December 18, 2004
If Jesus is our Savior, why is the world still such a mess? If Jesus is the King of the Universe, why is so much of the universe still characterized by violence and hatred and evil? This is an important question because in a few days we are going to celebrate the birth of the Savior and it is essential that we understand how this birth of Jesus is good news to us.
I think we realize that the central message of Jesus was to proclaim the Kingdom of God: a Kingdom of justice and peace, a Kingdom of forgiveness and love, a Kingdom where the lion and the lamb could lay down together, where there would be no more sorrow or pain, no more hatred or death. That is the Kingdom of God which we have been promised. But where is it? What we find when we look at our world is war and terrorism, misunderstanding and hatred.
So if Jesus is Savior, where is the salvation? We would rather not face this question. But questions such as these, rise spontaneously from those who confront evil. You have heard them as well as I have. Why did my husband have to die? Why do I have to live in fear of terrorism? Why did my marriage come to an end? Why does my daughter have cancer? Questions such as these rise spontaneously from those who suffer. They are a way of asking: If the Savior is born and the Savior is real, where is the salvation? If Christ, in fact, is our Savior, why does so much evil still remain in our world?
Our tradition, of course, points towards an answer. We believe that we shall share in the Kingdom after our death. When we enter heaven we will have complete happiness with God. We also believe that when Jesus comes again at the end of the time, He will establish God’s Kingdom here on earth. The Tradition says to us that the Kingdom is a Kingdom to come, a future Kingdom. It will come in heaven or at the end of time. We know this, we believe this, but what good is that future Kingdom for those who must suffer today? Is there only future good news? Or is there present good news that we can claim in our own lives?
Here is where the true mystery of Christmas becomes evident. Today’s readings point to it. Isaiah tells us that a Child will be born called Emmanuel and Matthew in the Gospel makes it clear that Jesus is that Child. The name, Emmanuel, is important. It means God is with us. As we await the coming salvation, promised us in the future, our God is not aloof. Our God has chosen to take up our humanity. Our God is with us. As we deal with the loss of someone we love, in death, Jesus, who knows human sorrow and pain, is not indifferent. He is with us. As we cope with the fear of terrorism, Jesus, who knows human fear, is not unconcerned. He is with us. As we suffer from the rejection and failure of divorce, Jesus, who knows human rejection and failure is not somewhere else. He is with us. As we confront sickness in ourselves and in our families, Jesus, who has a human body, who felt pain, is not unconcerned. He is with us.
The Good News of the Christmas season is that as we await the full salvation that is to come, God is not far off. God did not choose to wait in some distant place until the Kingdom arrives. God became human. God, in Christ, took up our human nature in all of its frailty and brokenness. God, in Christ, experienced the broken nature of our world. The mystery of Christmas is that God became one of us and that God remains with us.
Now the promises are still real, and we do expect that some day in the future we will enter the Kingdom and live in that perfection of God’s peace and justice and love. But until that day, we are not alone. Until that day through all that we have to suffer and endure, Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us!
From Disaster to Salvation
December 23, 2007
The scriptures say it so quickly and casually that it is possible for us to overlook the crisis and the chaos that it must have caused: “Mary was found to be with child.” What must Joseph have felt when he discovered that Mary was with child? Shock, devastation, betrayal. He knew he was not the father. What hurt he must have felt when he supposed that this woman who he so treasured and loved, had been unfaithful to him, That hurt must have driven him close to despair. And as a person of faith, it is likely he turned to God to complain: “God where are you? Why have you let this happen to me? Have I not served you well? Do I not pray regularly in the temple and follow all of your commands? Did you not know that my heart was set on sharing my life in marriage with this woman who I so loved and who I was convinced you had given me as my spouse? Now it is all ruined. Now my life is shattered, my hope is gone. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Now in time, Joseph learned that Mary had not been unfaithful, that his life was not ruined, and that his marriage could proceed, although on terms he had never imagined. The message of the angel made that all clear, in time. But in that first moment when Joseph found out that Mary was with child, he certainly presumed that all was lost, that God was absent and unconcerned.
The experience of Joseph tells us that God is working in ways which are not immediately clear. God has a plan which is unfolding, but that unfolding takes time. Therefore some of the things which seem like complete disasters can, in time, lead to goodness and life. When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, he was convinced that his life was ruined. But it was, in fact, the first step in the salvation of the world.
