Pregnancy an Birth: Creation and Incarnation (Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20)

Luke’s gospel chapter 1 is about pregnancies: 1) the pregnancy of Elizabeth in her old age, who carries in her womb the future John the Baptist. 2) the pregnancy of young 13 old Miriam, who carries Jesus in her womb.
I would like to share some reflections this evening: My first is that pregnancy results in birth and life. All women reflect a deep mystery of Creation in pregnancy. I am actually speaking about gestation in the womb and do recognize that it usually takes a male and female to bring about pregnancy. Now I am speaking as a male, and I think a mother who could describe pregnancy better than myself from first-hand experience.

For me, creation is a stunningly amazing act of God’s generativity that is directed towards life. Years ago, I read a German theologian who wrote about creation. He imagines before the Big Bang, all space in the universe and beyond was God’s space; it was filled by God alone. Just before the Big Bang, God withdrew from God’s space to make room for creation. God creates by letting be, by making room, and by withdrawing God’s self to allow the infinite space of matter expanding into galaxies and beyond. This has been traditionally interpreted as God creating the universe from nothing. But this is more richly understood as maternal gestation in preparation of the birth of the universe. Like pregnancy, God’s womb is an act of hospitality, a welcoming into being. Several feminist theologians have strongly suggested this is analogous to pregnancy:

And it is clearly the parent as mother that is the stronger candidate for an understanding of creation as bodied forth from divine being, for it is imagery of gestation, giving birth, and lactation that creates an imaginative picture of creation as profoundly dependent on and cared for by divine life. There simply no other imagery available to us that has power for expressing the interdependence and interrelatedness of all life with is ground. All of us, female and male, have the womb as our first home, all of us born from the bodies of our mothers, all of us are fed by our mothers. (McFague)

All life-giving activities result in birthing. Women during their gestation period reflect God’s creative process of making room in God’s self for the birth of creation. This metaphor portrays how we live in the womb of God’s universe that has given life to us and an infinite multitude of life. As we born into the universe, perhaps the Holy Spirit might be understood as the umbilical cord that continues to link us to our divine parent. This means creation is till in the womb becoming what God intended.

Let me shift to Mary’s pregnancy. Mary becomes pregnant without Joseph as father. Being pregnant without a finalized marriage left Mary and Joseph in a socially awkward and religious predicament. The gospel of Matthew pictures the dilemma that imposes upon Joseph a difficult decision whether to divorce the pregnant Mary, denounce her, or finalize the marriage until God came to him in a dream and revealed that this was God’s birthing a child. English author Nick Page writes, “The story of Jesus’ birth is not one of exclusion, but inclusion…Joseph’s relatives made a place for Jesus in their heart of their household. They did not shun Mary, even though her status would have been suspect and even shameful (carrying an illegitimate child) they brought her inside. They made room for Jesus in the heart of a peasant’s home.” Joseph and his family made room for pregnant and unwed Mary in their family. Making room or hospitality is really inclusion; it reflects the reality of God creating the universe and us. God is about radical inclusive love, making space within God’s self for creation and birthing life. This making room is manifested in Joseph’s inclusion of Mary and Jesus into his own family. Hospitality is a sort welcoming into the womb of the house and family, for it is what church is.

Mary travels with Joseph to Bethlehem. The physical ordeal of riding on a donkey during pregnancy for several days is hard for me as a male to physically comprehend, and I suspect that the ride to Bethlehem induces labor pains and the birth of Jesus. The couple cannot find any room in Bethlehem and search out shelter in a canvasserie (cave-like shelter for travelers) that house domestic animals outside of Bethlehem.

“Is there room in our inn (or church) for Jesus?” In this time of fear, undocumented folks in the US fear that there is no room for themselves in our country. They remain publicly unwelcomed. Many folks of good faith are asking themselves: “How can we — and our world, our state, our church — make room for the politically unwelcomed who are undocumented?” A 83 year old Jewish atheist whom I met at a wedding that I officiated here, asked me, “how can I make my house a sanctuary.” Another non-Christian friend has told me that he has a secret underground room with electricity and water and that he plans to hide undocumented folks threatened with deportation. These and others realize that hospitality, making room for those at risk and emotionally traumatized by the political election, has become too real in reflecting the story of the birth of Jesus and the later need to flee as refugees from Bethlehem as Herod seeks out to kill Jesus and his family.

Now Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger, a feeding trough. The feeding trough is the least of all social places to lay a newly born infant. But the Christ child shares space with domesticated animals. We often take that as poetic convention that adds a warm familiarity or sentimentality to our Nativity crèches. The manger reminds that non-human animals are considered by humans as lower than the least human and just barely above slavery, a prominent institution of burden and oppression that kept the Roman Empire working. But I take the birth of God’s incarnate child in the canvasserie with non-human life and laid in a manger a evelation: it points out that we human animals share space with non-human animals from God’s perspective. Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently in Hebrew scriptures, suggests the importance and the belovedness that God has for non-human animals. “God so loved the world that God sent God’s only begotten child….” (Jn. 3:16) The manger reminds that God is not born just for humanity, but for all non-human life and the Earth. God became flesh dependent on the eco-systems for nourishment and protection. Christ’s birth calls us to recommit to protect the Earth and all life: the trees and life in the rainforest, the whales, the oceans and the lands. These share earthliness as the new Adam, the divine earth-creature is born.

The marginal location of the birth of Jesus makes it accessible to the marginalized shepherds outside of the town of Bethlehem. Angels appear to the shepherds, announcing “Today in the city of David, is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds are told to search for a sign—a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This, of course, is an unusual sign for a Savior and Lord, born in a cave with non-human animals. And in Luke, shepherds, outsiders and despised Jews, came to venerate him in a feeding trough as Savior and God’s Child. They did not leave their flocks behind but brought them along. The shepherds too found inspiration and hope for then and the future, for an innocent child in a feeding trough illuminated by a star and the arrival of expectant shepherds who experience wonder. This child born in a cave is good news for marginalized and despised shepherds, but this good news for all who are poor and oppressed. And the shepherds returned praising God for what they had experienced.

One of the strong and clear messages from the Nativity of Jesus is that we Christians cannot truly love the infant Jesus without loving nature, other life, and the marginalized. But there are some important words that we often overlook: “Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” Treasuring the words of the shepherds and their coming to see the birth of her child and pondering this in her heart are important part of the Christmas story. We are called to treasure this story and ponder its meaning for ourselves.

Treasuring and pondering are the essential skills for meditatively comprehending God’s incarnation. Mary gives an example of how to become pregnant with the living Christ and birth Christ into the world. Christ becomes a part of our fleshly and metaphoric wombs, and that means men as well as women. By saying “yes” to God’s offer of grace and unconditional love to the Angel Gabriel, Mary becomes pregnant with the divine Word, the Christ. Through faith, Mary comes to ponder and keeping in heart the finding Jesus in the Temple, his ministry and death on the cross, and his resurrection. By paying attention to the gospel story tonight and other gospel stories, we carry mindfully the incarnation of God’s compassion in the world within ourselves.

We are called in this story to pay attention to God’s enfleshment as a newborn baby. The birth of any baby elicits an emotional response for care. This becomes ironic for us. We are called to care for the well-being and nourishment in the infant in the manger. Our invitation to use our instinctual desire to care for the well-being of the God become child. Heart and mind become mindfully focused on this child before us tonight, everything else in our lives becomes secondary to paying attention and caring for the Christ child. This same attention of heart and mind to the infant Christ becomes an invitation to pay as close attention to the poor and suffering in the world, human and non-human life and the Earth herself.

