Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day 2016

“Anno Domini (AD): the Year of our Lord”

Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-12
Mark 1:21-28

“Do not be afraid or discouraged … for the battle is not yours, but God's.”  2 Chronicles 20:15

Anno Domini (or AD) is a Latin phrase translated to mean, “The Year of the Lord”.  When I was a child, I guess I had been taught that BC meant “Before Christ” and AD meant “after Death”.  In some circles this is probably still what is believed; and for Christians, it is the constant reminder that human history was profoundly impacted by the Birth of Messiah.  For people of faith there is no “Before Common Era” (BCE) nor “Common Era” (CE) – for the Messiah of The Holy God is anything but “common”.

Yet because society has chosen the generic BCE and CE designations, the Church must be on constant guard against allowing “The Year of The Lord” to become generic, “common”, routine, mundane.  A pseudo-religious means of designating a point in history when Messiah came into the world must not be rendered meaningless by the neglect of the Church. 

If we as the Church are the Body of Christ In The World today (and indeed we are!), then every year must truly belong to Him not simply because of His birth and not because we say so - but because of the Honor and Glory expressed by the Whole Church because He is truly Lord and Head of the obedient Church.

Even what is “common” (or “unclean”) can come into the Church and often does so without challenge or accountability because we think we’re being non-judgmental in vainly trying to make peace by appeasing rather than confronting what is “common”.  Yet what is so striking about this portion of Mark’s Gospel is not that Jesus taught in a synagogue with extraordinary authority or even that He cast out an unclean spirit.  What is most eye-catching about this reading is the fact – even the idea!! – that an “unclean spirit” could even be in a place of worship, let alone function there! 

That Jesus is no ordinary Person or Teacher goes without saying among Christians.  When we think of worship of the One True God, we generally think of The Word being read and expounded upon; drawing as much meaning as possible so the Word can be better understood and received for all its sacred value.  This is how the Word becomes flesh in the Church! 

So while it may go without saying the Scriptures were surely being read in the synagogue, it had to be The Word Himself which provoked the unclean spirit.  Not the words on the scrolls – the Word in the Flesh, the Presence of something remarkable rather than ordinary; maybe sometimes even confounding, but never “common”.

This may disturb some of us on a fundamental level because of the value we place in the Written Word, and rightly so, yet we cannot pretend words on a page can possibly have the same effect as The Word in the Flesh – not only in Christ Himself but in the Church whose entire life and well-being depend on, and is defined by, the Word which became Flesh and is yet alive today only in the fruits of the Spirit in the flesh of the Church. 

So what was it that provoked this unclean spirit that it would have made itself known in the Presence of Jesus – especially if there was any suspicion Jesus had indeed “come to destroy” them?  4th century Church Father St. Ambrose believed the unclean spirit could not help itself because it was “compelled and tormented” by the very Presence of the Word, but not the reading of “the words”. 

This, I think, is important for us in understanding the significant difference between “words” and “The Word”; the difference between common knowledge of written words – and faith in the Living Word.  It is the profound difference between a “common” world without Christmas and an extraordinary world because of the Birth of Messiah.  It also signifies the difference between those who will respond to the Word, whether happy or unsettling – and those who reject the accountability inherent to the Word.

St. James reminded his readers “even the demons believe … and tremble” (2:19).  This is to say, the demons have absolute knowledge of the reality of The Holy One.  Where you and I may have our moments of doubt when we are tested, these demons never experience moments like this.  They know.  They “believe” that knowledge as objective Truth, having direct experience with that Truth – not subjective truth as often experienced in human interpretation – especially when the Word is watered down in a vain effort to accommodate and appease as many as possible. 

St. Athanasius believed even this Truth, however, cannot come from an unclean mouth – hence Jesus’ command of silence even as the demon confessed Jesus as the Son of God.  It may not be so much that Jesus did not want to be so identified so early in His ministry, but that such an “unclean” mouth was unworthy of speaking the Truth.

Recall that St. Peter also made a similar confession (Matthew 16:16).  Essentially the same words were spoken, the same declaration made, but Jesus didn’t shut Peter down.  One would be blessed for this confession and the other cursed because the difference between them is that one was spoken from faith, the other from fear.  And not the kind of biblical fear we associate with intense respect, but the kind of fear we may experience when we are at risk of losing something and lack the power to prevent it from happening. 

