December 25, 2020
The Wonder of the Birth
The marvel and wonder of the birth of Jesus is that we understand him to be not just a child of Mary and Joseph, but that he is indeed God come to be among us, “Emmanuel” as Matthew makes clear to us. This is the Incarnation, that wild idea that God would care enough about us to come and take human form, to live among us, to do the very things that we do, in order that we might know that God loves us, cares for us, and claims us as family.
There is an old John Denver song that speaks of the birth being that of “Spirit into man.” I would update his gender usage were I to be re-writing his lyrics, but the idea is still striking – the Spirit of God taking human form. It is a transition from that great mystery of who God is, to the mundane everydayness of our own human existence. And yet, one of the things that gives our lives substance, is that the very same Spirit of God indwells within each of us, and is made known to us according to the measure by which we welcome that Spirit into our daily lives.
The mystery and wonder of God so often seem beyond our understanding. Even the Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians about the peace of God surpassing all understanding. Yet, through the centuries, poets, visual artists of all kinds, writers, and preachers, have all tried to give us a vision of that mystery and wonder through their work. Together, all such creativity has provided us with glimpses of the truth, and opened our eyes and our hearts to the possibilities of God’s presence among us.
As I close this calendar year with this blog entry, I leave with you an image created by a young artist in our congregation, a pencil drawing that in its simplicity speaks of such wonder. And Merry Christmas to you.
December 18, 2020
The Lens of Joy
As we move steadily toward the celebration of Christmas, we yet have the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and then Christmas Eve. That gathering for worship on the night before Christmas has always been for me one of the most beautiful worship times all year. Part of it is the candlelight, which adds such a special feeling to the atmosphere of the evening. Part of the beauty is the music, with the choral pieces and the carols seeming to take on added significance as we stand at the threshold of Christmas itself. And part of it is the sense of warmth and joy that fills the gathering, which, while always there, seems even more inviting in the glow of the approach of Christmas.
Altogether, it is the feel of having walked a journey together, of having made the Advent trek to the Bethlehem of our imaginations, to the manger that resides in our hearts. Part of the feeling for me as well is that with the shopping done, and most of the wrapping completed, with parties having been celebrated, or in this year perhaps not, with the preparations done, all that is left as we gather at 9:00 pm on Christmas Eve is to receive the gifts that God is bringing to us, to revel in the beauty and joy of the moment.
I will miss that in-person experience this year, perhaps more than anything else in this season. And yet, I want what we do virtually to be able to capture some of the grace that comes to us on Christmas Eve. I hope to achieve a portion of that through an abundance of candles in the worship space, even though I will be the only one there to see them in person. The challenge will be to include the view of that candlelight in as many portions of the service as possible. In addition, I will invite people to not only light the candles in their home Advent wreaths, but to also light other candles around whatever room they are in for the worship experience. The light of Christ will spread from one location to another, and we will hopefully glimpse that abundance of light as we view the settings that others have assembled.
I will also draw upon the several artistic works that one of our college students created within worship over the past few years. I will arrange them so that they can be seen on the Zoom screens, perhaps screen-sharing them at points in the service. You can do the same with either works of art, or special banners, or other creations that people will be able to see, and then feel inspired through their viewing.
This is a different kind of year. It will definitely be a different kind of Christmas Eve service. But the challenge to create something of beauty and meaning is actually exciting to me. I am looking forward to this Christmas Eve in new ways, helping people to see and experience with renewed joy.
December 11, 2020
The Lens of Creativity
When many of us were children, we at one time or another found our way into a Christmas pageant. The prize roles were Mary and Joseph, and the angels, but for those of us who were more shy, or didn’t really want to be in the pageant in the first place, being a shepherd, or one of the Magi, was more our style. Of course, in churches with large numbers of young people, we may even have been in the role of a tree or a star if we showed little interest in the event.
As our church’s Scripture as Theatre workshop crafts new productions, there is seldom anyone either looking for a small role or concerned about being cast in a larger role for a particular play. Basically, everyone just enjoys the writing process, and then the editing, the rehearsing and the presentation. It is the total experience that matters, and our Artist-in-Residence, who casts the plays and directs them, works hard to ensure that the leading roles are passed around from one person to another through the year. Personally, I am happy to engage the process and be cast in smaller roles. I do plenty in worship every week already, and I am pleased that others get to participate and bring their talents to the worship time.
Our group has crafted a short play that will be a part of our worship gathering this coming Sunday, focusing of course on the story of the birth. But one of the interesting elements to this play has been the development of characters who are nowhere to be found in the actual biblical texts. That certainly isn’t new, since for years and years the role of the innkeeper has been a part of Christmas pageants. As I am sure you know, while an inn is mentioned in Luke’s account, there is never an introduction to any innkeeper. Perhaps taking inspiration from that particular addition to the story, our folks have created roles for a midwife and a woman in Herod’s court who refuses to tell him where the child is, and have also filled in the roles of Herod and the Magi in ways far beyond what we read in scripture.
Such creativity helps us to hear the ages old story in ways that keep it fresh, ways that challenge us to consider our own views of what things looked like, even smelled like in that stable, and how the people interacted when Jesus was born. It is a continuing way in which we claim the story as our own, not deleting details from scripture, but adding to the picture through our imaginations.
December 4, 2020
The Lens of Generosity
At one of our church yard sales in years past, I discovered a small, framed print of a church, depicting what I took to be the season of Advent. Although the artist’s name is clearly seen, my internet searches revealed nothing about the piece. Nonetheless, I present it here for your reflection.
There are several parts of the print that especially catch my attention. The first is the sky full of stars. It is striking because in all other respects this seems to be a daytime scene. One could consider that the rest of the scene is somehow brilliantly lit at night, but it seems like daylight to me. The presence of the stars in the daytime sky certainly goes along with how some people see the travels of the Magi as told in Matthew’s Gospel, with the travelers being able to follow the star at any time, since it’s brilliance would have made it able to be seen during the night or day. In any case, without the sky full of stars the entire scene would be quite different.
The second element that interests me is the overall setting of the scene. It is quite obviously a Catholic Church, in a style similar to many of the California missions. The palm trees also give a hint that it could be somewhere in California, although many other environs have palm trees as well. Yet, the well-decorated Christmas tree that is only partially seen, and the red ribbons that adorn the archway, the one window, and the clothes of the choristers, clearly indicate the season, and the scene could be depicting an event during Advent or even the celebration on Christmas morning.
The third element that I love about the work is the multi-generational composition of the congregation. There are only a couple people of color depicted in the work, but it does give at least a hint of the wider membership of the church. Included among the crowd is a young girl holding a candle, much as we would usually do in our church’s Christmas Eve service. It is perhaps a testament to the baby born to be the light of the world.
Finally, and the main reason that I bought the piece, there is a sense of welcome that is offered in at least two ways. The first is the choristers lining the steps, along with the two who seem to be leading the singing, all of whom provide a pathway along which the worshippers can enter the church. The second indication of welcome is the doors of the church standing wide open, inviting people in.
Advent is meant to be a special time of welcome and generosity, even as we are encouraged to once again welcome the Christ child into our hearts. And, in this trying year, when we cannot welcome one another in the ways we would truly like to, generosity stands yet as a blessed, and even necessary, gift that we can offer to one another.
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