The True Gift

(Year B, First Sunday After Christmas, December 31 2017, Gospel Reading from John 1:1-18)

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
– John 1:12-13 (ESV)

Guido_Reni_003

First and foremost – “Merry Christmas!”

It is my hope that everyone who reads this blog had an enjoyable time celebrating the “reason for the season” – the Incarnation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t until relatively recently that I understood what a miraculous work the birth of Jesus actually is.  The pseudo-Christian culture we live in regards Christmas, when it does regard Christmas, as Christ’s birthday.  And as it concerns His humanity, I suppose that is appropriate.  But too often that’s where the thought process stops, and the true gift that was given to the Creation is left unopened.

I look at the Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke like a cleverly wrapped present.  In my family, and maybe some of yours, the best presents are the ones that you’re never really sure you’ve finished unwrapping.  They are multifaceted, many layered.  The outward miracle (the virgin birth) draws the seeker in and forces them to immediately choose a side, either discount the whole story or accept what the Gospel writers say happened.  If I disbelieve this detail of the story, that Christ was born of a virgin, then why should I believe any of the rest of it?  If this is embellished, what am I to do with a corpse being reanimated (let alone Resurrected)?  But if I do believe the Nativity account, then what choice do I have but to dig deeper – why born of a virgin?  Why Mary?  Why from the line of David?  Why Bethlehem?  Why born in a manger?  I could go on and on.  Like the cleverly wrapped present, I am drawn into removing the outer paper, investigating every aspect of the parcel in order to truly see what lies within.

The true gift is not at all what I thought it was at first.  Think about if the Christmas story were only about the birth of a baby boy in a humdrum town in late BC Palestine, even if he turned out to be a particularly good man.  It seems to me that the Santa Claus narrative as told today is a more compelling reason for celebration – aren’t baby boys and girls, good and bad born every day?  But Jesus’ birth in a manger is just the physical protrusion of the great Spiritual work that John is talking about in the first chapter of his gospel.  Where Matthew and Luke focus on the narrative of the nativity, John points out the theological import – and thank God he does, because many who claim the Name of Christ have missed it, celebrating the birth but not appreciating the Incarnation.

What is the gift then?  What is the “point” of Christmas and the Nativity accounts?  I believe, and the Church has taught since the first century, that the true gift is John’s statement in chapter 1 verse 12, that we who receive Him and call upon His Name are afforded the right to be called “sons of God.”  If He were just a boy who happened to be called “God Saves,” then the only right we would have would be to acclaim his perfect example, and we would be no better off than before.  For Jesus did not loosen the Law – if anything He strengthened it and made it more of a witness against us.  The only way we could have the right to be called sons of God is if God himself gave us that right.

For me there can be no doubt:  If we do not understand, as John does, that the Nativity was the Eternal Word of God becoming flesh and blood and sinew and matter, then we bar our way to receiving Him, and cast doubt on His Name.

This week, as we feast and celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord, I ask you to look a little deeper into the Holy mystery around the Nativity.  Think on its implications.  I ask you to pray for deeper understanding, and to give thanks for whatever understanding God has given you.

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The Lord is With Thee”

(Year B, Advent 4/Christmas Eve; Gospel reading from Luke 1:26-38)

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’”
– Luke 1:26-28

Tree_of_life_with_virgin_and_eve
Tree of Life with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale

We are almost there.  The past few weeks, as we have followed the readings in Advent, have you felt the anticipation building?  Especially in the last couple of weeks, we have seen glimpses of Jesus in the Gospel readings, but he plays a relatively minor part.  This week, that anticipation builds to a head as we have arrived both in the last Sunday of Advent and at Christmas Eve.  Advent 2 and 3 both focused heavily on John the Baptist; this week’s Gospel is all about Mary.

