Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Reflection

Christmas Reflection

“Let there be light!”  You would think God would get tired of repeating the same command over and over.  The earth is shapeless, barren, wrapped in the darkness that veils the face of the abyss? “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:2-3)  Night descends over Egypt at noon?  Over the spot allocated to the Hebrew slaves, “Let there be light!” (Exodus 10:21-23. Jerusalem is blind and drunk, sunk deep in the dark pit of wanton idolatry?  “Let there be light!” (Isaiah 9:1) Darkness and the shadow of death hang over the world? “Let there be light!” (Luke 1:76-79)  

The command never changes, but the light does. Its source remains the God who most often wears a robe of cloud and fire in Scriptures, but the quality of light shifts through the filters of changing circumstance. Into the primal darkness breaks the first light, as yet undivided into sun, moon and stars.  Through the night out of season that shrouds stubborn Egypt breaks the sun to warm and illumine the beleaguered Israelites.  Into Jerusalem’s long season of blindness breaks the light of God’s word to waken the slothful and light their way to life.  But when the entire world is shrouded in death’s dark shadow, God breaks through the clouds in person: not in sunlight, not in word, but in the Child who is the “sun of justice,” the Word who was from the beginning,  the law of love embodied as well as spoken, the light of the world. 

December 25: we are in the neighborhood of the longest night of the year.   The ancient Romans tried to break the iron fist of winter darkness with a festival in honor of the birth of the Unconquered Sun on December 25.  It is possible, though not definite, that the Christian community took their cue from the custom to celebrate the newborn light of Christ. 

At Mass during the Night, in the Roman Catholic liturgy, we hear: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9). In the service held at dawn, the proclamation is firmer:  “Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born to us; and he will be called Wondrous God, Prince of Peace, Father of future ages, and his reign is without end” (Entrance Antiphon, cf. Isaiah 9:1, 5; Luke 1:33)  No need to attend Catholic services to have heard this declaration ring out over and over in the “Alleluia Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah!  On Christmas morning, the announcement takes on new majesty:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.  What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” And the final, ringing proclamation that we are not talking just about the past: even now, even today,  “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!”  There, we may think, it’s done!  But no, there is a coda, a coda we want almost to whisper in awe:  “And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-14). And this Light of the world is still here, Emmanuel, God with us.

How odd that St. Benedict never mentions Christmas.  The Church in Rome had celebrated the Nativity of Christ on this day as early as the fourth century.  Liturgical history for the regions outside Rome is sketchy for the period, but if Benedict himself had never experienced it, surely some of his monks had.  Yet the Rule says not a word about it.

Ah, but St. Benedict does indeed write of Christmas’s fallout: light. The Rule announces the light of Christ that felled Saul of Tarsus to the ground and raised him to become St. Paul.  It is the light that wakens us to the unremitting work of conversion. In the days after Christmas, when the adrenaline from the holiday rush subsides, the to-do list grows short, and the nights are still long, it might tempting to fall asleep amid comforting visions of a warm little stable dancing in our heads, until something new stirs our sense of purpose and energizes us to wake up and move forward.  St. Benedict cries out to us then:    “Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep [Rom 13:11]” (RB Prologue 8).  Look what awaits us! “ Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God….(RB Prologue 9).

Christmas has reminded us forcefully that the light that comes from God appeared and still lives among us in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, as we have seen.  What does this living, vibrant, unquenchable light enable us to see?  As the gospels unfold, Christ lays a finger on every corner of our experience and shows us in action a new way to live where once shadows veiled our path.  Mind you, it’s not always as comforting as the Christmas crib can be when we see there only a harmless baby, sweetly devoted parents, nice clean attractive shepherds carrying cute little lambs, and some colorful strangers from the east bearing exotic gifts.  This light shakes us out of bed and onto our feet.

