High Time

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son into the world” (Gal 4:4).

Twenty-six years ago in the middle of the night, my wife woke me and said, “It’s time.” I was up and dressed in a flash and less than 20 minutes later we were pulling into the parking lot of Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. Five hours later, our son was born.

Time has many forms, measured by clocks, by hearts and minds, racing ahead or dragging out, hanging tough or slipping away, generous and overflowing or relentless, stealing everything we have and are. Time has different names: Chronos for duration, Kairos for opportunity. The backdrop for human time is eternity, too vast for us to imagine. Dwarfed by its immense power, we need time to work out our freedom. Time, it has been said, was invented to keep everything from happening at once. Afloat in its eternal ocean, we need a lifetime to navigate our small stories toward some distant harbor.

Christmas is our glimpse of God’s larger purpose, which is the gift of a divine destiny for every human journey. A child is given, and in him the full measure of what it means to be alive is revealed. A starry night overflows with joy, first to shepherds, then to kings, but meant for everyone alert to its promise and challenge. Good News to all the world, a Savior is born, Christ the Lord. It's time.

Song and Dance

“Blessed are you…” (Luke 1:41).

Mary comes down from the north country to visit Elizabeth. The Visitation, like other accounts in the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew, is more theology than history, but it reveals better than history the intensity and depth of the faith the evangelists tried to convey in the post-Resurrection churches they wrote for. The canticles proclaimed by Zechariah and Mary echo the song of Hannah in Samuel and the prophecies of Isaiah. The scene of Mary’s arrival to the town in Judah where her pregnant relative lived repeats the vibrant story from 2 Samuel when King David danced ecstatically before the Ark of the Covenant as it arrived in Jerusalem. For Luke, Mary is that precious Ark carrying God’s presence. John the Baptist, in utero, is David dancing for joy before it. Jesus will extend the song and dance of God’s entry into the world when, 30 years later, he proclaims from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointing me to bring good news to the poor” (Isa 61, Luke 4). Many voices, one song.

The promise makes seamless the biblical chorus stretching from David to Jesus, from Jesus to us. It encompasses the two Covenants, Hebrew and Christian, into a single revelation about human history and the promise of universal salvation. Time recedes and everything happens at the same time, prophecy upon prophecy, song within song, to make the glory of Christmas come true in our hearing.

Magnifier

“The strength of God’s arm” (Luke 1:49).

Many years ago when the church still had regular Benediction, a priest asked one of his altar boys to go into the sacristy walk-in safe where the sacred vessels were kept and bring out the monstrance. The boy thought the priest had said “monster,” and hesitated, so the priest went into the safe and returned with the tall cross-shaped stand with a small round window in the center for displaying the consecrated host during adoration. “This is the monstrance,” the priest said. “What do you suppose it’s for?” The boy looked at it and answered, “It looks like a magnifying glass.”

In today’s Gospel, Mary praises God for using her small life to magnify the divine purpose. Because this young girl in a small village in an obscure part of Palestine in a far corner of the Roman Empire in a distant time said "yes" to God, everything has been different. Her womb held our human future and divine destiny. Her song of praise in the presence of her elder cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant, is called the Magnificat. Luke borrowed much of it from the song of Hannah, mother of Samuel (Sam 2:1-8). But because neither reading is proclaimed on a Sunday in our Lectionary cycles, their powerful sentiments are rarely preached about. Perhaps this is by design, because both songs are the ferocious victory cries of women who ask for justice but have throughout history suffered discrimination, oppression, abuse, violence and poverty at the hands of the rich and powerful.

In her Magnificat, Mary praises God for bringing justice to the poor, to women and children, always the first casualties of war. This Mary departs the pious image of gentle passivity and quiet obedience promoted by patriarchy to cry out: “God scatters the proud in their conceit, casts down the mighty from their thrones … sends the rich away empty!” This Mary is overcome with joy that God is reversing the fortunes of rich and poor, the powerful and the little ones of history. She rolls up her sleeves and flexes her arms for the triumph of justice in the world.

