Rev. Peter Faass
I wander as I wonder out under the sky.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6)
When what to my wondrous eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul.
O Star of wonder, Star of night.
Walking in a winter, wonder land.
All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. (Luke 2:18)
The theme of wonder is richly woven throughout Christmas hymns, songs and sacred scripture. Wonder permeates Christmas in both secular and sacred celebrations. What is more wondrous than a flying reindeer and a jolly fat elf that comes down chimneys and leaves good folks gifts? What is more wondrous than the virgin birth of God incarnate, in a backwater town 2,000 years ago with angelic choirs singing Gloria?
At Christmas we revel in the wonder of children as they experience twinkling lights, festively wrapped gifts, the taste of delicious sweets, Santa Claus and Nativity figurines. Christmas is full of wonder in all its iterations.
And yet, here we are on the morning of December 25 after yet another arduous, over-wrought “holiday season,” and our reserves of Christmas wonder may be in short supply or exhausted. We certainly are!
Christmas can leave us feeling quite depleted of our wonder from all the planning, baking and cooking, the partying, shopping and wrapping, the preparations at home and church, or dealing with difficult family members. We may even feel jaded and cynical, thankful that, well, it’s finally over. If we think this way, it’s antithetical to the whole point of Christmas. Jesus was born so that we, who sit in great darkness, can see his great light – wondrous light that has the power to banish cynicism, jadedness, and exhaustion in our life.
R.S. Thomas was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest who lived from 1913 to 2000. Among Thomas’s works is a poem titled “Blind Noel” that addresses how we lose our sense of wonder at Christmas:
Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal the pattern.
Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out. In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.
Christmas: Even when the themes are exhausted, “there is always room on the heart for a snowflake to reveal the pattern.”
I think this is one of the loveliest theological phrases about Christmas I have ever encountered.
I think Thomas is saying that even when all of the stuff of how we have come to observe Christmas sucks the wonder out of us leaving us exhausted, God makes enough room on our hearts to place one more snowflake to reveal the wondrous meaning of Christmas. In the shadow of so vast a God who desires to do this, we shiver as our wonder of this awe-filled season is restored.
This theology-wrought poem goes to the heart of the Christmas story and the doctrine of the Incarnation. God became human in Jesus to lift us out of all those life-sucking behaviors and attitudes that plague the human condition. In his life, Jesus role-modeled a way of life for us to emulate; a way of life that would bring us out of darkness to light, out of cynicism to wonder, out of fear into love. That is our salvation.
While we recall and celebrate this wondrous gift at Christmas, we are called to this way of life all the time.
When I prepare adults for baptism, (or the parents and godparents of infants), I always dwell on a particular section of the concluding prayer in the service. It is one of my favorite phrases in the Book of Common Prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (BCP p. 308)
I ask people being prepared for Baptism to think of a baby, growing into a toddler and then a child. I then ask them to think about what they recall as they observe that little one growing in awareness and discover the world around them. Think of the first time they encountered a flower, a puppy or a kitten, a bug, dirt, a tasty new food? What was that child’s response? It was an “aha moment,” right?
Each first encounter with something new and delightful becomes a moment of delight, awe and wonder. Each of those wondrous moments in the child’s life are moments when God placed a new snowflake on their hearts, revealing the patterns of God’s love for them. The child delights in each new snowflake because children have not grown cynical, jaded and exhausted. They know – at some intuitive, primal level - that God’s Creation (all of it) is filled with wonder. That wonder fills them with joy, and that joy always calls us to gratitude.
In the Baptismal prayer, we are reminded to recapture that sense of wonder for ourselves that children have. We want to let go of our exhaustion and grasp the promise of wondrous love that radiates from Bethlehem’s manger.
This Christmas morning, is there still room in our hearts for another snowflake to reveal its pattern of God’s vastness and abundant love to us? Of course there is, because that is God’s way and desire for us.
