Christmas Truth

First Sunday After Christmas Day  |  Luke 2:22-40

Christmas Truth

The Lectionary Project

Luke tells a story not found in the other Gospels, a story about the infant Jesus Holly4x6being presented at the temple in accordance with Jewish law. The child is circumcised and named, and he enters into the life of the Jewish people with the blessing of the establishment who would later condemn him and call for his crucifixion.

In this short story we meet Simeon and Anna, an old man and an old woman, both waiting in faith to meet the Messiah. Had they grown old looking forward to this day, or were Simeon and Anna looking forward to this day, to God coming into their world, because they were old? We don’t know. Luke does not tell us, and there’s no other mention of them.

Were they real people, factual folk, or were they something more symbolic?

Luke’s account of the birth of the Messiah differs from that of Matthew, and both of these gospels differ from John and Mark. Other than the symbolism of John’s prologue, John and Mark skip over the birth narrative entirely. We could fret over the differences, the omissions, the additions, or we could accept what we have. Truth is not the same as factual detail. The facts of our existence are small and lose importance over time. The truths of our existence are less substantial, less documented, but more important.

We might hear the story of the birth of Christ and regard the event as a fact. We might also hear it as truth, the elements of the story each relating something true about our existence and God.

The temple, where an infant Jesus encounters Anna and Simeon, is huge— clean stone walls, walkways, polished bronze and gold, guards and priests with fresh robes and gleaming adornment. It is a gateway, the keeper of the rituals and the entrance into the communal life of the Jewish people. It is also the symbol of the establishment, the place where communion with God is being traded for the mere observance of rules, because the rules are simpler and easier to follow than a God who cannot be seen.

HollySkyThe old man and woman are also symbols. They are the wise, the seekers, the faithful, not trading their faith for rules, not exchanging their expectation of God’s coming for empty observances. They are children, waiting with pure devotion.

The temple and these old wise people are also part of us, within each of us. We value such rituals as we have, whether kneeling in prayer or checking our emails, for the way that they help us to define our existence. Stone by stone, we build temples in our minds. At the same time, deep in our minds dwell a Simeon or an Anna, telling us to look for more, something we have not seen in the great temples we construct around us. Look for something real, the old ones tell us, something that may not be so much a fact of our existence as a mark of genuine truth.

Then there is the child. This infant, now named Jesus—both a name and a meaning, Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, Savior—is a small thing, of little importance by comparison to the great stone walls and priestly rituals surrounding him. This child does not look more special than any other child the temple walls have held, no more special than any we ourselves have seen. Only the two wise ones recognize him. This child, born in poverty, in the muck and straw of a stable, is God becoming, Emmanuel, truth unremarked by eyes that are filled only with the splendor of the temple.

Christmas is not a day or a season. We open the presents, put away the ornaments, and say that it is over, but that is only the ritual, a small thing that we have named and welcomed and that passes, facts and details marking a holiday. The truth of Christmas is in the expectation of what has come, and what is yet to come. That is what our Simeon and Anna are waiting to see. That is what we are waiting to see, the coming of truth, God made real.


Vision of Mary

Fourth Sunday of Advent  |  Luke 1:26-38

Gabriel didn’t tell her everything. Mary knew that.

“Greetings, you favored one!” Gabriel said. “The Lord is with you.”

Mary was no simpleton. She knew from stories that angels making announcements were just the start of the trouble, and so she stood there and tried to work out what kind of greeting this Gabriel creature was offering her.

The angel, perhaps seeing that it did not have her full trust, went on to say that she would have a child. This would be not just a child, the angel claimed, but a king, and not just any king, but king forever without end. It was quite a claim, backed up by nothing but words. Sure, these were the words of an angel, but words nonetheless.

Mary’s presence of mind was remarkable. Most of us would stare slack jawed at the spectacle of an angel, but Mary was thinking on MaryBabySnowCPher feet. She listened to the promise of a son, and she knew that the angel was skipping over an important step in the process.

