FYI, You’re Pregnant — Day 22

At Harvard and most other divinity schools and seminaries, you hear a lot of big words thrown around that mean nothing to the outside world.  I remember that my first semester at Harvard, I brought my laptop to every class, not because I couldn't take notes by hand, but because I wanted open and ready for the barrage of words that I would hear and need to secretly look up.  I was terrified that someone was going to ask me what my soteriology was, and what hermeneutic I used to come to that conclusion Biblically... and I would just blankly stare at them, thereby revealing myself for who I really was: an average gal who somehow squeaked into Harvard.

Though I certainly didn't have the best vocabulary at Harvard, I have always loved words and names nonetheless.  I'm a big fan the NPR show, A Way With Words, which is a playful discussion of idioms and etymology. I relish hearing stories of etymology, learning the history of words and the interesting stories about from where they come.  And I admit it; I used to peruse the dictionary as a kid... for fun!  (Geek!!!)

Of all the obscure words and jargon I learned at Harvard, my very favorite word, however, would have to be theotokos.  If you know any Greek, you might be able to guess what theotokos means.  "Theo" means "God" in Greek, and gives us words such as theology, theophany, atheist, theocracy, and and theodicy.  "Tokos" means to bear, bring forth, or to give birth.  So theotokos means literally, God-bearer.  And who from our Christmas story was God-bearer, the one who bore God and gave birth to him?  Mary.  So the Greek Orthodox for centuries have used the word "theotokos" to speak of Mary, to honor her as the miraculous human God-bearer in the Advent story.

But what I love about theotokos is the second layer of meaning.  Mary was the original theotokos, but who is theotokos today?  Who is bearing God within them and giving birth to Christ in our world here and now?  We all are.  You are theotokos.  You are the womb of the living God.  You are carrying Christ inside you.  It is your joyful responsibility to bring Christ forth into this world.

So when you hear this Christmas story this year -- no matter if you're a man or a woman -- hear it in a new way in the light of this new word, theotokos.
Perhaps when Mary's story is read on Christmas Even, you might think,
"That's me.
Like Mary, I too have been visited by God.
Like Mary, I too am fearful at first
yet joyful at the blessed responsibility put upon me,
the privilege of bringing Christ into this world.
Like Mary, I too am on a long journey,
and the job I face won't always be easy,
but it will bring light to the world.
Like Mary, I too carry the sacred Christ child within me.
Like Mary, I am theotokos."

Day 19 – Season of Advent

We look for simple answers. 
They don’t exist.
Nothing is simple - because everything is connected. 
We like to think we are independent.
We are not.
We like to think that we are in control.
We are not.

We like to think that what we do matters.

Ah!  It does. 

We were created with freedom not because we are independent but for the very opposite – because we are all dependent and what each of us does affects all of us.


This is why, two thousand years ago, one was born,
one whose birth, life, and death were the perfect incarnation of a perfect love.
Ripples in the fabric of humanity. 
Exercise your freedom.
Open yourself to God’s transforming love.


Although we may wait,

in this Season of Advent,

to celebrate;

Do not wait, my friends,

to embrace God’s love in your life.

It matters.  And you matter.

No Room? — Day *

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

No room. No place. Nowhere the holy family could fit, squeeze themselves in. There was already too much, too many. No room for just one more – even one as small as a baby.
It’s so easy for our inns to become overcrowded. Career. Family. Social obligations. Doctor appointments. Housework. Financial obligations. Next thing you know you look at your calendar and see all the little squares are filled in – there’s no room. No room for one thing more. Even if that one is Our Savior.
When my daughter was younger we had a ritual – before her birthday each year she needed to go through all the stuff in her room and take out what she didn’t need, what she was willing to let go of, what could be given away – to make room for the new gifts she would receive for her birthday.
Our spiritual lives are much the same. Every year we celebrate a birthday – the birthday of Jesus – and the gift we are offered is Jesus himself – and all that comes with him: hope, joy, peace, comfort, new life. And if we receive those gifts, Jesus is born in us and we are made new – Christmas becomes our birthday too.
But will there be room in our lives and in our hearts for the gifts Jesus brings? What can we let go of, what don’t we need, what burdens can be given away – so we have space for the new? Advent is the time, in the words of the familiar carol, to “let every heart, prepare him room.”
When the holy comes knocking, will there be a place in your inn? 

Day 18 — An Advent Poem

Newtown Candles

Shots ring out o'er Bethlehem this Advent night.
Passover the stable with the bleating baby boy,
Passover the grassy knolls of dreamy sheep outside town,
Passover the red doorposts of wise men,
Passover darkened shopping malls and silent campuses,
Passover scattered crayons and dropped phonics books,
Passover empty stockings and empty hearts,
Passover Calvary itself.

