggle to do our part to slow the numbers down and bend that curve. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have much of an appetite for John the Baptist’s ranting and raving this Advent Season. Public health leaders, politicians, and pundits of every kind, who are endlessly pleading with us to wear our masks, wash our hands, stay home unless it is essential to go out and worst of all don’t gather with friends and family for Christmas period. I don’t need some ancient prophet’s words echoing down through the generations crying to us from the wilderness, pleading with us to, “Prepare the way for our God!”
This is a strange Advent Season in my home. We put up our Christmas tree this year. Normally, we wait, choosing to stay in the dark blue hues of Advent. But this year, knowing that it will just be the two of us, we have made an extra effort to decorate our home with all the trappings of Christmas. We’ve even violated our custom of trying not to play Christmas carols until Christmas. So, I’ve been hearing “O Holy Night” over and over again. It seems a little premature, but that line is stuck in my head, “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices” “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices” Lord knows our world is weary. So how shall we rejoice this year?
I wonder as I wander around the empty sanctuary here, what will it be like not to see many of you on Christmas Eve. I’ve been wondering what it will be like not to hear the familiar sounds of your voices singing with such reverence. I’ve been anticipating my own sadness at not seeing many of you raise your candles in the darkness, as we sing Silent Night with such hope and gladness. Considering all that we have been through this year, and all the challenges which lie ahead in the coming months, is it any wonder that the sentimental aspects of our beloved Christmas traditions are haunting our Christmas preparations in the midst of the countless restrictions we are trying to cope with? Oh, how we long, not for the darkness of reality, but for the darkness of our visions of some “Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Our imaginings of the way things were, just might get in the way of our ability to experience any peace, or any joy, at all this Christmas.
Within the contours of our imagined sentimental Christmas scenes, the mess of life is all too often swept under the carpet of straw in that stable, upon which a gorgeous holy family stare placidly at adoring shepherds and angels, under the perfect glow of a celestial star. Even when we shift our gaze from the delightful stable, to our own remembered Christmas gatherings, the mess of life is all too often swept under imaginary rugs, so as to ensure that the reality of life in community can’t threaten to undo our visions of perfection. COVID may be an unwelcome visitor this Christmas, but every Christmas has its unwelcome visitors. I think that’s why the anonymous-gospel-storytellers allow John the Baptist to strut his stuff way out by the Jordan river somewhere, in the wilderness, so as not to have him intrude on our treasured tales of Jesus’ arrival. There’s nothing silent nightish about John the Baptist as he rants and raves about the need for people to, “Repent!” and warns anyone within shouting distance that it is time to prepare a way for the arrival of someone who will turn everything they have ever known around. For to “repent” literally means, “to turn around.” Repent! Stop going in the direction you’ve been going all your lives and turn around, prepare a new way of being. Prepare the Way for our God!
Christmas, no matter how you understand Christmas, Christmas isn’t much like Silent Night. The “way” which John the Baptist is screaming at us to prepare, is not a way which will accommodate sweeping the messiness of life under the straw, or indeed, even under the rugs of our imaginations. Christmas is so much more than the Silent Night of our longings. Christmas, if it is any kind of Christmas at all, includes all the messiness we bring to it. Think about it. The story of new birth isn’t pretty. It is not tidy. Nor is it silent. Life is chaotic. Life is messy. Life is far too full of contradictions to ever be adequately captured by our sentimentality.
If your visions of Jesus’ arrival resemble the scene depicted in Silent Night, you really haven’t understood the chaos which new birth brings. Christmas is not about heavenly peace. About as close to Silent Night that Christmas ever gets is “shepherds quaking at the sight!” We ought to be quake to at the very idea of LOVE being born in us. Christmas is a radical subversive parable which was written to challenge whatever peace we have made with the chaos in our lives, a parable carefully crafted to reject our impulse to pull the covers over our head and pretend that life isn’t happening the way it is happening.
