In the weeks before and after Christmas, I like to read a book set in the season. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a holdover from the days we’d read our boys Christmas books from Thanksgiving to Epiphany. Nowadays, it’s adult books I read -- often a murder mystery set in the Highlands or a big city, now or in the past, often with a food theme (coffee, chocolate, cookies). I’m sure it’s just a fanciful escape from the to-do lists that consume my waking energy before Christmas. But some years, I’m in the mood for something more serious: a short collection of essays by Raymond E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas, or a novel by Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas. I’ve read each of them many times over the years. The reason why is probably obvious with Brown’s book, but this year it was Mr. Ives’ turn. When I finished it this morning, I thought about why I return to this particular book again and again. It is a sad story that spans many Christmases and only near the end is it pierced by slivers of hope. It’s an odd choice, even for me.
Part of my attraction is the setting -- New York City, specifically the Morningside Heights neighborhood around Union, where I went to seminary. Mr. Ives lives on Claremont Avenue -- as did we. He attends the same Catholic Church, visits many others I’ve been to, walks through parks I know, buys pizza and Christmas trees on Amsterdam Avenue. Reading this book summons good memories of the Christmases we spent in Manhattan.
The language is lovely. The details evoke so many of the changes that have transformed New York City for good and for ill since the 1950s. And Hijuelos captures the shifting hearts and minds of his characters as they work and worship, live and love, hurt and heal. Here’s a sample:
“Of course, while contemplating the idea of the baby Jesus, perhaps the most wanted child in the history of the world, Ives would feel sad, remembering that years ago someone had left him, an unwanted child, in a foundling home. (To that day, to all the days into the future, there remained within him, the shadowy memory of the dark-halled building in which he lived for two years, a place as cavernous and haunted as a cathedral.) A kind of fantasy would overtake him, a glorious vision of angels and kings and shepherds worshiping a baby: nothing could please him more, nothing could leave him feeling a deeper despair.”
The characters are real -- rough and smooth, sympathetic and off-putting -- and their personalities come back to me quickly, even when years have passed between my reading of this book. As I mentioned, the plot is a sad one. Tragedy strikes early on and through all 248 pages, an easy answer never rears its ugly head. Ives endures the tragedy, the pain, the sorrow, the memories, the paralysis, the despair, the doubts, the odd monotony of loss. And when the “answers” come, they are not obvious or even easy to understand, either for him, his friends or me.
I think that’s why I love this book and come back to it again and again. We all know that Christmas is a difficult time for many people, for many of us. Somehow most of us soldier through the glitter and glad tidings. Occasionally we re-emerge cheered and comforted. Some of us have witnessed moments of mystery that we don’t understand but hope are good omens. We know the first Christmas was marked by violence and sorrow and yet, love endured and hope, though it often seems fleeting, can pierce our lives. Mr. Ives reminds me of that everytime I visit him at Christmas.
Last month, the Institute for Christian Muslim Understanding screened this film at the Muslim Educational Trust in Tigard, and 350 people showed up on a school night to see it. If you missed it, Oregon Public Broadcasting will show it at 11 p.m. tonight, Dec. 27. Stay up late or DVR it. It's worth your time to glimpse a moment from our shared past when a Christian and a Muslim defied their leaders and met face to face in search of peace. Here's a link to the trailer.
Christmas Day has come and gone, but I am still marking it in my heart. My house was full with my sons, their wives and their two babies -- my new granddaughters. Birth stories, feeding schedules and dreams for the future filled the air. The presents were thoughtful. The food was good, even if we threw it together at the last minute. Both illness and freezing rain kept our family plans up in the air. But we made the most of our time together. All the young ones headed for home about 6 p.m. and I left the dishes on the table, made myself a Christmas cocktail and enjoyed a holiday movie. A hot eggnog and rum later, I poured myself into bed, slept soundly and tackled the dishes this morning. I just finished, after several coffee and cookie breaks and a couple rounds of the living room to pick up paper, boxes and ribbons.
I am sure there is nothing remarkable about these particular Christmas memories. But for me, they are a turning point. My husband loved Christmas, and since losing him five years ago, I seemed to have lost a piece of my heart. But I know he would love these little girls, be proud of his sons, impressed with their wives and that, if he could, he would have mixed my Christmas drink and talked me into that eggnog. I would give anything to have him back here with me, but as the years pass, it seems easier to feel him still at my side. And so I am indulging myself in all the Christmas I can muster and wishing anyone reading this, a peace-filled holiday.