But we might already have been warned of that at Christmas, had we looked more carefully.  A harmless baby?  Really?  A Child who transforms human history, indeed human being, into the true image of God is harmless? Sweetly devoted parents?  Nothing sweet about what their devotion demanded.  They were ready to shelter the Child on cold winter’s night, to uproot themselves and flee into enemy territory to protect him from Herod’s ambition, to build and rebuild a home in which they won’t be able to keep him long.  The bland Virgin of the Christmas cards became the tower of strength who would let her son go when he must, who would challenge and support him when it was time, who would stand beneath the cross and watch him die.  Nice clean, attractive shepherds with little lambs?  Hard-working people, disdained by their society, they inspired the story of that good shepherd of whom St. Luke would write, the one who goes out into the wilds and looks everywhere to find one lost sheep, perhaps dirty and bedraggled under a thorn bush, and carry it home.  Colorful strangers bearing gifts?  Strangers certainly, prefiguring the races and cultures who would travel far from their native beliefs to follow the light that leads to Christ.  And those races and cultures prefigure all of us, when the light uproots us from the comforts of familiar thoughts and ways to follow the source of the Light.

At Christmas, we have a powerful preview of all those whose lives are transformed by the Light:  the faithful members of the household who obey when difficult circumstances don’t offer much in the way of understanding;  the workers who go wherever the Word takes them to do whatever love requires of them to bring the lost out of the darkness into the light;  the onetime strangers who see the light and follow it down highways and byways to a new way of life.  In other words, we see gathered in the light of the crib obedience, service, and conversion personified. 

None of these Christmas characters were Benedictines.  None of them had ever heard of St. Benedict and his Rule.  But they have something to teach us, during Christmas and afterwards about the Light who wakes us up daily, in every liturgical season, and transforms our hearts through the practice of those very Benedictine values, obedience, service and conversion. 

St. Benedict never mentions Christmas.  At least, not exactly.  But he offers us a way of life that unfolds from the great gift at the heart of Christmas:  “the light that comes from God.”

Copyright 2014, Abbey of St. Walburga

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent Mountain Climbing

“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s!” (Isaiah 2:3)  Isaiah’s invitation sets our itinerary for the Advent season. Come along, we have someplace important to go!

Why the mountain of the Lord? Aren’t we supposed to be headed for Bethlehem? In the immediate future, of course: Christmas is less than weeks away. Stables large and small are coming out of attics, closets, basements and garages and getting dusted off. Shepherds and mangers and magi are being unwrapped. Lost sheep, lost camels, lost angels are being hunted out. We won’t even talk about the little town of Bethlehem already floating through the air at the grocery store. In Church, we pray, “Come, Lord, Jesus!” But wrapped deep in the memories of Christmases past, we know he is already here, has been for as long as we can remember and longer. It’s very comforting to say a prayer we know has already been answered. It may be the only prayer that carries with it no anxiety, no uncertainty, no bothersome questions. We speak of Bethlehem as if it lay in the future, but we firmly believe the great events that marked it out for its unforgettable place in world history took place long ago.

The mountain of the Lord, on the other hand, lies in the past and in the future. The mountain Isaiah is using as a visual aid for his prophecy is the mountain on which Jerusalem, and particularly the Jerusalem Temple, were built. That mountain is still there, but it has become both a holy relic of past greatness, the Old City at the heart of a thriving modern one,  the center for conflict among religions that Isaiah never knew, the stubborn foothold of belief with blood on its stones, dust in its streets, and merchants hawking tourist souvenirs in its bazaars. 

However, Isaiah takes off from the clamor of reality into poetic visions of the mountain of the Lord as it will be when all the promises have been fulfilled. He paints a memorable picture of predator and prey gathered together in peace: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-7)
Lambs inviting wolves to dinner? Leopards and kid goats lying down together, neither one dead? Bears and lions grazing on grass and hay, with cattle as their table companions? Really? What has to happen for that dream to come true? Not surprisingly, what must happen is conversion. Surprisingly, the conversion doesn’t turn wolves into lambs (or lambs into wolves, for that matter), lions into calves, bears into cows. No one has to turn into what she or he is not. What changes is relationships: the animals remain the same animals, but the roles of predator and prey disappear. God, speaking through the prophet, sums it up succinctly: “They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 9:9a).