It must also be said Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God comes not just with the kind of faith as revealed from Above, as Jesus spoke to Peter, but with a deep and abiding love – the absence of which renders faith void and reduces “belief” to nothing more than intellectual knowledge.  Without love, faith is theoretical and has no meaning beyond what one may expect to gain only for oneself – as when we wish to be saved or forgiven, but will not break a sweat to save or forgive another as the Word commands us to. 

What this interaction in Mark’s Gospel suggests for us may be as simple as saying the absence of genuine, abiding, sacrificial Love means the presence of something unclean, something common to the world but ultimately unrecognizable and, thus, unacceptable, in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Religion without faith; faith without deliberate and purposeful expressions of love.

We live in the “Common Era” only if The Living Word is not present in the Holy Church and in our lives as expressions of something wonderful, a sure Peace this world has proved itself incapable of producing – perhaps unwilling to produce in spite of the Word, both inside the Church and outside. 

Anno Domini, on the other hand, is the faithful Proclamation of the Church and the Profession of Her Faith that our Lord came not to condemn but to save; to build up the Church to witness to The Truth, to render aid to those in distress, to demand and provide justice and mercy even to those who seem less than deserving, and to lift up those who have fallen or have been pushed aside.  EVERY.  SINGLE. DAY. That makes up and fully occupies the entire Year of The Lord.

This is the Life we are called into, the Life we are set apart to live and to provide.  For it is that Life which gives and sustains Life even beyond the grave; the very Life offered to us all.  Always in the Year of our Lord.  Amen.

Christmas Eve 2016

“Sometimes The Lord has a Child’s face”

Matthew 1:18-25                                                                                                                                  John 1:1-18

Without overstating the obvious, the Holy God and Creator of all that is seen and unseen revealed Himself in as humble a place and in as innocent a way as we can imagine.  The only ones more humble than the Holy One in this Sacred Moment were those to whom the Message had been entrusted: the shepherds.  Because it may not be a matter of who is more worthy to receive the Message (the entire world had been judged worthy!) – but who is more likely and willing to share it … those who perhaps had nothing to lose or were unafraid to lose what little they may have had.

It is the kind of Message with the capacity not to simply change our way of thinking but to completely transform our whole being - not in a single event or a single profession of faith but in being constantly renewed not only in what we choose to believe but in how we choose to live according to those beliefs.  It is the difference in being an adult convinced there is nothing more to know or to see or to learn – and a child for whom every single day is a new adventure, a new friend, a new joy – the perpetual hope only a child can fully appreciate and express.  Jesus Himself said as much: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). 

It stands to reason, then, that the best and purest form of what we can offer to The Lord is not found in our religious practices or our prayers or our tithes, though these things are important as expressions of our gratitude, faith, joy, and hope.  The purest form is in our child-like willingness to trust in spite of risk, to share in spite of risk, to make new friends in spite of risk, to open the joy of our world and our lives and all we have to others in spite of risk.  Faith is not about believing only one thing and calling it “good”; faith is trusting and living in perpetual hope that one thing will always lead to so much more. 

This is the necessary excitement we too often lack as adults.

Think of it in the terms of a child.  We know children must be taught to share, but we also know a child who refuses to share will eventually be found alone.  No child wants to hang out with the kid who closes off his world if there is no hope of being invited to share in those good things and in that joy. 

It is only when the kid finally understands that selfishness and greed bring only loneliness that the child will begin to take a chance and open his world – and his joys - to others … not to give away but to fully share without reservation, to share his joy with others and begin to understand the sacred value of True Joy found only in fellowship and community.

This is why the news of the Birth of Christ could not be restricted to any single individual.  This remarkable News is not meant to be “personalized” or modified in any way to fit only our individual need – thus shutting others out.  Rather, it is in this astonishing Invitation from the Eternal Kingdom that “me” no longer exists but becomes all of Christ in all of us in the purest of forms – that of a Child. 

Renewing ourselves in the Birth of Messiah, breaking away from the mundane, and discovering yet again that necessary child-like faith is as being “born again” in the newness of Life, the purity of innocence, and the renewed hope that tomorrow can and will always be better than today.

We celebrate this Day as the Newness of Life offered to all without reservation and the renewed commitment it is meant to be – in the face of the Holy Child and in the child-like faith of our transformed lives. 

