Friday, December 29, 2006

Unexpected Grace

My neighbors packed up their yard filled with Santas and snowmen. The shopping pages now blast New Year’s Day sales. The world has moved on from its brief fling with Christmas. Yet, those who celebrate the feast continue to roar in the echoing refrain of Glory to God in the highest.

Today is the fifth day of twelve-day feast, rejoicing in the miracle of the Incarnation of our Lord. And then comes Epiphany, an extended season for contemplating and celebrating the manifestation of the Son to the world. For many people in days gone by, Christmas carols would continue throughout Epiphany until February 2nd when the church celebrated the presentation of the Lord in the temple.

This year, my mind returns again and again the God’s coming in a way the no one could have anticipated and in a way that stirs the soul to awe. Here are a few thoughts that attempt to capture one theme that has been heavy in my heart:

The grace of God appears like an unexpected star on an uneventful night. Suddenly, light streams shower from a dark sky, and you step forward into the dawn of a coming Day.

The story of the nativity is the story of nighttime surprises. Gabriel greets an unexpecting Mary with the Word that brings new birth. Joseph’s dream awakens him to father the son of his Father above. The lonely shepherds behold a company of angels inviting them to come and see the Glory of God bursting out of heavens and into the earth. The heavenly drama beckons a few stargazers to leave behind an ancient world and behold the future made present.

While there are lessons to be learned from each story, these stories penetrate deeper than the moral truth of any Aesop’s fable. They illumine the ground upon which we tread. Each year we revisit Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, and the Wise Men, and one day we might just realize we’re in the middle of the same story.

Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men are not waiting for an invitation to Bethlehem. They do not anticipate God’s Word of favor to call them forth. Each of them are simply living their lives in the midst of countless other lives and countless other stories. They are not engaged in some heroic work; they are not calling down fire from heaven; they have no particular traits that will cause them to rise above the tapestry of history. Like their mothers and fathers before them, they were born, would live and eventually die with no particular lasting glory.

Suddenly, their common life is interrupted with a glory that exceeds the grasp of earthly minds. Suddenly God’s Word appears like favor, like new birth, like a sword of love that pierces the heart. Suddenly the light of morning grace awakens them, calls them to Bethlehem, and invites them to behold a new Day.

O come let us adore Him.

His glorious Word that sustains every living thing sounds in the cry of that baby in the manger. Halted in their journeys by this tiny vision of divine glory, the travelers can do nothing but worship. No words, no actions, no human ingenuity can add to the moment.

O come let us adore Him. Adore Him.

Jesus comes to dwell among us. Jesus comes to reveal the Father. Jesus comes to save His people from their sins. He enters history at a particular point in time through the womb of Mary. Yet, by His Spirit, He remains in history and continues to bring the Word of life to each of us.

The wondrous invitation to Bethlehem comes without warning and without expectation. In the middle of my dark night, His love surprised me like a sunrise casting its gentle glow over the surface of a black lake. In just a moment, the dark rippling water glowed with yellows and oranges and reds and blues and greens. The dawn overtook the night, and I stepped into the first light of a new Day.

And all I can do is worship.

O come let us adore Him. Adore Him. Adore Him.

I have more essays and reflections that I may or may not write this season. There is much to say and much to do. But at some point, when I pause and consider the splendor of that “wonderful, wonderful Day,” I am speechless. I am overwhelmed. I am falling before Him with a gratefulness that can never match His matchless grace.

O come let us adore Him. Adore Him. Adore Him. O Come let us adore Him.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Spirit of Christmas

Each year, I hear at least one person say, “Are you in the Christmas spirit?” Or another might say, “I just don’t feel like Christmas this year.” Year after year the refrain rolls on. I’m not always sure what the “Christmas spirit” is or feels like. But I think it has something to do with the anticipation and wonder experienced by many children.

Of course, most children live in a state of wonder from moment to moment. They might spend hours playing with their Christmas toys or they might spend hours playing with the boxes that held the Christmas toys.

Unfortunately most adults live in a world divorced from wonder, so naturally the Christmas spirit might seem elusive. Just as the anticipation of the tooth fairy, the hopes of finding a leprechaun, or the delight of a refrigerator box might also seem elusive.

Advent provides us a season for turning our hearts toward that yearning for the coming of the Lord. In some sense, this yearning may actually hold the key to rediscovering that wonder. That yearning is like the yearning for Narnia after having tasted of that world. When the children return home, Narnia seems so close:
And the memory of that moment stayed with them always, so that as long as they both lived, if ever they were sad or afraid or angry, the thought of all that golden goodness, and the feeling that it was still there, quite close, just round some corner or just behind some door, would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well. (The Magician's Nephew)

This yearning may help us to realize that heaven is closer than we think. But to fully grasp the yearning as well as the “Christmas spirit,” we first may have to face the bittersweet depth the Christmas tale, and not simply a flattened two-dimensional image.

