Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

The Timeless Message of Christmas, with Hope for the Future

It’s January 7th, 2020. The Christmas season is officially over. For our family, it was a happy and busy one. We felt fortunate to welcome our daughter home from college for an extended stay, as well as to have my mother living next door. I didn’t find the time for writing more than one quick Christmas post. But the message of Christmas is one to live by every day. And the gift of Christmas is persistent. It waits to be received, regardless of the time of year. So, a look back on Christmas Eve, and a look ahead, with hope for the future.

The familiar, expected beasts were all there at the nativity on Christmas Eve. There was the furry, gray-brown burrow, always a crowd favorite. The humble image of patience, fortitude and forbearance, this little donkey reminds us of the one that may have carried young Mary and her unborn child to Bethlehem many years ago.

Two fluffy sheep quietly munched on hay. The two goats took more curious notice of the onlookers around them. They remind us that ordinary farm animals likely witnessed the holy birth.

There were a few dogs, including Kiko, who was fortunate in meeting a kindly shepherd girl who allowed him to wander at will among the other furry creatures. Maybe those original shepherds brought with them a sheepdog or two? I’m not certain where the scholarship stands on this point. No shepherd would benefit from a dog like Kiko, who lacks the herding instinct as well as any semblance of a work ethic. Come to think of it, our dog’s interest in other living beings is confined largely to the smells they leave behind.

Sweet Delilah the camel, on the other hand, seems to truly enjoy social interaction with her animal companions, as well as with her human admirers. This year, as always, she snuggled enthusiastically with kids and old folks, and posed for endless pictures.

With such a remarkable menagerie so close at hand, the human presence may take a back seat at a live nativity. But those wearing the costumes of Mary and Joseph remind us that God chose to send his son to be born not to the rich and powerful, but to a couple who counted themselves among the working poor. Those dressed as shepherds recall the lowly field workers who were the first to be summoned, and by angels, no less, to receive the joyful, life-changing news of a savior’s birth. The so-called Magi, like their camel, would not have made an appearance at the stable in Bethlehem. These wealthy pagan astrologers from the East arrived months or perhaps even years after the birth, when Jesus and his parents were living in some modest home, perhaps in Nazareth. But they’re included in nativity scenes to signify that this baby, born to obscure observant Jews of the artisan class, is God’s gift to all people, regardless of heritage or ethnicity, and to all generations.

The point of the Christmas narrative, of course, is this baby. In our nativity, the newborn Jesus is represented by a mere doll, which, in terms of purely visual interest, cannot begin to compete with so much furry, four-legged charm. This unremarkable doll is an inadequate place-holder not simply for a real baby, but for a miraculous union of the human with the divine. The baby Jesus is, according to the Gospel of John, God’s Word, the Word through which everything was created, newly manifested in human form.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. –John 1:14

God loves us so much that he sent his son to live out the human experience as our brother and friend. Jesus pointed the way, through example, showing us how to claim our kinship with him and our inheritance as children of God. Jesus didn’t bring a message of complicated theology and countless esoteric rules to follow. The essence of his message, emphasized repeatedly throughout the years of his earthly ministry, is disarmingly simple:

Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. –John 13: 34-35

The essential message of Christmas is simple, too. God’s great love breaks down all barriers, of geography, race, gender, of social and economic class. We humans are skilled builders of artificial and arbitrary barriers, but there is not one that can withstand the sheer force of goodness that is God’s love. God loves us all. And he wants us to love each other.

He has created us to do so:

In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. –John 1: 1 -5

So therefore, the light of God is present in all creation.* I like to think I can sense the divine spark shining within every humble beast at our live nativity, as well as in all our animal friends. What are they, anyway, but God’s beloved creatures?

That seed of holy light has been implanted in every one of God’s human children. With the kindness and compassion that have their source in God our Father, let us do our best to kindle the divine spark within ourselves. Let us nurture and share the warmth of that light with our neighbors, near and far. With those who look and think like us, and with those who don’t. Let us resist quick judgement, avoid pettiness, and act with generosity of spirit.

Let us love one another. We were made for this.

*This idea is explored powerfully and beautifully by Richard Rohr in his 2019 book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.

The Day of Resurrection!

The day of resurrection!  Earth, tell it out abroad;

the Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.

From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,

our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Now let the heavens be joyful!  Let earth the song begin!

Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!

Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,

for Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end. 

The Day of Resurrection; Words by John of Damascus; trans. by John Mason Neale, 1862; Music by Henry T. Smart, 1835

Where is the Good in Good Friday?

What is good about Good Friday?  How can there be any good in a day on which the very Son of God died a barbaric death, betrayed and dismissed by the very ones he came to earth to love and to save? 

On Good Friday, we give thanks to a loving, compassionate God who suffers with us. Our God is not a remote, impassive being who rules from on high. He came down to our level; he entered into the midst of our messy lives. Jesus, our brother, gave his own life to save us, his unworthy siblings. He died for us while we were yet sinners. He knows our worst pain, because he has endured it first-hand: betrayal, sorrow, humiliation, physical agony, and death. God the Father knows intimately the terrible reality of losing a child. Our God continues to suffer as we suffer. He grieves as we grieve, because we are his. We are family. Our God surrounds us with his Holy Spirit, as close as our own breath, to sustain and comfort us.

