Advent

Burden of the Old, the Lightness of the New

Our 2016 Christmas tree - a Canaan Fir

Our 2016 Christmas tree - a Canaan Fir

When we moved to our current home a little over 12 years ago, my wife and I decided that we make it a tradition moving forward to have a freshly cut Christmas tree in our home during Advent and Christmas. For some reason the tree that I cut this past Christmas was the tallest we have had so far - a little over 9 feet. The height of the tree is not the priority for us, but we always are drawn to the best shaped tree we can find at the Christmas tree farm. This time around when we found the best shaped tree that suited our purpose, it just happened to be much taller.

Our son usually comes with us to help. But this time he was not able to do so because of a schedule conflict. So I had to do the cutting myself with some help from my wife. Needless to say, it was quite a challenge for me. It was heavy, but I managed to cut it and get it on the cart and pulled it to the store where the workers helped to tie it on top of our vehicle. Getting it off the car when we got home, taking it inside the house, and mounting it on the stand was another challenge. But we did it, and it was beautiful where it stood.

It was not until January 9 of this year, after Epiphany, that I had the chance to take out our Christmas tree to the curb to be picked up for recycling. I watered and fertilized it regularly so, as you can see in the photo, it retained its shape and fresh look the entire season. But I noticed something rather remarkable when I had to finally pick it up to take it out of the house - the tree was so light, that I could literally lift it up over my head! It was clear that, while it retained its "fresh" appearance, the tree had lost much of its weight - its sap and fluids that gave it turgidity.

A new metaphor for the new year suddenly came to me: not only did the calendar change, not only did Epiphany liturgically book-ended Advent and Christmas, but the weight of all the cares and the burdens of the previous year now belong to that moment in time. In the new year the receptacle of my experience has been lightened, emptied and ready to receive the new joys, the cares, and even the burdens of the new year. May we look at this new year with great anticipation of the new encounters that will fill our cups with child-like wonder and gratitude to God who is the Lord of the Journey, and to Christ who is the Word become flesh.

 

Jesus and the New Leprosy – A Christmas Meditation

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And in despair I bowed my head: "there is no peace on earth", I said, "for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men"

The cold-blooded murder of two New York Police Department (NYPD) police officers yesterday in Brooklyn, NY just a few days before Christmas as they were sitting inside their squad car having lunch, pushed me to the keyboard today to write this article to express in large part a deep sadness in my heart. For this to happen while the country is still reeling from the recent police-related killings in Ferguson, MO., Staten Island, NY, of unarmed black men, and the protests that grew out of it until now, seems to me that our society is in the grip of a resurgence of great fear, hatred and violence. Our 24/7 broadcast media has brought front and center in recent weeks the violence and woundedness that continue to infect our society and the world.

At the Christmas Sunday worship this morning at my home church, the Chesterfield Baptist Church, I was reminded that the birth of Jesus dawned also in a setting that was in the grip of fear, hatred and violence. Rome was the imperial power in the world of Jesus’ birth, wielding absolute and tyrannical power over its subjects, and whose violent impulses used slaves (including Hebrews) as entertainment in brutal blood sports. Joseph and Mary themselves were in hiding, escapees from a genocidal governor. The Good News, the euangelion, entered a world also full of bad news and ugliness.

As I have been trying to struggle with the ugliness that still remains in the world, the story of Jesus’ healing of the leper in Matthew 8: 1-4 has caught my attention in a fresh way. Upon closer scrutiny, it is easy to see that the Bible speaks a lot about leprosy. The Old Testament mentions it over 50 times, and the New Testament mentions it at least a dozen times. Leprosy has terrified humanity since ancient times. The disease leaves the infected person severely deformed and unsightly. Thought in broader terms than the Hansen’s Disease that we know today, leprosy, being untreatable by human standards during that time, became the symbol of everything that was ugly, to be understood as punishment of sin and its destructive spread. This distorted understanding led to people being shunned, stigmatized, and driven out from or marginalized in their own communities and from the very homes in which they lived. The sight of a leper during those times was enough to cause hysteria. But, alas, that same response still exists to this day.

