Advent Reflection on Mary the Mother of Jesus: "Saying Yes!"

This reflection was part of the Advent Prayer Series we led in our hometown and church.          The series was entitled Transforming Fear into Trust.

Luke 1: 26-38; 46-55
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. 36 And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

46 And Mary said:
“My soul exalts the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48 “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
49 “For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
50 “And His mercy is upon generation after generation
Toward those who fear Him.
51 “He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
52 “He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
53 “He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
54 “He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy,
55 As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.”

Reflection:
From the Gospels account, we don’t know the whole arc of Mary’s life. Her presence in the gospel story begins with this passage. We hear that Mary has found favor with God, and that God is with her. The ancient church has always held the tradition, most likely passed on orally and originating with direct relationships with Mary in the first century, that her entire life was one of saying yes to God all throughout her childhood and life up to this point. This great “yes” to bearing Christ emerged out of an entire lifetime of yeses, of learning to consent and trust in God in the small things of daily life. Moment by moment, in every event and circumstance, she developed the practice of consenting to God’s will and action in her life. When the time came for the great ‘yes’ that would change the history of the world, that habitual response of trust and opening was already woven into the fabric and fiber of her being. We hear this great ‘yes’ – “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Something we can forget due to our ease and familiarity with this story, is that Mary’s ‘yes’ was at great personal risk, at least in relation to her outer circumstances. It may have even been a death sentence – it meant she would be pregnant as an unwed mother, and betrothed to someone who wasn’t the father. She could have been stoned to death as part of the law of her community. Saying ‘yes’ was an act of trust, saying ‘yes’ to God, over and beyond what looked reasonable, possible or safe by the outer circumstances.
 
Following this great act of trust, we have this marvelous passage of Mary’s proclamation, the Magnificat. Not only did Mary say ‘yes’ to God in the face of a mysterious and probably terrifying angel, she then saw the consequences of God entering the world through her. She foretold the overturning of the powers of the world the way they were. The hungry would be fed and the rich sent away empty. The mighty will be cast down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. She didn’t only say ‘yes’ to this new life within her. She saw what that would mean for humanity, for God to truly dwell among us, for God to be born through her into the world. This would change everything, and the whole world would be turned upside down. That’s the vision that came out of her consent.
 
In terms of prayer, one way to think about Mary in this time of Advent is as an archetype for our soul. There’s what Mary said ‘yes’ to 2000 years ago that we remember and honor, but there’s also a way in which each one of our hearts is a place where God can dwell. God can be born anew from the realm of the infinite spirit into the realm of flesh. Our own divided hearts and particular circumstances probably aren’t ideal for God to come into. Like Mary we can say yes even in the midst of what may feel like very challenging circumstances. Just like her life of receptivity and trust allowed God to be born in human form, we can trust and open to God’s action on a level that is beyond what we can see or imagine.
 
Mary had nothing to do or say other than be utterly receptive, no matter the consequences, and allow God to do the work and create within her. We can think of God’s action within us in the same way. Our primary task in the spiritual life is not what we do, it’s what we allow God to do in us and through us. If we really believe that God does the work through us, our basic stance in life will be one of receptivity to God’s active presence. We won’t just be trying to do good deeds for a God that’s off somewhere else, who approves or disapproves of our behavior. Can we allow this living, vital incarnate God to act in and through us? That’s the invitation of Mary. Allow God to be conceived and born through us. Christ came once through Mary in flesh and comes again through every heart that allows God to be born again, ever more deeply in us.
 
May we say ‘yes’ to God becoming incarnate through our hearts this Christmas!
 
Prayer practice: Centering Prayer

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When engaged with your thoughts (including thoughts body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections), return ever so gently to the sacred word.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple minutes.

Advent Reflection on John the Baptist: "Prepare Your Heart"

This reflection was part of the Advent Prayer Series we led in our hometown and church.          The series was entitled Transforming Fear into Trust.