Yesterday, I raised some questions here about the wise men, the trio of magi who meander through our Christmas traditions. We may think we know why they are there. They bring gifts to the infant Jesus. But if you think about it, the magi are shadowy strangers that you and I would probably never let near our children, at Christmas or any other time. But if we read Matthew’s Christmas story carefully, we realize both what we don’t know and what we can learn from these mysterious men.
We don’t know how many there were (we assume there were three because they brought three gifts with them) or where they come from (just “from the East”) or what they really did for a living (theories over the centuries include astrologers, astronomers, magicians, royal advisors, even frauds).
We do know that they followed a star, stopped to ask for directions (wise men, indeed), had a frightfully enlightening encounter with the Romans’ appointed king of the Jews (that Herod, what a nasty piece of work). Eventually, they laid eyes on the infant (the one we know as Jesus), presented their gifts and then hit the road, taking a different route home.
Now, it would take too long to unpack all that detail (I do try to do that in my book). But here are some high points: The magi -- strangers in the Christmas story -- were the characters who (1) acted with integrity, (2) behaved humbly, (3) moved with determination, (4) showed true courage and (5) had a kind of vision that many of us would envy.
You see, if we set aside Mary and Joseph, the wise men were the first people to literally lay eyes on Jesus, to recognize this infant as the king of the Jews (long before that title was nailed over his head on the cross). In other words, magi were foreigners, unknown, unrecognized, undocumented, unverified outsiders who first saw Jesus for who he was. The insiders in Matthew’s Christmas story -- King Herod and his advisors -- were ignorant, petty, selfish, careless and cruel. It’s the strangers in this Bible story who set the holiest example.
So, I would ask you to think about these strangers today as we hear about, judge, discount, shun, even condemn the strangers (including immigrants, refugees, rich, poor, people from other races, religions, backgrounds, political parties, etc.) that some of our leaders encourage us to fear. Strangers can be our teachers, if only we let them.
Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians at https://litpress.org/Products/4504/Sacred-Strangers or https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Strangers-Bibles-Outsiders-Christians/dp/0814645046
Here’s a quick Christmas quiz for you: Who are those three wise men, traipsing through the Christmas story? The ones who lurk in almost all the manger scenes and children’s pageants of the season? Think about it.
They weren’t Jews. They probably never became Christians. They couldn’t have been Muslims. They were from mysterious, unspecified “Middle Eastern” countries. They passed themselves off as skilled, but we aren’t sure what they did for a living. They seemed well off, but efforts to follow the money have been fruitless. Turns out even their obituaries, on file today in Germany, are actual fake news.
In other words, the three wise men (Do we even know there were three?) were strangers. Foreigners. Outsiders in the original Christmas story. What the heck are they doing there?
If you think it’s because they brought the baby Jesus presents, you’re only partly right. These strangers carried much more important gifts -- for us. That’s why they’re in the Christmas story, why they’re celebrated on Epiphany, January 6, and why we shouldn’t take them for granted today.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you why these outsiders are so important. Yes, I am asking you to wait -- it’s Advent after all.
Kristen Hannum of The Catholic Sentinel reviewed my book this week. Long, long ago I worked at the Sentinel for about a year. I learned a lot from my editor there, Bob Pfohman, and wrote my first stories about an archbishop. In this case, William Levada, who went on to become a cardinal and served in the Vatican. I also got the bug to go to seminary. Here's a link to Kristen's review.
Sunday evening, my daughter-in-law texted me that she and my granddaughter would be stopping by at 7:15 a.m. Monday morning to bring me a Christmas surprise. That seemed a little early, but I would meet them whenever and wherever they propose, so I texted back, “Yes.”
I woke up about 6 a.m., got dressed and was sitting at my dining room table drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. It was still dark out, I hadn’t open the shades on the windows.
Suddenly, I heard men’s voices right outside my window. I peeked out and saw three men, one of them surveying the front of my house. I thought the worst. I summoned my most commanding voice, opened the front door and asked, “Can I help you?”
