In October of 1977, I was twenty years old. I was young and adventurous and with a rail pass in my hand, a back pack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars worth of American Express Travellers cheques in my pocket, I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece.
I was tired. Several months of backpacking in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head for Greece, where the living is easy, where the warm sun, blue skies and equally blue waters held the promise of rest and relaxation.
As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Hannia on the island of Crete. I knew that in Crete I could find work. I planned to mix a lot of rest and relaxation with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean.
As the train rattled through Austria toward what was then Yugoslavia it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey, by car, through Yugoslavia and how at the time, I had marvelled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as there ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra modern city of Belgrade; the showcase of Tito’s communist regime. I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor people in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade with its towering skyscrapers and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in Yugoslavia.
I was awakened by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the right papers and that my back pack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, guns and uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty years. He carefully read over the visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa that I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language and an unfamiliar alphabet.
The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I knew what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I am not sure that my feet even touched the ground. After a long lonely wait in a drab windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order.
I gathered from what she was trying unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia, but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport.
Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paperwork was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. After several fruitless attempts to try and get her to tell me what I was supposed to do, I found myself in a small room. Its only window was reinforced with bars.
In the darkness of a Yugoslavian holding cell, I sat down and I began to cry. I cried like I have never cried before or since. I was terrified and my sobbing was uncontrollable. After a while I became conscious of a sound that did not come from me. Susssssssssh.
I realized that I was not alone in the darkness. Someone else was in the room with me. In the shadows, I could make out the shape of a woman. My sobbing began to subside as she continued, Shussssssh.
The woman began to pace back and forth in our tiny room and gradually her shusssh turned into humming. She hummed unfamiliar tunes that somehow managed to calm me. Occasionally her humming would turn to singing. She sang softly and quietly and my sobbing began to ease.
In the shadows I could not tell how old she was. Her hair was long, dark and curly. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes, whose laces flapped back and forth as she paced. It took only a few hours for my travelling companion to contact the British Embassy, sort out the mess and secure my freedom. The sunlight was just beginning to find its way into our room when my captor arrived to release me. As I left, I took a close look at my roommate. I smiled, hoping that she would understand my smile as gratitude for her kindness. Her tender sounds had calmed me and helped me through one of the darkest nights of my life. She returned my smile and added a wave of her own. Then the guard roughly escorted me out into the bright lights of the customs house. Before I boarded a train that would take me safely out of Yugoslavia, I thought that perhaps I should try to help my roommate. Maybe I should try to find out why she was being detained. Perhaps I should try to help her get out. But this was not a place that welcomed questions and the warm sun of Greece beckoned me. And so, I boarded the train and I left. My few hours of captivity – I chalked up to just one more adventure on the road and I rarely thought of my roommate again.
Twenty-one years later, I sat in the comfort of my living room and watched the evening news. I had paid very little attention as yet another deadline was imposed against the Serbs. Over the years I’d lost track of who is doing what to whom in what was once called Yugoslavia. As the reporter droned on about the massacre of an entire village, the camera zeroed in on an old man who was wailing. The old man rocked back and forth as he tried to explain to the reporter the atrocities that had just been committed. He pointed to a body that lay in the bush behind him. The camera angle widened and the lower half of a woman’s body became visible. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes.
The old man tried desperately to get her story out. The voice of the translator explained that she had been forced to watch the execution of her sons, and then she was raped, stabbed and finally shot in the head. The old man went back to his wailing. He rocked back and forth, tears streamed down his face as he wailed. From somewhere deep inside of me there came a sound. Shusssssh…
For the first time in years, I remembered the woman whose compassion had soothed my pain. For the first time in years I wondered what had become of her. I do not know whether she was Serb, Croat or ethnic Albanian. I do not know f she was Muslim, Christian or Jew. I don’t even know her name. Nor do I know if she has escaped the horror of ethnic cleansing.
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” This apocalyptic vision placed in the mouth of Jesus by the writer of the Gospel according to Luke disturbs me. Over the centuries people have used these words to insist that current events point to the end of the world and Jesus’ triumphant return. This very week political pundits debate the optics of former president George Bush’s upcoming speech at a fund-raiser for Jews for Jesus; a group of fundamentalist Christians who seek to hasten the apocalypse and thereby Jesus’ return by converting untold numbers of Jews to Christianity. Prophets and doomsayers just can’t help pointing to storms, earthquakes, wars and rumours of war and shouting “The end is near!”
