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


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

Christmas and the "Slaughter of the Innocents" - Why Tell It?

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more."

  Matthew 2: 16-18

DSC_2201The recent horrific killings of 20 first grade children and 6 caring adults in Newtown, Connecticut, right before the last Sunday of Advent devastated their families, broke the heart of our entire nation, and called the attention of everyone who has access to information - even so briefly -  to the unfathomable grief of a little town in a country known supposedly for the fierce protection of its children.

It provoked profound self-examination in many souls, myself included, and wrenched our eyes toward a portion of the birth and infancy narrative of Jesus that is seldom preached on or lifted up during this season of great gladness and celebration.  Yet right next to the first chapter of Matthew where the birth of Jesus is told, is the narrative of King Herod's edict to massacre all male children below the age of two - known ignominiously in biblical literature as "the slaughter of the innocents  -  in his evil pursuit of  destroying "he who has been born King of the Jews." Chapter two begins with the cause of Herod's fear, when the wise men from the East (a learned class in ancient Persia) shows up in Jerusalem looking for the infant Jesus so they may come and worship him, "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born."

His evil intent led him to concoct a deceitful deal with the wise men, asking them secretly to tell him where they will find the infant Jesus so that he "too might worship him." If not for a dream which warned the wise men not to return to Herod, Jesus would have been killed as an infant.

It has caused me some sleepless nights since the Newtown massacre to realize that it took such a horrific incident to cause me to come to terms with the realization that I have often overlooked a theme that is an integral part of the birth and infancy narrative of Jesus - that the great proclamation and mystery of our faith, that God chose to lovingly become like us by joining our humanity in the form a son, is told matter-of-factly alongside a story of great evil in the world. I can't remember the last time I heard a sermon or read anything from anyone during Christmas about this jarring juxtaposition of  radically opposite visions of life. But then, I thought, how else can it be told why God came to save?

Celebrating Christmas will never be the same for me again. That every time I think of the joyous wonder and awe of God giving an only son "in whom his fullness was pleased to dwell", I must also think at the same time of the darkness and fallenness of our world against which we still groan to overcome  He is "Prince of Peace" precisely because he came to save us from ourselves, we who continue to unleash the forces of destruction and hatred  that still wound the world and destroy many innocents. Away from the searing media coverage are children - innocents - who unbeknownst to us are being killed in biblical proportions to this day in the garbage dump communities of the Philippines, the Congo, Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Israel, North Korea, Ethiopia, Haiti and many other places on the planet.

God's love has overcome the forces of death, yes. But it came with a price, in the same way it came with Jesus paying the ultimate price on the cross. For us who follow Jesus, and to those who we invite to do the same, the cost of that price comes in the form of our resolve to work harder and better to to bring the light of God's love into the darkness of the world. The Holy Spirit's work of love remains unfinished in the world.

And so may the "Good News of great joy" fill your hearts and home this Christmas season, and impel our actions and decisions in the work of resisting the forces of destruction in the world, that we may sing with new and fresh meaning that verse and call to action in the great hymn, "No more let sins and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found!"