I thought,
I thought after we hung Him on the tree,
I thought surely
We'd rise up and say, "Enough as enough!
Look where all this has gotten us!
We've shot down Love itself
And sentenced to death our only God.
Never Again!
never again."

I thought it,
But yet
we still wait.

Still we wait
outside Bethlehem,
under angel stars moaning,
"O come, o come Emmanuel."

It’s Not Your Birthday — Day 17

A friend of mine from my mom's group told me that she was reading a book this holiday season with her bible study group about Christmas that had ruffled a few feathers.  Now I haven't read the book, but I keep thinking about the title, "Christmas Is Not Your Birthday."   She said that a few of the people in her group found the author, Mike Slaughter, a bit offensive.  Now granted, the title is not the most loving statement you could make about Christmas, but it's provocative nonetheless.  And I can't get it out of my head.  Christmas....  It's not your birthday.

I have a memory from my teen years that I still cringe when I think about it.  Like many teenage girls, I wasn't always sugar and spice and everything nice.  So I can't even remember what exactly it was that I wanted that Christmas, but regardless, when I didn't find it under the tree, I think it was obvious to my mother that I wasn't particularly filled with the Christmas spirit that morning.  In any case, my sweet mother asked me whatever was the matter, and I think I had enough sense to know that I was being ungrateful, so I just gave the classic teenage response, "nothing Mooooooom!"

Looking back now, I wan't to yell at myself, "IT'S NOT YOUR BIRTHDAY, ANNA!"  But of course I can't.  But I do have empathy for my teenage self because I can see where a lot of kids -- and even adults -- still may get confused.  You see as children we were showered with gifts twice a year: on our birthdays and on Christmas day.  And so how can you tell me on one level that both days are about all my wildest material dreams coming true, but that at the same time, one of the days (Christmas), really isn't about me at all, but about Jesus?  It doesn't really compute.

Tres Reyos Parade in Peurto Rico
That's why I've always loved the tradition practiced in Latin American of giving gifts not on Christmas Day, but on the eve of Epiphany, also called 12th night or 3 Kings Day.  Epiphany is the conclusion of the 12 days of Christmas (or Christmastide), usually falling on the 6th of January.  This is the day that the church celebrates the Biblical Magi coming to bring gifts to the Christ child, marking the first revelation that the baby in the manger was truly God's son.  Because Epiphany is the day we remember gifts being brought to the baby Jesus, it just makes sense that on this day, not on Christmas day, people would exchange gifts just as the magi did.  And I love the idea of waiting 12 more days to exchange gifts because it leaves Christmas to be what it's actually about: the birth of Christ, and it leaves Epiphany to be what it's actually about: the magi giving gifts to honor Jesus.  I also love it because it restores the great old tradition of Christmas being 12 days of celebration (this makes the Christmas carol, the 12 Days of Christmas suddenly make sense).   Traditionally, the time before Christmas was about Advent waiting and watching, and then when Christmas finally came, you had 12 long days to celebrate with Christmas carols, parties, gifts, and merriment.  (Honestly, I would happily trade the system we have now, where it seems like we're celebrating Christmas for two full months, for a system where you celebrate it for a solid 12 days instead.  Call me Scrooge, but if I hear the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" one more time, I might spontaneously combust.)

But as much as I love the tradition of 12th night, I wonder, how could I ever do something so counter-cultural here and now?  Wait until January 6th to exchange gifts?  Anathema!!!! Most people have already torn down their Christmas decorations by then!  And what on earth would become of the beloved Christmas morning that I have such wonderful memories of as a kid -- when I ran down the stairs to see if Santa had come?  I want that for my son.

So as much as I love the idea of 12th Night or 3 Kings Day, I can't bring myself to do it -- I don't really know how I would do it.  Yet I still recognize the old tradition's loveliness.  Quite clearly it says: "Christmas.  It's not your birthday.  It's Jesus' birthday.  His birthday is so big and so miraculous that you need to keep partying and celebrating for 12 days, and then... and only then, once He's been fully glorified, it's your turn."

