Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Such a Man

Epiphany 4, January 29, 2012, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church

 I'm really not this snooty, but the other day while I was working in the office I had Beethoven's 3rd Symphony in E Major playing on my iPhone.  I found it delightful background music for my work. It filled the place with peace, and, though I'm usually not one to have background music going, I found it enhanced my productivity.  Now, as I said, I'm not really that snooty.  In fact, if you were to ask me to identify the symphony from an unlabeled list of them by listening I would be at a total loss.  I just happen to have it on my phone, and I just decided to play it.  And I liked it.  I liked it not because my taste in music is so refined, but because it's just good music.  It carries a power in it that has made us continue to play it even though the composer himself died in 1827, more than 180 years ago.  There is an innate beauty about it which is compelling.  I know you know what I mean.

It's not unlike other experiences we have all had.  A sunset grabs us and sits us down almost forcefully on a log to watch as it blazes out the last moments of a day.  A bite of food suddenly makes all your taste buds burst into full sensory flower.  A fragrance wafts by and your heart is filled with the joy of a childhood memory.

Now imagine meeting someone who just commands your loyalty by his or her very presence.  It might be your grandmother or a favorite uncle, perhaps a boss at work whom you admire, or a sports hero.  It's not really that they have high position or command great companies of men, though they might, it's more than that, and less at the same time, something that calls you out of your small-self and into your big-self.  Being with that person somehow opens all your pores and makes you breathe easier, you know that what they say is true and right and good, and you are ready to depend on it with your life.  I have not met many people like that in my lifetime.  I have thought I found such people many times, only to be disappointed with their feet of clay.

 But in today's Gospel lesson such a person walks into church one day.  His goodness is so compelling and so present that any and all things evil just have to flee.  Even the evil spirit knows who he is, he rightly calls him, "The holy one of God."  Everyone is left with their mouths open in amazement.  Nobody they had ever known ever spoke with such inherent authority.

 This kind of authority is not achieved or earned, it is given.  It is given by God.  It is not a uniform that one puts on, like that of a policeman, that confers the power of another, but it comes by the vesting of the heart by a heavenly uniform, that makes one into a certain kind of person.  In Jesus' case, it made Him into exactly what He was anyway.

 Jesus is here this morning.  Some people can feel His presence, others cannot, but that is inconsequential, really.  We know He is here because He promised to be present among two or three who gather in His name.  We have gathered in His name, as we do every Sunday.

 Before this kind of authority there are only two possible responses.  Jesus got one in Jerusalem, and the other in Galilee.  One can resist it, fight it, try to gain power over it, and ultimately fail, or one can surrender to it, follow and it and finally, find in it the source of life and peace.

How could one resist such goodness, you ask?  Oh, but we do all the time.  We tend to lash out at things we cannot control.  My big one is people merging into 70-mile-an-hour traffic at 50 miles-an-hour--in front of me--makes me crazy!  But you've all heard these quips, too:
·         "I'm not going to vote because my one vote won't change anything anyway."
·         "You can't trust a 'raghead,' they're all radicals who will talk nice to your face and stab you in the back when you turn around."
·         "The problem with society today is that there are too many __________ (fill in the blank.)"

We tend to try to control things we think we can control.  We over-manage, we undermine, we strategize and scrutinize and double-guess.  We value shrewdness over genuineness.  We cause others all kinds of grief just so we will look good to someone else.  And when we fail--it is always someone else's fault!  Anything that has the power to pull our chains and punch our buttons has become an idol that wields an inordinate amount of control over us.  Idols will always ultimately crumble under their own weight, leaving us sitting in the ashes of our own castles.

Or we can surrender.  Surrendering is not the act of a spineless sap, that is abdication.  Surrender is the hardest, bravest thing a person can do.  It is a recognition that God is truly bigger than oneself, and at the same time incomprehensibly good, and therefore worthy to be trusted with life's quandaries and conundrums.

