Christmas Eve

Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of a great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

One of the things we learn when reading Luke’s Gospel is that God is not very good at keeping a secret.

God is not very good at keeping a secret.

Or maybe it’s just the angels. Or maybe just the way Luke tells the story. But it’s all right there, right here, in the beginning, isn’t it? It’s all right here.

Not only on this holy (if not so silent) night, but also in the months before: The annunciation to Zechariah, John’s father, and then Gabriel – the annunciation to Mary, and then Mary visiting Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaping in anticipation in his mother’s womb and Mary singing the Magnificat, and then Zechariah’s own prophecy at the birth of his son.

The Messiah is coming, and he will bring salvation and redemption to Israel, peace, hope and comfort, and above all “A great joy for all people”.

Now I don’t know how you like your stories, but to me, when I read a good novel, or watch a good movie, I don’t want to know the end before it has even started. I want to take time to get acquainted to the main characters, try to figure out their motives, following their many adventures and become enthralled by their destinies.

Not so with God though, not so with the angels, not so with Luke’s Gospel and with the story of the Savior.

It’s all right there, right here, in the beginning.

On that holy and (if not so silent) night, and even a few months before that, the heavens burst open upon the theater of this bleak and ordinary world of keeping the sheep at night, walking miles in the dark or riding on a donkey, crowds and noise, cramps and pangs, looking for something to eat, looking for a place to sleep – in the midst of all this, the heavens crack open to announce a great joy to all the people of Israel, and beyond, as we know it in the Christian world.

God can’t keep a secret.

But we have to indulge God because God can’t wait to tell us. God can’t wait to tell us.

This is how it goes isn’t it, when you love people and when you have very good news? It’s not that hard to keep a secret from somebody you don’t like, or when you’re ashamed of something you did. It’s much harder to keep from those you love something very exciting and something very life changing.

In this holy (if not so silent) night, the heavens burst open with overflowing joy. Joy coming from heavens. Not from this bleak, ordinary world, but from the story that God wants to write for and with God’s people. The marvel and the gift of Jesus coming to share our destiny.

Things will never be the same indeed.

And this how it goes with God, because indeed, from the beginning, heavens overflow with joy, and desire and love and this in this outpouring of love that men and women were created and this is in this outpouring of love that men and women will also be redeemed.

God is pregnant with a new reality God wants to bring with completion.

I don’t know how you have been feeling in the past months, before this holy (if not so silent) night but not that great is probably a good guess, isn’t it? I know this is probably how I would describe my own state of mind as well. But you see, when I open the Gospel, and God announces a great joy for all God’s people and I see the heavens shaken upside down with shouts of celebration, I understand that joy is not something I have to give to myself, or something I need to give to the world, or something I have to seek to the ends of the earth

– Joy is something that God brings to God’s people and joy is to be found, then and always, in Jesus.

God wants to bring heavens on earth, and God is waiting for people like Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, peasants, astrologists, fishermen and tax collectors, and even robbers and sex workers to open their hearts to this new reality.

God is pregnant with a new reality God wants to bring to completion in the midst of us – and things will never be the same again anymore.

Oh, it won’t start big. A small child, and infant, who will just happen to grow to become the king of kings and the Lord of all. And we are invited to follow where he leads.

No, it won’t start big. Things won’t change right away, but slowly, and surely, a new reality is coming. In the same way that, after the winter solstice days grow longer again – a few extra minutes of sun every day, we reverse the calendar and look forward to the hope brought by spring and the glory of the summer days.

Jesus came to reverse time from birth to death to another time: from the death brought by our blindness and selfishness to eternal life in him.

It won’t start big but it will start with each one of you and I hope you can start feeling this promise of a new life growing inside of you, because God can’t wait for you to discover it.

In the darkest night, God shone God’s brightest star to tell you.

