Here are links to George's Advent devotions. Clicking on the link will take you directly to that devotion; or you may scroll down the page at your leisure.
First Sunday of Advent: Getting Started
I'm always at my happiest at the beginning when I'm looking forward to a journey. Yes, there are things I look forward to doing, places I look forward to seeing and when those things come to pass I will be glad for that, but the beginning is the best. Why? Because it's all out there in front of you.
I have traveled to the Holy Land five times since 2000, the most recent in 2016. Each time I have very vivid memories of going to the airport in Louisville (or once to Nashville), flying to our international departure point, usually one of the New York airports, the long flight which I would follow on the screen the airline provided - tracking our progress on the map, and finally arriving in Tel Aviv.
One of the things we have learned, particularly in more recent trips, has been turning our phones to airplane mode when we left the United States and leaving it on that setting until we have landed back home once again. Turning off airplane mode while in the Holy Land would mean even if we did not make or receive calls our phone would be doing things like receiving text messages and delivering email. Using data. Running up a bill. A bill that with international rates could grow rather quickly. So we stay in airplane mode and the phone becomes pretty much a camera.
A camera that I put to use constantly while we travel, beginning with the first steps off the plane. Every other feature is turned off and the phone as camera becomes a way of looking closely at the world we are visiting and saving images to revisit again and again.
Find a time each day during Advent to put your life in airplane mode. Turn off the incoming and the outgoing. Be present in the moment. Be present with scripture. Be present with these devotionals or with whatever devotional you choose to utilize. Be present in a space you make sacred. Light a candle. Identify a place off the hectic, beaten path. Get your camera ready and open your eyes to fully take in what you can see and what you want to save to revisit.
Over the course of this Advent season I'm going to enjoy sharing with you some of the holy places and holy moments from my trips, all but one with my wife Julie, to the Holy Land. The focus will be primarily on places and events that in some way open a window into the story of Advent and Christmas and I hope help us discover something new in our journey to Bethlehem this Christmas.
So here we go.
Ready for an Advent journey.
Welcome to the Holy Land.
Help us to find moments in this Advent season to be fully present to you. Amen.
Advent Journey Week One - Monday
In his book The Living Nativity Larry J. Peacock writes, "I believe that many who come to a Christmas Eve service are hoping for their own Bethlehem moment, an affirmation of God's presence, a glimpse of lasting joy, a time of healing or forgiveness. ...Bethlehem moments can happen anywhere." I would second both of these assertions.
First, I believe the desire for a Bethlehem moment is an expression of a desire for God that is a basic part of how we are put together. God created us and our need is to be in relationships with our Creator. The Advent season and at its culmination, Christmas Eve, is a time when the pull of that desire is particularly strong for many and when the space between us and God seems to lessen as lights are dimmed, candles are lit and Silent Night is sung. Second, the joy is discovering that these moments aren't confined to Bethlehem, or December 24, or even to a liturgical season.
Advent, though, often is a place where we are more receptive to the presence of God. Arriving in the Holy Land, our first destination has often been a hotel along the Sea of Galilee. Not a location strongly tied to the Christmas story, but for me a place that offers the strong possibility of "an affirmation of God's presence, a glimpse of lasting joy."
Generally speaking I like to stay up late and get up early. I am not a fan of sleep. Over the years I've become more aware of it's necessity, but it would be hard for me to choose a preference between the stillness of the evening before going to sleep and the welcome of the quiet of the morning before the sun has risen. When in Tiberias, one of the activities I enjoy most is getting up ahead of any scheduled activities with our tour groups and walking down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the darkness and watching the sun rise.
The Sea of Galilee is different than any other place I have visited. It's beautiful, but it's beauty is constantly changing. The water changes color when you look away. It matters where the sun is or even if there is sun. It matters if the wind is blowing or not. It's those things and it's things I can't describe. Standing in the darkness and watching shapes begin to emerge, and then details added to those shapes, and before long fishing boats going about their work - it requires no imagination to be transported from today to Galilean mornings in the days of the Bible.
What was it like to live and to work around this place. There was a time when Jesus had not yet been born. When he had not yet moved his working headquarters to Capernaum on the shores of this lake. When fishermen whose lives were oriented around this lake had not yet heard the words "Follow me" and found themselves doing just that. There was a time when the baby had not yet been born in Bethlehem and that new day had not yet dawned for them.
Advent reminds us of those days for those fisherman and reminds us of the days we find ourselves living in as we make our way towards Christmas. What new day is waiting to dawn this Advent? What new possibilities are just around the corner and ready to be born into our lives. Keep asking that question. If this moment is darkness, know that the sun is rising and that Bethlehem moments can happen anywhere.
Stir in my heart a great expectation for the new day that is dawning. Amen.
Advent Week One - Tuesday
Beit Shean is a very old place. It is located in the Galilee region of northern Israel, about seventeen miles south of the Sea of Galilee and three miles east of the Jordan River. It is one of the ten cities of the Decapolis, mentioned several times in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Beit Shean was a thriving Roman city in New Testament times, at which point it had already been around for several thousand years. Now it is a city and more specifically a city within which there is an National Park, an archaeological site which allows for the visitor to visualize the Roman city in it's grandeur. There are columns lining the main street, an amphitheater , the sites of shops and public baths.
It's important to our Advent journey because it is gives us a strong visual awareness of the Roman presence and influence in the world into which Jesus would be born. In the same way that the city of Jerusalem is, practically speaking, a character in the story of Holy Week, the Roman Empire is a character in the story of the New Testament. Pharisees and Saducees are not simply foils for Jesus, they are religious leaders trying to figure out how to follow their faith traditions, how to live within the strictures of Rome, and how to meet both of these goals in a complicated world where their primary concerns are back burner concerns to Roman leadership far away and their lieutenants nearby.
We tell the story of the nativity with shepherds and angels and wise men gathering at a stable with a star lighting up the sky, but with only a few people seeming to take notice. It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking of it as a simpler time, when God slipped into our world in a stable and wound up living in a small village where nothing much happened and people were unburdened with the kinds of cares we experience in our present day.
Beit Shean tells a different story. It is representative of a number of Roman cities which indicate a cosmopolitan presence throughout the land of the Bible. While there were certainly places that may have been more rural it is unlikely that many were unaware of the larger political forces at work. The reach of Rome and its appointed leadership was all around the land in which Jesus would grow up. It is into this world that the Messiah is born and by this world that the expectations of his people for who Messiah would be and what Messiah would accomplish would be shaped.
When we read about your light coming into our shadows, help us to listen for the ways the people who would be Jesus' family and friends, allies and antagonists are shaped by the light and darkness of their world. Guide us as we consider the way you come into our light and shadow today.
Advent Week One - Wednesday
We are still in the setting the stage portion of our Advent journey, a long way from where we are going to wind up.
Soon we'll be exploring angelic visitations, miraculous stars, long distance travel to fulfill civic obligations and so much more, but for today let's think about interstate highways. Interstate highways are of course, how much of America gets from one place to another. Many of those vehicles are cars and vans filled with individuals and families aiming to take the quickest possible route from one point to another and, if you are like me when I was ten, hoping to hit a Stuckey's or two along the way. (My ultimate goal was, of course, a pecan log, but you can't get the pecan log if you can't get your parents to stop, so getting them to pull off was always job one.) What I want you to think about today is who the cars and vans are sharing the interstate with - the trucks. The eighteen wheelers, climbing slowly up this hill so as to come flying down the other side. Moving the nations goods from point A to point B.
We are clearly not in familiar Advent territory, but stay with me. Having pointed to the ever present Roman culture that was a part of the landscape in Judea and the Galilee yesterday, let's give a bit more thought to the kinds of people one might run into in the area that Mary and Joseph call home and which one day would become the headquarters of Jesus' ministry.
The biblical story tends to focus itself around the Sea of Galilee - a little bit country - and Jerusalem, a little bit rock and roll, or, big city.
