An Unexpected Gift

Luke 2:8-20

One of the joys of gift giving is finding just the right gift for that person and the unexpected look on their faces when they open your gift. A couple of years ago, my niece and her new groom were opening gifts after their wedding when they received not exactly the gift they had hoped for. In the midst of all the brand new gifts for a brand new marriage, they received a used, greasy, grimy popcorn maker in its original box from some very close family members. Shocked and amazed they graciously received the greasy, grimy wedding gift. (Why they gave a used gift, nobody knows.)

The following year this corn popper became the gift that kept on giving. Each person who was celebrating a birthday or anniversary became the new owner of that popcorn popper. Mysteriously it would appear—through the mail or from an “unknown friend”—whatever it took to get rid of the gift. Included was a card with the names scratched off of the previous owner and the new owner scratched in. Everyone was dreading their upcoming birthdays because certainly it was going to be their turn to receive the corn popper. Who would be next in line? No one said a word in fear of their own birthday being the next potential target. About three years later the popper was sent to my brother-in-law for his birthday (or so we believe). They claim to have never received it. So who received our practical joke? Nobody knows. Has it disappeared and fallen into the hands of some unexpecting stranger wondering why on earth were we sending this nasty gift? I only hope they laughed as much as we have about the whole thing.

The angel told the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). A very special gift has been given to you—Jesus Christ. Jesus came as an unexpected gift in an unexpected way. He came as a baby, born in a stable, not a hospital. No fanfare except the angels, no royal procession or grand entrance for this new king. Even though prophets spoke of his coming, no one was expecting him but his parents. So much better than that old greasy popcorn popper!

Christ coming into the world was a true gift—a gift of love from God. A gift that, when someone discovers what is inside their hearts, will be forever changed; no waiting in line to exchange it or re-gifting because it wasn’t exactly what you had in mind. This world is prepared to be loved again and embraced once again by a God who cares about our needs and about us. Remember the chaos that broke out on Black Friday? People using violence to get their way over a present is an indicator that we have forgotten what love and the meaning of Christmas is all about. We need Jesus! Jesus brings peace, joy, love and hope into our world as gifts, not demands. They are gifts by which God comes to us and changes our worldview and expectations of life.

You have been given a gift—Jesus born again in your hearts. Jesus, the great God, our Lord and Savior, who saves not only as God but as God-man, came to love us and gave himself for us; and what can we do less than love and give love back. Many songs have been written about what gift we could offer to Jesus. The animals in the stable gave him wool to keep warm and a manger to sleep within. The shepherds brought their lambs, the wise men brought frankincense, gold and myrrh. The little drummer boy played his drum and the angels sang. What gift can you give to Jesus? Like the shepherds you have the opportunity to respond by taking the love of Christ out into the world with you. The darkness is gone and the light is shining brightly. We who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light: the light of Christ. Share that good news with your family and friends; the news of how a baby came unexpectedly in an unexpected way.

***

Rev. Susan Oeffler

Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year)

To all our readers (and hopefully in a majority of the languages they might read!):

