7th Day of Christmas: Show-Down – Matthew 25:31-46

I have heard of Messianic Jews who helped sneak supplies into Bethlehem during the second-Intifada siege. The only Messianic Jew I met was a shell-games tour-guide who was recruited as ‘balance’ for my boss’s speech in West Jerusalem. He kept insisting that my boss go first, who in-turn insisted that he go first until Zoughbi finally agreed to go first.

Z told my favorite story, about his daughter confronting the soldiers during the siege and how her older cousin yelled at her to stand-down and go inside. Later, as he apologized to the tearful little girl, she was heard to have said, “sorry is not enough: I need chocolate!” Z was making a point about gestures of restitution as part of the reconciliation process.

This gentleman began to talk about how his father came to be a Messianic Jew but gradually outlined an identity completely composed of persecutions, of being defined ‘other’, and claiming a salvation made of injuries. Our ‘balance’ decided to make a point of saying that life is about persevering through “suffering, not about chocolate”. Z glanced at me and smirked. I was sorry that I had doubted his suspicions earlier, when I wanted to believe this ‘balance’ would be gracious.

Like many, I have been so naive as to expect graciousness rather than being gratefully amazed when I do (at times) see it from these characters. “They usually want to go first,” said Z, “so that they can leave before they have to listen to me.” What our ‘counterpart’ got from Christ’s ministry was part of a greater narrative of masochism. If it isn’t about how much one can succeed it is about how much they can suffer: me, myself, I.

His Messiah was made of suffering, with the promise of redemption in proportion. There is the fore-taste of substitutional atonement but even that quickly fades to older notions, after-tastes, of particularism in suffering as much as in being chosen, so that I felt sorry for this man because it seems as if his belief in Christ was based on his ability to reject any grace or blessing. Even less, to give graces or blessings. Suffering is one part of The Way but it is not the end-goal of The Way.

During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience mentioned that they had visited a school and an orphanage earlier in the day and wondered what he thought they could do to benefit the children. Looking back, this was a perfect set-up. Our ‘balance’ offered that there was nothing to do but prepare them for the realities of a second-coming. I tapped Z on the elbow and asked him to let me rebut. I quoted the passage from Matthew, reminding them that they could
invest in ‘the least of these’, both financially and relationally, and continue their visits. For anyone who knows Christ as a teacher, not just a body bleeding on a piece of wood, it was obvious. If you have chocolate to give, share the chocolate together. Find Jesus in the way we heal and are healed.

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Paraphrased: I was pouty and you gave me chocolate. Grace.

If we look for our Messiah on a cross or in a manger, we will find only places he has been. He told us himself he would be in ‘the least of these’ whenever they were in need. As for those Jews who smuggled in supplies when my Palestinian friends needed them, I think they might find the same Lord I do. I wish the best chocolates upon them.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

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6th Day of Christmas: Emmanuel

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Christmas is not just Mr. Pickwick dancing a reel with the old lady at Dingley Dell or Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of Peace on Earth that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm.

On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell. Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us.” That’s where the problem lies.

The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas is that at a particular time and place “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity” came to be with us himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts himself at our mercy. Year after year the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, holy and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. A dream as old as time. If it is true, it is the chief of all truths. If it is not true, it is of all truths the one that people would most have be true if they could make it so.

Maybe it is that longing to have it be true that is at the bottom even of the whole vast Christmas industry the tons of cards and presents and fancy food, the plastic figures kneeling on the floodlit lawns of poorly attended churches. The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.

Emmanuel. We all must decide for ourselves whether it is true. Certainly the grounds on which to dismiss it are not hard to find. Christmas is commercialism. It is a pain in the neck. It is sentimentality.

It is wishful thinking. The shepherds. The star. The three wise men. Make believe.

Yet it is never as easy to get rid of as all this makes it sound. To dismiss Christmas is for most of us to dismiss part of ourselves. It is to dismiss one of the most fragile yet enduring visions of our own childhood and of the child that continues to exist in all of us. The sense of mystery and wonderment. The sense that on this one day each year two plus two adds up not to four but to a million.

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.

Emmanuel. Emmanuel.

