According to the Law

29 December

Readings

We see Mary and Joseph expressing their love of God, according to our first reading, by keeping his commandments. In Leviticus 12, we find instructions for women after childbirth. Since most people don’t read Leviticus often enough, I’ll quote the entire passage here:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

Leviticus 12:1-8

What does this tell us? It reveals that Jesus had already been circumcised on the eighth day and that the events in today’s Gospel reading happened 40 days after Jesus was born. There was no explicit requirement for this purification to take place at the temple. However, since Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, why not?

We can also surmise that the Magi had not yet visited. How do we arrive at that? By the offering they make; no lamb is sacrificed. Joseph and Mary make the offering for those who cannot afford a lamb. Presumably, if they had already received gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they would have sprung for the lamb.

We also see obedience and humility, two virtues that cannot exist in isolation from each other. Joseph and Mary are obedient to the Law. And they are humble in their obedience. They don’t claim any privilege or do anything showy because they happen to have the Messiah in their arms. Simeon calls attention to them and their son, but they do not.

Our lesson from all this? Loving God is most often demonstrated in the mundane, routine acts of our days and years, even for Joseph and Mary. They attended when they were to attend and they gave what they were to give. Humility and obedience.

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Weeping in Ramah

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Readings

Persecution followed Christ, even as a young child. The holy days following Christmas drive that point home.

Joseph is the silent hero of the story in today’s Gospel. He has another angelic dream and responds with action. He well could have questioned, “Wait, I thought this child was supposed to deliver us, to save us. Why do we have to flee?” But he did not. He got up, took Mary and Jesus, and moved out. Simple faith in action. His silent witness is a high calling for us to imitate.

This passage also quietly testifies to Christ’s humanity. If the infant had performed some miracle to ward off those sent to destroy him, it would be hard to say that Jesus was fully man. Not only on account of the miracle, but also because that would have required the young child to have far more awareness than children do.

The early Church Fathers fought against heresies that held that Jesus was not fully man because the scriptural accounts show his humanity. Aside from his miraculous conception, he gestated for 9 months in the womb just like you and me. He was delivered just like you and me. He was nursed and raised like every other child. Christ fully entered into our humanity from the start.

But, God did protect him. He warned Joseph in a dream and left it at that. The angel did not take them to Egypt. The angel did not even accompany them, as far as we know. Joseph and Mary undertook a journey that was probably financed by the gifts of the magi.

So what about the dead children left in Bethlehem? We may be quick to cast blame upon God, but the blame is not his to bear. Herod, of his own free will, gave the order and his soldiers carried it out. Herod had ample reason and opportunity to be true to his word to the magi, but instead of going to worship the newborn king, he ordered the slaughter of all the young boys in Bethlehem in a fit of maniacal rage.

Is this unjust? Absolutely, on Herod’s part. But what about God’s? On no account. What can man do to us as children of God? He can either administer due punishment for our offenses against man and God or he can add to our rewards in heaven. Peter exhorts us, saying, “For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval.” (I Peter 2:20)

It is plain that God foreknew, because the prophet foretold. But what lasting harm came to the infants? They were crowned as the first martyrs of Christ. They advanced to the throne of God to sing his praises. We become troubled because we focus too much on this life to the exclusion of the life to come. Let us keep eternity in mind, seeking our union with Christ in glory.

Recalling the Story

Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Readings

In the Epistle reading for today, the Apostle recalls the opening of his Gospel. “What was from the beginning….” What was from the beginning? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The Word, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, this is what John writes about as he goes on to say, “We have heard, we have seen, and touched.”

In other words, that whole “Immanuel, God with us” stuff that Isaiah foretold? It really happened. God was with us. We saw him, we heard him, we touched him. And now we proclaim it to you, so that you might have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

Note that he did not say, “So that you may have fellowship with him,” but rather, “So that you may have fellowship with us.” The implication is that if we have fellowship with the Apostles, we will have fellowship with the Father and the Son. But it is only because of their testimony and their authority that we have that fellowship. If the Apostles had not also been witnesses, testifying about what they had heard and seen, none of us would know anything about Christ. If we lost John, we would lose a Gospel, three Epistles, and the Revelation. He is the largest author in the New Testament after Luke and Paul.

That is one of the lessons we can take from the Apostles and Evangelists: we also need to be witnesses. We need to hand on what has been entrusted to us and we need to testify to what God has done for us as individuals.

It is important for us to share our stories for two reasons. First, because it is encouraging for others to see how the Holy Spirit has worked on, in, and through people they can relate to. It is great to know that Moses parted the Red Sea and enabled Israel’s escape from Egypt. It is something else to hear how your friend managed a tough job with no other prospects, thanks to prayer and the support of others.

