Tuesday, March 14, 2017

An Outline of the Faith - Sin and Redemption

Today marks Part 3 of our Lenten Journey through the Catechism.  Catechism is just a fancy same for instruction.  It is my hope to present the basic teachings of the Christian Faith here through the lens of my Episcopal heritage and the Book of Common Prayer.  This week we'll be looking at the topic of Sin and Redemption, which is discussed in the same prayer book on pages 848-849.

Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

It's pretty common to hear that seeking our own will instead of God's is sin.  It's less common to hear how that distorts our relationships in life - our relationships with God, others, and all of creation.  In Genesis 3:6 our first parents ate the fruit of good and evil - or more specifically, the knowledge of good and evil.  The serpent tempted them by claiming that they would be like God, knowing both good and evil.  First the woman looked on the fruit, and it looked really, really good.  It was a delight to the eyes, and could make one wise.  Everything looked wonderful so she ate it.  Then she gave some to her husband and he ate it.  However, instead of their lives improving, they became ashamed of themselves.  The first problem they had was that they realized they were naked, and somehow this was wrong, so they tried to cover themselves.  This is what knowledge of good and evil does - it invites us into judgement, proclaiming some things as good and other things as evil.

It's somewhat funny that this tree is in the middle of the garden to begin with.  If it's that much of a problem, why not remove it?  Or as a child in my parish asked recently, "Why didn't God put a sign on it?"  I think the answer lies in that the tree of good and evil is a temptation each of us faces every moment of every day.  Every time we judge somebody as good or bad, be it someone in traffic who cuts us off, or the sales clerk who rang up our purchase incorrectly, or the politician that makes a decision we disagree with, we are eating of that fruit.  And it's so easy to recruit others into our judgement or be recruited into theirs.  "Can I tell you what so and so did?  Can you believe that?  SMH!"  What happens in these moments is that we no longer see others as people, in all their complexities.  Instead we see them as objects, exaggerating their flaws and consequently inflating our own bright spots.  (I'll have to give credit for these thoughts to The Anatomy of Peace- Resolving the Heart of Conflict published by The Arbinger Institute.)  This necessarily distorts our relationship with them because we no longer see them as they actually are, but we see them through the lens of our judgement.  We like to think that we are right, so we believe that God must see things the same way, distorting our relationship with God.  Once we become accustomed to judging things as good or bad, we can even start viewing the world around us in terms of its usefulness to us, rather than a system that exists within its own right, thus distorting our relationship with all of creation.

Judgement has so many consequences that its no wonder Jesus talked about it as much as He did.  The sad part is that judging another human being makes us incredibly miserable, yet we continue to do it anyway.

Sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted.

Again we have a new concept, how do we lose our liberty in this manner?  When I was a boy, I began wearing glasses at a very young age.  At the same time I developed a love for basketball, and definitely wanted to play.  Yet I had one major problem: I couldn't see.  Yes I could wear the corrective lenses but they were so think that my depth perception was distorted.  The further something was out the more I had problems.  So to throw a basketball at a 10 foot high basket became almost impossible.  I rarely made baskets.  I threw the ball where I thought the basket was but somehow it never went in.  I wasn't free to engage the game because my relationship to the basket was distorted.

When we are stuck in judgement, we don't see the world clearly.  But even more insidious than that, we often think such ugly things about others that we can't admit we're mistaken.  Because if we are wrong, there is no justification, and no excuse for the thoughts and opinions we've harbored.  We definitely don't want anyone to know about them, and heaven help the person who tries to expose them.  So we go through life as if our judgements are correct, or even true with a capital T.  Yet our judgements almost never reflect reality, so we're constantly fighting between the world we think we're seeing and the world as it truly is.

Redemption is the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death.

When we are judging we are not living fully.  But we have become so invested in our judgments that we actually deceive ourselves to keep them going.  It's not something that we can get out of on our own, we need help, and someone to invite us into a different way of being.  God did that through Jesus Christ.

