Thursday, December 31, 2009

All This and a Bag of Chips - And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

The Season of Light:
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The Last Day in the Year of Our Lord 2009

The Word:
1 John 2:18-21 ("...many antichrists have appeared, thus we know it is the last hour")
Psalm 96:1-2, 11-13 (The Lord comes to rule the earth)
John 1:1-18 ("In the beginning was the Word...and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw his glory")

Attention, Kmart shoppers: Christmas is not over! No, it only started December 25. We are now in the other part of the Season of Light, the tough part.

Why is it so tough? Didn't we do all we could over the better part of five weeks to get ready for it? Did we not drool enough over all the decorations, light displays, and the plethora of food and sweets? Of course we did.

Most of us ruffled through ads, wrestled through stores, and while we the people might not have gotten skinnier, I'm willing to bet some of our credit cards are noticeably, physically thinner; and our bank balances have gone down, even if our weight may be up a bit. I can't imagine anyone actually spent the $87,400 plus change on the cost of gifts listed in The Twelve Days of Christmas, but I have been known to be wrong. And there are some single gifts in our modern day priced higher than all the drummers, rings, and birds.

I'm not complaining. The Season of Light is a time when we're supposed to open our hearts - and most times that does lead to opening our wallets. But the point of this part of the season - now that radio stations have stopped playing carols and the decorations are coming down faster than they went up - is that our hearts remain open to Emmanuel, "God with(in) us." That could be among the origins of the legendary "New Year's Resolutions." You know - those things for which goals are set on January 1 to accomplish that you will likely abandon by February.

One of my biggest problems is when I attempt something (for example, losing weight - but it's not the only thing) I have this impression that it's something I have to do all by myself. If I find a way to do things with someone else, the change in life pattern becomes much easier. Take, for example, time for prayer. It should be something I am presupposed to do, and have the discipline. I don't. However, quite out of the blue in this year about to end, I was led to daily podcasts of the Divine Office and Bible readings for Mass. I set my alarm to wake me with one of these podcasts, and try to time the others at various points during my day. If I can walk while I pray any of the others, so much the better.

We have a degree of exercise and fitness equipment at home, and I must try to make better use of them alongside my family this year instead of watching the nth rerun of some TV show I happen to like (and I manage to find one every night).

One resolution is being made that will be a tough one to meet, but meet it we must - in the coming year our family will find a new home. There are no major problems with where we are, but there are several reasons when added together make this important. It will take time and a lot of energy, and a lot of hope.

Other things that are in flux in the year ahead are the stuff of future blogging. All I can say is it's going to be one heckuva ride. Once upon a time I would have thought that by 55 the ride would be slowing down. Forget that noise. However, I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to the ride so much that the accompanying challenges don't seem to be as big as I would have put them at other points in life.

Last Sunday it was pointed out that Joseph (Mary's husband and the stepfather of Jesus) was never quoted as saying anything in all the places in the Gospels (mainly Matthew and Luke) where he is mentioned. Still, the narrative clearly shows that he was a man of faith and action, a model for husbands and fathers today. (As long as nobody buries me upside down in order to buy or sell a house, I think we're okay.)

For all the doom and gloom that was spoken about or presented itself in 2009, for all the running around in circles, for all the endless debate and dragging feet through litigation that hallmarks society, in spite of the specter of global warming and the prophecies claiming the world will end any day now (latest date: 12/21/2012), there is still love, joy, hope, and light...

..."and a partridge in a pear tree."

Farewell, 2009; Welcome, 2010! May we bear more light than diffuse it as we move forward, ever forward.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Joyful & Triumphant

The Season of Light:
Christmas Day, The Nativity of Jesus
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 9

The Word:
(Scripture readings usually proclaimed at Christmas)
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Matthew 1:1-25 (Vigil Mass)
Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96:1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (Midnight Mass)
Isaiah 62:11-12; Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:15-20 (Sunrise Service)
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18 (Christ's Mass)

Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes;
Venite, venite in Bethlehem
Natum videte, regem angelorum

Venite adoremus
Venite adoremus
Venite adoremus Dominum

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant;
O come, ye; O come, ye to Bethlehem!
Come, and behold Him, born the King of angels.

O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Cantet nunc io, chorus angelorum,
Cantet nunc aula caelestium:
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Venite adoremus
Venite adoremus
Venite adoremus Dominum

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation!
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Gloria in excelsis Deo! (Glory to God in the highest!)

O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

For He alone is worthy
For Christ alone is worthy
Venite adoremus...Christ the Lord!