Surrender is what the prophets of old did when they faithfully proclaimed the Words of God.
·         Surrender is what St. Paul did when, though meat offered to idols was no issue with him, would rather not eat meat at all for the sake of a brother or sister.
·         Surrender is what happens when the Command Sergeant Major faithfully makes the General's wishes become a reality.
·         Surrender is what happens when a volunteer at the church shows up, works until the work is done, and then looks for more.
·         Surrender is what happens when you stop for the needy, extend the benefit of the doubt, and clean up after the party.
·         Surrender is when another's weakness is more compelling than our strength, another's need more than our resources.
·         Finally, surrender is not affected one way or the other by recognition.

Jesus is here this morning.  What will it be?  The sovereignty of the ego, or the surrender of the heart?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sweet Surrender

Epiphany 3, January 22, 2012, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church 

A month ago our little Jack Russell had a puppy.  I've noticed some amazing things that happen in the presence of a puppy.  First of all, our little dog had never been a mommy before, but her mothering instincts kicked in incredible ferocity.  With only one little one to care for that little thing was fat and content ALL of the time!  You couldn't get momma dog away for more than just a minute or so or she was whining to get back to her precious charge.  Overnight, this dog went from a care-free puppy herself to a dutiful mother.  Now, we have enough dogs as it is, so we were looking for a home for this little one.  The mommy and the daddy are really good hunters, so this last weekend when I gathered with my falconer friends in Abilene, I put the puppy in the raffle.  The winner is a 12-year-old boy in Austin who can't wait to have his own dog!  Here are best friends forever in the making—guaranteed!  He wants to know about shots, and pick-up dates.  He wants to know about feeding and care and exercise and housing...overnight this 12-year-old boy is going from a care-free boy to a responsible young man.  There is a magic about puppies that really does change the world.

It’s really not magic.  It’s the power of surrender.  It is an innate thing in the human psyche to seek some great calling to which to give ourselves.  There is part of us that would always like to do precisely what we want to do and nothing more, but a deeper, wiser part of us knows that such a life grows pointless very quickly.  That wiser part seeks after something larger, some great high calling to which to respond.  Surrendering to that high call is the greatest thing we can ever do.  The highest and noblest of those calls is the call to a great journey, a journey into the heart of God as we know Him in Jesus Christ.  All humanity is called to that great surrender.  But each of us also has our own particular call, one that is ours alone.  The greatest task a person can ever do is to discover that call and live into it.

Jonah had such a call.  We know the story well.  God says, "Go, preach to the great city of Nineveh, lest I destroy it for its wickedness."  But Nineveh was one of Israel's enemies, and Jonah did NOT want to help out the enemy, so he sails the other direction, gets into a big storm, gets thrown him overboard and he spends three days and nights thinking about his call in the belly of the great fish.  The story today picks up after all that.  He goes, obedient to the call, and preaches to Nineveh, and the whole city repents, and God turns away from the destruction God had in mind.

Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth about such a call.  It was believed that the return of the Lord would happen just any minute.  In view of that, human institutions like marriage and wealthy, and the earthly experiences of loss and joy are secondary to the call of the advent of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus lays such a call before four of the disciples.  Jesus walks up the shoreline and finds these men tending their nets, for they were fishermen.  He calls Peter and Andrew and promises to make them fish for people.  He calls James and John and they follow him.  They spend the next three years learning to surrender themselves to that call.  Of the original 12 only one refused.

Where did this surrender take these four men?  Peter was martyred by the Emperor Nero in Rome.  There’s a great legend about Peter fleeing the persecution.  On the way down the Appian Way he meets the Lord going to Rome.  “Where are you going?” he asks.  “To Rome to be crucified again,” he replies.  Peter immediately returns and is martyred, asking to be crucified upside down for he did not feel himself worthy of dying in the same manner as his Lord.

Andrew is reported to have gone to Scythia preaching the Gospel, and legend has it he died on an X-shaped cross at the hands of pagans.  James was the second Christian martyr recorded in the Bible, he was killed by Herod the King in the infancy of the church.  Early sources place John in Ephesus after the church was scattered from Jerusalem, where he alone of the 12 died of old age.  There he mentored another great father of the Church, Polycarp.

