Merry Christmas!

 

Bureij refugee camp, Gaza

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”John 1:1-5

It was 1999. There were 1,500 Kosovar refugees in this camp on the dusty outskirts of Sarajevo. They had come by bus, car, and on foot. First held in the expansive bottling rooms at the Coca Cola factory, the refugees now lived in an old cattle barn, in tents, and on an open field.

We were invited into the barn’s converted milking room and given the best of the plastic seats around a plywood table. Forty families live here in 6-by-8 foot cubicles separated by curtains. The men tell us that Serb soldiers (self-proclaimed Christians) herded them out of their homes. One asks us to find information about his brother, who he presumed was dead in Kosovo. Adem, the oldest man in the camp at 80, wears a blue wool beret and his weather-worn face glistens with tears. Thirty members of his family were killed by Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo.

The women stand around the ring of conversation holding children on their hips. They serve us coffee in chipped red cups. Harija, in her mid-30s, shot her words at us like fire. “How can I live with this pain that my neighbor—my husband shoveled snow from her walk before he even cleared our own—stood in our yard while I was hanging laundry and spoke aloud how she was going to kill me and my children because we are Muslim? She was trying to decide between mortar or sniper.” Harija looked at us. “Did you come here just to stir up pain, or are you going to help us?” she said. Then she wept.

There was no doctor in this camp. The outhouses were overflowing. The only food available was bread and canned vegetables. The graffiti on the wall showed a young man with a gun to his head. We delivered watermelons to a few of the families. One man led me down a shoe-strewn hall. He opened the curtain and there, on the bunk bed, lay a 2-day-old baby boy wrapped in clean linens and a rough gray army blanket. The mother looked worn but happy in her torn T-shirt and dusty skirt.

I pray over the child, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. No one seems to mind the mix of religious symbols. For Christ to come at all, he must be born in the lowliest of places.

Christu natus est! Blessed Christmas!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Christmas Eve: ‘O Holy Night’

Henry Ossawa Tanner "Virgin and Child"

“Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother And in His name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.”—Placide Cappeau

“‘And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’”Luke 1:76-79

Welcome, my friend, to the fruition of our Advent pilgrimage. We have peregrinated the sacred wheel of time. We have endured the refiner’s fire. We have rested at the caravanserai of the candles of Christ.

Tonight is the Great Night. O Holy Night! An English custom says that a loaf of bread baked this night will cure the sick and heal the broken-hearted. It is believed that on this night at the crossing hour animals are given the power of speech as a gift for their service at the manger in Bethlehem. It is said that on Christmas Eve at midnight honeybees hum the 100th psalm (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come into the Presence with singing.”)

“It is a strange thing to come home,” wrote Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof. “While on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.” Tonight we creep into that sacred darkness. It is a strange place. One, perhaps, where we never thought we’d find ourselves. Yet, like dreamers, we have been drawn to the Light. There is no present that we can wrap. There is no money we can offer. There is no sin that should hold us back. As the Talmud says, “God wants only one thing: the heart.”

“O come, O come Emmanuel, come our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Christmas Eve.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Fourth Sunday in Advent

“Come Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; From our sins and fears release us; let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.”

“Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.“—Romans 1:5-7

We light the fourth Advent candle to remind us that things are not always as they seem, and that hope springs forward at the sound of its name.

In William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” he wrote:

I give you the end of a gold string.
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
built in Jerusalem’s wall.

The followers of The Way in the early church wove together a “gold string” that reached back to the creation of light in the Genesis story and forward to this very Sunday in Advent. There is a golden thread that sews us together as students of Jesus. Paul calls this thread the “grace of apostleship.” It is passed, hand to hand, from one generation to the next. Like kindergartners on a field trip through the big world, we are given a rope and told to hold on. We know that the rope reaches all the way back to the teacher, the anchor, the shepherd.