One author writes,

On Christmas Day, we are invited to the humble place where God is new and needing. We are to practice thinking and caring for what is not me, or even us, to rethink how we are in the world, how our doing affects the welfare of a world inhabited by God who at this moment needs for us to pay attention (like Mary) and out of that that attention to create the conditions of health and security at the manager (which is everything in the world). (Kristin Swenson)

My colleague and clergy friend, Tom Bohache, writes something complementary:
…incarnation is an acceptance that we bear Christ within us—the part of God that is instilled in us to bring forth from ourselves the offspring of Christ-ness: self-empowerment, creativity, awareness of creation, joy, love, peace and justice-making to name a few.

Tom Bohache acknowledges when we follow Mary’s example of treasuring the moment and keeping it ever mindful, the mystery of the Nativity lives on in us—we become pregnant with Christ and we too give birth to Christ.

…the Nativity is the realization that Christ will be born, no matter what the circumstances. No matter how hard it is, no matter how perilous the journey, no matter that folks might not receive us, once we agreed to give birth to Christ; most will go about their business and oppressing others. Some, like King Herod, …will seek to destroy what we have birthed; they will seek to take our Christ presence away from us.

God’s blending of the human and the divine in the birth of Christ is God’s greatest work, Christ is the blueprint of what is happening to us tonight. The reality is that during Advent the gestation of Christ within ourselves leads to Christ’s birth in us. The scandal of God’s birth in human flesh is that it is not once and for all; it is promiscuous. It happens hundreds of millions, if not billions of time, that God is born in us. We become Christ living in the world, manifesting God’s forgiveness, love, peace, compassion. We are infused with Christ, thus like Christ we become God’s eyes; God’s arms and legs, we become God’s compassionate incarnation. That is truly a radical mystery because God is willing to be ultimately inclusive by emptying God’s self in a network of humanity, all life, and creation alive. Creation and Christ’s incarnation continues to happen, and there is no stopping this flow of radical inclusive love. Love conquers not only death but all obstacles to life-giving and birthing the abundant, unconquerable compassion of God in creation, in the reality that we know. Merry Christmas, for you have birthed tonight as the Christ child. And we sing with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on the lowest margins of the Earth…”

The Tree of Jesse: Isaiah 11:1-10

Come Promised One!
Do not smile and say
you are already with us.
Millions do not know you
and to us who do,
what is the difference?
What is the point
of your presence
if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives, shatter
our complacency.
Make your word
flesh of our flesh,
blood of our blood
and our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness
of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus
that other peace is made,
your peace.
-Dom Helder Camara

This second Sunday of Advent reminds us that we are waiting with anticipation for the fulfillment of this vision of Jesus leading us to the peaceful reign of God, where God lives among us in peaceful harmony. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice.” For those dismayed with the election results and their consequences, we need to hold in faith the statement Martin Luther King Jr. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the “stump of Jesse.” The stump of Jesse offers us hope, peace, and the regeneration of spiritual vision that God is presence and God is Emmanuel.

I remember in Catholic school we had a Jesse tree for Advent. Jesse trees are an old Advent custom, dating back to the European Middle Ages. They were used to tell the biblical stories from Creation to Christmas. There were twenty-five stories from the Bible told and ending with Luke’s story of Jesus born in a cave and laid in a manger.In a time when literacy was low, the Jesse tree was an educational opportunity to relive the biblical events leading to the birth of Christ. But the Jesse tree was used to speak about the genealogy of Jesus from Jesse the father of the great King David in the Hebrew scriptures to Jesus his descendant.

Now picture what a stump looks like. It is a tree chopped down to a stump, and most view this as an eyesore. I had one in my yard in St. Louis. It was 30” diameter, and it took a year to chop this hard wood and getting to the rot. There were no ragged branches growing out of the stump. It was about 2 feet off the ground and quite dead. If there were branches, I would have let them grow because it was a wonderful old maple tree. New life from a stump is a wonderful sign of rejuvenated life. It gives us hope.

Isaiah is a story teller, a prophet– whose purpose to speak forth God’s truth to the present generation. Christians from the first generation on, have understood this truth of the Jesse stump from the prophet Isaiah as a fore- telling of the coming of Jesus and how God’s reign will continue to be made visible and tangible among us. The prophet Isaiah offers a vision of God’s presence through chosen people to “a new David,” who will lead us and all life and all creation to a place where we co-live in peace with ourselves, other life, and the Earth as well.
Stumps on the ground are often able to regenerate into new trees, sprouting new growth and branches. A stump sprouts can grow very quickly and sometimes become viable trees themselves due to the existing life and vitality in its roots. Life regenerates from the stump. Likewise, Isaiah provides a vision of the coming messiah:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The time of the prophet Isaiah was a perilous time. Israel was divided into kingdom, Northern Israel and Judea. And both were threatened by the superpowers at time—Egypt and Assyria. Assyria would conquer Northern Israel and transports it aristocracy into exile, and Assyria would lay siege to Jerusalem and fail. In other words, Israel’s enemies had tried every way to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David and had taken the Israelite elite into exile. Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. And yet, somehow, there was still life still stirring in this old stump. Jesse was the stump, the father of epic colorful King David of the Hebrew scriptures, but Jesse was the son of a colorful, non-traditional family. His grandmother was Ruth, a woman from the country of Moab and not a Hebrew, and she was bonded to Naomi. Jesse’s grandmothers were Ruth and Naomi. Ruth lost her husband, the son of Naomi, and followed Naomi from Moab to Israel with these words:

Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me if even death parts me from you.

Women who loved women have often used this scripture for their holy unions. But let me tell the story of Ruth a bit further. Ruth accompanies Naomi back to Israel, and Naomi instructs Ruth to pick up the left over grain in the fields of her relative Boaz. Boaz notices her. And Naomi instructs her to go to Boaz at night and uncover his feet in bed, and she does so and becomes pregnant.
At the end of the Book of Ruth, the women come to Naomi, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed, who became the father of Jesse who was the father of David, a shepherd boy that became a leader. Some LGBT Jews and Christians understand this as an alternative, bisexual family. These are the marginal ancestors of Jesus.

When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus. He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump. Not a very triumphant or powerful image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God choses to become human and vulnerable, a defenseless human baby, dependent upon parents to survive. His parents would be unable to find shelter except in a cave with domesticated animals, and he was placed after his birth in a wooden manger.

Neither a baby nor a small branch growing out of stump is going to last long in a hostile world. The little shoot branching out of the stump could be cut down at any moment. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew tells how King Herod tries to cut down that branch and brutally kills all innocent male infants in Bethlehem from age two and under. The political world of power, greed, and intolerance cannot accept the possibility of a peacemaker. Religious and political empires, led by Herod or represented by Caiaphas and Pilate, would later join forces to crucify this child of peace—who threatened the very fabric of oppression and violent power.

God risks vulnerability in the branch of the tree of Jesse, a little child. What is true about branches growing on trees is that they branch out right on the edge of the trees. New growth is produced right at the very outward edges of the tree, and it builds outward, fragile branches and leaves. The human birth of the incarnate one was born out of a tree which had been chopped down to a stump, and God chose to bring new shoots out of the stump.

It is ironically that Jesus was adopted by Joseph a carpenter and wood artisan, and that Jesus would also become a carpenter in his years. The Jesse tree buds into new life as Savior and Messiah, but the lineage and theme of trees continue in the life of Jesus.

That new shoot of the Jesse tree, Jesus, is chopped down again and hung on the cross. In Greek Orthodox icons of the crucifixion of Jesus, there is a scull at the foot of the cross. Greek Orthodox uses the scull at the foot of the cross to mark the location on the Golgotha where Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove, Jesus was betrayed to the Temple guards, and on Golgotha, once a garden grove of trees, Jesus was crucified on the dead wood of the cross. Even with God’s presence in Christ things never went without obstacles and challenges. But God brang resurrected life out of the stump of the cross. Jesus becomes the new Tree of Life on Easter morning.