“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” she asked. It might be the best question anyone ever asked, when you think about it. She could have asked for proof that Gabriel was, in fact, an angel. She might have asked for miracles, or gone into whys and wherefores. She might have lost her self control and fallen into a cowering heap at the sight of an angelic being. Instead, Mary (her actual name was Mariam) chose the path of empirical evidence. Mary was a woman with a scientific and logical mind.

With statues and paintings, rosaries and Hail Mary prayers all over the world, it may sound strange to say that we don’t give Mary enough credit. Maybe it is more precise to say that we do not give her credit for the right things. People speak of Mary’s purity, and her humility, and her faith, but this story reveals a woman with remarkable intelligence and courage.

Gabriel told her that a holy spirit would come upon her, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, whatever that might mean, and that the holy one being born to her would be called the son of God. Then the angel changed the subject. It began to talk about Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, who was pregnant even though she was thought to be too old, like Abraham’s Sarah. To top the announcement off, it told her that nothing was impossible with God.

“Behold, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “May it be to me according to your word.” And Gabriel, satisfied with the response or having nothing else to say, left her.

We should admire her intelligence at least as much as her other attributes. She could have objected that the angel was a little vague on the biology question, and she could have asked what Elizabeth’s situation had to do with her own. Instead, she asserted her faith, and she added a sensible, “May it be so.”

A son who becomes king sounds like a good thing. This was an angelic being standing in front of her. Whether one believes in the angel or in what it says, there is little point arguing.

In so many words, she said, “We’ll see.”

The Gospels tell us that Mary faced a pregnancy that came too early to be respectable. She traveled. She raised a family. She did all of this with courage, intelligence, and more than a little grace.

Perhaps this Advent season, we might welcome a new vision of Mary. This one has nothing to do with robes and roses. This new vision of Mary is of a woman who thinks clearly and acts with courage. Our daughters, and our sons, would do well to look past the statues and to imagine the overwhelming difficulties she faced, to learn from her sensible and steadfast nature.

In this season, we might ponder—as did Mary—the journey of God toward humanity, on unexpected paths, announced by unlikely messengers. We may meet no angels. We do not know whether such visitations are rare or whether we simply do not recognize them when they happen to us. Perhaps that was one of Mary’s gifts, to know an angel when she met one.

Hail Mary, full of grace.


The Edge of Our World

The Edge of Our World  |  John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist never claimed anything. At least, he didn’t claim anything that seemed to matter to the people who asked about such things.

He was somebody, though. That much was clear, or they wouldn’t have been asking.

He lived in the wild places, down by the river, and crowds of people trekked out to hear what he had to say, to make a new beginning, to let him baptize them—an odd enough ritual when you think about it. Say a prayer. Stand in the river. Let this wild looking man either plunge you into the river or pour the water over your head. (They weren’t particular about how it was done in the beginning; those arguments started much later.)

When crowds of people went out to John, their leaders WatersEdge2followed them. After watching the crowd and listening to John long enough, they managed to ask, “Who are you?”

Maybe, like the song says, they really wanted to know. It’s more likely that they really wanted to get rid of him. Nobody rues competition quite like religious folk and politicians. They wanted to know who he was.

Are you the Messiah? No. Elijah? No. The prophet? No, no, and no.

I’m only a voice in the wilderness, says John.  It’s the only claim he makes about himself. Then John adds one more thing. Someone else is coming, he says. Someone else is standing in the midst of you all, in plain sight. You haven’t even noticed. And he is much greater than I.

You’re asking the wrong question. That’s what John is telling them. The question isn’t, Who are you? The question is, Who else is here?

Who else is waiting in the wilderness? Who lives at the edge of our world?

That’s where they found John, after all. At the edge. He wasn’t so far in the wild places that nobody could find him, but he wasn’t calling out his message in the city streets. John, this harbinger of God, was out on the edge of the world, where people had to make an effort to go, out beyond their normal haunts and habits. He stood at the edge of their world and talked about God.

John dressed in a queer fashion, and he ate strange things. According to the Gospel of Luke, John may have taken vows as a nazirite—no wine, a limited diet, and perhaps never cutting his hair. Twenty or thirty years of that, and you get a stone cold sober guy wearing camel hair and leather, eating locusts and honey. Hair hanging down around his knees. Standing in the river. Preaching.