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning!
Jesus, to Thee be all glory given
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing
O come, let us adore him
Venite adoremus
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

--Adeste Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful)
(18th Century)
Latin text and music - John F. Wade, English text - Frederick Oakeley

And so, the world is turned upside down once again.

A king, redeemer, savior (take your pick or all of the above) is born in the humblest of places.

And...most of the world at the time could have cared less.

Today, it is all too easy to not consider the wide range of unworldly events that have shaped and molded a chunk of humanity for all time. To do without it completely, though, would be sacrilege.

Besides, it would give those who are professed atheists one less major thing to complain about. (Now there's an oxymoron for you - professing that you don't profess to any particular spiritual or faith path, religious congregation, or the like.)

O holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night
Of the dear Savior's birth...

O holy night
When...something, something...Jesus
It is the night
Of the Christmas trees and pies

Jesus is born
And so I get a present
Thank you, Jesus for being born

Fall on your knees
O hear (Can't you hear?)
The angels'...something (VOICES!!)
O night divine
O night when I get presents
O night divine
O night...O holy night

--O Holy Night

19th Century carol
Original text by Adolphe Adam
Parody as sung by Eric Cartman in TV's South Park by Trey Parker and Matt Stone

Okay, this may be a bit of a stretch, but at least Eric thanked Jesus for being born and becoming the source of his holiday expectations. How many of us are thankful today for this time and place? Is it possible that a vast majority of us are so expectant of 'our fair share'(no matter how unfair or unbalanced that seems to someone else) that we fail to acknowledge that it came from somewhere else, no matter how much we may or may feel we earned it or are entitled to it?

When was the last time you thanked God just for being? Or at least, thanked someone in your life for being there for you? And, really meant it?

Today, Christians acknowledge a great gift - Emmanuel, God with us in the flesh and bone and sinews of humanity, and caught up in the web of human existence. For that alone I am thankful - although it took many years and the wonderful gift of loved ones and friends and colleagues for me to only begin to understand and appreciate the depth of such a gift.

The shouting and singing is over for now. Four out of five services in two days can tire a person out. I am truly excited yet calm, thankful and ready to move ahead. Now is the time to see how well that joy and cheer can be spread around.

Love and joy come to you
And to you your Christmas too
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ero Cras

The Season of Light:
Christmas Eve
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 8

The Word:
2 Samuel 7:1-16 ("I will raise up [an heir after David]...I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me")
Psalm 89:2-5, 27 & 29 (Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord)
Luke 1:67-79 ("Blessed be the Lord...he has come to his people and set them free")

Over the last seven days I introduced each of the seven verses of the ancient hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. If you've been following, the verses all portray an image of the promised Messiah, according to the prophet Isaiah. Let's recap (Latin words in parentheses):

Come, Wisdom from on high (O Sapientia)
Come, Lord of might (O Adonai)
Come, Rod of Jesse (O Radix Jesse)
Come, Key of David (O Clavis David)
Come, Daystar (O Oriens)
Come, Desired [King] of the Nations (O Rex Gentium)
and, finally, Come, Emmanuel (O Emmanuel).

It is interesting to note that this hymn, though attributed to the 9th Century and in Latin, is similar to a style of Hebrew poetry, in which the first letter of each stanza or verse follows a pattern. (For example, each major section of Psalm 119 begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.) Taking all the bold letters from last to first, we have "ero cras", which is Latin for "Tomorrow, I will come."

Additionally, there was a practice in the Anglican Church to add one verse that was not part of the original series of antiphons. It, too was in Latin; a loose English translation reads like this:

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

This was added after the previous seven verses. Adding the "V" of virgin (Latin virgo), to the acrostic, we now have "vero cras" (Truly, tomorrow).

Now, you know.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

O Christ, whom nations sigh for,
Whom priest and prophet long foretold,
Come break the captive fetters;
Redeem the long-lost fold.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

You come in peace and meekness,
And lowly will your cradle be;
All clothed in human weakness
Shall we your Godhead see.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

--O Come, Divine Messiah

16th Century French carol

Tonight the stars shine for the children
And light the way for dreams to fly
Tonight our love comes wrapped in ribbons
The world is right and hopes are high
And from a dark and frosted window
A child appears to search the sky
Because it's Christmas, because it's Christmas

Tonight belongs to all the children
Tonight their joy rings through the air
And so we pray God's tender blessings
To all the children everywhere
To see the smiles and hear the laughter
A time to give, a time to share
Because it's Christmas, for now and forever
For all of the children and for the children in us all

--Because It's Christmas
Barry Manilow

This night we pray
Our lives will show
This dream we have
Each child still knows

We are waiting
We have not forgotten

On this night, on this night
On this very Christmas night
On this night, on this night
On this merry Christmas night

--Christmas Canon
Words: Paul O'Neill, Music: adaptation of the Kanon by Johann Pachelbel
as recorded by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Tomorrow, while all may seem the same, the world will once more be turned upside down.

