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Keep the Lights On
Christmas and the Holy Family - Year C
During this past week the Associated Press released an article that read: “In the darkest days of the year, in a very dark time, there is a longing for illumination. And so, all around the world, the holiday lights go on — some of them humble, some of them spectacular, all of them a welcome respite from the dark.”
Whether it is the luster of Christmas trees in our homes or the gigantic displays in parks and streets across the globe the radiance casts a glow of cheer and hope. The bright lights offer us a brief but much needed break from the fears, the sadness, and the darkness caused by the gloom that surrounds us everywhere.
The gospel (John 1:1-18) for today’s Christmas liturgy today reminds us that Christ is the word of God in the world. John wrote: “What came to be through [the birth of Jesus of Nazareth] was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Christians will find ways to unwrap the light of Christ burning inside them, to “enlighten everyone.” In the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1-16), the unknown author challenges us: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, God has spoken to us [my emphasis] through the Son .…” 
This summons, to act for justice on this fragile planet was echoed at the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council regarding Christians and their momentous task in modern societies. They “are not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society.” 
Responsible citizens of heaven and earth have much to do in these United States. We are exasperated by myopic self-serving politicians, a new unconscionable military budget, reluctance to build back America, disagreements over climate control, unrelenting pandemics, and the sad fact, according to the Forbes magazine, that over 42.5 million families are trying to survive while living below the poverty level.
New Testament scholar, Gayle R. O’Day  stressed that today’s gospel promotes relationships among humanity. It is a call for human beings to emphasize blessings, peace, and justice. She wrote, [the gospel] is about the “purpose of Jesus’ ministry … to create a new family of God …. People who have no families, who come from destructive families, or who are alienated from their birth families” can become children of God.
The liturgical celebration of the Holy Family this weekend is a fitting complement to the Nativity narratives; and it raises more questions for us who are called to be luminaries in our communities.
Simply the word “family” cannot be defined in one way. Relational experiences are overriding the traditional — wife and husband with children — household. How do we greet and treat emerging familial associations?
In his commentary on defining family Dan H. observed that many families today are blended and extended, a mix of stepparents, half siblings, and couples without children. For some, family is made up of people who are not related to them. Rather than biological ties those relationships are rooted in loyalty, love, and shared responsibilities.
In the United States the number of single parents is on the rise. Same sex partners, married or not, are birthing, adopting, and raising children. Partnership without a marriage certificate is a rewarding relationship for more and more couples. Countless LGBTQI and transgendered persons find caring companionship with those they love. Immigrant families seek to be reunited.
The second reading for the Holy Family liturgy, from Colossians 3:12-21, is the switch that could turn on more light in the world. It begins with a list of virtues that the community should “put on” — heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another .…”
This letter has baptismal overtones. The charge to “put on” refers to the early Christian initiation practice of disrobing before entering the water and then dressing with new clothing after being baptized. To be baptized is not about saving one’s soul. It is about joining a community that practices the social gospel in the public square.
All of us who are baptized Christians are members of God’s holy family. This is not an exclusive club. It extends beyond denominational roots. In communion with other religious and non religious members of the human family Christians are humble and loving luminaries casting light on their respective communities.
As we ponder familiar biblical stories this holiday weekend, the James Webb telescope will be launched into space. It is designed to capture the light of some of the first galaxies that coalesced after the “Big Bang.” It will explore a wide range of questions to help us understand the origins of the ever expanding and contracting universe and our place in it.
Nothing stays the same. Scientific advancements and our life experiences tell us that Christ is always being born and reborn and is constantly emerging in new electrifying ways throughout the cosmos and our lives. The radiance of Christ will continue to shine as long as we keep the lights on.
1. In another letter Paul writes to the Philippians 2:15 and states that the believers [in Christ] are luminaries in the world.
2. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, December 7, 1965, no. 43
3. O’Day, Gayle, “The Gospel of John” in Women’s Bible Commentary. C. Newsome, S. Ringe, J. Lapsley (editors), Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, 517 ff.
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Dancing in the Mystery of God
The Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year C
For those living in the Northern Hemisphere Tuesday December 21st is the Winter Solstice. It will be the shortest day and longest night of the year. Different traditions will gather to celebrate the “birth of the sun” while Christians, in a homophonic way, will focus on the “birth of the Son.”
Christmas celebrates the arrival of Jesus from Nazareth as the revelation of God. His mission was to save not only the Jews from Roman empirical oppression but to proclaim a time of peace, prosperity, and salvation for all people. Christians believe that the world order would be significantly altered because of the justice-filled ministry and sacrifices modeled by Jesus.
