Happy Holidays!

This week our story dwells on the Magi. Now, I know that the tradition of the church has the Magi show up after the birth, but let’s face it, I am always on vacation the week after Christmas and never get to spend time on the Magi. So here we are.

I think the tale of the Magi is really important, and has something surprising to teach us. Notice, that I don’t use the name wisemen or kings. In this case, Magi is the word. Magi is the word that is used in the scripture in Greek. Our tradition has been muddied with kings and wisemen and astronomers, and it seems there are two or three possible reasons for this. First, it could simply be a lack of understanding of what a Magi was, and an attempt to explain it using characters from western culture that we understand. We know what a king is, or what a wiseman is, or what an astronomer is, and that can be a simple explanation. Most people don’t actually know what a Magi was.

And that brings us to a second possibility. It could be that Christian tradition has been uncomfortable with the implications of what a Magi was, and so tried to subtly dismiss the title by replacing it with other options. You see, Magi were particular people from a particular place and from a particular religion. The Magi were religious leaders of the Zoroastrian tradition coming out of Persia. Since most of us have been raised in the western educational tradition, we don’t realize that at the time of Jesus, Zoroastrianism was the most dominant religion on the face of the earth. It’s influence had spread everywhere—even Israel.

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions on the planet. Ahura Mazda is the deity in Zoroastrianism, and there is an ongoing battle between the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Angra Mainyu—images of whom look an awful lot like later Christian depictions of the devil. Traditionally, these two have been represented by light and dark. In fact, ideas about eternal flames probably came out of Zoroastrianism, as there was often a flame at the center of worship spaces. The flame symbolizes Ahura Mazda, and at times, Zoroastrians were thought to simply worship fire because outsiders didn’t realize the flame was a symbol of Ahura Mazda. As you can imagine, light of any kind becomes representative of Ahura Mazda—God—even starlight.

This is where the emphasis on Magi becomes important and potentially challenging. Magi following the light of the star would have been following the lead of Ahura Mazda. This would have been understood as the most powerful religion in the world recognizing Jesus as an important leader, prophet, and potentially even divine. This is why the Magi piece is important—the divine light points to who Jesus is. However, this is also potentially challenging in Christian tradition, because it indicates that there is religious wisdom beyond our own tradition. One reason that we may have moved away from Magi to talk about kings and wisemen was because we weren’t comfortable with the notion that another religion had wisdom about the person of Jesus Christ. The implication would be that there is something to learn from people of other faiths. This has not always been a welcome idea in our tradition.

Of course, the third possibility for why we moved away from Magi is that it doesn’t flow in Christmas carols in quite the same way—“We Three Magi of Orient are…” may not have the same ring to it!

I suppose that what I am suggesting is that the reason the word Magi is important is because it suggests to us that other people and other faiths do have wisdom that we can learn from. That does come as a challenge to us. We must be ready to listen and engage with others who are different from us. After all, they may understand something of the light that we don’t. So as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child, be mindful of the fact that there are others out there from different traditions that celebrate different holidays this season. Matthew teaches us that we have been the beneficiaries of the wisdom of other traditions in the past. Perhaps it means that we would all benefit from a less contentious relationship between people of different faiths. I suppose that is why I tend to wish people, “Happy Holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It is an acknowledgement of the great breadth of wisdom that God has granted to all of God’s Children. It is an acknowledgment of the respect that people of other faiths deserve. So Happy Holidays!

In the same spirit of my reflection today, check out this wonderful commercial from Amazon. Yeah, I know, I usually rail against commercialism, but in this case, I will make an exception. Enjoy!

A Cup of Tea

Great Expectations

This Sunday, I will not be telling you a story, as I have the past couple of weeks. No, it is not because the last one was too long—as was pointed out by one of our cute kiddos last Sunday! Rather, it is because this Sunday, the kiddos will be doing the story telling. This should really be a wonderful treat for us all.

 

You know what the best thing is about Children’s Christmas Pageants? The mistakes! No really! Be honest with yourself. We don’t want a perfect retelling of the Christmas story. We want a REAL retelling of the story. We want a MESSY retelling of the Christmas story. We want to see the kids shine in all their messy glory because deep down, we know that this is a messy story. It is the story of an unwed teenage mother, and the man that wasn’t scared off. It is the story of the worst timed road trip in history (pregnant, about to deliver, and on a donkey—let’s all thank our lucky stars that we didn’t have to go through that!). It is the story of the last and the least gathering around in what another blogger aptly described as the “Barn animals’ outhouse.”

