Who Do You Say This Child Is?

I love the celebration of Epiphany! I love the celebration of recognizing that God is among us in the world. For this is what January 6th on the Christian calendar means. This is what I have always been taught. This year, however, as I have journeyed through the Advent/Christmas season I find myself questioning the meaning of this festival.

If what we celebrate on Epiphany is the recognition of God with us, then what does that say about the rest of the Christmas story? Let’s review.

  • There is Mary, who is informed by Gabriel that the child she will conceive will be the Son of God.
  • There is Elizabeth, who recognizes who Jesus is (still in utero) via the reaction of the child in her womb.
  • There is Joseph, who is visited in dreams (also while Jesus is in utero) and told who Jesus is.
  • There is Zechariah, who is told by Gabriel in the holy of holies who Jesus is to be, and who experiences the holy power by being forced into silence for nine months.
  • There are the shepherds who are visited by the angels in the field and told that Jesus the Christ child has been born—this is why they take leave of their fields and rush to the manager on the First Noel.
  • There are the three Magi, informed of Jesus’ birth not by angels but instead by a star.
  • And there is even King Herod, who searches out the newborn “king” so desperately that he massacres a whole generation.

Are the spiritual experiences and revelation of who Jesus is prior to the arrival of the Magi somehow invalid? Do I need to get liberation on this story?

There seems to actually be a lot of recognition in the gospels about who the baby Jesus is, very apart from the reference to the Magi—which is only in the Gospel of Matthew after all. Both before and at his birth there seems to be something widely known to be special about this Jesus. Really, are all babies visited by scholars, politicians, and night watch security guards as they are attracted to this new life?

On Epiphany we traditionally celebrate the recognition of Jesus’ being something divine come into the world. Perhaps this had to do with the divinity of the star in the story of the Magi. As the celebration of Feast of the Magi—Epiphany—approaches it occurs to me that the Magi are but the last in a series of persons to learn who baby Jesus is. Many people were already aware of the birth of Jesus and somehow aware of the significance of his birth. These were not just any people—they were the parents, family, workers, and outcasts of Jesus’ world come to pay homage to the “newborn King.” In some sense the arrival of the Magi is just the signal that all those outside Bethlehem and Israel are to be affected by this child.

In the lead up to this Epiphany, I am aware that the recognition that something special had arrived to all the Earth occurred long before the arrival of the Magi. And, after all, why do we need to wait for them? But this also reminds me that it is up to each one of us to recognize the holy come into the world; the Christ child in our midst, and to respond to the world out of that reality. It comes down to a question Jesus will later pose to his disciples, and bears recalling at this season: who do you say that I am? Who do you say this child is?

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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.

The Face of Emmanuel

I think it’s genius! This season is so rich in spiritual meaning that over the years it has become a fantastic tapestry made up of humanity’s various threads of hunger for meaning and vitality in a confusing and harsh world. A bit narrower than that, I think it’s genius how Christmas was paired up with a date that was already deemed of cosmological significance prior to Christianity’s arrival. And a bit narrower still, I think it’s wonderful how that ebb and flow of darkness and light has played out in my own life, and maybe it is time to marvel at my own awareness of it.

Let me just take this to a personal level here for a bit. Bear with me. I’m not a woman and I don’t really speak in church. But I’m married to one wonderful woman who sometimes does speak in church, and who, ten years ago, became the return of light to my life, with a couple pivotal dates falling just about solstice time in 2001 and our subsequent embrace of our newfound relationship in 2002, even after we’d known each other for over a decade before that. I’ve spilled a lot of pixels on my blog about the details. For our purposes here, I just want to celebrate this in a place where I know it would be appreciated—both among people educated and attuned to the special nuances in this kind of story, and among friends of hers who know her personally.

The state of things a decade ago was one of massive dysfunction on the family front. In a lot of ways, the light had gone dim. That year Kelli and I shared grief around the murder of an old friend, and September 11 was a crisis that forced everyone into mourning and (hopefully) deeper questioning. It did for us. The overlapping disasters that constituted the year 2001 drove me back to a life I was familiar with but that I had left for about a decade. Kelli was a lifeline to that world during that time. But in late 2001, I was beyond my own means to make sense of the world. Kelli and I grew closer and I began to attend church again where the deeper stuff of life was the lingua franca. What resulted was a decade of constant change, but now with a devoted partner with a vast depth of character and compassion. Kelli’s presence did not stop the change or the turmoil, but she did make it safe to face it with new resolve.