This morning five women will lovingly surrender to a higher calling.  They will be admitted to the Order of the Daughters of the King.  The Daughters of the King was founded in 1885 by Margaret Franklin of New York.  It is open to members of the Episcopal Church and churches in communion with it.  It is a religious order, not a club or association, members pledge to live under the order's Rule of Life, which includes the rules of prayer and service.  They pledge themselves to a lifelong work of prayer, service and evangelism, dedicated to the spread of Christ's kingdom and strengthening the spiritual life of the parish in which they worship.  When they pass on into the larger life they will be buried with their crosses.  Our own Chapter prays for the parish and for its priest, they perform work days, like they did yesterday and cleaned up the kitchen, they reach out to the needy in the community, and they run the Prayer Chain for the church.

These five women have studied, and they have prayed, and they are ready this morning to surrender themselves to the rule of the Order.  It is a moment of deep spiritual power and significance; they undertake a surrender so powerful that it really can change the world.

To what will you surrender?  There are false calls and there are true ones.  False calls will always stroke your ego instead of your calling.  There will be little sense of mystery, no calling beyond yourself, and no real long-term good.  The true ones, on the other hand, will always have these signposts along the way.  They will call you beyond yourself, turn you from fishing to being fishers of people.  Even if they demand great sacrifice, as in the case of these four disciples, they will bring great good into the world in Christ's name.  And finally, in surrendering to their call you will know the only true happiness and peace that you can know in this life.

To what does your heart hearken?  What great mystery calls to you?  To what will you surrender?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sweet Surrender

Epiphany 1, Baptism of Our Lord, January 8, 2012, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church

Northern New Mexico is strewn with thousands of archeological sites, many very close to Los Alamos.  On a recent visit to our son and daughter-in-law Karisse and I had a chance to visit the Bandelier National Monument, and to see the adobe and cave dwellings of the ancient people of the Pajaritos plateau.  Another day we went to another site, not nearly as dramatic or developed.  The local Tewa tribe does not want the site excavated.  It is their ancestors who lived on that small mesa 1000 years ago.  It was their flesh and blood that lived and loved and finally died on that small mesa, and they regularly come back to pray.  I couldn't help putting my hand on one of the petro-glyphs, as if to try somehow to reach back through a millennium and touch a people distant, but clearly not gone.

This morning we do that for the Church.  Like those ruins for the Tewa, the events we read about in Holy Scripture are not just distant memories of bygone events, they lay the foundation for today.  Just as the Tewa go back to pray on that mesa, we go back and touch once again the mystery of those moments.  It is vital that we do so, for that is the only way we can come to know who we are, and where we are supposed to go.

The moment we touch this morning is Jesus' baptism.  John the Baptist has the lion's share of the story, but he is not the central figure.  More significant is what the voice of God says, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased."

I you are like me when I read this passage I think, "Well, of course God the Father is well pleased with Jesus, He never committed any sins.  There's nothing for the Father to be upset about.  I, on the other hand..." and a great rift arises between our understanding of Jesus' baptism and our understanding of our own.  Such could not be farther from the truth.  Let's look at just what the Father said.  Jesus is beloved because He is the Son of the Father.  It has nothing to do with Jesus' worthiness, though he certainly has it.  It has everything to do with who he is, not what he does.  We are beloved of God because He is our Father, too.  It has nothing to do with our sins, or our worthiness, it has everything to do with who we are—creations of God.

God is well pleased with Jesus not because he has not committed any sins, but because He surrenders to the Father's will.  He goes from here to fulfill the mission given by the Father.  Baptism leads to mission.  God is pleased with us, not because we have not committed any sins (because we have), but because, following Christ's example, we surrender to the will of the Father.  We go from baptism into the mission and ministry given us by the Father.  Baptism leads to mission.

Baptism is the foundation, the ancient story behind our mission and ministry.  Like with Jesus, baptism leads to mission.

What does this mean for us this morning?  We know that the life of this parish has suffered this past year.  We have lost members and revenue.  If God the Father were a business mogul who had St. Christopher's as a local corporate store His words would not be, "You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased."  We would be answering some hard questions and working overtime to fix the problems lest we get sold to the competition!

