The Mirror and the Manger

Students and colleagues who claim the richness and freedom of aetheism have prompted much thought and consideration. Stepping back, bathing in the technological innovations and scientific shifts of the last decades, excitment and awe cleanse ignorance and embolden possibilities. The very earth quakes with the rapidity of change and the stress of multiple generations caught in the riptide of transition. And so we evolve as human beings, re-creating the world we live in, the communities that shape lives, and the thinking that enables being. Healthy skepticism stalks the stories that offered satisfaction to earlier worlds. Revelation and prophecy have found a home as supposition, lost ground to statistics and data. So where does faith fit? With the Bethlehem Star intersection of Jupiter and Saturn, where does the narrative of the birth of Jesus fit? Has it a place in this new world? What does the Nativity story offer?

As Catholics and Protestants alike recall the birth of Jesus, there is a palpable connection to the reality of human life: family, birth, joy, fear, uncertainty and promise. The story mirrors the most basic facets of human life, and so every incarnation of it that is sculpted by culture bears a depth of validity and holds out an invitation to the rest of the Gospel. Beyond that point is another: a God who chooses human shape, form, interaction, connections. In other words, this is not a God trapped in the myths of pantheons or the statues of artists. This Jesus walks, talks, emotes, provokes, invites, shares and dares to hope. This is a story of layers, textures, woven together as every human story is from a variety of perspectives. And the angels of Luke, the Magi of Matthew, meld together the understandings of generations about an extraordinary life with Jesus’ simple and direct teachings and an extraordinary birth.

Faith in this Jesus offers a series of lessons. First, we are all simultaenously ordinary and extraordinary. Second, we are not alone; we exist in communities with persons and connections that we both need and contribute to. Third, decisons and choices, purpose and moive truly matter. The Nativity story itself frames each of these, and it invites serious consideraton of the ways in which each of us lives.

We are each the heroes of our own story. The Nativity story is a reminder that is fallacy for everyone plays a role in every story. There is the innkeeper, the shepherds, the angels, Joseph ever so reticent and Mary just barely detailed. Learning from the story means beginning to believe in the magnaminity of a God who cradles each life as extraordinary in the midst of its very ordinariness. It is the chance to begin to believe that each of us is loved, cared for, by the God who dares to provide all this: each life matters. That sense is wound healing; that belief is empowering. It establishes hope and confidence, the kind of love that sustains through crisis, tragedy, and brokennesss. It offers forgiveness, hope and well being. It survives trial and triumph. Most importantly, it is the glimmer of the divine, something beyond what is merely human. It is the gift of unfailing divine love, given to mere mortals to navigate events and relationships. That all echoes the measures of 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails.” It provides a pathway for life that is not simply about self. It is a consciousness of who we are and who we can be when we dare to look in the mirror of the manger and know the reality of divine love.

Four Flames

For a week, the fourth candle on the Advent wreath will trace heightened anticipation on the hearts of those who wait. There is a magic to the waiting, even a wanting. For its roots stretch bravely beyond each human heart into the worlds of earlier generations, decades and millenia past. It is the candle, this fourth week, that captures the connections among us all and opens up the possibility of oneness in awe, unity in diversity and freedom in faith. Beyond all the realties of 2020, there is a world waiting for hope and promise. This final week is all about that: discovering what is really there and beginning to believe in what could be more than what should be.

Interpreting Scripture in its most literal sense empowers some sense of clarity and historicity. There is another way: take a step back. Imagine the words leaping into heart and mind. Hear them as part of your own story. Allow yourself to enter the passage, to be David, to be his offspring, to experience the goodness of the Lord, to see Gabriel confiding her future to Mary, to feel the awe and wonder of being connected to something far greater than self. Linger for a moment there. This is far more than virtual reality. It is the openness that characterizes risk, daring, and vision.

In the first reading, David notices the splendor of his own lifestyle versus the treatment of the Ark of the Covenant. The prophet Nathan (2 Sm 7:14a, 16) conveys the real message:

“The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”

This is not about buildings, monuments; it is about human beings, people connected to one another and to God, conscious of the Divine in the muddle of the mundane. It transcends culture, color, ethnicity and nationality. It is about birth, beginnings and endings, change and continuity…..if we allow it to be. The fourth candle invites us to allow it to be.

There are the tantalizing words form Romans 16:

Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever.

“To him who can strengthen you” exudes the element of choice, of possibilities. But there is also “the obedience of faith”, words that yeild a wealth of interpretation. Suppose there that unity can be found in the acknowledgement of faith, a sense of the divine. Suppose this is not about rules or laws or rituals, but the ideal of seeing human beings as linked to the divine, the spiritual, a rich and intangible dimension of human existence? That shared understanding enlivens mutial respect, collaboration, purpose and possibilities.