In light of this story of Joseph, we must be slow to judge when evil attacks us. Although God is always at work, it takes time to perceive what God is doing. Now this stance of faith in no way denies the reality and power of evil in our world. Sickness, tragedy, violence, and death are real. They do attack us and hurt us. But even as they press in against us, the person of faith continues to believe that God is in charge. God is active, and yet what God is doing is not completely clear. We cannot yet predict the exact way in which God is going to bring goodness in our lives.
Therefore when we receive bad news in our family, in school, at our job, it is appropriate to be in shock and to cope. But at the same time, the person of faith believes that those disasters will not derail God’s plan of life for us. When we make foolish choices or disastrous mistakes, we have to admit our failure and live with the consequences of our decisions. But even as we do so, we continue to believe that God is with us, guiding us to learn from our mistakes and to avoid them in the future. When someone we love is attacked by sickness or death, we are rightfully shocked and discouraged. But we continue to believe that God will provide opportunities for love, for reconciliation, and for growth.
Those of us who know the story of Joseph know how radically things can change as time passes and God’s plan becomes clear. Evil, sickness and death will always be a part of our lives. But the Christian knows how to face them. Even as they press in against us, we face the future with hope because we believe that the present moment is only a part of the plan that God has in store for us. Although the present moment is a disaster, it can lead to goodness and life. When the present situation is a total loss, it is still somehow a part of our salvation.
Another Christmas Story
December 19. 2010
There are two places in the New Testament that describe the birth of Jesus. One is in the Gospel of Matthew and one is in the Gospel of Luke. It is Luke’s version that we know the best and that we will hear on Christmas day. Luke is quite a storyteller. He describes the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a manager, the appearance to the shepherds, and the angel’s song of Glory to God in the Highest.
Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth is very different. We almost heard it this morning in the gospel. But because we are still in Advent, the Lectionary stopped just before it, in order to save the proclamation of the incarnation for Christmas. Today’s gospel describes Mary’s unusual pregnancy and Joseph’s doubt about whether he should take Mary into his home. This doubt is resolved when an angel appears to him in a dream and assures him that everything is all according to God’s plan. The last verse of the gospel that was just proclaimed was this: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel commanded him and took his wife into his home.” It is in the very next phrase that Matthew gives us his description of Jesus’ birth: “and he did not have relations with her until she bore a son and he named him Jesus.” That’s it. That’s Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth. It is one verse, actually only five words in a subordinate clause of one verse: “Until she bore a son.” Matthew tells us almost nothing about how Jesus was born.
Needless to say, if we only had Matthew’s gospel, we would be in a real fix when it came to Christmas cards, crèche scenes, and Nativity plays. Matthew seems unconcerned about telling us the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. He spends all his time talking about the struggles of the family, about Mary’s unusual pregnancy, and Joseph’s efforts to cope with it. Now why would Matthew describe Jesus’ birth in this way? Why does he tell us so much about Joseph’s doubts, Joseph’s questions, and only mention the birth of Jesus in passing? Perhaps, it is because Matthew wants to emphasize the importance of family issues in our own celebration of Christmas.
Now of course the celebration that we will have in this upcoming week is about Jesus. He is the reason for the season. But because of who Jesus is, it is also true to say that Christmas is not just about him. Jesus came into our world to minister to the poor, to the wounded, to the broken hearted. Therefore, there would be no better way to celebrate his birth than for us to be attentive to our family and friends who struggle at this time of year. Now, I am well aware that there are many things that need to be done in order to celebrate Christmas. There is shopping, baking, wrapping, sending Christmas cards, and preparing special foods. Therefore, it could easily happen that all of these activities become the major focus of our Christmas celebration.
The gospel of Matthew reminds us that we should be attentive to those like Joseph who struggle and doubt. Make sure that you find time this holiday season to write a special message in your Christmas card to your college roommate who just lost her father. Make sure that you pick up the phone and spend a little time with Uncle Louie, who just was diagnosed with cancer. When people gather in your home or around your Christmas table, ask yourself who is the person here who most needs my love? Is it your son who just broke up with his girl friend? Is it your aging mother who is frustrated because she cannot do the things that once came so easily? Be attentive to those who struggle. Do not let the Christmas tree or the plum pudding distract you from loving them.