But God the Father is not a business mogul for whom the bottom line is everything.  God is the God who created us, and for that we are His beloved.  The first feeling that comes into God’s heart when God thinks of us is love.  It’s like having a baby.  One always loves the baby born in the household (unless one is the older sibling…)  Now a baby is nothing but noise at one end and no responsibility at the other, but we love the baby for who it is, not what it does.  In the same way God loves us because God made us.  Just relax into that wonderful news!  There's not a thing we can do to earn or erode God's love for us.  It is a constant we can depend on, the first truth of who we are.  In and with Jesus (hear me now!) WE ARE THE BELOVED!

His pleasure in us is a function of our surrender to His will.  We would like to imagine that we bring to God a bunch of capacities, and gifts and abilities that He really can't live without.  These are the necessary ingredients to success in the church, and if we will just get people to engage these gifts then the church will be fine and we will feel good and all will be hunky-dory.  If something is going wrong in the church it is because someone is not following the rules or engaging their gifts as they should, and if only those who cannot express these essential gifts would just get out of the way we can make this thing work!  If we don't we're being lazy and God has no reason to love us.

But that is to miss the point.  It's like joining the army.  You don't join the army in order to do a certain job (unless you're a warrant officer.)  You join the army in order to serve your country, and then the Army tells you where you will serve and what you will do.  We surrender to the will of God in principle and then find out what it means.  Of course, at its best the Army will also recognize what your capacities and abilities are and  capitalize on those things.  God, who knows you more intimately than you know yourself, will do the same.  But that is not why we surrender.  We surrender because it is the one thing we can do.

It is the one thing we must do.  Then, and only then, do we begin to build the Kingdom.  Then and only then will the peace of God that passes all understanding overflow our hearts and fill us with joy.  What will galvanize our hearts is hearing the Father's words to us, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

We are about to reaffirm our baptismal vows.  Some of us remember our baptisms, others of us do not.  Nonetheless, the commitment is the same.  As we go through this listen carefully for the words of God to you.  Commit yourselves once more to this great call, and let yourself be swept up in the great mystery we call The Church of Jesus Christ.

To Bear the Name

 Feast of the Holy Name, January 1, 2012, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church

In 1881 the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad punched through railroads in this area of Texas.  They bought 350 acres of land and laid out a 70-plot town.  They named it after Frank P. Killeen, the assistant general manager.  That's how this town got its name.

But, what's in a name?  The name "Killeen" is Irish.  It is said to derive from one of three sources.  O'Cillin, which is a surname, and comes from the diminutive of "Cill" or cell, church, grave, nest-egg or treasure box.  The other is “ceall," variously translated as "given to disputes," or "bright-headed.  (Perhaps those concepts are related!)  The final one is "Colin," which means "hound," though this seems the furthest reach.  St. Killian was an Irish evangelist who traveled through central Europe (Bavaria) preaching the Gospel at the end of the 7th century.

Interesting thing it is, that an Irishman would have such a post in such a big and wealthy company.  Throughout the eastern US at that time signs were common that read, "Help Wanted, Irish Need Not Apply."  I would imagine that those who knew him did not hold his Irish descent against him.  I could hear them saying, "Oh, he's different, he's not like the others."  Is it not amazing the importance we put on a name?  It goes without saying that a name is more than just a verbal handle for proper nouns.  Our daughter-in-law will not divulge the moniker to be applied to our future grandson, so his paternal grandmother has gone to calling him "Bubba."  A name is not a name is not a name.

And so, when we look at the name of Jesus we have to assume that God had something special in mind.  The variations are incredible:  The name is a 1st century version of Joshua of the 10th century BC.  Jesus' contemporaries would have pronounced it, "Yahoshua."  We, taking the name as we do through the filter of low German, convert it to "Jesus."  To the Arab we are "Isawim,"  to the Spanish-speaker he is "Jesús," to the Tsachi of western Ecuador, "Jeshú."  In whatever language you speak it, the meaning of the name is the same.  You can see the similarity between "Yahoshua" and Jehovah."  Joshua/Yahoshua/Isa/Jeshu all mean "savior."  The name of Jesus, the Son of God, depicts His function and identity.