Christmas is chaotic precisely because it is in the midst of chaos that we encounter the ONE who IS…that’s IS, with a IS with a capital I and a capital S. IS the third-person singular, of the verb “to be” the ONE who IS – the one our ancestors knew as YAHWEH, the great I AM – that’s AM in capital letters, the first-person singular of the verb “to be”, YAHWEH the I AM, is not off in the heavens looking down at some angelic nativity scene. The ONE who IS, is as Jesus taught us with his very being, the ONE who IS, is LOVE, and as LOVE the ONE who IS, is to be found in all the muck and the mire, right smack dab in the midst of our chaos. For not only do we live, and move, and have our being, in the ONE who IS LOVE, this very ONE, this DIVINITY, this GOD if you will, works in, with, through, and beyond us, in all of our chaotic mess, constantly creating hope in the midst of despair, creating justice in the midst of injustice, creating vaccines in the midst of this pandemic, and offering compassion, kindness, and LOVE, as we work together to keep as many people as possible safe and healthy. Even in this COVID chaos in which we are locked-down, LOVE is working miracles. We are not alone in this chaos.
Christmas is the celebration of new birth and birth is chaotic, messy, frightening, painful, and anything but silent! The parable of Christmas is a raw story, a bare bones story, to which we have added our own desires for a Silent Night. Whatever our imaginings about that holy night may be, one thing we can know for sure there was nothing silent about Jesus’ birth. It was a birth like any other birth, with all the mess of blood, urine, mucus, pushing, screaming, and amniotic fluid. This birth had more than its fair share of fear and anxiety. Whatever Jesus’ birth was it was not the Silent Night of our dreams.
Jesus birth was just like your birth and my birth. Like every birth, Jesus birth was chaos filled with the excitement and the worries which come before something wonderful happens. I suspect that Jesus’ young mother, Mary, was screaming, cursing, pushing, crying, bearing down, and sore afraid. Christmas was not a silent night and therein lies our hope for the world. For a god who is a creator of angelic, surreal, nativity scenes, would be a god far removed from the chaos and the reality of our lives. A god who is devoid of the messiness of life, isn’t any kind of god that I want to be a part of, let alone worship. I need to know that we are all part of something so much bigger than we can begin to imagine that isn’t some kind of distant creature, aloof, and separated from the reality of our lives. I want to be part of the SOURCE of ALL, ALL that IS, a deity, a force, a LOVE which is capable of working in, with, through, and beyond us to bring order out of the chaos, to inspire scientists to create vaccines. I want to be part of the ONE who weeps with those who weep, who suffers with those who suffer, a LOVE which dances, sings, laughs and rejoices whenever and wherever LOVE emerges in the midst of the mess and chaos of life. I want to be part of a LOVE which is beyond my ability to comprehend and yet a LOVE which works in, with, and through those who work to heal the sick, care the dying, toil away in laboratories seeking vaccines, who seek for justice for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, a LOVE which works, in, with, through, and beyond us to heal the wounds of the afflicted. I want to be part of a LOVE which challenges us, and at the same time, a LOVE which allures us in ways which empower us to live fully, love extravagantly, and be all that we are created to BE.
The Christmas story is the story of such a LOVE; LOVE which emerges in the midst of chaos, LOVE which empowers us to prepare new ways of being LOVE, which is born in a baby, for this is how LOVE is always born. This is how LOVE was born in you. At your birth LOVE came into the world and in you lie the hopes and dreams of all the Earth. “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices. A thrill of hope the wear world rejoices. Fall on your knees, fall on your knees” and LOVE will be there.
LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call, “God” is gestating in you. We will get our Silent Night. It may not be the Silent Night of our sentimental rememberings, but like all nights, it will provide darkness from which we can give birth to LOVE; LOVE powerful enough to bring peace on Earth and healing to the nations.
Prepare the way for LOVE to be born here and now! Trim your trees. Mull your wine. Wrap your presents. Sing carols. Zoom, Zoom, Zoom as we must. Reminisce to your hearts content as you, stay home. Stay safe. Keep your neighbours safe. Make room for LOVE to be born here and now! LOVE which IS, BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. Our CREATOR, CHRIST, and SPIRIT, ONE. Amen.
