Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What Now?

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in God.” (Lamentations 3.22-24)

A Timely Question

I don’t know what books high school kids read these days. Having heard that education's undergone many changes since my teens, they might not read books at all. Printed literature may be obsolete now, replaced by video and Websites. I hope not. There’s something exquisitely intangible about holding a book in hand—a mysterious comingling of the tactile and ephemeral that elevates reading into an immersive experience unlike any other. When there’s no screen sealing the writer’s thoughts and imagination behind glass, the distance between eye and page becomes a thin place of endless possibilities. If we let technology’s ease of use and cost-effectiveness rob our youth of this, we’ll be to blame when they haven’t the curiosity or stamina to venture beyond their narrows. Without advantages that can only be gained from learning by proxy—at length, in detail—in books, they'll pay dearly for being ill-equipped to meet life's demands and avoid its dangers.

In my youth, love of books was passed down from teacher to student and parent to child. Homes without bookcases were few and far between—and pitied. Our school’s storeroom shelves were lined with daunting titles that our instructors insisted we wrestle with. Looking back, their nerve to expose us to such emotionally fraught, politically charged literature is astonishing. We pondered class warfare and tyranny in A Tale of Two Cities; marital and psychological dysfunction in The Bell Jar; inhumanity and genocide in Heart of Darkness; madness and moral ambiguity in Crime and Punishment; bureaucratic intransigence and loss of identity in The Trial. Yet light always broke through; we always turned a corner to see what we were looking at wasn’t ordinary—that the characters’ sorrows and sacrifices resulted from being pushed to extremes. The Book of Lamentations, an anthology of five poems grieving the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, turns a similar corner. After going through extreme turmoil, the writer asks, “Now what?” What good remains and what good can come of the ordeal? With today marking our leave of Advent and Christmas’s extremes for the relative calm of ordinary time, it’s a timely question. Now what?

Despite All Evidence

Anyone who skates through Advent and Christmas—scanning the texts and images like museum exhibits—ends with the impression it’s all about angels and starlight, baby’s breath and happy endings. But we who do the homework know it’s not a pretty story. It’s a tale of common folks pushed to uncommon extremes, a saga fraught with raw emotion and charged with political peril. Reading the prophecies and Nativity accounts unlocks a thin place, where the veil between Heaven and Earth lifts to reveal the elegance of God’s plan. Every “i” is dotted, every “t” crossed. And the intricate rhymes that bring Christ into the world demand more of us than a passing nod. They insist we wrestle with their ugliness for our benefit. When we’re open to the narrative’s dark side, what we learn becomes ours to own.

So what have we learned? What good remains and what good can come of our experience? After years of trying to explain and rationalize why God permits Babylon to sack Jerusalem, level its Temple, and take countless Jews captive, Lamentations’ writer reaches an inexplicable, altogether irrational conclusion: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in God.’” (Lamentations 3.22-24) His sudden turnabout causes us to gasp. Really? None of it makes sense—until we back up to verse 21, where he says, “But this I call to mind.”

Ah, he’s been to the thin place of endless possibilities, where God’s ways defy logic. He’s not yet sure what to make of it, because he quickly relapses into depression. But even in the depths of his confusion a light shines. He sees that what he’s looking at isn’t ordinary. Good that outlasts his crisis, along with good because of it, will validate his trust in a God Who is ever faithful, despite all evidence to the contrary. He remembers that new mercies often come wrapped in weary hardship, waiting to emerge in wisdom and know-how he acquires while struggling to find them. Although pushed to extremes, he makes God his portion, knowing as little as that seems it’s more than enough to keep him going. We see in him exactly what we just observed in Isaiah’s stubborn hope, Mary and Joseph’s simple faith, the shepherds’ childlike curiosity, and the Magi’s rugged journey. To a one, they’re pushed to extremes, asked to take huge risks, and expected to believe things that no one with a spoon full of sense would dare consider. Still, light breaks through their haze. They present us with an infinitely powerful God wrapped in a tiny, fragile Infant Who looks at us with knowing eyes and asks, “Now what?”