In that scenario, Mary and Joseph are a couple of folks who may have lived a pretty secluded life with not much contact from the outside world. We began to chip at that a bit bringing in the reality that there were cities in amongst these villages, perhaps not the size of Jerusalem, but with culture and accessories beyond what would find in a small village. Now add to that the interstates.
One of the things that makes the Holy Land so desirable as property, and consequently so frequently fought over in history, is it's a great way to get from here to there. Here perhaps being Syria and there maybe being Egypt. Egypt since the beginning for the Hebrew people was the dominant power to the south. The powers to the north have changed but there has always been at least one. Israel/Palestine is the best way to move from north to south, from Europe/Asia to Africa. On our first trip we were at a lecture and the speaker asked if we knew what continent we were on. I did not until the next moment know that I was in Asia.
There were several trade routes, perhaps the most prominent being the Via Maris, or Way of the Sea a north/south highway that traveled along the coast but eventually had a branch that moved inland and brushed the coast of the Sea of Galilee on its way towards Damascus. The effect of the Via Maris and several other trade routes practically speaking for the people of the Galilee, for Mary and Joseph and their family in particular, would have been a steady stream of folks from the larger world passing through on business of one sort or another on their way to places far away.
Jesus may have been born in a smaller town, Bethlehem, to parents from a small town, Nazareth, but the larger world was always at least passing by, connected. From the waters of the Sea of Galilee you can look and see Mt. Arbel where the Via Maris continues on towards the Jezreel Valley (seen in the picture below from the ruins of Megiddo).
As we continue our own Advent journey this day consider how you are connected to the larger world beyond your own immediate circle. Reflect on both where you are from and the people from places near and far who you have encountered on the interstates that run through your life and have impacted the person you are today. Who has God placed in your path for whom you give thanks. Let us thank God for the highway that connects us across time to the destination of our Advent journey.
We are connected in many ways to people near and far. Keep pushing us to consider who our neighbors are, to be thankful for the impact of the people who touch us for good and to aim to be blessings to those we meet along the way. Amen.
Advent Week One - Thursday
Advent is forward looking. It finds its meaning in words like hope and expectation and waiting. It is not essentially waiting for the celebration of the historic event of the birth of Christ, but looking ahead to Christ's return. As Fleming Rutledge puts it, "Advent is not really the season of preparing for Jesus's birth as though he had never come in the first place. Advent is the season of preparation for his second coming."
So we look forward, but as we return to Advent and Christmas year after year we discover it is impossible to look forward without also looking back. As we grow older we develop rituals even in the task of getting ready for something that hasn't happened yet. We are marching to Zion, yes, but Advent brings us by some familiar stops on the way.
Walking into the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth I was reminded that the vocabulary and the symbols of faith go back a very long way. The present church was completed in 1769. It is said to have been built on the location of what was once a church built in the time of the Crusades and before that was a church from the Byzantine era. The Byzantine era was a long time ago. To me 1769 was a long time ago. But the flames at the ends of the candles in the church bring light in the darkness right now just as they have throughout history. John's gospel to my understanding tells a version of the Christmas story that includes these words, "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't extinguish the light." (1:5)
I remember lighting this candle. I made a donation and I lit the candle and said a prayer for the folks of Hebron Presbyterian Church. The candle was lit in February of 2016, so that light did not burn during the Advent season. Still, I think a candle lit in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth must somehow qualify as an Advent candle whenever it was lit. That's the light that we are both remembering and journeying towards. It commemorates the announcement that there would eventually be a holy birth to celebrate and points to the return for which we wait. Enjoy and celebrate your traditions this holiday season even as we make our way towards the ever beckoning light.
Light of the World, shine in our darkness, illuminate our present, call us forward towards your future. Amen.
Advent Week One - Friday
The thing about the Sea of Galilee is that when you look at it, you are looking at the Sea of Galilee. You may not be standing exactly where Jesus stood, but you are generally speaking looking at the same bit of watery real estate that Jesus or his followers would have been looking at on any given day. I mention that because there are a lot of places, particularly churches, that are purported to be built on the site of this or that historical event portrayed in scripture. It is of course impossible to know if this is the precise location of the feeding of the five thousand or that is the without a doubt spot from which Jesus ascended following his resurrection.
At the same time...things may not be as entirely haphazard as simply picking out a spot and saying something happened in that location. Let us return our thoughts to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The current church was built on this spot in 1769. The church is built above a spring purported to be the water source of a well at which Mary encountered the angel Gabriel who told her about the child to which she would give birth. (The picture below is inside the church where you can look down and see where the spring is beneath the church.) What well, you might ask. Scripture doesn't mention a well. However, a second century text does tell the story with a mention of a well. Somewhere along the way a well became a part of the setting of the story.
So did they pick out a well in 1769 and decide to build there because that seemed to check off the water box? Not exactly. As mentioned yesterday, the 1769 church was built on the site of a Crusader church and the Crusader church was built on the spot of a Byzantine church. The Byzantine church is believed to have been built sometime in the third century and is thought to have been built over, yes, the spring that is the source for the well that is thought to be the place where the annunciation occurred. Did anything actually happen in that location? It still is impossible to know, but the third century puts us a lot closer to the time of the historical events than 1769. This pattern repeats in many of the other holy sites, a more recent church, built over an earlier church, sometimes built over an earlier church.
Some of those early churches are early enough that it's conceivable to imagine a local tradition that this or that important biblical event occurred on that spot.
What I've come to feel is that whether or not an event actually occurred on a particular spot, the existence of a place so designated provides a place to remember an event from scripture somewhere in the vicinity of where it may have occurred. Beyond that the weight of veneration in a place that pilgrims have visited for more than a thousand years is palpable. A place may be holy because something occurred there, but I believe it can also be holy when the hopes and fears of all the years have been visited upon a place by centuries upon centuries of the faithful.
And a spring is a spring. A water source is a water source. So if Mary encountered an angel on that precise geographical location is entirely conjecture, but if that is a water source that served what was then the village of Nazareth, a town at that time of maybe two hundred people, it begins to take not much imagination at all to think of a young Mary going to the well nearby to draw water.
Loving God, provider of the water of life that never gives out, thank you for coming to us in a real place at a real point in time. As I go to a faucet for a cup of cold water today, slow me down for a moment that I might imagine the young Mary going to draw water from a well in Nazareth and the miraculous history that may have begun there. Amen.
Advent Week One - Saturday
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation is also known as the Church of St. Gabriel. Gabriel, of course is the angel whose appearance to Mary is chronicled in Luke's gospel.
"When the angel came to her, he said, 'Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!' She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, 'Don't be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.'" (Luke 1:28-21)
One consistent characteristic of Greek Orthodox churches is that there is art everywhere. Everywhere you look there is a picture telling a part of the story of God. I have had the opportunity to visit an Orthodox Church in Louisville with a friend named Nathan multiple times during Holy Week. While I always appreciated the beauty of the Orthodox churches of Israel I saw them with new eyes after worshipping with Nathan. Before one of the services began he pointed out to me art in various parts of the sanctuary explaining to me the people portrayed in various portraits and scenes and their importance. The sanctuary is a place where worship takes place and also a rich educational tool. All of it has meaning. All of it is available to deepen the experience of worship and provide another path into understanding the story of faith.
The angel tells Mary to rejoice. Mary is unsure what to make of the angel's greeting. The news of what will happen is shared and Mary begins to unpack God's message in a scene she must have replayed again and again throughout her life. We can use our imagination to picture what the scene might have looked like, what was going on in Mary's mind and in her heart. Art can help us with our reflection as we explore different interpretations and different viewpoints on the event.
The Advent/Christmas story is full of iconic scenes that are instantly recognizable to us even in their diversity of expression. An angel speaking to a young woman. A young couple and a donkey on a journey. Three kings with gifts in hand. Shepherds mesmerized by a sky filled with angels.