— Frederick Buechner

5th Day of Christmas: A Gift that Doesn’t Need Returning

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.

Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-1

Christmas day has come and gone. The gifts have been opened. The cookies have been eaten. The carols have been sung. Radio stations have stopped playing Christmas music. Christmas movies on the TV are dwindling. Now comes the returns. Oh the returns! There are several times of year I don’t go shopping: Black Friday, Christmas Eve, and the day after Christmas. Really the next several days after Christmas.

There is something depressing about the fact that as soon as the stores open the day after Christmas, the lines to return those gifts were as long as they were to buy them. It’s a vicious cycle. And one I would rather not participate in. The long lines to return movies we already own, clothes that are the wrong size or not our style, and that strange gadget from our crazy uncle. We spend as much time buying gifts as we do returning them. All in the name of Christmas and exchanging presents with those close to us.

What if we chose to celebrate Christmas differently? To not get sucked into the cultural expectations of gift giving and gift returning and gift exchanging. I’m not talking about having a Buy Nothing Christmas or giving homemade gifts (which are both fantastic ideas, by the way). I’m talking about something that lasts even longer. Instead of focusing on shopping for sweaters that will be returned or shoes that will be out of style in a year, there is something more we can focus on during Christmas.

In Colossians, Paul encourages us to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” That is something that we can wear all year around. It doesn’t go out of style. It’s never the wrong size or the wrong color.

What would it look like if the gift we gave to each other and to world was compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience?

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com

4th Day of Christmas: Childermas

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” — Matthew 2:16-18shoes

Today is Childermas. You might not have heard of it. My spellcheck hasn’t. The story goes like this: There were rumors that a king had been born that was a threat to those in power. So, Herod sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or under. He had intended to include the Son of God among the murdered babies. In Roman Catholic mass today, on this 4th day of Christmas, no Gloria in Excelsis or Alleluias are spoken.

Like an anniversary of The Holocaust, 9/11, or an elementary school slaughtering, today is a somber day of remembrance of a genocide. A day we remember the wailings of mothers and fathers whose toddlers were murdered by Herod, out of fear of a baby named Jesus. These same mothers and fathers remembered the wailings of mothers and fathers before them whose toddlers were murdered by Pharaoh, out of fear of a baby named Moses.

Mass killings of innocent children are nothing new, and yet it doesn’t hurt any less. In the week following Sandy Hook we paused to remember, but collectively we seem to stop mourning after a week, for fear of becoming numb.

We must find ways to remember.

Every hour there is another Sandy Hook in the world. Every hour 30 innocent children die of AIDS—deaths preventable by medication. Our news cycle doesn’t spend much time covering this epidemic, out of fear of a drop in ratings.

We must find ways to remember.

Since 2001, it is estimated by different studies that more than 60,000 innocent children have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless other countries can tally up even higher numbers of children that were killed with weapons bought with our tax dollars or who have simply disappeared under the watch of regimes the United States put in power.

We must find ways to remember.

It is estimated that 40% of lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and queer youth have attempted suicide, making suicide one of the main causes of death among LGBTQ 15 to 24 year olds. The complacency of our government, our churches, and our own fear about sexuality is killing our children.

We must find ways to remember.

There is a mass for that—Merry Childrermas.

One: Enraged, Herod put to death many male children

Many: In Bethlehem of Judea, the city of David.

One: Let us pray. O God, whose praise the martyred Innocents this day proclaimed not by speaking but by dying, put to death all vices within us, that Thy faith which our tongues profess, our lives also by their actions may declare.

Many: Amen.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver

3rd Day of Christmas: Reflection on Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

One of the many debates I had with professors in seminary was focused on this passage. The question was built around how we understood God’s redemptive acts: is salvation FOR all people or did God appear TO all people. The question has continued with me as I never found peace with any conclusion. Yet peace is what is found when we’re willing to live with that ambiguity, and this scripture gets right to the point of why that is.

“While we wait.”

“While we wait” is a term that we’ve all heard in some form: “While we wait for permission to take off, please listen to your flight attendants as they review the safety instructions of this aircraft,” or maybe when we were young, “While we wait for dinner why don’t you go wash your hands.”