This season I soaked myself in the stories and in the songs. Many of older carols are sung in minor keys and ring out less “holly jolly” and more “ransom captive Israel.” In other words, the songs and stories both carry a deep undercurrent of anguish.

While we paint a “happy go lucky” glaze across the top of our Christmas celebrations that is not anything like the spirit of Christmas. It is more like an eruption of holy laughter ringing out in the midst of a darkening night of grief.

The older carols capture this ominous sense. Listen to the hard rhythms and images of this old song:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.
Bleak, moan, hard as iron, stone. All these images suggest a world gripped by the cold darkness of a winter that goes deeper than mere seasons. It is the winter of the soul that freezes our spirits, kills our wonder, eliminates our faith, drains our hope, and leaves us faltering in despair. This is the setting for the Christmas tale.

The Nativity story crashes contrasting images and emotions. Earthy vulgar shepherds behold heavenly glorious angels. Light blazes in the midst of a dark night. Simeon warns Mary that a sword will pierce her heart as well. The cry of baby Jesus is eventually drowned out by the cry of the weeping mothers of Ramah who cannot be comforted because Herod slaughtered their children. Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt, sparing the baby God.

Though the angels proclaim, “Fear not!” There seems much to fear. The world Jesus is born into instantly reveals its hatred for God and its desire to kill and destroy anything that would challenge its flight into darkness.

In light of the tale, how do we respond to the angels’ wondrous proclamation, “Peace on earth, goodwill to man!” The Christmas tale never takes the suffering of this world lightly. It does not brush over the pain and anguish caused by evil. This evil manifests in criminals, in war, in governments and rulers like Herod, but it also manifests in each human heart: in my human heart.

Evil strikes out within every human heart. Each of us suffers, yet each of us causes suffering. It is to this dark night of human existence that a child comes. It is in this bleak mid-winter that a stable will suffice.

The joy that rings out at Christmas is the joy of the ransomed heart. It is the joy of the soul who is not forsaken, not left out in the cold, not abandoned by the Savior. This joy is not tempered by pain and suffering around us; instead this joy blazes ever brighter as the dark seems to grow even darker.

Thus Chesterton really is right when he says that “Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad.” So the Christmas spirit is not something that gently comes upon us like a warm hug. Rather it is a defiant spirit that chooses to rejoice when the world say no.

Yes the world is suffering. Yes there is pain and hatred and cruelty and selfishness all around. Yes even our very Christmas celebration is turned into a parody with layers and layers of absurd marketing ploys. And yet even these cannot stop us from singing. We raise the banner of Christmas like warriors fighting off the coldness of unbelief and cynicism. And like Habakkuk of old, we proclaim,
Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls—
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The LORD God is my strength;
He will make my feet like deer’s feet,
And He will make me walk on my high hills.
(Hab 3:17)
Christmas is a feast. Not because we feel good or warm or happy. It is a feast because we choose to rejoice when our world has lost its way. We choose to dance, to play, to laugh and to celebrate the infant whose cross-shaped love will triumph over all. And as we do, we might discover a world of wonder “just around the corner.” We might just be converted into little children: for only then can we enter the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

While Shepherds Watched Their Flock

Matthias sat down by the entrance to the cave. Rubbing his freezing, blistered hands together—specs of mud mixed with manure flecked onto the ground. The day had been long; the cold night would be longer. The warmth of the fire nearby gradually gave some relief to the bitter night.

His joints and bones ached and had ached for so long, it seemed normal. Years of nomadic life in summer and winter, rain and snow, blistering heat and freezing cold—aged his body. The once playful youth, who could rebound from every fall, now struggled sometimes to simply rise and sit. The lines carved into his face, the distant gaze in his eyes, and the creaking limbs betrayed his thirty-five years, suggesting an older, weaker man.

On this cool dark night he watched. He guarded the sheep asleep in the cave and watched for anything that might hurt the sheep or his fellow shepherds. While Bethlehem nights were usually quiet and peaceful, he could take no chances. Someone must watch in case of bandits, wolves, other creatures or other problems.

Matthias struggled to stay awake. Last night was his turn to rest, but a commotion among the dogs of the flock kept him awake most of the night. And now his mind and body fought hard to recover that sleep.

Puling out a little pipe from his leather pouch, Matthias began to play a tune. In a life of constant struggle for survival, this little pipe was one of his few joys. When he played, he dreamed. He traveled back to boyhood. To sitting by the fire as his grandfather told stories about days long gone.

According to pappa, shepherds were beloved of God and were the reason God chose Israel as his people. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd.

