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Christmas Eve 2009
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
This evening, I am happy to report to you that the earth has once again tilted on its axis. The days are getting longer! There is more light.
To put it mildly, we earthlings count on light: for warmth, photosynthesis, oxygen, all that stuff. Even our bones, buried way inside of us, need sunlight. Did you know that there is currently an epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency, causing brittle bones? We’re indoors all the time, not getting enough sunlight.
We not only need physical light. We need spiritual light, too. Every religion, every culture knows this. Every one of them uses metaphors of shadows and darkness, vision and enlightenment. And every one of them celebrates a festival of light, as we do this night.
Our scriptures say that God is light. They also say that when Jesus was born on this night, he was the light of the world. And then when he grew up, Jesus told his friends You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others.
And so like the rays from this huge star above us, divine light emanates from God’s own being, through Christ and other enlightened souls, into us, and then out from us, so that this world can be a little brighter, kinder, and more just. We both receive and manifest God’s light. This is what religion is supposed to do.
On this Christmas festival of light, then, it might be good to wonder: what sort of light do we seek from God, and what sort of light does the world need from us?
We are living in an extraordinary time, on so many levels. We are going through profound changes in how we communicate, how we affect our environment, how goods are marketed, made, and delivered, how culture and knowledge spread, and even how we think. In this postmodern age, the world is flat; the choices are endless; everything and everyone is nearby. In scope, it is like the historical shifts that took place in the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.
Religion is changing, too. In a recent survey by the very credible Pew Forum, it was found that whether people are religious or not, they are much more open to mystical experience than ever before. More and more people are mixing different beliefs, places of worship, and spiritual practices. Religion has become postmodern.
And so, given this time of social transformation we are living in, I ask again: as people of faith, what sort of light shall we seek, and what sort of light shall we offer to the world?
I believe that we have had enough of religion that tries to put God in a neat little box, denying the presence of God in other faith traditions, or in the hearts of any genuine seeker. We have had enough of religion that is moralistic, obsessing about sexuality in relationships that frighten those who never get close enough to understand them. We have had enough of religion that claims to have all the answers, that runs away from pluralism and mystery.
This kind of religion I’m describing may still be very popular today. In fact, it may even increase as social change accelerates. After all, it offers simplicity and security in complex times. This is not the first time this has happened in history. In every age of significant cultural change, there was a corresponding religious clampdown. And so once again it is time to remember what Jesus also said about light: If the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.
However, it is heartening to know that in our day, there is another kind of religious light that is emerging. It is not new; in fact, it is ancient. I believe that it is the same light that was manifested in the one who was born this night some 2,000 years ago.
First of all, the religious light that Jesus manifested was not in a tight little box. It came in a very porous container, in fact. Jesus was reverent, but loose. He was influenced by scandalous friends – Gentiles, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, and lepers. He ignored Jewish law when it stood in the way of common sense. Jesus sometimes reminds me of the wife of a very venerable seminary professor who advised the spouses of priests-to-be to always “keep one foot in the church, and keep the other one just a-freewheelin’ out there.”
God doesn’t need our protection. Like Jesus, we can critique our own traditions, even ignore parts of them, and still love them. We can welcome grace that comes from scandalous associations, like Buddhism, hip-hop culture, contemporary philosophy and science, and the Daily Show with John Stewart. If our faith is secure, our religion can be porous, like the home that we live in: familiar and deeply meaningful, but with open doors that let in interesting guests who come and stay awhile, leaving something with us when they go.
Second, Jesus used the stories and beliefs of his religion not as propositional truths, but as mysteries that lead one into God’s presence. An example: ritual purity codes were only useful if they led to purity of heart.
And so we needn’t be so awfully concerned about, for instance, whether it is objectively true that Jesus was sent from heaven to be sacrificed on the cross in order to pay for our sins, but rather where the cross might lead us. That’s the interesting thing. Does it take us to places where we learn self-denial and sacrifice for others; where we learn solidarity with all who suffer; and where our pain can be redeemed? Does the cross somehow lead us to Easter?