Biblical scholars remind us that the author of Luke attributed apocalyptic sayings to Jesus long after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in an attempt to make some sense out of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. Modern biblical scholars can caution all they like against interpretations that herald future events, but they can’t discourage the doomsayers. Somehow the notion of the end of the world, visions of destruction, wars, plagues, earthquakes, holocausts, hell fire and damnation remain more vivid in our imaginations than visions of the new heavens and a new earth that sustained the authors of the New Testament.
While some choose to ignore Christian apocalyptic ramblings, leaders of the most powerful nation in the world are wont to entertain such notions as they debate the future of the Middle East. Our own Canadian Prime Minster worships in a church that eagerly anticipates the apocalypse. If someone believes that there is no way for God’s promised re-creation to come about than through the holocaust of some cosmic Armageddon, then why should we resist the horror. Why not hasten its coming?
The powerful Temple Mount Society continues to spend millions buying up real estate in and around the Temple Mount of Jerusalem so that they can begin to rebuild the Temple. They know full well that the rebuilding of the Temple would cause violence between the people of Islam and the Jewish people and welcome the notion of such violence as a harbinger of the Second Coming. Far too many Christians who focus on Jesus’ triumphant return have adopted an attitude of arrogance toward people of other faiths, an arrogance that fosters religious intolerance. Trapped by arrogance, intolerance, violence, and hatred, visions of destruction, wars, plagues, earthquakes, holocausts, hell-fire and damnation remain more vivid to us than visions of the new heaves and a new earth.
On a dark evening, long ago, what remained of a band of rebels who were followers of a political radical, gathered together in the house of one of their supporters. The doors of the house were locked because the rebels feared the authorities. Their leader had been executed just a few days before. The rebels feared for their own lives. Rumours had been circulating that their leader was had not been defeated by death.
Suddenly, I cannot tell you how, it was as if their leader stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” In the midst of their fear and grief, in the turmoil of their attempts to figure out what to do next, in the midst of their panic about the dangers that surrounded them, the image of the risen Christ came to them as if to calm them, bidding them peace. Peace. Shalom. Peace. Shussssssh.
Today we sit in safety and listen as our risen Christ bids us peace. Just as the disciples were huddled behind a locked door of fear, despair, disappointment, and disillusionment, we huddle in front of our TV sets, or clutching our tablets and smartphones, gazing on the horror that unfolds day after day. Our hopes for world peace seem futile.
But when the disciples hopes were dashed, the image of Christ stepped right through the locked door of despair, disappointment, and disillusionment, and said, “Shalom”, shusssh, peace -peace that surpasses all human understanding, peace not like the world’s peace.
As the body of Christ we have a responsibility to seek peace, to provide comfort, to offer nourishment and shelter. In the midst of uncertain and troubled times, our God who dwells in us, greets us in the face of our sisters and brothers and says…Shalom…Shussssh…peace.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, our God declares: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…I will rejoice and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…they shall build their houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…Shusssh They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by God– and their descendants as well….Shusssh…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together….Shusssh
Remember that our God goes about the business of re-creating by engaging us in the work of creation.
There is much work to be done. The peoples of the world need much to sooth their fears. We must find ways to sooth our sisters and brothers. Shussssh……our God is working in, with, and through us to make all things new. Shusssh….Shalom….peace.
Lest We Forget – A Peace Remembered
The young woman can still remember one particular Remembrance Day when her words and actions did nothing more than offend someone she loved very much. It was the one and only argument she ever had with her Grandmother and it happened over Remembrance Day. At the time, she was living in London. She remembers thinking that Londoners take Remembrance Day very seriously indeed. More so, she thought, than in her native Canada. She wondered if the blitz had something to do with it.
While most of the poppies people wore were red, she began to see white poppies appear on the lapels of more than just a few people. She read in the newspaper that those who were committed to peace and believed that for the most part, Remembrance Day only serves to glorify war were donning white poppies. You could pretty well draw a dividing line between the generations using the colors of poppies as your guide. Young people, who had never experienced war tended to wear white poppies, while those who were older and who had memories of war, tended to wear red poppies. In many homes poppies in and of themselves managed to start wars.