The “What” We’ll Need

The irony of dubbing intervals between sacred seasons “ordinary time” is that real time is rarely ordinary. The “now” of everyday life can be so overwhelming we don’t get around to considering the “what.” That’s why this transition mustn’t be minimized as a calendar quirk or church thing. It’s a holy opportunity to make sure we leave Advent and Christmas with all they’ve given us. Every lesson learned, every discovery made, is a new mercy. Not one can be forgot, as it very well could be what we’ll need when now engulfs us.

We may need to reach for Mary when doubts rear up about God’s faithfulness and perfect plan. When we’re tempted to value ourselves more highly than others, we may have to summon the priceless hour we knelt beside gamy herdsmen to marvel at a homeless Child. We may have to recall the Magi’s enormous sacrifices and risks when we recoil from giving our best to a needy stranger. When we feel unjustly shut out, undervalued, or ignored, our only help may be recalling that Steadfast Love was born into a world that gave Him no room. Year in and year out we cross from Christmas into ordinary time with riches we didn’t expect to find—gifts too dear to discard, too vital to live without. The answer to “Now what?” starts with an inventory of what we’ve got. While our lists are never the same, nothing on them is ever ordinary.

And so we turn, O Lord, from the season to contemplate Your birth and resume everyday realities of ordinary time. May Your Spirit guide us so we’ll leave nothing behind and bring to mind what we need when now overwhelms us. Amen.

Today is when we inventory all we’ve gained from our Advent and Christmas sojourn, taking care to bring it with us as we return to ordinary time.

Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/01/10/what-now/

Postscript: What’s In Your Suitcase?

So I’m curious. What did you learn during your Advent and Christmas journey? Why is it essential that you not forget and leave it behind?

In a season that was strewn with invaluable discoveries for me, perhaps the greatest was renewed appreciation of simplicity. A confluence of unexpected events steered Walt and me to turn the volume way down this year. Rather than whipping up Christmas excitement—which I must confess we’re pretty good at—we just let it happen. And we both came out of the season refreshed and amazed, agreeing that it was one of the loveliest, purest Christmases we’ve ever known—and totally convinced we’ve stumbled on a better way.

Your turn…

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A New Epiphany

The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there. (Revelation 21.23-25)

God’s Vision for Us

This weekend, most Catholics and many Protestants will observe the Feast of the Epiphany that commemorates the Magi’s adoration of the Christ Child as the manifestation—or “epiphany”—of God’s presence in the world. In Eastern Orthodox traditions, Epiphany is called Theophany, or “vision of God,” with its feast celebrated on its traditional date, January 6th. Because it also venerates the Incarnation, it’s often called “Orthodox Christmas,” which though true in spirit, is inaccurate. Theophany centers on Jesus’s baptism, where God is manifested as three distinct personages in three distinct forms: the Creator Who audibly declares Jesus is God’s Son, the Christ physically embodied in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit visibly present in the guise of a dove.

While both feasts celebrate the Incarnation with equal fervor, their contexts highlight a major divergence. We regard the Magi’s adoration as fulfillment of prophecy that closes the Messianic saga to make way for the New Covenant’s sequel. Theophany focuses entirely forward. Its vision of God at Baptism becomes the prophetic moment that initiates Jesus’s journey to the Cross. It delivers a promise independent of God’s covenant with Israel, a new epiphany that opens an era of all-inclusive grace. Bundling Matthew and Luke’s nativity narratives obscures this message by putting the Magi manger-side with the shepherds on Christmas night. Not only is it scripturally erroneous. It reduces Epiphany to folklore that downplays how radically the Incarnation redeems our perceptions of God and one another.