Third, Jesus had no interest in a superficial use of religion, as if it were some kind of magic ticket to the afterlife, or a means for propping up our self-image. Religion was, for Jesus, a path of transformation in this lifetime.
And so religious communities that teach people how to pray and meditate, how to do real self-examination, how to struggle through our defenses against God, how to apply the deep truths of scripture to our lives – these become places of authentic spirituality, where lives are transformed.
Finally, the religious light that Jesus manifested was not just about individual salvation or personal enlightenment. God’s light is given to us so that it might move through us, into a public life that overflows with love. This love is to be extravagant and unrealistic, always erring on the side of understanding, patience, reconciliation, generosity, and compassion. It uses the divine eye of love to look not just at personal relationships, but at social conditions, political engagement, how we vote and how we spend our money. You are the light of the world. You are not just a light unto yourselves and to your friends, but to the world.
I think we all can recognize divine light when we see it in people. They shine with goodness. They are secure enough to be porous, flexible. They don’t pretend to know anything about God; instead, they know God. They love and serve the world. This is the sort of light that Jesus manifested.
The world today needs God’s light, you and I need it, just as much as our bones need sunlight. In these days, will the kind of light that Jesus manifested prevail? Will it overcome runaway consumerism and religious fundamentalism? Will it finally triumph in my life, illuminating all my dark corners?
These are the wrong questions. We were never promised that God’s light would overcome the darkness. We are promised that the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will never overcome it. Both will continue at once.
We don’t need victory. Because as God’s light flickers - sometimes weakly and sometimes with great luminosity - we learn to trust in its constancy. And this helps us to be unafraid of our own darkness, unafraid of the world’s darkness.
In peace, we can then offer God’s light to the world, not as the solution, but as an alternative. Those who have eyes will see; those who have ears will hear. And the light of Christ will keep shining on.
4th Sunday in Advent - St. Michael’s & All Angel’s Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Rev. Charles Pedersen
An Advent Prayer…Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The season of Advent is a strange time. The words in the four collects for the season are both ominous and hopeful, full of darkness and light. There was a time when it was traditional to preach on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. There are still echoes of these themes in our Advent collects. But the Advent season, now waning, has counseled us to seek “quiet time” to reflect on our lives, asking ourselves those basic down-to-earth questions that govern our lives: Who am I? What is my life for? What are my hopes for the future? For disciples of Jesus these questions set us again on our journey, our quest for the meaning of our lives. We begin by living through that annual cycle of Jesus’ birth, his ministry and teaching, his passion, death and resurrection, his ascension with the promise that through the creative Holy Spirit of God, he would be with us to the end of time and beyond.
But Advent is also a time of darkness and shadows. Nature itself bears witness to it with daylight progressively diminishing each day in the face of increasing darkness. But in this time of darkness, there are shadows that beckon us to quietly, thoughtfully, prayerfully, ask ourselves still another question: As disciples of Jesus, his followers, what have we gotten ourselves into? There is good news and bad news! The bad news is that on this journey we have to do our own exploring of our own “inner space” in real time. We have to explore in the midst of the present Christmas frenzy, commonly called “the holidays”. It is a time in which we are both victims and perpetrators! The English poet, W.H. Auden, in his Christmas Oratorio: For the Time Being, captures our time, writing that “craving the sensation, but ignoring the cause, we look around for something, no matter what, to inhibit our self-reflection…:
So what is the good news here? The dilemma of our time now provides us all the opportunity to dig deep into our lives to discover the God-given potential gifted us at birth. The bad news”? It’s risky business! It’s like mining for diamonds. The treasure is to be found midst a lot of trash of no value. All this means that there is so much about ourselves of which we are not aware - potential for good , potential for evil, for hatred and great harm, for peace, love, joy, reconciliation.
Here is a poem that perhaps starkly uses the Advent-Christmas arena to make a point:
The useful child is born again, manipulated
By childless men.