A star shining over a stable. It is a story filled with powerful, moving images and we will see a variety of them over the next several weeks.
There are four paintings of the Annunciation in the pictures that accompany today's devotional. Notice similarities in the picture and differences. Remember that yesterday we focused on the spring in Nazareth and the well through which it was accessed. You'll see that two of these paintings have a stream between Gabriel and Mary. In two of the paintings she has a jug she might be using for water. We might see this as a possible representation of a historical detail from the traditional story. We might see it and reflect on the story in John's gospel where Jesus speaks of living water that will always satisfy. Art invites us to make connections in this way.
As you encounter the familiar scenes of the season - Christmas decorations in your home, to displays in yards, secular and religious - take time to look closely and consider how they add to your understanding of the story.
Thank you for art and for artists. Through their gifts they give us fresh insights into your story and into who you are. Grant us eyes to see and hearts that are open to the truths we can experience through such gifts. Amen.
Advent Week Two - Sunday
When I think of my parents, or really any adults I knew when I was a child, I picture them as adults. It is always a combination of jarring and fascinating to see pictures of my parents when they were younger. I have a letter my grandmother wrote to her parents when my father, who was born in 1920, was about 3 years old. She describes him as though he is a three year-old child surprisingly enough, not at all like the father I remember.
I was, in rather the same manner, surprised the first time I walked into the Church of St. Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem. Just inside and to the left was this statue. My first thought was that it was Mary with a child I did not know. I was wrong. It is Anne, Mary's mother, with a young Mary. It turned out that extra-biblical tradition identifies Mary's parents as Anne and Joachim. The Church of St. Anne is a structure, this may sound familiar, built in the times of the Crusades over a structure built in the Byzantine era. Local tradition identifies it as the location of the home that Mary lived in as a child. I am not here to further the historicity of that tradition, you are invited to research that on your own and come to your own conclusions - it can make for a fascinating rabbit hole when one takes into account that the remains of the pool of Bethesda were excavated next to this church.
What is my interest this morning was the truth the statue brought home - Mary was a child with parents of her own. She was not the mother of Jesus with no history who jumped into the story of the Incarnation of God, fully formed and prepared for her role. Seeing Mary as daughter rather than mother expands the way I think about Mary and about the complex web of family relationships that were a part of the life she had to navigate following the reception of the message from the angel Gabriel. We often think of how difficult it must have been to work through this "good news" with Joseph. What was it like to talk about it with her parents?
How did living out God's plan for her life impact the life she'd always had and change the life into which she would move forward?
We are all a part of stories larger than our own. God's story, yes, but also the stories or our parents, in my case birth parents and adoptive parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends...so many folks who shape us and who themselves have been nurtured and shaped by others. Today, consider Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anne, who would one day go on to do stunning, world-changing things. In our Advent waiting we all come from somewhere and we are all headed towards a future that is beyond our imagination.
I am grateful this day for all the people who shaped the people who shaped me. Amen.
Advent Week Two - Monday
It's guesswork, but the estimates for the population of Nazareth at the time of Jesus are typically in the range of about two hundred people. That's a small village. The population of Nazareth today is in the neighborhood of eighty thousand people. That's a fair sized city. Because the holy sites we stop at in Nazareth (the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation and the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation) are not far from each other and because navigating a bus full of tourists more than necessary is to be avoided if possible, we have always walked from one church to the other and then eventually to a pick up point to meet our bus.
The thing about this walk that I enjoy is that it is not a tidy, secluded walk. It's a walk that includes some alleyways, side streets and passages through store lined streets where people are going about their everyday business. It always seems a good lesson to me about the Incarnation. God didn't send Jesus to grow up in a church; God's son grew up amongst people in a working village.
I dearly love visiting the holy places and the places that are tributes and memorials to holy events, but I just as much love walking around in the hustle and bustle of real everyday life in the land where the stories of the Bible happened. If the stories happened today they would happen out in the mix of people going about their lives. The world is the place God came to in order to live among us - all of it. God continues to be present in all of it. Church is a wonderful place for us to gather and worship God, but God is not holed up in church waiting for us to visit.
Walking between the two churches could be walking in any urban area of moderate size. Walking around with our name tags and clearly clumping together to avoid losing anyone we are clearly tourists - not from around here. For the most part we are another group of people trying to get from one place to another. For some sharp eyed folks whose job it is to recognize us we are potential purchasers of postcards and a variety of other small items made available by street vendors. The occasional shop owner will make a half-hearted attempt to coax us into their place of business, knowing that our guides have coached us to stay together and not risk getting separated from the group and lost.
It's in those walks that it's easiest to remember that we are not in a giant museum, but in living land where people are going about their lives. It's a good Advent lesson. We people of faith are not honoring stories of a time gone by when God was with us and are not charged with trying to keep the memory of a distant time alive. We are living in a time when that same God is still active in our world, not a memory but a present reality calling us into the future. Our charge is to watch, listen, discern and aim to follow where our living God leads.
God who came to us and will come to us again, we give thanks that you came to us, that you are present with us, and we await Christ's return with great hope and anticipation. Amen.
Advent Week Two - Tuesday
The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is built over the top of what tradition says is the site of the cave/home of Mary. You will not be surprised to learn that there was a Byzantine church on this site, a Crusader era church, and more. The difference at this point is dramatic. This church does indeed sit over the top of caves from a village long ago, but the current structure is easily the most modern church in appearance of any I visited while in the Holy Land. There is a reason for this. In 1954 the previous church on this location was demolished and a brand new church was built and completed in 1969.
It inspires mixed feelings in me. First, it is a stunning church. Majestic. When you see Nazareth from a distance, the massive church is easy to spot. It is a work of art. So why the mixed feelings? As beautiful and impressive as it is it is, the newness of the structure denies it a key characteristic of the other major churches of the Holy Land. The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem lack the visual appeal of the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation. For that matter the contrast between the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation and its Roman Catholic counterpart share the same dynamic of clearly older structure versus breathtaking new building.
It is an interesting change of pace, but I hope whatever allowed for a decision to clear the old away to make new for the new structure is not a process that is followed with any of the other older churches we visited. There are some lovely newer buildings at some of the traditional sites of other events from scripture, but nothing that comes close to approaching the scale of the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Even this contrast between old and new, between keeping something from the past and doing something new and big and bold is instructive for us on our Advent journey. I read that there are close to twenty churches in Nazareth that go by the name of Church of the Annunciation. That makes sense. I have much appreciation for the two I've visited.
The one for it's intimate feel, it's sense of stability as it's aged appearance gives the impression it has seen a lot and that it isn't going anywhere. I want an Advent faith that is built for this season of waiting. One that has weathered the past and can stand what is yet to come. The newer building is inspiring in its size and strength, the daring vision of it's architecture. I want an Advent faith that is not so tied to simply what has gone before and weathering the present that it fails to look boldly and courageously towards the future that is ever unfolding as we wait for the return of our Lord.
In Nazareth it is not necessary to choose. Wisdom and stability stands within walking distance of an ambitious, breathtaking vision today and tomorrow.
Holy God, you make yourself known to us in many ways. You may speak to us in quiet moments of great intimacy and you may speak to us in grand visions that challenge and inspire. Wherever we may helps us to be looking for you and seeking to learn from you. Amen.
Advent Week Two - Wednesday
The dominant feature of the Basilica of the Annunciation as viewed from the outside is the large, distinctive dome. The church is so much bigger than everything around it and the dome is large enough to suit the church. On the ground level floor of the church there is a huge circular opening beneath the dome so that the dome is visible from the lower level. One could stand on that lower level and look one direction and see the immense dome looming high above. Then one could lower ones gaze to eye level and look to the side and see the cave that tradition identifies as the cave/home where Mary lived. It is not the only cave in the area that served as a home. There is an excavation area just outside of the the church where remains of other caves are visible.