Much of the world’s problems are caused by those who wish to control the destiny of this planet and its occupants. Theirs is not an egalitarian or peaceful agenda. Christians and others who care about the earth and vulnerable citizens are called to counter tyranny with justice.
On this fourth Sunday of the Advent season the biblical texts speak of resilience. The prophet Micah (5:1-4a) predicted the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. But he also promised a future ruler who would come from Bethlehem-Ephrathah, a small remote and unknown town. It was the birthplace of the underdog David, the future king of Judah and Israel. God dwells among those who are least familiar.
The Psalm (80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19) is a communal lament that was used in times of national oppression. It calls upon God to save the people from danger. The psalmist implores the Creator to “take care of what you have planted.” This prayer is relevant today as we ponder how to reap goodness in God’s garden while many societies appear arid and parched.
Americans are at odds with one another and the role government plays when it comes to immigration policies, environmental regulations, taxes, vaccinations, and voters’ rights. Nineteen states have enacted 33 laws this year that will make it harder for Americans to vote. This last issue is only one example of several efforts underway to undermine the foundations of our democracy.
Many wonderful pastoral initiatives aim to serve people in need. The irony is that while this is happening membership in American houses of worship is at an all time low. A modicum of imagination and courage would breath new life into congregations. This could mean letting go of worn out religious customs. Also, in allegiance to the gospels, preachers could make more biblical based statements criticizing government for its negligence in caring for every citizen.
Faith thrives along with social action. Like the prophets of old and Jesus himself, there is a need to publicly decry the behavior of those politicians who have become adept at twisting biblical aphorisms. They do so to justify their agendas, which often decry or ignore human rights. Pulpit apathy and silence hurts powerless people.
Adam Hearlson, Pastor of Overbrook Presbyterian Church, wrote about radical and courageous preaching. “One of the marks of the prophetic imagination is its resilience. It refuses to be trampled. To be a prophet is to take the external possibilities and resist allowing their internalization. The outside possibilities ought never hinder our imagination of what remains possible.” This is so true as the media, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, more so than the Bible, are shaping opinions and value systems.
Who will rise to the occasion? Will it be a power from on high? Or, will it be someone we least expect? In the gospel story (Luke 1:39-45) we hear about two previously unknown women. An unwed teenager from Nazareth connects with her old barren cousin from the hill country of Judah. Both Elizabeth and Mary are mysteriously pregnant. Elizabeth was too old and Mary was a virgin.
Both of them were about to give birth to miracle babies who would, in principle, challenge people to fix societal corruption, to level self-serving governments, to care for creation, and to celebrate a simple way of living. Mary was not a recognized leader of people. John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop Emeritus of Newark, affirmed that Mary [like other women] was “de-humanized by a condescending and patriarchal hierarchy.”
Still, like many feisty, independent-minded teenagers today, Mary spoke her mind, and forecast how the baby she was bearing would eventually make life better especially for the working class. Mary broke into song and fearlessly broadcast that the powerless will be made strong and the strong will be made weak.
Niveen Sarras, a Lutheran Palestinian Biblical Scholar, who was born in Bethlehem, sees the birth of Christ, as told in Luke and Matthew, as a political and religious response to Roman Imperialism. She wrote: “The narrative of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth speaks to us about Mary’s participation in the salvation of her people … Mary’s song voices themes that appear in every culture, society, and generation. People are still anticipating deliverance from unjust rulers and unjust law.”
It is apparent that privileged white men are not the only ones who can declare the word of God or establish peace on earth. Women, people of color, poor, ostracized, incarcerated, and vulnerable people all impart the real presence of God in our midst. New Zealand storyteller, Joy Cowley, rendered Mary’s Song with a refreshing and encouraging adaptation. “My soul sings in gratitude. I’m dancing in the mystery of God. The light of the Holy One is within me and I am blessed, so truly blessed.”
For those of us who see Advent as a time to regain our confidence as Christians, strengthen our resilience and take action against inequities, Mary’s Song is our anthem. We too are called to “dance in the mystery of God.”
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Where's The Good News?
The Third Sunday of Advent
Lectionary Cycle C
In the United States unemployment numbers are down but inflation continues to rise. Extreme weather conditions are destroying communities but some politicians debunk the cause of climate change. Many countries have more open borders but Pope Francis chastised other nations for turning vulnerable immigrants away.