The battered babe is tightly bound,
With festive ropes and bell-numbed sound.
His nascent joy is the parcel of all,
In neoned mangers storied tall.
What kind of people use a child
in this manner?
The same that secured him with nails and a
Why would anyone do this to Jesus? I believe his mother Mary, the woman who opened herself to the creative Spirit of God, will give us an answer. She bursts forth with joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”…and as she continues her praise of God, she is given an inner vision of the very nature of God, and in this discovery describes who her son will be. He will be the human presence of God, the flesh and blood, earthly reality of God Himself. He, the beloved one, will bring within himself the gift of newness of life and transformation for all who would follow him on that new path of self- sacrificing love.
Then Mary’s exultation gives way to what the power of his self-emptying love will bring to human kind and what will be the cost. She proclaims:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud and haughty in the imagination and plans of their hearts.
He has pulled down the mighty from their seats, and has exalted and dignified the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
What do we have here? I believe we have a revolution with Jesus confronting all of our values. A new paradigm for living- a newness in our moral life, our social life, our economic life. Jesus comes as the new life-bringer, the life-changer powered by self-sacrificing love, a kind of love that would triumph over the powers that sought to destroy him forever.
God, then, through Mary’s life, has given us a picture of Jesus, as well as the reason for his rejection. It seems simple. Jesus became an inconvenience, a disruption to most people’s daily lives and routines, relationships. A threat to their way of life. These forces, more or less, still operate among us. They shadow our lives. And we all are restless, because God’s love keeps us restless, because he gifted each of us with a soul, that deep and mysterious presence within which resides a new heart filled with new life waiting to be discovered. And it keeps us restless. Don’t deny it. Don’t seek to avoid it. It will not go away. God’s outpouring creative love will not be taken back. It is yours forever.
Let me close with an image and a “mantra” I’d like to share with you. Perhaps it might have meaning for you. It is another way of knowing. Imagine that your soul and within in it that new heart is like a manger waiting to be filled with the presence of the Lord Jesus. Then, when you can be still, try saying these words over and over again: “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.” Now, will you say it together with me? (said) Please, say it one more time with me.
4th Sunday in Advent - St. Michael’s & All Angel’s Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Rev. Charles Pedersen
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday Dec. 13, Advent 2/ Fiesta de Guadalupe
Sermon: Christopher McLaren
Text: Traditional Story of Juan Diego 1531 Mexico City
Title: Like Roses in December is God’s Surprising Love
Roses in December. I have always loved the story of La Virgen de Guadalupe, with its captivating mystery, the music of birds, the fragrance of flowers, the brown-skinned Lady, and the voice of the poor being heard in the halls of power. Our home has a nicho dedicated to Guadalupe. Each day as drive the children to school I pass the image of Guadalupe; painted on walls, at the old church on Griegos, on the side of our parish hall. My day is surrounded by this beautiful image of the Protectress of the Americas but I realized that I have never really understood or embraced Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe for myself? I delighted in the celebration of Guadalupe last December as mí Hermano Daniel was ordained a priest in this church. As a boy I grew up in charismatic pentecostal land a decidedly anti-marian environment. You may be saying, “Christopher you’ve come a long way babym,” but there is still more to go. I’m sure my grandparents are turning over in their foursquare protestant graves at the mere thought of embracing La Virgen de Guadalupe.
One cannot understand the power of this Lady without understanding the history of Mexico. It is not an easy history lesson. Cortez landed in Mexico on Good Friday 1519. At first the Aztec people mistook Cortez and the Spaniards for gods, remembering that the great priest Quetzalcoatl had promised to return to renew their way of life centered on human dignity, simplicity, and prayer. The tradition was that Quetzalcoatl was a large man with blue eyes and blond hair who eerily fit the description of Cortez.
While the Aztec ruler Moctezuma was convinced that Cortez was a god all that changed after the massacre at Tóxcatl (Toshcatl). This festivity was the principle feast of the Aztecs. It was not only very similar in content to our own Paschal mystery, but also it was actually celebrated with great solemnity a few days after the Christian celebration of Holy Week.
