Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christ of the Birds

Amid the crumpled grays and browns

of these late December leaves,

scattered and muted on cold-laden grass,

juncos come in mass, hop the ground here about,

for seed, for moisture, for life in itself –

their slate-colored bodies instantiating

a beauty so subtle, a glory all but hidden,

small and flitting through the dull

of this dusk-fallen hour.

Christ of the birds of this world

came down, came down,

to birth, to death, to winter among us,

wanting sorely to be graced,

even as juncos under heaven.

Christ of the birds, Christ of all creatures,

come again, come again.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Saint Stephen's Day: Some Thoughts on Acts 7:59 - 8:8

Yesterday we celebrated the birth of Jesus, savior and lord. Today we commemorate the death of Stephen, deacon and martyr. The juxtaposition of these two days in the church year may seem strange: one day, the glory of Christmas; the next day, the horror of martyrdom.

I suspect this jars us particularly because of the sentimentalism that mists through much of our Christmas celebration. In many ways, the songs, colors, images, words, and rituals of our modern Christmas pan across the realities of the birth of Jesus with a soft Рvery soft Рfocus. We light the scene in our cr̬ches and in our hearts Рa new-born baby with his mother and father, angels, shepherds, animals, and even adoring strangers Рwith a very warm glow.

There is good reason for this – at least to an extent. As the angels heralded, Jesus’ birth is God’s good news of great joy for all people. In a world grinding in darkness for these long ages, we have such need of good news, such need of the truth, beauty, and goodness Jesus lives into our existence. Wonder, joy, and festivity are sublimely proper responses!

At the same time, marking the martyrdom of Stephen the day after marking Christmas reminds us of the keen realities of Jesus’ coming into the world. Some of them are just the mundane, so to speak, realities of being born. Birth is labor. Birth promises joy, but it can mean anxiety and trauma. How much more all of these things for Mary and Joseph, going through all of this in a stable, at the margins of society!

And more, while the birth of Jesus is good news of new life, it is new life through death. We all are born and eventually will die, but Jesus was born to die. Through Advent and the Christmas season we celebrate the one who was born for Good Friday. Judgment and death are integral to the Christmas season because they are integral to the birth and life of Jesus. We see this in terrible realities collected around Christmas. Not all embrace the good news of Jesus’ birth – hence, the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem by order of Herod, and later the martyrdom of Stephen.

Let us, to be sure, rejoice at the birth of Jesus. Let us mark it with wonder, joy, and festivity! But let us also remember the hard realities Jesus bore, the hard realities his faithful followers may also bear, on the way from Bethlehem to Calvary to Heaven!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

When Last There Was No Christmas Day

When last there was no Christmas Day,
no gifts, no carols, no strings of light,
just life and death and love and hate

a child was born to rough and rude,
to blood and sweat and oh! some joy,
and then to tears and splintered wood

was born to Mary, to Joseph and us – a little child,
all wrapped and wracked in life and death,
in love and hate, our age-long gloom

yet dawned the day – his day, the first – for us the light
through rough and rude, through tears and wood –
this gift on earth, when heaven woke to carol hope!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Like Any Other Birth, Like No Other Birth

Like any other birth, like no other birth, a child entered our life: source of great joy, great wonder, to a little huddle of family and a handful of strangers in some fields; while the rest of the world slumbered on in the dark. Wake us, Lord, this cold-numbing night to know the joy and the wonder, the tender mercy of your love made flesh: this radiant Child, dream of our dreams and hope of our hopes. Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

In This Little Birth

In this little birth –

stooped of flesh and blood

and pierced of night’s long lack –

death is overcome, dark is overthrown,

that we may wake to life and light

and know the dawn of Child-sprung joy.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

For my wife, daughter, and me, a favorite holiday movie is “A Christmas Story” (1983). There are many reasons why. (I will ignore the fact that one of us, when young, looked rather like the main character, nine-year old Ralphie.) One reason consists in the sharply observant, humorous, and bittersweet lines sprinkled throughout the movie. An example comes early when the narrator (the adult Ralphie) exclaims, “Christmas … lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid year revolved!” Who of us – especially children and any who were once children – can imagine a year without Christmas? The colors, smells, carols, decorations, foods, and presents!

Yet there was a time when a year had no Christmas. I do not mean the time before the birth of Jesus. Even in the early years of the Church, among faithful believers, Christmas was barely observed. Certainly Christmas as we know it did not exist. In contrast, believers in Jesus and non-believers alike today often celebrate Christmas with great fervor. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the times they have a-changed.” The change raises a question. Why do we now celebrate Christmas every 25th of December?

There really are two questions here. First, why do we celebrate Christmas at all? Second, why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? The first question is the more important, so we will explore the second question first.

The second question first. Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? Traditionally, Christmas is connected with the birth of Jesus. Was Jesus, then, actually born on December 25? The answer is that no one knows.

Many dates have been proposed for the birth of Jesus, yet no records remain to determine the exact date. The most extensive records of the life of Jesus – our New Testament gospels – do not specify the date. Only Matthew and Luke have much information on the birth of Jesus. Yet, they do not provide the exact date. They give a historical framework for the year of birth. Matthew writes of Jesus’ birth when Herod was king. Luke records Jesus’ birth during a census ordered by Emperor Augustus, when Quirinius governed Syria. These references lead to estimates of Jesus’ birth around 6 to 4 B.C. Neither gospel, however, names the exact year, much less the precise day.