Second, it is good for us to share our story because in our sharing, we are reminded of God’s work in our own life. We see his guidance and provision for us. As we reflect on our life, we see how the seemingly random twists and turns are actually a road leading to a destination.

Sharing your faith journey, even if it is only with yourself, can renew your faith and give you strength to carry on. In marriage counseling, I usually ask the couple how they met. Ideally, it helps take them back to a happy time in their relationship and generates a little positive momentum for the session. Reviewing the ways God has led, wooed, and grown us can do much the same for our relationship with him.

Bittersweet

Feast of St. Stephen

Readings

It has always seemed a bit jarring that the feast commemorating the martyrdom of Saint Stephen falls the day after Christmas. I understand the Feast of the Holy Innocents on the 28th because their deaths are a part of the story of the birth of our Lord.

There is also, however, a connection between Stephen’s death and our Lord, as the Gospel today clearly foretells. Jesus knew that mankind reacts poorly to selfless love and justice. What he faced, his followers would often face as well.

It is our inability to countenance the perfectly just that condemns us as sinful. We recoil from perfect love because it reveals our imperfections. Our only recourse is to accept the gift of perfect love, even though to do so means we, too, risk being rejected and expelled.

Christmas has this mix within it. It is not just a baby born of a virgin to save the world. That blessed event happened amidst livestock because even on the first night, Jesus and his parents were rejected. They were in Bethlehem and not in Nazareth because they were under subjection. They fled to Egypt because they were hunted.

Even our experience of Christmas as a holiday with family and friends is not all pure joy. Over the years, it becomes a mixture of pleasant and painful memories. We smile as we remember the year we received a Galactic Battle Cruiser (or whatever gift really excited you as a seven year-old.) But the memory of Christmases past also reminds us of those whom we no longer see around the tree or table. We remember Christmases deployed. We may even remember the Christmas our dog bit us. On the face.

But just as we persist in celebrating the birth of Christ each year, despite the mixed memories it brings, we also hold our faith in Christ. To believe we have a Savior is to acknowledge that we are sinners. To hope in eternal life is to admit that we are moving toward death. To celebrate the feasts, we must also submit to the fasts.

God is shockingly cavalier about our happiness. He is willing to bat it aside and trample upon it in what feels like an instant. We find this objectionable and we rail against it like spoiled children who have the object of our momentary fascination taken away by a parent. We fail to see, just as the child, that our momentary placation is not the ultimate goal. Just as good parents seek not to endlessly entertain their children, but to raise them into adults themselves, so God desires to raise us to the level of sanctity and holiness of the Saints and, ultimately, his Son.

Stephen was brought before the council because his life and his teachings were above reproach. He was known for his sanctity by the early church. His willing death and Christlike prayer in the midst of it are a high example for us as well.

What Will This Child Be?

23 December

Readings

“What, then, will this child be?” I have been present for the birth of all four of my children and my granddaughter. This question runs through my mind each time. Is anything a greater symbol of hope, expectation, and wonder than a newborn? That these few pounds of person, which 9 months previous were non-existent, will some day grow up to be an adult, is a wonder.

I sometimes ponder in the other direction as well. Just the other day I was around some older people and I contemplated for a moment that this couple with hearing-aids and gray hair were once love-struck newlyweds, were once young children playing. It reminds me that everyone has a story and that story runs both directions. There is the story that has already been written and there are the pages still being written.

John the Baptist was born amid hope and amazement. We are reminded of the Jewish custom of circumcising on the eighth day, the same time a child was officially named. The parallels to baptism are certainly evident. It is time to name Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son and the community is present. This is not a private ritual; through circumcision, he is being confirmed as a Jewish male, made part of the people.

Those gathered were going to name him after his father. Such a thing seems grating to us today. What business of theirs is it what this child’s name is? How dare they override his mother. This was a much different culture than our hyper-individualized, personal-rights, western ways. But Elizabeth is persistent; she and Zechariah have obviously communicated on this point. He will be called John.

Then, to show that some things never change, they make signs to Zechariah. This is interesting, because Zechariah wasn’t struck deaf, but only mute. Still, we tend to assume that we must communicate in the way others communicate to us. It seems he could have just pointed at his wife and nodded his head in agreement, but he wants there to be no doubt. Bring me a tablet. He writes, “John is his name.”

Everyone is amazed. The old couple were being name innovators. The women at the well would be chattering about this for days to come. But then, to increase their amazement, Zechariah spoke. He spoke for the first time in over 9 months. And he blesses God.

Now the people really had something to talk about. They did, we are told, all throughout the hill country of Judea. Everyone saw these things as significant, “What then, will this child be?” Certainly there must be something afoot with this one.