At the celebration, masses of people were gathered in the main temple. Pedro de Alvarado, the captain in charge during the temporary absence of Cortez, ordered the entrances sealed by soldiers and then ordered the soldiers into the temple to kill warriors and captains of the people. The killing was horrific. Almost no one in the Temple that day survived. The final defeat of the Mexican people came after a long and difficult battle at Tlatelolco which lasted from May until August, 13 1521. It marked the end of a civilization. More than 240,000 warriors were dead and many others had died from starvation and disease.
As one post-conquest canticle expresses it:
Please let us die, let us disappear, for our gods have died!
It is difficult for us today to truly comprehend the trauma of this defeat. Only when we go through a personal experience in which every single person or thing in which we had placed our hope and security has disappeared and we feel totally alone, rejected and without possibility of any aid might we be able to begin to comprehend the Mexican experience of the conquest by Spain.
It was a painful crucifixion. Their world had vanished. Their greatest capital city and indeed the most beautiful and well organized, had fallen. They continued to live but in effect they were dead. Many indigenous were forced to abandon their villages often being reduced to slavery (Elizando, p.59).
It is in this apocalyptic situation with these portents in the sky that the little brown-skinned Mary appears to Juan Diego a simple indigenous man. On December 9, 10 years after the conquest of what is now Mexico City, Juan Diego was walking across a hill called Tepeyac on his way to catechism at a local church. As he walked he heard the beautiful singing of birds and then a beautiful dark-skinned Aztec woman appeared and spoke to him in his native language of Nahuatl.
The woman told Juan to go to the bishop and tell him, “You are to build me a church on this hill.” Juan must have been surprised, because the hill she meant was a holy place for the Aztec people, not for the Spanish. But Juan when to the bishop and said everything just as the woman had instructed him.
The bishop listened to the humble Indian and then told him, “No there will be no church on that hill.” Perhaps he also knew that the hill was an Aztec holy place.
Again, Juan saw the Aztec woman. He asked, “Who are you?” She answered, “I am Mary, the Mother of God.” And she told him to return to the bishop.
Juan went again to the bishop. He was persistent and the bishop listened again. Juan recounted all that the dark mother had said. The bishop wondered who Juan Diego was. He was only a humble farmer, a man of little learning and no power. He was an Aztec. Why should the bishop believe him?
Juan left the bishop discouraged. He needed a sign to prove that the Aztec lady had truly appeared to him. Several days passed since he first saw the woman. He was worried about his uncle who was sick and went to find a priest. On his way the woman appeared to him again. This time she told Juan to go up on the hill and gather flowers even though it was winter and to take them to the bishop as a sign of her presence.
Juan found roses, heavy with blossoms a sign of new life and hope for the Aztec people. Roses in December! Who could imagine such a thing? Mary told Juan to gather the flowers in his tilma (cloak) and take them to the bishop. Juan full of wonder ran to the bishop with his fragrant surprise.
The bishop was probably irritated to see Juan again. How many times did this stubborn Indian have to be told no? But the bishop’s irritation turned to amazement when Juan opened his tilma to show the flowers. As soon as the Bishop and all those with him saw the flowers they were amazed but there was something even more wonderful than roses in December, there on the fabric of Juan’s cloak was the image of the dark Aztec woman, The Mother of God who had appeared to Juan on the holy mountain and sent him to the bishop.
Shortly after a chapel was built on the site and the image placed there. Pilgrimages began immediately. Since that time several new edifices have been built to accommodate the nearly 10 million pilgrims that journey to the Shrine each year.