 

Perhaps this messiness is why a few years ago we embraced the messy Christmas pageant idea. Rather than having perfectly ironed angel’s robes, and perfectly behaved sheep, we allowed the kids to make their choice about how they wanted to gather round the manger scene. Sometimes that was as shepherds and Magi, sometimes that was as lobsters and parrots. The point was not historical accuracy (given that the gospels conflict on their telling of the story, historical accuracy simply is not possible!). The point instead, was to tell the story in all its messy glory!

 

I think that this is an incredibly important message this time of year. Embrace the Messiness! Too often, we have images in our heads about what the holidays are supposed to look like. Rarely, if ever, do the holidays look anything like that Norman Rockwell painting dancing through our dreams. In fact, I would argue that the holidays are far less meaningful if they do look anything like our own picture. There is grace in the Messiness!

 

I am reminded of a Christmas about 10 years ago. Tiff and I were so excited because for Christmas, we would be leaving the snow swept city scape of Chicago for the beaches of Hawaii for Christmas! We are blessed that Tiff has an Uncle that lives in Hilo, and we were planning the perfect Hawaiian Christmas getaway (incidentally, that was one of the worst Chicago winters in the last 20 years or so). The day had finally come for our escape from the blizzards. Of course, the Chicago weather had to get in one last swipe at us. We sat in Midway airport, watching the blowing snow pound the city. The delays in our flight started to mount. First ten minutes. Then thirty minutes. Then an hour. Our worries were mounting that we would not get out. Suddenly, there was a break in the snow, they piled us on the plane, and we were off to Oakland, of all places, to catch our flight to Honolulu. The delays had mounted to such an extent, that when we hit the ground in Oakland, we had to race through the terminals, hoping to make the flight. We rounded a corner and saw our gate just in time to watch them seal the door amidst our screams of, “WAIT!” It didn’t matter. We sat and argued with the attendant as we watched the plane start its engines and pull back from the gate.

 

We finally set up a later flight, and knew we would at least get in to Honolulu later that night. Of course, there would be no flights from Honolulu to Hilo until morning, but we figured at least we would be in Hawaii that night. Well…if you know anything about the Honolulu airport, you would know that was probably the worst thing that could have happened at that point. You see, the Honolulu airport is open air—it is a tropical island after all, why wouldn’t you want to have it open air? Well, because it is open air, you can’t have any cushions in the airport because they would rot with the humidity. In fact, every sitting service is made of blocks of stone. It is probably the very last airport that you would want to have to sleep in while you wait on the first flight in the morning. What a miserable night!

 

The rest of the trip had its share of problems as well. As a pastor, you can be guaranteed that you will come down with a cold within 24 hours of your final holiday worship service, and that year didn’t disappoint. That cold was a doozy! Since one of our big plans was to spend time Scuba diving, most of my plans went out the window because you can’t dive with a cold. On top of that, we didn’t realize that December is the middle of the rainy season in Hilo, and so we didn’t see the sun the entire time we were on the island.

 

Let’s just say, that Christmas did not live up to expectations. In fact, it was one of our messier Christmases ever. However, it is also one of the most memorable. We had so much fun, even in the rain. We snorkeled and saw sea turtles, we climbed through lava tubes, we had some of the best Christmas BBQ ribs ever—with Mangoes on the side. It looked nothing like what our image of the holiday was supposed to look like. I have said it before, and I will say it again, the best holidays are the ones that don’t go according to plan.

 

So as your expectations for the holiday season mount, let your thirst for adventure mount with them. Just like that children’s Christmas play, you never know what is going to happen, and what is going to come out of the mouths of those around you. Be ready to enjoy it, whatever it is. Just like that story of Mary and Joseph so long ago, when things don’t go according to plan, roll with it and see where it takes you. After all, Mary and Joseph ended up bringing the new light of God’s love into the world with their messy story. What will your messy story bring?