Symbolically, the lineage of trees from the Jesse tree expands in communities of trees down the age to the risen Jesus, the Tree of Life. I now cannot look at a tree or a community or forest of trees without seeing the Jesus the Tree of Life is rooted in all trees. The incarnate one is rooted into the Earth and the community of Earth life. The incarnate God has roots in the Earth.

Our God is totally green vitality, and great medieval abbess and saint, Hildegaard of Bingen, called this vitality of life that is God—viriditas, the greening vitality. Our God resurrects and sprouts new green life when the forces of violence and power try to deforest the world of hope and peace or when they chop down the giving tree. Branches continue to sprout, small at first but grow into a strong tree. Or when they take God incarnate, the Christ, and nail him to dead wood, God’s presence brings resurrect life in the risen Christ.

There is another parable about the Tree of Jesse. Harper & Row published a children’s book in 1964—The Giving Tree, a story by author Shel Silverstein. I used the story narrated on youtube several years ago. The book is about an apple tree and a young boy who have a connection with one another. In childhood, the boy plays with the tree, climbing the tree, swinging on branches, and eating apples. I could identify with the boy and the apple tree. In adolescence, the boy wants money, and the tree offers her apples to sell. In adulthood, the adult now wants a house, and the tree offers her branches to build his house. In middle age, the man wants a boat, and the tree offers her trunk to be cut—leaving a stump. In the final years, the elderly man just want a quiet place to sit, and the tree provides her stump as a seat. She is happy in total giving to her beloved.

There is no question for me: Jesus, God’s Christ is the authentic giving tree. He gives and gives abundant life and grace to us. Like the giving tree, Christ continues to give to humanity love and compassion. Christ—Abba God and the Holy Spirit—continually offers divine life to us. So I want you think about Christmas trees, but don’t stop with Christmas but all trees as symbolizing the giving tree of Christ.

We look to Christ’s arrival again to bring the fullness of God’s peace. On this Second Sunday of Advent that anticipates peace, we that the Spirit of Christ is hovering over us and looking for fertile ground from which to grow up a new branch out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims,

On that day, the branch of Jesse, shall stand as a signal to the peoples…

What are the edges of your life that you need to pay mindful attention to start growing in Christ’s peace? What are the parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable, that you are afraid to let out into the light? I confess that I worry for our Earth and all life with the election.

Today’s scripture and sermon expresses that the moral arc of the universe—God’s presence—will be long and bend toward justice and love. Look at every tree today and see the Tree of Life that triumphs over the Roman and religious empire that crucified Jesus.

I look at the election and the President-elect. Every appointee, has been racist, climate deniers, and definitely anti-LGBT. I worry over the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Water Protectors. And I student asked me this week if the Water Protectors will prevail, and I said, ‘I don’t think so. Trump has investments in the Dakota pipeline.”  But this morning some 2100 veterans arrived at Standing Rock to stand with the Water Protectors non-violently. Several weeks ago 500 clergy from a number of denominations, including the UCC and the UCC Environmental MInister Rev. Borrks Berndt, stood with the Water Protectors. (At lunch,I read on CNN that the Army Coprs of Engineers denied the Dakota  Oil Company a permit to cross the Sioux reservation. The Spirit works with surprises.)

And I fear for the undoing of the Paris Climate agreement and the EPA, protections against global warming. These are big challenges to us emotionally, but we need to hold with faith that Christ is the trunk of the Tree of Life, and you grow as living branches of the giving Tree. The true giving Tree will trump all greed, all hatred and racism, and environmental obstruction. The moral arc of the universe will triumph in favor of life, but there may be costs on the way. Have faith this Advent, Alleluia!

Christmas Eve : Grace at the Inclusive Margins (Lk. 2:1-20)

(I diverged from the text last night and went in other directions for the message. I figured that I would share it.)

On this Christmas Eve, we believe that the infinite Creator God who is absolute mystery–beyond all our conceptual thought, beyond our imagination, and beyond our language; this God has drawn near to us in the birth of Jesus. This was a decision of God to incarnate before creation happened. The first thought of God in the depths of eternity, well before the Big Band fifteen years ago, was to incarnate as Christ to communicate God’s compassion and love for us and all creation.

God has embraced us as humans by becoming human, and humanity has been graced with this divine embodiment. Christmas says joyfully that we are not alone. The universe is not accident; even though its chaotic development, unfolding in an evolutionary process beyond our current human understanding but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But Christmas for us celebrates the marriage of the divine and the human: The infinite and finite were woven together in the conception and physical birth of Jesus.

Nick Page writes, “The story of Jesus’ birth is not one of exclusion, but inclusion…Joseph’s relatives made a place for Jesus in their heart of their household. They did not shun Mary, even though her status would have been suspect and even shameful (carrying an illegitimate child) they brought her inside. They made room for Jesus in the heart of a peasant’s home.”

By the time of the birth of Jesus, Joseph had welcomed Mary and her unborn child into his family. The story begins with no room, no hospitality for the family and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the city of David. Jesus is born in a cave used for sheltering nonhuman animals. Jesus is born in the womb of the earth, and his dead body would later be placed tenderly in another cave or womb of the Earth. Earth and heaven are united in the body of Jesus at birth, connected in his birth in the cave and re-connected as he laid in the cave tomb. Christmas, in one sense, is all about interconnections between Jesus and ourselves, all creation.

Jesus begins his first moments after birth by being placed in a feeding trough in a cave with animals. Ironically, he will end his life with crucifixion as the lambs are slain in the Temple for Passover. He is surrounded by animals in his birth and dies like a paschal lamb during the cutting of the throats of the lambs and draining their blood in the Temple by the priests, so that the lambs can be kosher, holy.

His life started in the marginality, outside human residences in Bethlehem and ends outside of Jerusalem on a cross. Jesus’ birth was in a cave used to shelter nonhuman domesticated animals as we portray in our Christmas crèches. He died outside the city, near the garbage heap of the city. It is the human act of ultimate inhospitality. Jesus was born as an outsider and died as an outsider. He lived as God’s outsider preaching a message of breaking down walls of exclusion. Today we welcome Jesus in our hearts.

In this child of both human, earthly, and cosmic destiny, he will inspire us as he inspired laying those who visited him in the manager to embrace our inner Christ child.

The marginal location of the birth of Jesus makes it accessible to the marginalized shepherds outside of the town of Bethlehem. Angels appear to the shepherds, announcing “Today in the city of David, is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds are told to search for a sign—a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This, of course, is an unusual sign for a Savior and Lord, born in a cave with nonhuman animals.

And in Luke, shepherds, outsiders and despised Jews, came to venerate him in a feeding trough as Savior and God’s Child. The shepherds too found the inspiration of hope for today and the future, for an innocent child in a feeding trough illuminated by a star and the arrival of expectant shepherds who experience wonder. Later stories from his mother about the incident might have been the inspiration for Jesus to tell his audience the parable of The Good Shepherd. No Jewish person at the time would ever speak of shepherds as “good”—let alone apply it to God. Jesus also identified himself as the good shepherd, who would leave the ninety-nine for the one lost sheep.

And then there were the three Magi, non-Jewish religious seers who brought gifts for his birth. As Jesus asked stories about that time in Bethlehem, his parents narrated the events. Mary and Joseph told stories about the Magi, for God worked through them, providing necessary funds to flee to Egypt from Herod’s massacre of the holy innocents in Bethlehem and live for a couple as refugees. God’s grace came also from outside of Israel, for Israel was not the only people that God blessed and graced. God’s inclusive love was universal beyond all tribalism and beyond all religious barriers and exclusions.

Both shepherds who were poor and unclean outsiders and the Magi who were unclean Gentiles were directed by God a new message of universal compassion. The stories at his nativity were imprinted in Jesus being and his message: “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” He would incarnate God’s compassion in the world.