The evidenced suggests that the early Church was bitterly opposed to the Guadalupe happening. Yet the devotion spread like wildfire and brought about millions of conversions within a few years. As one writer puts it, “almost immediately the Mexican people came to life – the pilgrimages, dances and festivals began again and continue to this day. The devotion is not dying; on the contrary, it continues to spread, even in the major cities of the United States. ”
There is so much to learn about Guadalupe, so much to understand about this woman whose message of hope breathed life into a defeated and suffering people. The Mexican American theologian Virgilio Elizondo, believes that the origin of devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe involved resistance on the part of the native conquered people not only to the European invaders but also to the all-male God in whose name they conquered. In the mist of their resistance the poor, vanquished people of Mexico, enslaved and abused by their new rulers became the gracious recipients of a major disclosure in the development of the Christian understanding of God, namely that the mystery of God embraces both male and female identities.
This disclosure to Juan Diego through the song of the birds, the fragrance of flowers and the Queen of Heaven deigning to speak to one so lowly is of significance not just for the wounded people of Mexico but for the whole Church. Guadalupe helps to liberate everyone from a restrictive, masculinized view of God.
Interestingly several aspects of the Aztec religion serve to illuminate this important revelation. First, the place of the original 16th century apparition was the sacred site of an ancient temple dedicated to, the Indian virgin mother of the gods. The flowers and music of the vision were part of her temple worship. Now on the very site where the feminine aspect of the one, all powerful, creative spirit had previously been venerated a new beginning was emerging. The dark skin of La Morenita little dark-one, the language she spoke, the colors she was wearing and the celestial symbols surrounding her were all reminiscent of the goddess of the defeated people. Yet it was not the Aztec goddess it was Mary the mother of the Christian God who was speaking to Juan Diego and through him to all people. Guadalupe wears a black maternity band which means she is with child and offers this child as gift for a new world, a new beginning, a new people. The fertile soil of this cross-cultural encounter is not difficult to see. The figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe combined the Indian female expression of God which western Christianity had tried to wipeout as erroneous with the Spanish male expression of God, which the Indians had found incomprehensible, since everything that is perfect in the Nahuatl world-view has both a male and female component.
In essence Guadalupe combines in some perfect way the male-centered and patriarchal Christianity with the female Mother of God which allows the true face and heart of Christianity to shine forth: compassion, understanding, tenderness, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.
So at the same time while the imperial powers of Spain full of their religious triumphalism are oppressing the indigenous peoples whom they do not understand and so consider pagans, on the other side this surprising revelatory event is giving birth to a new reality, a new humanity, a new church, a new way for those who had lost everything. It is at once traditional and new. Without this revelatory event it is hard to imagine what might have become of this defeated people, but God’s bird-song and flowers breakthrough, compassion, understanding and loving care are demonstrated in the dark-skinned lady that is one of them, and loves them.
From Guadalupe we have learned much and have much to learn. As we celebrate the recent election of two, yes two women bishops, in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles one openly lesbian, we see that we are slowly making progress in embracing the feminine in our own spiritual life, seeing and embracing the image of Christ in our female leaders like our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Mother’s know the pain of conquest, of growth, and of change. Mothers are always ready and willing to stand by and be with their children in their days of triumph or defeat, and they are also there in their moments of development and conversion. Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to encourage the poor, the disinherited, and the powerless, the outcast in their struggles toward the freedom of the children of God. I’m sure that she is hovering over the expanding work of the food pantry, blessing the ministry of the Albuquerque Opportunity Center, smiling with compassion on the breakfast at St. Martin’s. She is the compassionate Mother who watches over her smallest children and brings them self-dignity, self-confidence, and self-direction.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is there not only for the Mexican people but for us as well, as the Protectress of the Americas, of which we are a part. She is among us to remind us of God’s love for the poor, the discouraged, the marginalized, the stranger, the depressed, the lonely, the forgotten. And when that person, for one reason or anther is us, when we are depressed or lonely or forgotten, she is ready to take us to her loving heart and carry us to her beloved Son who has and will continue to love us to the end. Like roses in December is God’s surprising love.
I am deeply endebted to the writing of Mexican American theologian Virgilio P. Elizondo on Guadalupe for a new and deeper understanding of this remarkable Lady of Guadalupe. His book La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas was my essential guide to embracing La Morenita.