Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Innocence and Suffering

Today the Episcopal Church remembers the “Holy Innocents,” the subject of the “Coventry Carol” so often heard at Christmas time.  We remember the slaughter of “every make child two years and under” by King Herod because of his well documented ego and paranoia.  Afraid that the “newborn King of the Jews” would usurp his throne, he had the children killed to eliminate his competition. 

While in all likelihood, the children suffered little (a swift death is often merciful), the agony of the parents is without parallel.  Even though I do not have children, I have been assured by members of my own family that there is no greater loss to be experienced than the loss of a child, regardless of their age.  In many ways, the death of one’s child upsets the natural order – children are to outlive their parents – or so it is our common wisdom. 
The fact remains that infant mortality has declined greatly in our society.  The great pandemics (influenza, typhus, cholera) seem almost non-existent to most of us.  These diseases claimed many innocent lives only two generations ago, before the advent of modern antibiotics.  Nonetheless, while the death of children may have been more common and even expected, the sense of loss is no less poignant. 
The message of this day, however, is that out of such horrible suffering, God can change things.  Even though these parents suffered such tragic and profound loss, God delivered the Christ Child by a dream message to Joseph, who took the Child and his mother to Egypt to escape the tyranny of Herod.  When the Child returns, he will be the salvation of the world and proclaim a kingdom of justice and truth that would outlast any attempt by Herod to assure his own power.
That hope must be ours today – as many children suffer needlessly because of greed, prejudice, and the lust for power in nations throughout the world.  We listen to the promise of Christ and carry the message of his kingdom into our world.  If we remain faithful to its values and its promise, we, too, may see the “mighty cast from their thrones” so that the lowly, the powerless and voiceless innocents of our world might then be “lifted up.”

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Day After the Day After Christmas

Well, today is the day after the day after Christmas.  Most of the wrapping paper has been gathered up, the leftovers wrapped and refrigerated and family and friends have returned home (well, most of them anyway).  This is the time when, as after most significant events, the big letdown comes.  After weeks and weeks of preparation and intensive celebration on the day in question, the time after all the hoopla is often all too quiet for us, as we realize that all of the celebrating and the trappings brought great joy but for a fleeting moment and that all we are left with are daily challenges from which we sought refuge in the first place. 

It’s the moment after a wedding when a new couple realizes that romance isn’t everything and that the intense work of building a home and relationship is only now about to begin.  It’s that still quiet moment after the intense grief and sadness a funeral, when all the mourners are gone and all the sympathetic friends seems to have faded away, and we are left with the realization that we will never hear that voice again and that our life has been quieted in some permanent way.  

Yes, it is the day after the day after Christmas and the poinsettias are still fresh, the tree still sparkles, and there are still dozens of cookies on the counter but there is a nagging feeling that it’s all over and that soon will be dismantling what we had built for weeks and days.

At first it may seem quite depressing, but for some reason it’s always been an important part of my Christmas celebration: to take some time in the still quiet moments when all the fuss is over, really look at the Christmas tree, survey all the greeting cards, and sit in the quiet splendor of it all to realize that it is all done for love.  Perhaps it was the love of parents for their children who want them to have a joyous day when dreams come true and promises are fulfilled.  Or, it was the love of a husband and a wife who see in their first Christmas tree still another promise for a long and bright future.  In all of it, it is genuinely a sign of God’s love for the world as in the middle of it all we remember that the purpose of our celebrating is the gift that only God could give -- to become one like us to experience our life in every way so that the promise of salvation and the fullness of life can be ours.

It is in moments like this that I realize that God is at the center of it all.  It is God “who sends this song upon the air to ease the soul that’s aching, to still the cry of deep despair, and heal the heart that’s breaking.”[i] These are all works of God.  They are the works of peace.  They are what the angels prayed when they declared “Glory to god on high and peace on all of good will!”

[1] Sally Stevens & Dave Grusin, “Who Comes This Night,” performed by James Taylor, © Emi Gold Horizon Music Corp.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Complex than It Should Be?

My . . . how time flies by especially at this time of year.  Here we are in the middle of the Third Week of Advent and Christmas looming at the end of next week.  So much to do . . .  how complex our lives seem to have become.

Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning (of blessed memory) reflected on this a bit in his small devotional "A Year of Days."  For December 15, he wrote: "When we look at the complexity of modern life, we envy anyone who can claim innocence.  Life can force us into some pretty ambiguous situations.  But some of our complexities -- the harmful ones -- are not forced on us.  They are things upon which we insist."

Bishop Browning goes on to tell the story of a man who had become involved in an extra marital love affair.  The energy that went into keeping both his marriage and his affair going and keeping the two lives "separate" became more and more unworkable and, in the end, resulted in more pain than comfort.  By becoming involved with another, he thought he could by-pass the hard questions that he and his wife needed to confront about their relationship.  His affair ultimately increased the man's pain and loneliness.  What he really needed in his life was to find and walk a straight path through his wilderness.

Although we may not do it in such a dramatic way, all of us at times make our lives more complex than they need to be, chiefly because we want to avoid the implications of the straight path.  I know this has been true for me and for many I have loved in life.  I am sure you can identify as well: Is there something we're spending more energy avoiding than we should spend facing squarely?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saint Nicholas Day - December 6th

St. Mark’s will hold a special celebration of St. Nicholas in the parish hall on Sunday evening.  It is rumored that there might even be a visit from the venerable saint himself!
Nicholas of Myra, (c. 342) was a Greek bishop from Lycia, now modern-day Turkey. He may have been one of the bishops that participated in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 (The Nicene Creed). Legend gives him a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, thus becoming the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas.
There are many traditions and myths surrounding Saint Nicholas, whose liturgical feast day is December 6th. One legend tells how a terrible famine struck the land and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Bishop Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher’s horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers.
Another legend holds that during the great famine, a ship was is in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Byzantium. He invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help people in their time of need. The sailors at first refused the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not suffer any consequences for their kindness, the sailors agreed.  When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find. The weight of the load had not changed. The removed wheat in Myra was even enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.
However, the most well-known legend is about a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them.  This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him but to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity, he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man’s house. One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes “of age.”
In yet another version, Nicholas drops the third bag down the chimney instead to preserve his anonymity; another variation holds that one of the daughters had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking. It is easy to see how today’s customs surrounding Santa Claus and the night journeys on Christmas Eve might have come from these stories.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, prostitutes, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers. The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honored by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. He is the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Huguenots, Liverpool, and Lorraine. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Santa Claus the patron saint of New Amsterdam, the historical name for New York City
There is even a St. Nicholas Society in Canterbury, England.  You can find out more about the society and about the saint at