And there, of course, is the Gospel story. Scholars can dance with each phrase and expression; skeptics can slice through with the scientific. Listeners can imagine the scene, the quiet, the flood of emotions, the clash of rational thoughts and an impossible situation. Every one of us has been there; we all cope with the impossible. But here, here are words that impart confidence, strength, without a promised outcome. Luke 1:21-36 invites trust.

“Nothing will be impossible for God…”

Darkness bows before the flames now. The final days before Christmas 2020 unfold in the cold chill of winter air. And here, awash in the light yet resting in the darkness, here we have the chance to see who we are, to choose who we can be, and to become who we are each meant to be. The Mystery continues to unfold in each of us…

Three Flames

Crumpled and forgotten, the notebook pages were begging to be unfolded. Jagged-edged, each page bore the engaging rounded script of a child. “Human beings are greedy and selfish. They are responsible for all the hate in the world and have caused discrimiantion, racism, and cruelty to the LGBTQ…Human beings are horrible creatures…” Every word dripped with hardcore experience, and a weight too great for the young to bear alone.

There was a logic to it, an echoing reality founded on 2020’s agonies. But there was a wistful sadness as well, a sense of resignation. The Third Sunday of Advent addresses that very sense of hopelessness, the darkness that overwhelms and defines who we are and what we are about. In contrast to the greed and selfishness so visible to that child, the readings from the Third Sunday of Advent offer hope and promise. In an era of science, skepticism and secularism, these readings offer comfort in ambiguity, a path in uncertainty and a hope in these unsettling times.

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11 describes the experience of the presence of God, the sense of joy in that, and literally partaking in that presence. There is no doubt here that each person, animated by the Spirit, is part of the parcel of the presence of God.

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.


There is more, of course. In the Gospel, John the Baptist invokes these very words. He also acknowledges his small place in the universe as he lives out his call. This third week is all about living and being which entails seeing the goodness in ourselves, the slivers of God in the sparkle of an eye or the beauty of a touch. The flicker of these three flames invites reconsideration of greed and selfishness; each literally calls us into service to one another without a focus on self. Each flame illuminates the path ahead, a path that opens up a vision beyond the present and that promises meaning and purpose. After all, at the best of times, life is challenging and frustration can be overwhelming. But at this time, the simplicity of faith and the joy of knowing love offers comfort and hope. All is not lost. Discovering the goodness of humanity against the backdrop of a pandemic is not easy. The possibilities are there!

Two Flames and Faith

Thomas Aquinas claimed that for those who have faith, no explanation in necessary; for those who do not, none is sufficient. This second week of Advent, two flames burn on the Advent wreath. Each brightens the darkness of night; each testifies to time’s passage. For the faithful, these weeks unwind salvation history in the readings from the Old Testament, and the Gospel. Most importantly, every passage is a reminder that each person has a place in that story, a home in that history. The candles of the second week of Advent are all about that and more.

Faith is at the very heart of Advent. Two flickering flames offer the promise of a pathway. And the journey is really to more than the manger: it is the chance to recognize Jesus as a human being, a teacher, and the Son of the Father. Every step of the way is a beginning, a deepening, a chance to breathe deeply. The readings speak of the centuries of desire, of longing. Isaiah’s prose is unrivaled; it echoes the intricacies of human desire.

40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

40:4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Once again, the portal to faith is opened. To dare to imagine that there is something beyond what is visible, measurable, and tangible, is audacious. To suggest, or intimate or simply trust, that there is a reality beyond the physical human dimensions is mind-bending. Grasping for understanding, for explanations, for “facts” and unassailable truths and realities is so much a function of humanity. But to suspect that there is more, to dream that there is something beyond, reflects another facet of human life: hope. And it resides in the second reading, from 2 Peter 3: 8-14, “we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.”
Perhaps, then faith is more than irrationality or misplaced confidence in a deity. Perhaps faith is a commitment to something better than what is, a confidence that there is a reality that transcends legal and economic, social and educational systems.

Or perhaps faith is built on something like humility. Maybe it is about realizing that human beings are not the sole proprietors of reality. Maybe it is actually about the chance to recognize that there could be something greater than we are. Maybe that is what John the Baptist’s message was actually all about.

John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
Mark 1:1-8

And so the lights of Advent, tender and tentative now, are invitations to look more deeply at the meaning of faith, at the essence of the journey, and at the possibility that there is a message worth hearing. Advent offers us the chance to understand how small we are in the history of the world and the universe, how very precious our thoughts and experiences are, and how there is so much more to life than what we might suspect.