That is the man God sent to announce the coming of the Messiah, at the edge of the world.

If we are going to encounter God, we may need to change our expectations. Finding some sense of the Other may require that we step away from our routine. We’ve got to leave our habitual comfort zone.

When God touches our lives, God starts at our edges. Perhaps it’s because our center is already so full of activity that not even God can find room. Or perhaps it’s because our center doesn’t map onto God’s center. Just as God is not the center of our world—be honest—neither are we the center of God’s world. Again, be honest—did you think you were?

God’s world does not revolve around us. Like Galileo, we have to look to a different orbit. If we are to encounter the Holy, it will be where we have not been looking. If Advent is about waiting for God, waiting may turn into a journey to the edge. That is where God is waiting for us.


Photos by Granny


Make Way

Make Way  |  Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, does not begin with angels or shepherds. There’s no virgin birth, no wise men, no manger, no stable, no Mary and Joseph.

Instead, Mark jumps thirty years ahead to begin with a wild man preaching in the wilderness. John the baptizer appeared, Mark tells us. The word he uses might be translated differently: John the baptizer happened in the wilderness.

Some people are like that. They don’t just show up, or hang out, or arrive. They happen.

Mark tells us that John happened, and then Jesus happened. As Christmas stories go, it isn’t much. If we had only Mark’s Gospel, our Christmas celebrations would be different, and the narrative would be short. We might receive ‘Jesus Happened’ cards. Santa might wear a camel hair jacket, feeling no need to compete with the rich attire of a wise king. Children would stare at candy covered locusts on their plates and wonder what they were supposed to do with them. (So would I.)

WhitewaterFor Mark, John the baptizer is a messenger, a prophet, a human being trying to smooth our way to thinking about God. Why would God use people for that anyway? This bottom-up approach can’t be as effective as the top-down one—the word of God booming from the clouds or being handed over by an angel, radiant, glowing, awe-inspiring. Why use human messengers to point to God when God surely has more immediate ways to get our attention?

If Mark were the only Gospel, we would no doubt still miss the irony of his quote from Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Never mind that Isaiah was clinging to masculine images of God: these things take time. What about this odd idea that people are to make a straight path for God? Isn’t that backwards thinking? Isn’t the Lord supposed to straighten our paths, make our way smoother? Isn’t that what God is for?

How would we even go about making the God-path straight and smooth anyway?

We send rockets into space. Engineers and scientists talk about how the rockets work, what the mission is about. We can watch video of the launch, and we can see photos from space—so many that it starts to seem commonplace. None of it is the same as seeing it happen in person, watching the launchpad covered in smoke and steam, feeling the power of it make the ground tremble, seeing a rocket soar across the sky in an arc of fire and light.

FireworksEverything we’re told about it is junk compared to the seeing the real thing. It’s more than we imagined.

If we experience the presence of God in some way, it likely will not happen as we think. We’ve got the God-stories of the gospels, the prophets, all the rest of scripture, and all of it is at least as true as the video feed of a rocket launch. It’s still not the real thing.

That’s the meaning of Advent. We choose to believe that someone is coming. Not a thing, not an asteroid from space, not a card in the mailbox or a box on the doorstep. We have the child-like notion that there is a God, not an idea but a real entity, who has been coming into our world, into our lives, for as long as human beings have looked around and wondered. We can settle for the ideas we have, the pictures in our heads, or we can open up to the possibility that we don’t know everything. Even the most determined atheist could agree to that notion—we don’t know everything. And by opening our minds, just a little, to a real encounter with someone that we do not completely know, someone new, some possibility of God coming into our world, we are celebrating the season of Advent in the truest sense.

Meanwhile, there is some preparation to do. We need to get rid of the junk in the road. Fill in the holes. We can move our preconceptions out of the way. We can entertain the possibility that the most basic Gospel message is true, that God is always coming into our world. Mark doesn’t tell of a God who breaks down our walls or kicks in our doors. This is the story of a God who uses the strangest people and the oddest methods, and who comes to us in the most unexpected ways. This Gospel tells of a God who calls us out of our normal paths and into the wild places. This is a God who waits until we straighten a path to our souls.

Make way. God might happen.