Advent is a time to marvel at the golden thread and to make sure that we have not become separated from it. If, by chance, you have become separated from it, do not be afraid. Jesus extends the end of the string to you again. What glistens in your life? What sweetens your days? Your answer is the beginning of the thread. “Only wind it into a ball,” my friend and “it will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Third Saturday in Advent

 

“‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.’”—Matthew 1:20b

For a short while after 9/11, people living in the terrorist “bull’s eye” of Washington, D.C. were encouraged to create a sealed room in their house with plastic wrap and duct tape. This was to protect them in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack. The military surplus stores sold out of gas masks. Plastic sheeting and duct tape were soon rare commodities.

The frenzy appeared to be mostly among the middle class. The rich thought they were impervious to such danger. The poor figured they die anyway. But those in the middle rushed to protect themselves—caught between fear and the illusion of control.

Joseph also had the illusion of control. He controlled who came in and out of his house. He was the gatekeeper of his home. Tradition tells us that he was much older than Mary. He was “established.” He was also from the royal lineage of King David and yet had not produced an heir. When Joseph learned that Mary was already pregnant, he had little reason to continue with her. The lineage had to be kept pure. He didn’t need to invite this complication into his house. God knows what havoc it might wreak!

Joseph, however, like his namesake, was open to the importance of dreams. When the messenger entered Joseph’s dream and said “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” he listened.

Who are you afraid to take into your home? Why? Do you see your home as gift to be shared or a right to be protected? Do you have possessions that are so precious they hinder hospitality? Have you ever had to “depend on the kindness of strangers”?

“O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Third Friday in Advent

Good_shepherd_icon“At Christmas, Christ is born in us. At Passiontide he suffers and dies in us. At Pentecost the flame of the love of the Spirit is kindled in us. Advent returns, Christ prepares to be born in to the world again in us.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar.”Matthew 1:1-3a

Names. In traditional cultures, names are sacred and secret. A person’s name may change in their life to mark rites of passage. In oral cultures, names and genealogies are chanted from generation to generation.

Once, in Venezuela, I heard a schoolteacher tell this story about the success of their national literacy program. “There was a very old man who came to our classes. He had never learned to read. After he had learned to write the alphabet people saw him out wandering the hills going from house to house with a little scrap of paper and pencil stub. When asked what he was doing, he replied that he was collecting names. When asked why, he said ‘I have always wanted to learn to write down the names of his friends, so they will know how important they are to me.’”

What names are written on the leaves of your family tree?

We are now in the season of the ancient Christmas octave. In the monastic tradition, these are called the days of the “O” antiphons. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine, writes “these prayers describe quite clearly the type of leadership that marks the coming of the reign of God.” Savor them.

“O Shepherd that rulest Israel, Thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep, come to guide and comfort us.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Third Thursday in Advent

SANCTUS by Elizabeth Wang
SANCTUS by Elizabeth Wang

“Jesus says to us ‘You are the light of the world.’ We have grown accustomed to Advent being the season of light, but let us agree to make this Advent a season of fire. Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within. Let it burn in you. Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you and make ready the Way of the Lord.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“‘What did you go out to the desert to see—a reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.’”Luke 7: 24-26

Jesus is challenging the crowd—provoking them to push their questions deeper. Did they think they think John the Baptist out preaching in the desert was someone who they could use for their own political purposes—a reed swayed by the prevailing political winds? Did they think they would find someone preaching a prosperity gospel? If they sought either of these, then they should around and go home. If, however, they came seeking the word of God, then they should stay. In John they have found not only a prophet, but in the community around John there is one of whom John will say, “Behold! The Lamb of God.”

For most of his ministry, Jesus worked the edges of the field, the social and political margins. He gathered around him those who fell through the safety net; those for whom the institutions weren’t working; those forced to make do in the chaos of areas that had been abandoned by civilized society.

It was not because the people he found there were better or purer or more righteous or more innocent. It was because that’s what God told him to do. Travel writer and mystic Phil Cousineau says, “The purpose behind questions is to initiate the quest.” At some point in his life, Jesus asked a question.