Yes God loved shepherds and would one day restore their glory. They wouldn’t always be outsiders. Stories weaved through the cities accusing shepherds of everything from stealing, tricking and killing townspeople to even mating with their flocks.

Not every rumor was false. Their lives were hard, and sometimes survival meant doing things that made you less than proud. Poverty so gripped and controlled their lives, they no longer even owned the sheep they herded. Instead, wealthy landowners bought the sheep from the shepherds and then lorded over them like slaves.

This humiliation, this constant struggle, this life of virtual slavery drove shepherds to play a role that sometimes included the very worst of the rumors. A shadow of regret and guilt darkened many of their lives.

Living on the margin of the world, they felt forgotten, abandoned and even hated by God. They were dirty, smelly, poor and knew nothing but shepherding. Yet in spite of this, Matthias still dreamed on his pipe. Pappa made the life of shepherding seem wondrous, magical. Pappa’s words kept him alive on the inside even when the outside seemed to be crumbling.

In the desolate hours, Matthias felt the desolation of his life stir a yearning deep within for something. A longing burned and burned and he expressed the longing in slow lamentation on the pipe. He played on and on through the monotonous minutes and hours of the cold winter eve.

Suddenly a light jolted through him and the pipe flew from his hands. Instantly Matthias fell to the ground screaming. The other shepherds followed suit. God had finally come and the end was at hand. They would be judged…and found wanting.

But then two words, two words which promised hope and love and…possibility. “Fear not!”

As the words washed over him in a flood a peace, Matthias looked up at the cause of his travail. A light figure stood or floated before him. He could see no features for the intense brilliance almost blinded him.

Then the voice of a thousand bells spoke again, “For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

“Unto me? A baby born to me? A savior born for me?” The questions raced through his head, but in a moment, laughter erupted from Matthias’s belly like a sudden flood. The other shepherds laughed as well. Soon they were dancing and singing. The joy that burned within them was brighter and more furiously playful than anything they had ever known.

Shearing days could not compare to this spontaneous festival of laughter and dancing and frolicking that broke out in their midst. As though one angel was not enough to witness this joy, the sky suddenly flamed with thousands upon thousands of angel singing, ringing, shouting proclaiming

"Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"

As they danced, Matthias heard Pappa’s words ringing in his ears. “God really does love shepherds.” Then he out of the blue remembered something else Pappa would say, something he had forgotten all these years, “God loves shepherds because he is a shepherd and we’re his sheep.”

For the first time since childhood, Matthias beamed with a heaven-sent pride. He was called of God, chosen to shepherd the sheep. Chosen to reveal the wisdom and kindness of God upon the earth. And now, unexpectedly chosen to share in the joy of God’s redeeming Israel by sending the baby shepherd king who would restore his flock and lead them home.

His dreams stopped short when the sky turned black. As suddenly as they came, the angels departed, and Matthias turned to his fellow herders, “Come my friends, we must go at once. Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

O Antiphons - Dec 17

I realize that most of you will read this on Monday morning, but tonight (as in Sunday) the singing of O Antiphons begins. For the next seven evenings the church traditionally sings (chants) a series of prayers that express our longing for the coming of the Lord. Each chant draws from of different title for the Messiah. This time of singing is a countdown to Christmas Eve. The rhythm of Advents shifts from a focus on the second coming of Christ to the first coming. This gives us an opportunity to meditate upon the various passages of Scripture focusing on the coming of the Messiah.

From Christmas Eve we shift from Advent to Christmastide. A 12 day feast centered on the Incarnation (thus the 12 days of Christmas). I'll write more about that later.

Those who have read my meditations for a while have both taught me this rhythms of the season and learned the rhythms alongside me. Instead of rewriting a summary on O Antiphons, I've simply included an excellent summary below.

What Are the ’O Antiphons’? FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS

The “O Antiphons” refer to the seven antiphons that are recited (or chanted) preceding the Magnificat during Vespers of the Liturgy of the Hours. They cover the special period of Advent preparation known as the Octave before Christmas, Dec. 17-23, with Dec. 24 being Christmas Eve and Vespers for that evening being for the Christmas Vigil.

The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury (now Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire), these antiphons were recited by the abbot and other abbey leaders in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they are in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the “O Antiphons” was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance. One may thereby conclude that in some fashion the “O Antiphons” have been part of our liturgical tradition since the very early Church.

The importance of “O Antiphons” is twofold: Each one highlights a title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel. Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. Let’s now look at each antiphon with just a sample of Isaiah’s related prophecies :

O Sapientia: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” (11:2-3), and “Wonderful is His counsel and great is His wisdom.” (28:29).

O Adonai: “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.” (11:4-5); and “Indeed the Lord will be there with us, majestic; yes the Lord our judge, the Lord our lawgiver, the Lord our king, he it is who will save us.” (33:22).