The first of two Summits for Democracy was hosted by President Biden while Russian troops are pressing in on Ukraine’s borders. And, December 10th was International Human Rights Day as millions of refugees and minorities are held captive by tyranny.
Resilience, transformation and hope are the resounding themes in today’s biblical texts. But given signs of fragility in the world how do these words help us? The message from Zephaniah 3:14-18a is one example. The prophet encouraged the Judeans as they made their way to Jerusalem with plans for reconstructing their Temple. 
Zephaniah urged: “You have no further misfortune to fear, God is in your midst. God will renew you in God’s love.” Where’s the good news? These “chosen people” once gave up on God. Now they are singing a different song of renewed assurance that God never stopped walking with them.
In today’s section from First Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6 the people of God are encouraged to “cry out with joy, that they be confident and unafraid. Make God’s deeds and glorious achievements known among the nations.”
How are people who have no power or wealth expected to cry out with joy? Where is the good news for them? This text summons anyone who lives in freedom to do something about breaking the chains of poverty. The expectation is that, somehow, the divine presence that radiates in their lives will make freedom possible for others who are helpless.
We hear this same message throughout the liturgical year — that God calls us to be caretakers of every facet of creation that has been gifted to us. That charge is emphasized today on Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday when the entrance antiphon resounds: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” These lines are found in today’s reading from Philippians 4:4-7. Paul is still in jail urging his readers: remain united, do not be anxious, be thankful, be kind to everyone, and pray.
Why should the Philippians have paid any attention to this message? Why should we? Paul is quick to answer: “The peace of God surpasses all understanding and God has anointed us to bring glad tidings to the poor [meaning anyone living on the edges of society].
According to Carla Works, Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, “Joy, for Paul, is not a feeling that is dependent upon circumstances. It is a theological act. It is choosing to reflect on God’s actions to redeem the cosmos even when all the present circumstances might indicate that some other power had won.”
Putting faith into action can be hampered by the busy-ness of this season, anxieties over an unrelenting pandemic, concerns about dwindling democracies, and the emergence of new places of exile. In her latest book, Ilia Delio, scientist and theologian at Villanova University, adds: “… if you stay true to what you see because the power of God is the light of your vision, then you will change the world because you yourself will be changed.”
Delio believes contemplation and the eucharist are helpful tools in bringing about this vision. For us it could mean learning to meditate. To meditate we have to sit still more often to get in touch with our inner being. “Relaxing and calming the body as we breathe in and out” can bring us joy.  Once energized and transformed we can join others to spread that joy in the world.
We are called to be in communion with all people and not only with members of our respective congregations or cliques of like-minded friends. Catholics will recall that the Church is a “sacrament of Unity.”  Those involved in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogues continue to imagine the creation of a common bond uniting people of all faiths in working to establish a peaceful kin-dom of God now.
Countless people are busy making this goal a reality. There are regional food banks and local food pantries, community collections of toys, refugee centers, neighborhood soup kitchens, counseling services, shelters for homeless families and programs to educate incarcerated women and men. These are examples that God’s sovereignty on earth is slowly emerging.
In the gospel from Luke (3:10-18) we read that everyone came to be baptized  John informed these seekers that personal transformation is essential if they want to follow the Coming One. Initiation into the life of Christ is a life long process involving a constant awareness of our place in the ever unfolding cosmic enterprise. Dealing with injustice and treating all people with kindness and mercy are expressions of gratitude for the favors (graces) of God.
The value of our many religious traditions is that they call us to focus on the gifts of first fruits, light and joy. We are urged to share these blessings with those living on the edges of society at least in our own backyards. These are the best presents we can distribute. They also can nourish and shape our consciences, strengthen our purposes, and bolster our behaviors in the public realm.
Where is the good news? We are the good news.
1. Thanks to the Edict of Cyrus the Babylonian captivity ended in 586 BCE.
2. Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Sit. Berkeley CA: Parallax Press, 2014, p. 51.
3. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 26 is a reference to the Catholic Church under the leadership of its bishops. Since the Vatican II Ecumenical Council the word “church” has been used in reference to all Christian churches.
4. From the Greek language the expression “to baptize” means to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one's self, bathe.
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Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa
The Second Sunday of Advent - Lectionary Year C
The Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa celebrations converge at this time of year in an annual relational dance. Each one is a festival of light and first fruits. A deeper examination of the biblical texts for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, also reveals more about who we are and what is our purpose.