Spurred by thorough understanding of Judaic prophecies, the Magi come to Bethlehem to witness more than God honoring promises to the Jewish nation. The compulsion to glimpse into their future—to behold their God—drives them to Jesus’s crib. Viewing the Birth through Magi eyes, we see what Eastern believers see in the Baptism. Epiphany is transformed into theophany, a vision of God that reveals God’s vision for us.

Epiphany's Inherent Promise

Predictably—if somewhat unfortunately—Sunday’s lectionary selections skew to the Western angle, regaling Epiphany’s significance in light of past promises. We’re back in Isaiah 60, which foresees foreign dignitaries laying gifts at the Messiah’s feet, a prophecy that no doubt inspires the Magi account in Matthew 2.1-12 (Sunday’s Gospel). It also filters into Paul’s comments in Ephesians 3, as he describes his own epiphany that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (v6) Not that my opinion counts much, but it seems to me January 6th's daily readings do a far better job of illuminating Epiphany’s inherent promise of inclusion.

The selected Psalms ring with joy as they welcome people from every nation and walk of life to praise God. “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!” Psalm 148 shouts. And Psalm 67 explodes when it sings, “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for You judge the peoples with equity and the nations upon the earth.” In Isaiah 49, God ratifies the prophet’s radically inclusive calling, saying, “It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (v6)

Matthew 12 depicts Jesus curing everyone who comes to Him, demonstrating that God’s grace is freely available to all and rewriting the future of anyone whose faith reaches Christ. In verse 20, Matthew reprises Isaiah 42.3-4 to advance the revolutionary idea that those unjustly excluded no longer will be tossed aside: “He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until He brings justice to victory.” Finally, Revelation 20.23-25 reveals a world where Christ reigns supreme: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there.”

This is God’s vision for us. It’s what the Magi see when they peer into the Christ Child’s eyes. When John the Baptist spies Jesus coming his way, it's what causes him to cry out, “Here is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29) It’s virtually impossible to describe the new epiphany without words like “all,” “everyone,” “the world,” “equity,” justice,” “light,” and “glory.” Although the Magi mislead Herod by suggesting they're on a diplomatic mission to pay homage to the King of the Jews, they're fully aware that their quest transcends politics, ethnicity, gender, and religion. It’s too light a thing to confine Christ’s presence to Israel’s struggles and biases. The Magi come bearing gifts in exchange for the immeasurable gift they’ll receive by crossing a threshold where foreigners rouse hostility and outsiders are excluded. They come to worship Christ because faith assures them Christ will accept their worship.

We Will Be Changed

The star that steers the Magi to Jesus fixes their eyes on the very same world that Revelation envisions—a daylight world of open gates, where everyone walks freely as equals, a world where the bright rays of God’s glory and welcoming glow of Christ’s lamplight obliterate any possibility of hidden dangers. That’s how the new epiphany works. Whether at Bethlehem or Jordan, in Birth or Baptism, the vision of God manifested in Jesus is the culmination of our desire to see God’s vision for us. And all it takes to turn vision into reality is crossing the threshold that divides our imperfect past and God’s impeccable future.

The new epiphany corrects our sight to perceive what transpires when we behold Christ. No matter what steers us to Jesus—whether an astral phenomenon, a nagging affliction, or outright injustice—when we reach Him we will be changed. Notice how the Magi’s story ends: “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2.12) One look at Jesus and we are forever changed. The new epiphany that miraculously converts the inconceivable into the inevitable also hands us an impossibility we’ll never overcome. After our vision of God reveals God’s vision for us, we defy every worldly power and fear to travel a different road. We can’t possibly leave the way we came.

Christ of Bethlehem and Jordan, we come seeking a vision of God that reveals God’s vision for us. Open our eyes to the transformation that transpires when we behold Your face. May we live as we truly are—forever changed, illuminated, the brave travellers of a different road that radically alters our reality and leads to the bright, fearless inevitability You promise. Amen.

The Magi cross thresholds to worship Christ because faith assures them Christ will accept their worship.

Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/01/08/a-new-epiphany/