O Radix Jesse: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” Isaiah had prophesied, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (11:1), and A On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” (11:10). Remember also that Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:1).

O Clavis David: “O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.” Isaiah had prophesied, AI will place the Key of the House of David on His shoulder; when he opens, no one will shut, when he shuts, no one will open.” (22:22), and “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over His kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.” (9:6).

O Oriens: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.” (9:1).

O Rex Gentium: “O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.” Isaiah had prophesied, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (9:5), and “He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” (2:4) .

O Emmanuel: “O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.” Isaiah had prophesied, “The Lord himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

(7:14). Remember “Emmanuel” means “God is with us.”

According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one - Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia - the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.


Saunders, Rev. William. “What are the ‘O Antiphons’?” Arlington Catholic Herald.

Reprinted with permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria, Virginia. The above article is a “Straight Answers” column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2000 Arlington Catholic Herald


Saunders, Rev. William. "{title1}." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 200{#} Arlington Catholic Herald

Friday, December 15, 2006

Joseph's Surprise

Here's another attempt to retell one of the nativity stories. In this short sketch, I was trying to thinking about questions the bible doesn't address like how did Joseph find out about Mary's pregnancy and what happened to the customs of the day? While this is beyond the text, it helped me to see Joseph a real person and not a two-dimensional character.

Surprised by Love

The town gathered in anticipation, excitement: could he be the one? Every birth in the tarnished house of David brought expectation that maybe just maybe the ancient prophecies would come true, and Jesse’s root would bloom once again. Then the royal house of David would once more rule the land, and the darkness of Rome and of Herod’s wicked rule would finally come to an end.

The family waited anxiously for news of the coming baby. Could he be the true Son of David that restores our fallen house? Could he really be the one?

He was not the one.

His father named him Joseph. And he grew in his father’s footsteps, a simple man bearing the quiet dignity of a royal family that had long since lost its status. They were simple people, simple carpenters. And they were faithful. Their lives revolved around God’s precious gift to the His people: the Torah.

Joseph, like his father and like his father’s father, observed Torah. He worshipped the Holy One of Israel. He expressed his devotion through obedience. A man of few words, Joseph’s actions defined his faith. He remained faithful to the ways of the fathers.

In the fullness of time, he looked for a righteous wife from a righteous people. The family must observe Torah. The family must walk in the ways of the Lord. The family must be a trustworthy, holy people. Joseph found such a family. And within that family, he found Mary.

Joseph’s family and Mary’s family entered into covenant. They celebrated the betrothal between Joseph and Mary. As the time of feasting came to a close, Joseph took Mary by the hands, looked her in the eyes and proclaimed, “I am going now to prepare a place for you, but I will come again and take you into my house.”

As Joseph and his family traveled home, an excitement danced in the air. He began to dream. Soon his life would be transformed: his house would be a place joy overflowing with children. This poor man would treat Mary as a princess. The royal blood of the House of David would still shine in their simple life and their simple home.

Months passed and one night Mary’s brother suddenly appeared at Joseph’s home. Marked with the anguished look of a man bearing news that split through his heart, he tried to speak. Joseph assumed the worst: “Is Mary dead?”

“No. She’s with child.” Falling to his knees, her brother began weeping and begging for mercy upon her and the family.

Stunned, Joseph stumbled to the floor.

Soon he began weeping as though Mary really has died. God’s surprise appearance in Joseph’s life was unexpected and unwelcome.

He grieved for the betrayal. He grieved for the dreams now dead He grieved for her family who could not escape her shame He even grieved for her.

He wanted to spare them, yet the Torah constrained Joseph to act in certain ways. How could he act faithfully and yet with mercy toward her family? The dismissal would be a quiet affair. No trial. No public shame.

A weak and weary man lay to sleep that night with a heart torn between betrayal and compassion. His sleep offered no respite. Suddenly his room lit up like the Eastern sky at sunrise and an angel of the Lord appeared in his dream, “Son of David!”

These three words resounded deep within his soul, deep within his blood, deep within his family, and Joseph woke up for the first time in his life.

His family bore the shame of a fallen house. “Son of David” echoed through his soul. It came as a blessing, a song of deliverance. It came as a surprise of love. In these words of life, God’s “hesed,” his lovingkindess, his unrestrained mercy, his unfathomable love brought life to Joseph.

“Do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins.”

Joseph arose.

The once dead root, now stirred. God called Joseph forth, and he obeyed. His heart burned from the visitation, from the word of God. And now his mind now raced with a flood of dreams, memories and new responsiblities.

For some reason an old legend about Moses’ father captured his imagination. A similar dream, a similar visitation, a similar command, “For he will save the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt.” Moses’ father faithfully and quietly obeyed. He received no earthly glory and simply faded into the shadows, and yet his faithfulness made a way for the redemption of God’s people.

