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.

Second Wednesday in Advent

"The Holy Thing" by Bruce Manwaring
“The Holy Thing” by Bruce Manwaring

“Everyone should open their heart very wide to joy, should welcome it and let it be buried very deeply in them; and they should wait the flowering with patience. Of course, the first ecstasy will pass, but because in real joy Christ grows in us, the time will come when joy will put forth shoots and the richness and sweetness of the person who rejoiced will be Christ’s flowering.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’”Luke 1:26-28

The eight-day Jewish “Festival of Lights” called Hanukkah starts next week. It commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in reclaiming the temple in Jerusalem’s from the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. As the people prepared to dedicate the temple, they realized they only had enough purified oil to kindle the menorah for a single day. Miraculously, the light continued to burn for eight days. Each evening of Hanukkah one more menorah candle is lit with a special blessing. The candles are not to be “used” for light, but only for enjoyment, savoring their beauty.

“We will prevail through the dark night,” sings Rabbi Shefa Gold in her Hanukkah song from Zechariah, “but not by might, and not by power, but by Your Spirit. These are the words of God.”

Jewish midrash tells an interesting story on how the first menorah was made. Apparently, Moses had a difficulty remembering God’s instructions on menorah making. Every time Moses left the mountain he would forget the pattern, so God engraved the design into the flesh of Moses palm. Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg says that after this experience Moses’ hands took on new power. Later, when Moses instructs Joshua to lead the Israelite force against Amalek, Moses does not direct with his staff but only his open hands. “In this gesture, according to one midrash,” writes Zornberg, “ Moses models prayer to his people fighting below. In a surrealistic description, their involvement in battle is refigured as a miming of Moses’ prayerful gestures: ‘they saw Moses kneeling down, and they knelt down, falling upon his face and they fell upon their faces, spreading their hands to heaven.’” Whenever the people modeled Moses, they prevailed.

What a powerful image of nonviolent resistance! In the midst of a battle, all the Israelites knelt down to pray as Moses instructed them. “As long as the Israelites gazed upwards and submitted their hearts to God in heaven, they would prevail,” says the Mishna Rosh Hashana, “and if not, they would fail.”

What healing of the masculine to you need in your life?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

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

Fourth Wednesday in Advent

2015-05-13-15-41-30-1When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”–Luke 1:57-60

Mary is a variant of Miriam. Miriam was one of the three primary leaders of the exodus, along with Aaron and her brother Moses. She was a prophet. Both Mary and Miriam’s names carry the echoes of the word “bitter” (see Ruth 1:20) for the bitterness that was pressed down on the people in the time of Pharaoh and in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel and destruction of the Temple. In some translations Mary or Maryam’s name is “sea of bitterness.”

The story of Maryam, in Luke’s narrative, mirrors the crisis that caused Moses to flee Egypt. In Exodus 2:12, Moses murders an Egyptian soldier. It’s premeditated, and it’s an act of treason against Pharaoh. He “flees” (2:15) from his death sentence to the land of Midian.

Maryam also “flees” (Luke 1:39). Not because she has committed murder but because she is “untimely pregnant,” as Richard W. Swanson notes in his excellent article “Magnificat and Crucifixion.” Not only is she pregnant outside the clan arrangement, but it’s very possible that she belongs to a priestly family. This pregnancy, an affront to the social and religious order, is a crime that may be punished by death—either by stoning, strangling, or burning (according to the ancient legal tractates).

Maryam doesn’t wait to be dragged into the streets as part of an honor killing, as Swanson frames it. Instead, she heads for the hills of Judah—perhaps to the “castles and towers” (2 Chronicles 27:4) built there by King Jotham—where her kinswoman Elizabeth (or “Elisheva”) would offer her protection. Elisheva was a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5) and thus a powerful priestly leader in her own right, as well as with her husband, Zechariah.

What happens when Maryam approaches Elisheva’s gates? The baby in Elisheva’s womb leaps and dances in response to Maryam’s greeting—as David did before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:16). And Elisheva leads the gathered community in a loud song of rejoicing. She pours out her blessing on Maryam and on her baby—a sign of Maryam’s bravery and radical prophetic hope. Who am I, asks Elisheva—she of the priestly lineage whose family business it was to study the prophecies of God and believe they would be fulfilled—that I should welcome the one who truly believed that the promises of God would be kept?

What promises of God do you believe will be kept?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Sojourners where this reflection first appeared in print.

#StayWoke White Folk

Anne Braden and Rosa Parks, 1950s
Anne Braden and Rosa Parks, 1950s

Our friends over at #StayWokeAdvent are providing explosive Christian analysis on the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the context of Advent.

In that spirit, I invite you–especially if you are a “white” American Christian–to commit to two study sessions this Advent.

1. Read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), then watch this video of a woman in Indianapolis (5 minutes) addressing a community panel in October 2014. Read the Magnificat again. Compare and contrast the two addresses. What story would you tell if you were in her place?

2. Listen to Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage” and read “Most White People in America Are Completely Oblivious,” by Tim Wise (published November 25, 2014 on Alternet). This is a long article and parts of it are hard to read and will likely make you very uncomfortable. That’s okay. Just sit with it. Then read Malachi 3 in The Message version. When did you first realize you were white?

Remember, “whiteness” is a social construct resulting from the Fall. It’s part of what John Kinney refers to as “snakeology” –lies our culture tells us. Each one of you, however, is God’s beloved. Nothing takes that away. You are strong enough and courageous enough to look at hard truths. You are not “white.” You are Christian. Shedding our “whiteness” means looking at hard truths of  unconscious bias and unearned privilege. That’s okay. That’s what we are here on earth for — to look at hard things in ourselves and allow God to make them new in us. Jesus is always with us, always making all things new. God is with us in this. Emanuel. God has our backs. Be not afraid.–Rose Marie Berger