Archive for December, 2012

For Dec. 30, 2012: 1 Christmas, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The late chapters of the book of Isaiah were written probably around the middle of the fifth century BC for people returned to Israel from exile in Babylon to a Jerusalem still in ruins. Despite the difficulties, Isaiah rejoices that God’s vindication and salvation are already and at the same time are yet to come. Isaiah’s message is for each generation—including ours: let us not rest until salvation comes, but let us also exult, for Christ is born!

The Response            Psalm 147:13-21

The Epistle            Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Within the Christian community that Paul planted at Galatia, in modern Turkey, were some who insisted that non-Jews were obliged to convert to Judaism and observe Mosaic law before they could convert to Christianity.  Paul, though himself perhaps the best Jew ever, has no use for that position: Christ having redeemed us, all of us are no longer slaves under the old law but children of God the Father.

The Gospel            John 1:1-18

 

Further thoughts

The month of January is named for Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates and of beginnings and transitions. Janus had two faces, for doors look both in and out, and beginnings and transitions are also endings in their way. The Christian in this world is in something of the position of Janus.

We look in one direction at the world that is, the world that came into being through the true Light but that does not recognize its creator and king in Jesus. We see a world in which justice miscarries, a world in which light seems lacking, a world in which the vindication and glory of Isaiah’s prophecy seems very far off indeed, a world in which, as the psalmist claims, the real God is only for Israel and the circumcision that marks God’s covenant is reserved only for men, a world in which the name “Christian” is smirched, to our shame, by association with historical and present abuses that we would love to disown but cannot honestly deny. We see our lives moving inexorably toward the end; as the gates close on our hopes and dreams, it can be hard not to despair.

At the same time, however, we look forward: forward to the vindication and righteousness that, Isaiah promises, Jerusalem will represent to all people—and already does, in God’s time and in God’s eyes. We look forward with Paul to God redeeming and adopting us—as God already has, in God’s time and in God’s eyes, for how else should we dare even to want to call God “Daddy!” We look forward to the Light of the World, Jesus, from whose unfathomable and eternal goodness we will receive grace upon grace—and already have. For, as John says, the light is already in the world—and, deep though the darkness may be, it is still the light that prevails.

O come, let us adore him!

 

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For Dec. 23, 2012: 4 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Micah 5:2-5a

The eighth-century BC prophet Micah foretold the destruction of Jerusalem for its sins and the sins of its rulers. Like the later prophet Zephaniah in last week’s reading, here Micah offers comfort to the ordinary people and the downtrodden: from little Bethlehem will come a ruler who will gather God’s flock and “be the one of peace.” In Micah’s time this was the righteous king Hezekiah; we now read this as a prophecy of the Messiah.

The Response            Canticle 15, Luke 1:46-55: the Magnificat

The Epistle            Hebrews 10:5-10

On this final Sunday before Christmas, when we might expect more of Paul’s great good joy in the Thessalonians and Philippians, we and the Hebrews instead get a dose of theology: what God wants of us is not ritual sacrifices but right living. The point here is at the core of Christmas: it is Jesus coming to do the will of God that sanctifies us—and it gives us a model to follow.

The Gospel            Luke 1:39-45

 

Further thoughts

Two millennia on, we tend to figure we have a pretty good idea what to expect from this Advent thing: make the cider, wrap the presents, deal with the crowds and the office parties, light the candles, practice the carols… We know the drill, year by year.

Or do we? The year C readings for Advent, summed up in the readings for the fourth Sunday, however, remind us just how unexpected the whole thing is. The King of glory is about to be born—born? God?? This God made man chooses for his birthplace not a center of power like Rome nor an important religious place like Jerusalem but the has-been backwater town of Bethlehem, and not a palace scented with lavender water but a stable that smells of the sweat (and more) of working animals and working people as well. His mother, who by now is hugely and obviously pregnant, is no princess or empress: she is a teenage unwed mother, in a society that frowns mightily on that sort of thing. This God is bound for glory—what God wouldn’t be?—but by way of the most horrible, squalid, shameful death ever. The point of it all is to give hope to those who haven’t had hope.

What’s more, the God about to be born has already made out a Christmas list. Let’s see what’s on it: Piles of gold? No. Yokes of oxen split and burned as a sacrifice? Not even. Clouds of incense to make even the strongest of choirs sneeze? Nice, but optional. No: this God’s Christmas list consists of… me, and you, and the best of our love to be God’s hands and feet and hope-builders.

What kind of God asks for that? Well, I think it takes our whole lives to work out the answer.