This Christmas Eve, with the waiting and the hoping almost exploding in us after weeks of Advent’s buildup, I recall that time one decade ago when the light was going out, out, out—until the glimmers led to flickers that led to an increasingly steady flame. Kelli embodies the solstice for me. Light will follow darkness. Or, using the language of Christianity, she’s the face of Emmanuel for me. Her presence in my life is as clear a sign as I have that God has smiled on this speck of dust too, who a decade ago used to scoff at God-talk and such silly notions of the miraculous.

It has to be the stuff of miracle. Nothing I did earned this. Nothing I knew or believed mattered. This is grace, folks. At Christmas, the great gift is given indiscriminately to all by the shamelessly generous Giver, who doesn’t really care what you were, what you used to believe or not believe, or how you used to think. Just like none of us can stop the solstice from happening, none of us can stop God’s compassionate giving of the divine Self. And, I might say that Christianity’s enhancement of an already-great festival written into the cosmos is that whereas the solstice is just an annual event in a given hemisphere, Christmas isn’t limited that way. Every day is Christmas! Every day can be the day when the God-gift can be given and received. But for me, having such a great thing happen in my life at solstice time will always make this season special upon special.

Merry Christmas to my beautiful wife Kelli who has opened my eyes and softened my heart, and to all of you. Thanks for your submissions to this special series. It’s not over yet, though! Read on through Epiphany, and then stay around to see what follows.

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 Unholy Family of Christmas

As long as it’s Advent/Christmas season and you’re over here to read encouraging and uplifting articles on this special season, let me bring one more thing to the table.

Over at Jubilee Economics Ministries, another site I do extensive work for, Lee Van Ham has now posted two complete series of blog entries that take some interesting looks at Christmas as told in Luke (from 2010) and Matthew (this year). You can find them within a category called Unwrapping Christmas. The series on Luke explores the cosmological breakthrough of Christ into a world that would be Caesar’s. (Lee gives the grown up Linus answer to Charlie Brown’s question.) This year’s series, dubbed The Unholy Family of Christmas, is actually rather much a topic that should be on this very site for the way it looks at the women of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Lee is a retired pastor of 32 years (Presbyterian) and brings not only his clergy background to explaining the texts, but also his post-retirement passion for helping people open the Bible and to discover the economic themes that bind it together. He is working on a book about “One Earth” economics and the stories that get us there, i.e., the Creation-centered stories of the Bible, in contrast to the Civilization story of empires and superpower nations, which have done much to diminish the former. In this Advent series, Lee looks at the notable women that preceded Jesus, and found how their stories harkened back to the Creation story, and their actions were rejections of the systems that would see them hemmed in by patriarchal laws that might even lead to death if not for the bold life-saving rejections that made these women notable.

While much would be familiar to you as clergy, and as women, for many folks, this is a great new way to unhitch Christmas from the commercial extravaganza it has become, or even to put some power back into the story, leaving the tame little pageant imagery behind. Feel free to share it around as an extra resource with your friends and congregations.

While you’re looking into Jubilee Economics, why not subscribe to The Common Good Podcast too?

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.

Waiting on the Lord

Backstory

Two years ago, when I wrote this, I found myself in a very fearful waiting place. I was without a job, without any prospects, and with the knowledge that my money would soon run out while in California. It was nearing a time when I would need to pack my bags and head back to the East Coast to begin again. This was the very last thing I had wanted to do that that time.

Waiting on the Lord

Waiting on the Lord? I suck at it.

Yes, for all the times I’ve sat with families and patients waiting for a test result, a surgical outcome, pain medicine, a trauma doctor to come and give some news—for all the times I’ve prayed for God to make me a peaceful presence, a non-anxious presence, when my life is on the line, more often than not, I crack.

And that’s okay.

My goal here is not to chastise myself over ‘cracking’ or my impatience or my misguided thinking that I can tackle the problems of the world (or at least my little world) alone.

I’m here to wrestle with this—it’s usually in this wrestling, this struggle (la lucha) that God most clearly speaks to me, and hopefully to anyone else who needs to hear what He has to say.

