Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas: Mass During the Day

The Web browser programs that we use
to navigate the World Wide Web on the internet
typically have an option under the "view" menu
that is called something like "source" or "page source."
If you click on this, it reveals to you
that the beautiful and elegant (or ugly and confusing)
web page that you are looking at
is actually made up of a series of codes
written in a language called HTML
(hypertext markup language)
that web designers use to tell your computer
where to insert pictures,
what text to bold or italicize,
where to break paragraphs, and so forth.
It doesn’t have the "user-friendliness"
of a well-designed web page,
it doesn’t have the attractive details
that catch the eye,
but there is something fascinating,
at least for those with a certain type of mind,
in getting a glimpse "behind the scenes,"
to see the web page from the perspective of its designer,
to get a sense of the complexity underlying
what presents itself so attractively on our computer screens.

Today’s Gospel is a bit like clicking
the "view page source" menu on the Christmas story.
According to the tradition of the Church,
on Christmas morning we do not read
Luke’s familiar account of the Christmas story,
but rather the prologue with which John’s Gospel opens:
"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God."

John does not offer us the eye-catching, user-friendly details
that we find in Luke:
no inn without a vacancy,
no Christ child placed in the manger,
no angels,
no the shepherds.
Instead of Jesus, we are told of the Word:
the Word who is in the beginning with God
and who, at the same time,
in some mysterious manner,
is God.
We are told that the world
came into being through this Word,
and yet does not know him.
And, perhaps most bafflingly of all,
we are told that the Word has become flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and has given power to become children of God
to those who believe in his name.

It can seem, at first, as baffling as HTML code.
But what John is offering us
is a glimpse "behind the scenes" of the Christmas story,
an opportunity to see from the perspective of its designer,
to get a sense of the deep mystery that underlies
what presents itself so attractively in Luke’s Gospel.

Most of us find our hearts moved
by the story of Joseph and the pregnant Mary,
homeless and unprotected.
We find attractive the simplicity of the image of Christ
born amidst the animals in the barn.
We thrill to the angels’ announcement to the shepherds:
"Glory to God in the highest
and peace to God’s people on earth!"

In comparison, John’s Gospel might seem cold and cerebral:
Luke gives us baby Jesus;
John gives us the eternal Word.

But we ought to realize
that they are both telling us the same story.
The child in the manger is the eternal Word,
who has taken on our flesh, our human nature,
so that we too might be God’s children.
John’s Gospel shows us the eternal source that lies behind
the moving, attractive, thrilling events in Bethlehem of Judea.

With a story as well known and pleasing
as Luke’s account of the nativity,
there is always the danger
that we might sentimentalize the entry of Christ into our world.
We can begin to think that Christmas is all about
babies with rosy cheeks
and shepherds with cute lambs
and angels that look like pretty ladies with wings and halos.
Our Gospel this morning reminds us
that Christmas is about God transacting
the serious and unsentimental business
of the world’s salvation.
Our glimpse behind the scenes in Bethlehem shows us
that Christmas is about God taking on our human nature
so that God,
through the bitter suffering of the cross
and the glory of the resurrection,
might bestow upon us a share in God’s own immortality.
As St. Athanasius of Alexandria put it:
God became human
so that human beings might become divine.

John’s Gospel reminds us that this is the real Christmas story.
And this glimpse behind the scenes
should lead us to marvel even more
that God would transact
such serious and unsentimental business
in the little town of Bethlehem,
by means of a young mother,
and some shepherds,
and a child.

Christmas: Mass at Midnight

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola
develops a method of prayer
that involves the imagining of a biblical scene,
and then locating ourselves within that scene
and observing what transpires and how if affects us.
With regard to the story of the nativity,
Ignatius begins by suggesting that we imagine Mary,
nine-moths pregnant and riding on a donkey,
journeying to Bethlehem with Joseph,
a servant girl
and an ox
to pay the tribute Caesar had imposed on the land.
He suggests we imagine the road:
is it level or hilly, smooth or rough?
He suggests we imagine the place where Christ is born:
is it big or small, high-ceilinged or low?
Then we are to imagine the people present:
Mary, Joseph, the servant girl,
and eventually the Christ child himself.
Finally, we place ourselves within that scene.
Ignatius writes:
"Making myself into a poor and unworthy servant,
I watch them, and contemplate them,
and as if I were present, serve them in their needs
with all possible respect and reverence; . . . .
notice and consider what they are saying. . . .
watch and consider what they are doing:
for example, their journeys and labors,
so that Christ comes to be born in extreme poverty
and, after so much toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold,
insults and affronts, he dies on the cross —
and all of this for me.
Then I will reflect and draw some spiritual profit."