Good Friday is good because our God is good. This day commemorates the completion of Jesus’s mission. From the cross, he cried out, not in exhausted defeat, but in triumph, in victory: “It is finished.” The perfect sacrifice has been made.  The mission is accomplished, but the story is far from over. 

Because of Good Friday, Easter is in the works.  The stone of the tomb will be rolled away.  Because Christ our Savior lives, so we shall also live.  Death will be swallowed up in victory.

Let us give thanks to our Good Friday God! 

Before His Death, Advice from a Brother

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered with his disciples for one last time to share the Passover meal together.  He knew that his life on earth was drawing to a close.  He had tried to explain to his dearest friends that he would soon be facing death, and doing so willingly.  But the disciples didn’t understand.  Probably some of them were expecting to witness a magnificent earthly triumph.  Judas, the betrayer, may have been counting on such a victory.  None of the disciples, it seems, were expecting their friend, teacher and Messiah to die an ordinary criminal’s death on the cross.

But the group must have been fearful and confused.  They were back in crowded, dangerous Jerusalem, where Jesus’s life had been threatened multiple times during clashes with the Jewish religious leaders.  And so, on that fateful final night, Jesus had the full and rapt attention of his disciples.  He chose his words, and his actions, with care. 

According to the Gospel of John (13:1 – 17), after the meal, he did something completely unexpected: he got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his friends.  In those days, traveling, for people of ordinary means, meant walking, in sandals, or even barefoot, along dusty, dirty roads, through fields and stretches of sandy wilderness.  A servant typically washed the feet of guests as they entered a home.  If there were no servants, guests usually washed their own feet from a basin near the door.  John the Baptist refers to this practice when asked by Jewish leaders if he is the Messiah.  According to John 1:27, he replies, “I baptize with water.  Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize.  He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.”  The disciples were clearly uncomfortable with their leader and teacher washing their dirty feet.  Had foot washing been done upon entering the upper room that night?  It’s uncertain. Maybe there had been no basin set up for the purpose until Jesus poured water into one, as mentioned in John 13:5.  The Pharisees had criticized Jesus when they noticed that some of his disciples failed to wash their hands before eating (Mark 7: 1-5).  Certainly, Jesus’s focus was not on Jewish rituals of purity.  External, physical cleanliness was evidently not one of his primary concerns.  He may not have been a stickler for foot-washing prior to that last gathering. 

The disciple Peter’s reaction supports this (John 13: 6-11). Peter was fiery, passionate and impulsive.  Like many of us, he was often a bit dense.  He couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus abasing himself to wash his feet.  Foot washing was the job of an underling, a slave.  Peter jumped up and exclaimed, “You’ll never wash my feet!”   When Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me,” Peter was all in. “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!” 

Jesus went on to explain his puzzling behavior. “Do you understand what I was doing?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.  And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example to follow. . .Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (13:12-15, 17). 

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he had in mind much more than literal foot washing.  Following his example is to mean humbling oneself in order to serve and help others.  To further drive home his point, he continued:  “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.  Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (13:34-35).

Jesus had spent three years traveling with this rag-tag group.  They’d heard him teach and preach, seen him heal the sick and cast out demons.  On three separate occasions, he’d even restored the dead to life.  The disciples had been with him as he confronted the Jewish authorities and challenged their interpretation of the Law.  Sometimes his words and actions had been difficult to comprehend.  But on the night before his death, Jesus summed up the essence of his ministry in the simplest of terms:  Serve others.  Love others.  Just as I have served and loved you, so you should love others.

For those of us who call ourselves Christians, let’s take this Maundy Thursday message to heart.  Let’s heed the wise counsel of our dear brother Jesus.  Do our best to follow his example.  Try our hardest to model his caring, compassionate behavior.  We won’t always succeed.  Sometimes we’ll backslide and act in ways that are selfish and petty.  But let’s persevere.   And change the world, little by little, through service and love. 

{The Thursday of Holy Week is known as Maundy Thursday from mandatum, the Latin for command, because we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave his disciples during the Last Supper.}

On Ash Wednesday, From Darkness to Light

It’s a bitterly cold Ash Wednesday here in Northern Virginia, as in much of the country.  An icy breeze whips up from time to time.  But the sun is shining brightly, and at least for a brief while, nothing frozen is falling from the sky.  The weather seems appropriate.  It’s conducive to imagining the joy and beauty of an ideal Easter morning while experiencing the big chill of Ash Wednesday.  This is a day for a clear-eyed, head-on look at our mortality, a time to peer into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace. It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged. Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry.

Ash Wednesday dawns in Charlottesville.   

So what’s the deal with the ashes?  Why the messy smudges on foreheads of neatly dressed and otherwise well-scrubbed people?  It’s because of these words from Genesis 3:19, declared by God to Adam and Eve, just before He ushered them out of Eden, the paradise garden He had intended as their eternal, blissful home. 