Until then, may your God be with you...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Come, Emmanuel! Hail Festivus!

The Season of Light:
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 7

The Word:
Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24 ("I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me")
Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10 & 14 (Your redemption is near at hand)
Luke 1:57-66 (Elizabeth gives birth to a son; "His name is John")

Veni, veni Emmanuel!
Captivum solve Israel!
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude, gaude!!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel!!!

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice, Rejoice!!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!!!

--O Come, O Come Emmanuel
(verse one)

Isaiah had prophesied:
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel (which means 'God is with us')" (Isaiah 7:14).

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candy canes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powder-blue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone Cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televisioned Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jingle bell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass Matinees

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous soul
He waits again
an unimaginable and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
from "A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

My take on this, you ask? Why did I post it??

There's few who will disagree with me in saying that Christmas is a very important festival. However, it's not the only one observed in the Season of Light - and it and all the others are all interconnected. Consider this while I refresh you with one of the relative newcomers to the season, being celebrated today:

Talk about your "hallmark" holidays - Festivus is an annual holiday created by writer Dan O'Keefe and introduced into popular culture by his son Daniel, a scriptwriter for the TV show Seinfeld. Although the original Festivus took place in February 1966 as a celebration of O'Keefe's first date with his wife, Deborah, many people now celebrate the holiday on December 23, as depicted on the December 18, 1997 Seinfeld episode "The Strike". According to O'Keefe, the name Festivus "just popped into his head." The holiday includes novel practices such as the "Airing of Grievances", in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed him or her over the past year. Also, after the Festivus meal, the "Feats of Strength" are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, with the holiday ending only if the head of the household is actually pinned. These conventions originated with the TV episode. The original holiday featured far more peculiar practices, as detailed in the younger Daniel O'Keefe's book The Real Festivus, which provides a first-person account of an early version of the Festivus holiday as celebrated by the O'Keefe family, and how O'Keefe amended or replaced details of his father's invention to create the Seinfeld episode.

Some people, influenced or inspired by Seinfeld, now celebrate the holiday in varying degrees of seriousness; the spread of Festivus in the real world is chronicled in the book Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us. (Wikipedia)

Hey, folks, don't get me wrong - but it seems to me that the "Airing of Grievances" is not limited to one day in the calendar. God be praised if it were!

I think a few seriously missed the boat here. If you needed to celebrate "a non-denominational holiday" because you're "frustrated or jaded with the commercialism and pressure surrounding" the Season of Light, there are countless resources available to you. Watch The Grinch or one of the numerous versions of Dickens' Christmas Carol - better yet, read them - and while at it, read some of the ancient writings associated with the holidays we've been preparing for.

And on the other hand...
Consider the etymology of the word (again, from Wikipedia).
Festivus (with long "i", festīvus) is a Latin word, but not the name of a festival: in one reference it is said to mean "festive". A scholarly work on the etymology of the word by Dr. Brian A. Krostenko summarized in Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, concludes that in ancient Rome the word evolved, referring at times to the way the common folk would misbehave on official religious holidays, and at other times to a certain snooty attitude amongst the higher classes. It is possible that the elder O'Keefe, who was studying ancient rituals, knew this etymology and adapted it for his family's holiday. The English word festive derives from festīvus, which in turn derives from festus "joyous; holiday, feast day".

So maybe Festivus can be a jump start for those still stuck in the rut of preparation. Something bizarre and out of left-field, unexpected, that can divert our focus from the mundane...

..Until you consider that the birth of Jesus, as given in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is about as bizarre and out of left-field as anything television sitcom writers can think up. A virgin giving birth to a child? The husband is not the father? They're traveling to the city of the foster-father's tribal origin to be counted in a census by an occupying foreign power? The baby's born in a stable because nobody has the compassion to give a woman in labor a decent place (by 1st Century standards) to stay? (Where was the universal health-care program?)

Still, the day has become part of our culture, and - whether or not you celebrate it, you can be identified with it.

Tomorrow, Christmas Eve; Day 8 of the 'novena.' One more 'secret' regarding the 'O Antiphons'...and you thought I exhausted the subject.

