Monday, December 18, 2017

Seven days out: Why is there Christmas?

 “Why is there Christmas at all?”
This question makes it clear that we are not speaking of a holiday or the layers of secular commercialism that lie atop it. It is to ask, Why was God born into flesh and blood and all that those things entail? It is what we call Jesus’ Incarnation – the deity of God being born as human.
We can say what this did rather easily: it brought the sacred and eternal being of God into the carnal and temporal sphere of human life. God had done this before, though not in flesh and blood. He did so in Sinai in the giving of his Law to the chosen of Israel and in bringing them to the Promised Land. The Jews understood that God was made personally present in every aspect of their lives by the giving of his commandments even when they did not understand all of them.
The Jews call the commandments specifically and the Scriptures generally the Torah, the Word of God. Torah is the main way that Jews understand God to be present with them. The great Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod explained the meaning of the Torah. Instead of becoming present in the Word, wrote Wyschogrod,
    God could have played a godly role, interested in certain features of human existence, the spiritual, but not in others, the material. He could even have assigned [to] man the task of wrenching himself out of the material so as to assume his spiritual identity, which is just what so many [religions] believe he did. Instead, the God of Israel confirms man as he created him to live in the material cosmos ... There is a requirement for the sanctification of human existence in all of its aspects. And that is why God's election is of a carnal people. By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence.[1]
Of course, we Christians have a different understanding of what forms the greatest manifestation and revelation of God on earth. We agree with the Jews that God’s Word is the purest manifestation and revelation of God that we have on earth. However, we don’t say “what” is God’s actual presence with us, we say, “who.” John’s Gospel tells us:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
The Word of God, the Torah of God, the revelation of God, the Word become flesh – and so Christmas, of which Charles Wesley wrote:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
The Jews are exactly right: “that God and the Torah are one.” Because Jesus is the Word made flesh, the actual, living embodiment of the Torah, when Jesus said, “I and my Father are One,” his Jewish hearers understood him more deeply than the typical Christian hearing those words today.
 Jesus of Nazareth is God’s proof that we can become what we should most desire: to be holy in our own flesh, in this life. God sanctifies us in this life, for he took on this life in his own person. We cannot be gods. But we can be godly. The birth of the Son of God into humanity shows us that.
Our daily headlines show us a world not much different from the one Jesus was born into. It was and remains a world of death, of tragedy, of evil, of pain and of suffering, though thankfully leavened with beauty and joy and goodness. God wages war against everything that resists or opposes God’s intentions for his creation. But God does not war against flesh and blood. Instead, God sanctifies flesh and blood. Paul knew this, so he wrote,
For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.[2]
Yet why does this godly battle require God’s presence in human form? John’s most famous passage explains it quite simply: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ... .” And John later also quotes Jesus, “There is no greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”
We see on our nightly news the horrors visited by terrorists and other random violent acts of no apparent purpose. There are other sufferings we can hardly imagine. Evil is powerful in our world. Father Dwight Longenecker, a pastor in Greenville, South Carolina, wrote,[3]
   The true answer to the absurdity of evil is the supernatural rationality of love, for love is the outgoing goodness that counters evil. By "love," I do not mean merely sentimental or erotic love. I mean a power that is positive and creative and dynamic and pro-active in the world—the power which Dante said, "moved the Sun and the other stars." … Love is the light in the darkness ... .
All who are baptized into the body of Christ cease to be subject to the powers of this world and are transformed and transferred to a new and different kind of life, with different powers and possibilities for life, with new eyes to see the world, with a new family and a new Lord.
That is why to celebrate Advent and Christmas are not simply acts of worship. They are acts of defiance, for in singing carols and reading of relevant passages we announce that we do not submit to the principalities and powers of darkness or the spiritual forces of evil at loose in the world. To sing, “What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” is to speak more importantly than all the other voices in the world and to proclaim that we, God’s people,
... do not lose heart because we are being renewed every day. The promises of God far outweigh all the terrors of this world. We live not according to the fallen standards of this world because we are only here temporarily. We live in Christ’s Kingdom because it is eternal.[4]
The Reverend Nadia Bolz Weber put it this way, [5]
   Amongst the sounds of sirens and fear and isolation and uncertainty and loss we hear a sound that muffles all the rest: that still, small voice of Christ speaking our names.  … the very reason we can do these things is not because we happen to be the people with the best set of skills for this work.  Trust me, we are not. ...  – the reason we can stand and we can weep and we can listen is because finally we are bearers of resurrection. We do not need to be afraid. Because to sing to God amidst all of this is to defiantly proclaim ... that death is simply not the final word. To defiantly say that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it.
Consider this painting, not a contemporary work. Look immediately to the right of Joseph, at the wall behind him. What do you see? 