God prepared us for redemption when He sent the prophets to call us back to himself, to show us our need for redemption, and to announce the coming of the Messiah.

 The prophets had a pretty lousy job.  They were often the ones telling people to watch out, that things were a problem when everyone else around them thought things were going fine.  "You don't understand the system!  This is just the way things work!  I know it sounds harsh but ..."  This dynamic was so intense for the prophet Jeremiah that he was thrown into a cistern and left there (Jeremiah 38:6).  But their job was also a vital one.  They were asking us to wake up.  They challenged our self-deception and invited us to see God as He truly is, not what we would like God to be.  These first calls are like the birds that start chirping early in the morning.  We still may be asleep, but we're beginning to be roused.  Something new is coming.

The Messiah is the one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.

Here we have the unwinding of the process that began in Eden.  There our first parents began the process of judgement, leading to self-deception and distorted relationships.  What the Messiah does is bring us to another place, where there is no judgement and we live in the way we were always meant to.

I think it's significant that the tree that caused so many problems was located in the middle of the garden.  One of the other consequences we have from eating its fruit is that we believe that we are at the center of the universe - the place that rightly belongs to God.  At the same time, there are billions of other people in the world, each also trying to be at the center of the universe.  When I was a boy, I used to play King of the Mountain with my friends.  We would find a big dirt pile, race to the top, and wrestle each other so that only one person would be there - the king of the mountain.  It was fun for a little while, until we got tired, bumped, scraped, and bruised.  When human beings are trying to be at the center of the universe, it's like we are in an eternal struggle to be king of the mountain.

At the same time it's natural that we should be attracted there, because we are naturally drawn to God.  The temptation from the serpent was that, "You will be like God (Genesis 3:5)."  If we are to be invited into a different way of being, we need something equally enticing, and yet equally as good to draw us away from King of the Mountain, and to where we properly belong.  That is the work of the Messiah.

The Messiah, or Christ, is Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son of God.

Jesus Christ is a mystery, being perfectly God and perfectly human.  Philippians Chapter 2 describes His descent from Heaven, and how he humbled himself to walk among us in His humanity.  Our rightful place as human beings is not King of the Mountain (or Queen of the Mountain if that's your preference.) It's not to be at the center of the universe, but it's to be on the outside, responding to legitimate needs and caring for those around us.  This was the first charge in the Garden of Eden.  "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15 NRSV)."  In order to return us to that state, God, in Jesus, came to earth and worked the outside.  He fed the hungry, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and did a whole host of other things.

He also died for us.  Like all the prophets that came before him, His message was not universally accepted and many sought to silence Him.  When we say that He died for our sins it's because our sinful way of being is ultimately what rejected and killed Him.  But even in that moment, Jesus remained a servant; He maintained His humanity as it should be.  It is always so tempting when we are suffering, especially when we are suffering unjustly, to return to judgement, to the tree of good and evil.  Jesus, even in the most excruciating moments never succumbed to that temptation, and even on the Cross draws us to Himself, and consequently restores us to where we should be.

Friday, March 3, 2017

An Outline of the Faith - The Ten Commandments

Today marks Part 2 of my Lenten Journey through the Catechism - the Ten Commandments.  (BCP pg. 847-848)

When I was a teenager I remember commenting in Sunday School how we hear a lot of Thou Shalt Nots, and isn't there anything that tells me what I should do.  My classmates quickly flipped in their Bibles to the two greatest commandments, which are to Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Dt 6:5) and to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).  Yes Jesus described these two as the greatest commandments but in reality he was quoting from the Torah.  They had already been around for quite a while.

In The Episcopal Church, our Catechism uses these two commandments as a frame work to understand the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  To be fair Moses was given another 603 at that time but after the first ten the rest of Israel thought the experience was too intense and sent Moses to learn the rest, and then come back to teach them.