One of us is crying
As our hopes and dreams
Are led away in chains
And we're left all alone
And one of us is dying
As are love
Is slowly lowered in the grave
Oh, and we're left on our own

But for all of us who journey
Through the dark abyss of loneliness
There comes a great announcement
"We are never alone"
For the One who made each heart that breaks
The Giver of each breath we take
Has come to earth
And given hope its birth

And our God is with us, Emmanuel
And He's come to save us, Emmanuel
And we will never face life alone
Now that God has made Himself known
As Father and Friend, with us through the end

He spoke with prophets' voices
And He showed Himself in a cloud of fire
But no one had seen His face
Until the One most holy
Revealed to us His perfect heart's desire
And left His rightful place

And in one glorious moment
All eternity was shaken
As God broke through the darkness
That had kept us apart
And with love that conquers loneliness
And hope that fills all emptiness
He came to earth to show our worth

So rejoice!! O, rejoice!!!
Emmanuel has come!!!

--Our God Is With Us
Steven Curtis Chapman

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Come, Desired King of the Nations

The Season of Light:
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 6

The Word:
1 Samuel 1:24-28 (Hannah consecrates her son Samuel to the Lord's service)
1 Samuel 2:1-8 (My heart exults in the Lord, my savior)
Luke 1:46-56 (The Magnificat: "The Almighty has done great things for me; holy is his name")

Veni, Veni, Rex gentium,
veni, Redemptor omnium,
Ut salvas tuos famulos
Peccati sibi conscios.

Gaude, gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel!

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of humankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our Prince of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice!!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

--O Come, O Come Emmanuel
(verse seven)

In my series of reflections last year, I wrote:
The Grinch couldn't stop Christmas from coming...but he nearly shut it out of his heart and life. (So also went the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge.) How much effort do we put into preparation, and just what is it we prepare for?

There are some who speak artistically about the thought of having Christmas every day. It would not work the way we drive ourselves to the edge of our sanity to prepare for December 25. Having said that, though, it is possible to maintain the Spirit of Christmas in an ongoing manner. Remember what it is we truly celebrate...and be a reflection of that Light. Remember what it is we truly long for...and seek it sincerely not only for ourselves, but for all around us.

Today, though, I am prompted to write on 'kingship.'

Last year, Americans elected a new president. Given the global response to the result, one could have spoken of Barack Obama as the "desired one of the nations" and not be speaking falsely.

Still, as we all know, the President cannot bring his goals to fruition without the cooperation of the rest of the government and the support of the people whom he serves. His plans are scrutinized and criticized. Support in the legislature is tenuous. And everywhere, the bottom line seems to be: What is the ultimate cost? And just who will pay it? this where our hearts should be focused?

Do we look so much at the utopia we attempt to build on our own that we lose sight of what is more important...what really matters? Have we forgotten that men and women, paupers and kings, did what they had to do and not tally the cost - even if it meant their lives?

That a 'desired' king would come is a universal hope. And that a desired king actually came is a universal truth; yet some seem to forget that because kingship is often conferred on those who don't fit the image or the uniform. I, too, miss this - and the only thing I can say about it is I often know I've missed it the split-second after I've put my foot in my mouth. There is a reason to be "watchful and ready." Today, I pray that those who seem lost in the details will have their eyes opened to see, their ears open to listen, and their hearts ready to receive. Everything else...can wait.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Come, Radiant Dawn, O Daystar (O Oriens); Welcome, Yule!

The Season of Light:
The Festival of Yule, the Winter Solstice
(Sun enters Capricorn at 11:46 AM CST)
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 5

The Word:
Song of Songs 2:8-14 ("My lover comes, springing across the mountains, leaping over the hills")
or Zephaniah 3:14-18 (The Lord your God is in your midst)
Psalm 33:2-3, 11-12, 20-21 (Exult, you just, in the Lord)
Luke 1:39-45 (Elizabeth: "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?)

Veni, Veni O Oriens!
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque noctis tenebras.

Gaude, Gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel!

O come, thou Day-star (day-spring), come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

--O Come, O Come Emmanuel
(verse four)

Welcome, Yule!
It is no coincidence that the verse O Oriens falls on the day of the Winter Solstice. The northern European festival of Yule and the Roman festival of Saturnalia were both connected with the "rebirth" of the Sun, marking the end of decreasing daylight. When the celebration of "Christ's Mass" was instituted in the 3rd Century, the birth of the Son fell at the same time as the birth of the Sun. Christ is also described in ancient prayers and canticles as the "Morning Star that never sets."

