Saturday, December 22, 2012

December 22, 2012

Today's text

Now it happened that when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.' So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger (Luke 2:15-16).


For years, I have prayed this story in my imagination, and each time I see a dumbstruck shepherd holding the infant Jesus.

But the story starts elsewhere. It begins with feet stumbling over rough ground. A handful of shepherds rush to see what is happening, thankful that something--they know not what--has interrupted the boredom of another long night among dumb sheep.

Coming to a stable, they stand mute at the opening, not ready to enter.

A small fire illumines the dark interior. A cow and three or four sheep lay in an enclosure to the right. A man on one knee looks down at an exhausted woman, turning his head as they approach.

He gestures, and they hesitantly enter, unsure if they should intrude. But they are not intrusion. They are the reason this whole thing is happening.

Coming close, they stand wide-eyed before a mother and infant child, nestled close amid the cold. The oldest of them steps closer to see the beauty of new life in Mary’s arms.

This is not strange to them. The shepherds know birth. They have helped ewes give birth and held their fragile young in calloused hands. They know what to do.

Mary looks at her child and into the eyes of the old shepherd and slightly lifts her bundle, a gesture he understands. She lays her child in his arms.

He says nothing but looks at the child, holding the blessing of midnight he will never understand. He understands only that it’s a night like no other he has seen: angels in the starlight, songs in the night, a child in his arms, his old eyes beholding the life he tenderly holds.

What he cannot understand is that the life he holds in worn hands is the life who holds him. He holds heart of God beating in the heart of a tender child. Looking into Jesus infant face, he cannot know that he gazes into the mystery of Love Unbounded.

Theologians of every age have sought to answer the question of why the Inexpressible God became mortal flesh. Some read the Scriptures and conclude the primary purpose of the incarnation was to atone for sin and forgive human guilt.

Others say, “no,” the incarnation did not take place because of human sin. God always planned to appear in mortal flesh, taking all that we are into himself, holding it close and loving it all, just like the old shepherd cradling Mary’s child.

Christmas Eve will soon be upon us, and once again we are the shepherds, beckoned to hold the child who holds us all.  

For prayer and reflection

  • What did you see, feel, hear and notice as you imagine the scene of the shepherds coming to the manger?
  • What message comes to you as you see the shepherd holding the child? Can you put yourself in the scene, holding Jesus?
  • How do each of us complete creation, allowing God to be incarnate in our flesh?

Another voice

Jesus, Lord of all creation, sleep now close beside your mother, Mary. Bring us light amid the darkness, promise of life without end. For a child is born, the world rejoices! Shepherds and angels proclaim his birth. This is Jesus the Lord, our Savior and brother, bearing  God’s peace to the earth.
(“Nativity Carol,” Francis Patrick O’Brien, 1992)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

December 21, 2012

Today's text

And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth peace among those he favors (Luke 2:13-14).

For a son has been born for us, a son has been given to us, and dominion has been laid on his shoulders; and this is the name he has been given, 'Wonder-Counselor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace' (Isaiah 9:6).


Peace is an elusive experience for most of us. It is hard to know what it is, let alone how to find it.

But we know it when washes over us. There is a total release of inner tension and a feeling of wholeness. Our soul is soaked in the awareness that all is well and all will be well no matter what may come.

This is the oft-quoted conviction of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English mystic. She lived at the time of the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that killed a third of the population.

Some might say it was obscene for her to know peace at a time of such suffering. But her words reveal the promise of God for every one of us.  

I want what she had. I want the peace the Christmas angels promise.

We have too little peace in our lives and in the world. Rockets from Gaza are raining down on Jerusalem as I write. Civil war continues to roil Syria, killing thousands who only want freedom.

In the U.S., political operatives continue to offer accusatory explanations of what happened in the recent presidential election, undermining each others’ efforts instead of working for the good of all of us. No peace here, either.

And too little in our hearts. We live far from the angels’ song, but their strains bid us to quiet our hearts and listen that the song of God’s soul may fill us.

“On earth … peace, in my heart … peace, among the nations … peace, for those with whom I struggle … peace.

Turn it into a mantra, a prayer that the peace of heaven might fill your soul and cover the earth. Say it a hundred times a day or more. Repeat it as often as you think of it. Speak it quietly when you are caught in traffic or when frustration rises.

Say it as a prayer over the evening news and when you see the distress of others.
Pray it with a smile of gratitude at each sight of beauty, every song that moves you and in every moment of joy.

Make this your Christmas and New Year’s prayer, “Peace.”

The angels sing; do them the courtesy of listening for a moment and repeat their chorus, “On earth … peace.”

They will teach you what Julian knew far better than any of us. Peace has less to do with the outward circumstances of our lives than with the condition of our hearts.

It begins when we receive the love who comes to us everyday, and most certainly on Christmas Day.