Now Joseph has been offered a similar commission.

A loved burned in his heart for Mary and for the baby within her womb. He would lay down his life for them. From now on, his life would be in service of their life. He would name the child “Jesus.” And by naming him, he would legally claim Jesus as his own child.

As the Son of David, Joseph would obey the commission of God and make way for the long awaited, true Son of David to come forth, restoring David’s fallen house and restoring God’s people.

The time, the time, the time. He must hurry.

In a moment, he’s running. Running to his parents’ house, alerting them that there’s going to be a wedding. While he makes no mention of the baby, he explains the Lord told him the wedding must happen right away. Soon the whole town is percolating with energy as everyone joins in the preparation.

Then a few nights later, Joseph dresses in the full regalia of the bridegroom. Flowers and robe flowed around him. The Son of David goes to claim his bride.

The wedding party slips away in the middle of the night with torches, music, dancing and celebration.

He appears at Mary’s family’s house like a thief in the night.

Mary’s grieving family had awaited his appearing for days with terror. They feared the trial, the public shame, the end of their family name. Their feared the curse over their poor, foolish daughter.

But Joseph doesn’t show up as the judge. He comes as the bridegroom to claim his bride.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

[springlist] God' little move

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

When the hopes and fears of all the years finally does show up, he shows up in the little town of Bethlehem. He arrives at the most inopportune time. Joseph and Mary are in the middle of a traveling—not too fun for Mary. The innkeepers have no idea he’s coming, so they’re no prepared.

His parents find refuge in an animal stable that was most likely underground in some cave. The stench probably revolted a pregnant mother and simply added to her miserable condition.

There are no grand parades. No key to the city. No international commission. God sends a sky full of angels to alert a few shepherds keeping watch. Then he sends a sign to some pagan stargazers that a king has been born. Everyone else misses the big announcement.

God makes the most dramatic intervention into human affairs in the history of the world, and He does so in a small, almost unnoticeable way. The Savior appears. He reveals himself in little and lowly places. He comes unexpectedly to unexpected people, and he fulfills expectations of all the ages.

And yet, we continue to expect God to show up in the big, the dramatic, and the exciting. We expect God’s action in our life to be larger than life. It isn’t.

A silent, shuddering voice stirs us, awakens us and in the midst of our problems, our frustrations, our longing for change, we cry out for God to come—not realizing it is His nudge that caused us to cry out in the first place.

The God who loves to surprise the world with little graces is coming to your heart. He is coming to transform you and transform the world. Instead of demanding He perform His life-changing work in a bold, dramatic and even entertaining way, why not bow and simply pray gently, “Let it be unto me O Lord, according to your word.”

Who knows what the Sovereign of Surprise might birth in you?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Telling Stories during Advent

The story of the shepherds, a manger, a husband and his young wife all surrounding the manger of a newly born Savior has been told, retold and told again for countless generations in multiple languages. It inspires young and old, poor and rich, religious and even irreligious.

As your making your list (and counting it twice), I would encourage to pause a little to reflect on the stories of the nativity. Let the stories soak deep into your imagination. Read and reread them. And if possible, tell the stories.

The gospels emerge from a storied culture. There were no movie theatres or televisions to entertain. Storytelling played a fundamental role in shaping these people. While most ancient people groups focused their calendar on agricultural rhythms, the ancient Hebrews focused their calendar on stories. Not just any stories, but stories they claimed and believed to be actual history. They reenacted the stories in their rituals. They retold and relived the stories year after year after year.

The stories gave them power to survive occupation, captivity and persecution. The stories of Abraham, Moses, and David filled the imagination of the disciples. The letters of Paul, Peter, John and even Jude are filled with allusions to stories. They thought in stories and they often wrote atop stories.

We need those stories inside us, and sometimes the process of telling the stories impacts us even more than hearing or reading them. So I encourage you to take time to tell the stories: whether in a journal or in gatherings with family or friends. My sister said she might give each member of her family an assignment to tell the story of a different character.

However you tell the stories, I encourage you to do it. You don’t have to be a grand novelist to tell the stories. By virtue of being human, we are all born storytellers. As the ancient Jews heard the story of the Exodus over and over, they begin to realize they were still a part of the story of a people redeemed from the hand of a great oppressor.

It is important to get the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and others into the very fibre of your soul. It is important to take these figures out of the two-dimensional flannel board world and let our imagination help us see them as three-dimensional, fully human, beings: real people with real problems who encounter a real God.

As we tell the stories, we might begin to grasp the far grander mystery: that we are part of the story ourselves.

To help stir you and get you motivated, I thought I might share some of my feeble attempts at trying to retell these stories. I used my imagination to fill details and took some creative license, but I also tried to be true to what I knew of the history at the time. I’ll share few to help motivate you. But I encourage you that it is more important for you to tell the story than to read the story I send out.