There is no need to be afraid; on the fifth day our Lord will come to save us.
--Antiphon for Vespers (Morning Prayer) from the Divine Office

And for the next three days, the Sun will appear to remain in the southern sky, as daylight doesn't quite begin to increase.

Many of the customs associated with the ancient winter festivals have survived to this day. The burning of the Yule Log, and the singing of carols have long been associated with this day, and have also come to be associated with Christmas, even if it predates the Christian Era.

"He must increase, while I must decrease" (John 3:30).
This quote, attributed to John the Baptist and referring to Jesus, is also drawn from more ancient symbolism - the Oak King and Holly King. Each governs half of the year (the birth of John the Baptist occurs on June 24); the Oak King (Christ) rules the increase of the year, while the Holly King (John) influences the decrease, urging all to "prepare!"

There is much, much more to this special week than can be given time to compile. Suffice to know that each culture strives to seek out the Light, and the Source which bears it.

It is indeed "the most wonderful time of the year," even amidst the cold and snows of winter just beginning. This week, "Light sings, all over the world."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Come, Key of David (O Clavis)

The Season of Light:
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 4

The Word:
Micah 5:1-4 (From Bethlehem the King shall come)
Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19 (Lord, let us see your face and we shall be saved)
Hebrews 10:5-10 (The establishment of a new covenant, in Christ)
Luke 1:39-45 (Mary visits Elizabeth: "Blest are you among women, and blest is the fruit of your womb")

Veni, Clavis Davidica,
Regna reclude caelica,
Fac iter tutum superum,
Et claude vias inferum.

Gaude, gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

--O Come, O Come Emmanuel
(verse five)

A key is an important item to humanity. We use them as means to enter things we secure - our homes, cars, boxes or cabinets holding important papers or other valuables. Those who possessed keys were considered powerful. Not long ago, people were honored in the community by being given 'keys to the city' for their charitable work. Even the laughable "key to the executive washroom" indicates a perk; a special status.

Isaiah had prophesied that the one who would save Israel would have "place(d) on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open" (Isaiah 22:22).

In the evolution of their craft, locksmiths have been able to develop locks that are slightly different for offices and classrooms. These can also be opened by a single 'master' key - this master can open any door in the building. The Christmas event gave humanity such a master key, one that has the power to open any lock. Sometimes, though, our lives make it difficult for our hearts to be unlocked. In Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale A Christmas Carol,, Jacob Marley's ghost is bound with chains and lock boxes and even some keys that don't appear to be able to open anything. His heart, and that of Scrooge his partner, had been locked to everyone.

Today's Gospel passage tells of Mary, now pregnant, traveling to visit her aging cousin Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant. Though Luke doesn't directly state it, at an 'advanced' age Elizabeth might have required extra pre-natal care. At the very least, Mary could do what Zechariah, temporarily stricken deaf and mute, could not. Mary's heart was always unlocked.

May we find the ways to unlock that which may be holding us back from the call to service of God and neighbor, at Christmastime and all the year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Come, Rod of Jesse's Stem (O Radix Jesse)

The Season of Light:
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 3

The Word: Judges 13:2-7, 24-25 (The birth of Samson: "He shall be consecrated to God, from the womb until the day of his death")
Psalm 71:3-6, 16-17 (You are my hope, O Lord; my mouth is filled with your praise, and I will sing of your glory)
Luke 1:5-25 (The archangel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will be the father of a child 'great in the sight of the Lord')

The readings today bring to mind many of the progeny promised throughout the whole of the Bible: not only Samson, but Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-16), Isaac (Genesis 18:1-15), Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-20), John the Baptizer (Luke 1:5-25), and finally, Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). Jesus, the 'descendant' of King David, is the rod, or shoot, or flower of Jesse's stem (Jesse being the father of David, (1 Samuel 16:1-13). One must wonder at this point that even though our featured hymn is accredited to the 9th Century, its origins are more likely much older and obscure.

Veni, O Jesse virgula,
Ex hostis tuos ungula,
De specu tuos tartari
Educ et antro barathri.

Gaude, gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse's stem,
From ev'ry foe deliver them
That trust Thy mighty pow'r to save,
And give them vict'ry o'er the grave.

Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

--O Come, O Come Emmanuel
(verse three)

A year ago, these were my thoughts on the day:
The evangelists Matthew and Luke went to lengths to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah, a direct descendant of David, Israel's greatest king. David was the youngest son of Jesse, and by Old Testament accounts, the 'runt of the litter.' Yet it was David who went on to greatness, and his brothers into obscurity. As David came 'out of nowhere', so to speak, so did Jesus. We really don't know his exact moment of birth. In a year like this one passing, could our longing for anything better (economy, weather, leadership) be more well placed than at Christmas?