God’s first thought before creation was to incarnate Godself in Christ. This means that incarnation and birth of Jesus originated from God as divine love for all creation and for ourselves. It was not primarily a divine rescue mission to save from sin. That was secondary. The birth of Christ was originated from God’s love.

God became flesh and lived among us. Through the incarnation, God learned and experienced human sensory experiences. God experienced birth in all its liquidity and messiness. God experienced the sensations of hunger, sights, sounds, crying, and smells of a newly born child. Smells in the stable had originally triggered my thought processes about God and smells. The night God’s birth into the world irrupted into a world of amazing barnyard smells. How many have you ever been in a barn or stable? You are bombarded with a range of animal smells, hay, excrement, and so on. Yet our crèches romanticize and sanitize the event and do not carry the barnyard scents of sheep, goats, and cows.

And in Luke, shepherds, marginalized Jews, came to venerate him in a feeding trough as Savior and God’s Child Shepherds from the nearby hills visited the newborn at the manger. Pastors from the slopes beheld a different lamb, a lamb born to save the world from selfishness and violence. The shepherds came and found the child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. They left giving praise and glorifying God.

Heaven and earth come together in a two-way revelation in a baby born in Bethlehem. The baby begins receiving revelatory experiences and sensations that all new born babies experience: an eruption of sensations, smells, noises, tastes, touch, and sights. The baby begins a journey to become human, experience what an ordinary human being experiences with sensations, experiences, emotions, and reflective processes. The divine has taken on embodied life, experiencing what it means to be human. On the other hand, God reveals to the shepherds the true mystery of God’s incarnation in a place unexpected for God.

We experience a dual revelation: First, our humanity has judged to be worthy of the embodiment of the living and loving God. Secondly, tonight’s Christmas story unfolds the deep truth that we are not alone in the universe. The universe is not mindless evolution; it is more than matter and energy, stars and black holes. It radiates the Spirit of God, for as God embodies God’s self a human body, God took on the materiality and energy of the universe. That means not only God has undergone change but ourselves and our universe. We can sing with the angels: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to humanity. For we know in our hearts the great mystery that God became human so humans can become divine. God gave us part of God’s divine life.

God’s incarnation means change for us. As I mentioned earlier, God’s incarnation meant a change in God’s being. God became more lovingly accessible to us through embodiment. God became Emmanuel, God with us. But it also means change in ourselves. It means God coming into being results in us becoming co-creators with God in the world around us. Every moment holds the potential for new birth because this birth is the birth of the Light in the world of darkness. The darkness, even the darkness in ourselves, cannot overcome the birth, and as long as we hold the candle of our faith in front of us, guiding us, we cannot be overcome. We too will be born anew, giving birth to the divine child within ourselves.

On Christmas Eve, when we want absolutely nothing to change, when we nostalgically want to relive our Christmas past, but we are, in fact, celebrating the greatest change ever—change in our God and change within ourselves. Change is not something that we as Christians should ever fear. Change is the nature of our lives as Christians. We must not fear change but embrace change and become agents of change under the influence of God’s Spirit. God’s brings the “new” into the world every moment, and the birth of Christ signifies the reality of change. We change and are open new possibilities in the birth and the death of Jesus; it is the foretaste of the change of resurrection where God can bring our physical and spiritual bodies together as well as the universe into a fullness of change –where God will abide in all. We will be born into the fully divine universe.
We can journey to those places that become Bethlehem for us, the places where God is abiding in our midst. God invites us to recognize the birth of the Christ child in our midst.

The Christian martyr Oscar Romero wrote,

We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figure of our Christmas cribs. We must seek Jesus among the malnourished children who have gone to bed tonight with nothing to eat. No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone.

We are once again invited by our loving Creator to come, worship, and adore….and experience the change of birth…It is a change of vision where we can see the face of love’s pure light in the face of the poor, the homeless, and the suffering.

May the Blessings of Love’s Pure light be with you this Christmas.


Moments of Grace (Lk. 1:39-55)

When the Angel Gabriel offered Mary the opportunity to become pregnant and carry God’s Child, it is often unnoticed how God gives Mary, a 12 or 13 year old girl, a choice. Pregnancy in the ancient Middle East (and even today) is seldom a woman’s choice.

I suspect that her sharing of her consent to God and resulting conception and pregnancy did not go well with her parents. Remember Nazareth is a small village of 300-400 villagers, and everyone knows everyone other’s business. And scandal such as pregnancy of a betrothed village girl would be known in a very short time.

Then there is the fact that she is pregnant and betrothed, and Joseph is not the father. I have often read the Luke account with the Matthew account of Joseph’s dilemma in discovering Mary’s pregnancy and that he is not the father. He considers his options: marry her, quietly put her aside, or bring this to public and religious court in the synagogue: condemnation and stoning to death.

But I want to note a small phrase used in today’s gospel, “with haste.” The phrase indicates a state of urgency or perhaps even panic on the part of Mary. What is the cause of her panic? She needed distance from the whole family scandal and find someone who might understand her.

Here are some of the moments of grace that come from Mary’s consent to carry God’s child.

A moment of grace and deepening faith: African American biblical scholar Renita Weems in her book, Just a Sister Away, notes how pregnant women have a physical and emotional need to be in company of other pregnant women. It is to share their experience together, confronting fears, sharing joy and hopes for children. It was a moment of shared blessings.

Two pregnant women come together with only a partial understanding of what happened with their pregnancies. Shared individual experiences of grace now becomes a communal experience of grace. The dynamics of God’s grace becomes compounded when we share our grace with each other. Their two stories interweave with the common chord of God’s miraculous grace. Elizabeth, who was barren, now in the final trimester of her pregnancy, and Mary, who conceives Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, they come together.

A hidden story is revealed as the two women, the elder woman cursed with barrenness for years and women and men’s scorn and the young teenager, pregnant out of wedlock, a situation filled with personal danger. They face each other guarded gratitude to the one who lifts the lowly from despair.
Elizabeth goes first in responding to Mary, for Elizabeth’s fetus leaps for joy. She then pronounces the sign for Mary: Blessed are you among women, and blessed s the fruit of your womb!” As she gives hospitality to Mary, Elizabeth is drawn into the hospitality of God. Mary is just becoming aware of the full dimensions of her assent to God and the fetus she is carrying in her womb has a special future ordained by God. In their meeting, we witness faith of both women increased in hospitality, shared grace, and faith strengthened. This is the beginnings of the faith community oriented towards God’s mission in Jesus.

Inspired by the Spirit, Mary sings a prophetic canticle or song of liberating truth. A pregnant, unwed girl, speaks liberating and even radical truth:

My soul magnifies your greatness, O God, And my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.

God is bigger than we can imagine, and our God is not bound by male structures, heterosexist power, structures of economic greed, and the fossil fuel lords. God has the ability to surprise Mary and Elizabeth and now us by coloring outside the lines of heterosexuality and stepping outside of religious boundaries. Mary welcomes a vocation to stigma and otherness, and she takes seriously that God will work through her otherness to transform herself and her world through her child.

Mary’s soul has humbly accepted the invitation of unprecedented grace to carry God’s child, and her acceptance magnifies the greatness of God. Her bodily response over time actually makes God more than God was before. There is something new happening in the life of God: God will embody God’s self in her womb and take on human flesh. And the incarnate one will be born in a cave with nonhuman animals and placed into a manger, a feeding trough. And her spirit rejoices because ultimately it is this transformation within God that will save her and others whose voices have been silenced.

For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward, all generations will call me blessed.

