Love Came Down at Christmas
Christmas is a mystery. In some ways, it’s a familiar story about a birth under less than ideal circumstances, like so many births. But, it’s also an utterly fantastic birth. A boy- child without human father born of a virgin mother; heavenly choirs of angels sing tidings of his birth to simple shepherds; a new star appears in the heavens to mark the site of his birth and strangers travel from faraway lands to pay homage.
We talk about the Incarnation but we really don’t know what we are talking about when we do. The Word, the creative principle of the cosmos, fully becomes flesh yet continues to be fully the Divine. What does that mean? There seems little room for such an unreasonable possibility. It’s entirely unreasonable. For centuries, Christians have tried to wrap their heads around this birth. The whole premise is beyond possibility. And that’s at least part of the reason why we have these stories so beyond possibility about a birth so beyond possibility.
Does it? Do the heavens declare the glory of God? When you look at the heavens, do you see written/declared/proclaimed, God’s glory?
I think I was about 15 when I came across Bertrand Russell’s slim volume Why I am not a Christian and I declared to my friends and my teachers, probably pretentiously, to shock, that I was no longer a Christian. When I looked into the heavens, I may have seen something inspiring, but I would have told myself that it had nothing to do with God.
Well, as you can see, as the years went by I changed my views. But I never lost my respect for the scientific method and for the vision and purpose of science, nor sensed any real clash between the purposes of science and religion. Even back at the Renaissance, there was a clear demarcation between what was called natural philosophy (what we call science), which concentrated on empirical evidence from nature, and theology’s concentration on the world beyond. Interestingly, Sir Isaac Newton wrote as much about the Book of Revelation as about the theory of gravity.
So it seems particularly baffling to me, why so much fuss is made about the teaching of science in schools in our country. To try to mix the empirical scientific method, with a priori theories about God, creationism or intelligent design seems wrong-headed. In my own experience, especially the experience of coming to faith, they are different languages, science and religion, employing different modes of perception.
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
There’s a well-known mountain in the Holy Land. Ask a kindergartner to draw a hill, and that’s about what it looks like: improbably rounded and just sitting there, seemingly removed from its geological context. Mt. Tabor, the traditional sight of the Transfiguration story we’ve just heard. What’s most stunning about Mt. Tabor is the view from the top. It has to be one of the most beautiful anywhere, a grand, panoramic sweep.
If you’re standing facing east, the hills around Nazareth are back over your left shoulder, the hills around the Sea of Galilee at about 10:00, with Mt. Hermon, snowcapped in winter, beyond that to the north. The distant mountains across the Jordan River straight ahead. The hills of Gilboa, where King Saul was killed, at about 2:00. The rich, fertile plain of Jezreel at the foot of the mountain stretching from about 12:30 all the way to 5:00. The Carmel range stretching from about 3:30 back to 5:30 in the distance—Haifa, the Mediterranean port, is just out of sight almost behind us.
The Transfiguration story is mainly about Jesus, of course, and a vision of the fullness of his divine life. It’s about us as well, and a vision of the fullness of the Resurrection life we await. O wondrous type, O vision fair, of glory that the church may share. [Hymnal 1982, #137]
Although we anticipate this greater and more glorious life even now, the life we have is the one we have: the life of flesh and blood. A life of flesh and blood created of the dust of the earth, given to us and redeemed by God. A life of flesh and blood taken on by God: …and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our ultimate transfiguration, for the time being, belongs to the religious and poetic imagination.
51Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ 52The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” 53Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ 54Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, 55though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. 56Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ 57Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’* 58Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ 59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Several years ago, the author Bruce Filer produced a book entitled Abraham, about the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The book soared to the New York Times Bestseller List for more than six months.[i] Abraham is a very important name today, as it was in Jesus’ own time. For Jesus to claim what we hear in this gospel passage – “before Abraham was, I am” – was two strikes (or we might say, two stones [sic]) against him: it sounded both preposterous and blasphemous. Preposterous because it was through Abraham that a nation had been formed and God’s everlasting promises were made many centuries prior to Jesus. Everyone knew that. Jesus is a nobody from Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” they used to say.[ii] Jesus is preposterous. Secondly, Jesus’ saying, “before Abraham was, I am,” seemed blasphemous because this sounded very much like the conversation Moses had with God, recorded in the Book of Exodus, who identifies himself as “I am.”[iii] The Hebrew actually translates, “I will be who I will be,” nevertheless Jesus’ saying “before Abraham was I am” was too close for comfort.[iv] The crowd was prepared to stone him, they thought quite justifiably.
Since the Middle Ages, Saturday has normally been a day to especially remember, to commemorate the Blessed Virgin Mary, a tradition we follow here at the Monastery. Hence the liturgical color for today: blue, because of heavenly blue. One of the titles ascribed to Mary is “Queen of Heaven.”
We know from the Gospel accounts that Mary said “yes” to the visiting angels who bore the news to Mary that she was to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. In our hymnody, this has been called “the glad tidings” of the angels. That’s how it ended, but it’s not how it began. Mary’s first reaction to the angels’ news was fear and disbelief? “How can this be?” she says. Of course the Gospel account was written down many, many decades following this event, and so what we read in the Gospels are the remembered, edited snippets of what happened long ago. We don’t know how long it took Mary to finally say “yes” to God: “Be it unto me according to your word” as we read the Gospel account. Nor do we know if the angels visited other women prior to Mary, women who said “no, no thank you.”[i]
Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
A Christmas story – not from Dickens, but from Kierkegaard:
Once upon a time, there was a powerful and wise king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who lived in his kingdom. The king’s problem was this: how to tell her of his love? He called for the best and brightest of his consultants and asked their advice. He wanted to do this in the best and most proper way – and, of course, he hoped his love would be cherished by the maiden and returned. But when all of his advisors had had their say, the king was left disappointed. For every one of them had counseled him in the same way. “Show up at the maiden’s house,” they said, “dressed in all your royal finery. Dazzle her with the power of your presence and with your riches. Overwhelm her with expensive gifts. What girl could resist? Who would reject such an opportunity, or turn away from such an honor? Who would possibly refuse a king? And if need be,” they added, “you can always command her to become your wife.”
Isaiah 61: 10-62: 3
Hebrews 1: 1-12
Several hundred years after the foundation of Christianity, while the new religion was still concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean but spreading rapidly over Europe, north Africa and the middle east, controversy broke out in the Church which caused serious dissension and could have destroyed any sense of unity.
The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Micah 5:2-5a Psalm 113
Romans 8:28-30 Matthew 1:18-25
Several years ago, quite unexpectedly, a friend and I were invited to join the annual French national healing pilgrimage to Lourdes, to be a part of a contingent of 1,000 malades and 3,000 caregivers to spend a week at the famous holy place of healing.