No Time to be Born

Christmas Eve 2016, St. John’s Cathedral

I held  8-week old baby Stone Marshall throughout this homily. I began by speaking with the Dad about his little firstborn son. The first paragraph captures our conversation:

Before we are parents, our lives are pretty free, right? I mean we could kind of do what we wanted with our time, energy and money. If we wanted to go out for dinner, we could. If we wanted to read a book, we could. If we wanted to travel, we just decided to go. Then comes the baby, and my goodness, does s/he have power over our lives. Not only over our lives, but over our hearts! Baby’s needs dictate our activity 24/7. But a peculiar thing happens to us: the baby’s helplessness and vulnerability have an unusual power to open hearts, hearts that discover a limitless supply of love and joy to pour into this little bundle of life …

Imagine we have four persons present here: a dictator, an Olympic athlete at the peak of his career, a rock star scoring at the top of the charts, and a newborn baby. What do all four have in common? Power – all four have power of some kind.Which of these ultimately has the most power to open hearts? The baby! The baby ultimately wields the greatest power. The athlete could lose his power, the dictator can kill others, and the rock star can fizzle out. But the baby has a different kind of power. It can touch hearts in a way that a dictator, an athlete, or a rock star cannot. Its innocent presence, without physical strength or words, can transform a room and a heart in a way that guns, muscle, and charisma cannot. (I’m guessing several of you are paying more attention to little Stone right now than to my homily … Stone has more power than I do)

Friends of mine became parents to tiny Julia. Their joy was covered with the shroud of death when the doctors told them their little daughter might only live for a few hours. Julia beat the odds and lived for 23 days. At Julia’s funeral her father shared on his daughter’s short life: “No one has ever had so much power than our little Julia. She drew love from us in ways we never thought we were capable of giving. She touched hearts we never thought could be touched. She called us to love in ways far beyond our expectations.” It was the saddest funeral I ever attended; I can still see the little white casket at the front of the church. But little Julia continues to give me life today, 19 years later, as I recall her witness and her power.

The powerlessness of a baby opens our hearts wide, touching us at a deep moral place. Around a baby, we watch our language and try not to have bitter arguments; we try to be better, more loving persons. Metaphorically, a baby has the power to cast out evil. It can cast out demons of self-absorption and selfishness in us.

The Gospels describe Jesus’ power and authority in exactly this way. In Greek, the original language of the Gospels, we find three words for power or authority. We easily recognize the first two: energy and physical strength. There is a power in energy, in physical health and muscle, just as there is a power in being dynamic, in dynamite, in having the power to generate energy; but when the Gospels speak of Jesus as “having great power” and as having a power beyond that of other religious figures, they do not use the words energetic or dynamic. They use a third word, exousia, which is best translated as vulnerability. Jesus’ real power was rooted in a certain vulnerability, like the powerlessness of a newborn child that powerfully opens and softens human hearts.

This is the kind of power God wants to use to win our hearts. So is it any wonder that God, in his wisdom and great love for us, comes to us in a newborn baby yearning to invade our hearts just like little babies do?

If you’re anything like me, you love to watch old Christmas movies. One all-time favourite is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Even when having watched this film several times, I noticed something this year that I haven’t noticed before.

Charlie Brown is best known for his never-ending depressed mood. Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. Throughout the movie we hear Sally, Snoopy and others cry out insistently: “Linus, drop that blanket!” Linus’ security blanket remains a major source of charliebrowntree1ridicule. But Linus, otherwise pretty mature and thoughtful, simply refuses to give it up. Until  … Linus shares “what Christmas is all about.” When Linus utters the words, “fear not” he drops … his security blanket. Other attempts to separate him from his blanket had failed. Baby Jesus succeeds … At the end of the movie, we see Linus’ blanket wrapped around the Christmas tree. Linus is set free from his fears…

For way too many people the world of 2016 is a very scary place. And most of us find ourselves grasping onto some type of security blanket, whatever that may be. The terrible blows life can deliver us can make it very difficult to “fear not.”

