Return to the Source

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past.  I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source.  I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something.  We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well.  To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live.  It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock.  Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.

Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan.  Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself.  Obviously, we still use it to this very day.  Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes.  It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter.  You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe.  Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do.  It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.

It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ.  Luke marks it even greater.  If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene.  We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke.  By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod.  There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher.  Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.  The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.

This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day.  Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems.  They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world.  You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.

Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel.  Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes.  Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict.  When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again.  They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary.  The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill.  They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile.  As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity.  The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.

The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives.  Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation.  If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile.  We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity.  The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul.  We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.

 

Love’s Moment

Matthew 2: 1-12

The feast of Epiphany always comes at the right time because we’re finally far enough away from all the expectations that surround Christmas Day itself.  We are given an opportunity to step back as the world has moved on, to look more closely at what the season is truly about and it comes in the form of a timeless story of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s another one of the Christmas stories that has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and even misinterpreted over the years and has managed to maintain a place in the celebration of the season.  Of course, over time they’ve become kings even though there is no mention of kings in the story.  They are, though, the archetypal seekers that Israel would be most familiar, a people that understands the significance of wandering and seeking a given promise.

Here’s the thing about these Magi, though.  They were the experts of their day in reading the stars and understanding the heavens.  They were people who in some sense were other-worldly and connected to the cosmic levels of the universe.  They knew that there was significance in this particular star, that a new king had been born, quite possibly the one that has been long awaited and attached to the very promise that Israel clung to over the centuries.  Yet, despite all of that, the magi, these heavenly experts, got it wrong.  They got it wrong and show up at the wrong location.  Granted, it’s pretty close but it’s still not Bethlehem where the fulfillment of the promise is rooted.

Like the Magi and their own journey towards love, it’s often their greatest gift that becomes their obstacle to love.  All the expertise in the world and even their knowledge that extended beyond the realms of this world didn’t seem to land them where they most desired, their deepest search for love in the newborn King.  The journey, though, doesn’t disappoint them, mindful of Israel’s own journey through the desert, it’s often on the cusp of that moment of crossing over that a final test is introduced.  Do they really desire this gift of love incarnate?  The final test of the magi is getting over themselves and letting go of even their greatest attribute, their knowledge of the stars, in their confrontation with Herod, the lord of their day.  It was the most obvious of places to find themselves in seeking a king.  You go to the seat of power.  Yet in the process of this encounter with fear, the insecurity of worldly power is exposed and their own holding on begins to slip through their fingers and an opening for love begins to change the Magi from within.  It wasn’t simply the birth of Jesus, it was the birth of the kingly power in their own lives, magi with kingly power now being led by love.  Love leads them to Bethlehem not simply to pay homage to the newborn King but to become the very love in which they gaze.  The magi will have no other choice but to go home by a different route because now their lives are moved forward not by expertise and knowledge of the heavenly realms, but by love.  They tap into the greatest of powers and when it meets love in the Christ, their lives are changed forever.

Their stop in Jerusalem can appear as a mistake or simply as a necessary stop on the journey in seeking love, seeking out this newborn King.  The path to Bethlehem always comes through Jerusalem just as the path to Jerusalem is through Bethlehem.  The challenge for us, as it was the magi, is our own discernment in Jerusalem and not overstay our welcome.  We have a tendency in our lives to take up shelter in Jerusalem and setting for something other than what gives us live and manifests that love in our lives.  It’s much easier to cling and attach ourselves to our own “expertise”, whatever that may be.  It gives us a sense of certainty that we can hold onto in the uncertainties of our time.  It, however, often leads to further chaos and becoming trapped in the darkness and mistaking it for the light.  Who knows whether the magi knew for sure in their encounter with Herod but the one definite of the story is that when they do finally encounter love and love their navigational tool, they know they are not to return the same way.  We can’t go back to through the womb just as much as we can’t through the tomb.  They are simply passage ways, albeit it painful passages at times, but they are the path to love and in us sharing in love and becoming that love in our lives.  It is the deepest desire and what we long for the most in life if we can just allow ourselves to get out of our own way and surrender even our greatest gift that we believe defines us to love.