Way back when, when I was growing up, I always wanted Christmas to be perfect. But the reality of life, with all its inherent dysfunctions coupled with financial limitations meant that we just couldn’t pull off the perfect Christmas. I used to comfort myself with the notion that when I grew up things would be different. When I grew up, I’d do things better. I’d save up my money so that no one would be disappointed and there’d be enough to ensure that the house would be filled with Christmas cheer! The decorations would be perfect, and no family arguments or disappointments would be allowed to ruin my dream of the perfect Christmas. I knew that just as soon as I had my own place, I’d be able to pull off the kind of Christmas that would be so full of peace and harmony that the angels wouldn’t be able to keep from singing. But, when I did finally move out, I only sort of got my own place. I couldn’t quite afford the rent by myself, so I put a notice up in the office where I worked, and I got myself a roommate to help me with the expenses. Helen and I had very little in common. Those first few months were tough. She liked things her way and I liked things my way. We didn’t really like each other much, but we tolerated one another because we loved the house which we could only afford together. It was an old barn of a place perched on a hilltop overlooking Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. The location was truly magnificent. So, Helen and I put up with one another’s strange ways. We tried to get along, but in various subtle and not so subtle ways we let each other know that if we had been able to afford the house on our own, we certainly wouldn’t put up with a roommate. We were both strong willed and opinionated, but we didn’t argue instead we used passive aggression to get our points across.
Looking back on it now, I wonder why we ever thought that having a Christmas party was a good idea! Why we ever thought that we could celebrate together I do not know. But at the beginning of December, we decided to have a tree trimming party and invite our respective friends to gather in our home to usher in the Christmas season. There was trouble right from the very beginning. Helen wanted an artificial tree, I insisted on a real one. Helen thought we should have a potluck meal. I insisted on serving our guests a three-course meal. Helen wanted us to make decorations for our tree. I insisted on purchasing only the finest decorations I could afford. Helen wanted to serve all sorts of alcohol. I insisted on limiting it to beer and wine. Helen wanted to play games. I don’t play games at parties. It went on and on with both of us insisting on something and then the inevitable negotiations in order to arrive at a compromise. But I was convinced that everything would work out fine once our guests arrived, so I plowed ahead with the preparations.
When the day of the party arrived, Helen and I experienced a bit of a breakthrough. We admitted to one another that we were too tired and pre-occupied to actually enjoy the party. Over a cup of coffee, we actually considered cancelling the silly party. When our friends arrived, it seemed as though we might have done them a favour if we had cancelled because they too were tired and preoccupied. T’is the season. Apparently, we’d all just carried on out a sense of social obligation.
Not surprisingly, during the course of the evening the conversations, fuelled by the beer and wine, became a little heated. A bunch of guests were arguing over something so important that now, I can’t even remember what they were arguing about. Politics reared its ugly head, and somebody tried to get the conversation off politics, which led to some people arguing about sports and other people arguing about religion and whether or not Jesus was actually born in a stable. Comments were made. Helen’s friends thought my friends were outrageous and my friends felt the same about Helen’s friends and so the party limped along to a merciful end.
When the guests finally left, the tree was decorated, with an odd mixture of tacky homemade decorations and cheap store-bought items. It was far from perfect. Helen had won the day, and instead of the beautiful shiny star which I had purchased for to top the tree, some old family air loom of hers, a china angel was perched precariously on top of our limp little tree. I was simply trying to straighten it; I swear I never meant for the tree to come crashing down. It mustn’t have been put in the stand correctly in the first place. Why else would it have fallen over, just as Helen was telling me to be careful? The tree and all its stupid decorations crashed to the floor, including Helen’s precious china angel. The angel’s neck was broken. It was a clean break, the head severed with one crack.
I must have known that some glue could have put that angel back together, so I don’t know why I did what I did. But I picked up the headless body and I flung it on the floor. My perfect Christmas shattered into pieces on the floor along with Helen’s precious angel, given to her by her sainted grandmother when she was just a little girl. It smashed into a thousand pieces, the shards and splinters scattering through the living room, into the kitchen and into two adjoining rooms and out the door and down the steps. The evidence of my rage and the hopelessness of it all spread everywhere.
Tears filled Helen’s eyes as she picked up the angel’s head. Its seraphic smile mocked us both. Helen looked at me with the saddest expression I’d ever seen. I expected her to launch forth into a tirade. But all Helen could manage were the words, “It doesn’t matter.”
Without another word, she left the living room. I listened to her climb the stairs and walk slowly to her bedroom. I stood in the aching silence and felt tears trickle down my cheeks and I realized that it was I who had ruined Christmas. Not my friends, not my family, not even Helen or her friends, but me. I had ruined Christmas; it was my fault. I had tried so hard to make it perfect, and then I ruined it all.
I leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at the pieces of china lying on the floor, casualties of some strange warfare within me. Why couldn’t I be as good as I wanted to be? I don’t know how long I stood there, but my self-pity was interrupted by the sound of Helen’s footsteps coming back down the stairs. Without a sideward glance, she got out the broom and dustpan, and in silence we began to sweep up the shattered angel. I couldn’t find words for my shame. It seemed so pitiful to say, “I’m sorry,” but I did, and Helen simply said, “I know.” We cleaned up our party in silence. Regret and remorse kept me awake most of the night.
In the morning, Helen told me not to worry, stuff happens, things get broken. She seemed to be trying to make the best of things, but I knew her grandmother’s cherished angel was no more, and worse, something in her granddaughter’s heart had been broken. As for me, all I could feel was a dull lingering ache. For the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, I kept finding fragments and splinters of that shattered angel in strange places. In out-of-the way corners, when the light hit them just so, they were everywhere. Each time I found another piece of that angel, I thought about how much it had meant to Helen, how many memories it held in its eyes, and how much LOVE beneath its wings. I wondered about Helen’s grandmother and how she must have treasured that piece of china.
I wondered how she got it in the first place and what made her give it to Helen. And then, there was the decapitated head. Helen had carefully put it on the mantle that night, when I broke it. I didn’t dare move it, so it stared accusingly at me whenever I went into the living room.
I wanted to buy Helen a new angel, but she wouldn’t let me. Helen insisted that we put my shiny new star on top of our tree. I suggest that we make something. I don’t know what I was thinking, I’m just not a crafty person, but together we made a beautiful angel. Well, not exactly a beautiful angel; more like the body of an angel. Somehow, Helen devised a cloth body, on which we attached the precious china head. So, on top of our tree, sat the most unusual angel, who watched over something quite miraculous. Somehow, the shattering of the china, released something in Helen and me. The passive aggression left our house and was replaced with the beginnings of a real friendship. We talked together about Christmases past; about hopes and disappointments. We learned about one another’s lives and we began to laugh and to cry, and to talk and to shout, and to disagree and to compromise and to care about one another. When each shattered piece of the angel would appear, I would truly apologize, and Helen would genuinely forgive me.
Giving birth to LOVE is a process; a beautiful, wonderful, painful, difficult, glorious process; kind of like picking up those pieces of shattered china. They were everywhere. I found what might have been the last piece of the shattered angel’s body before going to bed early Christmas morning. I’d just come home from the midnight Christmas Eve Communion. Maybe it had fallen out of the trash bag, but however it got there, the small piece was lying on the driveway just where it intersected with the back alley. I found it because the light of the moon, or the stars, or the neighbours’ outdoor light, hit it just so.
Giving birth to LOVE is like finding those pieces in curious places after the shattering happens. Finding little pieces and slivers of what Christmas means, of what the gift is, in the corners of our lives, in the cracks of our failures and shattered dreams, in friends’ small expressions of LOVE, in chances to begin again, and again. Alleys and starlight. LOVE then and now, here and there and everywhere. The light penetrating the darkness and hitting just so, unexpectedly, off what is broken and somehow mysteriously revealing LOVE. I picked up the broken piece from the driveway and held it as I walked to the back door, somewhere between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
I remembered the grandmother, and the granddaughter, and then another woman who long ago had been in painful labour in the darkness of night and a child born in a not so perfect, out of the way place, a gift of LOVE. LOVE then and now, here and there, working in a broken world amidst broken people who break things.
Stories have the power to open us to the LOVE which we call God. A story’s ability to open our eyes to LOVE has been true since the “Once upon a time” days of our childhood, through to the “Way back when,” stories handed down from one generation to the next. I don’t exactly remember when or where I first heard this particular LOVE story. I do know that the depth of LOVE which this story reveals opens us to the LOVE which lives in, with, and through each of us.
Way back when, World War II had just ended, and refugees were herded into camps until the world could figure out what to do with the millions of displaced people in it, LOVE was revealed. Back then, refugee camps were filled to overflowing with children who’d lost their families during the war. Apparently, there was this little boy in a camp in France. The little boy’s name has long since been lost to me. So, I’ll call him Andre, a French name derived from the word for “man” for Andre could be any little boy. Andre couldn’t have been more than about seven years old and he could barely remember the family he lost almost three years before the war ended. He’d been living in the refugee camp, more of an orphanage really, for almost a year. A few nuns, who never could scrap together enough money to feed the children properly, ran the camp. But they did their best and the children were, after all was said and done, lucky to be alive.