The idealistic young woman was just twenty and her commitment to peace determined her choice. She was wearing a white poppy the day she traveled up to the Midlands to visit her Grandmother. It was the day before Remembrance Day when she arrived on her Grandmother’s doorstep. She’d forgotten all about the white poppy that adorned her lapel. She couldn’t help thinking that there was something odd about the reception she received from Grandmother. It wasn’t exactly what you would call warm. Her Grandmother was upset about something. But the young woman couldn’t quite figure out what, because her Grandmother appeared to be giving her the silent treatment. She just served dinner and listened quietly as the young woman chatted on about her week in London.
After dinner, the young woman suggested that they pop down to the pub for a chat with her Grandmother’s neighbors. Usually, her Grandmother would have jumped at the chance to show her granddaughter off to her friends. But she seemed more than a little reluctant on this occasion. She so rarely refused her granddaughter anything, but it still took a great deal of cajoling before the young woman managed to talk her Grandmother into venturing out into the world. As they were putting on their coats to leave, the Grandmother asked her granddaughter to remove the white poppy from her coat.
The young woman looked at her Grandmother’s red poppy and refused. She began to lecture in that pompous way that only young people who don’t know any better can about the horrors of war and the need to stand up for peace. Her Grandmother insisted that she could stand up anywhere that she wanted to for peace but not in her local, not in front of her friends, not tonight. And then their battle began in earnest. They started calmly, but firmly arguing over the damn poppies. Before long, they were shouting and eventually the Grandmother, stormed out of the house and went to the pub without her granddaughter.
The young woman discretely went to bed before her Grandmother came home. Each woman slept fitfully, bemoaning the fact that they had declared their own kind of war.
Early the next morning the young woman rose quietly, hoping to dash off to London before her Grandmother awoke. She was just about to make a clean get away, when her Grandmother came into the living room. She was carrying a uniform. A uniform the young woman had never seen before; a uniform that stopped the young woman cold in her tracks.
Over breakfast the old woman explained that during the Second World War, she had joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The men were all off fighting and so the government had consented to letting women do their bit. Her job in the WAAFs was carried out on the home front. Every evening after she had fed her kids supper, she would send them off to the air-raid shelter with a neighbour, then she would put on her uniform and head off to the hills over Birmingham, where she would “man” an anti-aircraft gun.
After telling the young woman stories that she had rarely told anyone before, the old woman invited granddaughter to come her to British Legion later that morning. Awed by all she had been told, the young woman changed her plans and agreed to meet her Grandmother down at the Legion hall in about an hour.
On her way to the Legion hall, the young woman bought a red poppy and timidly pinned it to her lapel. When she finally caught up with her Grandmother, the old woman couldn’t help but smile when she saw the red poppy pinned to her beloved granddaughter’s lapel.
The young woman couldn’t manage a smile. Not threw her tears. The young woman was overcome by the sight of the white poppy that was pinned to her Grandmother’s lapel.
The two women fell into one another’s arms and for a moment, just a moment the two held one another other in the presence of a peace beyond words; a peace which surpasses all our understanding. The peace that only love can achieve. The peace that the world is dying to experience.
As the last post was trumpeted on that cold November 11th, separated by generations, perspectives, opinions, and commitments, two women stood united in love and remembered. Together they stood hoping against hope for peace.
As Christmas draws near, we turn to stories to express the inexpressible.
Like the Gospel writers we are at a loss to explain the activity of our God in the world and so we too resort to story telling.
Families gather and the reliable old stories are told.
And each year new stories are added to our treasure troves as we seek to express the inexpressible and touch the hem of our God who is love.
And what better way to touch and be touched by God than to tell stories of God’s love in the world.
We all have treasure troves of stories of Christ taking on flesh and dwelling among us.
My story took place when I was a young woman determined that my first Christmas living out in the world would be the type of Christmas that dreams are made of.
It’s a story about the quest for the perfect Christmas.
When I was growing up, I always wanted Christmas to be just so.
But the reality of family life with all its inherent dysfunctions coupled with financial limitations meant that we just couldn’t pull off the perfect Christmas.
And so every year, 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.
I dreamed of the perfect Christmas and 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 with the expenses.
