A Christmas Story

The human mind is a story telling machine – constructing stories to explain our experience of the world. Religious faith is not – as so many believe – shaped by assertions of propositional truth -true/false, good /bad, light/dark – but by the power of story to communicate more imaginative and skillful ways of living. The Bible is full of such stories with the potential to be life enhancing or life constricting – depending on the way we receive and retell them in each new moment.

Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting stories. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have.

To the ordinary demands of 21st-century American life 2020 has added the unprecedented stresses of a full-blown global pandemic visited upon us in full medieval horror. On the cusp of 2020 turning into 2021, pandemic losses are urgently reshaping the stories we tell. Threats to the very environment that sustains us now means that there can be no justice that is not environmental justice.

Tonight, we hear the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 – as a story of renewal that demands that our long-held certainties begin to give way to the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

It’s Luke who tells the best story of the birth of Jesus. It’s Francis of Assisi who populates Luke’s story of the birth of the savior with the visual props of the traditional nativity play. We now can’t think of Christmas Eve without the mental images of a ruined stable lean-to, bestrewed with straw, with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.

Viewing the old master depictions of Luke’s nativity, haven’t you noticed that the idyllic foreground scene is set against a background of collapsing civilization and darkened sky. Glory to God in heaven is all well and good but the reign of peace on earth is not yet arrived. With the birth of Jesus, the story has begun but it’s ending is not yet in sight or as Sonny Kapoor, proprietor of the Most Exotic and Best Marigold Hotel proclaims it will be OK in the end and if things are not OK it’s because it’s not yet the end.

As 2020 draws towards its painful and still frightening end, it’s not the quaint details of the manger scene that communicate the meaning we yearn for.  Old stories with each retelling have the potential to become new stories. If the particular chemistry of the present moment is the key to the past remembered becoming the future reshaped – our question tonight is not so much what did Luke intend to convey – but what, do we hear in his story?

In 2020 we have all come to experience the frightening novelty of no longer knowing with any assurance where safety lies. Anxiety about who’s safe and who’s not – has forced us to view one another with increased suspicion as we retreat into social isolation. In 2020, so many more of us are experiencing a frightening sense of social and economic marginalization as our previously held certainties no longer feel so certain.

Yet with every action there is a reaction. Social isolation is countered by new virtual ways of bringing us together –ways that will leave a lasting legacy for facilitating social relationships into the future. Hated mutual suspicion of one another spurred by the age-old fear of contamination refocuses our attention on the interpersonal qualities of mercy, forgiveness, humility and compassion. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder. The threat of social collapse demands we relinquish old ways of working that will no longer serve us going forward – requiring that our long-held certainties give way to fruitful uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

The enchanted magical realism of Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ birth among angels and shepherds may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, in 2020 we cannot miss the themes beneath the surface; themes of safety versus risk, between invulnerability and vulnerability, belonging and rejection, hope and fear.

So, on Christmas Eve in 2020 I believe in the power of Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus to change our lives. I believe in this story, not because I mistake it for a literal description of true events, but because to not believe in it impoverishes and limits me. My life is all the richer, my ability to weather the vicissitudes of fate strengthened, because I believe that the Creator has entered into the very structures of the creation to experience it as we do.

The universe has purpose and this story reveals how God is actively engaged in bringing that purpose to its fulfillment. Luke’s nativity story is a story we’ve heard before – but in the present context of 2020 it becomes a new story – speaking to us no longer of the past remembered but of future possibility emerging from the tensions of the present time. Tonight we hear the story as the jumping off point to reshaping a future inviting us to grow into our responsibilities as God’s agents – actively engaged in the continual in-breaking of an environmental justice embracing all forms of injustice – as a sign of the divine repair of a broken world.

The birth of Jesus is a story about the creator’s self-emptying into the creation – witnessing the endless power of God’s love to provide the creation with the energy for continual renewal. Hearing the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 –requires that our long-held certainties begin to give way to discovering the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that new worlds can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

Our Christian story is a drama in two acts. In the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated messianic age in which we live. Keeping act two – the final fulfillment of a new heaven and a new earth in mind – reorients us back to the work of the messianic age, i.e. the remaking of a broken world despite the frustrating fact that the in breaking of justice and peace is still in the process of moving towards its final completion.