Mark 1: 1-8 (A Contemplative Translation)
A new beginning - this is the liberating transmission of Yeshua, YHVH’s own chosen vessel, sent to pour forth wholeness and freedom as the Manifestation of YHVH. 2 As it was written beforehand by Yesha’yahu, the one overflowing with the Divine Spirit:

“Look closely, I am sending my radiant messenger1 before your coming; He will prepare the way before you.
3 The voice of one crying out: ‘In the wild places, prepare the way for YHVH! Align the paths for YHVH to infuse humanity.’”

4 Yochanan the Immerser appeared in the wild places, proclaiming an immersion into the transformation of the eyes of the heart, to bring about the release of all that separates us from YHVH. 5 People from all over Y’hudah, and all of the inhabitants of Yerushalayim came out to him. They openly acknowledged their thoughts and actions that directed them away from YHVH, and were immersed by him in the Yarden River to express this change and expansion of heart. 6 Yochanan wore rugged clothes, made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, signifying that he was one of the YHVH’s wild, spirit-filled ones. He nourished himself with the insects and wild honey he gathered from the bounty of the land. 7 He taught: “There’s someone with greater spiritual power than me, and He is coming. I’m not even whole enough to effectively be His servant. 8 I’ve immersed you in natural water to symbolize change, but He will directly immerse you in the One Sacred Spirit!”

Reflection:
In this passage from the beginning of Mark’s gospel we are introduced to the figure of John the Baptist, a Biblical character who is raised to prominence in the season of Advent. His proclamation is “Prepare the way of the Lord”, or as the contemplative translation says it, “Prepare the way for that which is already present at every moment, YHWH – pure being.”
 
In our ordinary lives, we are rarely present to that divine reality and the people in John’s time were similarly aloof to the moment by moment presence of God. John’s call for his contemporaries and for us is a call to prepare the way for God who is already among us. The call is to awaken to a reality that’s already here. Of course, in the incarnation of Christ (Christmas) we’re celebrating Christ coming into the world in a particular time and place, in the singular body of Jesus. But we also prepare for Christ ‘coming’ into our heart and lives at a deeper and renewed level. In our preparation, there’s a remembrance of what happened once, but there’s also a preparing for what already and always is present - God. In this strange mystery, our preparation is to make this reality come alive, to make it become a living presence in our hearts and our daily lives.
 
What is John’s primary teaching? There are two. The first is a stripping down – he’s wild, living out on the margins, living off wild survival foods. He calls us to strip down to create space, to open up space. He’s calling people to change – and to take up a practice that is exactly the opposite of what the secular culture invites us to do in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The world invites us to grasp and try and fill our lives and homes, John calls us to strip away. The word metanoia is used by both John and Jesus in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It’s often translated “repentance” in literal bible translations. Our modern sense of repentance partially contains what John was saying, but not entirely. The Greek word, metanoia, more fully means to expand or open (meta-) the eyes of the heart or interior self (-noia). Metanoia- open the eyes of your heart. Expand to be present to this divine reality.
 
The second action of John is immersion, which is the literal meaning of the word that is more commonly translated ‘to baptise’. Of course, when John was ‘baptizing’, baptism wasn’t the first sacrament of initiation into the church. The church didn’t exist. It was immersing people in water to symbolize a total change, and something new coming forth. It symbolized being cleansed and prepared for this new life and new reality. That’s also our invitation, to be immersed in God’s presence. To open to something new and create space inside our hearts, then to be immersed in the Divine Life. That’s right at the heart of our work of Advent.
 