Showing our English roots, our Prayer Book describes the commandments in terms of our duty - duty to God and duty to our neighbor.  To be honest I struggle quite a bit with the concept of duty.  It's a word that is very meaningful to our British cousins across the pond but to Americans it can sound like something we have to do but we really don't want to.  Returning to the Scriptural source we can see that the word duty is never mentioned, only that we love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

So we love God by believing in Him and trusting Him.  We love him by putting nothing in the place of God, meaning that the teachings of Christ are the highest authority in terms of truth and morals, no matter how difficult they may seem to us at the time.  We love God by showing respect to Him in thought, word, and deed.  Only invoke God's name in ways that are beneficial to others and in accordance with Christ's teachings.  And finally, we love God by setting aside regular times for worship, prayer, and study.  As our world becomes increasingly busy it has become fashionable to find other things to do on Sundays and other holy days.  But the truth is those days are very special, and forgetting about them is like turning down your grandmother's invitation to Christmas Dinner so you can work on your backhand for the upcoming ping-pong tournament.

We are also told to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In a Lenten study that I'm leading, we're talking about seeing people as people, whereby their hopes, dreams, goals, fears, and challenges are every bit as real to us as our own.  This doesn't mean that others become more important than us so that we diminish who we are, but it's like we're creating a beautiful mosaic, with everyone contributing pieces out of their own life.  If all I'm doing is looking at my needs and challenges, I only have a small fraction of the whole picture.

So we love our neighbors by honoring our parents, and those who brought us into this world.  When they make reasonable and just requests, we honor them.

We love our neighbors by honoring life in all of its forms, recognizing that a life tragically cut short is a tragedy, whether it is sanctioned by the government or not.

We love our neighbors by making right use of our sexuality, not pursuing it for our own pleasure, but for it's ability to unite two persons permanently and when it is God's will, for the creation of new human beings.  Anything less than this does a disservice to God's gift.

We love our neighbors by seeking fairness in all economic exchanges, and recognizing that there are certain minimums that people need to fully participate in society.  We do not allow ourselves to fall victim to the "grab all you can get" mentality that treats others as irrelevancies to our own lives.

We love our neighbors by speaking the truth and being honest, making sure that everyone has full access to the best information when they make decisions.  This does not mean we judge other people and then call it the truth.  It does mean that we only speak those words that are useful in building up other human beings.

And finally, we love our neighbors by being content with what we have, and celebrating others' good fortune.  Acting as if the world owes us something subtly puts others down and makes us miserable to be around.

The Ten Commandments, with all of their implications set a really high bar, and though we do not always obey them to their fullest extent, they are still valuable because they show us where we are headed.  Each day by God's grace we live into them more fully, until that final day when all of creation is transformed by Christ's redeeming power.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

An Outline of the Faith - Human Nature

This is part 1 of an ongoing series commenting on the Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism.

Lent will be upon us in just one week, and it's an appropriate time to look back on who we are and what God has done for us.  This week I'm going to examine the first section of the Catechism, entitled Human Nature (pg 845 Book of Common Prayer)

We are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.  It means we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.

Freedom is a concept that can be really elusive.  Often people think they are free when in reality, they are stuck in the same fixed cycle of unproductive behavior, whether it's a self-destructive addiction, a reoccurring argument with a loved one, or a continued and repeated problem in one's professional life.  Often times we think freedom means expressing whatever pops into our head at the moment, hoping for catharsis, or doing whatever feels good at the present moment, long term consequences be damned.

Being made in the image of God however means something very different.  Freedom in this sense means, as the Prayer Book describes, freedom to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony.  Some people see this as restrictive, buts that's often because they are stuck, and trapped in old, unproductive cycles.  These cycles become so pervasive that we engage in self-deception in order to justify their existence.  For example, "There's nothing wrong with my violent outbursts, you just really make me angry ... I have my drinking under control ... My first an only objective is to maximize profits at whatever the cost."  1 John 1:8 says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (NRSV)"

From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and make wrong choices.  We rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God.

