Christmas Morning Surprise

Earlier this year, I happened to see this first scene in an Australian pine across the street.  When I went to get the paper this morning, I saw two hawks perched atop that same tree.  As I got closer, one flew away, but the other stayed there for quite some time, confidently surveying all that s/he could take in.

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“The mystery of the Incarnation…..”

FeetCloseup“….is precisely the repositioning of God in the material world once and forever. Continual top-down religion often creates very passive, and even passive-dependent and passive-aggressive Christians. I know this as a Catholic priest for over 40 years. Bottom-up, or incarnational religion, offers a God we can experience for ourselves. We have nothing to fight or prove, just something to know for ourselves. This is what we are about to celebrate at Christmas.”

from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

Why is this “Art”?

It’s a serious question.


(Photo by Susan L. Voisin – Washington Post)

Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang exploded a Christmas tree on the National Mall yesterday.

Never mind that all didn’t seem to go according to plan, leaving onlookers (and even the artist) a bit disappointed (see the video).

My question is this:  Why would this be considered “art” in the first place?  What’s the artistic value of exploding or setting on fire anything, let alone the principal symbol of Christmas, which has both secular as well as intensely religious meaning to millions and millions of people around the world.

I realize that the artistic, creative side of my brain isn’t as developed as I’d like … but I really, really don’t get this.  Anyone?

Walking from Darkness to Light

Homily for Christmas 2011
(Homily for Christmas Eve Liturgy with a Catholic intentional community in Bonita Springs, FL)

When your pastor called and asked me to stand in for him at this very special celebration of the Christian year, I must admit I had a mixed internal response.  First, he called when I was taking a short “Tim time” vacation, and so his call caught me a little off guard.  On the one hand I was happy and pleased and willing to help, but I also thought, “who am I to preach to this group”? In Christian and most faith communities that have some sort of sermon or homily as part of their communal prayer, that sermon or homily is best when it speaks to the concrete circumstances of the community.  That was true throughout the Scriptures that we proclaim each week – both Hebrew and Christian. The Scriptures we read were written not for some generic audience unknown to the author, but on the contrary were intended for a very particular group of people in a very particular time and place and facing very particular circumstances. To underscore this, we simply need to look at the letters of St Paul, which are clearly addressed either to individuals or mostly to relatively small communities of people.  We all know how much we dislike getting “junk mail” or “spam” which is not addressed to us as individuals, or as part of a group we belong to.  And we especially dislike it because it’s certainly not from anyone who knows us, our hopes, our struggles, our successes, or our lives.

And so it was for this reason that I felt a little awkward knowing that my “yes” to that request would involve doing what I’m doing now … knowing full well that probably any one of you could probably deliver a more appropriate, more timely and more relevant reflection on this feast of Christmas than I could.  …. Any takers???

Earlier this week, your pastor called me again and asked what readings I’d like to use – Christmas being a bit unique in that we have four Masses and corresponding Scripture readings, though they are linked to the time of day that the feast is celebrated.  I looked at the readings for the Vigil Mass and the Mass at Night/Midnight, knowing full well that we’ve all probably heard ALL of the readings associated with Christmas more times than we care to remember.  We’ve all heard the long genealogy from Matthew, which goes to such great lengths to make sure we know Jesus is a descendant of David. We’ve heard the readings from the liturgy at dawn in which Luke’s angels proclaim to shepherds that a wonderful birth has taken place; and certainly we’ve all heard the beginning of John’s Gospel where we hear that poetic introduction, “In the beginning was the Word…” And so, as I looked at the options, I almost impulsively suggested that we use the ones we just heard, which are in fact the readings for the Mass at Midnight.

What struck me was the first line from that first reading:  “A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Christmas fundamentally is the celebration of our unique Christian belief that God is present not simply in some spiritualized “out there” kind of way, but that God – in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – became present in human life and human history in the most intimate way possible … by becoming one of us. Christmas is the celebration of God’s presence in all aspects and absolutely every dimension of life:  Present in all of Creation, but most especially in each and every human person – young, old; black, white; male, female; gay, straight; rich, poor; documented, undocumented; Christian, Muslim, Jew; atheist, believer – whatever labels or categories or dichotomies we can think of, none of them diminish that belief.  And yes, despite rumors to the contrary, God is even present in a few bishops!