It is another interesting contrast. The dome drawing our gaze skyward, pointing beyond itself towards the heavens, towards God. The cave, very simply a dwelling carved out of rock where a family lived in a small village. It would be interesting if we could take this structure back in time and drop it down into the ancient biblical village. What would they make of such an immense structure in their humble town? And yet, it is precisely because of the presence of that humble village and in particular, one young woman, visited by an angel, that this grand church is here.
You may remember the passage from John's gospel where Philip has been called by Jesus to follow him and is so excited he runs to tell Nathaniel, who responds, "Can anything from Nazareth be good?" (1:46). Let's just say that in the surrounding area the people of Jesus' era were not anticipating that the place everyone would want to remember from that time period was Nazareth.
Looking at your life can you look back and identify times that you understood to be important only in retrospect? We often don't put up the giant domes over the great moments of our history as they happen. Very often the present moment feels more like a small home in an unassuming village.
During Advent, our season of waiting, perhaps we can use some of that waiting time to bring our focus into the present. We are waiting for our Lord, yes, but the place of waiting is also a place for action in the here and now. Mary was surely not anticipating a visit from an angel and a promise that would change all of history for everyone when she woke up on that particular morning in Nazareth. But she was visited and the world was changed. We do not know what days will be the important ones - each morning presents an opportunity to live as though the day that may make all the difference is this one.
Today is filled with possibilities. Help me to listen for you, O God, to watch and to attune my heart to your call. Amen.
Advent Week Two - Thursday
Appropriately, Mary is everywhere at the Basilica of the Annunciation. It would be easy to spend hours there simply considering the many portraits/mosaics of Mary. Countries around the world were invited to contribute a work of art representing Mary and in some way conveying something about the country of the artworks origin. It makes for an inspiring mix of perspectives.
Some of the artwork is very traditional, others more abstract and challenging. In some instances the country, or at least the region, that a Mary portrait comes from is evident, in others less so. What is uniform is the care that went into each countries depiction of Mary. Again, thinking back to the location in time, the place and the station in life of Mary herself, it would have been next to impossible that this young woman from a small village in the Galilean countryside would have been the subject two thousand years later of the work of so many inspired and gifted artists.
There are more than forty of the portraits. I have included a few of my own pictures below and will include a link to more if you are interested in having a look at the webpage, National Mosaics in the Basilica of Annunciation. I will hold my picture of and thoughts on the Mary from the United States until tomorrow.
The beauty of the whole project is the diversity of emphasis and perceptions the artists bring to their interpretations. Remembering that this is a Roman Catholic Church; it is a reminder that Mary plays a different role in Catholic theology and Protestant theology.
While I am out of a Protestant tradition one of the learnings from visiting the many different places of worship in the Holy Land is the awareness that as a Christian from a Protestant tradition there is a lot for me to learn from the other great traditions within the Christian faith. Art and incense, iconography and architecture, all are influenced, yes by the location and the subject matter of the story that tradition says may have occurred in a place, but also by the way each faith traditions expresses and communicates its beliefs.
Mary catches peoples imagination. Mary’s humanity invite us to think about her choices and the role she plays in the story of God. The portraits suggest so many parts of Mary’s personality. Maternal care. The strength of her faith. Humility. Courage. So much more. Mary is a human entryway into the story of Advent. Plucked out of the path that she anticipated her life would go and forever changed by God’s call and her willingness to follow.
What path do you imagine you are on right now? How set in place is it? What might God be saying to you, calling to you to consider this Advent season? What change or disruption in the path that you believed you were on might that call bring? Have you ever walked away from an opportunity because it seemed too far-fetched to be possible? Mary did not walk away. Her faith inspires us to listen closely for God and to consider the possibilities before us.
I ask this day for a faith that is strong like the faith of Mary and for a trust in you that is, like hers, true and complete. Amen.
Advent Week Two - Friday
My first real taste of international travel was our first trip to the Holy Land. Since then I've been blest to return to Israel and have visited a couple other countries as well. As a citizen of the United States traveling in foreign countries my experience of people in the places I have encountered has been almost universally one of welcome. I don't recall being actively homesick, the trips were never that long and were so filled with enjoyable, engaging activity that it was typically a bit sad for a journey to come to an end. There were many times when the place I was visiting didn't feel much different than the feeling I might have leaving Kentucky and visiting another state some distance away, but there were times when for a moment I was acutely aware that I was indeed a visitor in a land that was not my home.
When our group entered the grounds of the Basilica of the Annunciation one of the features of the church that was explained to us by our guide was the many murals of Mary that we would find around the church. Different countries had been invited to create works of art presenting Mary in a way that spoke to the specificity of the country from which the artwork originated. I had two initial reactions. First, what a perfect idea. Through Mary we experience the incarnation of God in the infant Jesus. What a fitting project then, imagining Mary in a way that takes seriously the way our location influences the way we picture her. Our experience of the incarnation shaped by the place which we primarily live out our days. My second reaction was a product of the first: I immediately assumed there was one and wanted to see the art contributed by the United States.
I was not disappointed. The US contribution is a depiction of Mary that seemed to me to perfectly meet the purpose of the art - to portray Mary and to do so in a way that told something of the story of the country of the artist. This Mary has a youthful energy. Mary was indeed young and had the promise of life before her when we first encounter her in scripture. One of the things I noticed quickly when traveling abroad was how old many of the places we visited were and, by contrast, how young the United States was comparatively as a nation on the world stage.
The artist, American Charles L. Madden, is said to have been inspired by a passage from Revelation of "a woman clothed with the sun." His depiction of Mary is also influenced by a line from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:
"The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil."
It is interesting also that Madden's work features only Mary. Not Mary and the angel Gabriel, not Mary and child, but Mary, dynamic and powerful as a solitary figure.
Advent can be understood as a time of sojourn in a land that is not our ultimate home. We are waiting for what God will do next. The story of incarnation and the reminder that God is with us now, where we are, points to the truth of the immense value not only of the future towards which we travel, but of this present moment as well. Because God came to us in Christ, because God carries out God's plans through people like Mary, we can consider how God comes to us in our very particular place and circumstance and how God can choose to carry out God's purposes through people like you and me.
Open our eyes to the way the world is charged with your grandeur, Holy God. Amen.
Advent Week Two - Saturday
"Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry."
There is so much good bread in the Holy Land.
Our tour group would generally eat a buffet style meal for breakfast and for dinner at our hotel. Two things I was always looking for were the hummus and the bread. I don't know that I had ever considered how many shapes and textures bread could take. And as each kind was delicious, it was entirely possible to have a meal that never really got to the entrees, which might have been not nearly as interesting as the bread.
In the Galilee, the bread was always accompanied by a wide variety of fruit jellies produced using fruits grown in the land. Breakfast on the days in that region was pretty much a few versions of bread alongside of a tasting session of delightful jelly. Bread is a common thread throughout the land of the Bible, but the Galilee is particularly known for its amazing citrus.
In Jerusalem, you could always count on street vendors selling Jerusalem bagels, long thin loops of bread served up in newspaper. One of my favorite places in the Old City was a bakery just around the corner from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I loved to walk to the church for morning prayer before sunrise and then on the way back stop at the bakery for a cinnamon roll along with a Turkish coffee from a cart in a nearby corner. The picture of that bakery is one of my two favorite pictures from my trips to Israel. It's a very mundane moment, some folks in conversation as they order their baked goods, but it never fails to transport me to the Old City.
I mentioned hummus earlier and would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the pita bread of the Holy Land. Hummus and pita is forever present and I can't recall it not being good. There are places in Louisville that have good hummus and pita - my favorite is Mirage Mediterranean on Preston Highway with the Falafel House on Bardstown Rd. close behind.