Indeed, there was, as Malachi foretold. As we draw near to the celebration of our Lord’s birth, we do well not only to contemplate the miracle of his life, but also of our own. Because of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, because of our faith in him and his gift to us, we may still ask, “What then, will I be?”

The Song of Faith

22 December

Readings

As we continue through Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, we come to the Magnificat, Mary’s song in response to Elizabeth’s blessing. As we read her words, we do well to remember that as far as Mary knows, nothing has happened. She may have had no evidence that our Lord had been conceived yet. No baby bump. No morning sickness. Just the words of Gabriel, affirmed by Elizabeth.

Yet, in faith, she realizes that she is standing at the turning point of all history. She rejoices for being chosen by God. She foresees that from now on, all people will call her blessed.

Mary realizes that what she cannot even detect yet is going to change the world. Thrones cast down, the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled. This is the realization and fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel to provide for them a savior, the anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah.

Consider Hannah who had prayed for a son. Three years later the boy is weaned, can walk, and is toilet trained. He’s ready to go. Hannah brings him back to the temple and drops him off. I asked for him, God provided him, so now I dedicate him to the Lord.

Can you imagine dropping your three-year-old off at church and leaving him there for good? Plenty of parents have a struggle dropping their 18-year-old off at college, but this is way beyond that.

In the light of these two women who exhibited such great faith, what do we need to do, today?

I’m reminded of the rappel tower at Fort Jackson. When I was a chaplain for a basic training battalion, I would often be present on the day the new soldiers were there. For many, it was a fun day; for some it was an emotionally significant event to clip onto the rope and lean back over the edge, stories above the ground.

But it is a great example of faith. Watching someone else go down the tower isn’t the same as doing it yourself. Putting on your harness, feeling the rope, handling the carabiner and the figure eight isn’t the same as going down the tower. You only exhibit faith in the equipment when you put your feet on the wall and get into that “L” shape, with nothing but some rope keeping you aloft.

What ledge are you standing next to that God is leading you to step off? It’s a scary feeling. Part of the reason I spent so much time at the rappel tower was to work on my own fear of heights. I had to act comfortable to encourage the soldiers who were scared.

But we trust in a God who is so much stronger than a climbing rope. Sometimes he calls us to do what can feel like stepping off a cliff. But when he calls, he will catch. May we take courage from the faith of Hannah and Mary and step out in faith.

Off to Elizabeth’s

21 December

Readings

Mary goes to see Elizabeth soon after the annunciation. She goes to see what the angel Gabriel told her, that her relative who had been barren all her life is now with child. More importantly, she goes to spend time with the one person who might be able to understand what is happening to Mary.

When Mary arrives, John, still in Elizabeth’s womb, jumps for joy at the sound of her voice. Just as Gabriel had told Zechariah, the boy has the Holy Spirit even in the womb and therefore responds instantly to the Mother of our Lord and his.

At this unusual circumstance, Elizabeth is now filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims a blessing to Mary, confirming that she is carrying the Lord in her womb.

Elizabeth had no way of knowing about Gabriel’s conversation with Mary, yet once she is filled with the Holy Spirit, she has understanding of what has happened and what is happening.

Mary arrives and breaks Elizabeth’s five months of seclusion. Mary arrives and begins three months of her own seclusion before she returns to Nazareth to face Joseph and her family.

There is a home for unwed mothers in Indianapolis called St. Elizabeth’s. It is an appropriate name since St. Elizabeth is the patroness of pregnant women and since St. Elizabeth supported and sheltered Mary, the most famous unwed mother in history.

Today when such a large percentage of children are born out of wedlock, we don’t give much thought to such an occurrence. Much of the social stigma is gone in our culture. But not so for Mary in first-century Israel. Under Mosaic law, if the pregnancy was the result of adultery, she could be stoned to death. Since she was betrothed to Joseph, sexual relations with anyone else was considered adultery.

If the pregnancy was not the result of adultery and the child was Joseph’s, they would both be publicly scorned and shamed for not being able to wait until they were properly married. But as we all know, the child Mary carried was not Joseph’s, but conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.

So Mary is with Elizabeth for three months. We don’t know most of what they talked about or what they did. We read this passage and see it as a prologue to Christmas, which it is, but in our rush to get to the manger in Bethlehem, we can overlook the fear and confusion that may have been Mary’s.

As we work and pray for the end of abortion, we do well to treat it not just as a political issue, but as a religious issue. We do well to remember that every mother who considers abortion is a woman precious in God’s sight. A woman full of fear and confusion. May we see an army of Elizabeths raised up to comfort, guide, and encourage these women and help them care for and nurture their children.

May Christmas remind us that every child is intended as a gift, a blessing from God.