Archive for the 'Christmas' Category

Christmas 1, Luke 2:22-40

November 27, 2011

Historical Description:

Grace Carol Bomer is a visual artist currently based in Asheville, NC. According to her website (www.carolbomer.com), “Carol’s work seeks to evoke both image and impression, the tangible world and the spiritual world. Her work has been called ‘a silent form of poetry.’ She views her work as ‘a form of play rejoicing before the face of God’ (Rookmaaker). This is reflected in the name of her Asheville studio, SOLI DEO GLORIA STUDIO.”

Devotional Reflection:

Righteous and devout, Spirit-assured, Simeon awaited the consolation of Israel. Oh, to have such a promise—the Spirit’s pledge!—of seeing the long-promised Savior! Surely Simeon’s very posture exuded eager anticipation as each day began: This day, maybe even this morning, this might be The Day! Did a lifetime of anticipation leave him with a permanent forward tilt, an eager question mark embodied in the neck that craned to search the temple crowds?

Pious patience rewarded: with gnarled hands on new flesh, he exulted:

29“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation
31that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Simeon rejoiced, cradling infinity, and then he returned the fragile infant to the wondering grasp of His mother. And then—Simeon waited. And waited. And…waited. Did he live for an hour after seeing his Savior in the flesh? A year, or even a decade? No matter—though the Spirit’s promise had been fulfilled, Simeon died, still waiting. He had received by faith—and seen, and even touched—his salvation, but not yet the consummation of it.

Was Simeon’s posture always that of eager expectation before the day Mary and Joseph carried their firstborn into the temple? What of his stance for the rest of his life, whatever its span, after that climactic moment?  Did he ever droop, or doubt, or even despair, as time ground on and the Romans ruled relentlessly and the suffering of his people continued unabated?

Of Simeon’s waiting posture we can only speculate; our own, we know too well. Sometimes, we wait well. Humming along in our daily-life liturgy, our heads and hearts and hands crane heavenward, busy in service as we eagerly anticipate glimpsing, any day now, maybe even this very morning, the face of the One we yearn to see.

But sometimes, the very weight of the wait crushes. Do we see ourselves in the posture of Carol Bomer’s We Wait Bowing I? Time grinds inexorably. Sudden volcanic sorrows heap heavily upon sedimentary layers of slowly gathering griefs. We wait, bowing under burdens unbearable, our souls aflame with suffering. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words, groanings and sighings that swirl hotly heavenward: funnel clouds of furious despair.

We limp to the Table, singed and smoldering, weary in the wait. We kneel: we wait, bowing, to receive. And—O blessed exchange!—funnel of flame becomes conduit of grace. The Sacrament spirals down, sharp on tongue, hot in throat, burning all the way down: fire fighting fire.

Blood-drenched, we rise, fire-quenched. We sing, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…”

Still the waiting burns, but this is a purging fire.  Bowed by the weight of the world, yet buoyed by the Hope that we have, we persevere in our wait for the Day when we shall behold our dear Lord’s face.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Strengthen us as we wait bowing.


Christmas Day, John 1:1-14 (15-18)

November 26, 2011

Historical Description:

Sometimes words can take on a life of their own . . . literally.  In Behold the Man, the Word Made Flesh, the contemporary Christian artist Debbie Turner Chavers chose to have  scriptural texts shape the corpus of Jesus on the cross.

Chavers’ choice of medium was hardly done without thought.  How else do we know Jesus other than through His word?  And, maybe more importantly, how else do we know the word other than through Jesus?  In this painting, the moment of our salvation spoken of in the scriptures is acted upon in the body of Christ.  Word and flesh are one.

Devotional Reflection:

How can a Word become flesh?  In the West, we usually think of words as being symbolic.  A word is not often thought of as something physical.  A word is something that is said.  It comes out of the mouth, floats through the air, and then is hopefully heard by someone.  We usually don’t think of words as coming in the flesh.

Initially the prologue to John’s gospel may prove challenging to represent pictorially.  “The Word became flesh.”  How do you portray a “word” becoming flesh?  An artist could have just drawn a picture of baby Jesus in the manger since everyone knows the “word made flesh” is a reference to the incarnation, but in The Word Became Flesh, Debbie Turner Chavers chose another route.  She showed the Word literally becoming Jesus by having Jesus’ body shaped by the printed, biblical Word.

