While visiting the Holy Land in 1865, The Rev. Phillips Brooks rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to assist in the midnight service. That blessed moment in his life inspired him to write one of the most cherished of all Christmas carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n; So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
God in the flesh IS the “wondrous gift” that is given to those whose hearts are meek enough and trusting enough for the gift to make a difference. So, come. Together, in our hearts, let us go to Bethlehem to receive this wondrous gift so the world of need at our doorstep will become a better place when we step into it.
Have a Merry Christmas!
P.S. The icon is The Virgin of Vladimir by the hand of Gay Pogue.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux once remarked that three miracles are reported in the story of the Annunciation:
That a virgin should conceive a child.
That God and humans should be united in the child.
That Mary should believe what had been announced to her.
Commenting on the three miracles, Martin Luther said that the first is a trifle for God, the second is greater, and the third, that Mary should believe that the first two miracles would be accomplished in and through her, is the greatest. God frequently wants to work miracles through us. If by some miracle we happen to be listening and hear the divine voice, will we believe it enough to "let it be?" Or, will we take a pass because it is too fantastic, an imposition, or something for which we are surely not worthy?
In the event God should get your attention and you are tempted to take a pass, remember that God's choice of people through whom to accomplish things leaves something to be desired by human standards. The biblical record alone shows that God prefers to work the greatest miracles through unlikely people, from unlikely places, at unlikely times, and in unlikely ways.
There's a reason angelic messengers usually begin by saying, "Don't be afraid." Next time, as unlikely as it may seem, it could be you! Whenever that happens, may faith conquer our fears and excuses so that Mary's prayer might be our own: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
I’ll see you in Church!
P.S. Christmas Eve services are at 12:00 noon (St. John’s Chapel), 4:00, 6:00, and 10:00 p.m. (St John’s Church). The Christmas Day service is at 10:00 a.m. (St. John’s Chapel). Also, on Christmas Day, we will have TWO informal Carols and Candlelight services at the Chapel of the Transfiguration. I’ve arranged for the road to the chapel to be cleared so those who cannot get there on snowshoes or skis can drive in and walk a short distance. I suggest that those who intend to drive attend at 4:00 p.m. since last year the chapel was packed at 5:00 p.m. with people who were able to come by snowshoes or skis.
P.S.S. The Coptic icon depicting the Annunciation is the work of Dr. Stephane Rene.
If I asked the average Christian what is the greatest of God’s commandments, I suspect most would respond, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” And, if I asked what is the second greatest commandment, I’m pretty sure most would respond, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. Like a door depends on its hinges.
If I asked what is the most frequent commandment in the canon of Scripture, I might not find as much a strong consensus. There is one commandment that is found in most books of the Bible. Often, it is spoken by God. Many times, it is spoken by an angel. Sometimes it is spoken by Jesus.
Here is the answer: The most frequent commandment in the Bible is
Do you recognize that? Probably not. It’s Hebrew and is pronounced Al tirah. Still don’t recognize it? Okay, I’ll bet you recognize the English translation FEAR NOT. This commandment appears 365 times in the canon of Scripture, once for every day of the year. In my review of the occasions in which the commandment is expressed, it seems that it is usually spoken in a situation in which anxiety is running very high. Now is one of those times.
People are anxious about terrorists, gun rights, politicians, access to healthcare, the world economy, travel, job security, and a host of other things that can be perceived as threatening to our lives or at least our way of life. Many are feeling that the situation around them has moved beyond their control. They feel powerless and maybe hopeless. When human beings reach such a state of anxiety, our primitive “fight or flight” program instinctively engages. When that happens, we lose some of our ability to reason. We might say or do all sorts of irrational and hurtful things as we express our anxiety and even take extreme, sometimes violent measures to regain control to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our values, and our possessions.
Our brains are designed to react in frightening situations. We have that in common with other living creatures, such as lizards. Without our survival instinct, our ancestors would not have made it. But human brains are also designed to help us reason and work with other humans in finding meaningful ways to respond to what threatens us.