There may not have been room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, but ultimately there was room in the stable for the birth of our Saviour. If there was room for his birth when everything appeared full, there is room on your heart to accept the snowflake of the Christ child, so that he may reveal the pattern of Christmas and fill you with his love.
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
 No Truce with the Furies (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995), p. 84.
Rev. Peter Faass
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’
How familiar and heartwarming are these words from Luke’s gospel of the nativity of Jesus? Whether we hear them for the first or hundredth time, they feel like a comfy pair of old slippers or a great terrycloth bathrobe, cozy and secure.
In my pagan wilderness days, when Christmas was about revelry, gifts and nothing particularly religious, I would come home late from a Christmas Eve party, find my Confirmation Bible, and read this passage before I went to bed. Images of shepherds guarding their flocks and angels proclaiming the good news evoked a sense of safety and security. It was a lovely way to fall asleep.
I don’t know why the story of Jesus’ birth evoked this sense of comfort during my non-religious days. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. As with many people, I saw the Christmas story as nothing more than a fairy tale – a wonderful story bringing a brief escape from reality. After all, I also read Clement Clarke Moore’s T’was the Night Before Christmas every year. While it is also a heart-warming story, it certainly qualifies as a fairy tale, ending with a neat and tidy phrase like “and they lived happily ever after” or “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”
Time teaches us that the realities of life are much more complex than these neat and perfect endings. Life is frequently hard, challenging and seldom has impeccable endings.
I now know that scriptures are not fairy tales, but significant ways that God communicates with us. Their meaning is often multi-layered, frequently profound and always life-changing. Through them, God guides us through life’s arduous and less-than-perfect circumstances. As it states in The Second Song of Isaiah, “My word that goes forth from my mouth . . . will not return to me empty; but it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”
God’s word has a purpose and it will accomplish - one way or another - His intent. In the nativity story, that purpose delivers good news to people who live in darkness and fear life’s challenges. The birth of Jesus, God incarnate, is the good news of one who has come for our salvation and to set us free.
To meaningfully experience this good news, we can get creative with the story to comprehend the wonders of God’s grace and salvation. Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame did that brilliantly.
As some of you know, I have been mesmerized by Schulz’s animated holiday feature, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on this, its fiftieth anniversary. Each time I watch it, I am always moved by one special moment. You know the one. It occurs in the midst of the chaotic, commercialism of the season that all the Peanuts characters are reveling in and that causes Charlie Brown to cry out in frustration “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Little Linus comes forward – security blanket and all – and says, “Sure Charlie Brown, I know what Christmas is all about.” And then he recites the Luke nativity story.
After fifty plus viewings, I never noticed one small detail of that scene until now. It is quite amazing.
Linus, as Peanuts lovers know, is most closely identified with his ever-present blue security blanket. Sally, Lucy, Charlie and Snoopy persistently and unsuccessfully try to separate him from that blanket. Linus clutches that blanket and refuses to give it up.
Except… except in this climactic scene when he recites the story of Jesus’ birth. It happens quickly, but once you are aware of it, it is plainly clear. When Linus speaks of the angel who has appeared to the shepherds and utters the words “fear not,” he drops the security blanket.
It’s unbelievable: Linus drops his blanket when he utters the words of the angel, “fear not.” In this simplest gesture, Charles Schulz delivers a brilliant, profound message about the birth of Jesus. Charles Schulz got the gospel's message. In Linus’ simple gesture, Schultz offers a perfect distillation of the good news though Jesus’ birth.
Our world can by a scary place. There are many things that we fear, both real and perceived. Certainly our fears can be played on and exacerbated by those who want to manipulate us to their own ends.
The birth of Jesus is meant to separate us from all our fears:
The birth of Jesus allows us to drop those bogus security blankets we grasp as we try and allay those fears.