Chavers’ artwork is poignant.  God did not desire to speak to us in a long distance relationship forever.  God wanted to become very close to us.  The words God speaks to us don’t just float around in the air.  God’s Word walks on the ground, touches blind eyes, cries for friends who are dying, orders life out of death and, ultimately, fulfills His Father’s final Word by becoming a sacrifice for this world.  God’s Word did not become flesh so that He could offer idle chit-chat with us or share a cup of coffee.  God’s Word became flesh, Jesus Christ, so that God Himself could pay for our sins through His sinless death on a cross.

Today, the living Jesus still chooses to come to us as a Word.  I do not just mean in the Bible we read.  God certainly speaks through the Bible in mighty ways every single day, but there is another way Jesus comes to us as the Word.  Jesus is pleased to come to His church by means of a simple pastor who speaks simple words of unbelievably good news.  Just like in the Bible, Jesus is still coming to touch you, to heal you, to forgive you and He especially does this through the preached Word.  Jesus longs to be near you, not just in your ear, but to reside in your heart and soul as you cherish and hold onto the promises Jesus makes to you.

God’s Word becomes flesh every time the pastor speaks a word of release to us in the forgiveness of sins.  God’s Word becomes flesh when water bathes a sinner’s head and God declares that sinner to be a saint.  God’s Word becomes flesh every time a believer feasts upon the Words, “Given into death for the forgiveness of all of your sins.”  God’s Word becomes flesh as Christians faithfully exercise their vocations as mother, father, student or worker.  Some words in this world are very real and tangible and touchable, but the greatest is Jesus Christ.  The Word truly has become flesh and thankfully He is still living among us.

Christmas Dawn, Titus 3:4-7

November 26, 2011

Historical Description:

The 1948 painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth is a famous and well-known piece of American modern art. This tempera painting was inspired by a particular moment in Wyeth’s life. While on vacation in his summer home in Maine, the painter spied through a window the unusual sight of a woman crawling across an open field. The woman was Christina Olsen, a friend who had survived polio and subsequently suffered paralysis in her lower body. Wyeth recreated this moment in this painting, this time rearranging the scenery and using his wife as a model. The piece is currently in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Devotional Reflection:

Christina’s World is all about perspective. Instead of the usual perspective, the painter draws the viewer down to the worldview of a disabled woman forced to exist in a vast and open world. The woman in the scene lies on her side, crawling with her arms while her legs drag helplessly behind. Her head is turned towards a building in the distance as if she is looking for someone. The horizon in the scene is situated at the top of the painting, not only showing the low angle of perspective but also enhancing the atmosphere of distance and separation between the woman and her goal. The landscape is barren, bland, and huge, with only two farm buildings off in the distance. The woman in the scene crawls upwards towards one farm building. The surreal nature of this minimalist scene provides both the air of a brooding hopelessness of the situation and a dogged determination on behalf of the woman.

Christmas morning is all about perspective. The Christmas season is often dominated by images of the holy family gathered in a sentimental scene around a glowing manger. The perspective in such images is generally standard and expected. This traditional crèche is beneficial and necessary to understand the story of that first Christmas morning, but Paul in Titus 4:3-7 dares us to look differently at the Christ event. Instead of dwelling with the shepherds around a manger we get down to the view of a broken humanity. This humanity is stranded and helpless, much like the woman in Christina’s World. This humanity is lost in the vast reality of its own sin, with little hope of help. This humanity looks away to the vast horizon for help. Who would come to rescue an infirm, paralyzed race? Who would gaze down from a position of privilege upon a weak, weary and undeserving mankind? Christmas dawn is a time to gaze at that horizon, with the untold host of saints who have gone on before, and see that the hope of a broken and undeserving mankind came through Christ alone. With the Apostle Paul we know that the time of wishing and waiting for rescue from sin is over, and that when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. The waiting is over, the Christ is come, and so being justified by his grace we have become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Though our stations in life may still at times seem bleak, and the Church still must live in a broken world, we do not ever stop watching and waiting. The Christ has come, and he will come again to grant eternal life once-and-for-all. At Christmas dawn we remember this, and so look back at the hope that has come all the while looking forward to the resurrection that is to come. This hope is worth waiting for.