But in the midst of fear and insecurity, Linus dropped his blanket when he realized the truth about the Christmas story. This much-beloved inspiring movie classic issues an invitation to seek true peace and true security in the one place it has always been and can still be found: In the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem.

The birth of Jesus still has real “power” to calm our fears. The birth of Jesus still has real “power” to free us from  habits we are unable (or unwilling) to break ourselves. The birth of Jesus still has real “power” to make the world a safe place, despite all the violence, abuse and terror attacks.

And so we come together on this Holy Night because we believe that Jesus Christ, the unique son of God, whose birth we celebrate, is the face of God on earth. In Jesus we see most fully divine love and justice, divine mercy and compassion, to which we are all called.

He grew as we grow through all the stages of life. He lived as we live, prey to the pressures of evil yet choosing the good and the beautiful, choosing the grace and the mercy of God. In Jesus, God knit himself intimately into our lives. In the vulnerable power of Jesus, we can be saved from our sin and learn from him never to stray from the mind of God.

Through Christ we can become new people, called beyond the consequences of our brokenness and lifted to the fullness of life. By living God’s love, grace and mercy to the full Jesus opened the way to our salvation. He showed us the Way, lived it for us, opened it for us, suffered for it and died because of it. Jesus modeled how to hold fast to God’s love even in the face of betrayal and death.

Because of the baby whose birth we celebrate tonight we too can live with a new heart, a new mind, and new strength despite all the suffering and death that ambushes our lives every day. Let this vulnerable baby Jesus draw from our hearts all the love and joy and grace and mercy we can muster. God knows how badly our world needs this.

Let me end with a poem by Madeleine l’Engle, the well-known writer of children’s books.

The Risk of Birth (Christmas, 1973)

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of doom;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And yet by a comet the sky is torn–
Love still takes … the risk … of birth.


Special thanks baby  Stone Marshall who slept in my arms the whole time, and to Rolheiser’s column on exousia.

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Silent Joseph Speaks

Preached at St. John’s Cathedral in Saskatoon this morning on Mathew 1:18-25. Of all characters featured in the Advent Scriptures, we never hear Joseph speak his own words. So I decided to give him a voice:

Good morning everyone. I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar – my family line goes back to King David. So Matthew wrote about me in his Gospel – I guess you could call it my Annunciation (you know, Annunciation – to announce …) Some announcement it was all right! Embarrassing and shocking to say the least, to find the woman I was engaged to with child – and I knew it wasn’t my child! You know, in our days to be “betrothed,” engaged, carried more weight than it does in your day today. To be engaged meant that formal words of promise were exchanged. Mary and I had entered a sacred covenant with each other. In the Law of Moses, in the eyes of the people, Miriam – my dear Mary – was already my wife. But she would still live with her parents for another year or so, before I would come in procession to get her, to bring her into my home and into our bridal chamber.

So imagine my horror when I learnt Mary was pregnant! How could I ever go through with the marriage now??! The Law of Moses was crystal clear on what to do with an unfaithful wife – cast her aside, stone her! But I could never do this to my beloved Mary – I loved her way too much. But neither could I dismiss the Law of the Lord. O my God, what to do?? My heart was breaking and I was terrified. I had many sleepless nights with tears of agony …

Then when I finally slept for sheer exhaustion, that night I had a dream. In the dream a figure like an angel spoke to me: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Do not be afraid?! How could I not be?! And a child … from the Holy Spirit?! What if your daughter or wife comes home and tells you that? But the angel went on with words that rang a distant bell in my mind, a bell of insight in my fear-stricken mind and my breaking heart: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Where had I heard these words before?

Now you need to know that I loved God. I loved Mary, of course, but I also loved God – fiercely. It was important for me to live according to God’s ways all my life. I wanted so much to be counted as righteous before the Almighty. So I made sure to ponder the Scriptures often, especially the prophets.