Maybe in the past days you went out to see the Great conjunction. I did. I don’t know if it’s a sign, but I had to see it as I always go out to see rainbows as well. Not sure God does it on purpose each time, who can tell? But I know that when I see the heavens bursting with colors and lights, I am reminded of God’s promise, God’s promise to Noah, God’s promise in Jesus. And so indeed, even in the bleakness of year 2020, we can be reminded of God’s covenant as we open our ears to the Gospel and as we raise our eyes to the sky.

One of the things the most comforting I’ve ever read was this simple sentence in the Encyclical “Laudato Si” by pope Francis – an Encyclical about the urgency of climate action. The Pope said, in the midst of it all, poverty, hunger, disease, wars against ourselves, one another and the environment, God has not abandoned us.

God has not abandoned us. God hasn’t abandoned us today as surely as God hasn’t abandoned God’s people two thousands years ago even after the prophets went very silent for four hundreds years and the Romans took over the holy city.

It is a tough time for us as well, but as 2020 comes to an end and as we celebrate Christmas again, we have the choice to let the Scriptures remind us that God does not give up on God’s people, God remembers God’s covenant. God had promised a Savior to Israel and God sent Jesus and Jesus is till with us as surely as Jesus was with God’s people on the first Christmas.

God has not given up on you and God is not done with us. So don’t give up either. Don’t give up on yourself, don’t give up on this world and don’t give up on God. As difficult as it may seem to believe, today like yesterday God promises us that the best is yet to come in God’s reality.

And if we make silence in the dark of the night, if we raise our eyes to the stars, we may hear how God can’t wait to tell us all about it.

Advent IV

– It is agreed among most Christian denominations that, if we want to be successful in reading the Scriptures as a faith community, as a church, we have to find ways to make it relevant. To make a connection between the Word of God of ancient times and today’s world, to connect God’s story to our story, as people and as individuals.

I have a little “Guide to the Bible” at home and this is what the guide says: “When you read the Bible, you have to apply the passage to yourself“, and in order to do so, there are a few questions you can ask – among them:

– “What does this passage tell me to feel? To love or to hate?”
– “Is there an example I need to follow? A sin I need to confess?”
– “What does this passage teach me about my relation with God?”

And so on.

And all of those are useful tools we may want to use when we read the Scriptures. I know I do. We certainly use these tools when we do Bible study.

One of the things that came up this week, is that indeed, Mary is “God’s servant” as self-proclaimed. And there is certainly a lot we can learn from this example and apply to our lives:

Mary’s humility, her trustful obedience, saying yes to God without full knowledge or understanding of God’s will, Mary’s acceptance of being interrupted, and even disturbed, having to think about her life differently than she did before because she had to admit that God’s plans weren’t her plans, and then of course she had to take risks: the natural risks of the pregnancy, the difficult life of being a single mother – risking even her own life at that time since she was in danger of being stoned to death for having had extramarital relationships as she undoubtedly would be suspected of – or just maybe she had to take the risk to be seen as crazy, telling around this incredible story that the child she was bearing was in fact the Son of God.

And so, there is a lot, right there, from the beginning, that we can find for ourselves in Mary’s story. A lot that can shape a disciple’s life. Among all and probably above all, a sense that we are called to give away something of ourselves and even to give away our own selves – for God’s sake and for the sake of others.

For me, an example came to mind – of something I saw in the news this week, and maybe you saw it too. They interviewed this nurse who was one of the first in this country to have received the Covid vaccine. Her testimony was very touching. This simple woman, simple nurse just doing her job, said that she came to the realization that she had to overcome her own fear so she could be a good example to all, so she could encourage everybody to receive the vaccine as well and by that, finally put an end to the epidemic and allow healing to take place.

I had this passage of the Gospel in mind as I was listening to her. She made me think of Mary, who also, twenty centuries ago says the story, had to overcome her own fear. Her selflessness would be the reason God could find a way into the world and bring salvation.

And that could be enough, right? To me that could be enough to make this passage of the Gospel real and relevant and an example for each one of us. Mary has been on a pedestal for so long, we need to make her more accessible to us, more relevant. This is at least the belief of many scholars and theologians: Mary has appeared so otherworldly in so many ways – her virginity as a sign of complete moral integrity and flawlessness – we need to bring her down her pedestal to be able to actually make sense of her, what she was going through, and follow her on the way to Christmas, on the way to Jesus.

