Friday, December 22, 2006

Rest in Peace.

We sing a lot about peace during advent. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." "Sleep in heavenly peace." "Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled." We sing of peace because, according to Luke's gospel, the heavenly host chanted "Peace on earth, goodwill to men" the night Jesus was born. Christians are supposed to be of irenic purpose.

Ironically, even though Jesus sent his disciples to deliver a message of peace (Lu. 10:5), he said he did not come to bring peace to the earth (Lu. 12:50). Indeed, wherever Jesus went, there was trouble. In certain respects, things seemed to get worse not better when Jesus went about effecting the reign of God on earth. Sabbath days were disrupted. Rulers were alarmed. Families were displaced. Enemies were empowered. Friends were betrayed. Not very good press for the man who came to be known as the "Prince of Peace." No wonder John the Baptizer had his doubts about Jesus. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" (Lu. 7:19).

I look around and I think many wonder the same. A world filled with violence and hatred and restlessness and cynicism--where is the evidence that supports the claims of our Christmas carols? Did he bring peace to the earth? Or, are we simply fooling ourselves?

"Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed'" (Lu. 17:20). There's the understatement of the century (yea, even a millennium or two). The reign of God's kingdom does not bring peace in obvious ways. That's especially hard to take when you're facing death's pallor. "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" (Lu. 23:39).

Sometimes, late at night, I cry out to God, "when are you going to do something about this? We're hurting down here. Children are abused. War reigns. Death keeps winning. Please, stop the madness." That's when I hear the cry of a criminal (of all people!)--a man who is getting what he deserves! Yes, justice, finally! Hear his pathetic plea: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Poor beggar. Pretty desperate. But then, for some inexplicable reason, the mercy man said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Lu. 23:42-43). And, here's the most amazing part: these words were uttered from a cross, a Roman weapon of torture and death.

I think I see peace there.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Why do I think about his death when I celebrate his birth?

I have mixed feelings during Christmas. I don't think it's your typical "holiday blues." I've always enjoyed the festivities. This growing restlessness has more to do with making sense of the celebration. Forgive me for saying so, but sometimes our sermons/songs sound rather morbid: "He was born to die," "From the womb to the tomb," and especially [quoting Isaiah] "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders." Even as a child, I remember thinking, "that sounds like a huge weight for such a little baby." The ominous tone of our hope, the pressing weight of the human condition makes me realize that we jump to the end of the story without considering the middle of the story. The beginning merely leads to the end. Mangers and crosses, birth and death, Christmas and Easter. Indeed, the sacrificial language that usually accompanies Christmas sayings makes us sound like a bunch of cannibals: "Give us your child so that he can die for us." Like monsters, we call for his blood before he even had the chance to live. In the midst of the hue and cry, I want to bellow: "But he lived such a beautiful life."

There's a rather unfamiliar saying of Jesus that keeps looping in my head, over and over again. I can't get the refrain out of my mind. As he carried his fate to Golgotha, Jesus noticed Jerusalem women weeping. He found the sight troubling. He told them not to cry for him. They should cry for themselves because, "If they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" Even Jesus knew he was too young to die. For all the splendor of the gospel story--a man came from God and offered himself as a ransom for many--the tragedy of that day still shakes me to the core. Jesus showed so much promise. He was such a lovely man, a kind heart, a confident soul, a gracious human being. Then, evil raised its ugly head and struck with the venomous poison of all hatred and malice. It wasn't that Jesus was startled by all of this. He knew how bad things had gotten down here. He knew what would happen when the irrepressible force of God's love and mercy crashes against the powers of the world. And yet, living in the shadow of that inevitable collision, he cherished life. Every ounce of it, every shred of it, every pulse, every creature, every one of us. Which is why he said, "don't cry for me." I'm so glad he said, "don't cry for me." Because sometimes, in the midst of celebrating his birthday, I feel like he got the short end of the stick.

Even though green trees are still felled, and many of us have grown dry, I will take comfort in the brief life of a man who taught us how to live . . . and die.

Happy birthday.

Monday, December 04, 2006

(Dis)Possessing Christmas.

It's time, once again, to hear the tried and true exhortations to celebrate the birth of our Lord for the right reasons: "Jesus is the reason for the season," "Put the Christ back in Xmas," "Make the holiday a Holy Day, " et al. We owe it to the Lord, we think, to make sure the world knows what all the fuss is about. Directing the festivities, we remind each other that consumerism destroys the "true meaning of Christmas." Even though pagans get it wrong (wasn't the date, Dec. 25th, chosen to compete with a pagan holiday?), we try to preserve the magic of advent with candles and carols. This is our holiday. This is our time of the year. Believers must do Christmas the right way.

But, if Matthew and Luke have anything to say about how we should observe the birthday of Jesus (and they tell two completely different stories), it is this: Christmas is for all people. It's not only for religious people. It's not only for righteous people. It's not only for insiders. Jesus was born for all people. Matthew loves the part about how "outsiders" (pagan star-gazers) offered Jesus their expensive gifts (inappropriate for poor people like Joseph and Mary), worshipped the Christ child, then returned to their homeland, disappearing from the narrative. Luke tells the story about how Joseph was rejected by his family (Bethlehem is home), how Mary had no women-folk to help with the delivery (usually, the women would announce the birth of a son with jubilant chanting), and how insignificant shepherds discovered their Messiah in a feeding trough. Angels chanted when Jesus was born. Shepherds were the first evangelists. And, thanks to Matthew, Joseph would go down in history as the dreamer who knew how to protect his little family from the King of the Jews. There are no insiders or outsiders when it comes to the good news of great joy for all people.

Come wise men, come shepherds, come angels, kings, and paupers. Do what you have to do. Give what you have to give. This child was born for all of us. Whether we realize it or not, this is good news for all. Christmas is not a Christian holiday. It's not up to believers to make sure we get it right. We do not own him. He is God's gift to the world.

Which is why my heart is strangely warmed by crass Christmas decorations, and pagans singing Christmas carols, and signs that announce "Xmas Sale", and greeting cards that rely upon glib cliches.

None of us get it right. And, for some reason, I think Jesus wouldn't have it any other way.