Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Epiphany Gifts

Epiphany is coming up on January 6. It celebrates the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, where the Wise Men worshiped the Christ child and gave him gifts. This is where Christians got the idea of giving gifts at Christmas.

This week I read a very insightful post about Epiphany by Jim Burklo on his blog “Musings,” which is one of the few blogs that I read regularly. It is entitled Epiphany in a Box. In it he describes an intriguing variation on holiday gift-giving. He writes:

Years ago, my dear wife, Roberta Maran, came up with an idea at Christmas that enchanted me.  “In addition to other presents, let’s give people Christmas boxes that have nothing inside of them – except messages that are deep and pithy!”

Last Sunday they introduced that practice to their church in Simi Valley, California, where he serves as pastor. He explains:

So I put slips of paper into little Christmas-ey boxes and put them on the altar.  We sat in a circle, and I passed them out to the congregants to present to the person next to them and then open and discuss with each what they found on their slips of paper.  Lively conversations ensued.

Here is a partial list of the messages in the boxes:

  • A day’s supply of laughter
  • A sigh of relief
  • An opinion you need to release
  • A bright idea
  • An argument extinguisher: in a relationship emergency, put this box over your face and breathe deeply
  • A beginner’s mind
  • A creative spirit
  • A new beginning
  • Nothing you can’t live without
  • Nothing that matters
  • The silence between notes that makes music beautiful
  • The sound of Jesus meditating for 40 days in the wilderness
  • The sound of Buddha meditating at the Bodhi Tree
  • What is left when you strip away all your illusions about who you are
  • A scoop of wind from the top of a mountain

There were many more, but you get the point. We are so used to giving material gifts at Christmas that it is good to remember that the best gifts are immaterial. Indeed the greatest gifts are ones that are already ours, given to us by God. We simply need to open them.

Here are some gifts I invite you to open this Epiphany. The story of the Magi mentions only three gifts, so I will limit myself to that number as well. Choose any one of them as your Epiphany gift:

  • A glimpse into who you were before the creation of the universe
  • The feel of the silence that underlies all thoughts and emotions
  • A taste of the peace that is your true nature 

At first glance these epiphanies may sound cryptic, but I assure you they are very real. They are more real than any store-bought present you received on Christmas day. In fact in your heart of hearts you already know the Reality that these words describe. 

Just take time to meditate upon one of them and see for yourself. I promise that if you open just one of these treasures, you will desire no other gifts … ever. 

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Watching Christmas Movies

It is December, and that means it is time to watch Christmas movies. This year my wife and I sampled a couple of new releases. First we watched Spirited, starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. It is a musical remake of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We were hoping Ferrell had created a worthy successor to the holiday classic Elf, which my son’s family watches every year religiously. Spirited is no Elf, but it is well-done. There’s lots of singing, great choreography, and a clever twist on the familiar tale.

The second holiday film we saw was The Noel Diary. We chose it because the lead actor, Justin Hartley, starred in This is Us, which is one of our favorite television dramas. The Noel Diary is a typical heartwarming rom-com (romantic comedy) where boy meets girl, with a little parent-child reconciliation thrown in for good measure. We enjoyed it.

Shortly after watching those movies I read an article by the Religion News Service entitled Everyone Gets Their Love Story, subtitled How Christmas Rom-Coms Have Taken over the Season. It chronicles how Christmas movies have changed over the years. There are now more faces of color and even some LGBTQ romances. Times have changed. It is all an attempt to cash in on the $700 billion Christmas industry, which the article calls “the Christmas Industrial Complex.”

Anyway it got me thinking about how holiday movies nowadays are so different from the ones I grew up watching - films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and A Christmas Carol. It also got me thinking about how all these Christmas films – new and old – have so little to do with the themes of the Christmas accounts found in the gospels.

Holiday movies are “feel good” flicks. They are often about romantic love, designed to pull on our heartstrings, and invariably have happy endings. How different from the Bible narratives. The biblical Christmas stories have no romance. Mary and Joseph are in an arranged marriage, which got off to a rocky start due to suspicion of adultery.  There is no mention of any love between the two lead actors in the nativity drama. There is no post-Christmas sequel to tell us how the holy couple eventually fell in love and lived happily ever after in Nazareth.