Wolves, lions, and bears won’t starve on God’s mountain, mind you. No one will. God will provide a new menu: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Isaiah 25:6).

This culinary imagery captures in a few words a radical shift in cosmic food service. The Second Letter of Peter describes evil as the fiercest of predators: “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour” (2 Peter 5:8).  C.S. Lewis expands this image into senior demon Screwtape’s description of the philosophy of hell to his nephew, junior demon Wormwood: “Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger.” In this context, “us” includes Satan and all his demonic minions. We, of course, would never do such a thing. But Screwtape sums up the demonic dietary philosophy in a single sentence that skewers us to the wall as we’re trying to disown the image: “To be is to be in competition.” Carol Flinders, author of several books on medieval women mystics, says she once caught herself trying to bolster up her sense of self by pointing out (to herself) those who didn't play tennis as well as she did, those who were shorter or fatter or otherwise didn’t measure up to her. Her summary is cuts close to home: “a sense of self is something you build and consolidate over time by defeating or disempowering other selves. … [S]omething very like religious faith is involved here—the faith that I will be confident and secure, and, by extension, more fully a subject and ‘human,’ in proportion to the number of individuals I have defeated and disempowered – or could if I wanted to.”

But on God’s holy mountain, this unholy competition of devourer and devoured, predator and prey, will vanish. Death will become an ancient chapter in a closed book: “[God] will destroy death forever” (Isaiah 25:8).  What will bring about this bright new world? “[T]he earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). God complains now that “my people do not know my ways,” (cf Psalm 95:10)  but when we reach the mountaintop, we will. Knowledge of God includes intimate knowledge of God’s ways. Remember that “knowledge” in the bible is not a phenomenon of the mind but a communion of being. We will know God and know God’s ways and recognize that they are our ways too, we who are made in the divine image. So we will no longer be driven by a twisted sense of survival to devour one another, because God doesn’t. On the contrary, God will feed us all on a menu that “rich food” and “fine wine” don’t really quite capture. Part of Jesus’ job is to reveal the Father to us not merely by speaking explanatory words but by doing as God does. And Jesus nourishes us with his own very life. (cf. John 6). Now there is a menu no cordon bleu can ever surpass!

But why is the prophet tickling our imagination with pretty pictures of idylls and feasts? What do lions and lambs and groaning festal tables have to do with your life and mine in the nitty gritty where we live? These passages from Isaiah, and more like them, are set before us during Advent to force noses from grindstones and eyes from the dirty sidewalk with stabs of hope that force us to look up and look ahead. These flashes are the carrot and stick that drive Advent hope: here is what awaits you; what are you doing now to make yourself and your world ready?

Hope is not an escape from today but the energy God gives us clamber up the mountain toward tomorrow. Most of humanity has a desire for peace tucked into pockets somewhere deep in the mind. Most of us yearn for what the prophet promises. We might have other pictures for it, we might be plagued with doubts about whether or not it can ever happen, we might struggle with temptations to sit down on the nearest rock and take a nap, but the prophet goads us: climb!

Wait a minute!  What about Bethlehem? The Christmas story-- an earthquake wrapped in yet other comforting images of a devoted couple beside a manger, angels caroling in winter skies, shepherds trudging in from the fields to see the sight--is base camp for our climb. Soon now, we will stop there for a week or two. We might think we’re taking time out from the arduous work of scaling that ever-inviting, ever-receding mountain, but Christmas is far more than a vacation from school and work, a truce in wars as small as the family and as large as the world. Christmas is where we meet once again the most important person in the whole story, the One who will lead and accompany us every inch of the way: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-(climbing) with-us.

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (HarperCollins e-books; © 1942, 1996, C . S. Lewis Pte. Ltd) 94.
Carol Lee Flinders, At the Root of This Longing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) 294.

©2014, Abbey of St. Walburga