Giotto’s Nativity

Nativity by Giotto (1305) in Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

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A meditation for New Years

By Kenneth Tanner

The rhythms of the church year have guided my life since 1989.

Marking time by the Word made flesh reorients *everything* in life and so the annual celebration of a “New Year” has, over time, decreased in importance for me while the feast of the Incarnation—the celebration of Christmas, beginning on the evening of December 24 and continuing through Epiphany on January 6—has become an intense annual season of reflection, communion, and creativity.

For me, New Year’s Eve and Day just happen to occur *during* Christmas, twelve days of blessed worship and fellowship which now eclipses the evening and day that marks the change from one year to the next. New Years is just one more part of Christmas. (And, for the church, the New Year really begins just after Thanksgiving on the first Sunday of Advent.)

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Sixth day of Christmas

By Kenneth Tanner

The One who cannot be contained in Solomon’s temple (much less the expanding universe) is contained in the womb of a Palestinian-Jewish teenager.

The One who is timeless and omnipotent and changeless makes himself truly vulnerable and contingent to all the natural forces he has breathed into existence as he lays in a feed box, dependent on Mary and Joseph for nourishment and protection, as he somehow holds together the wood of that manger that cradles him in Bethlehem.

The One who is the origin of all things and who holds all things in existence—galactic to microscopic—is the carpenter from Nazareth. He who made the Pleiades and Orion now sets beams and crafts tables with his stepfather, sweeps sawdust from his forearms.

The One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire is baptized with water so that humanity has a baptized God.

The One who does not eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats is now in Jesus a hungering creature of necessity, set to fast in the Judean desert.

The One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and Lord of angel armies is now homeless and a sojourner, cloaked against the cold night air and all alone, tempted by satan.

The One who never sleeps and who ever watches over Israel naps on a boat out on Galilee.

The One who embodies the Law dines with tax collectors and wine enthusiasts.

The One who is a consuming fire of holy o Continue reading

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Fifth Day of Christmas

By Kenneth Tanner

When the divine community we call God created the visible (and invisible) universe they spoke words like “let there be light” and things that were not in one moment began to exist in the next. Stars. Planets. Oceans. Mountains. Trees. Animals. Flowers.

All these things and more were breathed into existence by God. When the Father began to make all things, our Wisdom tells us that it was the Son by whom the Father spoke all things into being; Christ spoke the things that were not as though they were and they were so. Orchid. Zebra. Maple. Everest. Atlantic. Jupiter. Andromeda. And so on.

Instead of speaking humanity into existence, our Wisdom tells us that God hand-crafted men and women from the clay, breathed into our motionless humanity the breath of life, invested with his image, and gave us something the rest of creation does not have except metaphorically: the divine capacity of language.

Though all living things communicate, only humans have the gift of speech and this capacity is creative (like God) or destructive (like the dark powers), depending on our choice.

The mystery of the Incarnation is so great that every year—in this time of Advent and Christmas, six blessed weeks of waiting and celebration—I eventually see something I have never seen before, encounter a facet of the birth narrative I missed or neglected or did not see in all its beauty.

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In the form of a baby

By Kenneth Tanner

God takes the form of a baby because divine helplessness is greater than any other force in the universe.

When on the first Christmas divine humility and powerlessness and poverty are revealed as the foundation of all that exists, this revelation of God in the flesh threatens all human notions of power, all human leadership that rests on exertions of might.

Real Christmas was and remains political. The conception and birth of Jesus—the helpless, silent infant who spoke all things into existence and who holds all things together—set a challenge to all other rulers and kingdoms, visible and invisible.

All temporal rulers instinctively know they are bested by an eternal kingdom of others-directed, self-sacrificial love that does not seek its own, that does not keep a record of wrongs, that is not jealous, that seeks to serve rather than to be served.

Herod knew the jig was up, that the age of self-seeking rulers was now exposed and that the game was over. Herod turned to murder to try to reimpose the old order, as have so many visible and invisible powers down the centuries since the Incarnation, since God took up permanent residence as a member of the human race in Jesus Christ.

I appreciate the way this artist captures the horror real infants and real mothers faced in the aftermath of the real Christmas, the infamous slaughter of male Hebrew children in and around Bethlehem that me remember today.

Fleeting worldly powers desperate to hold on to a false power that is being defeated by divine humility lash out. They always do, for violence is their defeated way of maintaining strength.

What they did not know is that in (eventually) killing Jesus Christ they reversed the permanence not only of their rule but of all their violent actions.

These poor children and all who suffer violence have in Jesus Christ a glorious way now to endure beyond suffering and death, to shine forever in the kingdom of their Father, while the kingdoms of this world and their violence await permanent, shameful expiration.

A blessed Fourth Day of this great feast of the Incarnation to you and yours. Remember the Innocents. We have inherited a kingdom; we await a world without end.

