Christianity Today recently published an opinion piece entitled, “What Forgotten Christmas Tradition Should Churches Revive?” Three people, Patricia Raybon, Larry Eskridge, and Lore Ferguson, shared their candidate traditions, and one of the three struck a chord with me. Lore Ferguson writes about the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas (like in that song kids love to sing every year).

In churches which follow a liturgical calendar, December 25 is only the first day of Christmas. On the church calendar, Christmas is a season. Technically, December 25 is not called “Christmas” (that being the name of the season) but the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Christmas is the period from December 25 through January 5 inclusive; those are the twelve days of Christmas. January 6, the day following the season of Christmas, is Epiphany, the feast which commemorates the visit of the magi, or wise men, to Jesus, and by extension celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the gentiles. (You can read my reflection for Epiphany here.) Ms. Ferguson’s recommendation is that we should revive the celebration of Christmas as a season — give it twelve full days. One day isn’t enough for the love expressed in the incarnation or for the joy of receptive hearts. With this I totally agree. Read the rest of this entry »

The exact date of the birth of Jesus is unknown. The Bible gives very little information about the birth, and certainly does not give a date, yet for centuries Christmas has been celebrated on 25 December. How was this date chosen? Every year we hear someone state that the date was taken from pagan holidays, particularly the Roman Saturnalia festival which occurred in late December or the winter solstice celebrations of northern Europeans. The idea is that early Christians co-opted the pagan holidays to ease the transition of the people from pagan religions to Christianity. This theory is very popular and is generally taken as historical fact by people who care about why this date was chosen. However, the theory is almost certainly incorrect. Our celebration of Christmas on 25 December is probably due to a somewhat arcane theology about the passion and death of Jesus. Andrew McGowan, President and Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School, published an article which expounds the reasoning for choosing 25 December. The article, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” originally appeared in Bible Review, December 2002. It is available on the Biblical Archaeology web site as part of the Bible History Daily series. It is an interesting article and worth reading by anyone who is curious as to why this particular date was chosen.

 

One need not spend much time on this site before realizing that there are very few posts — generally there are only three or four posts. Why so few? The answer is very simple: Often a post is a longer scripture commentary. When I create a new post, I convert the scripture commentary into a page. I do so because the pages are organized by topic and subtopic which makes it easier for the reader to find relevant material. Posts are organized by date and category which is generally helpful, but is not as useful a structure as what we find in the pages. So that’s why there are so few posts — most posts become pages.

The gospels have many passages which speak of God’s love for us and God’s desire to give us good gifts. In Matthew 7, Jesus teaches, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” God’s giving of good gifts does not spring from pity for us poor humans, or from a sense of responsibility for having created us, but from God’s love for us.

Jesus speaks of the depth and intimacy of God’s love when he tells us that “even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Matthew 10:30). Reflect on that for a moment: God loves us so much that he counts the hairs on our heads! Being in love is a universal human experience, and most of us have been deeply in love at some time in our lives. I have been in love, deeply in love, “head over heels” in love, but I have never loved so deeply that I wanted to count the hairs on the head of my beloved. Let’s be honest – if we saw someone counting the hairs on someone’s head, we would probably think that person looney. We would judge such a person to have gone “off the deep end”; he/she would be acting foolishly. And yet that is exactly how God loves us – intimately, lavishly, foolishly.

God loves us more deeply than we can comprehend, and God wants to give us good things. God wants you and me, all of us, to be joyous, deliriously happy. We also want this for ourselves. So why aren’t we all amazingly happy all the time?

The problem is in ourselves. We desire happiness, and we desire many things which we think will bring happiness. But our natural inclinations don’t bring happiness; our inborn sinful nature leads us astray. What we think we want, what we desire, and what we often work toward, are not things which will bring happiness and goodness into our lives. The Apostle Paul recognized this problem and wrote: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:18,19). And Paul also recognized the solution to the problem: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me …? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24,25). The solution to the problem is given in God’s greatest gift to us: salvation through Jesus, God’s son.

The solution is not a magical one – believe in Jesus, and poof! your life is all good and happy! It doesn’t work like that. When Paul writes the words quoted above, he is writing as a believer in Jesus. Paul was a believer but he still had difficulty living a life which reflected God’s love. We’re born with a human nature, and believing in Jesus does not put an end to our humanity. It alters our nature but it doesn’t do away with it. Accepting God’s gift of salvation alters us by bringing us into a new relationship with God through the loving sacrifice of Jesus.

The way in which being a Christian leads to a happy life is by demonstrating a very important fact: the source of happiness is not good things but good relationships with God and our fellow humans. We want good things to make us happy, but things, not matter how good or useful they are, won’t bring lasting joy or fulfillment. What brings happiness are relationships based in God’s love and growing in that love. The life of Jesus shows us the reality and power of such relationships.

