Festival of Light

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Hanukkah is the festival of lights, the celebration of religious freedom over secular oppression. The candle at the center of the menorah is the shamash, or servant, which lights the other candles.

We can serve the light by bringing light to those who dwell in darkness, waiting. We can be like menorah candles illuminated with the light from God; the light of the world; the light of life; light from light; true God from true God.

Be a shamash, a servant of true light. Pass it on. Defy the darkness. Celebrate.

Hope for Christmas

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(From a letter to an atheist friend at Christmas.)

Per our discussion on the Incarnation: if there is a God who became incarnate as a human being, what does it mean? There is a lot of talk in Christian theology of Christ saving us from our sins. How can God born in human form as Jesus of Nazareth save us from our sins? There are centuries of theological reflections on this, but let us begin with hope; hope that there is another way, another truth, and another life in contrast to what we have done with our time on this planet as a species. Obviously, we have some problems. Personally, hope that there is another way saves me from despair when I realize the tragic nature of human history and my own history. The Incarnation does not stop any of that; sin remains, we still kill one another and nature and God, but a deeper pattern has been revealed. The Incarnation reveals a broader scope of existence and reality which actually makes sin even more obvious and appalling, but now there is hope. There is more. Much more.

Here’s my take on it: a God who does not enter completely into my broken nature and suffering cannot get me above it. A God only above and beyond leaves me here to my own devices, and it has become obvious that I am incapable of getting it right on my own. We’ve all had plenty of time to get it right. It ain’t happening. We need help. Big help. We cannot do this ourselves. It is not a political or cosmic event we need but a deeply personal and individual one; a human one. If God enters completely into our broken human condition (which is frail, flawed, uncertain, and finite), then we see that there is an added aspect to existence that can raise us above what would otherwise be ultimately futile.

Christmas, the Incarnation, lets me know there is more; more than my ultimately futile attempts at being good; more than a human history of multiple endeavors that end in tragedy and failure; more than our flaws and violence; and more than our failed attempts at religious and political utopia-building. We cannot escape old age, suffering, sickness, and death, or our inability to live together in peace. Saying at Christmastime (or anytime) that Christ is born to save us from our sins is harmonious with saying hope is born to save us from despair, and that’s a great place for us to start. There is another way. Good news, right?

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Christmas Present

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War in the streets of Jerusalem and Bethlehem at Christmastime…war in politics, war in religion, war in society, war in social media, war in our hearts and minds, war in our bodies, war in our families…

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Meanwhile, peace the world cannot give sneaks in under cover of darkness behind enemy lines and is born in the silence beneath our struggles. Some have eyes to see it. Some have hearts to receive it. Many do not.

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Choosing Christmas

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A choice that is always before us stands out starkly during the Christmas season: God or Caesar? God or mammon? The crowded inn or the cowshed? False light or starlight? Noise or silence? Power or vulnerability? Riches or poverty of spirit?

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I will kneel in the cold straw at midnight among the innocent beasts of the field and listen for the one true love of my deepest longing, and I will wait. I will no longer offer incense to the emperor but will offer the imperfect and broken gift of myself to the one person necessary above all others. I will boldly seek forgiveness and mercy, and rest for my soul; peace the world cannot give.

 

Changing Plans

“A totally personal and transforming communion with God is acceptable to most of us as a theological concept, but as an actuality, it is so mysterious and frightening and demanding that, in the end, most of us will do anything to evade it.” – Thomas Merton

“My plans are not your plans.” – God

The first thing angels always say in their greetings to unsuspecting mortals is, “Do not be afraid.” Then they deliver some ominous pronouncement or an impossible demand. “God has a request of you.” They top it all off by calling it “good news.” Really? A frightening supernatural encounter that tells you your life is about to be upended and you have an impossible task to perform for God…good news? Joy? God is funny but apparently, that’s the pattern. That’s how it works. This makes me think of Tevye the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof, talking with God about the Jewish people’s chosen status: “Couldn’t you choose someone else?”

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Joseph and Mary of Nazareth had plans: get married, settle in Nazareth, raise a family, live an ordinary life. Then came an angelic messenger. “Mary, you are invited to be a God-bearer.” After seeking clarification, Mary changed her plans, which changed everything for everyone. Joseph planned to divorce her. Things were getting too crazy. Again, an angelic messenger appeared. “Joseph, God’s plans are not your plans. Man up and take responsibility.” Joseph changed his plans, got married anyway, and raised a son. The rest, as they say, is history.

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How often am I willing to change my plans when an unexpected messenger, in any form, arrives? Do I believe God’s plan is different than my own and better than my own? Am I afraid? Does the task demanded of me seem impossible? Can I see the good news in the things that change my plans?

What will be my answer when the disturbing angels in life confront me with hard choices?

 

The Christmas Conundrum

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“We’ve got another holiday to worry about.” – Charlie Brown

Christmas presents conundrums for most of us now because we are reductionists and literalists. The mindset of our time is a curious mixture of scientism and crass entertainment. Only that which can be proven true by scientific method or the correct news outlet is considered real. We are materialists.

