Digging In

Although I’ve only spent about a week and a half here at Bethlehem Farm, a majority of that time has been spent out in the fields, planting a variety of vegetables, starches, and such. I’ve learned that what it is that is being planted isn’t even all that important as much as the how and why of what it is that is being submerged in the ground for a not so distant future time. There’s a great deal of preparation that is necessary long before anything is even placed in the ground and it’s in that preparation where it’s easy to get lost in thought and prayer, maybe some of the most depth-filled that one could even experience.

You never quite know the obstacles that you’ll face in the preparation. There are a variety of tools and such that help along the way in order to prepare the ground for the planting. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on what it is that you’re trying to extract, because more often than not something needs to be removed from the soil before planting is able. Sometimes the greatest obstacle are those you have no control over, like the weather. The heat of the sun and the unexpected rain that passes through allow you to step back and reassess the process as to how to proceed, knowing that it’s out of my control and yet isn’t an obstacle that necessarily forces you to end the work of the day.

It is, though, what lies beneath that becomes the most challenging in the process, and quite possibly where our own humanity runs straight into its natural counterpart. It’s always what lies beneath the surface that becomes our most challenging aspects of life as well. Let’s just say, I have witnessed a variety of different bugs, inspects, and other creepy crawly things in the ground and quite often running through my fingers in the earth. At times I have wondered what it’s like being them, considering I am intruding on a space that has been there home and now I find myself intruding and turning it upside down. Of course, we’re often participating in the same process, of excavating the earth for future times, for what lies ahead, in order to allow all of us to continue to sustain ourselves on this planet.

However, the creepy crawly things are also within us and often the very places we try to avoid, our most vulnerable or tender places that frighten us. It’s not until someone gets their hands on them where it becomes unsettled and unearthed, witnessing parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily want to show the world for fear of rejection or not being accepted by others, despite the fact that we all live with the understanding that these creepy crawly things exist in everyone else but somehow think no one knows of our own. It’s not until we find ourselves tilling soil one day when we begin to see more clearly what lies beneath, what we’ve tried to avoid in our lives, when we can no longer run from what it is that frightens us because there it is in our hands, and more importantly, in our very hearts and we find ourselves with tears in our eyes. Somehow the excavating of the earth allows our own heart and soul to be excavated in ways that we never thought possible. All of a sudden we realize that our head just isn’t in the job but our heart lies exposed in the earth in which our hands lie, pulling and tearing apart roots that run so deep and creating space for something new to grow, a new life, a new love, a deeper reality that now exposed in the earth in which we work. There no longer exists a separation.

It’s not easy, but I guess no one ever said that it would be. One day we just show up in a very different place in life, trying to sort out what’s next and never realizing what would become unearthed in these ways, whether it’s a call to simplicity or a more radical way in which to live life, at the heart of all of it is the preparation, the work, the at times, back-breaking grind that never seems to end, only in the end to look out at the end of the day to see what was accomplished and hyper-aware of what it took just to get to the point of dropping a seedling or plant only to wait with great patience for a harvest that is assured. It won’t, though, without the preparation, the time, the effort, and quite possibly most importantly, the love necessary for anything to grow, including ourselves.

Without love nothing grows and the preparation becomes shallow, only breaking the surface without ever getting your hands dirty in the deeper reality of what lies within each of us, a field that desires to be planted with love, nurture, community, hope, trust, faith, and so much more, but without love there is nothing. No one gives up everything for a cause that isn’t rooted in love, especially doing the hard work of reaching into the depths of our own lives and literally touching the creepy crawly things that often frighten us because they have no name, moving us to a new level of intimacy with ourselves, others, and God. Once they’re named and once we find ourselves one with them, we no longer need to fear who or what they are but simply meet them where they are, in their own place, and love them all the more knowing that we till and unearth together, allowing each other to grow. We do it as individuals but more importantly we do it with others that we love. We learn the dance with love and for love in order to confront what lies beneath the surface in our own lives. Only then can we truly look out and see love. Only then can we look out and know the hard work we’ve done, together and in love, in order to hear our Creator remind us, “and it is very good.”

The Fourth Day?