And yet. Yet as I was trying this week to think about all the ways we could relate to Mary, Betty kept sending me by email pictures for our cover page bulletin, all of them so wonderful I couldn’t pick one – which was already a problem in itself – but more deeply, I started to have a sense that something didn’t click. Something didn’t click and probably wasn’t right about “downplaying the scene” to try to make it more accessible and relevant to us. Seeing Mary in all this beauty, holiness and purity – something didn’t feel right trying to bring her down, even for the sake of relating to her example. To me I guess the aspect of the story that I am the most sensitive to is the way Mary knew what was God’s plan for her and agreed so quickly to put it into action. Compared to her story, I feel like I live in a perpetual fog, trying to find God’s will! Even as I try to relate to her, deep down I know this woman isn’t like me and like most people I know.

This woman, in this moment of the annunciation and as we’ll see later in the Gospel in other times in her life, is certainly one of us, but she is certainly unlike anyone of us. And to me this is what all those painters have tried to capture since the beginning and maybe there is something so precious about this scene that we would be fools trying to lose it.

The angel, the light, the flowers, the gaze in Mary’s eyes: Yes, obviously it’s difficult to relate. But maybe, maybe, instead of thinking about it as a problem, maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the point: To show us something really extraordinary, and something really perfect, something really flawless and maybe we shouldn’t rush in trying to understand how this applies to us or affects us or guides us to do something in the world.

Maybe Luke’s point in “painting Mary” on this perfect day – writing this passage – instead of telling us that it is a story we should reproduce by using it as an example for our lives – maybe Luke is first trying to describe something that we cannot imitate or reproduce in any way, something so unique and so special that, as when we look at those wonderful paintings, the only thing we can do is to contemplate the mystery and let wonder and awe fill our hearts.

How can this be?”

Maybe that’s the words of today’s Gospel we need to let resonate: “How can this be?”

Maybe we are to resist first to find practical applications, trying to find in our Scriptures good moral examples of virtue and obedience, and maybe we need first to realize that we are just invited to pause and contemplate the mystery, rejoicing and marveling at the fact that this is indeed very unique and beautiful and incredible – and that’s the wonder of it. After all, if we could explain it, it wouldn’t be God.

(And we had a sense of that in our first reading. God makes it clear to Prophet Nathan and to King David that God does not want and cannot be contained – would it be in God’s Temple. The king won’t make a dwelling for God but God will make for God a dwelling among God’s people.)

Almighty God will send God’s messenger to a humble young woman to announce to her that God will make a dwelling among humans.

How can this be?”

Maybe as we let the question Mary asks the angel sit in us – maybe, surprisingly, we will discover that it is actually the way we can relate to Mary. There may have been generations of believers who could not believe in Christ’s virginal birth, or who couldn’t believe that God really took human flesh and dwell among us – but let’s not forget that Mary was the first who couldn’t believe it, the first to ask:

How can this be?”

The Gospel mentions that Mary “pondered” the greeting of the angel and many times in the Gospel this expression comes back around Mary. Mary is not first of all an example of moral greatness, or faithful discipleship – maybe she is first inviting us to pause in front of God’s mystery and be immersed in wonder in front of God’s mystery.

A sociologist said that one of the great sadness of our technological and scientific era is that we have lost all ability to be surprised and delighted – and I am thinking maybe we have also lost our ability to feel “perplexed and confused” as Mary was. Because we can explain away almost anything, or dismiss what we cannot explain, we take so much for granted, we have lost a sense that there is something greater than us we cannot contain and cannot control and we end up living very flat lives in a very flat world. Well, Christmas’ message is that this world is not a flat world after all. It’s a time of wonder, a time when we have to ask ourselves “How can this be?”, when we discover that there is so much more to life than life as we know it – When we are called to experience in our flesh the mystery of the Word made flesh for us.