In that light Aaron of old (in the Old Testament lesson) was told to bless the people:

“The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”  And then, at the end of the passage for today Moses is to tell Aaron, "So shall they put my name on the Israelites and I will bless them."

This is an interesting statement.  The blessing of God has something to do with bearing His name.  The feast of the Holy Name, then, is a feast of blessing.  God not only names His Son, Jesus, but God gives us His name as a blessing.  On this day not just the son of Mary is named, but we are as well.

What does it mean to bear the name of God?  First, it tells us who we are.  We are those who are called by God's name.  And this is not just a handle by which we distinguish one person from another.  If God is the God of the universe, the ultimate creator of all things and the ground of being itself, then being called by God’s name is to be named in our own truest and deepest selves.  It is an invitation to discover just what that is and what it means.

Sounds like a New Year’s resolution to me:  Discover how to live from that innermost self, that place within you where you know yourself to be seen, loved and named by God.  This is the place that is not afraid because it knows itself to be radically loved.  The key to hearing the truth is silence.  Deep, inner silence found only through time spent in silence.  Resolve to spend time in silence every day.

Second, it tells us how to live.  If we are the beloved of God, then we are here to share that love with the world.  But we need help getting past all the voices that shout other things in our ears and in our hearts.  These things are the voice of fear:
·         Careful, love too much and you will get hurt.
·         Careful, this one will stab you in the back.
·         Careful, misplaced trust can be very painful.
·         Now you’ve been attacked, how will you defend yourself?
·         So-and-so doesn’t like you anyway, best just steer clear of her.

The one who knows in his or her innermost being that they are loved hears other things:
·         Look, here is a need, what can be done to meet it?
·         Look, someone wants our attention, of course I will give it.
·         Look, here is truth, beauty or goodness.  Shall we not be incredibly grateful?
·         So-and-so is being ugly, I wonder how and why they are hurting so?

Sounds like another New Year’s Resolution:  Learn to hear the truth of being loved.  The key to this is compassion, not schmaltzy warm fuzzy feelings about someone beautiful or nice, but that inner commitment to the good of another, that sees them clearly for who they are, and then be there for them in a radical, personal way, for good or ill.

Now, then, at the beginning of this year, 2012, God blessed His Son by naming Him Jesus, the Savior, God blesses you by including you in the family and putting His name on you, and God sends you out into the world to share the same sort of love that we have come to know.

Expectation vs. Expectancy

Advent 3, Guadalupe, December 11, 2011St. Christpher's Episcopal Church

Oh, to go back in time and redo something!  You've all seen the car insurance ads on TV where you witness an accident, and then all of a sudden time stops and begins to run backward, and bit by bit everything gets put back as it was?  Then the sales-pitch tells you that this insurance agency will make everything like it was before.  We've all had that feeling when you start to get that queasy feeling in your stomach about all the headaches to come.  Oh, if we could only...  In one of the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, Aslan, the lion that represents Christ, says to the one of the children who was feeling precisely this way, “We're never told what would might have been."  The message is clear:  What happened, happened.  There may be a second chance, but it is a second chance, not a first.  Each and every event has its place in the fabric of time.

This is not bad news, Or even just depressing news.  It is really good news.  The redemption of time is not going back to redo it, it's drawing even greater truth, justice, love and grace out of the mess that we made than could ever have happened before.

Such a time might have been the 4th decade of the 16th century in south-central Mexico.  The year is 1531, it is 10 years after the clash of worlds in which the Aztecs, the most powerful nation in Central America at the time, fell rather precipitously to the superior weaponry and underhanded ways of the Spaniards under Cortez.  The Spaniards quickly replaced one bloody and cruel regime with another bloody and cruel regime.  They imposed a foreign rule, a foreign tongue and a foreign God.  Such was the suppression of the Aztec that it was not unknown for a young Spaniard to try the edge of his sword on a whim on the body of a hapless passing Indian surf with fatal results with no legal consequences whatsoever.  Mass baptisms of thousands at once subjugated everyone to a new form of religion that kept the moneyed and powerful at the top of the heap.  It was just not a good day to be an Indian.  I wonder how many of them wished they could turn the clock back 10 years and do things differently!