Anyone who’s had the privilege of attending a Kairos retreat knows that the finality comes with a simple question, “what’s next?” How do we go about living the “fourth” day after having three life-changing days, meant to catapult us into a new awareness and consciousness after an intense time of self-reflection and diving into the unconditional love of others that often goes unseen in the busyness of our lives or our judgments that infringe on our ability to feel that love. Needless to say, when any of us return to the limitations of ordinary, chronos time, which subsists in Kairos, the answers are not nearly as easily seen and we are often lulled back into the routine of our daily lives, longing for more of the Kairos experience that fed the deeper parts of our hearts and souls while becoming enslaved to the ways of the world and often ways that have assured to make our lives easier and more stream-lined.

Time has a way of controlling our lives. Since the inception of the internet and phones that have become attached to our sides, it only seems as if time has increased in speed and intensity. There’s always someone and something that needs our attention that we find ourselves swallowed up by an ever-ticking clock of time, always behind, wondering why life has lost some sense of meaning and purpose as we race to the clock and the need to move at the speed of the world wide web. Text after text seems to consume our time, among other things that grab our attention. The experience of Kairos seems but all a distant memory, finding ourselves limited by time and losing our connection to the eternal.

The celebration of Easter reminds us of the Kairos moments all while unfolding in the chaos of the events leading up to the transformative event of life and death. For the disciples there’s no sense of the eternal in the bowels of hell that they find themselves in during the moments following the unimaginable events of the crucifixion. It’s as if all the suffering of the world comes front and center in the lives of the disciples and they’ll be left with trying to sort out what it all means and do they become like the Pharisees and political leaders of their day with further enslavement to darkness, invoking fear, swallowed up in pride and control or do they allow the pain of the world to be transformed in and through them? Do they allow themselves to transcend the time of their day and learn to embrace the eternal, the Kairos moment that they were invited into during these days, reminding them as well that there is more to this life? For the disciples and the earlier followers of Jesus, the fourth day is all that follows and the choices that they’ll make.

More often than not when our lives become about racing against the clock and trying to please others by our instant response to life’s problems, we have a tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture of what really matters. It was no different for the disciples. Yet, all the choices that they would make in the days that followed would have lingering effects on the unfolding of the early community. We find them, more often than not in the days following Easter, locked inside the Upper Room, a significant spot where Jesus, as prophet, foretold their own unwillingness to follow the will of the Lord. The memories that must haunt them in those moments following the events, trying to make sense of what they had done and how they had contributed to the impending death of their friend, the one in whom they claimed they loved and pledged their loyalty. Yet, in the darkest of moments, when the sense of Kairos had all been but lost, they found themselves caught up in the reaction to the events, worried more about how it would impact them, looking for a quick fix, and simply trying to rid themselves of the problem and the chaos that seemed to be closing in not only on Jesus but on them. Like them, we can only run so long before our own pain catches up with us and our own unwillingness to see even our own lives from the larger perspective. All we can see in those moments, trapped in chronos, is the pain that we try to outrun or what forces us to lock ourselves in the Upper Room out of fear, wondering as to what the world, our own world, would think if they had known, that we were one of them.

There’s nothing Easter-like about the actual resurrection narratives when it comes to the disciples. It’s not until the story unfolds that we meet the early communities and the courage they exhibited in the way they proceeded, knowing that even in the darkest of days, God was somehow leading them and revealing the next step in life as to what would lead them to this burning love that exuded in their hearts. They too, like us, need to pass through the agony of the Cross of our own lives, where it feels as if time has all but stopped before we catch a glimpse of the eternal, the Kairos. The death of the self that we cling to as well as the disciples can sometimes feel like the most painful. It’s all we have clung to in order to protect what we have most held onto, our own pain, our shame, our own judgement against ourselves, out of fear of being found out by the Lord.

For the disciples, and us, Jesus doesn’t avoid that place but, in the eternal, appears in their very fear and pain and begins the process of transforming it as they recall what had first begun in Galilee, gaining new perspective. It wasn’t about the disciples doing just as Jesus did. It was about the disciples now tapping into the very love that burned in their hearts and living it out in their most unique way possible. For the disciples, and us, it’s about becoming their truest selves, the embodied love of the Lord, that allows the agony of the Cross to be transformed into an Easter event. Living the fourth day for the disciples is living from a new place, the place of Kairos in their own hearts and yet within the tension of a world that always seems to want to grab hold of hearts and souls.