And so maybe as Christians that’s what we are called to do first to bring to the world the healing and salvation we have found in Jesus: Maybe all we need is to make room for God, that our lips maybe but mostly our lives may to point out to God’s mystery – something like the selflessness I saw in the nurse I was talking about earlier – something so good and so beautiful that it make us all ask, out of awe and not out of incredulity:

How can this be?”

Advent III

As you have probably noticed, when I have to preach I usually go straight to the heart of the matter – to the Gospel. There are different reasons for that, the main reason obviously is that the Gospel is at the center of our faith – the Good news of God in Jesus-Christ, symbolized in church by the solemn reading of the lesson in the midst of the congregation with the sequence hymn, the processional cross and sometimes even the torch bearers – something we haven’t been able to do for a while now! This week, though, it’s the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians that really gave me a pause and so I would like to spend time with you on this passage.

Interestingly, the First Letter to the Thessalonians is believed by most scholars to be the oldest text, the first put down in writing, in the whole New testament, probably around the years 48-52 of our era. The first stories about Jesus and reports of his teaching were oral and probably put on paper (papyrus!) to become the Gospel only at the end of the first century, when the first generation of witnesses was about to pass away. But Paul, as he started his ministry planting many churches throughout Macedonia and many other places, had to find a way to keep in touch with the congregations and so he started sending them letters. And this is what Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”.

Well, when I think about it, I find it very beautiful you know that those words are probably the first ones put down in writing in all of the Christian literature. This first message Paul sent is not about church administration, it’s not about moral living, it’s not about dogma, it’s about having joy in our hearts, being in relationships with God through prayer and being thankful. A message that is still true for us today – and that we need to be reminded of. A few famous philosophers, like Aristotle and Spinoza, said that joy is what happens when we live a perfect life or when we do the right thing, or just what we have to do – when we do our duty. And we may experience some of that. I know for myself I feel joy in my heart when the house is finally clean or when the sermon is done. For most of us, joy comes after the work is completed. And yet, yet, for Paul it looks like it’s the other way around: Joy is not something that comes later for those who have managed to do things well, to do things right, or maybe to just do things quickly, joy is at the root of it all, joy is the place to start, and maybe, just maybe, joy is what enables us to lead a good life, to be faithful to God and loving towards one another. Joy is not something that makes life a little nicer, a little reward that we can appreciate when the essential has been reached, joy is at the root of it all, and joy is the will of God for us.

Joy is the will of God for us. But how often do we think about it?

As Christians, I think, most of us wonder what is God’s will for our lives. We wonder of course, what is the right thing to do, how to be nice people, good Christians, and we also have been schooled to believe that God has a plan for our lives and that we have to discern what it is and to do it. It may be the place where God wants us to live, or the occupation God wants us to have, or the career God wants us to pursue, or the people God wants to bring in our lives: friends, spouses, children. Maybe that’s things we thought about when we were young – I know I did! – maybe we still try to understand what is the next step for us – or maybe we just look back at our lives and wonder if we have gotten in right, if we have done “God’s will”, if we have done what God expected of us. And yet, in the midst of that, Paul today tells us that God’s will for us is to rejoice, and that far from being something that would come after we have done all those things right, it is the place to start.

When I think about that, my first reaction is that it makes sense, does not it? There are different ways to understand God’s will, yet they all depend on the image we have of God. If you think that God is a judge, then the most important is to lead a moral life and to what is right. If you think that God is an architect, the supervisor of the world, then the most important is to find your perfect place in the world, but if you believe that God is love, then the most important thing, indeed, is probably to rejoice. Paul tells us that the God of Jesus-Christ is a God who wants us to rejoice and it makes perfect sense because Jesus called God his “father”, and we know that’s what loving parents wants for their children. Parents may want children to behave when they’re little and then as grown up to follow the right path, to find a good job and to have a family but mostly parents want their children to be happy. If one of your children had the perfect life, did all the right things, but was very unsatisfied or very depressed, how would it feel for you? Yes, exactly – and I think this is the way God feels as well.