The triumph of good over evil is the long narrative of history itself, made possible only because people know that evil is unsustainable where conscience and community are strong. The closer we come to real change, the fiercer the resistance is from those still blind and arrogant enough to oppose the common good. We need look no further than the debate over gun control in the United States to know the truth of one version of the African proverb: “Those that God brings down he first makes stupid.”

Leap for Joy

“The plan of the Lord stands forever” (Ps 33:20).

During a recent meeting at our church in which the topic was "feeling stuck," someone offered this advice from the Buddha: “Jump, and a bridge will appear.” It sounds a bit like “one hand clapping” to more pragmatic ears, but everyone recognized the truth of it in their own experience. There are times in life when you have done everything you reasonably can to find a way forward, feel blocked and out of ideas. The only thing left is to take a flying leap into the unknown.

The Advent readings today are filled with leaping. In the Song of Songs, lovers leap like mountain goats joyfully pursuing their beloved. Mary visits Elizabeth, two pregnant women and their unborn babies all together in a leap of faith that will change the course of history. In the great story of human striving and in the small stories of our personal lives, the road often just comes to a chasm we cannot cross. The best in us fails while the worst prevails. Reason and logic are exhausted before insurmountable problems and a loss of courage. We stand at the edge of our self-proscribed limits, looking out into a vast uncharted space whose possibilities have yet to be conceived. "Stop!" the mind cautions. "Don't be a fool!" “Jump!” the heart whispers. “A bridge will appear.”

That bridge, between despair and hope, human and divine, death and life, is Jesus, Word of God incarnate. Soon and very soon, our leap of faith will be required. Stay where we are and we die. Leap, and life begins anew, deeper and more wonderful than we could have ever imagined.

Emmanuel

“Ask for a sign” (Isaiah 7:10).

A large swath of the nation awoke this morning to real winter. Here is Kansas City, children got their first snowfall and, even more important, a snow day. The beautiful white cover and flocked trees balance somewhat the perilous road conditions, though I would not put this to motorists snarled on highways and streets this morning trying to get to work. I got here, but, hey, I grew up in Minnesota.

Context is everything, of course, and this year’s winter holiday cannot escape the sorrow of so many funerals in Newtown, a sleepy little Connecticut town that otherwise would be a picture-perfect Currier and Ives image of Christmas in America. The clamor of voices arguing about gun control and the fiscal cliff is muted by the silence left after the sudden disappearance from our world of so many innocent children. The new snow that has always helped us forget momentarily the blight of damaged cities and wounded landscapes is this year a shroud-like reminder that Christmas will never be the same. We have come a week early to the Dec. 28 feast of Holy Innocents and the chilling words from Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice was heard in Rama, wailing and loud laments; it was Rachel weeping for her children and refusing all consolation, because they were no more.” The image with today’s reflection is a poor rendering of a truly unbearable image in the news of two Muslim men carrying the body of a child killed in the recent exchange of rockets between Israel and Hamas. The child was among 11 members of a Palestinian family killed by a missile. The death of a child destroys the future, a singular presence lost forever.

Among the many dystopian novels written to describe our conflicted world, P.D. James’ 1992 book, “The Children of Men,” is one of most disturbing. A mysterious pandemic has rendered the whole human race sterile. No children are being born anywhere. When a young pregnant woman does appear, the government vies with a rebel group to find and take control of her and, in effect, the destiny of human life on earth. The birth of a child is the one sign of hope that matters. This was the same sign God gave King Ahaz in today’s reading from Isaiah. In the midst of terror and disaster, a child is given; there will be a future. Isn't this the sign of renewal we long for at Christmas, that peace can make a different world? We will need such a world if we are to survive. In another evocation of winter beauty, the final verse of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is an invitation to first ponder and then fulfill.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Speechless

“You will be with child” (Judges 13:5).