Into this scenario comes a most wondrous gift.  I will not walk through the story in detail, you have an insert in your bulletin for that.  But to summarize quickly, Juan Diego, a pious Indian, is headed to church one dawn, and goes by the hill of Tepeyac, one-time sacred site to the Aztec.  On the top of the hill he hears singing, and turns to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary, her glow set all the rocks and plants of the hill to shining in rainbow colors.  She beckons him come up, in his own native tongue, and he does.  She speaks words of kindness and love, identifies herself as the Virgin Mary, and then sends him to the Bishop to ask for a church on that site.  What a fool’s errand:  An Indian asking the Bishop for a church!  Out of the frying pan, into the fire!

This season our theme is expectancy.  Expectancy waits with open heart and hopeful spirit for the working of God.  In spite of setbacks and opposition, in the final show-down Juan Diego takes roses the lady has given him in his "tilma" or poncho to the Bishop,

And when he spills them on the floor of the Bishop's audience hall the image of Guadalupe is emblazoned upon it.  The Bishop sees the miracle and immediately is converted.  He orders the church be built the very next day.  Notice a most wondrous thing, and for me the most significant thing that happens.  The Bishop takes orders from the Indian.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first.  The poor find justice and the powerful find mercy.  Expectancy pays off in spades!  The question of historicity aside, you see why I like this story!  It is an extended parable about liberation and human dignity, not unlike the American Revolution.

And this is the wonder of the expectancy of Advent:  Expectancy watches to see how God will take our mess-ups and our problems and our sin, and bring out glory and justice and peace and grace, redeeming the time and redeeming the acts.

Things are what they are.  We can have all the expectations we want about them, try to force our preconceived ideas upon them, pushing and managing others into playing out our scripts for them, and end up deeply disappointed in the end, or we can live in expectancy rather than expectation.  It is a silly little play on words, but let it symbolize the difference between a willful imposing of our own wills on our world, and a willingness to let the will of God manifest itself in surprising and powerful ways.  Expectancy watches for how God might do something unexpected, find a way that does not leave winners and losers, but justice and mercy for all.

We would all like to be like Juan Diego, but in reality we sit more easily in the Bishop's chair.  We wield resources most of the rest of the world will never dream of seeing.  We have opportunities for influence that most do not have.  But in many ways the Bishop is the hero.  He converts, he changes, he switches from expectation to expectancy, and then he looks for ways to share in what the Spirit is doing.  Expectancy watches for ways the Spirit is showing up in win-win situations.  It is not concerned with preserving one's place or making a name for oneself.  It is concerned only with discovering the movement of the Spirit.  It draws its inspiration from John the Baptist, who came, as we see in today's Gospel, as a herald of the Messiah, one who notices, and points excitedly to what the Spirit is doing, and then steps in to fulfill his part in it.

In the end the words of Isaiah apply to us all:  The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because He has anointed us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor!

I know that only the most ambitious of you all have all your Christmas shopping done.  Few of us need more “stuff,” many in the world need basic necessities for justice and human dignity.  In response, many people now give alternative gifts at Christmas.  Through Heifer International you can give a flock of geese for $20.  A water buffalo goes for $250.  What is the Spirit nudging you to do?  Maybe alternative giving is not for you.  The question still stands,  What wonderful unexpected surprise awaits you as you follow His lead?  How can you make the Kingdom come?


Christmas Day, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church (I know this is late, but better than never, right?)

One Christmas many years ago when our boys were small, my wife pulled the big one on me.  I had ordered a book on falconry from a friend of mine.  I was really looking forward to delving into his abundant wisdom on the topic, but it didn't come and it didn't come and it didn’t come.  Karisse was dismissive about it.  “Oh, it will be here soon enough, don't worry about it.” She said.

Well in the rush and bustle of Christmas I did forget about it.  On Christmas morning there was an enormous box under the tree with my name on it.  Inside the box was another box, a little bit smaller, and also wrapped.  Inside that one was another, and another and another until I finally got to an envelope at the bottom of the last box--with a clue in it!  Eight clues later, with all three of my boys giggling with delight, I discovered the last box, inside of which was my book!  The great trail of discovery was marked throughout the house with piles of wrapping paper and empty boxes!