When we talk about preparing for the Incarnation, the early church didn’t understand the incarnation as something that just happened to the one man, Jesus. They certainly acknowledged the incarnation in Jesus very fully. But the larger understanding was that when God became human, God took on allhuman nature - the whole species! God was united to our common humanity, the same nature dwelling in each of us, not only in the one person, Jesus. Jesus was the localization, concentration, manifestation of something that happened to all of humanity. As the church Fathers write: “God has clothed his own self with humanity so that we might be clothed with divinity.” “God became human so that we might become divine” and share in God’s life. The Incarnation is about our intimacy and union with God, not just Jesus’ union with God. Jesus is the sharer and a bearer of this new intimacy between God and humanity. That’s what we’re called to prepare for, to really make the Incarnation a known, felt reality rather than just an idea that we’re holding about what once was 2000 years ago.
 
Prayer practice:
This practice comes from and is slightly adapted from the book Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus. The author looks at what the Aramaic of the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes would have been and what the robust understanding of these teachings were. Ancient languages have layers upon layers of meaning and nuance and Jesus, as a spiritual teacher, used the richness of the language to communicate the subtleties and layers of the inner life.
 
We’re going to pray with the phrase that we’re used to hearing as “Hallowed be thy name”, the second line of the Lord’s Prayer. In Aramaic is nethqadesh shmakh. The English translation gets this word “hallowed” (meaning holy, set aside, creating space, preparing) from nethqadeshShmakh refers to the name. The whole phrase, then, has this sense of “clearing space for the name to dwell” which is right in line with incarnation and what John the Baptist taught. This phrase has two movements within it that are the same movements found in John’s teaching: Stripping away and expansion. The stripping away in our time may be a clearing away of busyness, distractions, anxiety, etc. As we clear things away, as we declutter, there is also more space. There is expansion, there’s more room. This phrase then, nethqadesh shmakh, brings to mind a number of images.

  • Creating a room, an altar, or shrine for God to dwell like the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple; a set apart place
  • A gardener clearing away debris and weeds for a special plant; nurturing and tending to it
  • Cleaning out a flute that is clogged so it can make the music it was designed to make 

Choose an image that you resonate with the most. As you sit with the image, imagine that the Spirit is acting in this way (creating room, clearing away debris, cleaning out a flute) to prepare your inner space.
 
Turn your attention to the breath. As you breathe in meditate on the expansion of your heart. As you breathe out meditate on the stripping away of all that clogs this expansion.

Advent Reflection on Christ the Teacher: "Stay Awake!"

This reflection was part of the Advent Prayer Series we led in our hometown and church.          The series was entitled Transforming Fear into Trust.

Mark 13 : 5-13 (A Contemplative Translation)
 5 Yeshua began by saying, “Be careful, and do not let anyone manipulate your mind and heart. 6 In a time of crisis, many so-called leaders will rise up, claiming to be the answer, saying, “I am the One who will keep you safe.” They will manipulate the minds and hearts of many, who are fearful, into following them. 7 When you see violent conflict around you, and reports of violent conflicts everywhere, do not allow yourselves to get drawn into reactionary fear and panic. These disturbances are what naturally happen in a time of uncertainty and upheaval, but they’re not the real change we’re looking for. 8 Groups of people will fight and invade other groups, and countries will wage war against other countries. There will even be natural disasters in many places, and times of widespread starvation. But this isn’t transformation; it’s only the pains of labor that precede the birth of something new.

9 As for you who are following my teaching, stay alert and watchful, both within and around yourselves. If you remain in peaceful, powerful Truth in a time of fear and panic, and do not take sides when people are hating and fighting each other, they may arrest you for your strange, different ways, and even go so far as to physically harm you in their supposed places of worship. You will be dragged before political rulers because you abide in my living presence, and they will see your light radiating before them. 10 This Liberating Transmission we’re bringing into the world must be shared with all people, of every background. 11 So, when fearful people drag you away in chains and make you stand trial, don’t even worry about what to say. Just open your mouths and speak whatever is given to you at that moment. It won’t be your small self that is speaking. The One Sacred Spirit, dwelling within you, will speak through you! 12 The terror in the world may be so great that families will be torn apart, with brothers betraying each other, children betraying parents, and parents betraying children – even handing their own family over to executioners! This is what fear does in people’s hearts in a time of great conflict. 13 In such a time, if you remain in my light, power, peace, and presence, then every one of the warring factions will hate you for not taking their side. However, the one who perseveres in living from Divine light and truth through all this tumult, not giving into hate or fear, will be made completely whole and transformed by the ordeal. The hardship, far from destroying you, will increase the power of your love."