Matthew describes Jesus’ birth the way he does, because he knows that Jesus came into our world to bring hope to the discouraged and to the broken hearted. Matthew understands that Christmas is not about holly and eggnog but about loving those who are wounded and in pain. It is true that Matthew tells us that Jesus is to be called Emmanuel: God with us. But Matthew also tells us that if Jesus is going to be with those who carry pain in this holiday season, it will often be through our attention and love.
December 22, 2013
Today’s gospel is about shame: Joseph’s shame and ours as well. Shame results from doing something wrong or displeasing to others, or by being associated with someone who does something wrong or displeases others. Joseph’s shame was of the second variety. He did nothing wrong. But his espoused wife, Mary, was found with child. Now, Jewish culture took engagement very seriously. Therefore, there was no doubt in Joseph’s mind that the vows he had exchanged with Mary had been broken by her pregnancy. He had the right to expose her publicly and, in the patriarchal culture in which they lived, his word that he was not the father would not have been questioned. So there was every inclination for Joseph to distance himself from Mary’s shame, to ignore or reject her because of her mistake.
But that is not what Joseph did. Instead, he took Mary as his wife and accepted her child as part of his household. Now why would Joseph do this? The easy answer is that he received a message from an angel. But that only takes us so far. It is important to note that Joseph’s angel was very different from the angel that appeared to Mary. The text tells us that Joseph’s angel appeared to him in a dream. Dreams are more elusive than daytime visitations. Dreams need to be tested once you awake. Perhaps, then, the best way to understand Joseph’s angel was that it was a divine suggestion. The suggestion which entered Joseph’s heart might have run like this: “What would happen if I married Mary anyway? What would happen if I took her as my wife even though I am not the father of her child?”
Why did Joseph say yes to this divine suggestion? Perhaps it was because he already had decided, even before the child in Mary’s womb could teach it, that he would turn the other cheek. Although Mary had dishonored him, Joseph may have understood that there was nothing to be gained by dishonoring her, that two wrongs do not make a right, that the response to love betrayed is to love again. Or perhaps Joseph still saw the goodness in Mary that he had always seen despite her inability to explain the pregnancy to him. Joseph still saw Mary’s worthiness and decided that it was right to honor it. Whatever motivated Joseph one thing is clear. He was able to discover something more important than his shame. He was able to find a goodness in the circumstances of his life that allowed him to resist the temptation to flee. He found something more important than what other people would think. Joseph located a power that enabled him to set his shame aside.
In doing that Joseph becomes for us an example of dealing with our own shame. The gospel asks us to consider: Who are the people in our lives of whom we are ashamed? Who are those with whom we are embarrassed to associate? We can begin with our own family. Is there someone in your family who has made such a foolish decision that you do not even want to speak to him or her? Is there a son or a daughter, a parent or a sibling who has so disappointed you that you do not want to be in the same room? Will you see a family member over the holiday who speaks too loud, drinks too much, or says such careless things that you are ashamed? But shame does not extend only to family. Are you ashamed of someone at work, at school, or in your neighborhood because they are poor, unrefined, or awkward? Do you want distance from someone because they are different, or because of their race or sexual orientation?
In all of these circumstances the example of Joseph asks us to look beyond the shame. It shows us that we need not be controlled by what people think, that true power sees beyond the flaws and the differences of others and beholds someone who is loved by God. Joseph was able to set his shame aside and so can we. Nor is it necessary to wait for the message of an angel to recognize it. The gospel, itself, has planted the divine suggestion in our hearts. So put your shame aside. Replace it with forgiveness, acceptance, and love.
Let Go in Love
December 18, 2016
There are many vivid characters in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. But only two of them act in secret, only two act in a way so that no one else knows what they are doing. The first of these characters is Joseph. In today’s gospel, he decides to divorce Mary in secret, quietly, because he is unwilling to expose her to public shame. The second character who acts secretly is King Herod. We will hear on the Epiphany how Herod calls the Magi to meet with him in secret to ascertain the time of the star’s appearance. I believe that Matthew tells us that Joseph and Herod acted in secret to draw our attention to them and to invite us to compare the way that they act so that we might gain insight for our own lives.