Here is another paradox.  When we misuse our freedom, we do so by putting ourselves in the place of God.  In today's language we could say that we put ourselves at the center of the universe.  This creates a mindset that can only be sustained by self-deception.  The reality is that the rest of the world is made up of other human beings, who count just as much as you or I.  When we place ourselves at the center of the universe, we are in effect saying,  "My needs/wants/desires are more important than yours."  (For a more thorough treatment of the subject, see Leadership and Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute.)  Of course when we are in this place, it doesn't seem that way at all.  When we place ourselves at the center of the universe, since it took a lie to get there, "I am more important than you," we need to continually lie, even to ourselves in order to maintain that position.  We have to lie so much that we come to believe our own fabrication.  Otherwise we would have to face all the terrible and unkind things we said and did while we objectified other people.

C.S. Lewis described this phenomenon this way: “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.” — from Mere Christainity

Our help is in God.  God first helped us by revealing Himself and his will, through nature and history, through many seers and saints, and especially through the prophets of Israel.

We cannot get unstuck on our own.  It took a lie to put us in the center of the universe, and it takes continual lies to maintain our position there.  This is an unfortunate place since there are billions of other human beings who at many times think that they too are the center of the universe.  The way to get unstuck, is to recognize the One who truly is at the center of the universe, the Creator of heaven and earth.

The third, and final paradox for today is that only by relinquishing our self-deceiving, false throne at the center, do we find true happiness and peace.  Once God is at the center, and we as people surround Him, we are free to act in accordance with our true nature, which is to be loving, creative, reasonable, and harmonious.  It may be possible to think that we are the first three things while seated on our central throne, but the fourth remains forever elusive.  It's only in the surrounding regions do we experience all three.

Why is this?  Dr. C. Terry Warner, founder of the Arbinger Institute calls to mind that as human beings we always have a sense or desire to do something for somebody else.  In short, to be helpful.  We can never point to an external cause for this sense, so it must either be inherent to who we truly are as human beings, or have a divine source.  Either way, it exists.  When we truly know a person well, and understand their unique challenges, goals, and aspirations, that sense leads us to offer help in ways that are truly meaningful.  It's only in betraying that sense, which is more than simply saying no, do we deem another person's needs as illegitimate and put ourselves back on our central throne.  But when we honor that sense to be helpful, and loving, and creative, and reasonable, we see the world with different eyes.  Aspects of life that drove us crazy before and disrupted our own sense of peace now become unimportant.  We can peacefully do something meaningful for the people in our lives, and then move on to the next thing.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Everything You Think You Know About Gun Violence is Wrong!

Today I've been reading the often predictable and obnoxious posts about gun violence / gun control in light of the recent tragedy in San Bernardito, CA.  The usual battle lines are drawn, positions become entrenched, thus ensuring that no constructive dialogue will take place and nothing will change.  I fear that in our future we will experience many more episodes like this because we've become a culture that's addicted to violence much like a heroine user becomes addicted what's inside the needle.  Everyone seems to think that their position is the right one, while ironically every single one of these talking points are absolute garbage and serve to exacerbate the problem.  Let's elaborate:

We could prevent this kind of violence if we had stricter gun control laws.
The issue here is that it fails to address the very source of the violence - the human heart.  As long as people have made up their minds to kill others as retribution for their misdeeds they are going to find a way to do it.  The Boston Bombers made some homemade explosives with common kitchen items.  If you create stricter regulations and then sit back on your heels someone is going to find a way around them, be it a knife, IED, baseball bat, rocks, potato cannon, homemade napalm, etc. etc.  What we need to do is address the root causes of the violence, not the mechanism by which it finds its form.