And a year later, though some things may seem to have improved, our 'longing for better' remains, especially where the big picture is concerned.

O Flower of Jesse's stem,
you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
rulers stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in  worship before you.
Come; let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

--Antiphon from Evening Vespers in the Divine Office

The earth is your mother; she holds you.
The sky is your father; he protects you.
Sleep, sleep.
Rainbow is your sister; she loves you.
The winds are your brothers; they sing to you.
Sleep, sleep.
We are together always.
We are together always.
There was never a time...when this was not so.

--Native American song/prayer

Friday, December 18, 2009

Come, Lord of Power and Might

The Season of Light:
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 2

The Word:
Jeremiah 23:5-8 (God will raise up a righteous shoot to David; he will be called 'The Lord our justice') Psalm 72: 1-2, 12-13, 18-19 (He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor)
Matthew 1:18-25 (Gabriel to Joseph: 'Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife')

The will of God be done by us,
The law of God be kept by us,
Our wayward will controlled by us,
Our tongue-in-cheek be held by us,
Repentance timely made by us,
Christ's passion understood by us,
Our sinful nature shunned by us,
Much on the
End be mused by us,
And death be blessed found by us,
With angel's music heard by us,
And God's high praises sung by us,
Forever and for aye.

--from "Blessed Be the Holy Will of God" in Treasury of Irish Religious Verse

Veni, Veni Adonai!
Qui populo in Sinai
Legem dedisti vertice,
In Majestate gloriae.

Gaude, gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

--O Come, O Come Emmanuel
(verse six)

On today's birthday list: Charles Wesley and Michael Binsfeld. Everybody should know the former and the latter was my pastor for eleven years.

I have always been cognizant of the need to adapt liturgy to fit special occasions. For example, when Memorial Day rolls around, I would expect most of the patriotic hymns to get an airing. It is good to know that Charles Wesley did well enough in writing over 2000 hymns (and published over 5500), many of which maintain popularity across denominational lines. That, too, seems to be important in the American church.

But one of the ironies of adaptable liturgy is that it occasionally becomes self-serving rather than God-worshiping. Trying to somehow incorporate "Happy Birthday To You" (as was an unofficial custom for about 12 years on the Sunday closest to 12/18) and be discreet about it was a challenge. I don't know that I ever really got past this subtle nuance.

A loose-structured worship service has its advantages. One of the reasons people attend the church or synagogue of their choice is (hopefully) an opportunity for God to reach them in a personal way. It's taken me 55 years to get to the place I am now, and I am still in the process. I am far from perfect. There are days when I forget and miss the potential for that encounter. There are other days when it stares me in the face and I walk past it. These last days before Christmas, we await God's coming to we at least try to go to meet him?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Come, O Wisdom

The Season of Light:
The Christmas 'Novena', Day 1

The Word: Genesis 49:2-10 (The scepter of royalty shall never depart from the lineage of Judah) Psalm 72:1-4, 7-8, 17 (Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever)
Luke 7:18-23 ("Blessed is the one who takes no offense in me")
or Matthew 1:1-17 (Matthew's genealogy of Jesus as descendant of Abraham and David)

Christmas and the eight days preceding it constitute a novena, a nine-day period of more intense prayer by the Church as it prepares for the celebration of a great festival at its conclusion. A year ago I wrote a brief set of meditations based on the 9th century Latin hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come Emmanuel). It went out to a select few people at the time, but I found some of what was written very interesting when it finally came together; so I thought it would be a good thing to post it in a more public place this year, I hope the reader finds genuine meaning in these words.

Veni, O Sapientia,
Quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae
Ut doceas et gloriae.

Gaude, Gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice, Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

--O Come, O Come Emmanuel,
verse two

Divine wisdom has been imparted to humanity throughout all time. This day reminds us that to understand where we are, we must look at where we've been.

On December 17, 1538, Pope Paul III excommunicated King Henry VIII of England from the Church.
Talk about your prime example of a man who literally through wisdom out the window with both hands in his quest to sire a male heir as successor to the British throne!