The first thing that we notice when we compare Joseph and Herod is that they are both men in crisis. Joseph is in crisis because he has just learned that Mary, the woman he loves, the woman with whom he planned to share his life and raise his family is pregnant—and not by him. Herod is in crisis because his advisors have just told him that his rule is threatened. A child is born in Bethlehem who will replace Herod as ruler of Israel. Although Joseph and Herod are both in crisis, they respond to that crisis in very different ways. Joseph lets go in love. Herod holds on with power. When Joseph realizes that if he is to be faithful to God’s law, he cannot take Mary as his wife, he lets go. He chooses to divorce her, letting go of all of his dreams for happiness with her in a shared union. But Joseph lets go in love, quietly, because he does not wish to expose Mary to public disgrace. When Herod realizes that his throne is threatened, he holds on with all of his royal power. He calls the Magi to meet with him in secret to disguise his violent plan to kill the Christ child.
As Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth continues, it becomes clear that it is Joseph who is vindicated. Joseph discovers that the woman he let go of in love could be his again and that he is to become the foster father of the Messiah. Herod finds out that his plan to hold on with power is frustrated when the holy family escapes to Egypt and his own power comes to an end through his death.
I believe that Matthew asks us to compare Joseph and Herod because when we find ourselves in crisis, it is often better to let go in love than to hold on with power. This can happen as we face a family member dealing with addiction or living a lifestyle with which we do not agree. It can happen as we attempt to find reconciliation with someone who has hurt us. It can happen with an aging parent whose health is failing and whose judgment is impaired. It can happen as we deal with a serious sickness that threatens our future. In any of these situations, we can find ourselves with no way to move forward, with no clear choice we can make. In those situations, it might be best to let go in love, to hand over the things we cannot control into God’s care.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a time to hold on. There is a place for power. We have every right to establish expectations, to give directions, and to lay down a deadline or two. But when we find that our influence is having less and less effect, it might be time for us to side with Joseph and let go in love. We do believe that when we let go, we provide more space for God to act. And although there are no guarantees, it is certainly possible that our experience in letting go will mirror that of Joseph’s. Joseph found out that the woman he thought he had lost could still be his wife, although in a new way. We may discover that what we let go of in love can, in God’s love, be ours again.
A Compassionate Christmas
December 22, 2019
There are two accounts of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. One comes from the gospel of Mathew and the other from the gospel of Luke. The gospel according to Luke provides us with the most familiar account. We all know how it unfolds: a census, a journey to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, a child in a manger, shepherds, and angels singing glory be God in the highest. Today’s gospel is the first part of Mathew’s account of Jesus’ birth. It is a very different from Luke’s. In it there is no silent night, no virgin and child. There is Joseph in crisis because he has just decided to divorce Mary his wife. She is with child and Joseph knows the child is not his. As Mathew’s account continues, we encounter wicked King Herod who slaughters all the children in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus and forces the Holy Family to flee to Egypt for their lives. So instead of a manger, shepherds, and an angel choir, Mathew presents us with crisis, divorce, and slaughter.
How is this unusual account of Mathew meant to enhance our Christmas celebration? In a very important way. I suggest Mathew’s dire and troubling account of Jesus’s birth is meant to remind us of how many people we know carry heavy burdens this time of year and how many people in our world struggle to survive. Think of people in your own family and circle of friends. Is there someone there who has experienced divorce? Even if that divorce happened years ago, the holidays have a way of opening old wounds and reemphasizing the dividedness of our lives. Do you know someone who is carrying deep anger because of a hurt and whose heart is unable to resound with the songs of peace on earth? Is there someone dealing with serious disease and wondering if this will be the last Christmas to sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”? Think of how many people in the world live in need and in fear of violence. There are children who grow up in countries that are at war, where bullets and explosions become part of daily life. We have homeless in our country who like the Christ child have no place to lay their head. We know of immigrants and refugees leaving their own country and like the Holy Family fleeing to another place where they hope for welcome and safety.
I believe that Mathew’s account of Jesus’ birth surrounds us with all this brokenness, not to ruin our Christmas, but to deepen it. Mathew calls us to have compassion for those who are angry, hungry, or afraid. That compassion can lead us to recognize people in our lives who struggle this time of year and call us to do something to support them in the upcoming days. That compassion calls us to recognize how many people in the world have so much less than we do and see such people as our brothers and sisters.
The best Christmas story is a composite of both Luke’s and Mathew’s account of the Jesus’ birth. That is why today I wish that your Christmas may be merry and bright—but also filled with compassion.