For Dec. 16, 2012: 3 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zephaniah, a prophet of the seventh century BC, mostly denounces Israel’s corruption and failure to follow God’s ways. In his book, however, is this passage with the remarkable image of God as both warrior and lover, singing out loud for joy in all God’s people and, at the last, bringing them home. Canticle 9 or Isaiah 12:2-6, familiar as an Easter Vigil response, continues to ring out the growing joy of Advent.

The Response            Canticle 9, Isaiah 12:2-6

The Epistle            Philippians 4:4-7

In last week’s epistle, Paul exulted in the Christians at Philippi. In closing the epistle, he sends them out into the world, lovingly challenging them to do four important tasks to open them to the peace of God: rejoice; again, rejoice; become notorious for being gentle; instead of worrying, pray. We do well to pay heed and follow suit.

The Gospel            Luke 3:7-18

 

Further thoughts

Violence has staggered our nation’s heart this Advent tide of 2012: twenty children will not wake on December 25 to bulging stockings and holiday feasts or whatever else their parents had had in store for the day, and six households must cope with the sudden loss of the beloved mother or aunt who made the best latkes or always brought “A Visit from St. Nicholas” most vividly to life in her reading.

But the sword always lies over Christmas—the sword that, as Simeon prophesied, would later pierce Mary’s heart when she saw her son hanging on the cross, the blood that symbolizes the holy days of the protomartyr Stephen on December 26 and John the apostle on December 27; and December 28 is the commemoration of the Holy Innocents whom paranoid Herod, stung by the Wise Men’s word of an infant born to be king, ordered his thugs to slaughter.

Whether one ascribes evil to a literal Satan outside of us or to the abundant flaws and fears within us, it cannot be denied that the powers of darkness are very strong. Under such circumstances, the exultation of Zephaniah and Isaiah sounds much more like wishful thinking than like fulfillment, and it is small wonder that some in our society have called for armed guards to be stationed in every school.

The hard reality is that we cannot possibly muster enough guards to station at every school, every mall, every theatre, every post office, every jogging trail, every lonely stretch of road or inner-city curbside, every public restroom, or every child’s bedroom.

What we can do is what John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah told us to do: repent, share what we have with those who have less, refrain from grasping for more money or for more power over others than is appropriate—in short, to look after one another, to bear one another’s burdens, and to love one another. Doing so day by day won’t hew down the sick or evil person who is armed and bent on mayhem. But to guide that person not to resort to mayhem in the first place, what better hope have we than practicing the love of Christ?

For Dec. 9, 2012: 2 Advent, Year C

The Reading            Malachi 3:1-4

The book of Malachi has news for Jews in Jerusalem after the exile in the fifth century BC: the Lord’s malaki or messenger is coming—and bringing judgment that will burn or scour away impurity to make the priests (the descendants of Levi) righteous. The promise of righteousness is restated in Canticle 16, the prophecy of Zechariah about his son John the Baptist that is taken from Luke 1:68-92.

The Response            Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)

The Epistle            Philippians 1:3-11

The first church in Europe was the church that Paul himself founded at Philippi, in northeastern Greece. The beginning of the letter to this church glows with Paul’s pride and joy in the Philippians and with their mutual love. Paul also looks forward to the Philippians’ overflowing love yielding a harvest of righteousness.

The Gospel            Luke 3:1-6

 

Further thoughts

Advent calls us to expect the unexpected, and to do something serious about it.

Because we worship the God of Abraham and of David, we look back to the covenants and the prophecies of the Old Testament. The covenants were to bind our forebears in the faith to God and to each other as God’s own people. Because things did not work out that way, the prophets called God’s people to repentance (and called, and called), foretelling shame and disaster for Israel but also promising salvation through a mighty and righteous king. The book of Malachi does this, though with a twist: the Lord is coming, and sending a messenger first, but neither the messenger nor the king may be exactly who or what was expected—and those to whom the messenger comes are on notice that they may not entirely enjoy the result, for the people who are supposedly holiest (that is, the priests) are in serious need of profound purification.

The prophecy plays out in the New Testament at least as unexpectedly. The speaker in Canticle 16 is Zechariah, priest of Israel; the child about whom he prophesies is the unlooked-for son of his old age, whom we know as John the Baptist. This son of priests grows up not to live comfortably overseeing the offerings of grain and incense and animals in the Temple and making nice with the powerful people of the day that Luke’s gospel lists. Instead, he lives rough in the wilderness until God calls him to preach repentance to all. How much more unexpected could that have been?

Whatever we are doing now to prepare our houses and workplaces for relatives’ visits, cookie exchanges, and holiday parties, the message of Advent is clear: the most important cleaning and preparation that we undertake is in our hearts, no matter the season.