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. This article originally appeared on Huffington Post HERE. Follow him on Twitter: 

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Chesterton’s thoughts on Santa

“What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

“As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good—far from it.

“And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me…What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

“Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.

“Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.”

—G.K. Chesterton, for the win

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Second Day of Christmas

By Kenneth Tanner

It must be self-evident to most people that humanity needs rescue from sin, violence, and death. A God who participates in sin, violence, and death is not other than fallen humanity but a projection of our worst fears and hatreds.

A God who liberates us from sin, violence, and death is good and welcome news from outside ordinary human experience and thought. Such a God would be light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made. And it is the Incarnation that makes this God known to us, and makes this God real for us.

For it is the nails driven into the flesh of Christ by humanity and spirits of darkness that decisively counter and make vain all human, demonic, and anti-Christian imagination that the Father who creates and upholds the world by love is in some other part of himself the one who destroys the world or his Son.

There is a destroyer but his false, homicidal way of violence, abuse, coercion, and death is defeated by the humility of God acting in Jesus Christ.

He is the father of detestable instruments of death like nuclear weapons, for only a “god” who hates humanity and creation would author such abominations, and in sin we partnered in their “creation” with this god’s hatred of the image of God in humanity and in human civilization, his hatred of creation, his contempt for the Incarnation.

The nails driven into the flesh of Christ are also the nails driven into the coffin of the idea that the Living God sends evil or participates in darkness or desires the death of anyone.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Happy Second Day of Christmas.

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. This article originally appeared on Huffington Post HERE. Follow him on Twitter: 

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Too Great a Mystery for One Day

By Kenneth Tanner

Christmas isn’t just for Christmas anymore. The season eclipses Thanksgiving, swallows Advent whole, and comes to a sudden, grinding halt with Christmas Day.

Our family celebrates Christmas old school, starting with worship on Christmas Eve. Then we let the Incarnation linger in our hearts and permeate our gatherings through 12 days ending on Epiphany (January 6).

And I am beginning to understand something. Christmas is too great a mystery for one night or one day or even 12 days.

How can this great love — a God who fashions us from clay becomes clay so we might be like God — not claim every day of our lives for worship?

This God was not content to let Creation, to let his creatures, slowly waste away, to languish in suffering, without taking responsibility for our plight by joining us in our predicament. He came to exist at the margins as so many humans do, like we all do if we honestly grasp the human situation.

 

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Chesterton and Congdon on Christmas

The Christ Child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ Child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ Child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ Child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him
And all the stars looked down.

– G. K. Chesterton

Art by William Congdon HERE

 

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Into the Dark with God

A Christmas Meditation on the Incarnation, for a Troubled World

And the angel said to them,

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy that will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city oft David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” ( Luke 2:10-12).

The Lord has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance.

On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid. The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority. With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them. And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a “Gloria” praising God in heaven’s heights and announcing the peace of God’s goodwill to men on earth. Then, we read, “the angels went away from them into heaven.” In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven’s curtain. Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness. They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king’s audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.

But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel’s word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem. Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of the heavenly glory—for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They want to see the word that has taken place. Not the angel’s word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant. They want to see the content of the angel’s word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They want to see the word that has “happened”, the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that can not only be heard but also seen.

Thus the word that the shepherds want to see is not the angel’s word. This was only the proclamation (the kerygma, as people say nowadays); it was only a pointer. The angels, with their heavenly authority, disappear: they belong to the heavenly realm; all that remains is a pointer to a word that has been done. By God, of course. Just as it is God who made it known to them through the angels.

What is the point of my efforts, my dedication, my sacrifice, my pleading to God for a world that is resolved to perish?

So they set off, heaven behind them, and the earthly sign before them. But, Lord, what a sign! Not even the Child, but a child. Some child or other. No special child. Not a child radiating a light of glory, as the religious painters depicted, but on the contrary: a child that looks as ‘inglorious as possible. Wrapped in swaddling clothes. So that it cannot move. It lies there, imprisoned, as it were, in the clothes in which it has been wrapped through the solicitude of others. There is nothing elevating about the manger in which it lies, either, nothing even remotely corresponding to the heavenly glory of the singing angels. There is practically nothing even half worth seeing; the destination of the shepherds’ nightly journey is the most ordinary scene. Indeed, in its poverty it is decidedly disappointing. It is something entirely human and ordinary, something quite profane, in no way distinguishedexcept for the fact that this is the promised sign, and it fits.The shepherds believe the word. The word sends them from heaven and to earth, and as they proceed along this path, from light to darkness, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the solitary experience of God to the realm of ordinary human intercourse, from the splendor above to the poverty below, they are given the confirmation they need: the sign fits. Only now does their fearful joy under heaven’s radiance turn into a completely uninhibited, human and Christian joy. Because it fits. And why does it fit? Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in utter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers.

The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger—is this not a miracle in itself?