Easter, and the life found in the emptiness of the tomb, reminds us that we often avoid the very reality that prevents us from living a life of faith, in what ever way God chooses. Kairos moments need not be limited to retreat moments but become a way of life, where, no matter how many times we find ourselves being consumed by the way of the world and enslaved to time, moving at the speed of light or as quick at least as quick as Google can search, leaving us anxious, afraid, and even lonely at times, the experience of Easter, the Kairos moment, the embodiment of love, will remind us always that we never settle and never become satisfied with anything less. We may find great comfort in the Upper Room of fear, shame, hurt, pain, or our own enslavement, but it will never give us the love we desire. The love of Easter frees us from bondage, from our own enslavement, to a place of freedom, where we can simply be the people God created us to be. In those moments we learn that it’s not just about the third day, but every fourth day that follows and how we are to live the paschal mystery faithfully in our lives. These are the Easter moments of our lives where our own death, even the death of self, leads to the life and love that we most desire of and for our lives.

And They Remembered

We all have events in our lives that we’d rather forget. They’re typically moments of tragedy, heartbreak, loss of all kinds, events that have a way of puncturing our heart and soul to the point that it feels like there is no return. I suppose, at times, there are also moments we’d like to go on forever, as if we could simply stop the clock at one point and relive a moment over and over again. Either way leads to a point of getting stuck, simultaneously fearing the inevitable death and letting go that is necessary in order to step forward. Although our minds may have the ability to hold us hostage to such events, it’s the heart that continues to drag us forward, often unwillingly at times, to the greater depth and meaning that such events have in our lives in order to let go and experience life more fully, conscious of the present moment.

You have to believe that the disciples found themselves in a similar place in their lives, thinking of the many highs and lows that they had in walking the way of the Christ. If they could just somehow get back to the moments of healing and feeding that brought them to the place of humility in their own lives, in awe of a God of such wonder. Now, though, wanting to put behind them the events of the past days of the violence committed against the Christ. It wasn’t just an ending for Jesus, it was an ending for everyone involved with the unfolding of events and the trauma inflicted upon the Christ, all out of fear, power, hate, and illusions held of a God that could only be summed up in words and laws rather than a God, stripped of all dignity, a God who not only calls them to life but a God who understands the human complexity of dealing with death, a dying to self that becomes a necessity to living a life of love and fullness. Before there is any glimpse of dawn, the disciples too would venture where they’d rather not go, into the hallow halls of the hell they’d rather forget and yet become enslaved to before a new day arrives.

Much of the resurrection narratives, such as that of Luke, is accompanied by the words or something similar, “and they remembered”. We hear that when the women appear at the tomb in Luke’s account of the resurrection. As much as they’d like to forget, and in some ways, we do forget the pain that accompanies new life, there’s a remembering that takes place all at the same time. We begin to see the events that impacted us with new perspective, maybe not necessarily happening in the way we really remembered or now as adults don’t seem as traumatic as when we were children. The act of remembering in the resurrection accounts allows for the space within the heart to begin to widen so that the events of the past days of suffering can be put in greater perspective and in new light, slowing becoming free of the binding force of pain. They begin, and certainly by no means taking away the trauma and violence inflicted, to see meaning to the suffering and even their own participation in such violence towards the Christ, not as an act of bowing their heads in shame, but in moments of forgiveness towards one another, to the people they’ve hurt, and to the ones who had done harm towards them. They begin to retell the story through a new lens and with each step “along the way” the fear of their hearts begins to evaporate into the freedom of resurrection.

The School of Love (see previous post) doesn’t allow for the skipping of steps along the way and at times requires the disciples and ourselves to go back and pick up the pieces in our lives that were seemingly missed and forgotten for a variety of reasons. As much as we’d like to forget, our minds have a way of protecting us when we experience pain and trauma that only opens when we ourselves are ready to deal with the infliction. The process of death and resurrection is something that happens over the course of time, a remembering and a letting go that happens in order to have the courage to step forth from the oft self-inflicted tombs we create for ourselves, preventing us from life and love. Once there is movement and momentum towards life and love, though, the true power of the Christ becomes unstoppable and what we see is no longer death and decay, fear and loneliness, but rather hope in the face of adversity, love accompanying loneliness, life leading us through death.