When we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the birth of someone who was born to die, as this artist recognized. To consider the life and death of Jesus, what possible expectation could we mortals have that the God who created the universe could be required, much less expected, to put on flesh and blood, be born as we are and die as we do, to take upon himself the sin of the whole world? Faced with this fact, what do we do in return?
That is the central question for us who celebrate the birth of Jesus because he put his own body between us and eternal destruction. Jesus died to bring us into everlasting life. The mystery of the Incarnation is conjoined by the shock of crucifixion. Both are resolved by Resurrection. "God With Us" did not start in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, nor was it ended at Calvary. God With Us happens today among those who follow the One who had “no crib for a bed,” the One who died on a cross and then ascended to the right hand of God.
 To celebrate Christmas, therefore, is not simply to sing carols in December in a church garlanded in greens. It is to become holy in this life each day of the year, to emerge victorious over sin, evil and death, to do the work of Christ in the world, to live knowing that Jesus is God with Us, and so we can, and must, be with God.

Every Thanksgiving my family and I join my parents at the home of my younger brother, Will, and his wife, Janice. Usually there are 17-20 there, but this year there were only nine gathered around the table. My older brother and his wife came a long distance to be there, but only one of their children could come. Our eldest child was not able to be here, nor child two or his wife. My brothers and I have a running joke one of us always announces whenever we gather for such celebrations. Sometime during Thanksgiving one of us will say to Dad, “Of course, you know that everyone who truly loves you came home for Thanksgiving.” And Dad responds, “Oh, sure, I know that.” We all laugh because we know it's just a joke.
But if you had been there this year, you would have seen fleeting sorrow flicker across our faces and a wisp of wistfulness in our eyes. For the breath of a sentence, our hearts were in Delaware or Wisconsin or Ohio or Florida because while the table was crowded, it was not full. Not everyone was there who belongs there.
That moment came to my mind when I read something author Bob Benson wrote in Come Share the Being. He and his wife had three children and he told of how they grew up and went away to college and then got married and made their own homes. They were proud of their children, he wrote, but after their youngest son moved away, “our minds were filled with memories from tricycles to commencements [and] deep down inside we just ached with loneliness and pain.
“And I was thinking about God,” Benson wrote. “He sure has plenty of children – plenty of artists, plenty of singers, and carpenters and candlestick makers, and preachers, plenty of everybody . . . except he only has one of you, and all rest together can never take your place. And there will always be an empty spot in his heart and a vacant chair at his table when you’re not home.
“And if once in a while it seems he’s crowding you a bit, try to forgive him. It may be one of those nights when he misses you so much he can hardly stand it.”
Maybe that is why Christ was born, lived, died and was raised from the tomb – because that’s what God does when he just can’t stand it anymore, when he just can’t stand the gulf of separation between us.
In Jesus’ day there was no occasion more festive or joyous than weddings. The best parties were wedding parties and feasts. The New Testament says that when Christ returns he will be reunited with his church in a celebration so magnificent that the Scriptures describe it as the grandest wedding celebration ever held. 
Are we preparing ourselves spiritually for this banquet? Do we understand how the reward of eternal life with God places a burden on us today? Methodist professor David Watson wrote,
When even a cursory thought is given to the countless millions in the world who are hungry, who are suffering, who languish under injustice, or are ravaged by war, the prospect of anyone celebrating personal salvation . . . borders on the obscene. There are still too many of Christ’s little ones who are hungry, too many who lack clothes, too many who are sick or in prison. There are too many empty places [at God’s banquet table]. The appropriate attitude for guests who have already arrived is to nibble on the appetizers and anticipate the feast which is to come. To sit down and begin to [feast] would be unpardonable . . . especially since the host is out looking for the missing guests, and could certainly use some help.
When we deeply consider what Christmas really means and what it obligates us to be and to do, we can only admit that we have surrendered all our rights to everything except humility.

Why is there Christmas? Because there is a place for every person at God’s table, but not everyone has come. Because God cannot stand the separation between himself and his children.
This day of celebration should also evoke is us an equally unbearable sorrow that we are not doing all we are able to do to close the separation. The best way to celebrate Christmas is to carry out the commandments of Christ all the year long.

[1]Quoted by David Goldman, “Banning circumcision is dangerous to your health,”
[2]Ephesians 6.12
[4]See 2 Cor 4.16-18
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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Pope Francis and changing the Lord's Prayer

Pope Francis has announced to the Roman Catholic Church that they have been praying the Lord's Prayer wrong. (Catholics call the prayer the "Our Father," after the first two words of the prayer.)