Ignatius offers us here a suggestion
for internalizing the events of the Christmas story,
and a way of realizing
that all of these things were done "for me."
Surely it would be worth our while if each of us
took 15 minutes or half an hour tomorrow,
amidst the presents and meals and family and friends,
to engage in this exercise in prayerful imagining.

But there is one point on which Ignatius
doesn’t offer us guidance:
when I place myself in the scene, who should I be?
He suggests that we take the role
of "a poor and unworthy servant,"
but doesn’t say which unworthy servant.
Are we to invent a persona for ourselves,
or should we inhabit one that is already in the scene?

My suggestion is this:
why not, this Christmas, imagine yourself as the donkey?
Now the donkey and the ox,
whom Ignatius imagines Mary and Joseph
bringing with them to Bethlehem,
are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.
They seem to have gotten imported into the scene
from the Old Testament:
a passage from the prophet Isaiah that says,
"An ox knows its owner,
and a donkey, its master’s manger" (Isaiah 1:3).
Perhaps it was this passage’s mention of the manger,
the food trough,
that led Christians to imagine
the ox and the donkey present
at the manger in which the infant Jesus is laid.
In any case, they have been inextricably incorporated
into the traditional scene,
and so I make my suggestion:
this Christmas, imagine yourself as the donkey.

St. Augustine loved the image of the Christian as the donkey:
both the donkey present at Christ’s birth
and the donkey that carried him
into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
He particularly loved this image
because the donkey is a beast of burden:
the donkey carries Christ
in his mother’s womb into Bethlehem,
the donkey carries Christ
in his mother’s arms on the flight into Egypt,
the donkey carries Christ
into Jerusalem, where he will meet his destiny
in cross and resurrection.

And this is the role of the Christian: to carry Christ.
St. Augustine writes, "Look at the manger:
do not be ashamed to be the Lord’s beast of burden. . .
Let the Lord sit upon us,
and let him direct us whither he will" (Serm. Ben. No. 189).

OK, imagining yourself as the donkey
is not particularly glamorous,
but then Christianity
is not a particularly glamorous undertaking.
Like the donkey,
we depend on our rider to guide us to our goal;
like the donkey,
we are pretty much in the dark
as to where our rider is guiding us;
like the donkey,
we sometimes grow weary
and even, on occasion, resentful and stubborn.

Indeed, it is sometimes during this season of joy
that this burden of faith weighs most heavily upon us.
I was reminded of this two days ago
when I heard from some neighbors
that they would be out of town attending the funeral
of the infant child of friends in New York.
I was reminded of this again yesterday
when I received an email from a student
telling me that her grandmother had just died and that,
while other people were planning Christmas celebrations,
her family would be planning a funeral.

The gift of new life that we see in the Christ child can be,
even in this season of joy,
shadowed by the sorrow of death and loss.
We may declare a holiday,
but the business of life and death goes on,
the journey continues.
Our Christmas faith is that in Christ
God shares in the business of life and death.
Even as you imagine yourself
in the joyful scene of Christ’s birth,
you know that it is your task to carry the one
who, as Ignatius put it,
suffers "toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold,
insults and affronts," and ultimately death on a cross.

We look at the child in the manger and we ask ourselves,
can one who seems so small, so weak,
one who has shared so fully in human mortality,
really save me from death, really redeem my suffering?
And our faith answers, "yes."

And so, tonight, we donkeys stand at the manger,
ready to take up again the burden of faith’s "yes."
We only dimly understand
the great mystery taking place around us —
the mystery of God made flesh —
and we are perhaps frightened at the prospect
of taking that mystery upon ourselves.
And yet the burden of the mystery,
the burden of Christ,
the burden of faith,
is not in the end something we carry,
but something that carries us.
Christ takes upon himself our mortal nature
so that we might share in his immortality.
As Augustine writes:
"With him sitting upon us,
we shall not be burdened down, but raised up.
With him leading us, we shall not go astray.
We shall be going to him,
we shall be going through him,
we shall not perish."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent

After the kingdom of Judah was conquered
by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar,
the Jewish people lived in exile in Babylon
for the next two generations,
until Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians
and the exiles were allowed to return.
For two generations the Jewish people
remained faithful to their God —
studying God’s Law, keeping God’s Sabbath —
as they awaited God’s salvation
and their return to their homeland.
Our first reading is an announcement of that return:
"Comfort, give comfort to my people. . .
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her service is ended."