Merry Christmas tonight … and to all a better tomorrow!  Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent 2016 - "Silent no more"

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Luke 1:26-38

“The Lord is our Father and loves us deeply, even when His silence is incomprehensible”.  Pope Benedict XVI

There is a lot of history, obviously, in the 400 years of silence between the recorded end of the First Testament period and the beginning of the New, a lot of history leading up to the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century BC – and leading up to Messiah’s birth.  There is also theological speculation about the significance of this period of silence or whether there is meaning at all. 

I believe there must be deep meaning in the Silence which suggests there is no silence after all; there is only a lack of written material in the Bible. 

I mention the Maccabean Revolt because the books of the Apocrypha (extrabiblical books included in the so-called Catholic Bible) include the books of the Maccabees which tell of this significant period.  There is meaning for Christians because even as we think there was this period in which the Heavens were silent, it was actually a time when The Lord had the most to do.

In 168 BC (and a lot happened to lead to this point), the ruler of the Syrian kingdom (Antiochus Epiphanes IV) stepped up his campaign to wipe out Judaism (foretold by the prophet Daniel 400 years earlier) so that everyone in his empire — which included the Land of Israel — would share the same culture and worship the same gods.  So it was “game on” for the Israelites and the Maccabees who would stand strong to not only cleanse the Temple which had been profaned by unholy worship practices (including the slaughter of swine); they would also stand to protect Israel from this unholy encroachment.

Long story short, you are familiar with the menorah, the six-pronged candle holder described in Exodus 25:31-40 (modern day version has eight – for a reason).  The Temple had only enough oil to keep the candles burning for a single day, but the Presence of The Lord kept the Light burning for eight days, long enough to finish what the Maccabees had begun.  And so in 164 BC began the Jewish observance of Hanukkah which, incidentally, begins this year at sunset on December 24, a remembrance of Divine Light in one of Israel’s darkest periods.  (Though Hanukkah must not be confused with Christmas or be considered the “Jewish Christmas”, there are certain theological parallels regarding darkness and Divine light!)

There are other extrabiblical accounts, ancient books not considered canonical (authoritative) but still offer many stories by which it seems clear that through the supposed “Silent Period”, the world stage was being set for the Messianic Age.  Just as we must never think Jesus just “popped up” from nothing, neither did the Blessed Mother nor Joseph.  We have enough prophecy and history to know our God had not forgotten His people nor had He turned a blind eye or a deaf ear to His Created Order.  Quite the contrary, history and nature were continuing to unfold in what would come to be known as “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

Silence can sometimes seem awkward in certain circumstances, but silence is also an underappreciated discipline and is even more so in our hyper-stimulated culture in which many of us – certainly our children - cannot seem to take more than a few steps away from cell phones or other electronic devices without going into convulsions.  We’ve lost our capacity for contemplation, our ability to think in silence while giving The Lord time and space in which to speak!  We’ve surrendered our ability to listen!

There have been (and still are) periods in religious history in which it was debated about any particular issue the Bible seems “silent” about – and whether that silence has meaning.  

For instance, many suggest Jesus never specifically condemned homosexuality.  Well, that observation is limited in its scope in looking only for specific words while overlooking all else.  Jesus Himself claimed to be “the Law and the prophets fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17) – meaning “Torah” (what we Christians typically refer to as “Law”) is still very much the Book of The Lord’s people.  It is alive and well … in Eternity.  This is consistent with the Gospel of John which describes Jesus as “The Word which became flesh” (John 1:14), that very same Eternal “Word which was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1). 

The point, of course, is not human sexuality – not even a little bit.  The point is to show how we try to rearrange The Divine Narrative by speaking in the silence instead of listening to the Spirit of the Word in that silence.  We often fail to realize these periods of silence may be among The Lord’s greatest gifts – and perhaps His most rigorous tests to determine whether we will “wait patiently” (Psalm 37:7).

Some scholars and theologians say that whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture (preceded by “Thou shalt not …”) is allowed; others say anything not specifically authorized is not permitted.  During the early Reformation period, Martin Luther (1483-1546) taught that “whatever is without the word of God is, by that very fact, against God”, usually citing biblical admonitions not to take away from or add to the Divine revelation of the Word (Deuteronomy 4:2; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 4:27; Revelation 22:18).