God isn't fixing this!
This was the headline in today's issue of the NY Daily News.  I'll admit that this one pissed me off a lot.  We have an unprecedented rise in nones, dones, non-religious, atheist, pseudo-atheist, and a general culture that doesn't care about God.  Let's be clear that this is the same God who teaches you to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to put your sword away because whoever lives by the sword dies by the sword, to pray for those who persecute you.  Christianity is difficult.  It is really, really hard to love somebody in  the face of their hatred.  So most people have given up.  But can anyone honestly say that if we lived as a society according to the Sermon on the Mount we would be the worse off for it?  Quite the contrary.  A robust faith actually leaves zero room for this kind of violence so let's quit pushing it to the side and then wondering how things got so bad.

We need better mental health care.
This statement taken on its own is actually true.  But to invoke it anytime there's a mass shooting is profoundly offensive to anyone who has struggled with mental health issues.  Mental illness has a huge spectrum, and only a small percentage of them are actually violent people.  Most, I would venture to guess, just struggle to put on a brave face and make it through the day while inside they're dying.  Claiming that a violent person is 'sick' or 'crazy' does a huge disservice to the millions of people who have worked hard, struggled, and live a life in the face of their difficulties.  Let's not group them together.

Responsible citizens with guns can prevent these kind of occurrences.
Today I'm an equal opportunity offender.  We have a pervasive myth in our society that violence in certain circumstances is somehow redemptive.  As long as the good guys shoot the bad guys everything is okay.  This myth pervades all kinds of movies, video games, entertainment, politics.  You can claim that the vast majority of people who indulge in this kind of media don't commit violent acts - but every single one of them reinforces the myth.  The other problem with it is that in real life you can't tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.  In his letter to the Romans St. Paul taught us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23).  If that's true we should take a more humble approach to who we are and not be so quick to applaud killing because somehow we're 'good' and the others are 'bad.'  Trust me you're not smart enough to make that kind of judgement so leave it up to God.

This is because of religious extremism
The more I've researched the more I'm convinced that this is a red-herring argument designed to ignore the fact that our society and government has actually created a lot of the problems that are erupting violently.  In the 1950's the United States CIA engineered a coup d'etat that put a brutal dictator in charge of Iran.  When they revolted and set up their own system we declared them 'bad.'  In the 1980's we took sides in the Afghanistan Civil War and then pulled out as soon as the Soviets left.  Then in the early 2000's we bombed Afghanistan back to the stone age, and in a matter of minutes destroyed a civilization that took centuries to build.  When that wasn't enough for our blood lust we invaded Iraq, dismantled their government, and then left because their security, as we claimed, was 'their responsibility.'  Contrast this with what we did following World War II.  We build bases in Japan, Germany, and Italy, and helped them rebuild their societies.  Today they are some of our closest allies.  Restorative justice demands that you fix, repair, or rebuild after you've damaged or destroyed something.  No matter how noble you think you are going into war, there are always going to be damage that affects more people than we care to admit.  And in order to repair that harm you need to be willing to walk beside them for the long haul.  I strongly doubt that the main reason for these attacks is to impose someone else's way of life upon us.  I do feel it's because people want us to stop destroying them.

So what does all of this mean?
Hatred, judgement, self-righteousness, and violence all go hand in hand.  You cannot fight your way to a more peaceful society.  This is why when St. Peter took his sword and cut of the ear of the high priest's servant, Jesus told him to put away his sword.  For everyone who lives by the sword dies by the sword  (Matthew 26:52).  Every one of the arguments is an example of trying to live by the sword.  They arrogantly assume that the problem can be fixed so long as someone else changes, be it more guns, less guns, mental health, less religion, etc.  The only solution is for human beings to take responsibility for what's in their own hearts.  Live a life of love and kindness and generosity and gentleness and justice and don't give room to all this other trash.  Let's live in a better way.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Solving Cheryl's Birthday Problem.

Okay I'm taking a break for a moment to analyze a brain teaser.  This one was posted to the New York Times:

Albert and Bernard just met Cheryl.

“When’s your birthday?” Albert asked Cheryl.