The children hardly noticed that Christmas was approaching until one of the nuns announced that a neighbour had promised to come by the orphanage on Christmas Eve to drop off a sack full of oranges. Andre had only a vague memory of an orange actually is. The year before a stranger had shared an orange with him and he remembered the taste of the tiny sections of his share of the orange that oozed precious juice down his half-starved throat. Andre spent the days leading up to Christmas Eve dreaming of having a whole orange of his very own. He thought about the smell of the orange. He dreamed of peeling the orange, and carefully considered whether or not to devour each and every section of the orange all at once, or whether he should divide it and save a section or two for Christmas morning.
When Christmas Eve arrived, the children were so excited as the nuns did what they could to bring some Christmas cheer to the camp. When the neighbour arrived, there was so much jostling for position that little Andre found himself at the end of a very long queue. He strained to see the treasure that awaited him and sure enough the aroma of oranges began to waft Andre’s way. As campmates danced their oranges around the room, Andre saw the neighbour’s expression begin to change. The neighbour looked so very sad when he began to deliver the shattering news to Andre that all the oranges were gone. The neighbour was trying to apologize when Andre shot from the room and ran all the way to his dormitory and flung himself on his bed and began to sob and sob, and sob.
In the midst of his grief, little Andre didn’t hear the other children come into the dormitory. As his body heaved and his sobs robbed him of his breath, Andre didn’t feel the tap on his shoulder. It was the smell of orange which finally caught his attention. As Andre raised his head from his pillow, he caught sight of the little girl’s outstretched hand. On her palm lay a peeled orange, it was made up of wedges saved from the oranges of the other children. Each child had donated a wedge. Together, they had created the most beautiful, tangy, juicy orange which Andre ever tasted in his 93 years of savoring oranges on Christmas Eve.
LOVE oozes, drips, and pungently presents itself in, with, through and around each one of us. Savour the LOVE which quenches our thirst for life. Embody that LOVE for the thirsty ones of the world.
May the HOLY ONE who IS LOVE continue to live and move in, with, through, and beyond you and yours during these challenging times.
“Comfort, O comfort My people! says our God.” When I close my eyes, the words of Isaiah become music. In my very being, with all that I am, I hear the DIVINE MYSTERY, which is LOVE, sing notes this same LOVE created through LOVE’s servant Handel, “Comfort Ye! Comfort Ye! My people says your God” and again, “Comfort Ye! Comfort Ye! My people says your God”, over and over again like a mantra echoing down through the centuries. These words of LOVE, they well up in me, and I am comforted. The pain does not go away. The tears are still there beneath the surface, waiting to well up. My heart is remains broken. I am bereft. But I am comforted by the very I AM who draws breath in me. The pain is still there for the countless children of the CREATOR, who continue to suffer. The tears remain for the almost two-million people who have died from the coronavirus. My heart is broken for endless stolen moments which will never come again.
“Comfort Ye! Comfort Ye! My people says your God” Like the bereft of generations before me I long for a saviour, one more powerful than I am, one whom I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal. Maranatha. Come now o Saviour! Come now and comfort the people! Comfort us! Comfort us NOW!
For ten long months we have been held captive by COVID! Exiled into the wilderness of isolation. Even our grieving of so many losses has been muted, forced into captivity as we mourn our dead in isolation. Rituals denied, forestalled, minimized, robbed of their power to adequately comfort us.
Each loss stifled, as we contort our faces, dress from the waist up, disguising our pain to fit into boxes on Zoom screens. Missing moments together, longing for embraces, shivering behind masks, huddled outside, socially distant in all our fear of what is to come. Comfort us! Comfort us NOW!