Reflection:

Sometimes it’s easy, two thousand years after the birth of Christ, to have Advent and Christmas become a domesticated story. We turn the narrative into a lovely and very safe story about sweet baby Jesus, and the little baby lambs, and people gathering at the manger. We forget that Jesus was born in the midst of great conflict and great opposition. We forget that Jesus birth, life, and teaching is not simply a beatific vision that happened once in the past. The Christmas story is actually about the birth of a new way of living and loving in the face of conflict, violence and fear. It’s about the birth of Divine Unity in the midst of division.
 
In Jesus’ time, Judea was occupied by a foreign oppressor (the Romans) While the Romans, were more or less universally hated, various factions within the Jewish community had very different responses. The Sadducees, a religious/political party acquiesced and chose to live as peaceably as they could with the Romans. They even worked for them in their government agencies, aligning themselves with the Romans and therefore were able to stay in power themselves. The Pharisee’s response was to stay very pure within their own observation of the Torah. They chose not to touch the violence or conflict, but rather removed themselves internally to focus on their inner practice and purity while living side by side with the ‘impure’.
The Essenes fled the city altogether to go into the wild areas and kept themselves physically removed in order to practice the Torah in purity. The Zealots fought the Romans through an underground resistance, engaging in acts of violence as part of their opposition. Each of these groups did not trust or like the others. They had a common oppressor, but their allegiance to their response created conflict among them. There was division upon division. This is the situation where Jesus was bringing his teaching about trust, about not giving into fear.
 
Based on our current events, this passage could have been written a week ago. Jesus’ teaching is a call to not align with forces that have collapsed to one camp or another into an “us versus them” oppositional attitude. Jesus is saying that in order to follow the way of truth, we need to stand in the middle of all factions (both around us, and within us) and see clearly. We must be able to stay present and not to collapse into fear in any number of directions. We must develop the capacity to stay open, breathe, and take in the whole field of human experience. The response of fear in each of these camps is to collapse into one hardened way of doing things; into thinking only one way is right, and we need to oppose, fight, or destroy the other to become safe.
 
In this teaching, Jesus says, “Be careful, and do not let anyone manipulate your mind and heart… saying, ‘I am the One who will keep you safe.’” There’s an impulse in the human heart to want to feel safe; to not need to trust. We seek safety and security from an outside source. The spiritual teaching here is to be able to trust in God alone, in life itself, in reality itself, and to not collapse into that sense of protection from the outside. Jesus continues to say that his followers will even be hated for doing so. Those who have collapsed into fear tend to want others to join them. The way we see this here in Vermont is when people have a lot of sorrow and regret about what’s happening in our country, we often seek solace in all complaining together, or in all talking about what a terrible world “those people” are creating. This is a collapse into something smaller rather than holding all things in love. As Jesus says, “This is what fear does in peoples’ hearts in a time of great conflict”.
 
“The one who perseveres in living from Divine light and truth … will be made completely whole and transformed by the ordeal. The hardship, far from destroying you, will increase the power of your love.” Jesus invites us to stay in the uncertainty, to stay in the chaos, to continue to breathe, love, and stay open. When we do this there’s eventually a breakthrough, a transformation or change that happens. When one abides in the unknowing, continuing to love, it can break us out of the typical dualistic mind that we all come into this world with - the “either/or” “us vs. them” pattern. If you stay long enough in the face of what’s uncomfortable and continue to love, at some point it breaks the dualistic mind open into the new ability to love unconditionally. We begin to have a heart that’s free.
 