The first story I worked with is the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary. This is long (and long than my average post), so those who want to read may choose to print it out.

Zechariah and Elizabeth carried their shame with a quiet dignity. Years of anguished longing and fervent prayers with no result: God remained silent. And in his silence, He marked them with a sign of public humiliation: barrenness. The time for birthing children came and went, Elizabeth’s womb dried up and her cries had no avail.

Zechariah and Elizabeth took their shame, their disappointment, their loss, their hopelessness and found hope in God alone. Their anguish became devotion to the God of Israel. Born into a priestly family, Zechariah’s life would be defined by serving and worshipping God every day in the Temple. The God who failed him. The God who turned His back to him. The God who abandoned him. Every day, Zechariah stood in the Temple and faithfully worshipped and served the Holy One of Israel.

One evening as Zechariah went to serve in the Temple, something happened that only happened a once in a lifetime. This priest humiliated by God was selected to an act of highest honor, offering incense in the Presence of the Most High.

With trepidation, Zechariah approached the Holy Place. Even though it was just a few steps, he was walking between worlds, stepping into the very place of heaven on earth where God’s glory shined and could overwhelm anyone. Long ago, Aaron’s sons approached the holy place irreverently and were instantly killed. And since that time, a certain holy fear surrounded this terrible, wondrous place.

Standing in the Presence of the Unnamable, the terrible glorious Creator, Zechariah obediently carried out his service of offering the incense. Suddenly Gabriel stepped out from the Presence and spoke. The moment the glory touched him, Zechariah fell to the ground in terror.

“Do not be afraid Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (The Message)

As Gabriel spoke, Zechariah’s trembling turned to tears. The anguish of carrying the years of shame swept over him, and he lay there moaning before the throne. His tears came from a deep wellspring, deeper even then his own grief. Suddenly, he was grieving with Abraham and Sarah in their barrenness. The pain of their dying world turned within him. Abraham and Sarah seemed to carry the barrenness of their generation as signs in their own bodies. Their world was dying around them, and in some impossible way God had chosen to recreate the world through them.

God’s promise filled their emptiness with hope of a world restored. Through them God would bless all creation. And through them, came Izaak. And through Izaak came Jacob. And through Jacob, came twelve sons who formed twelve tribes. Jacob’s clan would form a nation of people chosen to bear the blessing of God for all creation: Israel the chosen people, chosen to bless, restore, and break the curse. Unfortunately, story wisted in upon itself. Instead of blessing the world, they fell under a curse. Prophet after prophet after prophet called them back to the Law, back to the covenant, back to their commission to be the light of the world. Instead it seemed that darkness really did overcome the light.

Eventually Israel fell to surrounding empires. Her brightest and best were carried away, taken captive. Daniel, one of those captives, cried out day and night for the God to restore his people and to renew to covenant. Just as Zechariah and Elizabeth and had cried out day after day after day for God’s favor.

One night as Daniel prayed, Gabriel suddenly appeared. He promised the curse wouldn’t last forever. 70 weeks or 490 years would pass before God’s judgment would be complete. But then something new. God’s promises would be fulfilled.

And then Gabriel left. No words for many, many years. In fact, some suggested it had been close to 490 years and they were waiting expectantly for the end of the curse.

So Zechariah’s grieving took him through the whole history of Israel. He experienced the curse, the shame of God’s people from within. Now he realized, that he and Elizabeth bore the shame of Israel’s barrenness. For God’s people, in spite of their outward rituals, were a barren people, crushed under the curse of sin. No one could redeem, save God alone.

As Zechariah came to his senses, he began to grasp the impact of Gabriel’s words. He and Elizabeth would bear a son? But how could this be? They were too old? And how could this signal the end of exile? The end of the curse?

As he turned to Gabriel, he stuttered searching for a sign, “But how shall I know?”

Gabriel gave him a sign. He took away his words. Man shall live by the Word of Lord alone. And if he can’t do that, he will have no words. So Zechariah stumbled out from the Temple, just beginning to realize the power of words and the weight of God’s Word.

He could not tell the people what happened. He could give the priestly blessing. Even in this he was a living sign. For the priestly blessing would now be handed over to another. One day soon, the real Priest would stand and bless his people before He departed to be with His Father.

Zechariah held onto Gabriel’s last words, “My words which will be fulfilled in their own time.” The words were not dependent on man’s planning, man’s praying, man’s wrestling. The words carried the force of God’s blessing and would be fulfilled in God’s time by God’s hand.