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I Need a Little Christmas — Day 16

I’ve been sick since Friday, in more ways than one. After some hints Thursday night, I woke up to a bad head cold, the first I’ve had for a long time. There was no warning about the other thing that would make me ill, I learned about that from the media reporting from Newtown, Connecticut. New-town, such an innocuous name for horror.
This morning, Sunday, I woke up still sick in body, as well as in heart, despite my predictions that I would be “just fine.” Ok, I had a low grade fever, but I figured I could still make it to church. After all, it was Christmas Music Sunday in our church, I didn’t have to preach – a good thing as my voice would not have held up. All I had to do was sit and listen to music, and say some prayers. I thought about calling in sick, but I didn’t. 
When I got to church, folks could tell I wasn’t myself. “Why didn’t you stay home,” I was asked. I couldn’t really say, I didn’t know. Just going on autopilot I guess. I didn’t really think it was an overdeveloped sense of responsibility – though I have that. It wasn’t that I didn’t think others could handle it in my place – I knew they could. I knew I had the choice, and that it would probably be better if I stayed in bed. But I didn’t – and I wasn’t sure why.
Until part way through the service and the choir sang an arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter."

In the bleak midwinter,

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 midwinter long ago.

Our God, Heav’n cannot hold Him

Nor earth sustain.

Heav’n and earth shall flee away,

When he comes to rein.

In the bleak midwinter,

A stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

.  .  .

What can I give Him,

Poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd

I would bring a lamb.

If I were a wise man,

I would do my part.

Yet what can I give him

Give my heart, give, give my heart.

I thought about the midwinter winds blowing through our country since Friday. I thought about homes where children or parents wouldn't be coming home for Christmas. I thought about frozen earth and the chill of ice that no fire seems to warm. I thought about death -- in this time when we we should be celebrating new life -- how it seemed out of place in the Christmas season, in the safety of an elementary school, in the peace of small Newtown.

I came to church because I was sick – sick at heart. I was there because I needed to be there – because of Newtown.  I needed to be held close in the body of Christ. I needed to hear the promises of our faith – that death does not get the final word, that new life comes to us, even “in the bleak midwinters” of our lives. I needed to feel the presence of our God who understands our pain – who cries when we cry, who feels the chill in our souls – and to remember that we know this because our God was once incarnated in another small child. I needed to stand with his mother who would see her child cut down too soon, too soon. I needed to lift up my thanks in that Spirit-filled place for the life of my own child. I needed to light a candle in the darkness. 
            I was there because I needed "a little Christmas, right this very minute" (thanks Mame).  And if I couldn't sing "Joy to the World" with everyone else, I could look forward to the time when I would.
            I was in worship today because I needed to go to see the Christ child, and to offer Him my heart, and my heartache. Merry Christmas – a few days early. We need it now more than ever.

Spirit of Advent – Day 15

Tis thee, abstractly thee, God of uncreated Beauty, that I love, in thee my wishes are all terminated; in thee, as in their blissful centre, all my desires meet . . . The God of nature, and the original of all beauty, is my God.
 --  Puritan poet Elizabeth Rowe, Devout Exercises of the Heart (1796)[1]

     Reformed, Celtic, and Benedictine traditions have historically emphasized that the praise of God's beauty is the chief end of creation.  Each of these traditions have, in their own way, emphasized that the attempt to understand God – insufficient as that may be – begins and ends with praise.  It begins and ends with doxology – which is derived from the Greek "doxa" (meaning "glory") and "logia" (meaning "saying") – a glory saying.  All flows from an understanding of God's astounding beauty.  As Belden Lane puts it, "Everything else flows from this.  Action for social justice, for example, is simply the form that praise must assume in the marketplace and other corridors of power."

     The Reformer John Calvin wrote that "the stability of the world depends on the rejoicing of God in his works."  God sustains the world by rejoicing in the world.  Lane suggests that "The role of human beings is to lead the rest of creation in praising the one for whom they all yearn, yet know they cannot possess. . . . The Psalmist urges believers to contribute to the rejoicing that maintains the universe, Calvin said, 'because the end for which we are created is that the divine name may be celebrated by us on earth.'"  Calvin wrote that "If on earth such praise of God does not come to pass . . . then the whole order of nature will be thrown into confusion and creation will be annihilated."  And yet, it is God's rejoicing in creation that makes possible and elicits from us our own rejoicing in God. 

     So let us celebrate!  Let us praise God!  In this Season of Advent we celebrate God's continuing creation of the world, we celebrate God's participation in the world in the one born in a manger, we celebrate that the Spirit of the Lord upholds us and every part of creation. 

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns; let earth her songs employ; let fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy!


[1]Quoted in Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality.  Oxford University Press, 2011, 17.