How did December 25 become the day then? Early speculation about the day of Jesus’ birth often occurred in contexts more theological than historical. For example, one theologian thought his birth likely took place on a Wednesday because the sun was created on the fourth day (Genesis 1). Other theologians proposed dates in spring, fall, and winter. Amid such speculation, some contended his birthday should not be celebrated, as such celebrations were associated with pagan rulers and gods.

However, by the end of the fourth century, the Church, especially in the West, had established December 25 as the feast of the birth of Jesus. Many later commentators have maintained this date was picked to absorb and transform, especially for the sake of new Christians, popular non-Christian festivals centered around the winter solstice and pagan gods.

To the extent this dynamic may have propelled fixing the feast on December 25, some represent it as theological and spiritual compromise by the Church. There may be elements of this. At the same time, we may consider that God came to us in Jesus that, in him, we might come to God. In theology, this has often been described as the “Great Exchange.” Jesus reconciled humanity to God, thus transforming humanity from sin and death to righteousness and new life. In this context, it may be fitting that our old ways are taken up and transformed by Jesus into God-ways. Moreover, it can be argued from Scripture that, throughout nature and human history and culture, we see hints or reflections of God even apart from his explicit revelation. Where this is so, Jesus as God incarnate catches up, corrects, clarifies, and fulfills all such reflections. It could be said that, in some sense, he is the reason not only for Christmas but for all hinted manifestations of God in nature, history and culture, however dimly and imperfectly they reflect God. Hence, for theological, pastoral, and missional reasons, there may be warrant for establishing the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25.

(Compare this article from ChristianityToday.com for a good, concise discussion of some of this: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2000/dec08.html.)

The first question second. The more significant question, then, is why we celebrate Christmas at all? This, I think, really consists of two questions. One, why do believers in Jesus celebrate Christmas? Two, why does our culture at large celebrate Christmas?

Why do believers in Jesus celebrate Christmas? The Church only slowly came to observe Christmas with regularity and devotion. The early Church focused on Good Friday and Easter – the great victory won over sin and death by Jesus through the cross and resurrection. Only eventually did the Church come to observe Christmas with similar attention. (Even in recent centuries, some Christians still have spurned Christmas celebration.) Controversies over the incarnation in the third and fourth centuries may have spurred this to some extent. The need to affirm the fact and meaning of Jesus’ birth took on greater theological significance.

Much the same remains true today. For believers in Jesus, the celebration of his birth at Christmas should proclaim God’s real, down-to-earth love for the world. We acknowledge God-with-us in Jesus – in this flesh-and-blood child, born to save and transform you, me, and the cosmos. Christmas – when we embrace and celebrate the centrality of Jesus in it – proclaims in word and deed God’s good news of great joy for all people.

Why does our culture at large celebrate Christmas? Why do people who do not believe in Jesus grasp so fervently a celebration traditionally rooted in Jesus? There are likely many reasons. I think one major reason is the need it reveals for people to experience light and joy in life, amid the darkness and sorrow in the world so grittily known by all. Though the substance may be sentimentalized, fogged, ignored, or rejected, the forms glitter with poignant attraction when the need is so deep and great. This is all the more reason why we who know Jesus, who know he wraps and gives true Christmas, must by our Christmas celebration give faithful witness to this good news of great joy for all people, the coming of a savior amid our darkness and sorrow, who is Jesus the lord.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Some Thoughts on Titus 1:1-16 in the New Testament

On one of his later journeys, Paul – along with Titus, a trusted, younger believer in Jesus – apparently visited Crete, one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean. Through the preaching and teaching of Paul and Titus, some in Crete became believers in Jesus. After a time Paul departed Crete, yet he left Titus to assist local believers in organizing their community or church, in order to grow in faithful knowledge and life. Paul’s letter provided spiritual and practical guidance for Titus and the Christian community in Crete.

In particular, Paul urged them to hold fast to truth – to the truth of God’s saving, life-transforming grace and power in Jesus. Apparently, some in or around the Christian community in Crete had begun to speculate about other quasi-religious ideas and practices, and they tried to tack those onto the good news that Paul had received from Jesus and had passed on to them. In response, Paul encouraged the Christians in Crete to ground themselves in “sound doctrine,” in the trustworthy message about Jesus they had been taught.

It is in this context that we understand the richness of Paul’s reference to knowledge as he began his letter. He described himself as “a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.” Paul had received this very knowledge from Jesus. It had changed his life from opposition to Jesus to devotion to Jesus. In turn, Paul gave his life to pass this knowledge on to others, including those in Crete, because he knew in the very core of his being that this knowledge gives true and right life.

True knowledge that leads to godliness, to life characterized by the very qualities of God in his goodness and love! This is the truth that God lives and gives in Jesus. It is not a set of mere, abstract notions, opinions, options, or preferences about religious or spiritual things. This is reality, the very stuff of life, because it comes from the true God, creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the universe. God’s truth in Jesus changes lives – Paul’s, Titus’s, people in Crete, yours, mine, and countless others through time and space. This is knowledge worthy of our passionate pursuit and devotion. For this truth came down from heaven in passionate, devoted pursuit of us!