As an Anglican Christian, sometimes it seems hard to know what to “do” with Mary.  Anglicans get asked all the time if we are Catholic or Protestant.  The stock (and true) answer is that we are both catholic and reformed.  We are catholic in the ancient sense of the word, in that we believe and express the faith once preached by the Apostles, and we are reformed as it relates to setting to rights the excesses and errors of the Medieval Church.  Where does Mary fit in with this?

Mary is an extremely important figure in the Salvation story.  Just as Jesus redeemed the sin of Adam by laying down his life for the sake of the world, God undid the shame and reproach brought on by Eve’s sin by causing the Christ to be miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit acting upon a virgin.  The Son could have materialized as a bodily Savior without any interaction with a mother, but Christians believe that this was the better way, because it left no doubt as to His origin as it concerns His manhood (at least not to those who hear and believe the power of God).  By being born of the virgin, the Son explicitly shows His Creation that He truly came for all humanity, and explicitly shows that both male and female have a place in the Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, in response to the excesses of the Middle Ages, many Protestant movements eschewed any kind of Marian contemplation whatever (although this was not true from the beginning; Luther himself promoted a reverence – but not veneration – of Mary).  It can be a rare thing to see Protestant religious art that depicts Mary as a subject.  Many “mainline” Protestants will acknowledge other Biblical saints, but shy away from observing feasts related to Mary, such as the Dormition of the Theotokos (Mary’s Saint Day).  Is this reaction borne out in Scripture?

I contend that the total demotion of Mary to just “merely” the vehicle by which the Incarnate Son of God entered the world is just as error prone as the over-zealous promotion of the Blessed Virgin to near deity.  For how does Gabriel address her?  “Greetings O favored one, the Lord is with you!”  The King James says “Hail thou that art highly favored,” from which we get the opening to the prayer known as the Hail Mary.

The Church has said the Hail Mary since nearly the beginning, though it was originally rendered as

Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast given birth to the Savior of our Souls.

None of this is objectionable: the first sentence and first two clauses of the second are found directly in Luke’s Gospel account of the Annunciation; the closing clause is no less scriptural, since Mary did indeed bear the Savior of our Souls, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, what do we “do” with Mary?  We do exactly as the angel Gabriel did.  We acknowledge before God that he chose a mortal woman to deliver His Christ into the world.  We reflect upon the Gospel truth that “blessed [is she] among women!”  We rejoice in the fulfillment of prophecy first given by Isaiah that “a virgin shall give birth to a child, and call his name Emmanuel.” If you feel led, there is no harm in praying the Eastern Orthodox Hail Mary, because it does all of this and no more.  It gives all the honor due to the Blessed Virgin without embellishment or detraction.

Alternatively, when I say the Hail Mary, I say a form that acknowledges the Scriptural witness about the Blessed Virgin and points the salvific focus back on Christ:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Son of God, son of Mary, have mercy on us sinners now and in the hour of our deaths.

This is not so different from the original English rendering of the Orthodox Hail Mary, and I believe such a form should be said when the Christian feels led to reverence Mary.  I do not recall now where I first came across this form; if anyone reading this recognizes it please reference it in the comments.

As we approach Christmas Day, and celebrate the First Advent of Our Lord, I encourage you to join the angel Gabriel, the historic Church, and modern day Christians as we all say “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.

“He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease”

(Year B, Advent 3, December 17, 2017; Gospel Reading from John 3:22-30)

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:27-30 (ESV)

Aleksander_Ivanov_-_The_Apparition_of_Christ_to_the_People_(PR).jpg
The Appearance of Christ Before the People,
A. Ivanov, ca. 1837-1857

Last week, I wrote about our mutual unworthiness in comparison with Jesus Christ, and how this provides an example for modern day ministers of the Gospel.  This week, John the Baptist reveals another great truth that all Christians, and especially all would-be ministers should and must keep in mind: “I am not the Christ.”