Bread is a great help in considering incarnation. The Bible is filled with miraculous bread, from the manna of the Old Testament to the feeding miracles of the Gospels, to Jesus himself - the Bread of Life. Jesus of course instructed us to take bread and cup and remember him in the meal we've come to know as the Lord's Supper. Each of our trips has reached its conclusion with a worship service at the Garden Tomb, including communion. It's a beautiful place to be reminded of God's provision for us and of the way we've been fed physically and spiritually during our pilgrimage.
Bread is sustenance. It is basic. Like water, we might simply take it for granted. Advent is both the time of waiting for the celebration of the coming of the Bread of Life and a journey towards Christ's return, during which we will lean heavily on the bread that God provides. Be thankful this day for the gifts we take for granted, without which life would be something else entirely. Be thankful for bread.
Bread of Life, we are grateful for the way that you provide for us. Amen.
Advent Week Three - Sunday
The itinerary for our time in the Holy Land is usually around nine days of touring between getting off the plane and and boarding for the return trip to home. Most recently the trips have begun with three or four days based in the Galilee area and touring points in the northern portion of the country, followed by four or five days in Jerusalem and the southern portion of the country.
Our Advent journey is mostly focused on Nazareth and Bethlehem. Today is that middle travel day for us. On our actual tour its the day you see Megiddo and the Mediterranean Sea and ancient port at Caesarea Maritima. For our tour its the day we'll think about the time we spend getting from point A to point B in life. Every day does not have the feeling of a destination in life, sometimes we are in transition.
We remember Mary and Joseph, who traveled to Joseph's family home of Bethlehem in Judea. We can guess that the journey must have been a hard one for Mary. I imagine it might also have been a time when Mary and Joseph had plenty of time to talk, combined with a fair amount of time of simply being together in silence considering not only the purpose of their journey, but the event that was likely to occur while they were in Nazareth.
Traveling on the bus was often as interesting as times spent at one of the sites we visited. Sometimes the roads were open and the views went on forever. Sometimes you might see a shepherd guiding sheep. Sometimes you might look out the front window of the bus and wonder how the driver was ever going to get a bus to where it appeared we were going - and they always did (many times to spots to which I wouldn’t have wanted to try and navigate my Prius - the bus drivers were literal magicians).
I was fascinated by the combination of the familiar with the unfamiliar. Signs and billboards, some in Hebrew, some in Arabic, many in English. Advertisements for the occasional easily recognized international brand - Coca Cola - and for products and services and politicians particular to where we were. It was always exhilarating to see the name of a location from scripture on a sign along the Holy Land version of the interstate. As pastor at Hebron Presbyterian Church I was always excited to see signs referencing Hebron.
The day of our trip to Bethlehem was likely the day with our most obvious interaction with tragic ongoing tension between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Throughout our entire trip, as American tourists, we experienced welcome wherever we went and I have always felt as safe as I would in any place with which I was unfamiliar. However there were regular visual reminders of the ongoing brokenness of relationships between people. To travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem one must pass through a check point. Again, being tourists, our passage was rarely if ever a problem. The story can be much different for residents. The wait can be long, for instance, for Palestinians simply to travel to jobs in Jerusalem. One wonders what complications Mary and Joseph may have encountered on their trip. Our modes of transportation have advanced quite a lot from those days, but our capacity to construct barriers remains strong.
Take a moment on this transition day in our journey to consider if there are transitions happening in your life this Advent season. Is your travel from where you were to where you are going a time of challenge? Joy? Both? What are the barriers you encounter along the way and how have they impacted the journey? How are you utilizing the journey to spend time in conversation with God?
Our lives point to destinations, but are largely lived on the road between one place and the next. Be our constant companion, strengthen us, challenge us and lift our spirits as we travel. Amen.
Advent Week Three - Monday
I got an email from YouTube this week. It was congratulating me on creating 2125 minutes worth of YouTube content this year. Back on January 1, 2020 the number of YouTube minutes I planned to create this year was zero. My vision for creation of virtual worship did not exist. Lots of pastors received some version of that email this week I would guess and the vast majority of them, like me, didn't see anything like that coming twelve full months ago when we set foot into what was then the New Year.
In Bethlehem we always visit the Nissan Brother's Bethlehem New Store. There is much to love at the Bethlehem New Store, in particular their wonderful olive wood carvings. On our most recent trip our group was able to visit the place where those carvings happen, which is on the floor beneath the store's showroom. In this space we saw crafts people working with various kinds of machines and tools to create the beautiful finished products on display in the store.
I will never see a stunning olive wood nativity scene again without also picturing the large pile of sawdust and the stack of wood waiting to be worked. Everything begins somewhere. Journeys begin, they happen, and one day they arrive at some sort of destination.
As 2020 has demonstrated in so many ways, most recently for me in that statistic about video produced, the journey can arrive at destinations we do not see coming. We often talk about that kind of occurrence as a detour. Perhaps some are detours, but perhaps some of them are simply God's chosen destination that we did not see coming.
I did believe that I would do what was necessary to live out my call and pastor the church I serve this year, I just didn't know video production would be such a large piece of what that looked like.
As we travel on our Advent journey this year, remain open to where you may go. One day you may feel like another piece of olive wood on a stack of olive wood with nothing particularly special about you. Our God is in the process though of crafting and shaping something amazing out of your life. The result may be one of great beauty. It may be something that you totally did not see coming that occupies your gifts and your energy. There is a lot of journey that becomes the destination at which we arrive. Trust that God will be working with us on the journey and prepare to be surprised by what God has accomplished at the destination.
I ask for encouragement and fortitude for the days when I lack a sense of purpose and direction and a willingness to trust that in all things you are at work. Amen.
Advent Week Three - Tuesday
After showing you a bit of the creative process going on downstairs, I wanted to share a few examples of what you would find upstairs at the Nissan Brothers store. It's a wonderful store that is owned and operated by a Palestinian Christian family in Bethlehem.
To experience a visit to the Bethlehem New Store is to experience the kind of hospitality that this region of the world is known for. Before you get off the bus a representative of the store gets on and issues a welcome. When you enter the store there is a refreshing drink waiting for you and additional greetings. The employees, many of them members of the family, mix in among the shoppers and are available to answer questions and also to extol the virtues of anything in which you may be interested. Yes, they would love for you to buy some of their wares, but there is an underlying genuine care for their guests and a hope that each pilgrim is having a good experience, not only in their visit to the store, but generally in their pilgrimage.
It was explained to us at some point that the carvings are divided up in terms of detail. All of the work is high quality. Some simply takes longer as the artist works longer on the details of the work, the clothing, the faces, etc. Also there is a difference between pieces where all of the figures are fixed (glued) to the stable for instance in a nativity scene and ones where the figures are free standing. In the middle of the store are huge show pieces that can be priced into the thousands of dollars. Of course, there are many beautiful, smaller works of art in olive wood and other mediums, that are within the budget of most travelers.
The nativities are done in a variety of styles. In our first visit back in the year 2000 we purchased a traditional nativity set with a stable. It is wonderful, but over the years I've come to love the versions that are set in what appears to be more of a cave than a stable. Not to venture too far off into the speculative weeds, but it seems possible that the story took place in the guest room of a home that likely could have been a cave as opposed to a free standing stable.
Enjoy having a look at the work of these master crafts folk and consider again the work that God is doing in shaping you for love, compassion and service.
I am appreciative today of those whose artistry gives me another window into knowing and appreciating the story of Advent and Christmas. Amen.
Advent Week Three - Wednesday
Beit-Sahur is a small community on the edge of Bethlehem. As always the site we are visiting today is a traditional site, none of the eye witnesses are here to guide us. This is another example of a traditional site with a very long tradition. This area is home to the Shepherd's Field. It is here that pilgrims come to remember the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night and who received a visit from angels, encouraging them to go to nearby Bethlehem and see the event that had taken place.