God wants us to rejoice. Not because God is nice and that joy is something God would allow us to feel, God’s deepest will is for us to rejoice because God is love. This third Sunday in Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday” – the Sunday where we are call to rejoice – not just as a pause in this penitential time of Advent – but because “Joy to the world” is what God brought to us in Jesus-Christ.

Now how do we do that? If we look around us, the least we can say is that rejoicing is difficult – and it could seem ironic, even cruel to ask of us to rejoice. And yet, as we’ve just heard in our first reading – we see that Isaiah announced joy at a very difficult time for Israel – during their exile – Paul announced joy to the first Christians while they were persecuted – Jesus came to the world in the darkest night during the time of the Roman occupation. In the past as for today, God wants to bring joy to God’s people in their most difficult moments, it’s God’s will. We often think about God’s will as “What God wants us to do” but maybe “God’s will” means first “What God wants to do”. And God sent Jesus, the Christ, God’s anointed one to fulfill the promise of the Scriptures to: “Bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to release the prisoners (…) to comfort those who mourn”.

When Paul asks us to rejoice, he is not denying reality or trying to send us on a guilt trip by telling us how to feel. Paul says that Joy came to us in Jesus-Christ, who still brings us comfort, hope and new life whenever we turn to him. And in those times where rejoicing seem very difficult for most of us, I think this could be a way to find joy: Turning to him, by, as Paul puts it, “Praying without ceasing and giving thanks in all circumstances” (if not for all circumstances). Here’s what we can say about that:

Praying without ceasing does not mean we are supposed to make prayers all day. To me, it states more simply that we shouldn’t stop to pray. It’s easy to stop praying when we are very discouraged or feeling blue. I have a friend who told me once she didn’t call me for a while because she was feeling depressed. Well, it made me sad for her and questioned the relationship. Because she is my friend, I expected she would have trusted she didn’t have to feel cheerful me to be in touch with me. Not only it wouldn’t have bothered me, but maybe it could have helped her feel a bit better! If we feel that way, imagine how God must feel! When we feel sad, or even frustrated or angry, that’s the time we really need to pray, not only for ourselves, but as a church, as a nation. We need to pray for the world. It is with God as it is with a good friend, when you feel that you are not alone, you already feel better, you rejoice in the presence of the loved one and the one who loves you. “Praying without ceasing” may mean that we have to continue the conversation with God in whatever way that seems right to us. To ask God to help us, to support us, to bring us the comfort joy and hope God has promised to us. Not only because it is our desire, but because it is God’s will to do so.

– And then the second thing Paul invites us to do is to be thankful. If you look around you, you’ll notice that the happiest people aren’t those who have it all, rather it is those who are thankful for what they have, who they are, who they are with. Being thankful is what open our hearts to joy. It is not use that God fills the world with beautiful things if we have no eyes to see them. It is the same with joy. God can send us as much joy as possible, if we aren’t open to rejoice then it’s no use. Being thankful is opening up to receive joy. And it’s not only when good things happen to us that we can be thankful. Even in our grief, we can be thankful. Allowing us to feel the loss is a way to acknowledge the gifts that were made to us in this person, this life situation, this ability we cannot enjoy any more. But more than that, more than acknowledging the gift that was once given to us, we will be reminded that God’s will in Jesus-Christ is to make all things new, to rebuild what has been destroyed. As Isaiah prophetized: “[Those who mourn] shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastation, they shall repair the ruined cities and the devastation of many generations”.

We can experience that in the joy of the incarnation, the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas, we already rejoice in the Resurrection and we begin to think, live and act as resurrected people bringing the hope, comfort and healing in a world longing for salvation. I haven’t talked today about our Gospel, but as you’ve heard, it’s about John the Baptist witnessing to Jesus. Maybe you remember that the first way John the Baptist gave testimony to Jesus was by leaping for joy in his mother’s womb? So my question for you today is the following: What is the joy at the root of your being that gives us you energy and desire to live as followers and witnesses of Jesus-Christ?