As we enter this final week of the Christmas season, culminating with the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday, what is it we’re seeking in our lives these days?  Are we like the Magi as they enter into Jerusalem, holding onto our own wherewithal, thinking we know the way, mapping out the destination only to come up short?  What is our Jerusalem that we’re being housed in?  It is the most difficult of the journey until it no longer is, until you begin to catch glimpses of the more you desire, you seek.  It is only love that can pull us outside ourselves and yet move us to the deepest places within ourselves, navigating us through the ups and downs of life.  The magi have become timeless because they are so symbolic of our own lives and our spiritual journey.  If we continue to go home by the same route, more often than not we’re clinging and have a sense of being closed off from love, resisting a change of heart.  God finds a way, though, even with the magi.  Even in the face of the horrors and insecurities of Herod, love begins to break through for the Magi.  The desire for change and for more was already there.  In the moment of finally surrendering even the greatest parts of themselves, they realize there’s more and the burning love of the heart will now become the deciding factor.  It’s what we desire and it’s what we seek in our own lives, to love, to be loved, and most certainly, in that very encounter as we do at this altar, to become love and to be changed forever.

Hopeful Longing

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

creche

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  Silent Night is marking its 200th Anniversary on this very night.  On a night when the organ had been damaged by flooding, the words of a simple poem, set to guitar chords, has managed to transcend time as an eternal carol.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm; well, at least for here, maybe not in your homes.  There is, though, something that is aroused in us in the silence in the night, when our own hearts quake.  There is obviously great joy that is so much a part of this feast.  I myself enjoy the time with nieces and nephews because of the joy, the sense of wonder and mystery that Christmas holds, but also knowing that it passes with time.  There is, along with that joy, often a deep sadness that many experience on this holiday, often associated with family and loss but also, in a way only a mother can know, the separation that takes place upon the birth of a child, setting in motion a deep longing and desire to be one.  This feast, like no other, manages to bring together that sense of great joy and sadness all into one, pointing the way to finding joy in the sadness and pain we may be feeling.

There’s a sadness as well when we look at this creche that has a way of capturing us each year like nothing else.  It’s not just a sadness that comes with what Christmas has become culturally but tied to the sadness of this scene, that like Silent Night, doesn’t find its way into our feast until centuries later, yet, a longing and desire draws us here to this place because in the midst of it all, it reminds us of who we really are.  It draws us in and speaks to us in the silence of the night because at the core of our being, this is who we are and yet we’re not there yet.  Everything about our lives moves us in the direction of becoming this creche, this scene of such peace and joy.  Yet, everything in us, connected with that longing and desire for love and joy, pushes us to resist it all at the same time because we don’t want to go to the place of longing, to our deepest sadness and hurt.  That’s precisely, though, right where we find that joy and peace.

It is where all the prophets lead Israel, as we hear in today’s first reading.  It’s one of the most poetic of all Isaiah’s writings.  But we need to understand, Israel once again finds itself on the brink of war.  Poverty and famine have become a way of life.  A chaotic and corrupt political leadership was the name of the game.  Israel, more often than not, found itself floundering in life, not only feeling as if God had abandoned them in so many of their experiences, but the separation that came from their land and from one another.  The deepest longing and desire of Israel was to be one and at peace but it never seemed to come to fruition.  They have lived through the pain of an enslaved people.  Isaiah, today, speaks of a people that knows darkness and knows it well.  They are a people that knew pain and suffering.  They are a people that knew separation and longing.  But the thing about it is, like us, the more we look beyond ourselves to satisfy it only deepens the pain and loneliness.  Isaiah offers a message of hope in finding the light in the midst of the darkness and not to despair, that what they desire they already have and keep seeking elsewhere. To be a people of faith they must find hope in the darkness of their own lives and trust that life will spring forth.  Long before Jesus is born in this stable, plainly pointing out to us our deepest identity, wrapped in swaddling clothes, Isaiah learned to trust the interior life, the divine indwelling, knowing the presence of God and revealing a message of hope and joy to a people that knew darkness more than anything.