What better than to end with a contemporary voice – the voice of the Irish mystic poet, the late John O’Donohue inviting us into a future reshaped:

May the stories we choose to live by – enliven us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed, so to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here for and waste our hearts on fear no more.

Morning Offering

Encountering Mary’s Story

We now inch day-by-day towards Gods third great act of creation. Genesis offers us stories of the original act of creation when the Spirit of God hovered over the abyss and brought order to the hitherto undifferentiated universe – separating night from day, light from dark, sea from sky, and the emergence of solid ground on which God planted the seeds of all life. With the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the primordial garden we see the first shift in the way the creation will hence forth progress.

Genesis reports that things continue – going from bad to worse – until in the story of Noah and the Flood we God’s destruction of all but the sea and sky along with the solitary ark bearing the remnants of living life. This great eruption of divine anger is followed by an act of remorse. God grieves – it seems God has been hasty destroying the very thing he ha most loved. His profound remorse is symbolized for all eternity in the sign of the rainbow – a sign in God of of the triumph of love over rage.

The Christmas Carol It came upon a midnight clear speaks of an angelic song which opens the way for God’s third great action in the story of creation. The carol’s second verse speaks of angel-song as:

With peaceful wings unfurled,
their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

Yet beneath the unimaginable beauty of the angelic strain:

with woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

In God’s third great act in the creation, we find a 15-year-old girl sitting entranced by the words of a heavenly messenger– hail O highly favored one, the Lord is with you. Mary alone hears the angel-song. She lets the words enter deeply into her, slowly allowing them to arouse in her a deep curiosity. Her first words are the predictable how can this be?

On the surface of things, the angel’s greeting makes little sense to her.

Mary’s world is far from secure. A 15-year-old peasant girl occupies a vulnerable place within a world that is consistently harsh and often cruel. A world in which for a young woman there can be little hope of escape from the endless round of servitude and labor. So how can this be?

Yet, there is curiosity in her question. I often comment that curiosity is one of the essentials in the pursuit of a spiritual life. There is a wonder in curiosity in the way it opens the curious to new and undreamt-of possibilities. Curiosity precedes hope – hope the whispering of longing to be translated into action in the present-time.

And so, Mary sits in silence. Gabriel, the angel with unfurled wings hovers soundlessly with a deafening soundlessness that penetrates every cell of Mary’s body – every fiber of her being. Together their silence brings all of creation to a stand-still – like the pause between two breaths. Mary sits, Gabriel hovers patiently, and God – the Creator of heaven and earth and all they contain – our God waits. For God must now wait upon Mary’s response.

Suddenly the waiting is over. From the depth of her being Mary whispers her yes – a simple yes – her word of agreement that will change forever the course of creation.

In the words of the carol through Mary’s yes the creation (the whole world) finally gives back the song which the angels sing.

Despite the difference of time and context separating us from her, like Mary’s – our world is a far from easy or safe place. If nothing else, 2020 has brought this home for many of us who otherwise enjoyed the illusion of a degree of separation from the harsher realities of the world.  We struggle to hope – hope which ultimately requires us the whisper of a yes. But our question is not Mary’s but how can this be? Our question is more often yes, but yes to what? A conditional yes.

All we can know is that when we whisper our yes we, as Mary did, consent to enter into a partnership of covenant with God – giving ourselves over to God’s purpose for us.

In every moment of every day God addresses us as highly favored ones – asking for our willing consent to become those in or through whom the Word of God is born.

Our Advent waiting is over. Our confusion as to what or who we have been waiting for becomes clear. We are the ones God has been waiting for. Let it be to us according to the divine life-giving word.

 Fifteen years old –
 The flowers printed on her dress
 Cease moving in the middle of her prayer
 When God, Who sends the messenger,
 Meets His messenger in her Heart.
 Her answer, between breath and breath,
 Wrings from her innocence our Sacrament!
 In her {white} body God becomes our Bread.