Helen and I had very little in common.
And 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.
It was an old barn of a place perched on a hilltop above 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 don’t 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 of 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 break through.
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 canceling the silly party.
When our guests arrived, it seemed as though we might have done them a favour if we had cancelled because they too were tired and preoccupied.
Apparently we’d all just carried on out a sense of social obligation.
Not surprisingly, during the course of the evening the conversations, fueled by the beer and wine, became a little heated.
A bunch of guests were arguing over something so important that I can’t even remember what they were arguing about now.
Ronald Regan’s name came up; 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, and there was no chance that it would ever end up on the cover of a Christmas card.
Helen had won the day, and instead of the beautiful shiny star that I had purchased for to top the tree, some old family air loom, china angel of Helen’s was perched precariously atop if our limp little tree.
I was simply trying to straighten it; I swear I never meant for it 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 at 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 skittering 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 and 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 realized that I 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 right, and then I’d 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 in 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.
I kept finding them 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 such it.
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 the night 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 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 I.
The passive aggression left our house and was replaced by 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.
And when each shattered piece of the angel would appear, I would truly apologize and Helen would genuinely forgive me.
I find it ironic, that the very season that offers the message of Peace on Earth, Good Will to All, brings instead Stress on Earth, and Bad temper to Many.
The challenge is to balance the traditions that manifest the joy of the season with the gift that embodies the reason for the season; and that gift is love.
For God is love.
And as the carol says:
Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine
Love was born at Christmas
Stars and angels gave the sign.
Stars and angels gave the sign.
So did wise folks and shepherds then;
so do presents and mistletoe; homecomings and holly; trees, lights, and embraces now.
All the things that make Christmas Christmas point us to that gift of love if we let them.
Someone emailed this to me years ago; and I’ve kept it even though I thought when I received it that it was smaltzy:
but I think it speaks to some of our desires for the perfect Christmas, so you’ll have to forgive the smaltz:
“If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love, I’m just another decorator.
If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my neighbour, I’m just another cook.
If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.
If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing the solo in the Christmas Cantata but lose sight of the Christ in Christmas, I have missed the point.
Love stops cooking to hug the child.
Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the lover.
Love is kind, though harried and tired.
Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.
Love doesn’t yell at the kids to “get out of the way; I’m baking Christmas cookies here.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
Love never fails.
Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust.
But the gift of Love will endure.
Love never fails; well the truth is: our love often fails, it is God’s love that never fails.
For God is love.
We are created in the image of God.
Love is in the very fiber of our DNA, so you see
we were created to be love and
it is in our very nature to love.
The gift of Christ is a gift given to remind us who we are.
Love will endure.
The promise of new life in the birth of the Christ child becomes the hope of life eternal in the resurrection of Christ who lives and breathes in with and through us.
It is love that triumphs over death—love that is the Christmas Truth, a truth greater than the traditions it inspires; the mystical longing of the creature for the creator, the finite for the infinite, the human for the divine.
It is a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom; it is a longing that is represented for us in the baby in the manger—the sudden amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace:
a God who loved us enough to be with us.
Yes, we embody the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones; and not so loved ones.
But the greater wonder is that the God who is love incarnate comes to us at Christmas and is among us as one of us showing us how to share that love with a world in such desperate need of it.
St. Athanasius summarized the message of Christmas by saying that in the birth of Christ:
“God became human that we might become God.”
Another way of putting that in Christ that we can see, know, and feel God.
In Christ we learn that in those moments when we love are the times when we are most like God.
When we use love to overcome injustice, war and anything else that dehumanizes and demonizes anyone, we are most like God.
The gift of Christmas is the humanization of God so that human beings can become more like God.
The gift of Christmas is that we are loved so that we can become love.
Becoming 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 that angel before going to bed early Christmas morning, after coming 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’ window, hit it just so.
It occurs to me that maybe Christ 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 and forgiveness and trust, in chances to begin again, and again.
Alleys and starlight.
God 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 reflecting hope.
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 on this night and a child born in a not so perfect out of the way place; a gift of love.
God then and now, here and there, working in a broken world amidst broken people who break things.
Christmas isn’t about perfection.
Christmas is about Love; Love that is determined to dwell with us in the midst of our brokenness; Love that is willing to work with us to heal our brokenness.