The Shepherds Field has been the location of Christian worship going back as far as the third century. More importantly perhaps in terms of authenticity there is evidence that this is a place where shepherds tended to sheep. Like the Sea of Galilee there are places within the confines of the Shepherd's Field where one can look and see a relatively clear expanse of the Judaean countryside, preparing to blend into and become the Judaean wilderness. It is easy to imagine shepherds keeping watch over flocks under a broad expanse of evening sky. It is a grand place to contemplate what the completely unlikely surprise of angels' songs might have meant to a group of shepherds going about their job. One enters from the road under an attraction-like sign arching over the entryway that reads "Gloria In Excelsis Deo", but then you walk maybe a hundred yards along a path lined with flowers towards a chapel and to a group of ancient caves beyond and the power of holy imagination takes over.
The site is also identified as being the area that would have been the setting for the Book of Ruth, these fields also being known as the Fields of Boaz. It is Ruth, the Moabite, and Boaz who become the parents of Obed, who becomes the father of Jesse, who is the father of a number of children, one of them, David, the great King of Israel. David, who before he was king, was also a shepherd in Bethlehem some thousand years before the time of Christ. It's because of his place in the lineage of David, the shepherd who became king, that Joseph had come to Bethlehem to be registered. What began with Ruth and Boaz results in the good news of God's incarnation being announced first to shepherds. All of it on the stage of this few miles of the world's stage.
Give thanks today for those who came before you and set the stage for your life. We are never on this journey alone. We are never on this journey with only the people we can look around and see. The actions and choices of folks, even in the distant past may play a role in the miracle we experience today.
Holy God, Lord of humble places, we are reminded that in your presence we are all humbled. Help me with humility to be thankful for those who have gone before me, those whose choices and actions have shaped my today. Grant me wisdom in my choices and actions today not only for myself, but for the tomorrow I am shaping for others who will follow in the future. Amen.
Advent Week Three - Thursday
Antonio Barluzzi was an Italian architect who created a stunning legacy in the Holy Land. Barluzzi who lived between 1884 and 1960 created or redesigned more than twenty churches, schools and even a hospital, gaining the title, "Architect of the Holy Land." Unlike the very modern look of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Barluzzi's churches tend to have a more timeless feel. Barluzzi created both large and small pilgrimage churches including the imposing Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemani and the Dominus Flevit chapel on the Mount Of Olives, where Jesus cried over Jerusalem (the Dominus Flevit features an iconic view of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock).
Barluzzi is responsible for the chapel at the Shepherd's Field. It features a small dome with the words of the angels to the shepherds around the perimeter of the dome. There are wonderful paintings of the events of the nativity on the walls of the chapel - more on these paintings tomorrow. The chapel itself is meant to suggest a tent, perhaps the living arrangements employed by the shepherds of Jesus' day.
Barluzzi's work at the Shepherd's Field and throughout the Holy Land helps to shape the experience of many pilgrims each year. I literally can't hear the story of the shepherds' divine visitation without recalling the experience of standing inside the chapel and singing "The First Noel." The architect's work facilitates the worship of God and the experience of the story of God in our midst.
What are we building this Advent season? What are we creating that facilitates the worship of God? How does the life we are living point or invite people to experience the story of God as we approach the celebration of Christmas? Our choices and actions today build our own legacies that others will live with in the future. How will those legacies be experienced? As I think of Barluzzi's work, I am hopeful that something of what we are building, both as individuals and together in our communities of faith, will be experienced in ways that create the possibility of meaningful worship and impactful lives for those who will follow us.
Divine Architect, we wonder at your creation. Inspire us this Advent season to consider what sort of future we are building with our choices and actions today. Amen.
Advent Week Three - Friday
"Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord's angel stood before them, the Lord's glory shone around them, and they were terrified."
The Shepherd's Field has several outdoor and indoor locations where groups can gather to read the story of the angels visit to the shepherds found in Luke 2. On our most recent trip we sat outside with the Judaean countryside stretching out before us, a canvas where our imaginations could paint the play we were hearing read. It is another of the places where you have the feeling that you are walking around in the pages of the Bible.
The drama is being experienced on location. When we read the sermon on the mount on a rise overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the side of the Mount of Olives, or the appearance of angels to shepherds going about their work outside of Bethlehem the stories spring to life in a very particular way. In the instance of the shepherds, our subjects become actual people trying to take care of actual sheep in an actual place. The sheep walked on this terrain. The predators lurked over that hill or beyond those trees. It's a large space and you don't have to wonder how a sheep might get lost here.
Then you remember to look up. Their job was on the ground, but the show was in the sky. That very sky in that very place. Angels sang, shepherds received an invitation. Some went to see the baby. It occurs to you also that someone had to stay here. How did they make that decision - who followed the angels instructions and who stayed behind to work?
After the devotional each group has an opportunity to go inside of the Chapel. On the walls of the chapel are three paintings. They are very much like nice pictures one might find in a children's story book. In the first one in the sequence we see the shepherds in the world where we just had our devotional, daylight, an idyllic scene of shepherds and sheep. One of the shepherds is playing an instrument, maybe a bit like a lute. Behind the shepherds is the suggestion of something happening between earth and heaven, the focus of heaven is clearly on Bethlehem. In the second, there is a glow over Bethlehem off in the distance, but the divine attention is now focused directly on the shepherds. An angel is above, but very near to them, presumably telling them not to be afraid. In the final painting, angels peer down from the sky; the shepherds have followed the angels direction and are kneeling or bowing before the infant and Mary and Joseph in the cave. The shepherd who had been playing the instrument earlier for the sheep, now plays for the Christ child and his parents.
If the final painting is the familiar Christmas tableau, the first two, especially the first one, are Advent paintings. The shepherds are going about their work, while God's plan is unfolding just over the hills - and right there where they are. We go about our daily lives in this in-between time and live towards the promises of God's future even as God is working through us to prepare that future. The stage is where the activity of God is taking place and...all the world's a stage. Could the shepherd's have felt more removed from the halls of power and consequence on that Judaean hillside as they watched over their flocks? As it turned out the divine spotlight was exactly where they were. As we faithfully go about our days this Advent, let us live with a sense of anticipation about what lies over the next hillside.
God of miracles and wonders, in the midst of ordinary days caution us against ever imagining your world to be ordinary. Your will is unfolding, you invite us to be participants - wonder is ever around the corner. Thank you. Amen.
Advent Week Three - Saturday
The Shepherd's Coffee House is a business located right across the street from the entrance to the Shepherd's Field. If there is a major biblical tourist site close to your place of business it probably makes sense to give your establishment a name that makes a connection. I've always wanted to slip over to the Shepherd's Coffee House. I love coffee, so I'm always up for a coffee shop. Also, I love a good story and I feel like a hot cup of coffee from the Shepherd's Coffee House has to come with a story that would be good for the retelling.
Two of my three best coffee memories of the Holy Land have to do with coffee I didn't have in Bethlehem. The best coffee memory is the Turkish coffee from the vendor, next to the bakery in the Old City of Jerusalem. That coffee can't possibly be as good as I remember it, but I'm up for going back and checking my memory against reality.
In Bethlehem I didn't have coffee at the Shepherd's Coffee House because, as close by as it was, it would have required a few minutes away from the group. One of my goals is to not be the person responsible for making a bus full of people wait because everyone else is ready to go or, worse, the person who manages to get left behind. I also did not have coffee at a place called Stars and Bucks. I don't even know if it's really a coffee house or maybe more of a convenience store with the possibility of coffee. What I do know is that I have not encountered a Starbucks in the Holy Land and after a week or so when I see a sign that has a lot of the same letters and a similar color scheme, there is a powerful, conditioned response that kicks in.