An Eastern Orthodox liturgy offers us reminders of others of our ancestors in faith who embraced wisdom:

Let us sing a hymn of praise to all the assemble of the ancestors: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Melchisedech, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, Elijah and Elisha and all the other fathers; the holy women made strong in the days of old by the might of your strength, O Lord: Hannah, Judith, Deborah, Hulda, Jael, Esther, Sarah, Miriam, Rachel, Rebecca, Ruth. You shone as heaven's lights upon the earth, enkindling the light of piety. You called forth the choir of all creation as you sang to the one who saves all from temptation.

Wisdom indeed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas, Don't Be Late (Even If I Am)

The Season of Light:
The Third Week of Advent

Sunday's Word:
Zephaniah 3:14-18 (The Lord will exult with you, over you; he will renew you by his love)
Isaiah 12:2-6 (Among you is the Holy One of Israel)
Philippians 4:4-7 (The Lord is near)
Luke 3:10-18 (What, then, must we do?)

Answer: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, again I say, rejoice!

Something short and (hopefully, sweet):

Christmas, Christmas time is near
Time for joys and time for cheer
We've been good, but we can't last
Hurry, Christmas - hurry fast!

Peace and truth are all we need
Grant to us with all your speed
We can hardly stand the wait
Please, Christmas, don't be late!

(Alvin, you were a little flat that time - watch it.

--Christmas Don't Be Late
Ross Bagdasarian (with a little inspiration from above and alteration by yours truly)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

On the Subject of Waiting

The Season of Light
A "Light Bulb" Experience on What Advent Is All About

I've heard many a pastor and/or theologian speak at length on the liturgical season of Advent, the two-thirds of December meant to prepare us for the celebration of Christmas. Nothing quite puts a handle on it. I had an “Aha!” moment this morning that comes closer than anything else.

About six weeks ago, my wife was going about her daily work – homeschooling our son and keeping our home in order – when a maintenance worker knocked on the door of our apartment. He had come unannounced to check out our bathroom, most notably the bathtub. The maintenance worker didn't speak much English, and my wife understands very little Spanish; but the gist of what transpired indicated that there was a problem with water seeping from the tub enclosure somehow and dripping through into the apartment below. The worker put some caulk around places where he thought it was needed, and then told my wife that sometime soon more major repair work would have to be done.

My wife phoned me at work right after the maintenance guy left. What was going on? We weren't experiencing any water problems – at least not with the tub. So I placed a call to our leasing office and confirmed what was happening. Yes, the bathroom would have to go through this major repair work. It was to be done sometime over the course of the next week or so.

We made some contingency plans. As we get older, it's important not to be far from a working bathroom, or at the very least some way to flush wastes from the body as God designed it. We were assured we'd have access to a bathroom in a vacant apartment while work was being done.

And so we waited. The ten days passed, and no strange knocks at the door. Three weeks passed and we were still waiting.

At the beginning of the month, I had to visit the leasing office to pay the rent. While I was there, I brought up the subject. Maybe things had improved and the repairs weren't needed after all. I wanted to get some more information I could give my wife. Yes, the work was still needed and would be done. Okay – just give us a heads-up so we're not half-dressed should they arrive early in the morning.

At the beginning of this week, roughly a month after we heard work was to be done, the contractors came to do their own inspection, to determine how much work was needed. The work was to begin early the next morning. Yet there was still one 'gotcha' – the weather. A major winter storm was coming through, and it might delay the workers from showing up. As promised, though, they arrived and work began. I left for work shortly after they started. When I got home they were still there. The big work was done, but someone would be back the next day to finish.
We now have a very nice looking tub enclosure – one that brightens up the room and makes sound bounce everywhere. (The old enclosure was formica or plastic sheeting, the new one is ceramic tiled.) We should no longer have to worry about dripping on our neighbors below. Also – any material that could have been rotting or collecting mold due to water damage was removed, thus making our little corner of the world a better, safer place for us as well as our neighbors.

When we first heard the news we felt bad because we had no way of knowing we were making life more difficult for our neighbors. We wanted very much for the repairs to take place quickly, and the waiting didn't make things any easier. But the assurance that we weren't forgotten and the workers would come made those contingency plans doable.

We really do feel out-of-sorts when the consequences of our actions have been harmful to others. We might have been held accountable and unable to offer recompense. But help was sought, and help came. It involved preparation and readiness, for it was uncertain when the workers would come. And when the work was completed, we are left with something much better than it was; not only for ourselves, but for those around us who might not even know we had work done.