Zechariah stumbled home to his wife. Silently, he embraced her unable to express the glory of what was happening. And yet, the hope of their future, and the hope of Israel’s future brought new life to a dying body and soon the life manifested in Elizabeth’s womb. The old woman cried out with the joy of teenage girl: “the Lord has dealt with me, He has looked on me, He has taken away my reproach among people.” As Elizabeth hid herself away to prepare for the coming child, Mary, her young cousin, was about to experience her own surprise.

Mary’s parents knew it was time to prepare their little girl for womanhood. So they found a husband. While much older, Joseph could provide for Mary, and her parents were delighted in such a match. Their marriage was sealed and now Mary need only wait for the time when Joseph would come to welcome her to his home. As Joseph went away to prepare a home for her, Mary waited quietly and patiently, preparing her heart for a new life, a new family and a new world. But nothing she did could prepare her for a visit from Gabriel.

Suddenly the angel appeared. “Rejoice young lady! Your beauty is God’s beauty and your joy is God’s joy. For God delights in you and has chosen to bless you!”

Puzzled and fearful, Mary bowed beneath the shining glory of this figure. Gabriel took her hand and gently helped her. “Mary, you have nothing to fear! This is good news! God has a special surprise for you: you are going to give birth to a son and you’ll name him Jesus.

He will be great,
be called 'Son of the Highest.'
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob's house forever—
no end, ever, to his kingdom." from the Message)

Sheepishly, Mary replied, “But, but how can this people. I am young girl. I’ve, I’ve never even been with a man.”

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God. (from the Message)

And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God."

As Gabriel spoke, a peace overwhelmed Mary. She couldn’t grasp what all he meant, and yet God was moving, working. She thought of her cousin Elizabeth. Years of shame would now disperse, as Elizabeth would bear the mark of God’s favor. Yet, even at the same time, Mary realized her own life would now be marked by shame. For she, not yet alone with Joseph, would be with child. All the questions people would raise. As these thoughts overwhelmed her mind, she rested in God’s promise.

In some mysterious way, He was restoring the throne of David. And in some way, the Spirit of God would hover over her womb (still formless and void like a new born earth) and He would breathe life. It was too much too grasp, she simply fell again beneath Gabriel’s words and submitted to the Word of God.

“Let it be to me according to your word.”

The angel left. The Spirit moved. Mary arose. With the child who would change the world, she traveled to see Elizabeth.

Resting in the shade of her courtyard, Elizabeth drifted between waking and sleeping when suddenly a voice burst into her daydreams. Mary’s greeting penetrated her womb and the baby within leapt for joy. Waves and waves and waves of joy rippled through her body. Elizabeth jumped and ran to her young cousin. They hugged and cried and laughed. Their voices lifted up into the Presence of God and the angels joined in a chorus of praise for the wonder, the mystery, the surprise of God’s love revealed in these ladies. For a moment, the whole world seemed to sparkle in the light of this joy.

Elizabeth and Mary began to speak, to proclaim, the prophecy the wonder of God’s grace revealed in their midst. Mary exclaimed:

I'm bursting with God-news;
I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It's exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now. (from the Message)

In a world of wickedness and oppression, Mary saw God coming in the midst to set things right. Her baby. Her son. Her gift from heaven would usher in a new kingdom. The kingdom of God, and the poor and downtrodden would be restored. As Mary sang, she sang the future into being. For Mary, like the prophets of old, sang of the world’s future. Our future. And the song she sang and continues to sing is a song of hope. Grace and mercy and justice really will prevail. God’s love really does triumph. And wickedness and evil and pain and death are ultimately crushed by the loving-kindness of God.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Advent Peace

The songs we sing to celebrate this season carry profound messages of hope and possibility in the midst of dark nights and sometimes even darker days. One song that captured my heart last week is the familiar “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

For many of us, the words of the first verse echo easily through our minds after years and years of singing:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious night of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heavens’ all gracious King;”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

This verse brings to mind the stories of childhood: shepherds in the field; Mary and Joseph in the stable; a glorious display of heavenly light as angels proclaim the good tidings of heaven. These images make me feel warm and safe—like the world is all right.

But the world is not all right.

It is easy to sentimentalize the sweetness of the angelic images and forget the arresting power of the song. Verse three paints a picture much closer to home:

Yet with woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And men, at war with men, hear not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

We may sing of Christmas cheer, but our world aches of war and rumors of war.

War infects this world. Each moment on earth reveals more cruelty, more hatred, more human aggression. Nation attacks nation. One race fights another race. Fathers turn against sons and sons turn against fathers. Brothers kill brothers; lovers deceive lovers. And even the human heart divides against itself. We are at war: inside and out.

Beneath our bullets, our fists, our angry hearts, a soft refrain persists:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heavens’ all gracious King;”

During Advent, we pause to hear the steady plainchant that reminds generation after generation after generation: peace is coming. Unmoved by our constant striving, the promise of peace continues to echo and ripple into the fabric of all creation.