Coffee probably only goes back about five hundred years so the shepherds of Bible times were not starting off the day with a cup. I think though they were the kind of folks who would have grabbed a cup as they began or ended their work day. Before to bolster themselves for the work ahead of them, or after as a reward for a days honest labor. It's this kind of imagining that walking around in a place like Bethlehem makes possible. The shepherds weren't, first of all, characters in a Bible story. They were folks with a job to do. A job that was not the favorite job of a lot of people. It was hard work. It was taken for granted work. It was a long way from the powerful people making the important decisions - the kind of job where you stop in at the Gas and Sip on the way in for a donut and a coffee. If there was going to be a divine visitation it was going to happen among the palaces and temples of places like Jerusalem or Rome. If God was going to announce a new relationship with humanity it would be somewhere among the important people in the halls of power. Angels were not going to show up to sing ballads announcing God's incarnation in a field in the Bethlehem countryside, next to the flickering lights of the Shepherd's Coffee House.
Unless that's exactly what happens. God chooses shepherds. God is completely disinterested in rank, station, and social status. God decided that the skies over Bethlehem were the perfect spot for an angel chorus and that the Shepherd's were the ideal audience. Today I am thankful for coffee - this morning it's a Christmas Blend for a local roastery - and for the promise that God will choose to work with any of us at any time.
Thank you for the good, simple gifts, like a hot cup of coffee, that make every day better. Thank you for awakening us to the reality that you will carry out your work through people from every walk of life and every background. Keep us vigilant - we are all in your plans. Amen.
Advent Week Four - Sunday
On this fourth Sunday of Advent we will take a quick side trip to Jerusalem before doubling back to Bethlehem. It is improbable that I would write about journeying in the Holy Land for four plus weeks and not work in a visit to one of my favorite places on the planet, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Holy Sepulcher is built on the location that tradition identifies as the place where the crucifixion and the resurrection occurred - you may remember that the tomb was described as nearby to the place of the crucifixion. It may seem an odd place to include on a journey to celebrate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, but there is some art I want you to see.
Towards the end of Luke's birth narrative as the shepherds head home we are told that, "Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully." (Luke 2:19) I suspect Mary kept right on doing that in the days, weeks and years to come. Shortly after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem where they encounter Simeon who has been hoping he would live long enough to see the promised Messiah. After giving thanks that he was able to see Jesus he speaks to Mary. "This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own heart too." (2:34-35) It's hard to know what Mary made of these words, but it is certain that she remembered and considered them often.
As you enter the Holy Sepulcher you turn to the right and there are stairs that go up to the place of the chapel on the site of Calvary. There is, naturally, a great deal of art all around the location where the cross once stood. This striking piece is a vivid reminder of Simeon's words which Mary may well have remembered in that place so near to where she had first heard them more than thirty years earlier.
It is a reminder that Bethlehem is a temporary destination. Just as the holy family moved on from there to the rest of their lives, so we will move on from Christmas to wherever our faith leads us. I believe there was joy along the way in Mary's journey, but there were also, clearly, times that her role in this story were excruciating and heartbreaking. This morning in worship we read Mary's response to the angel Gabriel's message that she would be the mother of the Messiah. Her words, lived out over a lifetime, were, "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be with me just as you have said."
It is a grand journey, the journey to Bethlehem. Advent also points us to the return of Christ and asks us to live now with gratitude that Christ came and with hope in God's good future. In the times when it is challenging, difficult and hard, we can turn to the example of Mary's faithful life, savoring the joys and knowing that God is with us through it all.
Advent and Christmas are not a joyful time for everyone all of the time. Be with those who are struggling this Advent season. Help us to know that whatever is happening in our lives you are with us, loving us and caring for us. Amen.
Advent Week Four - Monday
We have grown accustomed to big events featuring grand entrances. The teams don't sneak on to the field at the Super Bowl. The Olympics feature elaborate opening ceremonies. Leaders of nations typically are installed in high profile events, pointing to the importance of the office and the person assuming the office. There is a relationship that has developed over time between the grandeur and level of planning necessary and the significance of an event.
The doors of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem work in exactly the opposite direction. I will share a picture of the doors of the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem along with a picture of the door to the Church of the Nativity. The visual will demonstrate this difference - the Nativity door is much smaller.
Guides will tell you a couple of stories to explain this. One that is highly practical and makes for a good story is that the door was created in this way to keep people with ill intent (soldiers, marauders) on horseback from simply riding into the sanctuary. No one is riding a horse through that door. The other explanation offered is that entering through this door requires humility. Most folks will need to bow down in some way in order to move from the outside to the inside. It's a physical reminder of the greatness of God and our need to approach God with humble hearts.
I'd add that it's also a reminder of the way God chose to enter the world. Not with a royal birth in Rome. The nativity does not happen within a leading family of the Jerusalem religious hierarchy. It's Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. There was a star and angels for those paying attention, but no one was looking for glory in this rather out of the way spot. When the Wise Men head in this direction Herod's experts who have been right there the whole time have to pause and look things up in their books in order to figure out what the foreign visitors may be talking about. Bethlehem was not the big city, and the star was not the sort of bright lights that drew a lot of attention.
The first Christmas was a birth, noticed by few, in an unlikely place.
You enter the church commemorating this event in a manner befitting such humility. We continue our Advent journey reminded of the cosmic importance of this time when the hopes and fears of all the years were met in the little town of Bethlehem with very little notice. We are perhaps cautioned to be careful with what we imagine to be of great importance and what we might dismiss as not worthy of attention. Christmas turns that equation all around. Stoop down and come on in.
Correct my misplaced priorities. Help me not to confuse appearance with importance. Teach me humility. Amen.
Advent Week Four - Tuesday
Once through the four foot, two inch Door of Humility, you step out into the large sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity. This is the oldest space of Christian worship standing in the Holy Land and it both looks (from the outside) and spiritually feels every bit of it's age. It is awesome to stand inside those doors and take it in. First dedicated around 340, the building burned and was rebuilt around 550 and with periodic expansions and renovations through the years remains largely the same place.
Pilgrims form into a line along the right side of the sanctuary to wait for the opportunity to get to the front where you walk down stairs to the cave - located directly under the chancel area of the worship space - where tradition says Jesus was born. On one of our visits our bus of folks had entered and made our way up the side and had nearly arrived at the point where we would begin to descend the steps. We were excited to be there and to be so close to one of the places that everyone had been looking forward to visiting. We may have been a bit quiet as we had entered, but after a fair amount of time in line and nearing our destination our noise level had increased. Nothing ridiculous, but folks were chatting and the expectation was beginning to make us hum a bit as a group. A nun from one of the religious orders who cares for the site decided we needed a reminder of where exactly we were. With broom in hand she came up from behind us and gave us a good natured shushing. I think it was good natured.
Whenever I think about the birthplace of Jesus, I now routinely also think about being shushed. It's helpful. I have learned that I can benefit from a good spiritual shushing now and again. A reminder to quiet my heart and my mind so that rather than listening to myself, I can listen better for God. I cannot say if the broom-wielding nun was out to teach spiritual lessons or if she simply wanted to quiet down rambunctious pilgrims, but I appreciate her contribution to my experience of this holy place.
There are many voices that can demand our attention in life. The noise of our work and our leisure, our anxieties and even our fun can become the focus of our attention. Layer on the days when extraordinary events impact our lives and the noise level increases.
The church's season of Advent can easily get swallowed up in our culture's refusal to wait and desire to rush headlong into Christmas. A journey of faith and contemplation in a season of preparation gets turned into a month-long flurry of activities and celebration. It can be a gift when God sends us, in whatever form, a nun with a broom, shushing us and reminding us to not be so enthralled with the present that we fail to pause and turn our thoughts to the One who is at work in our today and in our tomorrow.
When my heart and my life is so full of noise that I am not listening for your voice, shush me and attune my being to your voice. Amen.
Advent Week Four - Wednesday
The cave where tradition says Jesus was born is directly under the front of the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There is usually at least a bit of a line waiting to reach the stairs that go down from the right side of the sanctuary to the cave. As with any line it can seem like it's not moving and you are so filled with anticipation it can exaggerate the time you have to wait.
