Living Christmas

We waited during Advent.

Christmas Day has come and gone.

The stores are advertising Valentine’s Day, but Christians are in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas.  This is that lovely time when – without any hype, pressure, or expectations – we have the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on Christmas.

Now we get to ask – how will we respond to this Good News?

We know what the others did.  What can we learn from them?

  • Mary listened carefully, pondered these things in her heart, and trusted. She said yes to God and that made all the difference.
  • Joseph defied social norms, placed his faith in God, and left the familiar behind – first moving to Bethlehem and then to Egypt.
  • We even know about Mary’s relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Their lives were transformed by their ability to believe they still had value in their old age. Society had pigeonholed them as dried up and done. God saw more in them.
  • Shepherds – nameless, poor, working men who never got a day off – they broke out of their routine, left the familiar behind and were able to look into the face of God.
  • The magi used their intellect as well as their hearts. They asked questions, didn’t accept the first answer they received, refused to allow obstacles to stop them and weren’t afraid to keep searching. They never thought they had to turn off their brains in order to be faithful – their gifts of knowledge and wonder led them to Christ.

In the days after Christmas we hear the stories of

  • Anna. Yes!  A named female prophet, a role model of prayer and reflection. She waited on God, looked for signs of God’s presences. Her open heart and wise spirit were able to recognize Jesus when no one else did. She reminds us to look for God in unexpected forms.
  • Simeon gives thanks to God for Jesus’ birth. He knows he won’t live to witness Jesus’ life and ministry, but he’s able to place his trust in God for the unseen future.

Even the bad guys – Herod and Pilate – have a response to the birth of Jesus.  Their wealth and power didn’t make them wise. They turned their backs on the Light of the world and spread fear, hate and destruction.

What is our response to Christ’s birth?

Here’s a wonderful poem that offers some insight:

Invocation,” by Christine Rodgers

The angels

are waiting.

Everywhere

in the world

with infinite patience

the angels wait

breathless

beside their great invitation.

Will we

open our hearts.

Will we

give birth to love.

Will we answer

Yes.

Advent Joy

“I am bringing you good news of great joy” (Luke 2: 9)

“Joy” is not the same as “happiness.”  The angels spoke about joy a lot. But those heavenly messengers weren’t there to promise “happily ever after.”

  • Zechariah and Elizabeth heard the astounding news that they would soon be parents
  • Gabriel spoke to Mary, delivering life-changing news
  • The angel army (heavenly host) broadcast the Good News with songs of praise

They were all announcing joy – but not necessarily “happiness.”

Reality has a habit of getting in the way. Think of the shepherds and the magi. They briefly worshiped this new-born king, but then had to return to their daily obligations. Christmas joy does not guarantee a worry-free life or a dreamy existence of luxury.

Somehow the angels failed to mention that. They also didn’t say anything about the horror that was awaiting the little town of Bethlehem, so peaceful on that silent night, but which would soon witness the carnage of every toddler in the county.

The angels, I suspect, could see beyond the events of Christmas night. They must have known that

  • John the Baptist would endure a life of deprivation and hardship
  • John would spend extensive time in Herod’s prison
  • John’s life would end brutally with his beheading

Surely those angels realized that

  • Jesus, this beloved child, would be deserted by those who loved him
  • Jesus would be betrayed
  • Jesus would be crucified

Yet the angels sang of joy on that starry night.

Advent joy 3

When people are disappointed by Christmas or feel somehow that this over-hyped holiday doesn’t (can’t) meet their expectations, it’s because too often they think “Christmas” is about being “happy.”

We were not promised that we would be “happy.”  Christmas was never meant to be trite.

The gift is joy.

  • Joy is strength that meets the pain and anguish of this world head-on.
  • Joy says that God sees the darkness and offers light.
  • Joy breaks through sorrow and sadness to remind us we are not alone.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!”

God is Emmanuel, always with us.

And that can bring us joy.

Advent joy

 

Advent Love

In our church we celebrate the Advent gift of Love today.

There has been a distinct lack of love in the rhetoric we’ve heard this week.