In this continued commemoration, the events seem like utter “nonsense”. None of it makes any sense to the human mind. Faith, unfortunately, has become that all too often, as something I need to understand and comprehend, something certain and that I can cling to in the face of suffering and death. Easter, though, reminds us of just the opposite. When we cling, we cling to death more than anything. We begin to suffocate ourselves and others, as was seen in the chaos that ensues on Good Friday in the praetorium, unable to see, think, or hear as the weight of the Cross bears down on the world. Easter, however, reminds us that there is no need to cling because, more often than not, we cling to what is not real, a false hope, the illusions of pain that accompany past hurts, certainty, comfort, and all the rest that become second-nature in our lives, all of which pointing not to the empty tomb of Easter but rather the one sealed in the darkness of days past.

The passing over from death to life doesn’t lead to death no longer being a part of our life. Rather, it becomes the way to life, the only way to life where the two become one. Easter isn’t simply about some future time that we bank everything on. God wants us to live today, not in fear but rather in love and in peace. Our inability to let go of the past and all that accompanies it will continue to create the very hell we try to avoid in times to come. We become what it is we fear the most. The utter nonsense of Easter invites us to step forth from our comfortable tombs and to see the world in a new way, through a new lens, where we no longer need to fear. Fear will inevitably always lead to control, certainty, dogmatic thinking, illusions, and to the greater suffering we fear the most. However, what we often fear the most is love and through love learn a new way of living. The power of love in resurrection and life transforms us to trust, to let go, to mystery, the stepping whole-heartedly into the unknown, to freedom. What we fear most isn’t really death. As a matter of fact, we become quite comfortable there, trying to forget rather than forgive. Rather, it’s love, because like the disciples, we totally lose control of our lives and finally learn to surrender ourselves and our hearts to something more, to something and someone bigger than ourselves, who’s always summoning us from darkness into the splendor of light. This paschal mystery is not simply about some future life we long for; rather, an invitation to live and to love today and finally remember the greater truth of the resurrected Christ we too are and participate!

School of Love

The Cross is the school of love. –Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe, a man and saint, who suffered and died under the hands of the Nazi regime at Auschwitz, recognized the reality that the greatest conflict one faces lies within our very heart and soul. He, more than most of us, saw the impact of such conflict in the suffering of all under the reign of evil, played out on the grandest scale during the Second World War. He, though, also saw such suffering and the Cross of Christ as a school of love, teaching lessons that can only come through an encounter with love in its deepest form, where the human and divine will intersect and one chooses God, chooses love over the interest of man. For some, seemingly foolish and selfish, but a school and a love that contains all creation, not fought on a battlefield but our “innermost personal selves.”

When we arrive at the climactic scenes of John’s gospel and his version of the passion narratives, we see this battle played out in the school of trial, flowing water and blood, a spirit given over, and with no one more central to the drama than Pilate himself, a man deemed responsible and yet utterly conflicted. Pilate stands as archetype of a darkened power and the ability for power to seduce one into believing that all is held in his very hands, a world dominated by such power. What Pilate doesn’t anticipate, though, is an encounter with love in the Christ in this moment of trial, a school in which Pilate will fail out of in his time, unable to pass the test of love and to triumph the inner self.

Pilate suffers at the same hands as all of us, that with knowledge comes power. It’s not simply knowledge in the way we understand, but the power that comes with knowing and making that knowing into eternal truth. Pilate becomes blinded by such power and knowing, fearing its loss if he were to succumb to the power of love in that encounter. For Pilate, a quick fix to a problem, to rid himself of such problem, is all he can see. He knows of a growing crowd outside the praetorium, a crowd that has grown dissatisfied with truth and the unknown. The movement towards uncertainty rises a sense of anxiety among the people and Pilate for fear of the change that comes with the school of love. In the end, Pilate, in his own conflicted state, chooses fear over love, giving into a growing threat to his identity and power, not wanting to be seen as weak in the face of the people, both political and religious, who stand to swoop in and scoop up the very power that brings down a weak leader, a leader who chooses fear over love. Class failed and the intersection of the human and divine driven to Gabbatha and the ultimate undoing of human power and the revealing of the incomprehensible power of love.