And now as I tried to make sense of the dream, my familiarity with the prophets paid off. I recognized the words of the angel –they echoed Isaiah’s words: “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel…” Really? Hmm … Mary was a virgin all right, that I knew … or I thought I knew … but what if God … hmm …

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t all honkie-dorie right away. I was still scared to death – literally. But now the situation with Mary began to look differently. And I wondered if I … was being called to something new … but to what though? Should I put my trust in the law of Moses or trust Isaiah’s words that God was indeed up to something brand new through my dearly beloved fiancée Mary? Should I quietly divorce Mary to minimize scandal, or risk taking her into my home, name the child Jesus, and be his father?

At first part of me said: “Come on, it’s just a dream!” I’m sure you’ve said that about your own dreams at times. But hold on a minute … Even your modern day psychology considers dreams as bringing messages from the unconscious, so don’t dismiss them too quickly. In my day there was no such psychology wisdom, but we had the Holy Book. And that Book did tell me too not to dismiss dreams, but to take them seriously. I remembered my ancestor Jacob – he had dreams. My namesake Joseph was betrayed and sold by his brothers, and grew up in Egypt – he was known as a dreamer. But that talent eventually helped him to save our people. There was King Nebuchadnezzar whose sleep was disturbed by unsettling dreams for many nights. Eventually he turned to Daniel to interpret them. And what do you think of the prophet Joel’s words:

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams (that’s me!), and your young men will see visions.”

So I slowly realized that my dream could have a message too, a divine message that helped me overcome my fear. I took a deep breath – don’t forget to breathe when you’re afraid – and took my dearly beloved pregnant Mary as my wife. And the rest is history as we say.

But, you might wonder what all this has to do with you here in Saskatoon in 2016? Well, let me tell you what I learnt through all this.

One, God continues to speak to us in all time and place. But … God’s speaking is not always black and white. To really hear and recognize God’s speaking we first need to orient our entire lives towards his plan for us, long before the cryptic messages arrive in our dream inbox. If our hearts and minds are steeped in our sacred tradition, grounded in the ways of God, this will both anchor us and give our lives purpose and meaning. The wisdom of our faith tradition will be a trustworthy guide. At the same time this wisdom tradition always needs to remain open to a new future – always. We can never regard it as exclusive and absolute, as our God is a God of new life and surprises at all times. Take it from me – I know from experience! Do both: listen to God’s wisdom in the tradition and wrestle with the complexity of life, while leaving room for the possibility that God might want to bring about something new in and through you.

Two, by risking to trust the new thing God was doing in and through Mary with her son Jesus, I made “my” son Jesus the most important reason for living and loving, and I’m so grateful now that I did.Now in your modern day and age, you are seduced to put your trust in many other things besides God and Jesus. In fact, it’s pretty ironic that this season of waiting for the birth of the Messiah has become the peak consumer season of the year. So many people put their trust in material things, thereby neglecting the things of heaven that will last. So many forget that we cannot take any of our possessions with us when we die. The only things that will cross over from this life into the next is love and mercy – love and mercy given and received. That is what Jesus came to teach us and to show us. So, will you make the Christ, Emmanuel, the centre of your life, the reason for all your loving and living? Will you commit to live and love and forgive like Jesus? I did, and it was worth all the risks. I’m so proud of my adopted Son, the Christ.

Last but not least, don’t dismiss your dreams. Try to listen to them; you might be surprised what you can learn from them. A wise person in your modern time once explained the importance of dreams as follows: ”Dreams are the perfect way to hear from God. When you are dreaming, you are quiet, so you can’t ignore God. Plus, you are not easily distracted. You’re basically all ears for about 7 hours every night.” 

Our dear friend Job in the Holy Book reports the same thing with different words: For God speaks again and again, though people do not recognize it. He speaks in dreams, in visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they lie in their beds. He whispers in their ears…

 If you have trouble interpreting your dreams, you have psychology to help you along with the Holy Book. It’s not easy, though, and you will wrestle and feel fear. Sometimes dreams urge you to heal from past hurts – those too are messages from God. Messages from God are not intended to make life easy, but rather to make life rich and worth living. Remember that God desires us our fullest potential, a potential that reflects God’s own divine image and likeness. And God’s messages are not a one-shot deal either, but an ongoing challenge. If you read on in the Gospels, you know that for me the dreams kept coming:

“Joseph, wake up – Herod wants to kill the child – take him and his mother to Egypt.” “Joseph, wake up – Herod is dead – take the child and his mother back to Nazareth.” Now, looking back, I can honestly say that it was worth all the anxiety and gut-wrenching fear. Jesus grew in wisdom and strength and grace. And I was one proud husband and father.