Advent is much like this episode from daily life. We have hurt, and are hurting. We come to an understanding of how what we do affects others. We have hope and believe that a broken world will be made whole. And we wait. And we watch. And we are as ready as we can be. When the Messiah comes, we will be interested in the work he does. And we will remember his ways, for in his wake, a new and brighter creation remains, one that belongs to everyone, everywhere.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Sackful of Joy, and St. Nicholas(es) Too

The Season of Light:
The Second Sunday of Advent
The Feast of St. Nicholas, 4th Century Bishop

The Word:
Baruch 5:1-9 (Jerusalem - God will show your splendor)
Psalm 126:1-6 (The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy)
Philippians 1:4-11 (Show yourselves sinless and without blame in the day of Christ)
Luke 3:1-6 (All shall see the salvation of God)

First, I have to beg forgiveness. I was hoping - and in a way promised - that I'd post a daily reflection this season, and they'd be fresh; not repostings of what I wrote a year ago. Sadly, that's just not going to happen. I'm much busier this year than last, and I don't have nearly the same amount of 'idle' time. It is only right to mention, however, that some of that previously idle time has been spent in daily personal and private prayer and reflection - specifically, the Divine Office (also known as the Liturgy of the Hours). Most of the rest have been spent in work-related projects - my employer is going through an elaborate systems conversion, and I'm part of the implementation team.

But this Season of Light has not gone without moments of joy, and a surprise or two.

I finally managed to get my car in for some much needed repair - tonight it's sporting two new tires which will do their best to assure me they won't go nearly flat every fourth day. (That is a blessed relief, but it is still a joy!)

Because of all the timing constraints, we elected to keep the decorating simple this year. Our decorations are stored in a locked room in our apartment building, and it requires getting someone from our leasing office with enough time to unlock the room twice (once to pull out the storage bins, and another to put them back - and this is done at both the beginning and the end of the season). My dear wife has a few collectible holiday pieces - some of the village miniature houses and some international Santas. When it's decided to display them, it's a trick to get them all up. So we bought some poinsettias and some lights at Home Depot's "Black Friday" sale (the only concession to that day's madness), and that was that.

Because of the time involved to get the tires installed today, I had planned to take the family to an earlier dinner at a buffet restaurant in our area, and then visit one of the more spectacular neighborhood holiday light displays nearby.

On our way there, as we still had a little time, we stopped at a thrift store in the area. There are usually some inexpensive pieces of bric-a-brac for augmenting the decor. Actually, I didn't expect to find much. But my son's suggestion and my wife's eyes spotted a windfall - a cluster of those International Santas (many of which are not in her collection) at a mere pittance. I couldn't say no to this. Supposedly an old Italian tradition dictates that on St Nicholas' feast day you should gift your sweetheart (Nicholas is the patron of brides and children, amongst other things), so the find was quite fortuitous.

Oh - the buffet was still quite crowded, even some 45 minutes later. Somewhere in our collective minds we get the idea that this type of restaurant is a good value at roughly $10 per person. Considering the choices and how we manage to stuff ourselves, I am not so sure. We spent the same amount at a nice (and not busy) sit-down restaurant and felt just as full without the umpteen trips to the dessert bar. We saw some other light displays. Maybe they won't win any awards, maybe they're not 'extreme'; but they remind us of what is ahead.

God didn't come to Earth where one might have expected him or wanted to find him. And while there was fanfare from a choir of angels, and a light from a star in the sky brighter than observers of the time had ever seen, much of that went unnoticed by the general townsfolk in Bethlehem.

I'm not sure how the Fourth Century bishop of what is now Turkey would react to his having become the archetype of our modern Santa Claus. Certainly in his own lifetime he demonstrated the many traits that have been made legend to this day. His joy came in being able to give of himself to others, something all the various legends behind the many international faces of Sinterklaas, Pere Noel, and Jolly Old St. Nick is meant to remind us.

Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear -
The bishop's robe, the mitre and the cross of gold obscure the simple man within the saint.
Strip off your glory, Nicholas, and speak!

Across the tremendous bridge of sixteen hundred years
I come to stand in worship with you
As I stood among my faithful congregation long ago.
All who knelt beside me then are gone.
Their names are dust, their tombs are grass and clay,
Yet still their shining seed of faith survives in you!
It weathers time, it springs again in you!
With you it stands like forest oak
Or withers with the grasses underfoot.
Preserve the living faith for which your ancestors fought!
For faith was won by centuries of sacrifice
And many martyrs died, that you might worship God.

Help us, Lord! to find the hidden road
That leads from love to greater Love,
From faith to greater Faith.
Strengthen us, O Lord!
Screw up our strength to serve Thee with simplicity.

---Opening to Benjamin Britten's cantata "St. Nicolas", Op. 42 (1948)
libretto by Eric Crozier