With the birth of Jesus, we do not need to hold onto the accumulation of material goods to provide us with security. When we drop that blue blanket of our false security, we learn to drop all those idolatrous things that separate us from God’s grace and our salvation. We no longer need drugs, booze, food, work or our electronic devices. We do not need to find comfort in the false security that some people are more beloved by God than others. We do not need to find security in the hate-mongering and bigotry that pours from the media and the political class.
The good news of God given this night is that ultimately, the birth of Jesus allows us to trust and hold fast to him instead: and to him only, for he is our hope and our salvation.
God promises the words “fear not” to all people. To us is born this night a Savior who is the Messiah. He will comfort and heal us. It is he who knows all our needs and who has our best interests at heart, because he loves us more than we can ask or imagine. That’s why he came to be among us, to show us that love.
Fear not. The Messiah is a bringer of peace — peace to our hearts and souls. He completes who we were made to be.
Fear not. Even now, as he lays in that manger in Bethlehem, Jesus knows our needs, desires to take care of us, and to make us whole.
Fear not. Just drop that security blanket. For unto to you is born this night in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Fear not.
Luke 3: 1-6
Rev. Peter Faass
What would Advent be without John the Baptist and his heralding the coming of the Messiah, the one who would free humanity from all those bondages that enslave us?
John was not a politically correct kind of guy. He wasn’t concerned about the filters that civilized society uses to keep our most abrasive comments at bay. John told it like it was, often getting himself in trouble and ultimately costing his life. Today’s gospel passage from Luke ends just short of those outrageous unfiltered comments.
In verse seven, when the high mucky-muck Jerusalem elites came to the wilderness where John was preaching and baptizing to check him out, he rails at them saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Nothing endears one more to people than calling them a brood of snakes! John spoke truth to power, boldly confronting those systems that abused and harmed people, regardless of the personal cost.
In reading the Bible, matrix (or context) matters for a deeper understanding of what is taking place. In describing John’s proclamation of the baptism of repentance, Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah who lived six centuries earlier:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'
The matrix that Isaiah was operating in when this passage was written refers to the Babylonian exile of the Hebrew people. In the year 598 BCE, the Babylonian Empire ravaged the Kingdom of Judah. The Temple, which was the center of Jewish life, was destroyed and the political, religious and economic elite of Judah was sent into exile in Babylon. Everything of importance was eradicated by Babylon to eliminate Jewish culture, a cataclysmic event for the remaining peasantry left in this desolate land.
Sixty years later, a Messiah figure in the guise of Cyrus of Persia, conquered the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus freed the exiled Hebrews, allowing them to return to Judah. He also supported rebuilding the temple, and returned the precious temple vessels the Babylonians had looted sixty years earlier.
Isaiah regards Cyrus as the Lord for whom people will make the paths straight, the valleys filled, the mountains low and the rough places plain. They will do this because it is by Cyrus’ actions that they will be freed from the bondage of a brutal oppressive empire and realize justice in their lives. Therefore, they are to do everything possible for redemption.
Luke uses the Isaiah matrix in his gospel, yet he refers to the Roman Empire as the brutal oppressive regime keeping the people in bondage. For Luke, Isaiah, the Babylonian exile and Cyrus’s redemption are the prototypes for John the Baptist, who called the people under similar duress to prepare for the Messiah who would free them from the bondage of the Roman Empire. This time, Jesus would be the redemptive Messiah.
In the case of both Isaiah and John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord is not a literal one, in the sense that it’s not an excavation of topography and the building of roads. Preparing the way is a call to do the interior preparation of the soul, which leads to amendment of life. It smooths the rough places of sinful behavior we engage in.
Both Isaiah and John the Baptist believed that brutal empires could only subject people to bondage when they turned away from their relationship with God, which is sin. Isaiah and John call us to repent from the sinful life of violence and injustice that empires call us to, and urge us to turn toward God’s way of life – the way of nonviolence and equal justice for all people.