 Annunciation by Thomas Merton 

Who are we waiting for? Sermon for Dec. 13, Advent 3 – from Mark+

Main text Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Advent is a time that refocuses our attention on the spiritual virtue of hope. Hope is the universal aspiration of the human heart. Regardless of differences in the imagined outcome -hope is a universal of the human spirit.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my fatalistic Irish grandmother’s sayings was don’t hope- never be disappointed. This saying captures that quality of risk inherent in hope. To hope is to risk wanting – and wanting raises the possibility of disappointment. But my grandmother’s expression, while it captures our fear of risk, it nonetheless misses the essential point about hope. Hope’s not primarily a picture of a longed-for future – realizable or not. Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.

You see, hope is not a future dream – although much of human hope is couched in this way. Hope is primarily an expectation for the present. Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility.

We are the ones we have been waiting for is a saying the origin of which has multiple attributions. We are the ones we have been waiting for is however the title of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about which Alice Walker has said:

We are the ones we have been waiting for because we live in an age in which we are able to see and understand our own predicament. With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for was also used by Barak Obama – not to indicate that he or his administration were necessarily the ones desperately awaited but that present generations of our society have the potential to really change American society’s direction of travel towards an – as yet – unrealized future.

Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility.

Sustaining hope is a lifetime’s work. Advent invites us to refocus on this task of sustaining hope in a world that tends often – like my grandmother’s saying – to play up the risk of hope’s disappointment.

We can see the tension played out in the book of the Prophet Isaiah between hope as a longed-for future expectation and hope as the invitation to open to present time possibility. The book of Isaiah begins around 740 BCE when the figure known as First Isaiah begins to prophesy and ends in the mid 650’s BCE with the prophecies of Third Isaiah – The combined prophecies of First, Second, and Third Isaiah form the mainstay of Advent’s O.T. lessons. On Advent Sunday, picking up on Third Isaiah’s plaintiff cry: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, I posed the question: in Advent what are we waiting for, and why are we still waiting? I noted that the answer was too complex for one sermon and I promised to return to the question.

Third Isaiah’s cry: why God are you too long in fulfilling your promises – is certainly a complaint we can identify with. But the problem here lies in the nature of expectation. Third Isaiah’s complaint is an expectation of a God who dwells outside of human affairs and is required from time to time to swoop in to rescue us from our folly. Yet, in the book of Isaiah we find the earlier voice – that of First Isaiah, writing some 200 years prior to Third Isaiah anticipates God’s arrival not as an all-powerful – God who rescues us – but as Emmanu-El –literally, God is with us.

The implications of First Isaiah’s expectation of God as Emmanu-El  – is of a God who has come not to rescue us and take us out of the mess of our own creation, but as a God who enters into the mess of the world alongside us: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.

If our Advent hope causes us to raise our eyes heavenwards waiting for divine rescue – we will miss the object of Advent hope- that God is already here – among us – journeying alongside us in our travail.

At the heart of our Christian faith is the realization that in the birth of Jesus, the Creator, hitherto dwelling outside of creation – now enters to dwell within the tent of the creation. In the Incarnation God comes to be with us. However, the birth of Jesus is only the beginning.

Although not the gospel appointed for Advent 3, Luke’s chapter 4 show us the adult Jesus on entering the synagogue, reading First Isaiah’s words: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. His audience’s familiarity with these words as future promise give way to astonishment and then to anger as he tells them that: today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. They react badly to being told to forget about the future, and open their eyes to see that things are really happening now. In Jesus, hope has come as the challenge for change in the present time and his first act inaugurating his ministry.

We are the ones we have been waiting for focuses our attention firmly on the present time in which hope is not a future dream but a present-time activity. Of course, there is a hidden irony here. Writing of Obama’s use of the phrase in the Atlantic Magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote:

But I think some have missed a nuance. The phrase is actually a self-indictment as well as a self-congratulation. The point is surely that we shouldn't wait for someone else to save us, or lift us up, or fix our problems or address our fate.

What are we waiting for and why are we still waiting?  Maybe this is not the question after all.

The great 20th -century theologian Paul Tillich wrote:

the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait

On Advent 3 we arrive at a different question from the one I posed on Advent 1. What are we waiting for becomes who are we waiting for? Allowing for an appropriate sense of humility, if we are not to be the ones we have been waiting for – then who will be?

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