That’s exactly what the image of Jesus on the cross is – this person who is conscious, loving, and staying awake in the face of immense hardship. In the Garden of Gethsemene, all the disciples are falling asleep, but Jesus stays awake to what’s going on. He takes it all in. And it kills him. The story continues to a resurrection on the other side. This is an external story, but it’s also a teaching, a metaphor, of what happens to the mind and the heart when we receive the conflict in the world or even directed towards us without reacting, without collapsing into fear, without pushing it away. If we instead continue to bear the conflict and remain open, it can lead to a collapse of the whole “us-them”, “either-or” oppositional psyche and break us open into resurrected free love that cannot be hurt by others. Jesus the teacher gives us an invitation to die to that part of ourselves, and be reborn into this realm of love and trust. This is the invitation to ‘stay awake!’ that we hear at the beginning of every Advent.
 
Prayer practice: Sensing Fear and Trust in the Body
 
This prayer practice is a way to become aware of constriction inside our body and the feeling of opening in trust. Simply being aware of what that feels like can help us have more consciousness and awareness of what’s happening within us in the face of conflict.
 
Begin by finding a comfortable position. Notice the weight of your own body on the chair or on the ground. Notice the simple moment by moment miracle of breath entering into our lungs, filling our body with life, breath leaving and releasing from the body.
 
Introduce a statement that comes from a place of fear or tension into your consciousness and notice the reaction in your body. You might choose something you find disturbing from the news. You could also use an inflammatory statement directed at you, or a distressing concern in your personal life. Notice the sensations in your body, thought patterns, and emotions as you focus your awareness on this statement.
 
Now, introduce a statement that comes from a place of trust. For example: “I am born of a Love that is infinite, and Infinite Love abiding in me can never die.” Notice the sensations in your body, thought patterns, emotions as you focus your awareness on this statement.
 
Take a few minutes to rest in this infinite love through which you were born, the love that was never born, never dies, endures all things, bears all things, trusts all things.
 
Return to the first statement of fear and tension, while also holding in your mind this infinite love. See if you can hold in your heart both realities in your mind at once without getting lost or locked into the conflict. Do not push it away or get lost in it. Hold it within this context of infinite love. Continue to breathe, continue to open and relax. If you feel yourself pushing away the tension, gently bring that reality back into your awareness while also holding on to an awareness or conviction of the presence of infinite love. If you find yourself locking into the place of tension, gently bring that sensation of fear into the ocean of infinite love. Continue this practice of holding a place of tension in the context of Divine Love. Gradually, the ability to trust in the face of fear will grow.

The First Teaching of Jesus: Metanoia

From that time on, Jesus began to preach ans say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
— Matthew 4:17

In the beginning of Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, we read that Jesus went around from village to village giving his teachings. Most of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels are specific, that is, they are described as a teaching he gave at one particular place and time. But at that start of both Matthew and Mark, we have this overview of his message. These passages serve as the key summary in the gospels - the essence of what Jesus was teaching. Matthew 4:17 says, “From that time on Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ ” We’ll get back to that word that’s typically translated as repent in a moment. In Mark it’s a little bit broader. The parallel passage in Mark’s gospel says, “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. ‘Now is the time of fulfillment. The realm of God is at hand. Repent, and trust in the gospel.’ ” The essence is this – God’s full presence is here – in this instant, right where we are. It’s in our midst. It is not something off in another place, or in a later time (for example, after our personal death) – it is here and now, ‘at hand’. The fullness of Divine Life, and our abiding union with God, is 100% available right now. But somehow, we don’t experience life this way.