  • Stopping people at our border and preventing 25% of the world’s population from entering our country does not seem a reasonable way to promote world peace or enhance greater understanding among God’s people.
  • Amidst reports of a Muslim women in Florida being shot at following worship and another being nearly run off the road, it must be terrifying to be a Muslim in our country these days – despite our promise to provide freedom of religion for everyone.
  • The harsh words and threatening stances promoted by too many politicians cause more division among people. This is not a pathway to love.

Not much has changed in 2000 years.

Mary and Joseph were forced from their home so they could be counted, set aside, isolated.

Today our Sunday School children will perform the annual Christmas pageant. It is always a moment of merriment when door after door gets slammed in the face of the wandering couple. “No room!” one pajama-robed innkeeper after another bellows, relishing the fact that they can finally yell in church.

Parents and audience members chuckle at their enthusiasm, but I wonder if this year those harsh words may seem a bit more poignant. Here is a young refugee couple desperately seeking shelter yet finding no compassion.

How can we celebrate God’s message of love and assurance in the midst of the world’s terror and violence?

How can we not?

We need the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid” now more than ever.

They are words spoken to those who need it most – the rejected, those pushed to the margins, the ones who are quietly trying to live out their faith and follow this mysterious God.

People may justifiably wonder, “Where is God?”

The answer is the same as it always has been.

God is

  • in the stable.
  • in the cold and dark.
  • among the outcast.
  • sending angels with words of hope and invitation.
  • inviting us to seek out the miracles that are too easy to overlook.

God is always where there is the greatest need.

Love is not always found in the safest places.

Love weaves its way in where it is needed most.

This is not hearts and flowers, mushy, all-sweetness-and light love.

This is God’s love

  • strong
  • tenacious
  • offered to all of God’s people

God is love. Where there is love, new life emerges and hope is born.

That is what we celebrate today.

Advent love

Advent and Hanukkah Lights

Our menorah and our crèche stand side by side every December. When we go into our basement to unpack our holiday treasures, our family prepares to celebrate Roger’s Jewish traditions as well as my Christian beliefs. Hanukkah and Advent overlap dates on the calendar, so our menorah candles and manger scene share space on our window sill.  The glowing lights grow increasingly bright as we add a candle each night to our menorah and light another candle on our Advent wreath.

Hanukkah menorah

Our children were immersed in both traditions from an early age. When they were feeling creative, the shepherds and kings would wander away from the stable to encircle the lights of the menorah. That doesn’t look all wrong to me – it is as if those tiny figures are reminding us that both holidays are celebrating hope and faith and trust. Both lift up God’s faithfulness in the past and encourage us to depend on God’s strength today.

The gift we endeavored to pass onto our children is the message of faith in an unfailing God and the joy that both holidays offer.

Our crèche and our menorah were both made in Israel. I bought the hand-crafted olive wood figures when I attended a three-week course in Jerusalem while I was still in seminary. The menorah was the first purchase Roger and I made as newlyweds.

Before we got married, we had endless conversations about how to bring our two faiths together, honoring both, without compromising either. We both believe that God is bigger than any human expression of religion. We need the message and insights from both of these ancient traditions.

Advent wreath

When I see the lights of the menorah shining on the stable of Bethlehem, it lets me dream of a time when people of all faiths and backgrounds might join together to celebrate the hope God gives us to share.

 

Advent Peace

Today is the second Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of Peace. There doesn’t seem to be much peace in the world right now, does there?

Sometimes I think people regard Christians as delusional or perhaps simple-minded, especially during Advent and Christmas. We faithfully light the Advent candles, but even a casual observer could say – Hope? Peace? Love? Joy?  Why are you ignoring the world’s reality? Just where are you discovering those precious commodities these days?

No wonder many people relegate Christmas to the fantasy column with phrases like, “Christmas is for children.” As if to say – we adults know all of this isn’t real or true, but isn’t this a lovely fairy tale to share with the little ones.