That’s where the most frequent Biblical commandment comes in. God who designed and equipped us to care for each other and oversee the entire creation, tells us not to let our fears conquer our faith, our hope, our love, and our reason.! Al tirah! Don’t be afraid!
I guess my mother had something like that in mind when she would stop me in mid-sentence and say, “Take a deep breath and count to ten before you say another word.”
Advent, the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year, is supposed to be a time of expectation, hope, peace, and joy. An angel said to some shepherds on a Judean hillside long ago,"Al tirah!, Fear not! for I have good news of a great joy that shall be to all the people.”
In spite of that, many people are anxious right now. Not everyone is having a good time. Not everyone feels secure. Even good news is frightening to some people. I have friends who don’t have the best memories of the holidays. There are those who are not going to be surrounded by family and loved ones. One thing is sure, everybody needs to know that they are safe, that they are loved, and that someone cares about them.
So, let’s resolve to be a light in someone’s darkness. Let’s take the time to listen to one another and honestly try to understand what is really being said. Let’s resolve to make our words and our actions to be expressions of the most frequent commandment. Let’s start with ourselves; look into the mirror and say, “Fear not!” Then, let’s find a way to help those around us conquer their own fears.
The promise is that faith conquers fear. Our hope is that perfect love casts out fear.
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I’ve always believed it to be true and a piece of wisdom worthy of attention. However, in a two week period I’ve become involved in several prevention campaigns; Prevention of Sexual Violence, Prevention of Domestic Violence, Prevention of Gun Violence, Prevention of Suicide, and Prevention of Child Abuse to be specific. Each one of these programs deserves our undivided attention and I am grateful that they are available to our community. However, all together they are certainly more than “an ounce.”
All of this comes at a time when I am feeling the impact of terrorism at home and abroad, more mass shootings, the suicide of a colleague’s son, and news of the rape of a woman I know in another state. And it is Advent, the season of expectation, hope, and preparation for the birth of the One sent to save us.
In each of these prevention programs, we review recent data concerning the prevalence of the social ill we are trying to prevent. In most cases, the problems are escalating at an alarming rate. Something is wrong with a culture when we have to work so hard at prevention of such things. Our core values as a culture have obviously eroded.
I caught a glimmer of hope in conversation with the presenter of the workshop on domestic violence, The Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune, when she said that faith communities can present obstacles or opportunities for people facing behavior that needs to be prevented. For example, a biblical passage can be interpreted in ways that make a victim of violence believe it is their fault, that the abuser has a God-given right to hurt someone, or that the violence is somehow God’s punishment. Or, the passage might be interpreted in life-affirming ways that help lift a person out of harm’s way.
It makes me even more grateful that our Church emphasizes God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. Each of us who has received that hopeful message is in a position to share it with others, especially those who are vulnerable. In so doing, we may not only help someone discover an abundant life, we may also provide just the thing that actually saves a life.
We also belong to a community of people who can hold one another accountable for our harmful actions just as we encourage good works. Watching over one another in love, we support profound behavioral change. Jesus didn’t just preach repentance, he formed a community to surround penitents with guidance, care, and the means of grace that are necessary to sustain the new life that is emerging when the old life is left behind.
In the Baptismal Covenant, we affirm that with God’s help we will persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. We affirm that with God’s help we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And, we affirm that with God’s help we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
That’s our ounce of prevention, which we ourselves have received and which we offer to cure the social ills swirling around us. It’s about more than stopping something; it’s also about offering hope. It’s not just about protecting the victims; it’s also about redemptive change for those who do violence. It’s more than an ounce or even a pound; it’s the offer of immeasurable possibilities for good that will reverberate beyond our own generation.
Your thoughtful comments will make a visit to e-piphanies a richer experience for everyone. By clicking on the "Comments" link beneath each post, you can read the remarks others have written or add your own. If you leave a question, I will respond in the journal. In order to maintain the integrity of this blog, all comments are reviewed before being published on line.