The same is true of Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds with hearts that quake.  Mary and Joseph, in giving birth to the Christ, don’t somehow bypass darkness.  Jesus doesn’t come with a blueprint and map as to how they are to proceed in all of this.  The three of them are going to face utter darkness, not always knowing where they are going until they too are exiled.  Their own history and connecting with it, reminds them of the necessary hope as they make this journey.  The shepherds themselves will not make their way somehow to the top of the list in their time.  Rather, they found their deepest selves in that encounter.  In the quaking of their hearts, something begins to move deep in the silence, illuminating their own longing and desire for love and peace.  As we hear in this gospel, Mary and Joseph don’t rebel against the religious and political leaders of their day.  They simply through freedom and choice don’t become like the nations but rather grow into becoming like the one they bear, the Christ.

They will all face unbelievable sadness and pain in this journey.  There’s nothing easy about giving birth and the same is true of a God who tries to birth new life in each of us, leading us to trust the eternal that has already been planted.  All the stories we hear this season will point us in that very direction.  What’s most important is that when we find ourselves in that darkness is not to become consumed by it and be defined by it.  Whether it’s this creche or this altar, we are always being captured by the deepest desire to be love and joy and both remind us of that very truth of our being.  We will never get rid of darkness.  We will never get rid of sin.  For that matter, we will never destroy corruption and abuse of power and all the rest because all of it points to that deepest longing and desire within us.  It begins and ends with Christmas, with this very creche in which defines who we are.  In our very sadness and brokenness as humans, who simply long for joy and love, we learn to find it in that precise place we’d rather avoid.

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  It’s what Christmas is all about.  In the silent of night, the silent of darkness, a light is illumined, casting light upon our hurt and pain, our deepest longing and desire.  Maybe we find our own hearts quaking this evening, breaking forth and invited to something new, a new sense of wonder, simplicity, and joy, a child-like spirit that reminds us of days long ago.  It’s God breaking in.  It’s God reminding us that we’re something more than this cultural Christmas that also feeds into that deepest longing.  Like Mary and Joseph, we seek the courage to step into that very darkness, that pain, that longing, for it is there that they place their trust and find hope.  We are no different.  The gift awaits us all in that very place within our hearts that quake with the shepherds on this night, this silent night.  Wrapped in swaddling clothes we find a child, we find ourselves, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright.

 

The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

All I Want for Christmas

Zeph 3: 14-18; Phil 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18

So, nine days left until Christmas.  I don’t feel ready, but that’s nothing new.  There have really been two words that sum up this Advent season.  The first is obviously “expectation”.  That’s what the season is all about.  We speak of the coming of Christ at the end times, in our lives, and of course at Christmas, so that word really is synonymous with Advent.  The other word that we’ve heard these weeks is from Saint Paul who again stresses the word anxiety.  That theme will carry through Christmas when we will hear about fear.  Whether we know it or not the two can be very much entangled with one another.

Expectation, or this sense of longing, has been hijacked by the cultural Christmas and even society in general.  The entire structure is built on an expectation that I’m going to find the right gift to make someone happy.  We all have seen with our own eyes the excitement of kids on Christmas but also how quickly the gift gets tossed aside, dashing our own expectation.  I’m no different.  I spent yesterday on my computer, even telling myself that this is crazy, but it’s so embedded in who we are that we start to feel guilty about not doing it or letting people down and all this stuff, none of which is going to ever satisfy that longing and expectation in our hearts.  More often than not we’re not even aware how we’re being manipulated by it because it’s the only thing we know.  That’s where anxiety then feeds into the unrealistic expectation.  This season, though, is not about happiness, which is fleeting.  Rather, as we hear today, is about joy.  It’s about being satisfied with what we have and even grateful for it, not needing something else “out there” to do the trick.  This false sense of expectation and its accompaniment with anxiety has brought down civilizations all for looking for a “quick fix” to the deepest longing of our hearts as individuals and as a human race.