In response to this gap between the reality of God’s 100% availability and our inability to perceive this presence, Jesus’ central teaching also contains a call to ‘repentance’. The Greek word metanoia is typically translated as ‘repent’ in Matthew and Mark. It has two parts. First the word meta- which comes from the same root that we now use in the word meta-analysis (a study that includes all the other studies) or metaphysics (physics beyond ordinary physics). The word meta- means ‘change’, but it also means ‘expansion’. Often when we hear the word ‘repent’ we just think about feeling sorrow and trying to do things differently with our will. But the word actually means a deepening or expansion, an opening up to something that’s at a greater level of reality. That’s the meta-.

The second part of the word is –noia, which is derived from the Greek word nous.  Nous can be translated as mind or heart or consciousness. Nous is the part of ourselves that sees things spiritually. The phrase I’ve used to translate –noia in my contemplative translation of the Gospel of Mark is “the eyes of the heart”. It’s the part of our self that sees spiritually.

This word that Jesus uses, metanoia, that is often translated as ‘repent’ has this more nuanced meaning of “change or transform of the eyes of your heart”. Open up! There’s this other reality – the realm of God that is always here in every moment. But we don’t normally see it. We don’t attend to it with our ordinary awareness or consciousness. So, Jesus’ call is to transformation, which is not the same thing as the command to try harder. It’s not the instruction to take one set of thoughts and ideas and replace them with a new set of thoughts and ideas. It’s actually about moving into a level of perception that is different from our ordinary mind, so that we can open to the reality of the presence of God that is already here at every moment. We can cross-reference this teaching with other teachings of Jesus. When someone asks him about the kingdom/realm of God in Luke 17:21, and Jesus says, “You won’t find it here or there, because it is within you and among you.” It’s already here in our midst.

One of the non-canonical gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, has a record of the same teaching that is even more explicit. It reads, "(The Kingdom) will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it." I think this is probably an authentic teaching of Jesus. It sounds very similar to the teachings in Matthew, Mark and Luke, just with a slightly different angle to it. In essence, the kingdom is here in our midst, but we need to open to it in a new way.

This teaching is an important piece of the spiritual life because without out it we can get the idea that turning to God is just renewing our effort again. Instead, the whole story of the gospel is about emptying out the self, to let God live in us in a new way. It’s a letting go of control and letting God be all.

The prayer practice that goes along with this is known as kenotic prayer, which means ‘self-emptying.’ It’s a pure form of prayer where we’re letting go of our control and allowing God to be God. It’s not asking for anything. It’s not trying to obtain anything from prayer. It’s humbly coming before God and saying, “I’m willing to let go of my own control and beliefs. Here I am seeking your presence.” And then we allow that to be enough.

The Meaning(s) of Christmas

What are we seeking at Christmas? Looking around at both our religious and secular worlds, I see at least four different narratives driving the Christmas season. In the spiritual life, what we receive is very closely tied to what we seek. We may say we want and seek many things, but where do we actually place our heart and intention? I believe it’s essential for all of us who are sincerely seeking God to clarify our intentions around the Christmas season.

The most superficial expression of Christmas is the commercial Christmas. In our consumer culture, Christmas has become an opportunity for massive spending and gift giving. At this level, purchasing and giving gifts is supposed to be our way of expressing love and caring for our friends and family. This ‘Christmas’ focuses on gift giving, including the central role of the mythic gift-giving Santa Claus, is less than two hundred years old, and is closely tied to the rise of the industrial commercial economy in the West. I hope that anyone serious about the spiritual life realizes the insanity of attempting to find real happiness or meaning through buying things.  This type of ‘Christmas’ represents the manipulation of good intentions (the desire to give and love) in the service of the industrial growth economy. In my observation, it is sadly where most people get tricked into spending most of their time and energy around Christmas in our country.  Giving gifts is not an evil in itself, of course, but this commercially inspired emphasis usually obscures the deeper invitation of the holy day, including for most Christian families.