But there’s no saviour to tear open the heavens, just news of a vaccine together with forebodings about when, how much, who will and who won’t be first in line. Comfort us! Comfort us NOW! In our privileged lives, we have become so accustomed to our comforts; so accustomed to comforts that we have confused the verb “to comfort,” with our own need for comforts as we long to be comfortable. Continue reading →
It was just a shabby little basement apartment, far too damp for a newborn baby, but it was all they could afford. It was a cold, damp, rainy, west-coast November afternoon when Carol’s Aunt and Uncle brought little baby Liam home from the hospital. The argument which they were having when they got out of the car seemed like it had been underway for quite some time. Carol was waiting in the driveway to meet her new baby cousin, with her four-year-old cousin Michael and her parents. They had spent the morning getting the shabby little apartment ready for the new baby’s arrival and trying to convince six-year-old Michael that a new baby brother was a wonderful thing. Carol had no idea what her Aunt and Uncle were arguing about. She heard her mother mutter something about saving their battle for another time; after all they were about introduce Michael to his new baby brother Liam.
Carol was just thirteen when Liam made his appearance in the world. In those days, thirteen was considered a prime age for babysitting. So, so every day after school, Carol would head over to Aunt Val’s and Uncle Dave’s to help out. It was Carol’s job to take Liam for a walk each afternoon so that her Aunt Val could get supper on the table. Carol would pack Liam up in his pram, regardless of the weather and head for the park. Michael would tag along behind them.
In the weeks which followed Liam’s arrival, Michael changed quite a bit. He became unusually whiney. He didn’t seem to enjoy much in his little life. He whined about everything. He whined about going to the park and he whined about having to leave the park. He whined whenever he was told to be quiet because his baby brother was sleeping, and he whined when he was asked to help with anything which had anything to do with his baby brother. Carol’s Mom said that all this was very normal; children don’t much like it when a new baby takes the attention of their parents. Carol disagreed with her mother about the cause of Michael’s behaviour, but she kept her thoughts to herself. She was convinced that Michael’s whining had more to do with his parents’ whining. Ever since they had brought Liam home from the hospital, Val and Dave had taken up whining themselves. They whined about dirty diapers, about being tired all the time, about the messy apartment, about the crying baby, about how small and shabby the apartment was and about how much whining Michael was doing. When they weren’t whining, Val and Dave were actually fighting. They fought about everything. They fought about whether or not the baby should sleep in their bedroom. They fought about whether or not Michael should be sent to his room as punishment for waking up his baby brother. They fought about dinner being late; about whether or not Uncle Dave should have to change dirty diapers because he was too tired from working all day. And they were always arguing about money. So, as Christmas approached, they argued about how they were going to pay for Christmas. The more they argued, the whiner Michael became.
Once upon a time, Lesley was a member of a small church in the suburbs. Every year toward the end of Advent the members of this church would create a living nativity. About a week before Christmas when most people were busy getting ready for the holiday, this congregation would conscript a few members to begin the preparations for the living nativity. Out on the front lawn of the church, the volunteers would slap together a few boards in the shape of a stable. Costumes would be created out of old sheets and bathrobes, so that children from the congregation could be dressed up as Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise guys. Then the children would be arranged in the make-shift stable so that people passing by in their cars would be reminded of what took place in Bethlehem on the first Christmas. The church was located at a fairly busy intersection and year after year, Lesley would marvel at the fact that the Living Nativity had never caused an accident, as drivers strained to see a motley band of children pushing and shoving each other inside what only remotely resembled a stable.
The Living Nativity was the brainchild of Deedee the dreaded church organist. Deedee was a rather severe woman, who always wanted everything to be done just so. Deedee worked hard to plan various grand events that she felt would benefit the congregation. But somehow, Deedee’s grand plans were always beyond the capabilities of the volunteers she usually managed to conscript. Over the years, people in the congregation learned to hide whenever they saw Deedee coming toward them with her clipboard. If Deedee managed to corner you and your name was put onto her clipboard, you were sunk. Once your name was on the list, you were one of Deedee volunteers.
Deedee’ s conscripts never really knew what it was they had volunteered for until they arrived for the first rehearsal. By then it was too late, because Deedee had never been known to let a volunteer slip through her hands. Deedee the dreaded church organist was a hard taskmaster. There was only one thing that Deedee disliked more than uncooperative volunteers and that was children. Deedee was convinced that children went out of their way to mess up her grand plans. But Deedee had to tolerate children in her living nativity, because try as she might, even the dreaded Deedee couldn’t convince any of the adults in the congregation to dress up like angels, shepherds, and wise folk, and stand outside in the cold, in a dilapidated stable. Adults were only too pleased to offer up their children as sacrifices to the dreaded Deedee in order to avoid the cold stable themselves.Continue reading →