The commemoration of the Lord’s passion and death pushes us to the point of choice in our own lives, choosing the ways of the world which find us confined by our own doing or choosing love, freeing us but at great price. When one encounters love, though, the illusions of power and self are all but destroyed, testified by an “eyewitness” that what first appears the greatest atrocity now stands as the only way to love. The school of love in which Kolbe speaks and witnesses to in his own life didn’t come by crawling cowardly away from the threat of death but rather courageously standing before the crossroads of life and death and choosing life through death, not for his own sake but for that of others. What appears with the eye as a self-serving sacrifice points the way to how we are to live our own lives. We may never encounter such circumstances as that of Kolbe, but the choice to choose love over fear and death is where we are invited every moment of our lives as we to stand between the cut rock of death and the unwavering outpouring of water and blood in new birth.

As the world turns in our own conflicted hearts, choosing fear and love continues to invite us to the intersection of the human and divine through the wood of the Cross. The world stands are our greatest classroom desperately in need of not more fear but a greater sense of love and the depths of love that come through our own suffering in daily choosing to follow love, listen to love, become love in the way we live our lives. It is not hate that stands in opposition to love but fear. It is our own fear of the unknown, something beyond comprehension, fear of the other who threatens my way of life, fear of not knowing, and the ever-increasing anxiety that is brought about by a world that remains repulsed and indifferent towards suffering.

“The Cross is the school of love.” It’s a school where we continue to gather as students to a deeper understanding of this unfolding mystery of suffering and death and the transformational power of love. The cross is not merely an event of centuries ago, seemingly won for us all, but rather the comprehensive exam of a life of faith that thrusts us into the center of the drama of our own lives, lives desiring the heart of the other, lives desiring love. Like Pilate, fear always stands in our way. We cling to what we know and limit this school’s lessons to what we know, to dogmatic certainties, rather than the unfolding and being unfolded ourselves of the layers of our own lives and fear that have kept us from love. An encounter with love changes everything, presumably even for someone like Pilate, even if unbeknownst to him. The school of this Cross and the love poured out shatters all that we have known, opening us to a new way of life, the pouring forth of water and blood and the growing intimacy of standing naked before love itself. The Cross stands as the school of love. What appears as fear, death, power, hatred, and threat can only be overturned by the unfathomable power of love. The school of love always stands ready not to reveal greater light but to cast light upon our own darkness and sin that hinders our own self, a self created for love and to be loved. In the drama of our own lives, the Cross stands ready as our own school, pointing us to the very love our hearts desire. The choice remains, love over fear.

 

Dear God…

For many years now I have spent a great deal of time writing Letters to God.  I believe it all started after seeing the movie under the same name, of a young boy struggling with cancer who thought God was the only one who would understand, despite the unending doubts and dissatisfaction of everyone around him.  It all began in similar fashion for me as well.  They began rather briefly without much depth, often with a question that burdened me or something that just didn’t make sense.  It was a way of getting out of me what so often seemed to become internalized, and being freed from the burden that often became associated with the question, the thought, the experience, or whatever it may have been in that time and space.  Needless to say, the way we have internalized experiences is not always the way it really happened.

Since then, I have written literally hundreds of pages, binders full of these letters that I would not want to share with anyone.  There’s only one person I have, but that’s a story for another day.  It wasn’t simply, at one point, being accountable to someone larger than myself, like God, but to another person who could mirror back, free of judgment, shame, and fear, my deepest thoughts and experiences.  It’s funny, if you would have asked me when I was young what I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer would never even have crossed my lips.  Always, a teacher, but also meteorology a close second.  The natural world still fascinates me and feel at home there, but it has also given me much to write about, and more importantly, a path to redemption over and over again, seeing creation as God’s first and greatest act, and myself intimately connected.