“We’re going to light your tree,” the guy studying the house said. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“On whose authority?” I asked (“Shoot, does anybody really talk like that,” I thought.)
“Ashley’s,” he said without missing a beat.
For a minute, I still didn’t know what he was talking about. “Ashley is my daughter-in-law,” I blurted out.
“Yep,” he said. “She ordered it.” He smiled. I burst into tears. Within a few minutes, Ashley and my granddaughter showed up. Ashley consulted with the workmen while I cuddled the baby. When Ashley came back inside, she explained that it was a joint gift from all my kids -- my two sons and their wives.
As I’ve grown older, outdoor lights at night have become so important to me. Maybe it’s the result of living through so many gray Oregon winters. But even this year, during a stretch of dry, blue skies, the sight of sparkling lights against the night sky warms my heart. I have always wanted to light the dogwood tree outside my dining room window, but I couldn’t do it alone. Even if I could, I think my ladder-climbing days are behind me. I always assumed it would be too expensive to hire anyone to do it (let’s hope my kids didn’t spend their kids’ college funds on this project!). And so I have contented myself with a string of lights around my front porch and evening walks, where I soak in all my neighbors’ lights.
Well, this year, thanks to my wonderful children, I have a sparkling tree in my front yard. And, as I am reminded yet again, a remarkable family.
Today I had the privilege of preaching at Spirit of Grace, a wonderful and welcoming congregation in Beaverton, Oregon. The readings for the day and my remarks follow.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, this season of anticipation for the birth of Jesus and all that it means to those of us who believe in him. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is a challenging time -- partly because of the culture and society around us, which seem to have their own understandings of Christmas. And partly because this year Advent, as it always seems to do, finds us all in different places.
For some of us, this is a season of joy, of childlike wonder, when expectation fuels excitement and creates extra energy.
For others of us, Advent almost always comes with a long “to-do list.” Some of it is fun; some of it is frustrating. But we rush to complete every task by December 24.
Those of us who follow the news this Advent season see the brokenness of the world, of our country, of our own communities. Given all that is going on, or not going on, we often feel the weight of depression and despair, in a time when we had hoped to see light and possibility.
And for a few of us, this particular Advent may be a time when sadness or loss colors our lives. Our pain seems all the more vivid now because the rest of the world is decked out in red and green.
So, this second Sunday of Advent finds us all in different places. And to be honest with you, before this season ends, I will probably have been in all those places myself. But, thankfully, I think today’s Scripture reaches out to us, wherever we may be.
We would do well to remember that the first reading today, from Isaiah 40, was aimed at people who had lived in exile for almost a generation. The prophet was speaking to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, to a remnant of them anyway, to those who had survived a stunning defeat, a “shattering disaster,” 50 years before. The Babylonian Empire had swept through the kingdom of Judah. They had killed Jews, destroyed villages and towns, and laid waste to Jerusalem. They they had torn apart the temple, the holy place where the Jews believed God lived. Finally, to make matters worse, the Babylonians rounded up the best and the brightest and the most skilled of the Jews, forced them to leave their homes and live in another country, far, far away.
This exile all but broke the people of Judah. The Psalms record their anger, their grief, their yearning, their bitterness. Some were consumed by guilt -- many of them had not led upright lives. Others felt forsaken by God and mourned for the homes and loved ones they had lost. The biblical book of Lamentations describes the ruins of Jerusalem and says the sacred stones of the temple were scattered at the top of every street.
But, as often happens with empires, Babylon eventually fell. The new conqueror, Cyrus of Persia, declared an end to the exile and decreed that the Jews could go home. But, as often happens, freedom came with fear. What would the people find when they went back to Judah, back to Jerusalem? Their homes and villages might still be in ruins. Or other people might have claimed and rebuilt them. And with the temple destroyed, God surely must have moved on.
Isaiah, and other prophets before him, reminded the people over and over again that God was not bound to one place, especially not to a stone temple in Jerusalem. God has been with you in exile, the prophets said, and God awaits you at home.
“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” Isaiah writes. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . make straight a highway . . . every mountain and hill made low . . . uneven ground leveled out . . . do not fear . . . Here is your God!“
Isaiah asks his people to have faith despite what they have seen and heard, despite their doubts and fears. Isaiah calls them to act on that faith, not to linger in the ruins of Babylon, but to go home and remake their lives.