Many of us are familiar with these words
from the opening of Handel’s Messiah,
which places them in the context of the Christian faith,
so that the waiting of Israel in exile
becomes a sign and symbol
of humanity’s long wait for Christ, the world’s redeemer.
And our Gospel reading today
presents us with John the Baptist,
a voice "crying out in the desert,"
who announces that redeemer:
"One who is mightier than I is coming after me. . . .
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
And so the redeemer whom the world had awaited
arrives in the person of Jesus of Nazareth,
and the words of Isaiah are fulfilled:
"here is your God!"

And yet. . . and yet. . . aren’t we still waiting?
Has the rugged land been made into a plain?
Has the rough county becomes a broad valley?
Has the glory of the Lord been revealed?
If we look at the news,
don’t we still see the rugged land of terror and violence?
If we look at our own lives,
don’t we still find in ourselves
the rough country of pride or sloth or greed
or just plain thoughtlessness?
If we look at our world,
can we see even a glimpse of God’s glory being revealed?
We believe that the world’s redeemer has come;
why then does our world look so unredeemed?
If in Jesus God has spoken God’s definitive word of comfort,
why do we so often feel that we are still in exile in Babylon,
far from the homeland of God’s promise?

The way theologians sometimes put the matter
is that in Jesus we experience a salvation
that has already come to us,
but is not yet realized fully in our world.
Through faith in Jesus we are already
in the homeland of God’s promise,
but still have not yet completely left behind
our exile in Babylon.

Already. . . but not yet.
It’s a nice theological formulation,
but does it help us solve the problem
of how we live with that "not yet"?
Our second reading tells us that
"with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day"
and this may help us to grasp intellectually
why we can’t expect the world’s redemption
to follow our human timetable,
but it doesn’t tell us how we are to endure
the passage of those thousand-year-long days
as we await the new heavens and new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
What we really need to know
is how to cultivate patience as we live in the "not yet."

I sometimes think that in our world today,
patience is one of the most under appreciated virtues.
It seems like we need everything to have been done yesterday,
that our computers never boot up fast enough,
checkout lines at stores never move speedily enough,
change in Washington never comes promptly enough,
and those with whom we must live and work
never adapt to our needs briskly enough.
But I suspect that it is not simply today
that we find patience so difficult.
Our second reading testifies to the fact that in the first century
people were complaining about the delay
of the world’s final redemption,
and I suspect that those same people complained
that their ox carts ran too slow
and their crops took too long to grow.

We find patience difficult because patience is hard;
indeed, the word "patience" comes from the Latin patior,
which means "to suffer."
We don’t like being patient because we don’t like to suffer.
But patience is precisely what we need
to live in the "not yet."
It is the form that faithfulness takes
as we await the new heavens and the new earth.
It is a faithfulness that allows God to act
according to God’s own schedule,
in our world and in each one of our lives.
It is what allows us to take action to make our world
a better place and ourselves better people
while allowing the fruits of our actions
to remain in hands of God,
who judges our actions and our lives
in terms of faithfulness and not results.

And so in this Advent season
we should try to cultivate patience.
We should let this season of spiritual anticipation
become a time in which we strive to live
with all of the "not yets" in our world.
I would make one concrete suggestions.
Our patience, our faithfulness,
is founded on God’s patience and God’s faithfulness.
Our second reading tells us
that what we perceive as the delay of God’s promise
is in fact God being patient with us,
God giving us time to change,
so that we can live joyfully in God’s kingdom.

As we try to be patient with God,
we must recognize that God is the source of all patience,
and so our cultivation of patience
must involve prayer, asking God for the gift of patience.
One way to cultivate patience is to make the world stop
by taking time each day, even if only five minutes, to pray.
And in your prayer, ask God for a share in God’s patience.
Ask God to enable you to see yourself and others
through God’s eyes,
those eyes for which a thousand years are but a day,
those eyes of infinite patience.
And then listen.
Listen for the glad tiding that are already here,
listen for God’s word of comfort,
spoken tenderly to you and to our world.
And then speak:
become the voice that cries, like John the Baptist,
"make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God."
Become the one through whom God speaks
words of comfort to a world in exile.

Ask. . . listen. . . speak.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.