Love abides (I Corinthians 13:8,13) and relationships founded in love – true love, pure love, God’s love – last forever and bring lasting happiness. Such relationships are not easy to build or maintain. Many aspects of our human nature work against us – we are often selfish, for example. But, as Paul recognized, our relationship to God through Jesus enables us to go beyond our human nature. Through effort, with God’s help, we can build relationships founded in God’s love, relationships which reflect Jesus’ life of love and faith. When we do so, we discover happiness.

copyright 2014 by the author

The early Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies, and in particular, Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s “suffering servant”. Matthew writes: “Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory.’” (Matthew 12:15-20)

Reading the gospel stories of Jesus’ interaction with people, especially with people who were outcasts or were on the lower rungs of society, one is struck by the compassion and understanding Jesus demonstrates. Many of the people who met Jesus were “bruised reeds” or “smouldering wicks”. They were looked down upon, and had been mistreated by religious, social or civic leaders. Jesus treated them gently and kindly, healed their afflictions, offered forgiveness, and showed God’s love. A bruised reed is safe in Jesus’ hand.

There were many bruised reeds in our Jesus’ world and there are many in our world. People are hurt and weakened by the vicissitudes of life. Some have suffered chronic physical or mental health problems, some have been betrayed by a friend or spouse, some have been wounded by society or the economic system. We see these people every day, although usually we do not see their mental or emotional bruises. Most of us, at some time in our lives, are bruised reeds, so we know what it feels like to be hurt, vulnerable and weak.

A bruised reed is easy to break: apply a bit of pressure to the weak area and it snaps. Healing a bruised reed is not so easy: one must protect the bruised area and support the reed until strength is restored. Christians are called to heal the bruised reeds, and not to break them.

It is easy to attack someone who is vulnerable or weak. We seem to have a sense for weakness, and like predators in the wild, we lunge. Sometimes we do this physically, but more often we do it with words. It makes us feel superior, and we gloat, “I showed him.” This is the way of predators, but it is not the way of Jesus. As Christians, we are called to sense weakness, but rather than lunging we are called to support the person and to protect the bruise. We are called to heal and build up, not to break. In order to do this, we must put aside any feeling or belief that breaking a reed shows our superiority. Jesus teaches the opposite: that superiority lies in being willing to be broken in order to help the bruised.

We meet bruised reeds every day. We see people who are unemployed, sick, physically disabled, or scorned by ‘proper’ society. How we deal with the people we meet – what we say to them, what we think about them, whether we cross the street to avoid them – determines whether we are following Jesus’ example of healing bruised reeds or the worldly way of breaking them. If we decide to follow Jesus’ example of healing then there are times when we ourselves will be broken. We may be broken by critics who think we spend too much time with “the wrong sort” of people or we may be broken by someone we are trying to help. This was Jesus experience – he was criticized for keeping company with sinners and finally was executed in a plot by those he sought to help. We shouldn’t expect to be treated better than our master (Matthew 10:24). There is a risk in following Jesus, a risk in taking part in his mission of healing bruised reeds. But the bruised reeds in our world and in our lives need us to take the risk because only through Jesus, the suffering servant, can the needed healing come.

copyright by the author, 2014

The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is well-known. This story relates that a group of people decided to build a city with a tower which would reach into “the heavens”; constructing the city and such a tall tower would unite the people and make them famous. The author tells us that the Lord saw the events, and in order to stop the construction, the Lord “confused their language so that they would not understand one another’s speech.” Since they could not converse with each other, the people stopped the construction of the tower. They also separated into groups and scattered “abroad … over the face of all the earth.” This separation gave rise to multiple communities which developed diverse cultures in addition to having different languages.

The story explains why there are multiple languages instead of all people speaking the same language. However, the story also has a more significant lesson. The author is clear that the multiplication of languages and the dispersion of people into many communities did not occur by accident. It was not something which happened “behind God’s back” – indeed, the author of Genesis tells us that God was the source of the proliferation of languages and cultures.

This brings to mind the first chapter of the book of Genesis, “… God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind ….’ And it was so. … And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created … every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. … And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground …. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:11,20,24,25)

God created a variety of living things; not just one or two kinds of fish but many kinds. There are more than 32,000 known species of fish in addition to the many other animals which live in water. And birds – God didn’t just create a red bird and a blue bird and a yellow bird but instead produced about 10,000 different species from a 2 inch hummingbird to a 9 foot ostrich. The same is true of plants: there are about 200,000 species of trees. Even things which we often consider insignificant occur in great variety, for there are about 12,000 species of algae.

This tells us that God loves diversity. God does not want everything to be alike. The huge amount of variety in living things makes it look as though God wants one of every possible thing. The opening chapter of Genesis tells us that God brought living things into being, and he brought them into being in many forms, shapes, colors and sizes. The story of the Tower of Babel tells us that God also caused people to be not all alike. We speak many languages and cultures as well as different colors of skin, hair and eyes. We are short, tall, fat and skinny; we have different talents and abilities. There is a lot of diversity among humans. This is good, and to God it is beautiful.

God does not want us all to be alike. God has made each of us unique – in the whole history of creation there never has been, and never will be, another person identical to you or to me. We need to recognize and celebrate this uniqueness. We are called by God to find joy in diversity and variety. When we look at a group of people and see the wide range of skin colors, heights, weights, and hair color, we should rejoice. When we talk with people and hear different accents, when we recognize different talents or abilities (or lack thereof), we should rejoice. God created us to be different. God brought this about; it is beautiful. “And God saw that it was good.” May we also see that it is good, and see the beauty in those who are different from us.

copyright by the author, 2014