Today’s second reading, from Peter’s second letter, was inspired long after the Babylonian exile ended. After the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection. This letter was addressed to a community like this one, a church united by their belief in Jesus and challenged by those who doubted his promises. This letter was written at a time when the church’s critics had grown bold. Yes, the followers of Jesus believed that he was coming back to them, in glory. But months, weeks, years had passed, and it hadn’t happened yet.
“Where is the promise of his coming,” some sneered at the church. Questions and doubts threatened to take hold of the community: What is taking so long? Maybe he isn’t coming.
Peter cuts quickly to the chase. Remember “this one fact,” he says. “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” His point, some people say, is that God experiences time differently that we human beings do. But I’m not sure about that. Peter is saying that for God, time is both fast and slow, both short and long. I have that same experience, don’t you? When I am sad or lonely, time drags. When I am happy and excited, time flies. I think Peter means that the passage of time is not something we control. But those times when it seems to drag may work to our advantage.
Maybe what we experience as delay is evidence of God’s patience, Peter argues. We can use this time to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Because when he does come “like a thief in the night,” all this -- the things, the stuff, the objects that we have made or built or bought, all the things that consume our attention -- even the elements they are made of -- will all be burned away.
We will be left with nothing but ourselves. And those selves, Peter goes on to say, should be at peace, “without spot or blemish.” I don’t know about you, but getting myself to place where I am at peace and without spot or blemish, will require some effort. Peter reminds us that our waiting is not idle time, to be spent dozing before the fire, waiting for Jesus to knock on the door. We all have work to do. God is not stalling just to catch us off guard or unprepared. God wants us all to come to repentance.
Which brings us to the Gospel, the beginning verses of Mark, which build on the imagery of Isaiah. Once again, the setting is the wilderness, and we learn that a messenger, sent from God, will “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight.” Mark is not talking about building a highway home, as Isaiah did, but about straightening out crooked paths. And in Mark’s mind, the straighter path -- the more direct route -- lies through the wilderness. And many of us know that to be true.
Mark also introduces us to John the baptizer, giving us just enough detail to make him seem odd and old-school at the same time. John is clothed in animal skins, a strip of hide wrapped around his waist. John’s appearance connected those who saw him then and hear about him now with an earlier time in our sacred history. It connects us to the days of the prophets -- who always spoke for God whether or not the people wanted to listen.
Hear what John is saying now: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John has just described himself as lower even than a slave. But here he is, baptizing “people from the whole of Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” who have come to him to confess their sins. John is a humble man, who acts with power, in the service of others.
And he is not done talking: “I have baptized you with water,” John says, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” I think John, who lives in the wilderness, speaks humbly, does what he can and promises even more, is the prophet of Advent, the embodiment of this season. I would like to be more like him.
I told you I think today’s Scriptures speak to all of us, wherever we find ourselves.
If we are joyful, excited and energized about the birth of Jesus, these readings are a reminder that some of the energy we feel should be directed toward ourselves. So that we will be ready for Jesus and the work he requires of us. Not that we should become glum or self-absorbed, but that we should use the gift of God’s patience to create and foster qualities that won’t burn away on the day of the Lord.
If we are saddled with an overwhelming “to-do list,” we need to remember that we are not alone in our efforts. Helping others and receiving help are both part of our Advent experience. Remember that God is not bound to one place, one day or a single experience of time. Faith can re-write our “to-do” lists.
If we follow the news and see the brokenness all around us, we should not give in to communal depression and despair. Our “shattering disaster” is not the first one we have endured. We have been and can be a remnant people, passing through the wilderness. With God’s help, we can find our way home and rebuild our lives.
And, finally, if we are struggling with some kind of sorrow, these readings remind us that sometimes the most direct path forward passes through the wilderness. We can take one step at a time and remember that we are not walking alone.
No matter where we are this Advent, no matter the challenges that we face, I think I can summarize this message from Isaiah, 2 Peter and Mark in what we used to call a “nut graf” at the newspaper -- a quick and clean statement telling readers why we were writing this particular story, why we were writing it now and what difference it would make to them. So here is my nut graf this morning: God is already here. Be prepared. The Lord is coming again.