Waiting is a hard thing for us in this culture. We want to get to the point, get to a conclusion, get to a destination. A couple of days ago we GOT there as Christians! Christ is Born! Christmas happened! WOOOO! Okay, but now again, we wait. We wait, and we’re told to do things we know we should do, but don’t always (I know I don’t listen to safety instructions nor did I often wash my hands) while we wait. We wait for “Thy Kingdom Come.” A Kingdom that Jesus always referred to in the present tense. Well if we’re here, and it’s here, then what are we waiting for?

We’re waiting on us. Waiting for us to do the beautiful things that need to be done. That’s what good deeds are, they are the beautiful things that need to be done. Beautiful things like justice, mercy, and humbleness. Beautiful things like love. Beautiful things like peace. Beautiful things like joy. Beautiful things like hope. Beautiful things that make us all live into that image in which we are created.

Beautiful things were done on Christmas, beautiful things need to be done today.

A reflection by Adj Williams.

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Adj is the Director of Educational Ministries at Harbor View Presbyterian Church. Adj tweets at @keepsetting and blogs at http://keepsetting.blogspot.com

2nd Day of Christmas: In the Beginning Was the Word

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in the beginning

was the word.

one

Word.

i am repeating

something i have said before.

say it again.
shall i say it again?

a child has been born.

for us.

a son given.

to us.

shall there now be endless peace?

“for hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

a great light has shined

on us.

bending us

turning us

tangling us

opening us

cradling us

in the light.

those who lived in a land of deep darkness

we who live in a land of deep darkness

a light has shined.

uphold it with justice and with righteousness.

the light shines in the darkness.
and the darkness did not overcome it.

A reflection by Sophia Agtarap

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Sophia Agtarap serves as Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church with United Methodist Communications, and is a candidate for deacon in the United Methodist Church through the Pacific Northwest Conference. She spends lots of time musing and crafting stories of and for the church over a good cup of coffee. Sophia tweets @SophiaKris. She also blogs at wanderingnotlost.com

 

1st Day of Christmas: A New Pledge of Allegiance – Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased their joy; they rejoice before you as with the joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his Kingdom.

After more than a month of rushing around like crazy people, buying gifts for our loved ones, our colleagues, our pets–after our marathon run to shopping centers, continuously investing ourselves in the world’s version of Christmas, sometimes we get to the end and wonder how we lost ourselves once again.

After the frenzy of the shopping season and the hustle and bustle of all the ways we celebrate Christmas, after opening our gifts on Christmas Day, we sometimes sit in silence and wonder why we worked ourselves up into a frenzy for something that ends so quickly.

At some point each year we realize all of the ways we got tricked once again by letting our culture tell us how to celebrate our Holy Days.

These words from Isaiah stun us into silence and make us feel a bit foolish.

This is no “Jesus is the reason for the season” message I’m bringing to you. I think that phrase is just as tired as the over-consumerism of Christmas. And dare I say, just as empty. These words from Isaiah teach us something different about our faith than any bullshit rhyming bumper sticker phrase out there.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

These words from the prophet Isaiah tell us about a new order among the people. They are a desperate shout through the ages, and they tell us about the real meaning of Christmas, that light will one day chase out darkness—that meaning will one day replace meaninglessness.

Christmas according to Isaiah is about the ever-present hope for a Messiah to come and invade the world with new purpose and direction—to come and occupy this world with the divine peace and justice it so desperately needs.

Isaiah hoped for a new order for our world, and his hope is one that echoes through the ages and still has the power to cut through the gift wrapping paper-thin veneer of an over-commercialized Christmas.

These words from the prophet Isaiah urge us to shift our perspective and to open our eyes. They are words that tell of a coming light—a light that chases out the dark, that show us the way out of our meaninglessness, that reveals to us the One who has come to teach us allegiance to a new order for our lives.

This Christmas, the coming of our King means that we are invited to turn away from the noisy promises and promise-makers that have invaded both our Christmas celebrations and the world in which we live, and instead pledge our allegiance to the One who offers us our greatest promise.

Merry Christmas to all!

A reflection by Pat Ryan

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.