You might be thinking, “But that’s obvious!  I am the first to admit I’m not perfect, and heaven knows that if John wasn’t worthy to unlace Jesus’ sandals, I’m barely fit to walk the same ground as Him!”  And that’s a fair and rightly humble attitude to take.  But does it marry up to your everyday life?  When you are met with adversity is your first response to pray and give it over to God?  When met with reproof for your actions (never mind if you believe they are right or wrong), do you accept the correction?  In a disagreement, is your first instinct to relinquish the high ground so that the other will not fall into deeper disaster?  I know in my case, the answer is “no, no, and no.”  It is like I know in my head that I am not the Christ, but my actions and attitudes are what I imagine a Chosen King’s should be.  But being the Christ is not merely about perfection or overwhelming Worthiness.  John said, “I am not the Christ” because his followers needed to understand that, for all his good teaching, John was not what he prepared the way for.  We say, “I am not the Christ” because the truth of that statement is painfully and abundantly manifest in our lives.

To be the Christ, as I said, is not just about perfection and the inherent Worthiness of being the very Son of God.  To be the Christ is to trust perfectly in the Father, secure in the perfect love between Father and Son.  To be the Christ is to put the personal will second to the Father’s Will.  To be the Christ is also to be the perfect lover of the souls of men and women.  Setting aside my imperfection and my inherent un-Worthiness as a created being, I find it easy to trust God – but only when things are already in hand.  I can easily subject my own will to His – so long as our wills aren’t that far different.  Finally, I love people – especially those that I know will love me back, and look like the sort of people that it’s okay for me to hang around.

I am not the Christ.  It is only if Christ lives in me that I can claim any part of Him.

John says “I am not the Christ” to emphasize that he is not the Big Thing that his followers are supposed to be looking for.  He goes on to say “my joy is complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”  In the words he uses to teach his disciples his role in the First Advent of Jesus Christ, John also gives us the secret to turn the heaviness of the charge “I am not the Christ” into the hope and joy of all the world:  By sacrificing myself – putting my will, wants, and appetites second – I leave room for Jesus to fill my life with His perfection.  But any part of me that I do not give up, that I hold onto tightly, that part of me cannot be transformed and filled with Jesus.  The prescription against the disease of sinful Death is that “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This reading is for the Third Sunday in Advent.  Advent is one of two seasons of preparation, the other being Lent.  Advent is not overtly penitential in character in the same way that Lent is, but an overarching principle of “making ready” connects the two seasons.  In Advent, we anticipate Jesus’ Second Coming by remembering the first.  We started off this journey talking about the End of the Age.  Last week, we continued by recognizing our unworthiness-made-worthy in God’s call upon our lives, and the call for all of us to be like little Johns the Baptist.  This week we hear again from John, who this time models for us the behaviors and attitudes necessary for our hearts and souls to be made ready for the Lord.  Next week, we will hear the culmination of the first Advent story, and celebrate the realness of the first Christmas while the whole creation groans for the restoration following the Last Christmas, which will be the Day of the Lord.

In response to this reading, and as a preparatory and prayerful meditation looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation as a baby boy in a stable, I invite you to join me in praying: “I am not the Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

“I Am Not Worthy.”

(Year B, Advent 2, December 10, 2017; Gospel Reading from Mark 1:1-8)

“And he preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’” – Mark 1:7 (ESV)

Musée_de_Lille_P._F._de_Grebber
Pieter Fransz de Grebber, John the Baptist preaching before Herod; 17th Century

How many of us enter our careers knowing that we are not God’s gift to our chosen profession?  How many of us further know that we are just stage-setters for someone else to come along and be that “chosen one” or the “rock star”?  Finally, how many of us, even if we knew and acknowledged the above, would accept it and willingly tell everyone who would listen about it?  I must confess that for me this would be a very tall order, and I think that it would be fair to say that many would find this a difficult life to lead.

John the Baptist was an impressive preacher, as evidenced in this Gospel account by the masses of people that sought him out in the wilderness.  Mark tells us that many heard his message and were “baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  This is the measure of success that many ministers of our day have in their view – that some soul in dire need of the message of Jesus would just hear the word God gives us and they would believe and be baptized.  Every time this happens, it is like God stamping His approval on our work!