Kwanzaa, originally thought to be a Black alternative to a “White Christmas,” has developed as a celebration of the first fruits of African American culture, history, art, and music. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa after the 1960s Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. He wrote: “The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose and direction.” Today we might add to his explanation — this is why “Black Lives Matter.”
The larger context for the fantastic miracle story of Hanukkah, which, is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah, is also about culture and identity. Simon Shama called it the “Hasmonean liberation festival.” It commemorated breaking away from the tyrannical clutch of the Seleucids, a Macedonian Greek [Hellenist] oligarchy.
The Hasmoneans, the ruling and ruthless dynasty of Judea up to 64 BCE, saw themselves as both a religious and military power. They were known for colonizing every nation they conquered. (Think of how many Christian missionaries later in history repressed indigenous cultures even while teaching them about Jesus Christ.)
According to Shama, the Hasmoneans saw themselves as the “appointed guardians of Torah Judaism against Hellenistic contaminations … [and] invented Hanukkah” presumably as a festival to keep the story of victory over enemies in the collective memories of Jews. 
According to free-lance author Bari Weiss, “Contained in this story [of Hanukkah] are the themes that have run through Jewish history. The tension between universalism and particularism. The battle between assimilation and self-assertion.” Weiss’s commentary could be applied to tensions currently experienced in Christianity as well as in other religious institutions and nation states.
The Hanukkah story, John the Baptizer’s announcement of the Coming One in today’s gospel (Luke 3:1-6), and the eventual emergence of Christianity — are linked. The Christmas festival (the 25th of December is also without a biblical backup), is truly a celebration of light and first fruits.
We recall that the 4th century date of the nativity was established to counter secular celebrations during the winter solstice. That year (336 CE) officially marked the birthing of the promised One into history, a commemoration that continues to stimulate the religious imagination, the stringing of lights, as well as the secular holiday industry.
Luke wrote this gospel after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, long before Jesus’ assigned birthday. Luke’s purpose was to depict John the Baptizer as the precursor not only of the Coming One but also of a new way of amalgamating differing cultural groups.
Some scholarship suggests Luke was sympathetic to Jews before he became a Christian. He urged his Greek speaking readers of today’s gospel to adhere to Jewish customs. Remember the Hasmoneans aimed to protect Jewish culture from the Greeks. Luke’s vision was for a “pluralistic community of Jews and Gentiles, Romans and non-romans in the common people of God.” 
In the mid-50s CE, and much earlier than Luke’s writings, Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (3:26-28) “There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Biblical scholar Richard B. Hays wrote that this letter to the Galatians reflects a critical moment in defining the identity and purpose of the Christian movement.
This biblical quote is not so much a call to a singular Christian culture or global religious practice but a summons to all people of different creeds, races, and ethnic groups to learn to work within a common ground. The three holiday festivals mentioned here remind us how all humans want to maintain a purpose in life that reinforces their identities, teachings, values.
The Hasmoneans wanted to guard Jewish identity against other super powers. Christians sought to strengthen an emerging Jesus cult against heretical movements. Blacks and people of color want to retain their unique identities and not be subjugated to White power and privilege.
While he was in prison Paul urged the Philippians (1:4-6, 8-11) to focus on things that really matter especially in the face of personal and communal setbacks. He summoned his audience to become partners with God in achieving peace on earth. He believed that the gospel message would advance against all odds.
Christians can heed this advice by striving to advance values shared by different cultures to counter the tensions that Bari Weiss described in her commentary on the origins of Hanukkah as “the pull between fundamentalism and secularism.” Weiss is raising “the complicated question of how far the bonds of peoplehood can strain before they break.”
During the season of Advent Christians frequently see John the Baptizer as an unusual desert-dweller who calls us to repent from evil ways. Make crooked roads straight. Level the insurmountable hills. Fill in the potholes. Was he preaching to corrupt leaders or the peasants who were victims of corruption? To “repent” means having a change of heart — an inner transformation that will bear fruit and cast light on others.
Urging diverse groups to share a vision for justice and peace seems to be an unlikely objective in a world ruptured by cultural clashes and societal problems. Will those of us who come from different classes, myriad religious traditions, and varying political postures be willing to have a change of heart, to eliminate unwavering and divisive agendas?
The Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa festivals of light and first fruits are three celebrations that remind us we can do just that if we are willing to take some risks.
1. You can read more about the Hasmoneans in the apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees.
2. Christopher R Matthews in David Attridge (Ed.) The Harper Collins Study Bible RSV (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989) p. 1761.