I took that broken piece of angel wing into the house and I got out the glue gun and I fixed some red string to it and when it was dry I hung it on our pitiful Christmas tree and the next morning when I Helen and I came down to greet the new day, a broken angel smiled down on us.
Helen saw the hideous excuse for a decoration that I’d put together and laughed out loud.
She warned me that if I wasn’t careful, I’d ruin Christmas with my hopeless sentimentality!
But it wasn’t me who insisted on taking that hideous excuse for a decoration when we eventually moved from that old house.
But it was me who packed away the love, which that hideous decoration bore witness to, and who treasures the memory of that hopelessly imperfect Christmas in my heart.
Strengthened by the love of a friend for the work of love.
MARY’s STORY: Let It Be
The way you tell the Christmas story, it all sounds so simple.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I really like it.
It’s just that for so long now people have been telling my story and the way they tell it, it all sounds so simple and easy, so neat and tidy, that I hardly recognise myself in the story.
It’s not your fault. It all started a long time ago.
Luke and that other fellow Matthew, they started it all. They wrote my story down and wouldn’t you know it they cleaned it all up.
But who can blame them. Nobody likes messy birth stories.
And as birth stories go, my baby’s birth was a really messy one.
But when Luke tells the story, he likes to down play the messy bits.
But it was messy right from the start.
There I was, no more than fourteen, part of the young and the restless crowd.
My parents wanted me to settle down and it seemed like all my friends were getting married.
So I agreed to let my parents find me a husband and they picked out a local carpenter.
Joseph was a good man.
A little quiet perhaps, but a good man.
So it was all arranged and I was engaged to Joseph.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, when along came somebody claiming to be a messenger from God.
An angel no less. Called himself Gabriel.
What an entrance he made.
There I was, all alone, minding my own business and along comes an angel.
Bold as brass, in he comes. He scared the life out of me.
I had no idea what I was in for.
Imagine my surprise when he says to me, “Greetings, favoured one! God is with you.”
I was struck dumb. What sort of greeting was this?
He tells me not to be afraid and then with out so much as a “by your leave” he comes out with it.
He tells me that I, Mary have found favour with God. Imagine that!
Then he says that I am about to conceive in my womb and bear a child.
And no ordinary child mind you but the Child of the Most High who will take over David’s throne and his reign will have no end.
Well would you believe it? Not me.
I told that fool Gabriel that he must have the wrong girl.
I was a virgin!
Then he says that the Holy Spirit will come upon me and that the power of the Most High will overshadow me and that a child will be born.
He must have noticed that I wasn’t buying any of it because then he tried to convince me that nothing was impossible for God.
He told me that my cousin, old Elizabeth who had been barren for as long as I could remember had also conceived a child and was sixth months pregnant.
He kept insisting that nothing was impossible for God.
He had me so worked up that I didn’t know what to say.
Does that ever happen to you?
You hear something so incredible you just don’t know how to respond and then you end up saying something really stupid. I can’t believe what I said to this guy.
When I think back on it, I suppose I could claim that it was the Holy Spirit that prompted me to say it.
I sure don’t know where I got the moxy to say what I said.
I looked that Angel Gabriel right in the eyes and I said, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.”
I must have been crazy!
But it must have been just what he wanted to hear because after that Gabriel was out of there.
I don’t mind telling you that it took a while for things to sink in.
I’m not sure I really believed Gabriel’s grand announcement until the Holy Spirit actually showed up.
Now I know that you’re all really curious about how it all came about.
But there are some things that a lady just doesn’t reveal. And being overshadowed by the Most High is one of them.
All you need to know is that I became pregnant.
And what a mess that was.
In Nazareth, they did a far sight more than just frown upon young girls who get pregnant before they‘re married.
In those days you could be stoned if anyone found out.
So I kept things to myself.
I couldn’t help wondering about what the angel had said about Elizabeth.
Could it be true that at her age Elizabeth had finally become pregnant?
I wondered if she had had any angels visiting her house.
And I thought that maybe she could help me to understand what was happening.
So I convinced my parents to let me go and visit Elizabeth.
When I arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
There was Elizabeth, stomach out to there.
When she caught sight of me she let out a loud cry and started going on about how I was blessed among women, and so was the fruit of my womb.
She wanted to know why I had come.