This was in the back of my mind when that read that opening line from the Prophet Isaiah, and I think it struck me for a couple of reasons.  “A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.First, we all know what it’s like to be in darkness. The countless darknesses and burdens of human life are too numerous to mention.  Collective and social darknesses such as war and violence and poverty and exclusion and discrimination – you know as well as I how much these burden our world.  More personally, I daresay each one of us could come up with a list of those darknesses in our own lives that hinder us from seeing that Presence of God which Christmas reminds us of.

But what jumped at me most of all was this:  Isaiah doesn’t say the people were stuck in the darkness, or that they languished in the darkness or that they became embittered in the darkness.  No … the prophet says they were walking in the darkness.  In some way that may seem counterintuitive, and maybe even a dangerous and treacherous, bringing, as it does, the possibility of stumbling and falling in the midst of darkness. But it especially challenges us in that no matter where we find ourselves – even in what might seem like the darkest of times – our task and our challenge is to keep moving.  No matter what darknesses may be around us today – in our own lives, our communities, our country, our world, our church – the important thing is that we keep walking, that we keep moving forward, that we continue to seek that Light which Isaiah also says is the source of abundant joy and rejoicing.

Let me end by sharing another scripture passage that speaks of darkness and light. While instilling great hope within us, may it also reminds us of the journey that lies ahead, leading us to the fullness of what this night assures us is already ours:  “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Merry Christmas, and may the peace of the Babe of Bethlehem, the Crucified Christ, be yours now and always!

“Thy Kingdom Come” …but maybe not just yet??

“We can’t keep saying ‘Thy kingdom come’ when we are actually trusting in our own nations, political parties, militaries, banks, and institutions to save us.”

This phrase jumped out at me this morning from Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. It seems particularly relevant as the presidential electoral battle continues to heat up here in the US, as the marketing for Christmas is in high gear, and as we are challenged once again to ask ourselves what we who call ourselves Christian really and truly believe as December 25 approaches.

We must remember that if our actions indicate we worship anything less than God — money, country, success, fame, other people, or especially ourselves — then this is idolatry.

Homily for Christmas 2010

Christmas Eve and Evening, December 24/25, 2010
Dignity NoVA / DC

Christmas homilies can be a challenge. Whether the challenge is self-imposed by homilists and preachers, or whether it’s really part of the fabric of the celebration of this very powerfully-charged time of year, I think there is a higher degree of expectation that the sermon, the homily, will be particularly inspiring. And so with that in mind, I began casually asking some people a few weeks ago, “what would you like to hear in a Christmas homily?” Without exception, they said that what they wanted to hear was message of joy and of hope.

One respondent – a friend who is not Catholic, but who regularly attends weekly services at what would be called a “mainstream” Christian church – said that he was tired of hearing about the “heavier” side of this season. You know what I’m talking about; it’s those homilies and sermons which are really intended for those who aren’t in the pews; the ones in which there is lamenting about the over-commercialization of Christmas, about how we’ve lost a sense of what Christmas is “all about,” and there is an almost unspoken judgmentalism with calls to “put Christ back in Christmas.”

And so, I want to make sure that you hear from me a message that truly is one of joy and of hope – and that message is this: Simply put, Christmas, this almost unbelievable feast of the Incarnation in which God becomes one like us – is at its core a celebration not of us finding God, but of God finding us.

Most great religious traditions speak to our inherent human yearning for God, for the divine. They speak to that truth expressed so well by Saint Augustine, the North African bishop of Hippo, who over 16 centuries ago wrote, “God has made us for God’s self; and our hearts will not rest until they rest in God.” Religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world all provide ways intended to lead people to God; paths to the divine that the believer may follow. Christianity – at least our Catholic Christianity, in its best expressions – generally speaks very favorably about such diverse paths that people from various faith traditions may pursue in their life’s journey.