We are living in a new matrix in 2015, yet it is rooted in those of Isaiah and Babylon, and Luke and Rome. The new matrix we live in is dominated by the empire of wanton gun violence; an empire that has put us as a nation in bondage to a way of life that is steeped in violence and injustice. With each passing day, we feel the increasing brutal heel of gun violence’s oppression in our lives, as more people are mowed down in cold blood.
Instead of a Babylonian king or Roman emperor, the ruler of this empire of gun violence is the National Rifle Association. It is also the feckless political leaders in our federal and state governments who enable the NRA in its rule of violence and injustice; leaders whom it has financially co-opted, if not outright blackmailed, to do its beck and call.
Meanwhile, the American public sits immobilized, shackled like conquered peoples, fearful of the brutality but lacking the will and determination to address our own enslavement. Our current circumstances are no less cataclysmic than the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Hebrews.
How many times do we need to hear distorted interpretations of the right to bear arms by “a well-regulated Militia,” provided for in the Second Amendment, to rationalize 300 million guns including assault weapons, in private hands? How often will co-opted judiciaries and legislative bodies misconstrue the Second Amendment – so deep is the pernicious influence of the NRA - that they will not even allow for a cursory background check to ensure that a gun buyer is not a criminal, a terrorist, or a person with a history of mental illness? How many cheap, empty platitudes do we have to hear cross the lips of political leaders after yet another shooting, offering their thoughts and prayers for the victims of mass gun violence, as they simultaneously vote down even moderate laws for gun control with the one hand and take NRA campaign contributions with the other?
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff wrote in his New York Times op-ed piece, On Guns, We're Not Even Trying, “It’s not clear what policy, if any, could have prevented the killings in San Bernardino. Not every shooting is preventable. But we’re not even trying.”
We’re not even trying. We live in the exile of denial. The NRA, our new Babylon, has put us there and paralyzed us with fear. And like all empires, it does this so it may wantonly engage in its ongoing reign of terror through subterfuge, intimidation, manipulation, dishonesty and the threat of even more violence.
We are complicit in this. Our exile of denial allows our elected leaders to speciously deny the reality and pernicious effects of the violence and suffering that results from gun violence. In that denial, we endanger a frank and authentic response to this social crisis.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Biblical tradition, with its ongoing dialogue with God and trust in God’s justice, can and does overcome the maliciousness of human behavior exhibited in the ways of empire. Out of each of the two matrixes I mentioned comes a messiah, a savior figure, who offers the way to redemption.
In his book, How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian, John Dominic Crossan writes that the world’s empires work to convince us to believe that violence is an inevitability in human life. But Crossan says this is not the way of God, who asserts repeatedly in the Bible that we humans can and must overcome violence. Crossan writes, The normalcy of human civilization (which is escalatory violence and retributive justice) is not the inevitability of human nature. Because non-violence and distributive justice are the character of God, as creatures made in the image of God, they are to be our nature as well.
This is the message of God’s truth that needs to be proclaimed to the power of the gun violence empire. We – you and I - are called to be Isaiah and John the Baptist: the voices crying in the wilderness of the gun violence empire. Like John, we must speak truth to power, boldly confronting this empire of gun violence that abuses, harms and kills people. And we must do this regardless of the personal cost.
We can do this. We can make the rough places plain and the crooked paths straight. We can achieve God’s reign of nonviolence and justice, freeing ourselves from the bondage of fear and the exile of our denial.
But we must act. We must say no more:
No more wonton death.
No more distortions of the Second Amendment.
No more co-opted leaders.
No more innocent blood flowing in the streets.
No more cheap platitudes.
We must do this for ourselves and for our children, like Lauren, Lilah and Grayson. We must do it for one another and for our nation. We must do it because it is what God calls us to do.
Babylon and Rome fell. So too will the empire of gun violence fall, if we stop being shackled to our fears. Freedom is ours if we want it. And when we do, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” and nonviolence and justice will prevail.