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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Holiness, Woven and Revealed

Many years ago, I was asked to be a guest on a CBC radio show. My task was to talk about the Marian Antiphons with Jürgen Goth, a personal hero. It seemed like an odd thing to have happened, but I didn’t want to miss the chance so I took myself for some research not only on the antiphons, but on a new understanding of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In my early church days, like everyone else I guess, Mary was a background figure. Despite the Magnificat, she seemed to be silent and passive, being caught between the plans of a father god and a divine son.

The antiphons presented quite a different picture of her, of course. Written between the 11th and 13th centuries CE, their prayer is to a woman of power and authority. Jesus may be entreated through her in times of danger or stress and struggle. In may parts of the world, icons and altars in her honour have been created. Nonetheless, in most of the paintings, frescoes and statuary, she remains a demure figure.

As a young and pious woman, I wanted to be as obedient and as demure as she; however, I am a fiery Sagittarian and such meekness could not be fulfilled without serious damage to my identity. Nor was my mother much of a traditional figure of humble, womanly behaviours. She was too much fun and too alive for all that. And thus, until the radio programme, I spent very little time considering Mary’s presence in my life or in the life of the church.

Study and reflection have caused me to re-evaluate this figure in the story of Jesus. Mary had enough influence that legends rose up around her, supplying her with an immaculate conception and a bodily resurrection along with her son. This would suggest the authority of her presence in the deliberations of the early church.

From her role as an apostle and leader in the fledgling church, she gradually became reduced to a supporting role in the church’s theology, although she remained influential to ordinary people. When the reformation came, she was finally demoted, except as a model of virtue and obedience.

Many women have commented on how poorly this affected their ideas about themselves, their autonomy, and their potential. I suspect that not only women have been colonized by these ideas of submission and obedience to a higher authority. The whole church, in many ways, forgot itself over the millennia. The activity of the church became caricatured as the laity supporting a highly regulated and dominant priestly caste. Not only that, while laity were reminded of their human weaknesses and need for salvation, the ruling classes of the church functioned above critique or judgement.

And so we come to the 21st century. In our time, the moment is upon us to rehabilitate the reputation and role of Mary. It is in her mouth that Luke places a song very like that of Hannah who has conspired with God and who will produce Samuel, that great leader in Judaism. In Mary’s song, she expresses joy and hope for the poor and a reversal of fortune for the selfish. Her response to the angel Gabriel, when told of how she could understand her pregnancy, is basically, “Lets get on with it then!” She raises her child and, in the non-canonical literature, it is she who demonstrates his power to heal. She travels with Jesus, possibly working with the women followers who were the probable funders of the mission. At the cross, when others flee, she remains with her son, in life and in death. Her confidence in him and her unwavering strength in the face of resistance, oppression, violence, and her own heartbreak, is an incredible model of discipleship. Not so much obedient as responsive; not so much demure as defiant.

With Jesus, Mary reminds us that the divine works within the human body and spirit. Within the fibres of our being, holiness is woven and revealed; within our lives — our human, bodily lives — healing and hope, compassion and relationship, are sanctified and made real; not just ideas or philosophies, but actions.

To venerate Mary is to venerate the generative power of life in all of us, our capacity to be creative, insightful, courageous. To venerate Mary is to recognize that life itself is holy and we are called to defend God’s choice for life in all its complexity and beauty. I am fairly certain that it is not obedience that frees the world, but rather truth-telling, reconciliation, and forgiveness. And so I say to you, don’t be a shrinking violet! Be like Mary, an outrageous dusky rose who said to the messenger, “All right, lets do this!”

Alma Redemptoris Mater
(From the First Sunday of Advent to the Feast of the Presentation)
Loving mother of the Redeemer, that passage to heaven,
gate of the morning, and star of the sea, assist the fallen, you who cure, lift up the people: you who bore to the wonderment of nature, your holy Creator,
Virgin before and after, who received from Gabriel
that joyful greeting, have mercy on us sinners.

Ave Regina Cælorum
(After the Presentation to Holy Saturday)
Hail, Queen of the heavens, hail, Lady of the angels,
hail, root of Jesse, hail gate of heaven, from whom light has come into the world.
Rejoice, Virgin most glorious,
Above all most beautiful; hail, o most highly honored, and entreat Christ for us.