Hysteria over disease is not new. History shows that responses to epidemics often lack rational or scientific bases. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa that caused a few US health workers to come home with the disease is another case in point. It caused hysteria and fear. And where there is fear, people are demonized, stigmatized, shunned and ostracized. Panic and fear of contagion led, in 1894, to the establishment of a “home” for the humane care of leprosy patients in Louisiana. With leprosy, we ended up with laws that not only isolated the ill but stigmatized them and their families. Fear brings to the surface the many dark sides of our human condition. It breeds many horrific offspring - hate, bigotry, prejudice, narcissism and the will to power. Fear leads a people to enslave another. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, our country - gripped by fear - arrested all Japanese Americans and sent them to internment camps. They were Americans, and many of them were pillars of our Asian American Baptist community. The fear of the different led Hitler to unleash the greatest genocide of modern history - the Shoah, the methodical murder of 6 million Jews from 1941-45.

The Advent waiting for Christians ends in the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve. And in a few days all that waiting will be consummated, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christ child. What is the voice of the church? Where is it? The real ugliness in the world is fear. Fear is the mother of hate, and hate has many offspring - slavery, avarice, genocide, bigotry, violence. Jesus touched the untouchable, the leper, he touched leprosy, and doing so he made leprosy beautiful and pronounced that the real ugliness in the world is not leprosy but fear - fear that is borne out of its blindness to God’s love.

The first words of the gospel is the announcement of the angels, “Fear not!” In one way, the words acknowledge the presence and reign of fear in the world. In another, it is an audacious rebuke and subjugation of its illusory power. Fear cannot drown out the words of the Prince of Peace. They are the very words the world needs. As for us, we are called to be makers of shalom, makers of peace. We are to be proclaimers and embodied ambassadors of Christ's love - the sacrificial love that came not to condemn the world, but to save it; the sacrificial love that cannot but express itself in the righting of wrongs; the sacrificial love that continues to call each one of us to participate in, and physically commit to, the ongoing work of love of the Holy Spirit in the world.

A Christmas prayer: Lord, we see your tears as you gaze at our brokenness. Lead us to gaze back to your tears, that we may be led into your compassion.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Epiphanies and Dreadful Dreams

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Reflections on the core themes of Advent

The Latin word, adventus, which literally means "arrival", is the root word of the English, "advent", which now is the term that defines the Christian liturgical period beginning the four Sundays before Christmas. This morning, I was blessed to attend my home church, Chesterfield Baptist Church, for the 4th Sunday in Advent worship service. The choir presented a beautiful Christmas cantata. As I was allowing myself to be immersed in the music and the lyrics of the cantata, many thoughts ebbed and flowed through my mind and heart.

The birth narratives in the gospels of Luke and Matthew were the central scripture readings in the liturgy this morning. This ancient narrative spoke to me today in new ways. The visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that her womb will bear God's son (known also as the "Magnificat"); and another visit to Joseph in his dream, staying his plans to divorce Mary; their self-imposed exile to escape Herod's edict to slaughter the innocents - all these themes in the birth narratives struck me with fresh appreciation of the profundity of their experience. Their apprehension of their lives in those moments must have been imploding with the conflicting emotions of epiphanies and dreadful dreams.

Now that the 4th and last Sunday in Advent is over, I can't help but wonder what "waiting" was really like for Mary and Joseph in that dark, quiet, livestock stable, in those next couple of days before the birth of Jesus. She must have started feeling some intermittent labor pains by then. That, and at the same time bearing the fresh memories in their hearts of the awesome visitation from the angel for Mary, and for Joseph in his dream, the flight to Egypt to escape a genocidal king - those next few nights must have been  - for these two refugees - nights full of awe, dread, fear, and wonder all thrown in the same mix.

How stark the contrast and the paradox - that the announcement of the good news of Jesus' birth comes alongside the pains and fears of a broken world. And a paradox it must be - after all, birthing is attended by both joy and pain.

And so it is, that the good news can only be authentically proclaimed audaciously if it, at the same time, unflinchingly confronts the many faces of our yet broken world.

This line from a great Christmas hymn says it all, about the birth of Jesus: "The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight!