Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reflections on Christmas One

 22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;[a] this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.[b] 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon[c] came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon[d] took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant[e] in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon[f] blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna[g] the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child[h] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)

 Merry Third Day of Christmas! Sometimes, I think, we forget that the Christmas holiday is actually twelve days long. Usually, after December 25th, we’re so sick of hearing “Frosty” and “Rudolph” on the radio that we can’t wait to be done with the whole thing. This year, however, we actually get two Sundays to celebrate in the Christmas season (usually we only get one, but Christmas was on Friday this year).

 There are four things I’d like to point out about the Gospel reading above: 

First: The Law of Moses required the faithful—as a sign of true, “I-ain’t-no-scaredy-cat-and-I-trust-in-God” faith—to offer the first-born of any animal or human as a sacrifice to God. It showed you trusted God to give you more of what was already provided if you could easily part with the first one. Obviously, you weren’t going to sacrifice your kid, so the Law allowed you to buy back your first-born child by offering an animal sacrifice instead. 

Second: Your animal sacrifice was prorated according to your personal wealth. I think it’s interesting that the Savior of the World was only worth the price of two pigeons.

 Third: Simeon’s prayer of praise has often been set to music and used as a canticle during our worship service. It’s sung right after we receive Holy Communion. We’ve met Jesus, so we can go in peace. I just always find this story touching. God let this old guy live long enough—not to see Jesus perform miracles or rise from the dead—just long enough to die knowing God is always active and, if we don’t live to see it, others will. 

Finally: This story really respects the prayers and faith of elderly people. I know we in the church keep asking, “Where are the young people?” All the same, there is something to be said for those who have run much of their race and are now resting in retirement. If I don’t tell you often enough, I want you to know how much I value your prayers, your faithfulness in giving, and your wise understanding that God has a way of making everything work out. To all you “Annas” out there, I offer my sincerest thanks and appreciation. Our congregation could not get along without you, and I love you all very much. May God continue to bless you today as God has in the past.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Choice is Ours (Reflections on the Nativity of Our Lord)


“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people…” (Luke 2:10) 

In one of my favorite Christmas stories, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”  I know what he meant. As much as I love Christmas, and I’ve celebrated the night of Our Lord’s birth for the last twenty-two years in the chancel of Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you on which year we sang which anthem or which year it snowed, or which year the candles on the sconces burned down too fast and the ushers had to put them out or risk setting the church on fire. After a while, the years and memories, like the candles, seem to melt down and lose their clear shape. 

But not this year. This year I will remember. So will we all. 

This year, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we will not be able to gather as a family in worship of the baby in the manger. There will be no Praise Team singing, no bell choir, no hugs in the narthex, no pews packed with folks singing the Christmas hymns which never get old. This year, many will not be able to gather with family around the tree on Christmas Day or at the dining table. The feasts will be smaller, the gifts will be sent through the mail and opened at a distance. The smiles will be seen on the screen of a smart phone or laptop. 

We will remember this Christmas, and the long months which preceded it. We’ll remember the shut-down; the death of George Floyd and the riots, destruction, and protests which followed; the fires in the west and the floods in the Gulf Coast; and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath which articulated our brutal divisiveness as a nation. 

The question, of course, is how will we remember these things? Will this be a time of petulant disappointment, or will this be a moment to experience God’s grace? Will we, in the midst of all that has happened, be able to hear the voices of the angels proclaiming God’s intervening presence in our chaotic world? 

Last Christmas I told a story from my late friend, Wayne Martin, a beautiful Christian man whom I’d known from my vicariate congregation in New York[i]. In 1997 I had the honor of sharing a Christmas dinner with him at the home of some mutual friends. As we sat around the table he told us of a Christmas that was vividly in his memory—Christmas of 1944, which he’d spent as a scout for Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. 

It seems that Wayne and two other scouts found themselves pinned down in a farm shed in France on Christmas Day. A German patrol had spotted the three GIs and opened fire with small arms. The American boys tried to return fire, but the temperature, well below freezing, was so miserably cold that they could barely move their fingers. Worse, the grease which lubricated the action on their rifles froze, rendering the weapons useless. One of the soldiers would warm a rifle over a small fire in the shed, then pass it on to one of his two buddies who would fire off a few rounds until the weapon seized again. 

The soldiers kept up this desperate relay for what seemed to be hours until they noticed that the Germans were no longer returning fire. The grease in the enemies’ weapons was also frozen. Both sides simply gave up. Wayne said to his comrades, “I guess Jesus doesn’t want us fighting on his birthday.” 

This year, I think of those three boys, thousands of miles from home, shivering through one of the coldest winters ever recorded in Europe, and fighting for their lives. Did they remember it as a day of fear and desperation, or as a day of grace and salvation? 

Perhaps this year we will remember why we celebrate December 25th. It is not about the gifts or the parties or the family traditions. It is a dark day which reminds us that God has not abandoned us. God has sent his own Son into the world to be a light of hope. 

I think of the shepherds, filled with both fear and wonder, hired men living on a subsistence wage in tents in a field like the homeless who lined the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philly this year. Suddenly, God ripped open the heavens to tell them deliverance was at hand—a baby was born in Bethlehem who would be the Messiah. But what good could a baby do? This baby, born to peasants, homeless in a barn? It would be thirty years before Jesus would proclaim the Kingdom of God had come near. Perhaps some of those shepherds would not live long enough to hear the Good News. 

And yet, they went with haste to Bethlehem all the same. They proclaimed the promise that God was still active, still at work, never forgetting God’s people. They returned to their tents glorifying and praising God—not for what God had done, for their circumstances remained unchanged—but for what God was doing. God had given them the gift of hope. 

Perhaps this year the COVID Christmas will remind us of our mutual struggle and of the responsibility we all have to each other. Perhaps we will, God willing, emerge from this pandemic with a greater sense of togetherness, a greater respect for the fragility of life, and a greater joy for the gifts with which God blesses us every day. Whether this Christmas is remembered with bitterness or triumph will be our choice. 

God’s peace be with you all. 

[i] See the Featured Post at the right for another of Wayne Martin’s Christmas stories.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Saint Katy Inspires


I really love Advent Four. This is the Sunday when we get that beautiful story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th Century theologian and church leader, said there were three miracles present in this story: 1) that God would condescend to become human, 2) that a virgin would conceive and bear a child, and 3) that this little girl, Mary, would actually be willing to be the mother of the Savior. Martin Luther believed that the third miracle was the greatest of them all. After all, God can do whatever God wants to do. It’s only when we want God to do God’s thing, when we say “yes” to God, that things really happen. 

This was a pretty big “yes” for a young girl like Mary—to be willing to be the bearer of God’s redemption for the world. In Mary’s day her pregnancy out of wedlock would certainly mean scandal and social exclusion (possibly even stoning!)—to say nothing of the pain and medical dangers of childbirth itself. Luther gained a real appreciation of what she’d agreed to thanks to the influence of the saint we commemorate on December 20th in our liturgical calendar, Katherina Von Bora, a.k.a. Mrs. Martin Luther.

 Katy Von Bora had been sent to a convent to study at the age of five. When she was nine she was moved to a different convent where one of her aunts was a nun. Katy was expected to enter into the religious life and spent the next sixteen years in the cloister. A brilliant young woman and accomplished scholar, Sister Katy became fascinated with the growing Protestant movement. With the aid of Luther, to whom she had written, she and several of her sister nuns made a daring escape from the convent by hiding in a fishmonger’s cart.

 Luther had the audacity to preach that God’s grace smiled no more brightly on cloistered nuns and monks than it did on any other sinner.[i] Subsequently, many men and women in religious life left their vows of chastity and sought spouses. Luther served as something of a match-maker for these former monks and nuns, but Katy had no interest in any of the suggested husbands. She was holding out for Luther himself.

 The Luthers had six children and adopted four orphans. While Luther was out reforming Europe, Katy raised eleven children, managed the enormous house they had been given by the Elector of Saxony (which included managing the frequent guests and lodgers), ran the estate (including livestock), greatly increased the family income, and still found time to advise her husband on his work, brew his beer, and serve as a volunteer nurse when sickness struck the community. She taught Luther respect for the role and capabilities of women, and she is remembered along with her husband as a renewer of the church.

 On Advent Four we give thanks to God for the heroic women such as our Lord’s mother and Elizabeth, her cousin, the mother of John the Baptist. It’s fitting that we should also give thanks for all who have said “yes” to God’s call to be caregivers—for parents of both sexes, nurses, teachers, healthcare workers, and nursing home caregivers among so many others. In this time of pandemic their selflessness is a manifestation of God’s love. 

Peace be with you.

 [i] Acts 10:34

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Saint Lucy Lights the Way (Reflections on Advent 3, Year B)


“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) 

December 13, the Third Sunday in Advent in 2020, is also celebrated as the Feast of Saint Lucy. I’m all up for celebrating Lucy since her name means “Light,” and our Gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:6-8, 19-28) tells us that John the Baptist came to testify to the light. This is also that fun, “pink candle” Sunday called Gaudete or “Rejoice” Sunday. For the past two Sundays we’ve been anxiously awaiting Jesus to show up, but on Advent Three we get to jazz it up a little and just be happy knowing he’s on his way. In some churches they not only light a pink candle, but the paraments on the altar and the pastor’s vestments are also pink. 

(Of course, since the City of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 restrictions have effectively shut down public worship at Faith, it really doesn’t matter what I wear this Sunday, does it?)

 But back to Lucy. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to rejoice about in this girl’s story. It’s pretty similar to a bunch of other martyr stories of young girls in the early Christian church. Lucy was a Christian girl living in the late third and early fourth century of the Common Era in Sicily, and she really loved Jesus. Her dad died when she was young, but left her some money so she could pay a nice dowry and find herself a rich guy to marry. When she came of age, her mom made a marriage arrangement with a pagan gentleman, but Lucy wasn’t interested in getting hitched. She announced that she’d dedicate her life to serving others, offer her perpetual virginity as a sacrifice to God, and give away all of her inheritance to help the poor. As you might imagine, this didn’t sit well with her prospective fiancĂ©, and he complained to the local governor who ordered Lucy to get over herself and marry the guy or else he’d send her to the local house of ill repute to be violated. The rest of the details here are rather unpleasant, but the bottom line is Lucy was martyred on December 13, 304. 

So why the pink candle and the rejoicing? Both Lucy and John the Baptist were martyrs, a word which literally means “witness.” Our job as Christians, this Sunday and every day—pandemic or no pandemic—is to be witnesses to the light of Christ. If we are faithful and believe that God has all of this in hand, we can rejoice even in the crappiest of times. Before our current Western calendar was set, December 13th had been observed as the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year. In a spirit of defiant joy, Christians would light candles and sing, knowing that the True Light was already in this dark world, the light of Jesus who loves us, died for us, and is always with us.

 Whacky traditions which honor this day have been popular in Scandinavian countries, particularly in Sweden. Young girls sing in procession, all dressed in white robes tied with red cinctures. The white symbolizes Lucy’s purity, the red symbolizes her martyrdom. The lead girl will wear an evergreen wreath with lit candles on her head. Supposedly, Lucy, while ministering to the poor at night in the days before the flashlight, wore candles on her head in order to see better. Personally, I don’t recommend putting open flames on a young girl’s head, but the Swedes seem to be into this. There’s also a tradition that the oldest daughter in a family should rise early on December 13th, put on her white robe and red sash, light the candles on her head, and wake up her household by serving them delicious sweet breakfast pastries. Hopefully, she doesn’t wake them up by setting herself on fire!

 (By the way, and I’m only guessing about this, I think the reason Lucy is on our Lutheran liturgical calendar is because of the Scandinavian ethnic connection. Those countries were probably celebrating St. Lucy Day before the Reformation, but, when they became Lutheran, they hated to give up the tradition.)

 Whether we celebrate John the Baptist or Lucy this Sunday, let’s remember the words of John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) There is no better witness for our faith than the irrational, defiant joy of Christ. So light the lights, get those bakery sweets from McDonald’s, and remember Emmanuel—God with us.

 Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Saint Nicholas Prepares Our Way (Reflections on Advent 2, Year B)


“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3b) 

Advent 2 always shines the spotlight on that most dynamic and eccentric of Biblical figures, John the Baptist. Here he is, eating bugs and yelling in the wilderness for everyone to repent. He’s Jesus’ advance man, the necessary warm-up act to the Savior of the world. God knew that John was necessary because most of us wouldn’t know a good thing if we slipped and fell in it. The love, forgiveness, and sacrifice we see in Jesus Christ probably wouldn’t make any sense to us if we hadn’t first been told to be on the lookout for it.

This year, Advent 2 falls on December 6, historically the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas. Boy. If there ever was a saint for us to look to, this would be the guy. Unfortunately, we just don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the real, historic Saint Nick. Nevertheless, I hypothesize (and I do so love hypothesizing) that he must’ve made a pretty big impression on the folks of the 4th century since they told so many tales and legends about him. He became the Bishop of Myra, a town on the coast of what today is Turkey, just around the time Christianity was becoming a legal and official religion in the Roman Empire. After three hundred years of persecution, it was finally a pretty good time to be a Christian. The downside, alas, was that folks weren’t entirely sure of what being a Christian really meant. 

The legends tell us that Nicholas got the main idea that Christianity was about love and charity. This fellow was known for his humongous generosity. He inherited money from his folks, the legends say, and gave it all away to the poor. There’s a famous story of how he rescued an impoverished nobleman who had no money to dower his three daughters. If daddy couldn’t come up with the cash to marry these girls off, it looked as if they were going to have to learn to pole dance. Nicholas is said to have snuck by the bankrupt father’s house one night and chucked a bag of gold through a window to dower the oldest girl. When daughter #2 came of age, he did the same thing. The father, overwhelmed by these acts of anonymous generosity, stayed awake to watch for his mysterious benefactor when it came time to hitch daughter #3. He caught the bishop in the act, and the legend of Nicholas leaving gifts in the night morphed into the way we celebrate him with our kids and grandkids today. 

But what’s really important about Nicholas the bishop is that he was listed as being one of the bishops present at the Council of Nicaea, the convention which gave us the Nicaean Creed. The basic function of this dogmatic statement is to teach us about the triune nature of God, a doctrine which was in rather hot dispute in Nicholas’ day. The question Christians had was how do we understand God? How do we understand the person of Jesus Christ? The Council gave us the three-fold experience of God, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It’s stood the test of time, and I have to say, it works for me. 

Being a Christian is more than just wearing a cross around your neck and going to church at Christmastime. The living faith is seeing God in Creation, God in the Holy Spirit present in my life and in yours, and God in the loving gift of Jesus Christ—a child born in poverty who came to give himself as a gift on the cross for all of us. 

In our Gospel lesson (Mark 1:1-8) John the Baptist is calling us to prepare a way for Jesus. I’d like to suggest that you start preparing that way this week by looking at the Nicaean Creed and meditating on what the Holy Trinity means to you. It’s really important that we, as Christians, are able to know and articulate what our faith means. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an awful lot of “us versus them” dialogue going on in American these days. I sometimes wonder if those doing all the shouting actually know what they’re shouting about. They may know what they’re against, but do they know what they’re for? 

Start preparing the way for Christ in your hearts this week. Look at the Creed, and look for the presence of God in your life. I think it will lead you to a place of gratitude and generosity as it did Nicholas. This will be a very different Advent and Christmas season for all of us, but the meaning of it never changes. 

Thanks for reading. Next week I’ll tell you about another popular Yuletide saint, Saint Lucy.