Afrikaans: Geseënde Kersfees
Afrikander: Een Plesierige Kerfees
African/ Eritrean/ Tigrinja: Rehus-Beal-Ledeats
Albanian:Gezur Krislinjden
Arabic: Milad Majid
Argentine: Feliz Navidad
Armenian: Shenoraavor Nor Dari yev Pari Gaghand
Azeri: Tezze Iliniz Yahsi Olsun
Bahasa Malaysia: Selamat Hari Natal
Basque: Zorionak eta Urte Berri On!
Bengali: Shuvo Naba Barsha
Bohemian: Vesele Vanoce
Bosnian: (BOSANSKI) Cestit Bozic i Sretna Nova godina
Brazilian: Feliz Natal
Breton: Nedeleg laouen na bloavezh mat
Bulgarian: Tchestita Koleda; Tchestito Rojdestvo Hristovo
Catalan: Bon Nadal i un Bon Any Nou!
Chile: Feliz Navidad
Chinese: (Cantonese) Gun Tso Sun Tan’Gung Haw Sun
Chinese: (Mandarin) Sheng Dan Kuai Le
Choctaw: Yukpa, Nitak Hollo Chito
Columbia: Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo
Cornish: Nadelik looan na looan blethen noweth
Corsian: Pace e salute
Crazanian: Rot Yikji Dol La Roo
Cree: Mitho Makosi Kesikansi
Croatian: Sretan Bozic
Czech: Prejeme Vam Vesele Vanoce a stastny Novy Rok
Danish: Glædelig Jul
Duri: Christmas-e- Shoma Mobarak
Dutch: Vrolijk Kerstfeest en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar! or Zalig Kerstfeast
Eskimo: (inupik) Jutdlime pivdluarit ukiortame pivdluaritlo!
Esperanto: Gajan Kristnaskon
Estonian: Rõõmsaid Jõulupühi
Ethiopian: (Amharic) Melkin Yelidet Beaal
Faeroese: Gledhilig jol og eydnurikt nyggjar!
Farsi: Cristmas-e-shoma mobarak bashad
Finnish: Hyvaa joulua
Flemish: Zalig Kerstfeest en Gelukkig nieuw jaar
French: Joyeux Noel
Frisian: Noflike Krystdagen en in protte Lok en Seine yn it Nije Jier!
Galician: Bo Nada
Gaelic: Nollaig chridheil agus Bliadhna mhath ùr!
German: Fröhliche Weihnachten
Greek: Kala Christouyenna!
Haiti: (Creole) Jwaye Nowel or to Jesus Edo Bri’cho o Rish D’Shato Brichto
Hausa: Barka da Kirsimatikuma Barka da Sabuwar Shekara!
Hawaiian: Mele Kalikimaka
Hebrew: Mo’adim Lesimkha. Chena tova
Hindi: Shub Naya Baras (good New Year not Merry Christmas)
Hungarian: Kellemes Karacsonyi unnepeket
Icelandic: Gledileg Jol
Indonesian: Selamat Hari Natal
Iraqi: Idah Saidan Wa Sanah Jadidah
Irish: Nollaig Shona Dhuit, or Nodlaig mhaith chugnat
Iroquois: Ojenyunyat Sungwiyadeson honungradon nagwutut. Ojenyunyat osrasay.
Italian: Buone Feste Natalizie
Japanese: Shinnen omedeto. Kurisumasu Omedeto
Jiberish: Mithag Crithagsigathmithags
Korean: Sung Tan Chuk Ha
Lao: souksan van Christmas
Latin: Natale hilare et Annum Faustum!
Latvian: Prieci’gus Ziemsve’tkus un Laimi’gu Jauno Gadu!
Lausitzian:Wjesole hody a strowe nowe leto
Lettish: Priecigus Ziemassvetkus
Lithuanian: Linksmu Kaledu
Low Saxon: Heughliche Winachten un ‘n moi Nijaar
Luxembourgish: Schèine Chreschtdaag an e gudde Rutsch
Macedonian: Sreken Bozhik
Maltese: IL-Milied It-tajjeb
Manx: Nollick ghennal as blein vie noa
Maori: Meri Kirihimete
Marathi: Shub Naya Varsh (good New Year not Merry Christmas)
Navajo: Merry Keshmish
Norwegian: God Jul, or Gledelig Jul
Occitan: Pulit nadal e bona annado
Papiamento: Bon Pasco
Papua New Guinea: Bikpela hamamas blong dispela Krismas na Nupela yia i go long yu
Pennsylvania German: En frehlicher Grischtdaag un en hallich Nei Yaahr!
Peru: Feliz Navidad y un Venturoso Año Nuevo
Philippines: Maligayang Pasko!
Polish: Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia or Boze Narodzenie
Portuguese:Feliz Natal
Pushto: Christmas Aao Ne-way Kaal Mo Mobarak Sha
Rapa-Nui (Easter Island): Mata-Ki-Te-Rangi. Te-Pito-O-Te-Henua
Rhetian: Bellas festas da nadal e bun onn
Romanche: (sursilvan dialect): Legreivlas fiastas da Nadal e bien niev onn!
Rumanian: Sarbatori vesele or Craciun fericit
Russian: Pozdrevlyayu s prazdnikom Rozhdestva is Novim Godom
Sami: Buorrit Juovllat
Samoan: La Maunia Le Kilisimasi Ma Le Tausaga Fou
Sardinian: Bonu nadale e prosperu annu nou
Scots Gaelic: Nollaig chridheil huibh
Serbian: Hristos se rodi.
Singhalese: Subha nath thalak Vewa. Subha Aluth Awrudhak Vewa
Slovak: Vesele Vianoce. A stastlivy Novy Rok
Slovene: Vesele Bozicne Praznike Srecno Novo Leto or Vesel Bozic in srecno Novo leto
Spanish: Feliz Navidad
Swedish: God Jul and (Och) Ett Gott Nytt År
Tagalog: Maligayamg Pasko. Masaganang Bagong Taon
Tamil: (Tamizh) Nathar Puthu Varuda Valthukkal (good New Year not Merry Christmas)
Trukeese: (Micronesian) Neekiriisimas annim oo iyer seefe feyiyeech!
Thai: Sawadee Pee Mai or souksan wan Christmas
Turkish: Noeliniz Ve Yeni Yiliniz Kutlu Olsun
Ukrainian: Srozhdestvom Kristovym or Z RIZDVOM HRYSTOVYM
Urdu: Naya Saal Mubarak Ho (good New Year not Merry Christmas)
Vietnamese: Chuc Mung Giang Sinh
Welsh: Nadolig Llawen
Yoruba: E ku odun, e ku iye’dun!