That’s where Israel finds itself in the first reading today.  It’s the only time we hear from the Prophet Zephaniah.  As a matter of fact, we hear the only positive message that occurs in the book.  Jerusalem finds itself in a rather usual position, about to once again be destroyed.  It is a city that has fallen into disarray and extreme corruption and now stands on the brink of being destroyed by the Babylonians.  As is history of our people, they too look elsewhere to bring some sense of peace to the longing of the people.  It’s a pain that runs deep.  They, like us, convince ourselves that somehow if things were just this way or I had that thing, all would be right in the world.  Israel always wants to look beyond itself rather than journey inward.  It’s how they become corrupt and separated from their purpose as people.  The more they become separated the greater the fear and anxiety get fed and the more the longing deepens.  It’s a perpetual cycle that we all fall prey to as human beings.  It should be no surprise to any of us that there are so many people that suffer from anxiety disorders in one way or another because that’s all we know.  It’s ingrained in our culture but it’s ingrained in the pain that runs through that longing that we anticipate.  In the end, we find ourselves even with expectations of the expectations we hold and the Christmas culture loves it.  It feeds on our weakness as humans knowing we’re going to go looking.

It is expectation that the people have in seeking out John the Baptist as well.  They think maybe finally he’s the one that is going to satisfy that longing.  Yet, he will forever be misunderstood by them because of the expectation of that expectation that they had, that somehow he was the one that was going to undo the systems of his day in the way he preached and spoke.  Again, more often than not we do the same thing.  Who knows if these religious and political systems will ever be undone, knowing that the power associated with that longing is so appealing.  John knew he wasn’t that person and never could be.  All he could do is point the way.  He pointed the way in actions they could take, but it will only be in Christ where they will find that fulfillment.  They won’t find it simply by doing the right thing.  They do it by entering into relationship with the Christ, becoming aware of when they are falling prey otherwise, and once again accept that the longing and expectation lies only with God, with Christ. That’s a decision that John can’t make for them but one they have to make for themselves.  It me and you that have to decide whether we’re going to keep blaming rather than seeking that change of heart within ourselves. More often than not we’d prefer Santa Claus to God and when neither seem to give us what we want, we bail, only leaving us longing for more and seeking it elsewhere. 

We already have what we need and what will give us the peace we desire.  It’s easy for us to say that but much more to allow ourselves to trust it in those moments of longing and expectation.  We allow ourselves to be fed by the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by the unrealistic expectations of a culture.  The gift has already been given to each of us, yet it’s not going to stop us from looking, thinking that we need to or the guilt overtakes us.  If we want to pass on to future generations it should be a seeking of joy.  It may not be easy but it’s not so fleeting as happiness.  The whole season is moving us to the same place as Mary, a place of yes to the gift.  A yes to the longing and expectations of our heart, to a God that deeply desires us to be people of life and joy.  It’s right there and so close and yet at times seems so far away.  God has already wrapped it in the most beautiful of paper, awaiting us to say yes to pulling the ribbon and to be opened to the true meaning of the season and a recognition of what will truly fulfill our longings and expectations, all while freeing us of our fear and anxiety, our relationship with Christ and our falling into mystery.

Finding Peace in a New York State of Mind

nativity

Although never a chart-topping hit for Billy Joel, New York State of Mind remains one of his most popular as he travels the world performing.  The basic premise of the song is that while others travel to different locations to get away, he still finds something life-giving about returning to the city, in particular, a city that never sleeps.  There really is, something, about the hustle and bustle that seems to crescendo in this city like none other that I have visited over the years.  None seem to come close in comparison of what unfolds, never a dull moment, in a city that seems to take chaos to a whole new level and meaning, as it continues to stand as a cross-section of a global world all within an area of just over three hundred square miles.  How on earth does anyone find some semblance of peace in any of that?

I’d be naïve to think that peace can never be found in such chaos but it certainly comes with challenges that are unlike other places.  Yet, that’s the challenge, finding peace in the midst of the chaos of our own lives.  From honking horns, people glued to their phones as the walk, pushing and shoving in trying to cross streets, glittering lights that entrance, skyscrapers that tower over all of us, it all seems to be, at times, the lived reality in my own head, always running and never quite finding the time to simply slow down and center myself in a way that allows the peace to surface in the midst of it all, quieting the noise of my own life and only exasperated while descending upon this city.  Maybe it’s not the right place to find peace.