The genealogy that culminates with the birth of Jesus echoes a deep biblical theme that procreation is the way God’s purposes were first extended in history. Abraham and Sarah are promised progeny. Isaac and Rebecca are given two sons, who become the progenitors of the Jewish and Arab nations. Jacob has 12 sons by Leah and Rachel and from these come the 12 tribes of Israel and the line of David. No amount of sin or violence can stop God’s promise. Pharaoh’s policy of exterminating all the male children of the Israelites is subverted by midwives who place Moses, Israel’s liberator, into the imperial household. During the tragic history of the Jews under their own kings, the slaughter of whole families to divert the royal line cannot stop the divine promise. Nor can the destruction of the holy places at the time of exile block the prophecies of the coming messiah.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, righteous in the Law but childless, repeats the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Manoah and his unnamed wife, the mother of Samson. Old age and a barren womb cannot stop God’s faithfulness. They only accentuate the final miraculous, virginal conception of Jesus, a sign that the promise now transcends seed and blood to encompass the whole world. A child is given who will save everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike.

Zechariah was speechless before the mystery. He had to pass from the sterile mindset of law to the new dispensation of grace. Something is being born because it is God’s will, and this is God’s time. Ready or not, God’s purpose is unstoppable. It will happen for us, in spite of us, even, paradoxically, because of our foolishness and sinfulness. The only thing we get to decide is whether we will participate freely in the mystery or remain outside its blessings. Advent is an invitation to all of us to make God’s purposes our own.

Husband

“Do not be afraid…” (Matt 1:20).

The account of Jesus’ conception and birth is dense with prophecy and allusions to other biblical stories, especially the story in Gen 37 about another Joseph who has dreams. Now that Pope Benedict himself has acknowledged the theological nature of the infancy narratives and surrounding phenomena like the star over Bethlehem and the arrival of the three wise men, we are free to delve into the deeper drama of God becoming human in Jesus.

The story of Joseph is the story of every husband and father who comes to know that he does not possess his wife and that his children are not his own. According to the law, Joseph’s choice in the face of Mary’s pregnancy is whether to abandon her or have her stoned to death. He has only the law to guide him, a law written into the long history of male domination of women and children, of male pride and tribal order. Still explicit in some societies that sanction the right to kill a woman for adultery, it is also implicit in every act of domestic violence, marital rape, child abuse and murder-suicide caused by jealous rage.

Joseph’s anguish was how to understand the mystery of love that was pushing him from the old world of law to the new dispensation of grace. He resolved the struggle with a dream that opened him to a whole new way to be husband and father. It is a dream every man must have to make possible God’s entry into his life. The alternative is the belief that it is his right and duty to dominate, insuring that a self-consuming cycle of violence will pass from one generation to the next, a pattern that will continue as long as we refuse to change. It will be manifested in violent sports, violent entertainment, violent cities, neighborhoods and families, violent children bred for war and rendered incapable of tenderness and self-discipline when it is their turn to marry and parent.

Joseph is told, “Don’t be afraid.” Go forward. Do the right thing, the loving thing. God continues to enter the world through children. Good husbands and fathers are needed to protect this mystery.

Emmanuel

“The genealogy of Jesus Christ…” (Matt 1:1).

Today’s Gospel reading traces Jesus’ identity from Abraham to David to the Babylonian Exile to Joseph, his stepfather, covering three lists of 14 names each. The line is based on the erroneous assumption that the father was the sole source of identity, so women, regarded only as bearing and birthing the seed of the father, are not prominent in the genealogy. Except for five women who add immense meaning to the story of God’s promise of a Messiah. Tamar enters the genealogy by duping her own father-in-law, Judah, into impregnating her with twins. Rahab, a prostitute who aids the Israelites in conquering the city of Jericho; Ruth, the Moabite woman who marries Boaz to become the grandmother of David; Bathsheba, mother of Solomon by King David, who has her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle to cover their adultery. Finally, Mary of Nazareth, whose husband Joseph, descendant of David, serves only as guardian to Mary, who conceives Jesus virginally by the Holy Spirit.