Regina Cæli
(From Easter to Pentecost )
Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia, for he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia,
was resurrected as he said, alleluia; entreat God for us, alleluia.
Be joyful and rejoice, Virgin Mary, alleluia,
Because Christ has truly risen, alleluia.

Salve Regina
(After Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent)
Hail, Queen, mother of mercies, life, sweetness, and our hope, hail,
To you do we cry, exiled children of Eden.
To you do we sigh, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Ho! therefore, our advocate; Turn your merciful eyes to us.
And after this exile, show to us Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb,
O clement, O holy, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Tale of Two Mothers

The little play that contrasts the two understandings of kings appears on my website:

Letter to my Grandkids

Hi Kids: I know you will be sooo excited about Christmas, but you might feel, after everything is unwrapped, a bit of a let down. That’s growing up, sadly. One of the things we discover is that we have to make the presents special because we don’t actually need them. Instead, after all is opened, it’s time to take a second look at the presents and think about how much love went into choosing each one specially for you, or making them with you in mind and no one else. I remember a funny sweater I made Uncle Matt one year. It had one sleeve longer than the other, but he bravely wore it anyway.

When I was a little girl in Quebec, one of my father’ aunties, whom we called Great Aunt Maud, lived in a nursing home in New Brunswick. When she was young, she took care of her husband who had been disabled in World War 1. She shingled her own roof, and was strong enough that she could threaten to burst the seams on my father’s jackets. One famous story about her is that she was annoyed that the nursing home didn’t serve fresh strawberries, so she escaped, climbing over a fence even, in search of her own.

In any case, every Christmas, she would send us — me, my sister, Gayle, and maybe my brother Bill — a box of presents. She could never remember Gayle’s name so she called her Sheila for some reason. She had no money and no opportunity to shop so we would get re-gifts, thing that she either had received herself and didn’t want, couldn’t use, or things from her own few treasures. One year, my present was a pretty little necklace wrapped in tissue paper, that must have been hers at some point. Aunt Gayle — Sheila — received a boxed set of ladies panties with the days of the week on them. Since Gayle was only five, they were not much use to her. I think I delighted in Aunt Maud’s ingenuity and loved opening her presents, just to see what she conjured up.

I am telling you this story so that you will always be delighted by the gifts others bring you, not because of what they are but because of the love they express. And the stories you are making for your lifetime. My parents were born in 1919, almost a hundred years ago, so Great Aunt Maud was probably born 130 years ago. And yet, I remember her because of those crazy gifts and now you know about her too.

This year, all of you will receive one regift from me and there will be a story to go with the gift. I hope you will cherish these stories as they connect us as family, as a group of people who love each other even more than we love our stuff. And I hope you will look at every present in this way, as something others want to share with you to see they care about you.

Appreciating the Nativity Story

Narratives are the way we communicate ideas and share memories. Quite frequently, after one person finishes a story, another person will add another memory or a parallel experience. History is created in this way, from the shared, accepted, and composite memories of a particular group of people who usually share a language, a culture and some common assumptions or biases. The Hebrew bible is an example of how a people remembered their own stories, while also borrowing from the stories and wisdom of other cultures, like Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In Advent, we are invited into the writing process of the gospel writers, whose sources would not likely have been their own experiences, but rather their own cultural history, their socio-political context, and whatever stories they had heard from original or early followers of Jesus.

With the hope they had in the social upheaval that would usher in a new world, they naturally looked back into the prophetic writings of Isaiah, writings they would have heard often in Jewish worship. Isaiah of course was addressing his own period of history, another time of upheaval, but in the rich writing of that scroll, the gospel writers found ways to talk about Jesus. Isaiah does not predict Jesus, but his poetic prophecy becomes material that is familiar and encouraging to the first Jewish Christians.

The gospel writers had some challenges. How could they explain Jesus as the messiah when he neither fit the description of the Davidic king to save Israel (see Ezekiel 34:23-29), nor did he compare to the power and presence of the Caesars? In the first instance, Jesus was not even the dramatic figure of John the Baptist who preached repentance, who chastised Herod (Mark 6:17-20), who thundered from the desert with the atavistic charisma of Mount Sinai and stone tablets. Instead Jesus preached compassion, inclusivity, and practised forgiveness and healing. He was the illegitimate son of a woman who had been hastily married to a kindly widower.