In the process of getting from one place to another, all you can really do is keep pushing through the noise, because even the noise has something to teach, even if it is how easily we are distracted by it all.  The first inclination is to try to get rid of it, eliminate it, and then somehow I’ll have peace of mind.  It seems like a rather narcissistic idea of peace, where I become the center of it all, isolating myself from the rest of the world all for what I want.  Yet, if a walk through the city teaches us anything, it’s just how much it’s not about me, but rather points out my own smallness of a much larger world, an oft necessary perspective for any of us.  It all seems to flow much more smoothly when I move with traffic than always trying to go against.  I suppose it’s a dance we all do over the course of our lives, and every moment in crossing streets, sometimes needing to move with the flow, but at others going against the grain and pushing back in order to grow in different ways, despite the looks and the frustration that often arises within myself and others.  We’re all just trying to get to that place, wherever it may be, simply because I haven’t found that peace where I am, standing in the middle of 46th and Broadway, as the world seems to be passing me by in an instant.  It’s not where I maybe want to be, but it’s where I find myself and I can only be there at the moment.

Yet, somewhere, despite that New York state of mind that seems to encapsulate my life, there must be peace.  There must be a way to silence it all, to stop it, in order to find what I’m looking for in the midst of it.  It takes me to the most obvious and least obvious place in this journey, to the apex of the city at Christmas, Rockefeller Center and its surrounding area.  There’s nothing much like it and I continue to return to that same place, taking a break and sipping on coffee as I watch the world pass by my very eyes, people without a care in the world and lost in the moment.  It still, though, wasn’t enough.  I went further, to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where I was sure to find some semblance of peace.  As I waited in line, just to enter the place, being pushed by hundreds of other visitors trying to get somewhere, it seemed all but lost.  Finally, though, I entered the doors, bag cleared by security, and headed to the creche and sat down for a few moments.  That New York state of mind seemed to follow through the cathedral doors, people chatting in a quieter tone, snapping photos, gawking at the enormity of it all, gazing at a scene that means so much, a baby born in a stable.  Peace.

In the moments that followed, the most obvious was the least obvious.  There is no baby in that crib for another two weeks, until Christmas.  Today that crib stood vacant, empty, as if just waiting for something.  The animals all seemed to know.  The other characters seemed to understand something that the rest of us didn’t know in that moment.  The peace we seek will never come in my New York state of mind but rather somewhere deep within, in the emptiness of my own heart.  It isn’t about going anywhere to find that peace.  As a matter of fact, the harder I seem to go looking for it the further I seem to end up away from experiencing it.  All I could do is sit in those moments and stare at the emptiness of that crib, following the eyes of all the characters that already seemed to know and that I had once again forgotten, needing to be reminded over and over again.  It was everything I could do to hold back tears looking at that space, sleep in heavenly peace.

We convince ourselves that if I had peace of mind it would somehow correct it all for me.  Yet, I have yet to find a way to totally silence the mind in that way.  It all too often feels like a New York state of mind, with sirens blaring, horns blowing, voices yelling, all trying to vie for my attention, assuring me that they have the silver bullet to my life and what I truly desire.  It’s so tempting and at times fall for their lie, only to be left least satisfied and lost in the chaos of my own mind.  It is, though, only in the places deeper within my own being where the creative act of God continues to work, priming me for another opportunity to be found in the silence lost in the noisiness of the world, since it’s the only world in which I have found.  When finally found, my eyes become fixed as well, and then finally, a deep breath can be had and I can take that peace with me out into the world, finding myself more patient with myself and others along the way who are simply looking for the same thing in the busyness of their own New York state of mind.

A Stable Force

star-of-bethlehem-wallpaper-source_bff

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

There’s some irony in hearing this familiar gospel from Luke today of Mary and Joseph heading back to the place of origin for the census. The story we heard more than anything this week was about taxes.  Congress passed a bill and it was signed into law.  There’s debate, depending on who you listen to, as to who it benefits.  I don’t know.  But some 2000 years ago Mary and Joseph found themselves in this same familiar place.  The calling of the census by Caesar Augustus was primarily about taxes.  Like always it seems as if money drives everything no matter the point in history.