Then as with many things we wait for, it feels like all of a sudden everything is happening. You are finding your way down the semi-circle stairs to a doorway. In some instances our groups have held on to the jacket of another group member to make certain we make it in together - it can get a little tight. Then you are there. The folks who have been down there are finishing out their picture taking, singing, and prayers; and beginning to move towards the stairs that will take them up and out on the left side. Your guide may try to get you together to point to a few things and give some history, but it's not the best spot for that size wise or acoustically. There are basically two things you want to see, the spot that commemorates the birth of Christ and another that commemorates the manger.
So you may have a fairly good size group of people in a relatively small space, all trying to see two places. It's entirely possible after all that waiting you will feel anxious that it's going to go by too quickly and you'll miss something.
We are drawing close to Christmas which means Advent is nearing its conclusion. Advent is all about waiting and it can be that line that seems like it may just last forever. The last day or two before Christmas is that space on the stairs funneling into that long awaited sacred space. Is everything ready, are all the gifts accounted for, has anything been overlooked?
If there is anxiety, as much as possible let it go. Aim to experience Christmas not as a day of potentially missed opportunities, but as a time to celebrate and give thanks for God's great love. Don't worry about what you will miss, the preparation or detail that you've forgotten. Trust that you'll see and experience what God intends. We are nearly there - savor the anticipation in this last bit of waiting.
As Christmas draws close, help us to trust that when we arrive at the manger we will find what you have made ready. Amen.
I'm sure it wasn't an accident. I feel confident that the church was built in precisely the way in relationship to the sun so that at a particular time exactly what I saw would occur. It doesn't change how I felt about it. It doesn't diminish in any way the fact that I was surprised and that it was amazing.
We had visited the cave under the chancel in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I walked up the semi-circle steps on the left side of the chancel where you exit. Some of the group had already come back up, several were still lingering in the cave. We had not been gathered for our next presentation by our guide. We were simply milling around in this glorious old holy place. I glanced back across the chancel - I think to maybe see what the line was like now that we were through it.
And there it was. Twin beams of light coming from windows high above on the wall on the right side of the church. They almost seemed solid. From their entry point they projected down upon the chancel area. If the main floor wasn't there they would have shone directly into the cave below the chancel. I grabbed my phone/camera and hoped it would capture something of what I was seeing. I mentioned that the picture of the bakery was one of my two favorite pictures that I've taken during Holy Land trips. This is the other one.
Advent is built like that sanctuary. There is plenty to see and experience all throughout the season, but there will come a moment on December 24th when the windows and the sun, the night and the candles, the Christmas gospels and Silent Night will all find their place and we'll glance up and a star will have appeared and we'll be right there on the cusp of Bethlehem. A step away from the Christ child in the manger, from God's love come near, from Immanuel, God with us.
That moment in the Church of the Nativity was a treasure. Christmas Eve is an evening full of the possibilities of treasures. May you catch a glimpse of God's light this Christmas Eve and carry that treasure with you into the celebration of Christmas.
Surprising God, we can come to you with our hearts full of expectation and still be surprised by the glory of the gifts you give. We come with expectant hearts this Christmas Eve to give thanks for what has happened and to experience what you have in store for us next. Amen.
A grotto is a small picturesque cave. I imagine this is why, when I watched a celebration of Christmas mass from the Holy Land on television last night, they kept calling the traditional location of Christ's birth, and the manger where they baby rested, a grotto rather than a cave. I'm going to be honest about my reaction to the cave - it's crowded, confusing, and not really the place for deep contemplation of God reaching out to humanity. It's an ideal location for practicing your skills in not bumping into humanity in a busy intersection. It's not attractive. There are places you can tell it's a cave hewn out of rock, but there are all these things that seem temporary on the walls that seem to want to try and make it seem more like a room. It feels a little like a place that is like it is for the present until someone has the time to fix it up.
It's kind of perfect then for remembering the birth of Christ. The holy family was on the road. Perhaps among family in Bethlehem, but not at home in the Galilee which would likely have been a more comfortable place. Bethlehem is a timeless piece of the story, going back to the time when Christ's ancestor David was pulling shepherd duty in those same fields where the shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night in Jesus' time. And yet, Bethlehem is a passing piece of the story of Jesus himself. He is there long enough to be born. It will be on to Egypt, Nazareth, Capernaum, Jerusalem - for Bethlehem, this is the big moment.
Two parents, a baby, and some shepherds seems unlikely to be the inspiration for two millennia of statues, paintings, carvings, and temporary yard displays and yet, there you go. A tight crowded "grotto" under the chancel of an ancient church that can easily feel more like a very tiny bus station than a worship space seems an unlikely place to commemorate a historically treasured pastoral scene, but, there you go as well.
It works, of course. It's kind of wonderful that it gives that sense of motion and disorientation, that is has this ephemeral quality. That's where we've arrived today. That's Christmas. It is a destination, yes, but a temporary one. We arrive in Bethlehem, we give thanks that Christ has come, we bask in God's love for us, and we know all the while that December 26 is on the way. Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus wouldn't be staying there and neither will we.
Hold up for just a moment though. Touch the star on the ground. It's a reminder that God came to us in a tangible, physical way. Turn and have a look at the location of the manger. A reminder that the baby was Immanuel, God with us, but also a baby, that did all the baby things including needing a place to sleep. Hold up for a moment and soak in the holy in the midst of the activity, the inadvertently bumping into one another, and the call of everything waiting to be done. In her poem "The Coming Of God", poet Ann Weems writes that "Our God will be born where God will be born," which is both right and the best of good news. Let God be born anew to us this day. Have a blessed Christmas.
God of every time and place, we are never going to be ready and circumstances are never going to be perfect. Thank you for not waiting on us to have everything in order. We welcome you again this Christmas Day and give thanks for the invitation to linger with you before the journey continues. Amen.
The Day After Christmas
Several days ago I wrote about the line waiting to reach the stairs that lead down to the cave which commemorates the traditional site of the birth of Jesus. I have experienced it in varying lengths, but there has always been a bit of a wait and there does tend to be an expectant massing of folks going down the stairs and filtering into the entry that leads to the destination.
The other side is a different story. I have probably walked up the stairs with a few other people at the same time, but never have I experienced the same swell of people leaving as there was when we entered. Everyone comes in the front door of the Church of the Nativity and makes their way towards a common destination. We all want to go down those stairs and see that star on the floor. And then, having seen it, what then? Some folks are ready to move on. Some want to linger a bit, make sure and get the best picture they can. Some look around to see the artwork that lines the walls that extend back away from the star. We all come surging in together and we all trickle out our own pace. The people carry each other in, you walk out on your own.
That, friends, is the day after Christmas.
We have been united in our journey through Advent towards the destination of Christmas Day. The expectation of Christians for the day draws us together and Christmas is such a huge cultural event that many non-religious folks have been pointing towards it as well. It unifies our longing and anticipation around a single day on the calendar. Churches have been pointing towards it. Children have been hoping for it. Commercials have been relentlessly reminding us it was coming. Now it has come. And as of this morning, it has gone.
Welcome to the other side. The season of Christmas, which runs through January 6, the day of Epiphany. We move on, to the last few days of the current year and towards the next great unifier, the transition from December 31 to New Years Day. Christmas though is a unique moment. Bethlehem has drawn us together; now we move on. So catch your breath. Reflect on what we've experienced. Contemplate what lies ahead. Listen for the leading of the Spirit. Give thanks for God's love come near at Christmas and emerge with new expectation for where God is leading us next.
Just as you greeted us on Christmas morning, you now greet us on December 26. Each day brings its own possibilities and its own opportunities to know you, listen for you, experience you and act in your service. We are thankful for Christmas. Now help us live as the recipients of a great gift with a great desire to share. Amen.