She asked me why the mother of her Lord should come to her house.
I wasn’t sure what to make of all that she said.
She told me that the moment she saw me the baby in her womb leapt for joy.
She went on and on about how blessed I was.
And by this time I was beginning to believe her.
I didn’t fully understand what was going on inside my body but I knew that God had some special plans for my child and for me.
I remembered some words from the Torah, words from the prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk, words that Hannah had spoken and words from the psalms.
These words from the scriptures flooded into my mind and I began to speak them:
“My soul magnifies the Most High,
and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour,
who has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant:
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who revere God from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm,
and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.”
Incredible words. Unbelievable words.
Generations will can me blessed. That’s for sure.
Generations have indeed called me blessed.
For nearly two thousand years, my story has been told in word and song.
But like I told you before, they have made it sound so simple and easy.
They have prettied it up.
I hardly recognise myself in the stories that have been told about me.
They’ve turned me into something that I am not.
For one thing they go on and on about the “Blessed Virgin.”
They make me out to be so meek and mild.
They constantly talk about how I surrendered myself to God, how I am the perfect model for the submissive obedient woman.
They have created an image of me as the perfect woman, and what an image a virgin and a mother.
They point to their image of me as the obedient virgin mother as an example for women to follow.
Who could live up to that. Not me!
Virgin and a mother indeed. Totally submissive! Hah!
Is that how you see me?
Have you any idea what it means to carry the Child of the Most High in your womb?
Submissive and obedient! I was a scared little girl.
I was no one special. Why God choose me, I will never know.
I was just an ordinary young woman.
I was a woman for heaven sakes.
A woman who lived two thousand years ago in a little town called Nazareth.
I had no special virtues, no power of my own.
I was the epitome of the lowly.
And God choose me.
God did what God is always doing.
God choose what was ordinary and accomplished something extra-ordinary.
God looked with favour upon me, lowly little Mary and God choose me to help change the world.
The Mighty One has done great things for me.
I am part of God’s plan to scatter the proud and bring down the powerful from their thrones, to lift up the lowly.
To help fill the hungry with good things, and to send the rich away empty.
I am part of God’s plan.
Part of the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.
I will admit that there were days when I wondered if I was the first woman that Gabriel visited.
Was I the first woman asked to bear God’s child or had the angel approached several young women who declined the honour.
I wouldn’t blame them if they did.
If I had known what was coming, I might have said no myself.
I don’t know how I found the courage to say yes.
But I do know one thing, if you want an example to follow, choose that one.
Forget the image of me as the submissive and obedient virgin mother and look at who I really am.
I had the courage to say yes. I had the courage to let something grow inside me.
I had the courage to harbour the Child of God in my body.
If you want to emulate something emulate that.
Do you have the courage to harbour Christ in your body?
If you want to set me up as an example to follow, follow that, and have the courage to bear Christ.
But I ask you, when the power of the Most High overshadows you will you have the courage to trust God.
Will you have the courage to be a bearer of God to the world?
That’s the terrifying challenge that my story offers.
I challenge you to be at God’s disposal, to become filled with God’s life–for the sake of the world.
But let me warn you, God-bearing is more than a little inconvenient: it can be heart breaking and even lethal.
Bearing God to the world means letting some of God’s passion for the world become flesh and that can be costly.
Bearing God to the world means being part of God’s plan to redeem the world; to scatter the proud and to bring down the powerful from their thrones; to lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things, and to send the rich away empty.
When God sends a messenger to you, will you have the courage to say “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.
Will you have the courage to join me in bearing God to the world?
So you see, it’s not so easy! Mine is not a pretty little story. It’s not so simple.
I said before that I don’t know why I answered Gabriel the way that I did.
I said that perhaps it was the Holy Spirit that prompted me to say it.
And over the years I have come to believe that.
And just as God gave me the courage and the strength to be part of God’s plan –
I trust that God will grant you that same courage and strength.
Let it be, oh God.
Let it be, according to your word. Amen.