 

Christmas Eve, Isaiah 9:2-7

November 21, 2011

Historical Description:

In 2003, Sergei Chepik (b. 1953, Kiev) was commissioned by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to paint four paintings for the nave of the cathedral, focusing on the life and ministry of Christ. The work was completed in 2005, dedicated on January 24.This painting of the Holy Virgin (or the Nativity) was the first completed and first in the series. Deeply religious, Chepik was known for his ability to recreate the tradition inherited by the great Christian painters with fresh power and to translate the ancient image and narrative into a universal timelessness that could draw in contemporary viewers anew. Not that he domesticated Christ in his art—rather it is with renewed power and yes, offense, that the image of Christ confronts the modern. In this way, Chepik hoped that the Gospel could be found through his work.

Devotional Reflection:

The hustle and bustle of the Christmas season—perhaps all our shopping is done, perhaps some have already begun opening presents (like at my house), wearing tonight our new sweaters and ties and jewelry. We have all gathered here now –maybe we are squeezed in here–to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. To guide our celebration and our reflection not only do I suggest we listen to the prophet Isaiah read moments ago—“for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” but also that we look and see how a picture of the nativity can help us receive this gift of God.

There are many familiar images of the nativity—most are inviting, peaceful scenes. Though the child is in a feeding trough, he remarkably always looks comfortable and happy! And the glow of the faces are a mixture of sanctity and the expression of joy of a new family. But not so this painting by Sergei Chepik. [Perspective: Within the Image] Mary is dressed as a beggar woman, emaciated, and pale. The Christ child, stands not as an infant meek and mild but as a thin, sickly young boy. His arms are outstretched though hardly as an invitation for embrace. An angel strains at the bells. For what do they toll? Peace? War?

But tonight I want you to focus at the face of Mary. What do you see? … what is she looking at? Look at that expression—this is not the usual face of Mary at Christmas—where is the peace, the joy? She looks …. horrified, terrified, grief stricken. What is she looking at that would yield such an expression?

[PerspectiveIn Front of the Image] Perhaps, she is looking out at our world. How commercialism and materialism have run rampant and ruined this holy time of year. Perhaps she is looking in sorrow and disbelief as she sees the world use the birth of her son as an occasion for greed and selfishness. Perhaps she is looking out at the garish lights and superficial holiday jingles and stands here horrified at the lack of generosity, the lack of good will, and charity in our world.

But maybe she is more near-sighted than that—perhaps her gaze does not go past these walls but rests upon us … here gathered in this room. What does she see? How different are we from what we see in the world?Americans spend $450 billion every year at Christmas. I suspect that when we look at our credit card bills next month, we would see that we have helped America reach that number again this year. What if we would take the money that otherwise would have been spent on sweaters or slippers or a blue-ray dvd player and pool it together in order to help the suffering, the poor, the oppressed? Maybe Mary is seeing what we could be doing together and yet sees that we so often fail to do it.

Or maybe her sight is even sharper and her gaze pierces into my heart. And there her eyes settle on my own selfishness, my reluctance to give, my thoughtlessness, my neglect of my neighbor in need. As this peasant woman presents her son to the world, she looks into our hearts and she is grieved to see our impoverished giving. She is looking at who we are, what we have, and what we offer and she is shocked, she is saddened.

But what is she really looking at?[Perspective: Around the Image] 

Detail of The Passion (2002-2004), by Sergei Chepik, photo by Hugh Kelly, copyright 2005

This painting hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is the first of four in a series of paintings hung in the nave on pillars that face each other. And if you were to stand before this painting and turn to match your line of sight with hers, you would see it. You would see what she is looking at—with eyes wide with terror and moist with sadness.

Across from her is Chepik’s enormous painting of Golgotha. She is staring at her son, stretched out on the cross. She is not looking at what the world or we give or don’t give at Christmas. She is looking at what she has given, what God has given, what her Son has given for the life of the world. Not our gifts, but this gift—this is Christmas. “For unto us a child is born, for unto us a son is given.”

However, perhaps we do have something to give. Though we don’t always see it, we, the church, are surprisingly like Mary. We have heard the promise and in hearing that word in faith a miracle has been conceived in us. The church indeed bears Christ as a mother would a child—a treasure in our midst. But also like Mary, the church does not clutch the Christ child, keeping the babe to herself alone, but she gives this child to the world. Giving this gift of Jesus to the world is not easy—we often suffer … it’s like dying really. Yet only in that gift do any of us have life.