So don’t be afraid to put your trust in God, even if that leads you into unusual places and decisions. At the end of your life, I pray that you can join me in saying: what a ride it was, worth all the blood, sweat and tears. Then you will be ready for your final and most complete act of trust – to hand over your life to the One from whom your life came in the first place. There is nothing more amazing than this.

You will not hear me speak words in Scripture, but I am grateful you have given me a hearing today. I thank you for your patient listening. And give Jesus a chance – he’s really worth it. One more week until his birth is celebrated. As I, Joseph, descendant of David, retreat back into the shadows of the Holy Book, know that I pray that your heart be ready to receive my son. AMEN

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Anglican Echoes

Sometimes the best words come from elsewhere and there’s nothing to improve upon, only to reflect on their significance. So it is this morning. I invite you to join me in pondering the implications and potential for church unity of the following:

As reported in CruxNow on December 8, 2016:

In the interview with the Belgian weekly Tertio, released on Wednesday (Dec. 7, 2016), Pope Francis was asked about his attempts to “renew the Church” inspired by the Second Vatican Council. In his reply, the pope distinguished what he called the ‘synodal Church’, which he contrasted with a pyramidal, or top-down, model.

“The Church is born from the communities, the bases, baptism, and is organized around a bishop that convokes it, strengthens it,” he said. “The bishop is the successor of the apostles. This is the Church. But in the world, there are many bishops, many organized churches, and there’s Peter.”

Hence, he continued, there’s either a “pyramidal” Church, where “what Peter says what to do,” or a synodal Church, where “Peter is Peter but he accompanies the Churches and makes them grow.”

The richest experience of the latter, Francis said, were the two synod of bishops on the family, which took place in October 2014 and again in 2015. During them, he continued, all the bishops of the world, representing their dioceses, made their voices heard.

“From there we have ‘Amoris Laetitia,’” the pope said, referring to the apostolic exhortation he released earlier in the year, as the fruit of the synods.

The richness of nuances present there, he added, is part of the Church: “Unity in differences. This is synodality. Not to go down from top to bottom, but to listen to the Churches and harmonize them, discern.”

Everything which is present in this document, Francis continued, was approved in the synod by two thirds of the bishops, and this is a “guarantee.”

Synodality, the pope said, is something the Catholic Church still has to work on and not to be afraid to embrace, adding the Latin phrase that says that the churches are always with Peter and under Peter, cum petro et sub petro, make the pope the “guarantor of the unity of the Church.”

End quote …

I cannot help but recognize in the above words from Pope Francis strong echoes of the Anglican model of being church — a synodal model. Pope Francis acknowledges that the Roman Catholic Church has work to do to recover the spirit of synodality. Is it possible that, now more than ever, Rome seems ready to learn from Canterbury? In turn, with Pope Francis’ efforts to reclaim and recover the synodality of the Church, is it possible that Canterbury could become more amenable to embrace the bishop of Rome as the “guarantor of the unity of the Church”?

I am not claiming that the Anglican governance and authority structure of synodality is in any way superior or flawless. Both models will always fall short of their ideal since our fallen humanity prevents perfection on this side of heaven. I have reflected elsewhere on this blog about this very issue. But both models also need one another to remain healthy.

In any case, whenever we see signs of “rapprochement,” a growing appreciation and understanding between Christian traditions, we need to lift those up in gratitude and hope. And I’d like to think that this morning’s reporting was one of those signs.

(Photo: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby blessing Pope Francis)

Update Dec. 20: An in-depth treatment of the above subject can be found in Richard Gaillardetz’ recent article here.

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