She is from a poor peasant family, a nobody in Palestine and in the powerful Roman Empire. She becomes controversial in her own family and is at risk of rejection and perhaps even stoning to death because she accepted God’s offer and became pregnant while betrothed. I am sure in the midst of her explanations to parents, family, and to Joseph her betrothed that consequences of her acceptance to bear the child of God were not seen as a blessing. Mary carries the stigma of otherness, a pregnant unwed mother from a poor family, and we understand the stigma of otherness among Christian Pharisees.

Mary queers the patriarchal economy that understands women’s bodies as not belonging to themselves. She is free to answer as an equal to God’s invitation to bear Jesus; she has ownership of her body and remains an active agent in making a decision for herself and a decision to accept God’s offer. But she models for us authentic queer discipleship, for she accepts her otherness not as a burden but as a grace.

God and Mary break the patriarchal and exclusive economy of grace, for Jesus is conceived without male agency and outside of marriage by the Holy Spirit overshadowing her. These two points are backgrounded by many churches in the idealization of the Virgin Mary and Christmas. Both Judaism and early Christianity perceived the Holy Spirit as the feminine principle in God. Some early Christians genderized the Holy Spirit male rather than female because of the implications of same-sex conceptualization of Jesus. Yet if God’s Christ was conceived in a non-heterosexual manner and born out of wedlock, what does this say about narrow regimes of Christian marriage and sexual morality? What does it say to the many who are excluded from heterocentric economies of grace?

You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty. You have come to the aid of Israel your servant, mindful of your mercy—the promise you made to our ancestors—to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever.

Mary’s song is a radical proclamation of good news for women, indigenous peoples, undocumented, those outside of heteronormativity, and for the Earth and the community of life, for she now praises God for turning the world upside down. She praises God who has promised compassionate solidarity with those who suffer from personal, political, racial, and environmental injustice.

Mary’s vocation is a thoroughly queer vocation; she stands with the underside, the marginal, and the outsiders—those yet unimagined as outside
A twelve or thirteen year girl lifts our eyesight to the profound realization that God breaks boundaries of male power and agency. God breaks the boundaries religious people build. Mary conceives Jesus outside of marriage and religious values. She realizes the grace of otherness and how God uses her otherness to transform her and the world.

But moments of grace generate other moments. Author Nick Page writes, “The story of Jesus’ birth is not one of exclusion, but inclusion…Joseph’s relatives made a place for Jesus in their heart of their household. They did not shun Mary, even though her status would have been suspect and even shameful (carrying an illegitimate child) they brought her inside. They made room for Jesus in the heart of a peasant’s home.”

Mary is not the passive but a pregnant virgin, chosen to bear God’s child, not as constructed by many Christians as the bearer of Christian sexual morality. The real teenage Mary bursts into song–singing about the end of human oppression and religious tyranny in the name of God. She anticipates the powerful will be brought down, the hungry fed, and the rich sent away empty. God will turn the heterosexist world upside down by the baby growing inside her womb.
Mary anticipates that God’s promise of Jesus’ birth will continue to turn the world upside down and that those who are excluded will have their rightful places in God’s reign. As Jesus preached and challenged religious bigotry and oppression, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But Jesus said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey it!’” (Luke 11: 27-28)

Blessed are we who take the model of Mary’s courage and otherness to thank God for our diversities as transformational grace, for she truly became a breath of heaven when in all her humanity boldly said “yes” to God’s grace of Jesus the Christ. . But blessed are we who hear God’s Word and live it with the boldness and courage of Mary. May heaven continue to breathe through us that queer grace that Mary carried to birth and transform countless lives.

Ancestral Grace: Incarnation Continues On

Today Gospel is the Prologue to the Gospel of John. It was probably a Christian hymn in John’s community to celebrate the event of God’s incarnation in Christ. When I reflect on the mysteries of Christ’s life, I ask a question what is salvific in Christ: Is it hs Incarnation, his life and ministry, his crucifixion, or Christ’s resurrection from the dead? I could make an argument for each event listed or take the easily route, claiming “all” these form a picture of what God was doing in the birth, ministry and message of Jesus, his confrontations in Jerusalem, his death and resurrection.
Walter Wink, a gospel scholar, writes:

When Jesus appeared on the scene, the collective unconscious of the age was fully prepared. His life tapped into the massive psychic upheaval that was affecting numerous groups, not only in Judaism but in the Mediterranean world generally. Something seismic was about to happen, and Jesus stood at the epicenter.

This precisely sums up my feelings of what was being revealed in the Christian gospels. God’s incarnation in Jesus is seismic, yet he is born an outsider, outside Bethlehem and outside human abode—a stable or cave. The ancestral grace of creation was bearing fruition of a divine intention of God wll before the universe was created to share divine love and community with others than God’s self. It is the story of the beginnings of our universe, our story and the story of all life as well. God intended to create the universe, teeming with life, but God anticipated that God would disturb this world with God’s self by taking on physical embodiment. This the divine intention to find communion or union together with the universe.

Jesus, in the totality of his existence as a human and beyond both in his incarnation and resurrection, embodies a divine potential within our humanity and mature growth. One of my favorite authors Diarmuid O’Murchu quotes the Canadian theologian Gregory Baum: “God is what happens to a person on the way to becoming human.”

Jesus says, “I am the way…” because he is the gateway for us to become divine. And the paradox is that the path to becoming divine is to become more fully human as Jesus manifested his humanity. Jesus points out that humans are not made for perfection as claimed by the church for centuries, but that we are graced for the wholeness of Christ through our relationship to the risen Christ and, in turn, to God. Think about the phrase, I used, we are “graced for the wholeness of Christ through our relationship to the risen Christ.”

The Spirit lures us with all our brokenness into a love relationship with Christ and helps us to realize that God’s incarnation in human flesh is not only about Jesus but all flesh united with the Spirit who now has given birth to Christ within themselves. The God/human is thoroughly divine and thoroughly human. And that is the good news and the scandal of the incarnation. At this Christmas season, we name God’s incarnation in Jesus as “Immanuel”–“God with us.” God is with us and in us. We incarnate or embody God’s Christ within us, and that is a revelation to us.

Unfortunately, the church for the most of its history stressed “Jesus saves or rescues us.” But I want to tell you that Jesus is more than “savior.” Jesus the rescuer must be replaced with a wider notion of Jesus the Christ, who is the icon of God’s compassion, unconditional love, and forgiveness and grace. Jesus is God’s selfless communication of divine love to us, and there is so much to Jesus the Christ as the communication of God’s unconditional love. God’s love through Christ and the Spirit goes well beyond saving us, for God’s love graces our humanity, that is opens to the pouring the divine life of Christ within us. And that grace of Christ within our bodies and within ourselves transforms us to the core of our being by making us siblings of Christ and children of God.

The Church has suffocated Jesus through the ages: with unhealthy stresses and distortions that made power and wealth church goals; a perfectionism that is unhealthy and disincarnational, denying the our bodies and sexuality as original blessings; domination and exploitation of the Earth and other life with callousness and heartlessness; views of sin originating from legalism, guilt, and shaming; an exclusivism that Jesus fought against and gave up his life; a Christian fundamentalism that tries to control people and access to God; literalist readings of scripture over religious imagination when Jesus spoke in parable and metaphor and re-enacted symbol actions of God presence in our midst. Why stay with such a dysfunctional institution? Great question—you may want to ask this on a regular basis.

Does the church follow Christ or follow its own wayward path? Pope Francis delivered his Christmas message to cardinals and bishops in the Vatican bureaucracy speaking in very strong terms that the leadership of the church suffers a “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” We have been engaged in a cultural and religious war between the above forces against our ancestral notions that God’s creation, incarnation, and the energy of Spirit is one continuous flow of divine grace and love, surrounding us and living within us, and freeing us to serve God’s people with gratitude and joy. We hear echoes of the cultural/religious war in the words of today’s gospel:

What has come into being in him was life, and the life and the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who placed their hearts in his name, he gave them power to become the children of God.