What are we to make of this odd lineage as the vehicle for God’s promise, so complicated by deception, crime, mixed blood and discontinuity? The only answer is that, unlike other cultural myths of how the divine has entered human history, the Bible asserts that God was already immersed in the full human story for generations before appearing at the birth of Jesus. The Incarnation is not God suddenly entering into our sinful world to save us, but God emerges from history bearing the burden of our weakness, confusion, violence and sin. God is with us — Emmanuel – because God has always been with us. The divine identity was in our DNA from the beginning, and a divine destiny awaits us at the end. In between, holiness, not sin, is our natural state. This is the good news that Advent prepares us to welcome. This is the best of times, the worst of times. Christ is among us to reveal us to ourselves.

Advent 3

“What should we do?” (Luke 3:10).

If you met this man in your town, say, haranguing people on a downtown street corner or by the riverfront, or if you saw his mugshot in the local newspaper, you might reasonably shy away and tune him out. He is probably just another homeless vet off his meds, or a panhandler wandering among the hurried Christmas shoppers, competing for donations with the kettles and bell ringers who appear this time of year.

But you decide to stop and listen. Suspicions confirmed. He is preaching Judgment Day. God is coming to bring justice in an evil world. He has a special message for the clergy, whom he calls a nest of vipers. But ordinary people seem attracted to him and his message. They have long been the victims of injustice. They imagine what it would be like if God suddenly appeared to require a reckoning from everyone. They ask the bearded man what they should do to get right with God before calamity strikes. He says to them, "If you have more food and clothing than you need, share it with those who have too little. If you’re a cop, don’t bully people, extort or take bribes." To business people and public officials, he says, “Don’t cheat or lie.” He is a forceful speaker and adrenalin runs through the crowd. Judgment Day is coming.

His name is John, and everyone calls him the "Baptizer" because he is dunking people in the river to show that they have decided to start over, clean up their act. But he has another message as well. If people think he is scary, wait until they meet the guy coming after him. John says he is only baptizing with water -- a baptism of repentance. This new guy will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit-- a baptism that changes everything, opens you to a new future that demands everything. “I am nothing compared to him,” John says. "I am unworthy to even untie his shoes."

We are waiting for the new guy. His name is Jesus. He will ask far more of us than John demands. It won’t be enough for us to just stop doing bad things. He will demand that we change our hearts, forgive our enemies, give ourselves to God not just with acts of justice but in a total commitment to love. God is coming into the world. We should be getting ready. And on this weekend of deep national sorrow and dismay because of yet another round of school shootings, who would deny that we are in desperate need of conversion?

Wisdom

Wisdom

“To what shall I compare this generation?” (Matt 11:16).

One sure way to avoid commitment is to turn it into a dilemma. We have too many options, must explore all of them, weigh the risks and benefits of each before deciding. It is a wise course, but if prolonged it leads to paralysis and inaction. Not to choose is to choose. Time passes, opportunity is lost. We live by design on square one, forever in act one, where the plot never thickens, conflict never arises and no resolution is possible.

Jesus tells his critics that they are like children in the marketplace quarreling over which game to play. John the Baptist called them to repentance; they were not ready. Jesus invites them to celebrate God's mercy; they are party poopers. The truth is that they want neither. Indecision postpones commitment. They want to keep their options open indefinitely. It has become for them a way of life.

A generation that touts its potential but is paralyzed by indecision grows old and produces nothing. Wisdom says: “Know thyself,” then give your heart, mind, soul and strength to some purpose larger than yourself. In the end you will reap only if you sow. Sow generously, extravagantly, learn to give your life away. Know that real choices bring both suffering and delight, agony and ecstasy. But, win or lose, you must first play the game.

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