***

Found within a comment on Richard Rohr’s blog entry, The Day of the Big Paradox.

The Inverting Incarnation

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

—Luke 2:1-20

Have you ever felt as though the world was upside down? In the reading for today, we begin with a decree from the most powerful person in the world. He wants to number all who live in his empire. People gather up their children and make arrangements to begin the journey to be counted. I imagine it was no easy task—especially for Mary.

Joseph and Mary are among the travelers. She is pregnant and about to give birth to her first born child at any moment. Can you imagine traveling like that? There is no room at the inn for them when they seek shelter for the night. Their situation is much different than Emperor Augustus, who compelled so many people to travel by simply saying a few words.

Some distance away, there were shepherds in the fields watching over their sheep. Perhaps they were keeping count of their flocks to ensure none were injured or strayed away. When the angels appeared and shared the good news, the shepherds were frightened. The angels told the shepherds to not be afraid because a savior is born. The phrases the angels use echo phrases often used to describe Emperor Augustus: “god,” “lord,” and “savior.” Can you imagine how upside down this might have seemed to the shepherds? How odd would it have been to hear that a lord and savior is coming as a baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a dirty old manger. The angels describe a king born in a situation that is quite the opposite of the current emperor’s way of life. The angels were announcing the birth of one who would turn the world upside down with his teachings and way of life.

The shepherds found the child, Mary and Joseph and shared what the angels told them. The scene is full of meaning. The child was wrapped in bands of cloth—foreshadowing his death. He was laying in a manger, a food bowl for livestock, foreshadowing the spiritual food he offers both in his teachings and in the bread and wine we receive in remembrance of him. Everyone around was amazed that a king was born that night, but Mary’s reaction was different. She knew her son’s story would hold so much more meaning than they could comprehend in that moment. And our lives were forever changed.

***

Angela Henderson, M.Div. currently serves as the Unitarian Universalist campus minister at UC Davis. She graduated with her Master of Divinity degree from Claremont School of Theology in 2010 and is a candidate for ministry.

Bearing Unbearable Love

And we are put on earth a little space
that we might learn to bear the beams of love

—William Blake

I ran across this verse yesterday, and it felt just right for these last days of Advent. The time preceding Christmas provides exactly this: a little space to focus anew on learning to bear the beams of love. There are several ways to bear something, of course.

  • One meaning is to bear a child, or a crop; to bear fruit.
  • Secondly, to bear can mean to tolerate, carry, or accept a burden or condition.
  • And thirdly we can bear witness, or a gift; to share with others.

Mary must have wondered how she was to bear the beam of love that grew within her. She had the need to bear love in several meanings of the word. Her child would enter the world as we all do, she must give birth. But before that, Mary had to bear a difficult and lonely “beam of love” in carrying an illegitimate child. Only Mary really knew that she had been given a sacred mission; Gabriel did not write her a glowing letter of reference to explain it all to Joseph.

Her story told in Luke leaves out her inner conversation about her predicament. She was so young, we are told, unlikely to have had a lot of education. She was a pious young woman. But what would any of us make of a visit from the angel Gabriel announcing that we are ‘favored by God?’ And what kind of ‘favor’ is this when a young girl must bear the long months of a pregnancy by some invisible father?

Mary bore the news of the destiny she was offered by God, but not without distress.

She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean” after Gabriel trumpeted “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favor! The Lord is with you” to her, moments before.

Beams of love are sometimes so unusual, surprising, or foreign to us, that they seem unbearable, at first. All we can manage sometimes is to be, like Mary, ‘deeply disturbed.’ We ask ourselves what this new offering means, especially one that feels so strange. Beams of love that arrive out of order from the way we have imagined reality to function are the worst. “But how can this come about,” Mary asks, “since I have no knowledge of man?” she wonders. I do not imagine Gabriel’s answer was immediately satisfying or comforting to Mary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” No sane woman of any era expects this far-fetched explanation will satisfy her questioners.