An older, and somewhat deeper, focus of the Christmas season is on the coming together of family in love and fellowship. The emphasis of this second type of ‘Christmas’ is on renewing the bonds of relationship, and reconnecting with loved ones.  Most often, when people in the secular world talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, this is what they are referring to. I do believe that in this level we have already crossed into the realm of virtue. Coming together in love and fellowship, with the emphasis on increased human connection, is clearly a deeper and more sustaining level of meaning than the ‘commercial Christmas’ of the shopping mall. This level of Christmas is similar to American Thanksgiving – a time of gratitude and warmth, with a gathering at the family table as a central image. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it is still a far cry from the spiritual center of the Christian feast we are invited to celebrate. Coming together in celebration may be a connection to the virtues of love and fidelity, but the gathering in and of itself does not necessarily lead to union with the Source of all love.

A third level of ‘the meaning of Christmas’ is captured by the expression ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’. This level, held only by Christians, is marked by an emphasis on remembering Jesus as the ‘external savior’. I see this remembrance commonly taking on two forms. In conservative churches, there is a focus on giving thanks for the gift of Jesus, who as an adult died on the cross to save us from damnation (often with a strong focus on the ‘substitutionary atonement’ understanding of salvation). In liberal churches, there is often more of a focus on giving thanks for Jesus who as an adult taught us, by word and example, how to live (the ‘moral exemplar’ understanding of salvation). In both cases, the birth of Jesus is really just a way of getting Jesus into the picture, while the adult Jesus accomplishes the real work of redemption thirty to thirty-three years later. Christmas becomes a memorial of remembrance, a time to give thanks to God for the gift of Jesus and the whole life and work of Jesus. Again, I see much good in this level – and in the turning of attention to the life of Jesus. At this level, we actually think about Christmas as a feast about Jesus – which of course, it is. However, it remains a celebration about the life of the savior, rather than a doorway into participation into the life of the savior. The name ‘Christmas’ itself reveals a deeper reality than this level. We do not celebrate ‘Jesus day’, but rather Christ-mas, which literally means the sending forth (‘mas’, from the Latin missa) of Christ, the union of humanity and divinity, into our world.

At this deepest level, Christmas is about God uniting God’s own nature to humanity in the great mystery of faith we call the Incarnation. The early church understood the Incarnation was not merely about Divinity entering into one person, Jesus, but about Divinity entering the entire human race through the one historic person, Jesus. The ancients believed that all human beings shared in one human nature, and that one nature was transformed in the Incarnation. Was this transformation an ‘adding on’ of divine nature? A revealing of an already present yet hidden divinity? Or a restoration of our original ‘image and likeness’ of God? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter – the end result is that the Incarnation reveals that our nature and the nature of God are united. Our calling in the Incarnation is to know as sons and daughters of God, not just to ‘think of ourselves as’ sons and daughters.  Christ, the Word, made his dwelling among us, and we are invited to open to this glorious reality. It really is, as the angels declared, ‘Good news of great joy that will be for all the people’ (Lk 2:10).

The ‘good news’ of Christmas is the same ‘good news’ (Evangelion in Greek) that Jesus taught and lived - that the Realm of God is now at hand, and that we can enter into it by transforming our hearts (metanoia) to see this new reality clearly.  This mystery of God becoming one of us, and one with us, is so profound that the early Church set aside an entire month (Advent) for prayer, fasting, silence and interior preparation to ready the soul for this great gift.  God has come to dwell among us – but are we living with the stillness and receptivity of heart to experience this as a lived reality?

What was the gift we prepared to receive this Christmas?  Was it giving and receiving material gifts?  Was it coming together with family and friends?  Was it thanksgiving for the adult Jesus and what he said and did?  All these things have their place in a whole human life, but in themselves they are not the spiritual heart of Christmas. Have we opened our minds and hearts to Christ, God-with-us, to infuse our hearts and to live through us?  If God longs to give God’s own life to us and to live in and through us, then may we all have the wisdom, the courage, and the sacred desire to seek nothing less this Christmas season. 

Merry Christ-mas to all!

 "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." - John 1:14

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." - John 1:14