These are the everyday struggles we experience in our world and in our churches as we hold to an ancestral grace that we are God’s children and siblings of Jesus the Christ. But other church agendas distract us from the good news of God’s incarnation.

Ancestral grace is what we may describe as the divine matrix of love from which all creation was born. It is the most primal impulse and energy of love within the whole universe. It is the divine milieu of unconditional love, our relatedness to God, our interconnections with all life and the Spirit of God within all life. Through this ancestral grace, we recognize that we are siblings with all peoples and especially, those who are different from ourselves and those in need. We are siblings with the Earth and all life on the Earth. Grace is the ocean of divine love where we realize abundance, our original blessedness as children of God, our reason for existence, working for the gospel, living compassionately, and caring in the world. Gratitude, a word originating from the word “grace,” expresses our thanksgiving and gratefulness to God’s continued “gifting” to us. Gratitude emerges from God’s grace as a natural response of ‘Saying thanks.”

We cannot define this grace, but we know it when we live within the stream of God’s abundant grace surrounding us and flowing within us.
A little known historical fact is that images of the crucified Jesus on the cross did not appear until 965 CE in the Cathedral of Cologne (now Germany). Prior to this introduction of the crucifix, Christians were devoted to the cross—in earliest time Egyptian ankh as a disguised cross or the Greek letter “Tau” or “T” in the first couple of centuries of Christianity. Christians called themselves “devotees of the cross.” The risen and glorified image of Jesus was placed on the cross. The stress of Christians was placed on the resurrected Christ, not the tortured Christ on the cross. They recognized that ancestral grace burst forth on Easter in the risen Christ. The God of life transformed the deadly element of the cross into the resurrected life. God’s incarnation– that was intended before the advent of time and the big bang explosion into universe– came to its fruition in the risen life of the Incarnate God.

Jesus points the path forward towards this ancestral grace that reached its fruition in the resurrection. Resurrection life is wider than the risen Christ because it models what we human beings will become from the ancestral grace of divine love unleashed in creation. We call this unleashing of divine love the Holy Spirit—who harnesses the power of resurrection for us and all life. St. Paul describes Jesus as the “first born,” the “new Adam” because he embodies what we will become in the future—divinized by the power of resurrection and humanized to our greatest potential by God’s love and grace. Jesus as the “new Adam” means he is the prototype of a new race, the first born of humanity and all life destined to live in a graced relationship with God. What is this ancestral grace expressed here when we speak of Jesus as the pioneer of new life or a new creation? It means ancestral grace is the grace of the risen life of Jesus.
Jesus invites us into resurrected life as co-creators, working with the Spirit to bring the messiness of human living, the struggles we all face, the flaws of our lives—knowing that our relationship with the risen Christ and the Spirit will provide the love and motivation for us to mature in our grace-filled humanity. We are graced by the risen Christ. Our humanity is transformed by our relationship with the risen Christ.

What does it mean to live in a graced relationship with God in Christ? I have shifted the terms with which you have grown up in Christian churches —“rescued and saved” to the transformed and amzing notion of resurrected and risen. Salvation is about our transformation, graced into the divine life of triune community of love. This is what resurrection means—graced companionship and participation in the risen life of Christ. We move beyond the guilt and shame model of being rescued to the graced relationship with the risen Christ. This means we no longer beat ourselves up when we fall back into our flaws and failings but listen to our companion the risen Christ who encourages us that we are not alone but that he is with us.

Here is what I believe that companionship in ancestral grace means:
It first means that Christ lives in and through us—God with us, Emmanuel:
This is the incarnational prayer of Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We become incarnated presence of the risen Christ; we continue to be the arms; legs and feet of Christ in the world, eyes and ears of Christ; we become the heart of Christ making compassion and forgiveness of Christ real in the world. We are beings in a graced relationship, and we put Christ on and live

And there is a child born outside of Bethlehem….

T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘Four Quartets’, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.” So we divert ourselves from the true message of Christmas either by romanticizing the story of the birth of Jesus or by replacing it with our mythologies of about the magic of Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, or Frosty the Snowman. Because of secularists and atheist protests, we nervously mention Christmas trees or avoid public displays of the nativity story because it offends somebody. The gospel nativity stories have become a casualty of our cultural wars.

But our Advent hope lies in the scandalous promise that God will become one of us. “The Word will become flesh.” But is the most amazing event that startles us. The ‘reign of God’ will come when God embraces us in all our strange and paradoxical reality, and we embrace ourselves and one another with all our human contradictions and weaknesses.

Augustus Caesar ordered a census for the purpose of taxation. Counting the number of conquered subjects and taxing them was Rome’s imperial destiny to collect taxes for the divine Emperor. We always presume that there is one Davidic descendant, Joseph. But I suspect that there were a number of Davidic descendants or would-be claimants crowding the inns of Bethlehem. All the private and semi-private rooms around the courtyards were already taken. And there were no room for the couple from Nazareth in the inns of Bethlehem.

So Mary gives birth to her child outside of the town. God affects the birth of Jesus outside of the economic, political, and religious order. Cities and towns were imperial sites for taxation and rule. The Magi have to search and follow a star to discover this child whereas the shepherds find the child accessible to themselves outside the gates of town and city in a barn or cave housing for animals. Jesus is born among the domesticated animals in an open courtyard.
Jesus is born outside of the Roman census; his birth is undocumented and remains unrecorded. We do not know the time of the day or even the day or even the year that Jesus was born. It is guess-work or theological reflection from the second century CE that dates it at the time of the winter solstice when the longest nights and shortest days take place. “And there a light was born in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The birth of Roman rulers were precisely recorded: the time of day, the date and place of their births, and the births of the children of Herod the Great were likewise recorded—but not the “word become flesh” remains in story but not in any official documents. Jesus is literally born outside of the established political order; he is born an outsider, a nomad whose destiny was to live on the borders of his society and eventually to die outside the political capital of Jerusalem. And again we know the season Jesus will be crucified is springtime at Passover, but we do not know the exact year he died. Sometime between 27-30 CE.

“This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” The child is laid in a manger suggesting a place where animals are housed. St. Francis of Assisi rightly understood that Jesus’ birth with animals housed in the stable/cave and that Jesus laid in a manager had significance. Francis was the first Christian to create a Christmas crèche with animals, for he comprehended the universal connections of the infant Jesus with animal life. All life had the same divine parent and thus all life is siblings. Jesus was not born fro humanity only but for the whole world—all beings of God’s creation.

Jesus’ birth does takes place at the margins of society but outside of society in the uncivilized world, and it begins a story that repeats itself over and over in his ministry and life. He is an outsider his life, an outsider to the religious establishment in Jerusalem, and is political outsider on the cross outside Jerusalem.

God is born an outsider to human civilization but an insider to the world. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong observes, “If we study the Christmas story carefully, we are left with the disturbing sense that the world’s future lies with the very people cast to its margins.” It is a story of an outsider for all those whoever felt outside of society and alienated from religion. It is given to the wealthy and privileged as an opportunity to hear what they most forget about themselves and their world. God has become an outsider.

What the birth of Jesus allows us to imagine God become human. We see it in him how the divine and the human are woven forever one. God did not just take on one human nature. God took on all human nature and said “yes” to it forever! God took on everything physical, material, and natural as himself. That is the full meaning of the Incarnation, the humanity of God—God with us. The story of Christmas announces that where there are poor and disadvantaged people, there is Jesus. From his birth until stripped and dying on the cross, Jesus identified with the poor and oppressed. There is no Christianity without care for the poor and the suffering, and that includes the Earth and all life.