For prayer and reflection

  • When have you experienced the peace of God? How does it change you? Where do you need peace this year?
  • How might you use the angel’s song as a prayer mantra? Have you ever prayed this way?
  • What is our calling as Christians in a conflicted world and nation? How can you live as a person of God’s peace?

Another voice

Child of mercy, child of peace, Jesus bread of life, food to fill our longing. Child of justice, child of light, Jesus saving cup, Emmanuel, God with us. We name him: Wonder, counselor, hero mighty God, the Holy One for ever; Prince of peace!
(“Child of Mercy,” David Haas, 1991)

December 20, 2012

Today's text

And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth peace among those he favors (Luke 2:13-14).


Christmas comes, inviting us to see ourselves and our world as God sees.

God looks with favor on the lowliness of his servant, Mary sings in the Magnificat. The angels proclaim peace to those God favors. This is not a message for a few but for all nations, every time and age … and you.

God looks with favor on the face of creation and on your face.

Imagine sitting in silence, looking into the gentle smile of someone who loves you more than you can understand, someone who loves you more than yourself.

Imagine their smile beaming complete love, utter welcome and total delight in having you near. Feel the grace that hungers to share your hopes and dreams, a love for which bearing with your burdens is not a burden for them, but a privilege and joy.

God looks at you with this smile, the smile of divine favor, refusing to turn from your failures and sins, your arrogance or presumption, nor even from the moments of your life you wish you could forget.

God sees it all, loving it all and all of you.

We can barely imagine such love, but we so desperately need it and long to believe in it. And it is doubly difficult for those wearied by disappointments and low esteem to believe that this is how the Loving Mystery of God sees them.

The smile of God’s good favor shines on the lowly ones and the lowly places in each of us. The Divine Majesty looks on creation, the world in all its beauty and brokenness, grace and glory, longing to make it whole.

The angels’ song proclaims the truth of God’s favor, which is a wonder we cannot know with our minds but only in the depth of our being where deepest feelings and convictions dwell.

God comes to share our human flesh in Jesus Christ. He comes with the smile of divine favor to heal and warm, to grace and welcome, to give us the peace of God.

For that, we truly pray: Come, Lord Jesus.

For prayer & reflection

  • What experiences or longings are awakened by today’s reading?
  • Try to imagine the face of Christ smiling at you, showering you with the smile of divine favor. What is moved and awakened in you?
  • What makes it hard for you to accept and know you are God’s favored one?
  • For what troubled part of our world do you hunger for the peace of God?

Another voice

In your love you now fulfill what you promised to your people. I will praise you Lord, my savior, everlasting is your mercy and holy is your name.
(“Holy Is Your Name,” David Haas, 1989)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

December 19, 2012

Today's text

The angel said … ‘today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.' And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven praising God with the words: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favors (Luke 2: 11-14).


The search for a savior is common among human souls. Saviors bring salvus, health and wholeness not only to our hearts but to the heart of world. They imitated justice, peace and prosperity among the nations. We want such salvation, but who brings it?

Jesus was not the only one who bore the title ‘savior’ in the ancient world. Most notable was Octavian, otherwise known as Caesar Augustus. In 31 BCE, he had ended a prolonged civil war that had ripped apart the Roman Empire and thus much of the world.

Reuniting the empire, he was hailed as Augustus, the ‘Divine One.’ He was called The Lord, Bringer of Peace, Redeemer, Liberator, Son of God, Savior of the World, divinity incarnate.

Virtually every title attached to Jesus had already been assigned to Octavian for bringing peace to a war-weary world.

Octavian, the savior, brought peace through violence, conquering and subduing the forces of chaos that threatened the world.

And Jesus, infant son of peasants born in a far corner of the empire, what does he bring? What can he possibly bring to a world much wider yet as troubled as when he walked the earth?

He brings no armies, no subjugation, no force to destroy our enemies. He brings a table. And around that table he invites friend and enemy alike to eat and drink, feasting on the infinite generosity of God.

Peace comes through the sharing of bread and justice, mercy and compassion.

For the most part, the world is in thrall to Octavian’s way. Most don’t believe in Jesus way of peace, including most Christians. Victory over those who trouble us, the use of force and threats to get our way, these are considered the wisest and safest course in a menacing world.

But the angels’ song has never died out through 20 centuries. They continue to pull at our souls, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace for those he favors.”

The angels announce the dawning of a new age. Their song of glory carries our hearts to the manger of the real savior who bears God’s favor and salvation for every last one of us.

For prayer and reflection

  • What does the angel’s song awaken in your heart and mind?
  • What is the difference between Christ’s way and the way of Caesar Augustus?
  • How can you live Jesus’ way of peace during this season and beyond?
  • To what saviors do the world and the nations look for salvation?