We do know one thing, though, that Mary and Joseph would not benefit from this taxation and nor would any other poor person of the day. It was to benefit the expansion of the kingdom that Caesar was creating in his own image.  It was a time of peace that was rooted in oppression, fear, and constant instability for the community in which Luke writes this passage. Yet, despite all of it this couple were faithful to this earthly power just as Jesus would go onto say, give to Caesar what is Caesar.  But they were faithful until they no longer could.  They were faithful until it stood in the way of this newfound life in Christ that seemed harmless and yet a threat to powers of the day, when people, as history is turned on its head, no longer have to be defined by the political or even religious authorities of their day.  In the midst of all the instability, Mary and Joseph return to the place of origin, as we all do to seek what they sought, to the stable, the manger, the garden, to once again find that union with the divine.  In the midst of the instability of the day a Stable arises in their midst to bring lasting peace and freedom that can no longer be contained by the earthly powers.

This passage we hear this evening that stands so familiar to us of the birth of the Christ has great spiritual implications more than any other.  As much as we have softened over time, it was a story of hope for Luke’s community that found themselves displaced and in constant turmoil from within and from the political and religious authorities.  There was no space, no room, for another voice beyond Caesar and anyone that tried faced consequences.  There was, as Luke tells us, no room in the Inn.  The external pressures to conform and that contained them would no longer suffice for a God who was to take on flesh.  Rather, Mary and Joseph leave the confines of the Inn and wander into the darkened night, where the community so often found itself, giving birth in a stable.  This is the defining moment for Mary and Joseph as well who realize there’s no turning back at this point.  They have been given a gift and this gift is going to guide them through some of the darkest moments of their lives.  They will not be defined by Caesar and his cronies.  They will no longer be contained by the political and religious authorities of their day.  They, instead, will be led as refugees to unfamiliar land and space only to turn to the Christ as their guide.  They return to the place of their own origin and give birth to a new way of life, wrapped not in the confines of the worldly desires but rather in mystery and the unknown, learning to trust and navigate the given gift.

But long before there was Israel who too found itself in similar situations.  As much as things change over time they also remain the same.  They find themselves again on the cusp of something new.  They were a people that walked in darkness but now illumined by this light.  Israel will learn in its own history, as in ours, that darkness becomes their greatest teacher.  It’s often when they find themselves wandering, fleeing oppressors, facing the unknown and utter darkness, that grace begins to grow.  They too will return to their own place of origin, to the heart of who they are, only to once again become attached and led to the darkness once more, to grown more deeply in faith and trust of this mystery that continues to call them forth.  Like them, we don’t like to be “in the dark” on things.  We want to know.  We want that certainty in our lives.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Magi will encounter in the weeks ahead, learn to be sent forth to those very places in their own lives.  As I said, great spiritual implications as to how they and we live our lives.  Our we going to be defined by the confined Inn, cluttered lives we often lead.  Will we simply be identified with our politics and even our religious beliefs.  The radical simplicity of Christmas in a very complex world reminds us that in all our instability, war, poverty, unrest, and all the rest, we’re called to leave it behind, the “worldly desires” and allow the Stable to arise in our own hearts and souls to now be led not from on high and not from these external authorities but rather from within our very hearts and souls where the Christ, from the beginning and always, is being born.

This is what Christmas is about.  Luke turns the story on its head.  Salvation history will not be defined through the eyes of Caesar Augustus, Herod, or any other tyrant of their day, oppressing the people for their own political gain.  Luke reminds us that we live from the inside out and from the bottom up.  The journey now into the great darkness that has seen the great light is a painful one at that, but Mary and Joseph stand as witnesses to the power of the Stable in the midst of the instability of their own lives and ours as well.  Deep within us we know something that goes beyond anything this world offers, all the clutter and noise that distracts us, creating anxiety and instability, turmoil in our lives.  In that very place we’re called to leave it behind on this Christmas, leave the staleness and artificialness of the Inn that has defined to something real, wandering in the darkness of night, to a Stable that holds the eternal and the one who navigates Luke’s community to a new way of life and one for ourselves as well.  We can be defined by the tyrants of our day, the corruption of money, political and religious leaders telling us who we are and what to do but Christmas demands more of us.  Christmas demands us to learn to grown and trust the voice deep within, from a place of mystery and the great unknown, calling us to live our lives identified by the eternal place of origin, a Stable, in the midst of a often unstable world.