Most importantly there is no happy ending. The Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew ends with mass murder, traditionally called “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”  King Herod decides to eliminate a possible rival for his throne by murdering all the children in Bethlehem age two and younger. As the camera fades on the exiting Wise Men, we hear the sound of young mothers weeping in grief.

True, God warns Joseph about the murder plot, and the holy family escapes safely to Egypt. But God does not intervene to save the other little children of Bethlehem or warn their parents. That is troubling to anyone raised on the Sunday School song “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

The holy family lived as refugees in a foreign land for several years. One can only imagine how difficult those years were. Then Joseph died at some point after Jesus’ twelfth birthday, leaving Mary as a single mom raising a houseful of kids on her own. She did not remarry a rich, handsome stranger and grow old together, like Ruth in the Old Testament story. No Hallmark ending for Mary of Nazareth.

The biblical Christmas stories are so different from the plots of Christmas films that it makes me wonder how rom-coms came to dominate holiday flicks and why Christians are okay with that. Indeed nostalgic Christians seem to be the target audience for many of these “family-friendly” films. The most likely explanation is that Christians - like everyone else – tend to only see God at work in happy endings.

Yet by insisting on storybook endings we are missing the most powerful truth of Christmas: God is present in the unhappy times as well. God’s presence includes the good and the bad. God is the light shining in the darkness of real life, which includes grief, sorrow and hardship.

That is why the gospel writer Matthew reminds us: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” which means, “God with us.” God is with us no matter what. To that Christmas ending, I say, “Amen.”

Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Calm of Advent

I know the “holiday season” is supposed to be a busy time. All the decorating and shopping and cooking and concerts and parties normally make people hurried and harried. Yet it doesn’t feel hectic to me. It feels calm. It feels like I am in the eye of a storm. Society twists in circles while I enjoy peace at the center.

Perhaps it is because we started off the holidays with a quieter than normal Thanksgiving. Due to COVID my wife and I were alone on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in our lives. The virus symptoms had passed, but we still could have been contagious. For that reason we played it safe and stayed home to protect our family. Even though we wish we could have been with family, it turned out to be one of the most restful Thanksgivings we have ever had.

Thanksgiving Day set the tone for first Sunday of Advent a few days later. On that Sunday morning we attended a beautiful “Hanging of the Greens” at our church. Nothing centers the soul like singing contemplative hymns such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Then there is the cold weather. There has not been much snow, but the rain and strong winds have kept us inside more than normal. So we fired up our woodstove for the first time this season and have enjoyed the mesmerizing flames viewed through the glass front of our J√łtul. It felt like we were in our very own Christmas card.

Lastly there is the spiritual dimension of the season. Advent is one of my favorite times of the year. My attention naturally returns to the Holy of Holies within my soul. In the Bible the Spirit of God was said to occupy the innermost chamber of Jerusalem’s temple. I see the temple as symbolic of the human heart. As Stephen told the Sanhedrin, God does not dwell in temples built by hands. God dwells within us.

Peace is within. Regardless of what is happening around the world, the country, or in our lives, peace always abides at the center of the soul. On Christmas night the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace, goodwill to men.” The peaceable kingdom the herald angel proclaimed is not an external kingdom. There have been “wars and rumors of wars” continually during the 2000 years since Jesus’ birth.

Advent peace is inner peace. Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” He promised, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” He said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Peace dwells in the heart. To enjoy that peace, all we have to do is look within.

People search for peace of mind all their lives. They work for peace in the world. They yearn for peace in relationships. The peace that people seek is already here. People are simply looking in the wrong places. Peace will never be found outside of ourselves. It dwells at the center of the human heart. That is where the Prince of Peace makes his home.

Perhaps that is why I like the symbolism of the evergreen wreath so much. We have three wreaths on the outside of our home. I have often made my own wreaths during Advent. A retired forester friend conducts a wreath-making workshop every year, and I often attend. 

The wreath reminds me of the eye of a storm. In the center of the wreath is empty space. Like the space above the Ark of the Covenant, that empty space is where God abides. For that reason the Christ candle is lit in the center of the Advent wreath. Christ is the center. If we want peace, that is where we find it.