Francis wants to re-word the phrase, "And lead us not into temptation," because it implies that God might lead us into temptation if God wanted. And as we all know, temptation is bad. Francis suggests that Catholics pray instead, "Do not let us enter into temptation".

Actually, both the traditional phrasing and Francis' rewording miss the point.

Matthew and Luke to do not agree exactly on the words of the prayer. In Matthew 6, the prayer is thus (New Revised Standard Version):
9  Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12     And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13   And do not bring us to the time of trial,[d]
        but rescue us from the evil one.[e]
The brackets are footnotes:
c. Or our bread for tomorrow 
d. Or us into temptation
e. Or from evil. Other ancient authorities add, in some form, For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.
Luke puts it this way, a somewhat shorter prayer:
Father,[a] hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.[b]
3     Give us each day our daily bread.[c]
4     And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”[d]
The footnotes are:
a. Other ancient authorities read Our Father in heaven 
b. A few ancient authorities read Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us. Other ancient authorities add Your will be done, on earth as in heaven 
c Or our bread for tomorrow 
d. Or us into temptation. Other ancient authorities add but rescue us from the evil one (or from evil)
Note that the NRSV, a very recent translation (as translations go) does not use "temptation" at all. Why?

In Greek, the expression is καὶ mē μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς εἰς πειρασμόν, pronounced kye mē eisenenkēs hēmas eis peirasmon. The last word, peirasmon, does mean temptation and is used to mean that elsewhere in the Gospels. But the NRSV is correct not to use it here. 

In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is teaching his disciples what to expect for the rest of their lives as they follow his will: opposition, including lethal opposition. Jesus has already used peirasmon to mean "trial" in the prarable of the sower who went out to sow in Luke 8: the seeds that fall on the rock are those who “have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing (peirasmou) fall away.”

In teaching the disciples the Lord's prayer, Jesus is instructing them what to rely on as the build the Kingdom of God from its inception:

  • God is as close as a father. God is a person, not an impersonal influence.
  • God will provide for their essential needs
  • God will forgive their missteps and sins along the way, but they must be forgiving of others, too.
  • Pray for your work to be done before the time of trial.
  • But trust God to protect them from the demonic powers opposing them.
What is the time of trial?

Luke 4 relates that just after Jesus was baptized by John, he "was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil." There, for "tempted," is that pesky word peirasmon again. This time in the desert was a defining time for Jesus, for the nrtemptations show that at stake was whether Jesus would be faithful to his identity, which Luke has just explained was announced by God, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3.22). 

In the desert, Jesus cannot both affirm his co-identity with God and yield to Satan's three lures, to care for himself, Jesus, first; to worship him, not God; and to test God's ability to save. These are not mere temptations. They are very serious trials for a famished and fatigued Jesus to endure. At stake here is whether Jesus will stay the course, or not.

This is probably the kind of forecast Jesus is warning his disciples about. True, Jesus may be referring in saying "the time of trial" to the end of the age, when he will return to place everything under his feet. But I don't think so. I think Jesus is saying, if I may paraphrase, "Pray that the work God places before you will be done before you face the ultimate temptation, which will be a great trial for you: whether to denounce me and leave the calling I will place before you, to go into the world and make disciples." 

This is not a certain reading, of course. But it's worth noting that Jesus also told his disciples that while they were accepting even death for following him ("Take up your cross and follow me"), even death was not the ultimate trial. Persecution, torture, execution are not trials in themselves, they are admittedly-horrific potential consequences of following Christ. No, the trial in the Our Father prayer is that which leads to abandonment of the Way, to exit the path that Jesus has already trod. The trial is spiritual, not physical-temporal, and Jesus promises elsewhere (i.e., Matt. 24.9-14; Mk. 13.9-13) that those who endure the time of trial without falling away will be saved. 

The apostle James reinforced this point, writing "Blessed are those who remain steadfast under trial (peirasmon), for when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him." Peter wrote, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial (peirasmon) when it comes upon you to test you…. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings ..." (James 1.12, 1 Peter 12.13). 

So how to render this troublesome phrase, "lead us not into temptation"? By folding it into the greater theme of the whole prayer. If I were Pope, I'd offer this:

Our Father in heaven,
    your name is holy always. 
Bring forth your kingdom.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us each day what we need. 
And forgive us our sins,
    as we also have forgiven those have sinned against us.
And do not bring us to the time of defining trial,
    but rescue us from those who oppose you.

This is more paraphrased than I would like. The challenge in translating biblical texts (or any foreign-language texts) is always to translate as succinctly as possible, to stay as true to the original text as one can. But that does risk losing nuance and context, which the author simply assumed the readers would already know. 

By the way, Holy Father, I am available for consultation for a very reasonable fee!