So, what do we do about Christmas? The essential message of Christmas is “Emmanuel”; a Hebrew word meaning “God with us.” This raises questions. Who is this God and how is this God with us, and why? The first question’s answer could go something like this: God is the eternal principle in which all things live, move, and have their being; or, God is the high and lofty One, the totally other who inhabits eternity; or, (if you like quantum physics) God is the unified field of potential from which all things arise, exist, and then return. Some say there is no God and that ends the discussion and the questions. It also eliminates finding any truth beyond a truth relative to individual circumstances as they shift like sand in an hourglass. That sounds boring and bleak.

The answers to the second and third questions (How is God with us, and why?) pose the most serious problems to the modern mind. How is God with us? We can accept answers like, “God is with us in nature.” Or, “God is with us in our minds.” Or. “God is with us in our loved ones.” These are certainly true but Christianity (Christmas) gets more specific than that. Christmas says the eternal principle that exists beyond space and time came to exist in space and time, in history, in a particular place, as a particular human being. Just once. The absolute principle of all existence itself (Ipsum esse subsistens) was born and lived and died and rose again (That’s another huge conundrum!) in Yeshua of Nazareth, son of Miriam, when Quirinius was governor of Syria; when Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of Judea, from AD 26-36, under Emperor Tiberius. Specific. This answer is problematic for many of us, unless we dismiss it as a myth projected onto history. The Christian answer tells us the transcendent God who created heaven and earth from outside of time in a Big Bang was born, lived, and died as a human being. Blasphemy and nonsense, right?

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Emmanuel. God with us. Modern scholarship, practical reasoning, scientific knowledge, and the mindset found on social media and in popular culture, can easily help us dismiss this as superfluous, primitive, pre-scientific, naïve, magical, and mythical; as a fantastic creation of people who didn’t know any better. We can perhaps accept the mythical motifs as symbols for universal psychological truths, and this is certainly reasonable to do. Those aspects are true and useful. We can say Jesus of Nazareth may or may not have actually existed and has become a mythical figure embellished over the centuries, like Robin Hood. A hero myth. This also contains some truth and can be useful. There are many ways to appreciate the claims of Christianity without completely accepting or dismissing them; without seeming gullible and foolish to our peers.

But is there something else that we are missing, something more, something lost to history, something staring us right in the face? Is it possible that beneath the stories and motifs of stars and shepherds and wise men and the various interpretations of it all, there is one essential fact that remains hidden in plain sight? This brings us to the third question: “Why would God do such a thing?” This answer is most disturbing of all to the modern mind; that God, the incomprehensible and uncontrollable mystery, was born and lived and died, and it happened for our sake. Is it possible that the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity inhabited time and space because that’s where we dwell, and eternity is too incomprehensible and unreachable and frightening for us? Because we can’t get there or even believe it exists without help from the outside? Is that right? Could it be that God the uncontrollable mystery did this outrageous thing because it is what we need in order to have hope that our deepest longing is not a lie, and it has a real destination? Could or would the universe’s source and sustenance do such a thing? For us? Really?

This is the Christmas conundrum.

Before dismissing it all as nonsense, consider this: Ancient and modern human beings alike, all human beings of all times and all places, have the innate yearning for communion with the eternal; that which exists beyond space and time. No matter how simple or how smart, ancient or modern, every human being contains a spark of the eternal and yearns toward it, willingly or blindly. This is the most essential and unique feature among all the unique features of human beings; Homo religiousus. No other living thing is drawn and driven in the same way by this yearning. Only us.

“Whether you believe or do not believe, you date your letters and checks and income tax forms with a number representing how many years have gone by since what happened happened.” – Frederick Buechner

Consider this, also: Would we divide human history over the birth of one person arbitrarily, or would there have to be something utterly unique about that life? A specific person was born in a specific time and at a specific place, from eternity into time, and history was divided in two. What we make of this now is up to us.

It may be wise to remember that a God who is everywhere and nowhere in particular easily becomes a God who is nowhere at all. Where would that leave us and our holy longing?

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Re-dedication

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Friday, November 24.

Today, we will be out on the tree line between the woods and the prairie cutting firewood for the coming Winter. In town, crowds of people will swarm the streets and stores shopping for “Christmas.” It is “Black Friday.” Somehow, here, the big event blow-outs that are so aggressively advertised this time of year seem less and less enticing, and even a little nauseating, as we grow in closeness to one another, to God, and to the land in the simple lifestyle we have chosen. The compulsive frenzy feels surreal and unnecessary to me, somehow beside the point.

Today’s readings from the Catholic Church are about re-dedicating and cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem.  (1 Maccabees 4: 36, 37, 52-59; Luke 19: 45-48) They are also readings about the self. How ironic on this national day of buying and selling to read about what came to be known as Hanukkah (dedication), and also Jesus driving merchants out of the Temple. In both cases, national and secular interests had infiltrated the Jewish population to the point of compromising their connection to the one thing necessary. In both cases, they were being assimilated into the ambient culture. The Maccabees had a war over it and Jesus drove the merchants out of the Temple.

It is a challenge to separate out what is good and bad in this “Christmas” thing, as we have come to know it because it has been so co-opted. (What is God’s and what is Caesar’s?) I am fortunate to have a few days off from work this weekend to be at home with my family, to do simple work, to rest, to pray, and to re-dedicate myself to the one thing necessary. I will not be spending the precious hours fighting for parking and disposable items that will be trash in the basement within a month’s time.

Let the false self fade into oblivion and let the masks fall to the Temple floor and shatter.