The Advent Wars

Sometimes as clergy, I feel that I live in a bit of a bubble. Perhaps your Facebook feed this time of year is filled with holiday greetings, warm wishes and cat videos with a holiday twist. Mine is filled with angry clergy people griping about how we always skip advent and move right on to Christmas. They look something like this:elsa-and-advent

This is an annual tradition of clergy the world over. The posting of silly memes that essentially amount to complaining about starting Christmas music too early. However, there is some validity to this sentiment. This really is a holy season and it should not be skipped in favor of getting to the birth of the Christ child. Advent is that time of waiting. It reminds us that so much of our life is spent in waiting, and that waiting can be holy time. It reminds us that even through our dark cold waits, the light of Christ beckons us forward.

 

Here is the problem that I have with the Facebook memes around this—it seems like the real sentiment behind them is, “let’s wait to sing Christmas Carols until after the four weeks of advent.” Okay, but how about some real depth here. This, like the worship wars between contemporary and traditional, is not really about music at all. Music is just the battle ground upon which this is fought. Like so many culture wars, we don’t talk about the heart of the matter, but instead battle about one or two visible issues.

 

At stake behind the Advent war is not simply music, but commercialization. There really are two Christmases and too often, the fake one wins. What do I mean by that? Well, the biblical story of Christmas is one in which poor shepherds, and animals gather around a baby born into a cruel world surrounded by injustice. It is a world where the false power, glory, and cruelty of Caesar Augustus and Herod are contrasted with the compassion and love in the birth of a lowly carpenter’s son surrounded by farm animals. In the gospel of Matthew, it is the story of a poor family that becomes middle eastern refugees to flee the brutality of an oppressive ruler. It is the story of what we too often sweep aside—haven’t we heard enough of Syrian refugees already? Can’t we just talk about Trump’s latest tweet war instead? (If you can’t tell, that is sarcasm). The parallels should be striking to us.

 

Instead, we have fought culture wars over whether we say, “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays.” We fight wars at the entrance to Walmart over who will obtain the prized toy of the season. We wrap things in tinsel to tell ourselves that things are okay in the world, and we turn a blind eye to the places where the Christ child is coming into the world—boats fleeing along the Mediterranean Coast. This is the commercialization of Christmas, and not only is it a different Christmas from the one we have in the Biblical witness, but it completely distracts and drives our attention away from what this time of year should be about—Jesus. It is always dangerous to speculate about what Jesus would think or do, but I really don’t think Jesus would honestly care whether you said, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas.” As a matter of fact, if you look at the root of the word “Holiday,” you would find, “Holy.” Perhaps that is the real battle ground of this war, we would rather make this season about spending instead of holiness.

 

So while I think the advent meme war is a bit out of focus, I completely resonate with the sentiment. Christmas isn’t always “Christmas,” and what I mean by that is that Christmas often times has nothing to do with the coming Christ child and everything to do with how much money we should spend on his gifts. It too often has been manipulated by the culture to be about things that have nothing to do with our story; nothing to do with our faith. Christmas has become the shiny bauble that distracts us from the waiting through the cold and dark of winter, and the cold and dark of this world. Perhaps there is something to be said for waiting through the struggles of this world in hopes of finding real light, instead of finding the false glints reflected off the next shiny toy. So while I won’t necessarily change the music selection on Sunday morning to do only Advent hymns (honestly, even with the additions in the new hymnal there are still only a couple of decent ones), I will be intentional about how I act in the world in this advent season. I will be intentional about noticing the struggles of others and doing what I can to respond in compassion.

 

There is a way for us to be real about Christmas, but it is counter-cultural. It requires that we don’t just go along with the shiny and warm memes of the season, and instead, keep in focus what the original story says to us in the midst of a broken and fearful world. It requires us to stop listening to the Herod’s and Caesar Augustus’ of this world, and remember the voices long silenced that have far more important stories to tell us. This is what Christmas should be about. This is why Advent truly is important. Advent teaches us to stop and listen. Advent teaches us to discern the voices around us and determine whether they speak of the good news of the gospel, or the good news of Holiday ads. Advent requires that we determine whether the happiness of the season around us is simply anesthetic to numb us from the pain of the world, or whether we are preparing ourselves for real joy that is born out of something so much more than piles of cookies.

 

This season, take the time to listen. Take the time to wait. Take the time to discern. Take the time for Advent. Make this mean something more than  false and fleeting happiness that will dissipate as the torn wrapping paper is cleared from the living room floor. Make this season about preparing for the Christ child to truly transform your heart and mind, that we might be left with something more than extra pounds around our mid sections and more stuff that will break in time for next Christmas.