You are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

Tough words from the Creator and Landlord.  What did the privileged First Couple do to make God so angry?  Incensed enough that He sent the two, created in His own image, out into desolation, to eke out a living through toil and pain? 

Many of you who didn’t grow up attending church and Sunday School, along with some of you who did, no doubt consider the saga of Adam and Eve just another myth for the simple-minded.  Whether you see it as God’s literal Truth, an interesting folk tale or something in between, it’s a powerful story worth contemplating.  Here’s my take on the Fall and its particular significance on Ash Wednesday.

Adam and Eve lived in a glorious garden created by God, suffused with His divine light, life and love.  They had full-time leisure, full-time luxury.  God walked with them there in the garden.  The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking.  All except for the apples on one tree.  A tree with an impressive-sounding name:  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.   

Life was wonderful.  Life was beautiful.  

Among the friendly and fantastic creatures of the garden, there was a serpent.  He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing.  Indeed, he owed his very existence to what he saw as the weak link in God’s great plan.  The serpent looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans.  He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home.  It wasn’t long before this scaly Con Guy Supreme made his move.  Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness.  Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to Himself.  She deserved better, didn’t she?  So Eve ate from the tree.  Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched long complacently.

God found out.  He wasn’t happy.  Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit.  We may think we would have known better.  But probably not.  Like Eve, we might have been tripped up by pride.  Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter.  If Eve says it’s fine, it must be.  In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have.  With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly.  Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust.

But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land.  Paradise is still within our grasp, as these words from Mark 1:15 tell us:

Repent and believe the good news!

On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our tendency toward pride, selfishness and petty meanness.  On our own, none of us will ever be good enough to work our way back to Eden.  But we don’t have to be.  The Christ that was already present within creation since God spoke the universe into existence, the very Word of God described in John 1: 1 – 5, came to earth in human form.  Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, took our sins upon Himself.  As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, He wiped our messy slates clean.

To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we merely need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep.  We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times.  We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.

The Ash Wednesday ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life.  Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting.  We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us.  But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.

On this frigid Ash Wednesday, the sun’s rays fall on new green shoots and buds.  We are reminded of the new life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price.  On this Ash Wednesday, look into the darkness of the ashes.  Then give thanks for the love that pulls us back into the light of love.   

Early morning Ash Wednesday sunshine begins to illuminate the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.  Thanks to my daughter for the Charlottesville photos. 

Merry Christmas 2018

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing,

and heaven and nature sing,

and heaven, and heaven, and nature sing!

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May the light of God’s love dwell in you now and always.

May you share that sacred light with those around you in the darkness of our troubled world.

And may the joy of Christmas fill your heart all year long!

Ash Valentine’s Day

This year, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day both fall on February 14.  The two are unlikely bedfellows, so to speak.   

Ash Wednesday is a day for Christians to face our mortality head-on and clear-eyed, to gaze into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace.  It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged.  Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry. 

Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, needs no explanation.  For most of us, it involves the giving and getting of various treats.  It’s a day for indulgence, not denial. 

To Lenten sticklers for self-abnegation, the concurrence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day will likely pose a conundrum.  To deny or not to deny?  Chocolate or no chocolate?  Dessert or no dessert?  Wine or no wine with that special Valentine dinner?  Perhaps a compromise:  to begin the denial process on February 15? 

I’ve written several times about Ash Wednesday.  See: Looking into the Ashes (March 1, 2017), and Saved from the Ashes (February 10, 2016).  I’ve tried Lenten self-denial in the past, but I’ve been known to lose track of the larger purpose.  The season’s truly spiritual pursuits–prayer, Bible reading, penitential introspection–they sometimes were left in the dust of Ash Wednesday.  A couple of times, when I renounced all things sweet, my Lenten journey became little more than a period of dieting.  I wince when I recall certain instances of self-righteous forbearance that must have made me a most disagreeable companion.  See Mindful Eating, and a Mindful Lent (March 24, 2012). 

The purpose of Lent is to try to become more like Christ.  Instead, in our singular focus on denial, we become more like the Pharisees, those elite Jewish leaders who prided themselves on following every iota of the Mosaic Law.  They were probably among those Jesus denounced for ostentatious fasting:  “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.  I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.” (Matthew 6: 16, New Living Translation)  Jesus called out the Pharisees for their empty, showy arrogance and for the stumbling blocks they set up for others:  “You shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.  You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (Matthew 23: 13).  Overly zealous regarding trivial details, they missed the big picture:  “You are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law–justice, mercy and faith.  You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides!  You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23: 23-24).   

On this Ash Wednesday, I look into the dark ashes and contemplate Jesus’s supreme sacrifice.  I give thanks that his unimaginable love lifts me from the depths of destruction and despair. 

On this Valentine’s Day, If I know my husband, he’ll come home with a big box of Russell Stover’s candy.  

During Lent, I will try to take Jesus as my role model.  I will keep my Bible close at hand.  And I will eat some chocolates.  I may also swallow a few gnats.  But I hope to avoid the camels.  

Happy Ash Valentine’s Day!