“Keep awake! Watch for we know not when Christ comes. Watch, so that you might be found whenever and wherever Christ comes.” Mark 13 The Gospel of Mark tells us to “Beware, keep alert”. Advent is about waiting and watching: waiting and watching for the coming of Christ. We wait for just the right time to celebrate the birth of Christ in our midst and we watch for Christ’s promised return. But how do we wait and where do we watch? A long time ago I lived in an apartment, in a very rough neighbourhood in the east end of Vancouver. Many of the people who lived in this neighbourhood got by on welfare, others earned their livings any way they could. I moved into the apartment because it was close to the office where I worked, the rent was cheap, and quite frankly I was young and foolish. I ignored all the warnings of my family and friends and moved into the apartment convinced that I could handle anything that came my way. The apartment building housed the most unsavoury of characters. The office where I worked was just down the street and every morning as I walked to work I would meet some of my neighbours returning home from an evening of plying their trade on the streets and in the alleys. Each morning, I would be met at the entrance to my office by an old man named Ed. Ed had been living on the streets for years. He slept on the doorstep of the office because it was somewhat protected from the winter weather. Ed always gave me a warm welcome when I arrived. He knew that when I got inside, I would brew fresh coffee. He used to tease me that, I was a sucker for a sad face as he waited patiently for me to bring him a cup of coffee. We never talked much, though. I never found out how Ed ended up on the streets. I didn’t know how he spent his days. That year I drew the short straw and had to work on Christmas Eve. Before I left my apartment, I packed a small package of goodies for Ed, but when I got to the office, Ed was no where in sight. I asked some of the women who worked the streets if they had seen old Ed. But no one knew where he was. I went about my duties and soon forgot all about old Ed. I finished work early and went off to celebrate Christmas Eve with my friends. I had been looking forward to Christmas for weeks and was eager to celebrate. Together, my friends and I shared a fine Christmas goose with all the trimmings and then we went of to a candlelight service. The service was beautiful. They really pulled out all the stops, great music, lots of activity. The preacher even managed to keep his sermon brief. But somehow I was left feeling like there was something missing. The next morning I celebrated with my family. But I felt detached, like I was just going through the motions. The next morning as I drove back to my apartment in the city I found myself wondering if this was all there was to it. Christmas had come and gone and I didn’t feel like anything had changed at all. By the time I had parked my car, I was feeling quite depressed. Christmas was over and nothing much had changed. When I got to the entrance of my apartment, I saw Ed. I’d never seen him anywhere near my apartment before and it made me a little nervous. I wondered how he had found out where I lived. Indeed, it frightened me a little that he had taken the trouble to find out where I lived. Ed looked very agitated. Nervously I greeted Ed and asked him why he was at my doorstep. Ed explained to me that he needed my help. I became very uneasy. The odd cup of coffee at work was one thing, but this old man showing up on my doorstep was quite another. And now he wanted something. Ed asked me if I would come with him to the park. Caught off guard, I reluctantly agreed. When we arrived in the park, Ed introduced the me to Karen. Karen was a very scared looking teenager, who couldn’t have been more than about fourteen years old. Ed explained that Karen had run away from home on Christmas Eve. He said that lots of kids ended up on the streets at this time of year and there were usually lots of unsavoury characters to meet them when they arrived. When Karen arrived at the city bus depot, Ed spotted her. From the moment she arrived, Ed had carefully watched over Karen, making sure that she came to no harm in the city. Karen’s two days on the streets and Ed’s gentle persuasion had convinced her that she should really go back home and try to work things out with her parents. Ed explained to me that Karen needed money for a bus ticket home. After we had called Karen’s parents and safely loaded her onto a bus, I asked Ed if he would come and share a meal with me. Ed refused the offer of a meal but agreed to share a cup of coffee with me. In the coffee shop, I took a long hard look at old Ed. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. That night in the coffee shop, I looked into the eyes of Christ. I had almost missed it. Christ had come. I was so busy looking up that I had forgotten to look around me. Christ came to me in Ed. Ed’s care and concern for Karen helped me to understand what it means for us to be christs to one another. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Christ comes to us in the most unlikely of places. Just as Advent moves us toward the remembrance of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in the first century, it also reminds us that most of the world was preoccupied and utterly unprepared for that first Advent and many missed the whole thing. The question is: Will we miss the whole thing again?” For we do not know the day or hour, no one knows. Therefore keep awake–Christ may come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: “Keep awake! Watch for we know not when Christ comes. Watch, so that you might be found whenever and wherever Christ comes.” Prepare the way of our God!