John doesn’t stop at baptizing the people though; where this would be the pinnacle of many ministries, John treats it as just the top of the first hill on a longer journey – one that I think he may have known he wouldn’t see all the way through.  Instead of stopping, John goes on to tell his audience about the One who will come after him, whose ministry will be superior to John’s in every way.  And instead of being bitter or sour about it, he appears awe-struck in his language, telling the crowd that even the humblest task one could do for someone else was far above John.

This is the image of what every minister of the Gospel, from Christ’s Ascension until His Return, should strive for.  John, as the forerunner for Christ’s first Advent, is also a type of the kind of minister we should be in anticipation of his second.

John approached his calling to preach repentance and the coming of the Son of God with humility.  He did this in the way he dressed, in his diet, and in how he shared the message he was given to the people.  By clothing himself in “camel’s hair” and wearing a “leather belt around his waist” he contrasted himself from the religious leaders of the day, also calling the people’s minds to previous preachers in the desert.  By eating locusts and honey, he denied himself fine foods and relied on the Providence of God above the fruits of man’s labors.  Finally, by staying in the wilderness, and preaching about the One who would come after him, he de-emphasized himself – and relied on God to send those who truly sought to hear the message.

Today, we have many examples of ministers, pastors, and priests who live into this image with varying degrees of success.  Some of the most grievous blows to the modern Church have been a result of ministers forgetting who the ministry is about – and importantly who it isn’t.  On the other hand, some of the best examples of the Gospel message have been lived by ministers who approach the task with careful humility, as a loving father approaches the sober reality of raising children.

In this Gospel reading, Mark captures a confession that should and must be central to everyone who would share the message of the Gospel – “I am not worthy.”  By saying that he was unworthy to do the meanest task for the Christ, he confesses that he is also unworthy of the trust of souls placed before him.  However, do not hear in this confession an excuse for why you shouldn’t share the Gospel – even though John confessed that he was unworthy to untie the strap of Jesus’ sandals, remember that he baptized the very Son of God.  God called and chose John to be His minister on Earth to “prepare the way of the Lord [and] make His ways straight.”  While John on his own was being truthful in his confession of unworthiness, God, by choosing John for this task, made him as worthy as He needed him to be.

This confession of unworthiness is the same confession that we must have when we approach the judgement seat of God.  For if we wrongly think ourselves worthy, we tacitly reject the sacrifice of Christ crucified.  To say, “I am not worthy,” is a grace unto itself, because it reveals the sincere heart that has been softened by the Holy Spirit.  Such a heart will not fall into Pharaoh’s trap, or Herod’s mire, or be guilty of Pilate’s sin.  It is not without fault, but its faults can be mended because it recognizes and freely confesses the truth.

As an Anglican Christian, one of the traditions I am thankful to be a recipient of is the recitation of the Prayer of Humble Access at every Eucharist.  This is a regular reminder of the same truth that John the Baptist confessed to first century Jews in anticipation of the coming of Christ.  It reaffirms that I am not worthy on my own, by my own lights, to even approach the altar.  If I truly understand the physical bread and wine to be the Spiritual Body and Blood, then I have no right to even touch the elements, much less eat them.  But it is by God’s grace and love for His creation that despite my unworthiness He allows and even invites me to take part in the weekly communion of His people.

As we continue in Advent, I encourage you to keep praying for ready hearts and open ears, and to also seek after true humility.  Remember John the Baptist, not only as part of the Advent story of anticipating the coming of Christ and his ministry on earth, but also as an image, or type, of the kind of ministry we are to have as we await Christ’s return.  Finally, I ask you to earnestly pray for God to reveal to you what work He would have you do as you await the coming Kingdom.

Grace and peace to all, in the Name of Our Savior Jesus who is the Christ.