I’ve wanted to write this, to struggle with this waiting on the Lord since Monday night, as I drove home from my friend’s house.

The anxiety that I had fought so hard to keep at bay crept up and took me by surprise. Two weeks and I may be packed up and heading back East! The thought gripped me by the throat and squeezed, hard! Now, to those in the Northeast, I’m also not writing this to do a whole East vs. West comparison or to say one sucks and that the other is perfect. This is not what this is about.

So this thought is choking the life out of me and I’m way past panic mode when—finally!—I remember. My life, my future, my everything is in God’s hands. One would think that this new thought would tear me from the hands of despair and bring me some relief. Not quite so. Not yet, at least. I think my dialogue with the Almighty went something like, “Oh my God, no. Really?” “Really, I’ve got this. It’s all okay.” Except it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t okay. I was and have been scared shitless, sleepless and at times grumpy at others. Sorry Mom, Dad, and [insert your name].

It was anything but okay.

Still, in my own infinite wisdom (laugh here, please), I pushed on. “I can do this. No worries. It’s all under control,” which of course it wasn’t, and I was slowly driving myself insane. Everything is in God’s infinitely capable hands.

‘But I’m scared,’ I heard myself whisper.

Of course, I’m scared. It’s scary. Uncertainty and a looming unknown are both scary potentials. Words to many songs came into my heart. Knowing that giving voice to these, and to the prayer that was in the song, would make me emotional, I found myself resistant at first and I also knew that surrendering my heart, my soul, my hopes, and my fears to God was the very best thing for me. I also remembered that “throughout the day we may need to surrender our will repeatedly. This can be especially true while struggling to let go of expectations” (Opening Our Hearts, Transforming Our Losses, 46). And what was I in need of doing but letting go of expectations and outcomes in regards to my job search and my drive to stay in California?

I sang, I prayed. I pranged. I did it honestly, openly, and vulnerably. And yes, there were tears. First came the worship song, “The Everlasting God”:

Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord
We will wait upon the Lord…

—But I don’t want to!

We will wait upon the Lord…

— But I don’t have time to!

And again, until all my fearful resistances were silenced. Until I pranged it right through:

Our God, You reign forever
Our hope, our strong deliverer
You are the everlasting God
the everlasting God
You do not faint
You won’t grow weary

The words came and suddenly my history of waiting, my history of being delivered, was before me. Call it a documentary of God’s salvific work in my life running through my head, my heart, and my soul. A strong witness that God—the one holding my life, my everything in his hands—is indeed the defender of the weak, the comforter of those in need and the one who will lift me, and all of us, on wings like eagles’.

I felt my heart change. I felt secure; surrounded by the love of God and as I was changed, so changed my song:

I have decided,
I have resolved,
to wait upon You Lord.

It is the only thing I can do. It is the only thing I can ever do, and when the waiting is difficult, when it feels impossible, I can ask God to help me. The song/prayer (sayer?) goes on:

My rock and redeemer,
shield and reward,
I’ll wait upon You Lord.

I will wait with the help of God, my rock. I cannot do it alone. I cannot do anything alone. It’s foolishness for me to think that I can, and yet I know I will think so again and again (and again). And again I will need to ask God for help; I’ll ask for God to dim the lights and roll the film, allowing that glorious documentary to play on a larger-than-life screen. Except this time a clip of me in my car, wrestling as I turned onto the southbound Interstate 15; tearful, fearful and resistant, will have been added, as will the song of my heart rising high to the heavens and the everlasting God’s graceful, merciful response.

As surely as the sun will rise
You’ll come to us.
Certain as the dawn appears,
You’ll come.
May it be so.

Epilogue

Oddly enough, I got home that night, checked some random job postings and stumbled across something I had never seen before. I applied the next day and am going to be arranging for an interview on Monday. Thanks to all those who have kept me in prayer! And now, two years later I remain in California, have that job that I found that night, remain relatively impatient and still struggling to wait on the Lord, but I have another memory of God’s hand in my life to turn to when the waiting begins to be too much.

God came then in this reflection, that very night even!

God is coming to us in this holy season.

God will continue to come to us in all our needs.

***

Donna Batchelor is a hospice chaplain and youth pastor in San Diego County, CA.