Another voice

Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled. Joyful all you nations, rise; join the triumph of the skies; with angelic hosts proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem. Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king!
(“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” text: Charles Wesley, music: Felix Mendelssohn, 1830)

Monday, December 17, 2012

December 18, 2012

Today's text

An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, 'Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:9-11).


There are moments when you know why you were born.  

I open my e-mail and find a thank you note. “Your gentle questions and love helped me,” it says. “Thanks for talking with me even though I knew you were very tired.”

The note goes on, but through tears I can no longer read.

This feeling should not be confused with happiness. Happiness happens more or less when we expect it. Something goes our way; the marriage, the job, the vacation, the good things we want come to us. Circumstances turn ’round right.

But this is joy, and joy is something much more.

Joy is the fulfillment of heart. It comes when our in-most being experiences completion, ultimate satisfaction, and it is as likely to come in moments of great sorrow as at times of happiness, maybe even more likely.

Joy springs to life when our depths are touched by the divine, when mortal flesh meets the eternal substance of God and our inner emptiness is filled by love unlimited.

The Christmas story is shot through with such joy. John the Baptist leaps for joy in his mother’s womb as Mary approaches. Mary herself rejoices in the God who looks with favor on his beloved people. Angels announce good news of a great joy for all people to a clutch of shepherds on a hillside.

The angels announce the birth of the one in whom heaven and earth meet. Jesus comes as savior, the one who brings the joy of God’s life to our mortal neediness.

It seems unlikely that a child born in a cattle stall can bring anything to earth other than more poverty, let alone the joy of fulfillment

But that’s the message of Christmas. Christ comes filled with the fullness of God, the fullness we taste and know in moments when love fills our frame and our hearts taste the completion God intends.

So come once more to the stable. Run with the shepherds to see him. Run until your chest aches and all breath has left you. Gaze into Jesus face and sing songs of the miracle he is. Receive the joy awakened within.

And you will long to live everyday like its Christmas.

For prayer & reflection

·         What thoughts, memories and emotions did today’s reflection awaken in you? 
·         What Christmas was most joyful for you?
·         When have  you been surprised by joy, the fulfillment and filling of your soul?
·         Have you ever experienced joy amid sadness or sorrow?

Another voice

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sound joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy!
(“Joy to the World,” Isac Watts, 18th century)

December 17, 2012

Today's text

In the countryside close by there were shepherds out in the fields keeping guard over their sheep during the watches of the night. An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified (Luke 2:8-9).


There are conflicting traditions about shepherds in the biblical world. One on hand, great figures of Israel’s history were shepherds. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob were all shepherds.

Kings were called shepherds of the people, and David, Israel’s greatest king, grew up as a shepherd. Biblical prophecies of the Messiah say he will gather his sheep and feed his flock … like a shepherd.

On the other hand, shepherds were thought so destitute and unsavory they were not trusted because they stole to support themselves.

Their work could be brutal. Shepherds kept watch for predators skulking in the darkness eager to devour fresh meat, a wearisome task filled with hours of grinding boredom interrupted by tsunamis of terror.

They had no great expectations for their lives. Their hopes for fulfillment were small-- drinking with friends, convivial laughter, the comfort of a woman.

Nor did they aspire to learning or places of importance. Such hopes belonged to those more favorably born. They lived in the darkness on the edge of society, watching dumb animals, keeping beasts at bay.

But it is out there that the glory of the Lord shines in the night, and fearful shepherds hug the ground.

Their reaction is all wrong. They should have stood, arms outstretched to receive the shining light of God’s nearness. They could have shed their cloaks and basked in the warmth of the Holy Presence.

But that’s the way it is with human hearts. We flee from the things we most need, running from the love that seeks to enfold us, and few needed it more than a bunch of shepherds huddled in the darkness.

Like them, we stay busy enough with what demands our attention.  But we seldom lift our eyes to hope that our lives might be extraordinary, filled with light and love from God’s infinite store.

Such exceptional grace belongs to others, not to us. But they do belong to us. That’s the message of Christmas.

The light in the night sky, illumining the shepherds, shatters our earth-bound expectations and anticipates all  Jesus would say and do.

He is the face of the God whom no eye has seen. The warming light of his nearness shines first on the outcast, the forgotten, the despised and misunderstood, bearing good news to the poor and peace to the oppressed.

In that light, they began to see their lives are extraordinary, created for the glory of a great love they could not imagine.

In the darkness, they saw what we miss.

Questions for prayer and reflection

  • Do you identify with the shepherds in any way?
  • What keeps you from seeing and feeling your life as extraordinary, intended for God’s love and blessing?
  • Imagine the scene of the shepherds keeping watch as the glory of the Lord shines around them. What do you see, hear and feel in the scene? What is most important or powerful?

Another voice

Shepherds, in the fields abiding,watching o’er your flocks by night. God with us is now residing, yonder shines the infant light. Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn king.
(“Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” James Montgomery, 1857)