And that’s the whole point! You and I are simultaneously children of heaven and children of earth, divine and human coexisting in a well hidden disguise. We are a living paradox, just as Jesus was. We also are a seeming contradiction that is not a contradiction at all. Most Christians were simply never told the real good news that flesh and spirit, divine and human, coexist in a wondrous mystery. That was not made clear in Jesus and surely not in ourselves by the church. The consequences of not fully acceptance of “the word became flesh and dwelled among us” have been disastrous at all levels of notions of human perfection and exclusion of the less perfect” the pure and impure, saved and sinner. God’s incarnation did not happen in the pregnancy of Mary but the ancient unfathomable time of 15 billion years ago when the big bang happened. God fused Godself with the gases and the atomic particles that would be shaped in the womb of Mary, given birth to a child– who would experience the fullness of human life, all its joys, tragedies, and disappointment. The child—born of heaven and earth– would discover divine nature within himself and within the world.

Matter always reveals Spirit, and Spirit lies hidden as the divine energy within all that is physical, material, earthly, human, fleshy and erotic, flawed, and failing. Everything is a sacrament of the divine presence! Nothing else could truly be called good news. We learn the real meaning of human life, compassionately interconnected with the web of life, by meditating upon the life of Jesus and following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Let me quote extensively the Letter of the Divine Child authored by Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff:

Christmas is the feast of children and of the Divine Child that hides within every adult. The belief that God came near to humankind in the form of a child is enormously inspiring. Thus no one can claim that it is just an unfathomable mystery, fascinating on the one hand and terrifying on the other. No. He came close to us in the fragility of a newborn who whimpered from the cold and hungrily sought the maternal breast. We have to respect and love this form in which God chose to enter our world, through the rear, in a grotto of animals, on a dark and snowy night, “because there was no room for him in the inns of Bethlehem.”

Even more consoling is the idea that we will be judged by a child and not by a stern and scrutinizing judge. What a child wants is to play. He immediately forms an affinity with other children, poor, rich, Asian, black, or blond…He is original since;

if you are able to make the hidden child be reborn in your parents, your uncles and aunts and other people you know so that love, tenderness, and caring for the whole world and also for nature well up in them;
if when looking at the manger you discover Jesus, poorly clad, almost naked, and you remember how many children are equally poorly clothed, and this situation wounds you to the bottom of your hearts, and you can share your surplu

innocence because he does not yet know the maliciousness of adult life.

The Divine Child will introduce us into the celestial dance and the banquet that the divine family of Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit has prepared for all its sons and daughters, without excluding those who once were torn by suffering.
I was reflecting on this blessed situation when an angel like those who sang to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem approached me spiritually and gave me a Christmas card. From whom could it be? I began to read. It said:

“Dear little brothers and sisters:

If when looking at the nativity and seeing the Child Jesus there between Mary and Joseph, next to the ox and the mule, you are filled with faith that God became a child like any one of you;

if you are able to see in other boys and girls the ineffable presence of Jesus the Child, who once was born in Bethlehem and has never left us alone in the world

if you are able to make the hidden child be reborn in your parents, your uncles and aunts and other people you know so that love, tenderness, and caring for the whole world and also for nature well up in them;

if when looking at the manger you discover Jesus, poorly clad, almost naked, and you remember how many children are equally poorly clothed, and this situation wounds you to the bottom of your hearts, and you can share your surplus and want to change this state of affairs right now;

if when seeing the cow, the donkey, the sheep, the goats, the dogs, the camels and the elephant in the nativity, you think that the whole universe is also lit by the Divine Child and that we are all part of the Great House of God;
if you look up to the heavens and see the star with its luminous tail and remember that there is always a star like the one of Bethlehem over you, that accompanies you, shines on you, and shows you the best paths;
if you remember that the Three Kings who came from far off lands, were really wise men and that still today they represent the scientists and teachers who are able to see the secret meaning of life and the universe in this Child;

if you believe that this Child is simultaneously (Hu)man and God, that, being (Hu)man, He is your brother and, being God, a part of God exists in you, and therefore you are filled with joy and real pride;
if you believe all this, know that I am born again and Christmas has come anew among you. I will always be near, walking with you, weeping with you and playing with you, until the day when all — humankind and universe — reach the House of God, who is Father and Mother of infinite goodness, to live together forever and be eternally happy.
Bethlehem. December 25, Year 1,
Signed The Divine Child Jesus

This Christmas my wish for you is to step into the heart of the scandal and mystery of the God-word became flesh and living within you.

Merry Christmas! 2014

Our Joy: Discovery of the Now (3rd Sunday of Advent, Luke 3:1-8)

This joyful spirit is marked by the third candle of our Advent wreath, which is rose color. Let me start with a prayer from Henri Nouwen for this third Sunday of Advent:
Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”

This Christmas we need to pray with longing hearts, “Come Lord Jesus!” to experience the joy of this Advent.

We are simple in our correlation of happiness and joy and the opposite. When things are good in my life, God is good. When things are bad in my life, God is missing, or I have done something that prevents God from being present to myself. God’s presence, however, is not correlated with our emotional states. God is present whether we are happy or whether we experience life as going poorly. God’s love is not conditional. The joy of Advent does not simply happen to us.

God call us to a relationship with God’s self. It requires a relationship with God whether I am experiencing life as good or not so good. Our relationship with God journeys through the beautiful and painful parts of life. It doesn’t take a break.

God is not Santa Claus, checking whether we are good or bad, naughty or nice. When God enters relationship with us, it is for the long duration despite whether we turn our backs on God and Christmas or embrace Christmas. God is not good to us only in the times where we feel it and notice it. God is good to us all the time. God is present to us all the time and love us continuously.

Advent is practice of waiting for Jesus to come. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room and Heaven and nature sing.” God has come and when I choose to live in this truth that Christ has come, I live with hope that we will be restored, that we will live in God’s peace. God loves me all the time. We have journeyed together and we will continue. God will never leave, and I have no need to be afraid. In the moments where I realize this and choose to believe this, despite what all may be going wrong…something deep in my soul smiles. Something deep in me rests. And there is peace.

I may not be content with what is going on, but I rest in the truth that I am loved by God. This is joy to me. Jesus coming to earth as a man, living a life of humility, extending friendship to those on the margins; this is joy! The truth that we have another way, that we can live in a way that breaks oppression and extends love; this is joy! Learning to live in the broken places, amidst injustice, loving those who are hurting, and seeing the face of God in those around you…this, this is joy of God’s incarnation. It is not just once a long time ago; God’s incarnated one continues to be incarnated in the now moment, before us, in faces around us, faces in need.

How do I reach this joy? I choose joy right now. Let me tell you a Zen Buddhist story: There was an ordinary person, like you and myself, who asked his Zen teacher whether he would write a few sentences of his wisdom. The Zen teacher took his paint brush and wrote the “Be Mindful.” The person asked is that all? Would he not write more? The Zen Teacher wrote again, “Be mindful.” The person was disappointed in what his teacher wrote. Now the Zen Teacher wrote it a third time, and he said, “Be Mindful means be mindful now!”

To be attentive in the now is the simplest thing in the world and yet the hardest thing to teach another. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that there are many ways do things but we seldom just do in the present moment. Being mindful and being present to a beloved person in my life or the stranger in need rests in our attentiveness in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “When you are being carried off by your sorrow, your fear, or your anger, you cannot really be present to the people and things you love!” The focus is to be attentive to the present moment; it is moment of grace; it is the moment of the discovery of a full relationship with God who has arrived. Thich Nhat Hanh has dedicated his life to help people experience the present moment, and he exemplifies this by his beatific smile. He says: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” It is not surprising that our most revered images of God-inspired or God-illuminated persons are of them smiling. Such images inspire us to readily access the joyful peace they feel inwardly as that which we desire ourselves.