Advent reminds us to stop, to wait, to watch, to listen. For the Prince of Peace has come, is coming and comes even now. As we behold him, we are changed. Like the lonely shepherds, we rise up and follow. We follow the infant king to the place of peace: the cross.

Yes, even as we rejoice in the birth of a baby, we cannot ignore the death of a Savior. The path to Bethlehem ends at Calvary. The Advent wind whispers, calling us to follow the true Peacemaker into the ways of peace, into the place of cross.

Peace begins not with a treaty, not with a protest, not with gunshot, but with a cross. We embrace the place of death, laying down our rights, our needs, our glory, our importance, our name, our reputation. We lay down our lives. And in the wonder of Advent, we discover His life and His peace flowing out through us in love.

Come O Advent King. We are weary and worried. The war inside us breaks out all around us. We hurt the ones we love. We betray our friends. Our world reflects our hearts. We suffer and we cause those around us to suffer. Have mercy upon us. Lead us in the way of peace. May we sing, may we live, may we embody the angel song:

For lo! The days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the time foretold
When the whole heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their king
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent Poem

Every Advent I pause to reflect upon certain poems and writings that have touched me, stirred me, and opened my heart to His coming. Here is one poem I revisit each year and usually share. I hesitate to say much about the poem because it touches me at a level deeper than analysis. Let me just say that reading this poem each year, awakens a longing, a yearning, an ache for the coming of the Lord.

Advent Calendar (by Rowan Williams)

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like the frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Friday, December 01, 2006


As we wait and watch for the coming of the Lord, we pray for eyes to see…and ears to hear.

Our ears so easily become clogged, blocked with the constant inner voice of our own importance that it becomes difficult to listen, truly listen to the voice outside of us. As pilgrims of Christ, we move toward sight. The great consummation of our faith is beholding Him as He is: for then we will be changed.

And yet, much of the journey at present is characterized by listening: listening for the voice that says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.”

To listen, to truly listen, is to submit. The listener yields to the speaker. In a world consumed by power games, listening suggests weakness. The powerful speak, the weak listen.

So we find it difficult to listen to God and to one another. In other words, we fail to have ears that hear. We pass through each moment, deaf to rich voices surrounding us. Martin Buber once suggested that most conversations are simply two people engaged in monologues. In other words, we talk at one another.

To truly face another person, is to risk listening, to risk yielding, to risk be changed. For many years, I have felt compelled by the Lord to cultivate a heart that listens. And yet, it is difficult. It is hard work. In fact, it is easier to act like I’m listening than to actually listen. It is easier to look someone in the eye, nod and react: all the while simply waiting for them to pause and breathe, so I can start talking again.

I once thought I was listening and waiting for another person to say something of value that I should remember. Maybe God would be speaking to me through them. But then the process became listening and filtering at the same time. Most of their words fell to the ground while I was trying to sort through them, searching for something that might be of value.

This is not the way to listen. This reduces my relationship with the person to a completely utilitarian level. They only serve my need. They only have value when they can impart something useful, interesting, entertaining to me.

More recently, it seems the Lord has challenged to simply listen. Every word we speak is a precious gift from God. We have yet to grasp the full power of speech. Words release such power that the writer of Proverbs warns us to be wise in the use of words.

When a person speaks to me, they are expressing part of who they are. Whether they seem to rattle on about trivial issues or whether they share deep secrets of the heart. As I yield, as I listen, I am meeting that person, beholding that person, encountering that person. As I pay attention, I hear something deeper than the surface appearance of the words, I hear the person.

Far more is spoken and revealed in our words than we ever realized. And the people we are most likely to ignore, may be the very ones we should be listening to. We might think: they complain too much; they’re boring; they tell long, meaningless stories. We might think of a whole host of reasons for not listening. And yet, this person is a treasure, a precious creation made in the image of God. Can I for one moment pause in wonder at the glory and mystery before me?

I am learning and struggling to learn, that if I turn and face another person, that if I truly listen, I will hear. I really will hear that person, and when I hear them, I can love them. Even though I may disagree with them, the grace God working in and through me can teach me to love them. And the amazing thing is that God can and really does speak through the people who often irritate, bore and even disagree with me.

There’s a story told of Andrew Murray speaking at one of the Keswick conferences. A man rose to challenge Murray and the whole proceedings. The leaders gathered with Murray and suggested they remove that man from the conference. Murray said, “No. He may be right.” In the end, Murray and the man became friends.

Today, as I watch for the coming of the Son, I seek to listen, to pay attention to the people around me. For He is coming in each and every moment, and as I listen and watch, He’ll reveal himself and His love in and through the rich tapestry of people He has woven into my life.