It is true, therefore: in order that he shall find God, the Christian is placed on the streets of the world, sent to his manacled and poor brethren, to all who suffer, hunger and thirst; to all who are naked, sick and in prison. From henceforth this is his place; he must identify with them all. This is the great joy that is proclaimed to him today, for it is the same way that God sent a Savior to us. We ourselves may be poor and in bondage too, in need of liberation; yet at the same time all of us who have been given a share in the joy of deliverance are sent to be companions of those who are poor and in bondage.But who will step out along this road that leads from God’s glory to the figure of the poor Child lying in the manger? Not the person who is taking a walk for his own pleasure. He will walk along other paths that are more likely to run in the opposite direction, paths that lead from the misery of his own existence toward some imaginary or dreamed-up attempt at a heaven, whether of a brief pleasure or of a long oblivion. The only one to journey from heaven, through the world, to the hell of the lost, is he who is aware, deep in his heart, of a mission to do so; such a one obeys a call that is stronger than his own comfort and his resistance. This is a call that has complete power and authority over my life; I submit to it because it comes from a higher plane than my entire existence. It is an appeal to my heart, demanding the investment of my total self; its hidden, magisterial radiance obliges me, willy-nilly, to submit. I may not know who it is that so takes me into his service. But one thing I do know: if l stay locked within myself, if I seek myself, I shall not find the peace that is promised to the man on whom God’s favor rests. I must go. I must enter the service of the poor and imprisoned. I must lose my soul if I am to regain it, for so long as I hold onto it, I shall lose it. This implacable, silent word (which yet is so unmistakable) burns in my heart and will not leave me in peace. 

In other lands there are millions who are starving, who work themselves to death for a derisory day’s wage, heartlessly exploited like cattle. There too are the slaughtered peoples whose wars cannot end because certain interests (which are not theirs) are tied up with the continuance of their misery. And I know that all my talk about progress and mankind’s liberation will be dismissed with laughter and mockery by all the realistic forecasters of mankind’s next few decades. Indeed, I only need to open my eyes and ears, and I shall hear the cry of those unjustly oppressed growing louder every day, along with the clamor of those who are resolved to gain power at any price, through hatred and annihilation. These are the superpowers of darkness; in the face of them all our courage drains away, and we lose all belief in the mission that resides in our hearts, that mission that was once so bright, joyous and peace bringing; we lose all hope of really finding the poor Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. What can my pitiful mission achieve, this drop of water in the white-hot furnace? What is the point of my efforts, my dedication, my sacrifice, my pleading to God for a world that is resolved to perish?

From a worldly point of view everything may seem very dark; your dedication may seem unproductive and a failure. But do not be afraid: you are on God’s path.

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy… This day is born the Savior”, that is, he who, as Son of God and Son of the Father, has traveled (in obedience to the Father) the path that leads away from the Father and into the darkness of the world. Behind him omnipotence and freedom; before, powerlessness, bonds and obedience. Behind him the comprehensive divine vision; before him the prospect of the meaninglessness of death on the Cross between two criminals, Behind him the bliss of life with the Father; before him, grievous solidarity with all who do not know the Father, do not want to know him and deny his existence. Rejoice then, for God himself has passed this way! The Son took with him the awareness of doing the Father’s will. He took with him the unceasing prayer that the Father’s will would be done on the dark earth as in the brightness of heaven. He took with him his rejoicing that the Father had hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to babes, to the simple and the poor. “I am the way”, and this way is “the truth” for you; along this way you will find “the life”. Along “the way” that I am you will learn to lose your life in order to find it; you will learn to grow beyond yourselves and your insincerity into a truth that is greater than you are. From a worldly point of view everything may seem very dark; your dedication may seem unproductive and a failure. But do not be afraid: you are on God’s path. “Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God; believe also in me.” I am walking on ahead of you and blazing the trail of Christian love for you. It leads to your most inaccessible brother, the person most forsaken by God. But it is the path of divine love itself. You are on the right path. All who deny themselves in order to carry out love’s commission are on the right path.Miracles happen along this path. Apparently insignificant miracles, noticed by hardly anyone. The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger—is this not a miracle in itself? Then there is the miracle when a particular mission, hidden in a person’s heart, really reaches its goal, bringing God’s peace and joy where there were nothing but despair and resignation; when someone succeeds in striking a tiny light in the midst of an overpowering darkness. When joy irradiates a heart that no longer dared to believe in it. Now and again we ourselves are assured that the angel’s word we are trying to obey will bring us to the place where God’s Word and Son is already made man. We are assured that, in spite of all the noise and nonsense, today, December 25, is Christmas just as truly as two millennia ago. Once and for all God has started out on his journey toward us, and nothing, till the world’s end, will stop him from coming to us and abiding in us.

 


HANS URS VON BALTHASAR is considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. This sermon is from the collection “You Crown the Year With Your Goodness,” Ignatius Press, 1989. (The German original was published in 1982). To order from Ignatius Press, call 1-800-651-1531. Special thanks to Godspy for posting this HERE.

 

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