The letters, though, over time, have become more complicated and more nuanced.  I often have to return to them for my own reference, unsure where some of it even comes from, supposing a place deep within me.  It has become a place where I can freely be myself and allow my imagination to engage on levels I could not have imagined even existed, a place where I can often become lost, wander, and over time, be found while finding myself.  They are letters that are filled with quotes, movie scenes, and other images and metaphors that become attached as a means to going deeper and to discover with greater certainty, the One in which the letters are written.  Not only has it been a discovery of the complexity of mystery and the unknown, but how true it is of my own life and how easily any of us can allow ourselves to become imprisoned where and when we feel most comfortable, exiled from the very mystery we fall in love with, even when we feel as if we don’t belong.

I never knew if God was really listening, just as it is with people.  I often wondered if God understood what often felt like one misunderstanding after another.  It’s never been about the peripheries, the trappings that often capture our attention as humans, but rather a quest for the marrow of life, what makes it tick, what gives it meaning and purpose, what and who gives life.  I’m just as guilty as the next, believing there’s an easy answer or fix to what comes at us in life, but it often takes a blow to knock that type of illusion from our hearts and eyes, when we begin to experience that God has been listening all along; I just wasn’t aware of how much he was listening because of the illusions that crippled me and were used as a crutch to hold onto what was never real in the first place, but was a way to protect, to feel comfortable, to hide in fear from what it was I desired the most.  It was hidden all along and in plain sight.  It wasn’t God’s fault, revealing the path, step by step, but rather my own inability to let go, to surrender, to the very mystery that captivated me from the beginning.

So here I sit writing, in a similar format, with questions that in the past would have seemed insurmountable but now are a part of this ongoing quest for truth and love.  Dear God; they are sometimes the easiest words to put on the paper.  The doubt of God listening never seems to completely disappear, and maybe that’s the point.  It’s in that doubt where courage is found to write what comes next in that letter or any of them for that matter.  At first the words that followed came out with great trepidation, not always wanting to put into words what was really going on within me because somehow, once out, they become real, as if words being breathed become embodied in some way.  When I’m asked if I’ll ever share such writings, I hesitate.  My experiences, like any, are very personal.  They’re about difficulties with identity, love, heartbreak, struggles, questions, joys, and all the rest.  Of course, that’s what binds us all in the human family.  We all have a story to share and is important to share that story so hopefully one day the words that follow, Dear God, will lead me in that direction.

A friend shared with me a quote from a book this week (which has a lot of great quotes) entitled, Poverty of Spirit.  The author says this, “We are all beggars.  We are all members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself.  We are all creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts.  Of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete.  Our needs are always beyond our capacities, and we only find ourselves when we lose ourselves.”  He goes onto write, “Left to ourselves, we still remain the prisoner of our own Being…if we attempt this [hiding], the truth of our Being haunts us with its nameless emissary:  anxiety…in the final analysis we have one of two choices:  to obediently accept our innate poverty or to become the slave of anxiety.”  I’m convinced we are all beggars when we utter the words, Dear God, but I’m also nearly certain that we come begging for the wrong thing.  More often than not we come to God begging for answers, only leading to a greater anxiety when answers are not found.  The true invitation to losing ourselves is living into the unknown of the very question that leave us with doubt, restlessness, and unsatisfied hearts.  The answers may, and probably never will, come, but in time we begin to embody the question that God has placed in our hearts and begin to step into and out of our deepest selves, our truest selves, where we no longer need to cut off or shun who it is within us that remains prisoner.

What started as two simple words of imitation of a young boy in a movie, Dear God, has led me to many places within myself and beyond that I will never fully comprehend, but it also leads me to this point in my life right now.  Somewhere in the pages and pages of writing, God has led me to a choice and an invitation to enter into the unthinkable, of surrendering myself to that interior poverty that scares and yet is most enticing and seductive.  As I said, it’s never been about the peripheries, the pomp, the dress, the performance, but rather about this journey that binds us all, from our own sense of exile, crossing threshold after threshold, to a deeper understanding of the promised land that lies within and yet so far beyond my own comprehension.  Needless to say, it comes with a sense of fear, stepping beyond the walls that have held me tightly and have given great comfort, but that too is simply a passage, a threshold to cross, just as any new birth, into an unknown world.  The difference is trusting that journey and trusting that whatever follows, Dear God, will once again be yet another invitation to a new way of living, a new way of loving, a new way of learning to embody the deeper questions of life and living that revelation as, again, God’s first and greatest act of creation.

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.

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.