But the uniquely wonderful thing about what we celebrate this night, about our belief in the Incarnation – that God becomes human in the Person of Jesus – is that no matter what happens in the course of our own life’s journey, no matter what paths we take or the degrees to which we may or may not be on the “right path,” Christmas reminds us that God so loved the world and so loves each and every one of us that God is present within our very flesh. The birth of Jesus is God’s way of telling the story of Creation over again … only this time with greater emphasis. It’s the story of creation and re-creation not just in words, but in a Person. It’s almost as if God is saying: “Ya know folks, when I created the world and said it was good; and when I created each and every one of you in My own image and likeness and said that you are ‘very good’ … you really didn’t believe Me, did you?!” Just as in the garden, God came looking for Adam and Eve, so in Jesus, God comes looking for us, comes looking to find each one of us once again.

But why do we even need to be found? Well, we need to be found because of the truth that is expressed so beautifully in that iconic spiritual hymn, Amazing Grace. You know the words, I’m sure, just as surely as you know the words of the Our Father or the Hail Mary. What’s the 3rd line of Amazing Grace? “I once was lost, but now am found.”

In one way or another, to one degree or another, at one time or another – we individually and sometimes collectively do get lost. We sometimes lose our way in the many darknesses of life – and we all know what those darknesses can be. There is, for example, the darkness of war that comes from the desire for power and dominion over others; the darkness of poverty that comes from the greed of those who are never satisfied; the darkness of exclusion and isolation that comes from failing to see the face of God in everyone. But more powerful than these and every other darkness you can imagine, is the Light of God. More powerful than anything that may temporarily lead us away is the bright and enveloping light of the divine that finds us in our darkness and leads us home.

This time of year is often a time for reflection; a time to pause, and think back on recent months, or perhaps the full year, and take stock of our lives. On this Christmas Eve / Evening, I invite you each, even now, to do just that. Just for a moment, perhaps even daring to close your eyes – think back on what has taken place in your life over the twelve months since we last celebrated this day.

  • Were there times when you were lost?
  • Where there moments or periods of darkness, or hurt, or pain in which you felt lost and alone?
  • Were there situations that brought you confusion and disorientation?
  • Did you find yourself, on occasion, not sure of where you were going or what your next step should be?

Now think about what happened during those times.

  • How did God find you in the midst of all that, and in what small ways did you see the Hand of God at work in your life?
  • Did someone offer a kind word, a simple gesture, or even just an understanding look?
  • Were you able to see something or hear something or understand something in a new and different way?
  • Did a family member, a friend, a spouse or a loved one let you know that you are special and unique and well loved?

These are among the simple ways in which God finds us in the concrete, flesh and blood lives we have been called to live. And it is, I suggest, in the presence and love of others that God finds us again and again and again.

Some of you are probably aware of an event that was held at Georgetown University a few weeks ago. It was called “A Catholic Family Conversation on LGBT Issues.” This ‘conversation’ had a debate-style format in which those with opposing views on LGBT issues were given time to speak, with a moderator guiding the discussion. The person who spoke on what might be called the “pro gay rights” side of the discussion was Andrew Sullivan, the well-known author, blogger, and commentator. In his opening remarks, what struck me was that Sullivan, unlike his counterpart on the other side, didn’t talk about “issues,” trying to present an argument why such things as same-sex marriage or the repeal of DADT were good things. No, what he did was simply tell his own story; the story of how, growing up in a very Catholic family and environment, he came to understand who he was as young gay person. At one point he said: “The first person I came out to was God… and God was OK with that.” Sullivan had a sense early on that he was / is indeed created as a beloved child of God, and that God is not only “OK” with who we are, but that God indeed LOVES us as who we are, precisely because God made as we are. And … if God loves us so much … how can we ever truly be lost?

And so no matter where we may be on our life’s journey today, Christmas reminds us that the light that came into the world 2,000 years ago still shines within each and every one of us … and that even (and perhaps especially) in those times when we’re not quite sure where we are or where we or our world or our Church might be going, we are called to have faith that our Loving God will surely find us once again.