Gradually, however, Luther and other reformers softened their stands, more often than not in an effort to accommodate the dominant culture much like the Church seems determined to do today, catering to the culture rather than ministering to the people who cannot comprehend the Silence just as the “Darkness could not comprehend (or overcome) the Light” (John 1:5). 

Yet few seemed mindful of the wisdom of the Scriptures in which it is written in the Proverbs, “There is a way that seems right, but it is the way of death” (16:25) – meaning “a way” which may fit our culture’s narrative or satisfy our own desires, but it may also stray from the Divine Narrative spoken in Eternity … and heard only in the Silence.  And is always consistent with the Written Word.

All this is to suggest this perceived silence is perhaps when The Lord speaks most clearly, but we cannot hear The Lord in the midst of the all the cultural noise nor in our mind’s demands to have our own way or to be constantly entertained or stimulated.  If the discipline of the Advent season teaches us anything, it is the discipline to “be still before The Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7).

In the Catholic tradition there is much more to Mary than that she was only Joseph’s future bride.  According to ancient sources (Protevangelium), Mary had been given over to service in the Temple by her mother, St. Anne, just as the prophet Samuel had been given over to the Temple by his mother, Hannah, for her gratitude in being able to bear a child against the odds (1 Samuel 1:20-28).  Once Mary reached the age of female maturity, however, she could not stay in service in the Temple.  The priests, then, chose Joseph from among all eligible men to take her as his bride (there is yet another miracle attributed to the selection of Joseph, but I don’t want to digress).

The point being made is to suggest that as the stage was being set, Mary had been disciplined and prepared to “wait patiently”, having been in service to The Lord in the Temple for the first 12-14 years of her life.  And clearly she had been deemed worthy to bear this Most Remarkable Gift just as Joseph had been deemed worthy to care for and protect Mary and The Child. 

During this most intense period of silence before the record of the New Testament, The Lord was setting the stage for the redemption of Israel and the entire human race, and The Lord would need serious actors capable of and willing to not only hear Him but submit themselves entirely to His instruction which could only be fully revealed in the Silence.  Think of Joseph’s dreams.

The last of the New Testament is believed to have been written somewhere around 70AD-80AD.  What does this say to New Covenant people in 2016 and beyond?  That The Lord has stopped speaking to us?  That we are allowed to make up new stuff to fit our own chosen narrative?  That we cannot seem to function without explicit, printed instructions?

None of this can be true because the assurance we live with is Jesus’ assurance of Perpetual Presence made manifest at Pentecost when the Spirit would “remind us of all Jesus had taught” (John 14:26). 

The Lord’s people have not been abandoned nor forsaken, for the Spirit of The Lord is never silent.  And though “heaven and earth will pass away, [the Word of The Lord] shall never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). 

The Eternal Word of The Eternal God will endure long after the created order has faded away – but only in the stillness of our hearts and the silence of our minds will we be able to hear it.  “Be still, and know that I am The Lord!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”  Psalm 46:10-11

The Lord be with us now and forever.  Amen.

Monday, December 05, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent 2016, “Imagine the Possibilities”

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Luke 3:1-18

“The weapons of divine justice are blunted by the confession and sorrow of the offender.”  Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory

The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of a ruler who will restore justice to Israel, perhaps to the entire world, and the passage is typical of the readings of the Advent season as we “prepare the way of The Lord” – not only to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas when “the Word became flesh” but also to anticipate the coming of Messiah when life as we know it will be turned upside down.

It is a challenge and is often uncomfortable to look more closely at these passages which, in their New Testament context, seem to speak specifically of the birth of Jesus, especially when we get a vision of an ideal society which will come about when this King takes His rightful place. 

It is a sensitive subject for many because tradition has long held these prophecies to “prove” Jesus is the Messiah; so the idea that Isaiah may not be a direct and specific reference to Jesus challenges what we have traditionally been taught for so long.  It becomes uncomfortable for us when we are challenged to think outside the box we’ve contained ourselves in and look more closely at these passages and the full biblical context rather than to simply take for granted what we’ve long assumed.  Yet no matter how we choose to look at them, Jesus is still the long-awaited Messiah.

There is nothing to disprove Jesus as the Son of God, of course, for Jesus Himself says, “If I am not doing the works of My Father, then do not believe Me.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe Me, believe the works so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38). 