What question directs your life?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Third Wednesday in Advent

rabbi-heschel-001
“Rabbi Heschel” by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy

Advent is the season for acts of faith. It starts with the awareness of the presence of Christ within us. It is quite incredible to think that God is really present in me. “My God, I believe that you are within me.” This act of faith brings peace; it silences the noise of distraction; the loud business of fear. It is the stilling of the waters. It gathers our thoughts into a circle like a crown of flowers; it crowns us with peace.Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“I am the LORD, there is no other; I form the light, and create the darkness, I make well being and create woe; I, the LORD, do all these things. Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up! I, the LORD, have created this.”Isaiah 45:6b-8

“The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Heschel. “We have not survived that we may waste our years in vulgar vanities… When Israel approached Sinai, God lifted up the mountain and held it over their heads, saying: ‘Either you accept the Torah or be crushed beneath the mountain.’”

Here’s how it stands in America today. Over the past three years, the political and corporate classes in the United States have secured for themselves more than $2 trillion in tax cuts. More than half of them are going to the wealthiest one percent. The Congressional Budget Office predicts deficits totaling more than $2.75 trillion over the next 10 years. America has more children growing up in poverty than any other industrial nation.  One in 37 adults living in the United States are in prison or have served time there, the highest incarceration level in the world.

“The mountain of history is over our heads again,” proclaims Rabbi Heschel. “Shall we now renew the covenant with God?”

How are charity and justice made real in your life?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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Nate Bacon: From Guatemala to Jerusalem to Pakistan

Here’s an update from my colleague Nate Bacon, who works for InnerChange in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and is a participant in one of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative roundtables:

“Nine people were killed, and 35 injured, on Sunday morning [17 December] in a suicide bombing attack at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Pakistan. In the light of such tragedy, it was consoling to be on a zoom call this morning with 10 members of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative from all around the globe, and hear a Christian Palestinian woman in Jerusalem offer empathetic words of comfort and encouragement to a Catholic priest in Pakistan!

“Even more encouraging was to hear that same priest describe to us how (instead of staying away in fear) Christians have been flocking to churches in even greater numbers to light candles and pray for the victims and for peace. And what a gift to conspire with these amazing leaders on how to promote and integrate Gospel Nonviolence in the Catholic Church and beyond, in a world drenched in blood.

“In the light of this and other distressing situations we discussed (including DRC, the Philippines, South Sudan, US politics, and Honduras), our friend from Jerusalem asked: ‘Who is going to monitor humanity to remain human?’ ‘Where do we go?’

“After a pause, she responded softly to her own question: ‘We must keep following the Star of Bethlehem.’

“…Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight… Amen.”

Third Tuesday in Advent

Francis and the Christ Child
Francis and the Christ Child

“Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence. It is the season of humility, silence, and growth. For nine months Christ grew in his mother’s body. By his own will, she formed him from herself, from the simplicity of her daily life.”–Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said: ‘Pardon, my lord! As you live my lord, I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD. I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request. Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.’ She left him there.”—1 Samuel 1:26-28

A classic Chasidic story says that when the rabbi of Kotzker was asked, “Where is the place of the Messiah’s glory?” he replied, “Wherever we give Him room, wherever we make space for Him.” Where is the tender place in you where the Messiah will come to birth?

The Christmas crèche is a tangible reminder for us to make room for the Christ Child. The tradition dates back to St. Francis of Assisi. As the story goes, on Christmas Eve in 1293, Francis gathered with friars and townsfolk in the woods on Mt. Subasio. There, under the canopy of flowering ash and downy oak, was laid a trough filled with hay. Oxen and a donkey were tied to a tree. In his delight at the sight of Bethlehem in his own little corner of the Umbrian hills, Francis danced in praise and sang the gospel.

When the impromptu mass was over, Francis went to the crib and stretched out his arms as if to hold the infant Jesus. And for a moment, so the story is told, the Christ Child appeared. The empty manger was filled with a radiant light.

Remember to set an extra place for the unexpected guest at your Christmas meal.

“O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Son of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.