 Cheryl thought a second and said, “I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll give you some clues.”

She wrote down a list of 10 dates: May 15 — May 16 — May 19 June 17 — June 18 July 14 — July 16 August 14 — August 15 — August 17 “My birthday is one of these,” she said.

Then Cheryl whispered in Albert’s ear the month — and only the month — of her birthday.

To Bernard, she whispered the day, and only the day. “Can you figure it out now?” she asked Albert. 

Albert: I don’t know when your birthday is, but I know Bernard doesn’t know, either.

Bernard: I didn’t know originally, but now I do.

Albert: Well, now I know, too!

 When is Cheryl’s birthday?

Several Solutions have been posted here and here.  Unfortunately each has a flaw in its logic and is wrong.

The analysis begins soundly enough.  Albert doesn't know, and he knows that Bernard doesn't know either.  Since Bernard was only told the day we can rule out 19 and 18 since they each have only one month associated with them.  That leaves us with the following possibilities.

May 15, 16
June 17
July 14, 16
August 14, 15, 17

Now we need to look back at the very first statement, Albert doesn't know.  Albert only knows the month, so we can eliminate June, since it only has one day associated with it that's not ruled out.  For some reason, both the Times and The Guardian eliminate May at the same time, but May is still a definite possibility.  Bernard could have been told either 15 or 16, and the statement would still be logically true.
*Update* On reading the comments section, NYT claims that May has to be eliminated because otherwise Albert would not be able to make the statement that Bernard does not know either.  i.e. If he had been told May he wouldn't be able to eliminate May 19th and definitively state that Bernard does not know either.  However a person can infer from Cheryl's behavior and statements that she did not give such an easy answer to Bernard and not Albert.

That leaves us with the following possibilities:

May 15, 16
July 14, 16
August 14, 15, 17

The next statement is that Bernard did not originally know, but now he does.  Remember he only knows the day.  The only possibility at this point that satisfies this statement is August 17th.  Bernard was clearly told 17, but could not deduce between June and August until June 17th was eliminated.  The correct answer is August 17th.

The third statement is that Albert knows too.  Once Bernard deduced the correct answer and revealed that he knew, Albert can use his powers of deduction to realize that August 17th is the only possible explanation.

Monday, October 20, 2014

General Theological Seminary through the eyes of Screwtape

My Dear Wormwood, I am immensely pleased at your progress concerning your charges at General Theological Seminary. Your hard work and patience has paid off immensely. The backbiting and conflict have reached such proportions that future tempters will no doubt read about them as part of their underling studies. I must congratulate you on your use of the “Acceptance” tactic. Other tempters have been wildly successful using the tactic against departing dioceses and congregations. And I must say the sweet sound of, “I accept the renunciation of your ordination vows,” causes immense pleasure in all of us. But you have taken it to a level never before seen. All of your predecessors used the tactic against the others - those who threatening to leave the Church. But you have successfully implemented it against beloved seminary professors. To that I say bravo! I believe the success lies in the fact that our efforts have effectively closed the door on reconciliation. One we closed it on huge matters concerning property, schism and doctrine, you were able to keep it closed in matters of shared government, accountability, and respectful behavior. The challenge before you now is to keep each side focused on winning and losing. Do not permit any thoughts of reconciliation, healing, repentance, amendment of life, or any similar sentiments to enter their consciousnesses. (It pains me even to write those words.) Remember the door is closed and you do not want to see it open at all. The smallest crack can bring such noxious hope to the table that all would be lost. If these thoughts do arise, suggest to your charges that by now they are simply not possible, or suggest that the cost would be too high. By all means available you want to keep them fighting. Your continued use of secrets will be very helpful indeed in keeping your charges off balance. But do not refer to them as secrets, as that may alert them to your influence. Instead use more virtuous sounding terms like “confidentiality,” or “sealed records.” The absence of information has the delightful side effect that your charges will fill the gaps in their knowledge with the worst possible outcome without any help from you, thus aiding you in your task. If your charges begin to show alarming behavior such as adopting virtue, listening, considering another’s point of view, etc. etc., simply suggest that extremely harmful ramifications would occur should they undertake such efforts. The only human completely immune to this tactic to my knowledge was that deplorable Christus, who chose to die rather than succumb to temptation. That one act set back our cause immensely so you must prevent similar occurrences at all costs. Yes General Theological Seminary is suffering greatly thanks to your influence. Keep up your attacks and its continued downfall will bring such admiration from the lowerarchy that you will benefit greatly and build quite the name for yourself in the nether regions. Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape

Monday, December 16, 2013

How the Church Messes Up Christmas!

Okay good now I have your attention. Every year we decry the materialism of the season, how it's being co-opted, and how Christmas is being pushed more and more into Advent. As I'm doing our liturgical planning for the Christmas season I realize how the Church itself is partially to blame. Quite honestly, after December 25th the season gets pretty depressing. For a quick look at the calendar - December 26th commemorates St. Stephen - a Deacon and Martyr (he gets stoned to death), December 27 is St. John, and the reading involves Jesus reinstating Peter and chewing him out at the same time, and December 28th is the feast of Holy Innocents - yup we celebrate when King Herod killed all the young boys under the age of two. Then for the Sundays themselves: In the first Sunday after Christmas we read John 1:1-18, which is lovely if you have a degree in theology, but in general it takes a lot to understand what's going on. The second Sunday has several options for readings, One is the Epiphany Story, the other is Joseph and Mary's flight to Egypt to avoid Herod's massacre, and the other is Jesus getting lost in the temple when he's twelve.

Now let's look at the season around us. People start singing Christmas Carols in November because they speak to a deep part of our soul that longs for that miraculous moment. I can't imagine a single person who's not moved by Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Holy Night. We make our preparations so we can carve out time from our ordinary hectic lives and be with our families, wishing each other love and joy. We want Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards All. These aren't bad things. Granted the gift giving is a bit extreme but the other sentiments are right along with the Gospel.

The strange dichotomy here is that the Church sets aside twelve days for the Christmas season but just like the world around us, drops the mystery of the Christ Child on December 26th. The real shame is that there are several Bible passages that go unread in public worship that would be magnificent for this season. I think there are some things we can do if there's a worldwide effort to do them.

1 - Let's move the feasts of the Martyrs to some more appropriate dates. I'm sure there's a reason why they are where they are but I honestly don't know them. So let's put the feast of St. Stephen after Pentecost, which is actually when these events occurred. St. John, with its corresponding readings should be celebrated late in the Easter season, and before Ascension Day. Finally let's put Holy Innocents AFTER the Epiphany. The sequence of events is: 1: Jesus was born, 2: Wise men came to visit, 3: Herod killed all the boys. Let's have the feasts follow the Biblical sequence.

2 - Now that we have some room, let's include some of the amazing infancy stories during those twelve days. I'm going to say we just plain double the readings for The Presentation on the Second Sunday after Christmas. The season is about joy, about God coming to earth and us experiencing that miracle. In the Presentation Stories the infant Jesus is presented in the Temple and two individuals, Simeon and Anna experienced that joy and the miracle. In a sense, we can capture the spirit of Christmas through those stories. For the first Sunday after Christmas, we aught to read the first chapter in Matthew (Yes I know vv 18-25 are read on Advent 4 Year A - however once every three years is not enough in my opinion. Besides, the current lectionary doubles John 1:1-18 within days - let's switch it.)

This kind of approach let's the Bible narrative unfold throughout the season. We would get to experience the mystery of Christmas from many different angles and experience the joy at the same time. It would take a huge effort to make the kind of changes I'm suggesting, but I hope everyone will take some time to think about it. Perhaps celebrating the season this way would have an impact on the Christmas season in general, and truly make it last for the twelve days set aside for it.