It is not hard for us to see that this ideal, prophetic society simply does not exist – not here, not now, and not even during the time of Jesus.  So how do we approach such passages in a way that celebrates a Divine Promise come to fruition in the Incarnation - because it has! - and yet also gives us a Divine Vision of possibilities.  In other words, why must we wait for the literal return of Messiah to have a spirit of justice and peace in our society?  Why can we not have this now?

We can.  Of course it takes two to tango, as the saying goes.  As nice as we may try to be – and we must always try – others will not always cooperate.  Praying for our enemies becomes more and more difficult, and turning the other cheek is a near impossibility – not because we cannot but because we will not.  And we will not because “We are “mad as h*ll, and we’re not gonna take it anymore”!  We’re reached the limits of our patience, and we’ve run out of cheeks to turn. 

But “pride goes before destruction” as it is written (Proverbs 16:18); and when we are on our way down to our own destruction as we choose to live on the world’s terms, make our own judgments, and return evil for evil as we determine what is just, it is impossible to imagine Divine possibilities.  It is hard to imagine what we can actually do even when others will not cooperate.  Even within the ekklesia, the congregation, there is often this dominant attitude to “get mine while the gettin’ is good” – missing entirely the point of living well and faithfully - and ignoring altogether the possibility of a peaceful and just and merciful society right here and right now.

Though the prescribed Gospel reading for this 2nd Sunday of Advent is Matthew’s account of John the Baptizer, I chose instead to read from Luke’s account because there is more detail in the conversation St. John had with those who heeded his call to repentance.  John didn’t just call them to stop doing unjust things; John called them to fully repent – to turn about and do exactly the opposite of what they had been doing.  Essentially he called them to stop taking and start giving – for this is the only way to begin to undo the damage which had been done.

Even then there will not always be cooperation.  Not everyone will go along, not everyone will help, and those who choose to exploit our earnest repentance will make the penitent life more challenging.  This is, however, the very point of the Church, the ekklesia, the congregation of the faithful who choose to live according to Divine Law – that is, the Law of the Eternal Kingdom! – and stop living according to a society that seems intent on its own destruction.  The people of the ekklesia, the Church, must find and make justice, peace, and mercy together.  Welcome those who seek after the same righteousness – and show the door to those who won’t.

The account of the ekklesia in the Acts of the Apostles shows us what a just society looks like, and also shows us what is entirely possible – even when others do not cooperate.  To these new believers who accepted the Word of The Lord and the teachings of the apostles with joy and gladness found themselves not just “personally saved” but called into the greater Body in which such things as justice, mercy, and fellowship are not only possible but very likely.

It will not always be easy.  In fact, living in such a way is the “narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13) through which we must enter into this new life of Divine Possibilities.  And let us not confuse refraining from evil acts with actually doing acts of mercy and justice because the difference is profound.  Simply doing nothing is still nothing.  We are not being moral and righteous people of the Covenant when we do nothing.  Rather it is the “fruit we bear worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) that makes us whole and holy and righteous and just and merciful and hospitable and invitational. 

It is the Presence of the Holy Spirit and our desire to reflect our Lord in our life together that not only begins to undo the damage we’ve done by our actions and our neglect; it soon comes to be that we move beyond repairing and begin building upon goodness and mercy and justice, allowing the kind of community envisioned by so many of the prophets who have announced that this ideal society will exist one way or another, one day or another – with us or without us.

Above all, we must free ourselves from the shackles of a careless theology that insists Christians don’t have to do anything – for if Christians choose to do nothing but continue to live on the world’s terms and standards which shift from one generation to the next, then nothing will happen.  All will remain the same, and we will continue to settle for whatever we can gain from this world on this world’s terms.

So let this new life of Divine Possibility begin here today.  Let our prayers and our repentance be the beginning of something wonderful rather than merely the end of evil.  Let us stop worrying about what others may do or whether others will cooperate, and begin acting as though the entire Church is depending on us individually.  Because if we do this, it is the beginning.

Only then will we begin to see and feel a difference.  And we will be blessed beyond any standard of human measurement because we will have chosen to be the blessing.  And the Possibilities we have only up to this point tried to imagine through the prophets will soon be our reality in the Eternal Covenant.  This is the Promise and the Reality of the Body of Christ in the world today.  It is the very Life Jesus calls us into – today and forever.  Amen.