And I believe in being attentive or mindful to the present moment because we miss so much—and to find God in what is right in front of me.
In a speech at the United Nations in the 1980s, the poet and musician Pablo Casals he addressed the General Assembly, thinking of the children as the future of the new humanity:

The child must know that he himself is a miracle, that from the beginning of the world, never has there been another child just the same, and that in the whole future, there will never be another child like him. Every child is unique, from the beginning to the end of time. That way the child assumes a responsibility, as he confesses: it is true that I am a miracle. I am a miracle as the tree is a miracle. And being a miracle, could I do evil? No, because I am a miracle. I can say God or Nature, or God-nature. That’s not that important. What is important is that I am a miracle made by God and by nature. Could I kill someone? No. I cannot. And could another human being, who is also a miracle, kill me? I believe that what I am telling the children, could help bring about another way of thinking of the world and of life. The world of today is bad, yes it is a bad world. The world is bad because we do not talk to the children as I am talking to them now, in the way they need us to talk to them. Then the world will have no reason to be a bad world.

Leonardo Boff comments on Casals’ speech about children:

Great realism is revealed here: every reality, especially human reality, is unique and precious, but at the same time, we live in a conflicted world, contradictory and with terrifying aspects. In spite of all that, we must trust in the strength of the seed. The seed is filled with life. Every child that is born is a seed of a world that can be better. Because of that, it is worth having hope. A patient in a psychiatric hospital that I visited, printed with fire on a small board that he later gave me: “Every child who is born is a sign that God still believes in the human being.” It is not necessary to say anything more, because in these words lies the meaning of our hope as we face the evils and tragedies of this world.

During this third week of Advent, we ask the question of the Magi: “Where is he who has been born as king of the Jews?” (Mt. 2:2) If you are to experience the ever-present and ever-coming Christ, the one place you have to be is the one place you are usually not: NOW HERE! Everything important that happens to you happens right in the present moment. The reason we can trust the present moment is because of God taking flesh and God’s Spirit continued Indwelling. Christians carries the promise that the Word has become flesh, that God has entered into the human, and the human soul is the temple of God.

From the beginning of time billions of years ago, God had hope in this planet Earth, in life, and in humanity. God was born in a stable, a cave, laid in a manger as a sign that God still believes in us. We wait this third Sunday of Advent in darkness and embrace the quiet still moment of life with mindful joy and a smile.

We love by opening ourselves to the moment’s grace and trust in the uncertainties of life, and we realize in that moment of trust and openness the joy of being attentive to grace of the change—a change in our vision, in our lives where we behold in the moment a light shining above and in our hearts breaking the limits of darkness. God has the best chance of getting at us is in the momentary gaps, in the discontinuities, in the exceptions, in the surprises of the now.

The Zen Teacher tells us: “Pay attention to the moment.” Because in paying attention to the moment, the most sublime mystery of the universe takes place again and again: What this moment reveals, this now offers us is God’s grace–the birth of Jesus. Be awake in the moment and entertain the anticipation that God could be coming to me in this moment! Look around and see with faith. For this birth expresses a joyful awareness of the hope and joy for the world.

And the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart writes,

God is present, effective and powerful in all things. He is only generative, however, in the soul. For all creatures are a footprint of God, but the soul is formed like God, according to its nature. Whatever perfection is to enter the soul, be it divine, unique light or grace or happiness, all of it must come into the soul of a necessity through this birth of divine awareness and in no other way. Wait only for the birth of Christ within yourself, And you will discover all blessing and all consolation, all bliss, all being, and all truth.

Christmas Message 2013

I just signed an op-ed piece with a coalition of Los Angeles religious leaders entitled “Giving Thanks for the Gift of the Sun.” LA has some 300 days of sunshine, but less than 2% of the power is generated from the sun. I am aware that we will hold a Solar Night on the evening of January 8th at 7 PM at our church for faith communities, businesses, and home owners to help reduce energy usage and move to become a carbon neutral space. Ideas from Christmas and the Feast of the Magi spark the crazy conflation of the gift of the sun and the gift of Christ because another solar event heralded the birth of the Christ child. Both the sun and Christ are gifts from God.

Some Christians, drawing from an ecological perspective of God, view Christmas celebration of the birth of Christ as environmental hope for our present century. I have begun to read the gospels from a “green” perspective as well. Christ was born into a world when the poor needed hope at the time of oppression and suffering from the Roman Empire. We have been accustomed to view the birth of Christ during the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. This was a Roman propaganda myth, for the period was anything but peaceful. The Roman legions maintained the power and exploitation of the peoples of the Mediterranean world. The Empire generated a religious theology that cultivated Augustus Caesar as the “Son of God Apollo.” No power could stand against the military, religious, financial, and political power theology of Rome with the divine Emperor Augustus.

And in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to a child in a cave with animals present. The cave in Bethlehem was not only at the margins of the Roman Empire in an obscure province; it was at the margins of the margins—stable with domestic animals. A light shone above the place of Jesus’ birth, and shepherds and the magi traveled to witness the wondrous flicker of light.. The child would grow up to proclaim God’s liberation and our potential to claim God’s reign. God’s reign, unlike the Roman, would champion the poor, the slaves, the marginalized, and the social outcasts Jesus reminded the poor and the marginalized that God’s power was measured in vulnerability, love, compassion and peace. God’s reign stood against the Roman Empire, and it would challenge the Empire with a revolutionary message of love, unconditional grace, forgiveness, and non-violence as its weapons to combat brute violence, coercive power, and greed..

The new Roman Empire crosses the Earth and dominates itself. It is what I call the fossil fuel industries and corporations that have few checks and balances. Fossil fuel companies have co-opted even liberal legislators in California into believing that fracking is safe, even though there is danger of contaminating the water table.

Most of Los Angeles energy and much of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels whose dirty carbon emissions have contributed to global warming, extreme weather events, wildfires and droughts, extinction of species, and impact the health of people and animals alike. Our greed for fossil fuels continues to grip humanity with a short-sightedness and consumer greed that will impact life severely this century.

But many churches are, likewise, complicit in their guilt with the fossil fuel empire. They turn a deaf ear to the cries of life and the Earth at the reckless exploitation and harm of the Earth’s weather systems wrought by the fossil fuel empire. Their focus is “Forget ‘Save the Earth’, save your soul.” They support the climate change deniers by denigrating God’s creation and Earth and viewing global warming as having little importance. This is true of many church leaders, including our own in MCC. The United Church of Christ has taken the prophetic stance of encouraging all church properties to reach carbon neutral in 2030.

Our Christmas candle, representing Christ, shines brightly during the day and energized from the sun. I come to work and look at our 90 solar panels, and I am aware that they generate clean solar energy for ourselves and others. They take the abundance of sunlight to generate more clean energy. It becomes for me a parable how God’s extravagant grace works in the work. And I can’t help look at them, thinking that Christ is the light of the world. But I would reframe in environmental terms–Christ is the Earthlight, God’s greening power.

On Christmas Eve service, when we light our candles and sing Silent Night, we are proclaiming our hope to bring the sun light of Christ into our church, our homes, our city, our nation, and our planet to challenge the fossil fuel empire that governs our planet and creates climate change and upheaval. Christ is the Earthlight, generated from God’s sun. God’s greening power (viriditas) of God, is an extravagant and gracious energy bringing life and sustaining life through Christ the Earthlight and the winds of the Spirit.

My wish for Christmas and hope for the New Year is a greener Christianity, a greener world challenging the fossil fuel empire with a revolutionary spiritual movement spreading the message Christ the Earthlight. Join me to work on your family, your neighbors, your faith communities, your businesses to help make 2014 a greener year for Christ. Abandon the outdated theologies that proclaim “Forget ‘Save the Earth’ save your soul.” Embrace greening grace of God’s life this Christmas and have hope that together with God we can lessen the ravages of climate change for 21st generations.

Merry Christmas and Green New Year.