But somehow, Mary is convinced to receive, to tolerate, to accept this strange beam of love that apparently feels genuine to her, even though dangerously defying all reason and social convention. She began to bear the beams of God’s love when she said “Let it happen to me as you have said.

When Mary visited Elizabeth, she shared the revelation she received, and the news of her pregnancy with her cousin. But in Luke’s telling, Mary’s stayed quiet about her news with others, as far as we know. We can imagine how sensitive this pregnancy was for Mary. Joseph must have been terribly unhappy, knowing as he did that he was not the child’s father.

When Mary’s moment came to give birth to a real life, fussy, squirming baby Jesus, Mary bore her “beam of love” into plain sight. Jesus was a child who needed milk and warmth and cleaning just as all of us needed at the start of our earth careers. Mary bore her beam of love into flesh and blood, into smiles and speech, into a person who would reveal love in a fresh and unprecedented way to us all.

Which way am I meant to bear the beams of love more fully today? Is a new thing about to be delivered through me? Am I to labor and cry to bring forth some new creation? Am I able to carry a bit of compassion to another living being, and oh so gently lift someone’s heart? Or am I simply in that place of learning to bear the magnificent beam that is given to me, by letting loose of my own stubborn notion of what love should look and feel like, making room for the real thing? Might I make room at the inn for a love that melts away foolish striving and angling for power, that beam of love that transforms the heart to a radiant source of the very same warming glow?

For when our souls have learned the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice
Saying: `Come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice!’

—William Blake

***

Carol Toben

The Word is Near You

Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

—Romans 10: 5-13

“The word is near you, on your lips and on your heart.”

Wow! On our lips and on our hearts! But Christmas is closer—only three days away!—and you may be in the midst of the last-minute frenzy. Two days left to shop, wrap, bake, travel… not to mention the Christmas Eve service, pageant, and Christmas morning service. Isn’t there a law against Christmas falling on Sunday? There just isn’t enough time!!! STOP. “The word is near you, on your lips and on your heart.”

Why are we doing this? Why are we engaged in this craziness of getting ready? We are supposed to be waiting for the birth of a baby. Babies come when they are ready. Mary had craziness going on around her: a census, traveling while pregnant, packing supplies and food, not knowing where they would stay, not knowing if she would deliver her child during the trip. We can’t know how she felt, but we can guess that she felt some craziness about getting ready. But she did it; she trusted the word on her lips and in her heart. God had promised her a son, and she trusted the word of God.

Maybe we can sit back and wait for that baby. Isn’t that what Advent is really about? Let’s stop and feel the word near us, on our lips and in our hearts. Let’s concentrate on what we can do to celebrate the gift that has transformed the world; the gift that is still transforming the world through the power of God’s love; the gift that is in us and around us and that works through us. Let’s celebrate that transformative work of the ever-creating God.

You’ve probably bought enough. The wrappings only stay on for moments. (I have a friend who only wraps the top of boxes!) Do we really need an extra dozen cookies? Christmas cards? Call them New Year’s greetings because they’ll get read more thoroughly after Christmas.

Let’s concentrate of sharing the love on our lips and on our hearts, the wildly extravagant, never-ending, bigger-than-we-can-dream-of love of God, incarnate in a baby, quietly, humbly, born to give us hope and love forever.

***

Terri Gibbons is a member in discernment in the United Church of Christ. She is a graduate of the Claremont School of Theology and plans to serve her ministry as a Chaplain for end-of-life care.

God Asks Much

Luke 1:39-56

As I read today’s scripture I am struck by several things. This scripture, like my own schedule this week before Christmas, has too much going on. There are so many important lessons in this scripture, or at least possible lessons, that the temptation is to try to wring every bit of meaning and activity out of it. And in the process, I risk doing a poor job at all of them. That is always the risk at this time of year, we try to do so much, to wring every moment of joy, every perfect Christmas activity or experience out of each moment and each day, that we risk not savoring or appreciating any of them. And so I will narrow my focus in this scripture to just a few things.