But here’s the thing

  • Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.
  • Bethlehem isn’t the North Pole.
  • “In those days” is not the same as “’Twas the night before Christmas.”

The Christmas story is not a gently polished tale where everyone lives happily ever after. It’s a gritty story of survival. It starts with a baby born to refugee parents cast out of their homeland who couldn’t find a safe place to shelter on that momentous night.

Our story – the foundational story of Christianity – is about a toddler threatened by terrorists who committed a mass killing. If Mary and Joseph hadn’t run away to Egypt, Jesus would have been among the many little ones who died on that grim day remembered as “The Slaughter of the Innocence.”

Jesus lived – I wonder if he experienced survivor guilt because his father – unlike the other fathers in Bethlehem – had been warned in a dream about the threat that was coming.

Jesus – that Prince of Peace – never experienced a peaceful life. He knows what it is like to live on the margins, to be pushed aside and overlooked, to be mocked and criticized.

The gifts we celebrate at Christmas come out of his life experience.

  • Hope because we know about despair.
  • Peace in response to terror and fear.
  • Love to call us back to the heart of God.
  • Joy in the midst of sadness and tragedy.

Jesus – the Light of the world – comes to us who dwell in darkness.

It isn’t a fairy tale. These are very real gifts offered in response to very real need.

Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Advent image

Advent Hope

Get ready!  That’s the message of Advent, which began on Sunday, November 29th.  But the call to preparation is the not the busy, rushed, frenetic pace of the world that is urging us to shop, shop, shop.

The voice of Advent is gentler. We need to listen for Advent as it come to us…Advent sounds

  • Faint as the stars twinkling overhead
  • Gentle as an angel’s voice
  • Soft as the wind whispering
  • Cradling us like the Spirit, embracing us with God’s presence

Advent is a short – just 4 weeks! – and sweet – filled with messages of hope –  season which offers us time to prepare for Christmas.  It’s so easy for Advent to get squeezed out of our consciousness – we all know what December can be like!  It’s a busy month filled with shopping, gatherings, list-making, parties, concerts, family (and all the good and bad, joys and stresses that comes with that).

Who has time to think or reflect?  Yet that is what Advent invites us to do.  The Advent season is a gift – consider it an early Christmas present.  Advent offers us time – even if it’s just a moment every day – to think about the celebration to come.

Advent wants to remind us that it is not yet Christmas.  This is our chance to ponder this mysterious Good News in advance of the 12 days of Christmas.  It is the exact opposite of what society wants us to do. Society equates Christmas with spending money. The stores want that activity to begin in October. They try to convince us that Christmas is a single-day holiday, after which it will be time to pack the whole thing away and move on to after-Christmas sales.

Advent says no to all that. Instead, we are invited to inch gradually toward the glorious celebration of Christmas.

  • I hope you can make some space in your life for Advent.
  • I hope you can make some space in your home for Advent.Advent image
  • Here are some ideas:
    • Make an Advent wreath – this doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It can be 4 candles of any color, set in a circle.
    • Light one candle the 1st week, two candles the 2nd week and so on.
    • Say or write or draw or sing a prayer.
    • Think about who offered you God’s love that day. Give thanks for that person.
    • Who did you get to offer some Advent gifts of hope or peace or love or joy?
    • Where is God’s love especially needed today? Pray for that situation and those people.
    • Where is God’s light shining? Where do you see blessings?  Give thanks.
    • Where can you offer some of God’s light? Look for ways to be an Advent messenger.
    • The angel’s message is always “be not afraid.” Pray for people who might need to hear that today.
    • Mary and Joseph are homeless. Pray for people who don’t know where they will eat or sleep tonight.
    • Mary and Joseph are asked to trust God and do something new. What new thing  are you being invited to try?  Where do you need to trust God today?
    • Jesus was born in a manger. What unexpected place offers you a glimpse of God?

     

    Enjoy the journey of Advent.   This precious season reminds us of the uncertainty and fear of the very first Christmas and the joyful promise that God is “Emmanuel,” always with us.

    Look for God during this season of hope and expectation.

    I wish you the wonder of Advent