What is it about wrapping presents?  Why do we do so?  The wrapper is certainly not the point of the present, it would be a present wrapped or not.  Is it not merely in-the-way, a pretty inconvenience at best, or is there more?  We recently shipped Christmas presents to our son and daughter-in-law in Minnesota along with something for our granddaughter (of course!)  Seems what we sent her wasn't nearly as much fun as the Styrofoam peanuts used to pack it all!  How cute it is when children get more taken by the wrapper than the present, but also how obvious a sign of immaturity!

Wrapping paper really is important in the final analysis.  A wrapper at once indicates and hides a surprise.  It points to something and yet at the same time hides it from view. and it invites our active participation in ripping it away to reveal the real treasure.  In that sense, the story of the first Christmas season is a great big present for us to unwrap.  Christmas only really becomes the birth of the Christ in our hearts when we rip away the paper to reveal the present within.  There are three layers of paper that wrap up God’s present in the Christmas Story, and unwrapping each of them reveals a vital truth about the treasure within.

The first layer is the Stable, the manger and the Star.  This represents our outer world, the world of senses, with special music and wonderful food and beautiful candle-light services.  These are all really good, and like the red and green paper on our packages at home they have a way of getting us in "the Christmas Spirit."  We all like the glitter and the tinsel and the songs and the food.  Yet, we also know that Christmas is much more than that.  When we look beyond and behind them, when we in a figurative way rip them away to find the treasure, we find that the Stable is where the Lamb of God sleeps, the Manger is His throne, and the Star is His celestial sign.  When we rip the external trappings of Christmas down from first place prominence they suddenly take their proper place, as glowing signs pointing to the Wonder of the Ages!

The second layer is Joseph.  Joseph obviously loved Mary, but when she turned up pregnant before they began to live together he had a problem.  Such things were punishable by stoning in that day, and so, as St. Mathew tells us, he resolved to end the betrothal quietly so as not to cause scandal.  That is because Joseph is a good man, who knows how to maintain a good public image.  Obviously, though he married Mary, he had overestimated her.  He could not really take her to wife now.  This was the wise and compassionate way out.  He was, after all, just as good at maintaining his ego as we are ours.

But then Gabriel appeared to him in a dream.  Mary was not to be divorced, and the child was to be named Jesus--Yeshua, like Joshua of old, who would save God’s people.  All of a sudden the paper of protecting his ego was ripped away by a divine call.  He was to become the guardian of the Son of God, not unlike us, if we, too, will have the Christ child born within.  Our previous efforts at self-protection must fall by the wayside, and our lot must be cast with this child.

The third layer is the Shepherds and Angels.  These men were good at what they did.  They knew how to attend to ewes during the lambing season.  They knew how to drive away the wolves and the jackals.  They knew how to protect their jobs—to deliver to the owner of the sheep a well and healthy flock.  Not unlike us, they were good at building their bank accounts and their retirement packages.  And these things are not bad, they just last only as long as our lives, nothing more.

But the angels' message suddenly changed all that.  Ripped away was their professional concern, torn from prominence were their promotions and IRAs.  They became heralds of the coming of the Son of God.  (If we were so bold at proclaiming what we know people would wonder as well!)  When we, too, see our professions, not as self-definers, but as stages on which to discover and then proclaim our eternal hope, then in our hearts, too, will be born the Son of God.

Mary, once again, offers us great wisdom, the one who ponders all these things in her heart.  She quietly opens the present and is amazed.  She does not define herself as the Mother of God.  (The Church would do that later and rightly so.)  She was just taken up with the great mystery and drama of it all!  She does not measure how good a mother she is.  (We do that, mother, or father, or clerk or banker or soldier.)  She just ponders these things in her heart.  She is not concerned with the ignominy of giving birth in a stable.  (We are the ones so taken up with circumstances.)  She just gives birth to the Son of God and plays host with equal grace to shepherds and Wise Men alike.