First, Mary could not face it alone. God had asked much of her—that she would be an unwed mother, who well might lose her fiancé as a result of the pregnancy, that she would be the mother to the Messiah, the long awaited savior of Israel, and that she would allow the babe to grow inside her until the time came for him to be delivered. Facing all of this, Mary could not do it alone. She had to seek out Elizabeth who was facing a similar situation. Elizabeth was not carrying the Messiah, but Elizabeth was carrying a child also long foretold and much awaited. And in the presence of another who understood, Mary sings. Mary’s song of rejoice reflects what the Messiah was supposed to do: to bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, feed the hungry, and to send the rich away empty. Mary sings of these things as present realities, things that have already happened—God has done them. 

God sometimes asks much of us too. I realize that I am, like Mary, asked to let the Messiah grow inside of me, not as a baby to be born, but to grow inside me so others can see the face of Christ. As a disciple, I am to grow in my faith, to let that part of me that is in the image of God, that part of me that is my place in the body of Christ, to let that part inside me grow and grow, to let Jesus grow inside me, until there is new birth.

And there is much risk. Following God’s will for us requires risking that others will reject us. When we do what God asks of us, instead of what the world expects, we risk rejection even by those closest to us. Being a Christian is counter-cultural. As Christians we are the ones call to bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. These are not society’s values, they are God’s. Mary sang of radical change as if it had already occurred. But in this Advent 2011, we can see that there is still so much to do. And yet, the babe is growing and preparing to be born, in each of us.

And that brings me back to my first point—Mary could not face it alone. Neither can we. This Advent, put on your list, along with the other many things to do, time to gather with others to sing, to rejoice, to support each other as we prepare for the radical change that comes with carrying the Christ child inside.

***

Rev. Ann Thomas is the senior pastor at Griffith United Methodist Church in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she is working to renew and revitalize this downtown congregation through spiritual renewal, social justice work and missions.  A recent graduate of Claremont School of Theology, Ann practiced law in Las Vegas for 18 years before entering full-time ministry and seeking ordination.  She was commissioned in June 2011 and is seeking full ordination in The United Methodist Church.

Hannah, Mary, and Miraculous Motherhood

1 Samuel 2:1-11
Luke 1:26-38

This Advent season, I have been reflecting on how thin is the line between life and death, between being and non-being. In my work as a hospital chaplain, I wait with families as someone they love crosses that line, a time that is bathed in mystery and wonder. But more personally, in the past month I have celebrated birth with two of my closest friends, and I have mourned the death of my unborn niece, lost to my brother and his wife at just twenty weeks. What a painfully exquisite juxtaposition it has been.

Most striking to me is that the division between life and death is the work of a single moment—of a last breath, of conception, of miscarriage—and of many moments—the length of an illness, nine months of pregnancy, a lifetime of hardship and joy. What tilts the balance one way or the other? Why does one person survive an illness while another does not? Why does one woman give birth to a healthy baby while another aches with emptiness? How do we make sense of reality transformed in the merest breath of time?

I hear echoes of these questions in our readings today, which include the words of two women whose lives radically change in a moment. They come to motherhood at very different times in their lives but by equally mysterious and miraculous means. Hannah has suffered years of infertility and endured the vicious barbs of other women, especially her husband’s other wife Peninnah. She has passed countless nights in tears and deep sorrow to the point that she cannot eat. Then, after years of fervent prayer, the priest Eli blesses her petition, the Lord remembers her, and she conceives and gives birth to Samuel, one of God’s prophets. After a lifetime of struggle, in a moment, Hannah’s barrenness becomes fertile. Her “death” crosses the thin line into new life.

Mary knows no such struggle and heartache when the angel Gabriel visits her. She has scarce begun to even think of babies and parenting when, in a moment of annunciation, she changes from a lowly girl into the mother of the Most High. Puzzled and frightened, she hesitates only briefly before saying yes to God and beginning the march of events that will culminate in another passage between life and death.

And as they walk the narrow edge of childbearing, both Hannah and Mary sing hymns to God, of favor found and enemies conquered, of faithfulness rewarded and status reversed. In God they find the source of life, the deliverance of the poor, the light of peace. And in death, darkness, barrenness, and pain they find God.

Perhaps my Advent musings, then, have led me to nothing more profound than to say with Hannah and Mary that God is in all moments. But perhaps that is also the most profound truth we can ever proclaim—that God is in all life, and God is in all death, and God is in the whisper of an instant that divides the two. So as we wait through these final days before the Christ child is once again in the manger, reflect for a time with me on all of the fragile moments of death and of life and fully know that God is there.

***

Sarah Green is a per diem chaplain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell in New York City. She is a candidate for ordination as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, CA.