Holy Journeys — Day 14

     There is a journeying or travelling that runs through the scripture accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. We’ve got Mary journeying to visit and stay with her cousin Elizabeth when both are pregnant, then going back home. Mary and Joseph then travel to Bethlehem for the census, then after the birth they flee to Egypt. The shepherds travel from their fields to Bethlehem to see the baby. And, of course, the magi travel a great distance, following the star, then return home by a different road. That’s a lot of movement associated with this event.
            I think that’s appropriate, because the new life being born in the world, and in us, requires that we move out of our comfort zones -- as a baby must move out of the womb. The journey required of us may be geographical, or it may be internal – a journey of the soul. But move we must – if only to loosen up the places within ourselves that have become frozen, stiff or stuck. And when we make the journey, we may find something we did not expect at all -- like a newborn king in a humble manger.
            Most of these journeys enable connection, or reconnection. The cousins meet again and find they have something else in common. And with the shepherds and the magi: Those who began as strangers to each other meet and become part of each other’s life story. And those connections show that the light that is the baby Jesus shines through all their lives. 
            These are holy journeys – getting a new perspective, seeking out the unexpected, following promptings of the Spirit, connecting and reconnecting, forging new bonds, giving life to new relationships, coming closer to the divine.
            During the Christmas holidays, many of us will make holy journeys. We will travel to visit family and friends, we will cross new thresholds, we will seek to come closer to Jesus. What holy journeys, or pilgrimages, have you made in your life? What holy journey – geographical or internal – will you make this Christmas?
            Matt Harding has made holy journeys of his own – all over the globe – and got people to move – to dance. And in the process he created an amazing image of our connectedness -- of the light the shines through us all. According to his website:  "Matt thinks travel is important. It helps us learn what we're capable of, that the path laid in front of us isn't the only one we can choose, and that we don't need to be so afraid of each other all the time." A Holy Journey indeed. Listen to the words of the chorus to video’s song: “We’re going to trip the light, we’re going to break the night, and we’ll see with new eyes, when we trip the light.” The phrase "trip the light" may refer to "tripping the light fantastic" -- that is, dancing -- but I think it also means another kind of light, that we all share as part of God's creation.
      Here is the video. I've watched it many times. May it's infectious joy infuse your heart in this Advent season.

Spirit of Advent – Day 14

And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Song of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Luke 1:31-33

Luke did not write his account of Jesus' birth in a vacuum.  He looked back at everything through the cross.  On a trip to the Mediterranean a couple of years ago, Nancy and I visited several Orthodox churches.  The walls and the ceilings were covered with ancient frescoes.  One of the frescoes depicted Mary sitting beside the cradle of her new son.  The cradle was in the shape of a sarcophagus, a burial casket, and the swaddling clothes looked like a funeral shroud.  I will not be sending out Christmas cards this year with that frescoe on the front!

But it seems to me that there is something true and right in that frescoe.  What God did at Jesus' birth was part and parcel of what God was doing at Jesus' death.  God is able to create new possiblities out of impossibilities.  The incarnation of God in the form of a helpless human child?  Impossible.  Jesus living the life of one who knows that the kingdom of God is already here?  Impossible.  The death of Jesus turned to signify that to God's kingdom there will be no end?  Impossible. 

Impossible if one looks to power and coercion.  Possible only through the exercise of vulnerable love.  Possible only because God does not demand but offers Godself in love.

Hark the Herald

Hark the herald angels sing

"Glory to the newborn King!

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled"

Joyful, all ye nations rise

Join the triumph of the skies

With the angelic host proclaim:

"Christ is born in Bethlehem"

Hark! The herald angels sing

"Glory to the newborn King!"


 Christ by highest heav'n adored

Christ the everlasting Lord!

Late in time behold Him come

Offspring of a Virgin's womb

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man with man to dwell

Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing

"Glory to the newborn King!"

Spirit of Advent – Day 14

And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.  
Luke 1:31-33

Luke did not write his account of the events of Jesus' birth in a vacuum.  He looked back at everything through the cross.  On a trip that my wife and I took to the Mediterranean a couple of years ago, we visited several Orthodox churches.  The walls and ceilings of these churches were covered with ancient frescoes. One of them depicted Mary sitting by her baby's cradle.  The cradle was shaped in the form of a sarcophagus, or burial casket, and the swaddling clothes looked like a funeral shroud.  I will not be sending out Christmas cards with that frescoe on the front! 

But the idea behind this frescoe seems like a true one.  What God did at Jesus' birth was no different in meaning than what God did at Jesus' death.  God is able to create new possibilities out of what seem to be impossibilities.  The impossibility of God's incarnation in the form of a baby.  The impossibility of a life lived as if God's kingdom had already come.  The impossibility of a death that signifies a kingdom to which there will be no end.  A cradle that is a sarchophagus that is a throne.  All held together by vulnerable love.