The Davidic messiah was to be a warrior priest and prophet to overthrow the oppressors of Israel. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of Israel, his response is either silence (Mark 15:5) or sarcasm. “If I were that kind of king don’t you think I would come with an army.” (John 18:36, Luke 23:4)

I think you can see the challenges for these writers who could not demonstrate with the living, charismatic, spiritual strength and vision of Jesus. The tools they had were poetry, metaphor, and narrative.

In Isaiah, they found the imagery of both the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-52:12) and the compassionate healer (Isaiah 35:1-10), who would bring peace and change. To this day, we read Isaiah not as prediction but as hope for humanity, a vision we yearn to see fulfilled. Since the time of Jesus, for Christians, we acknowledge John’s teaching about turning away from injustice, but we follow the way of Jesus both as process and goal. However, we can still see how Christians are caught between John’s call to turn back to a more rigid standard, and Jesus’ command to look ahead without judging persons, but only institutions. John calls for an individual repentance; Jesus calls for systemic change.

Another natural question would be why an itinerant peasant should be someone to follow, even to die for. Matthew and Luke set the stage for their presentation of Jesus as the ruler of the human heart and will, by their comparisons with worldly rulers. The nativity stories are less about history and more about metaphor. The Caesars wanted to be perceived as demigods, divine rulers. With both the concept of the messiah and the righteous king, Matthew and Luke set a striking contrast to the Caesars. Augustus Caesar has armies; Jesus has shepherds and angels. Caesar brings peace by conquest; Jesus brings peace by reconciliation. Caesar wants to remake the world in his image; Jesus wants to remake the world in the image of God’s love, compassion and welcome to the poor and all the disenfranchised.

The powers of the time could not understand how Jesus was not leading a political revolution. Jesus’ followers were learning that political strategies are only tools, not ends in themselves. Jesus’ kingdom and kingship were seated in tolerance, welcome, and transformation, rather than thrones of weapons and gold. And his “officers” were a courageous young woman, fishermen, women caught in social conflict, men of conscience, but under threat. They had neither power nor influence. They had the story of their encounter with Jesus, and they had hope and faith. And that is what we have now, an opportunity to birth the story of compassion and healing.

As Close As My Own Heart

One of the things I love about Christmas is the quiet. I was thinking though that quiet is relative and never complete. Even with all the stores closed and the cooking and the praying and the singing done, there is still sound. I was thinking about what a baby hears before he/she is born. What do they hear? They hear their mother’s heart beat. At the nursing home this week, I asked if they remembered being born and they looked anxious, “Is this another trick question?”

I confessed that I, and everyone else for that matter, cannot remember that time. Perhaps the memory gets washed away in the trauma of birth. But I have been thinking ever since then about what is really true. What is true is my own heart beat that connects me to that moment when all I could hear was a heart beating in sync with mine, the body providing me shelter and nurture. I do in fact remember my birth; it is as close as my own heart.

One might say that one of the unique things about Jesus is that he never forgot his own heart, or hearing that primordial pounding. No trauma could divest him of his connection to the rhythm that is at the core if all life. Not even death could sever his connection to the heart that beats through all of life.

So tonight in the quiet, we remember the heart that is divine, that beats in and through us all, the heart of the Maker of all, the Source of love and new creation. Let us remember that heart beat that connects us to our parents, to our ancestors, to the rest of creation. Let us remember this story that claims a place for God under a human heart, inside a human womb, the DNA that connects us to everything living. Let us remember the mystery that is the heart of God pounding through our lives whether we hear it or not, whether we remember or not.

At the centre of everything in the midst of the midst is the holy. And that holiness, that beauty, can be evidenced in human life. The incarnation of love, joy, and a dream for the future: that is the story of Jesus. And the sanctuary that he desires is your heart, your deepest self that can remember when you first heard the universe calling you to life.

Remember to whom you belong, the God that is giving birth to you whether you pay attention or not. Listen to your heart beat and remember the story of a baby who grew into an adult filled with passion and awareness of his own source. Remember that all is life, always beginning, always changing, always sheltered and nurtured by holiness.

In the womb of life, we live and hear the rhythm of the universe. We are invited to offer our wonder at the altar of a baby, the sign of God with us, within us, amongst us, abiding. God is in your heart and your breath. In the quiet, hear God’s love resonating through your veins and through our world, down every mountain and waterfall, across every prairie and ice field, in lakes and trees. With all the creatures we say Glory and praise for the one who makes us holy.