FEAST OF EPIPHANY

bethlehemstar

FINAL CHAPTER—CHAPTER TEN

To think of goodwill from God to the world is to think universally.  I remember fondly from my old church in Portland, Oregon called Imago Dei (Image of God) how the slogan was “to take the whole gospel to the whole world”.  That summed up much of what is intended in the brighter spots to Christian history when the message of Christ is rightly preached and lived.

But Christian history has a template for this in the gospel.  As wonderful as it was for Peter to be the first person to preach the gospel post-resurrection it is not the first example touched by the presence of the Divine.

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-11).

These magi were spiritual seekers.  They had some ideas before seeing the star of Bethlehem but it seems clear that they had humility going for them quite well. In conversion there is a time to be skeptical but eventually reason is complimented by faith.  Sometimes the two combined create in the seeker as sense of wonder. 

They were overjoyed at seeing the star—-  It is simply because a sense of joy in that the star had taken them to the fulfillment of all their desire to see this great king.  This fulfillment, like any true spiritual fulfillment, is in knowing God and his will.

on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother—- With the perspective we have now of semitic peoples for centuries leading up to that time we can apply what we know of the role of the queen mother.  The recognition of hierarchy in the royal courts of those people had a place for the queen mother that was higher in distinction than the king’s wife.  Joseph was not chopped liver but they knew that the infant was a fully endowed king and thus no figurative crown on his head.  In other words, they knew the king line here was brand new.  Mary, however is named because she would be the gaberah (Great Lady) as the queen mother would be known.  Matthew had the proper theological hindsight to note it this way since he more than other gospel writers emphasized the jewishness of Jesus. That emphasis includes the biblical thread of Jesus being the “son of David”.

They prostrated themselves and did him homage— This is where discerning how Jesus is Lord turns into action.  Seek him.  Find him.  Worship him.  In prostrating they lay themselves down on the ground in vulnerability and surrender.

opened their treasures and offered him— Recall the words of Jesus where he said where your treasure is there is your heart also.  This is their gateway action standing as example for devotion as they abandon that which supposedly matters for He who really does.  Devotion is the heart of the gospel and it is the simplicity of devotion to Jesus that is at the heart of this most holy faith.

gifts of gold…frankinsense….myrrh—- St. Ireneus stated in Against Heresies that gold is a symbol of royalty, frankincense is in the latria (worship) of God and myrrh Jesus’ humanity.  It is also noteworthy according the Ignatius Study Bible that myrrh was used to anoint levitical priests for service.  In summary, this interpretation could point to those symbols of speaking of Jesus as God incarnate and as a prophet, and royal priest. In short, Jesus is to be our everything.

I began this commentary about bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.  It is fitting to point out two things that we learn from this passage.  If one were to take away one element of the three gifts of the magi you would have an incomplete example of the completeness in Jesus being Lord and Savior.  No divinity means that his atonement has a limit to his priesthood and sacrifice would be of a finite being.  No royalty means that Jesus cannot reign in our hearts much less the world.  And if one were to take away Jesus’ humanity we would not be seeing a chance of adoption in Christ through the gospel.  All of Jesus must be presented by his Church and it must be unwavering.

The second thing I would point out is how these Gentiles, led by a miracle, had the rays of truth in their hearts  (faith and reason) to encounter Jesus the Son of David.  The world comes and adores him.  He is always the same and never changing and this carries into reaching us through those rays in our hearts that are built in to revived by him.  As Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until we fine our rest in you” (Confessions, Book I).  This is the portion where the Holy Spirit brings a proposition of the gospel to our hearts.    

The invitation each day, each season is to give him our all as he gave his all in right ordered worship.   And if we see him as distant, who moved?  And if you see a star guiding you out of your comfort zone towards Jesus, even if it is that small voice in your heart, what is lost if you inquire with a moment of wonder?  These are the questions worth the asking in all ages out of the wisdom of the ages: in the gospel. 

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Taking The Bitter With Sweet

Message of the cross

CHAPTER EIGHT

I have often wondered where the thorns are for the roses in our lives.  For some who are looking for meaning there is an expectation that meaning and destiny needs to be forged into something that is only sweet. One might say “God forbid” it would be bittersweet.

 “The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:33-35).

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him— It is an important starting point in being a disciples of Jesus, which is what Joseph and Mary would amount to, in being amazed.  I am not talking about goosebumps.  They come and go and if we rely on those for our turning points in the Divine we will be putting God into a performance position.  God is not our clown but where his thinking is above our thinking it will inherently blow our minds. It is those key moments where we see God somewhere that reminds us that he is everywhere. 

and Simeon blessed them—-  If there could be any last anesthetic for the cross in being a disciple of Jesus it is that God intends to bless you especially in the cross.  He wants to spiritually bless the world and will preface words and deeds with that bias. “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). For Mary, this could be a moment of comfort for the word about to come that would predict how she would lose her son. 

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel—- This is notable when we consider that Simeon has now directed his comments to only Mary the mother who would likely be the only one of those two parents alive when Jesus would come into his ministry.  Mary is a humble young woman in a backwater town but of great significance in the eyes of God.  Being full of grace as we can see in the original Greek as a past and completing act. She stands as an icon of God flipping over the paradigms that the carnal mind would be predisposed to.

and to be a sign that will be contradicted—  Jesus would be intertwined with the message of the cross. This is why people that look deeply enough of the cross in the gospel get what Dr. Peter Kreeft calls “Jesus Shock”. St. Paul elaborates on this concept.

“but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).

It is fitting that Mary get this message.  She had been told “The Lord is with you” and “Blessed are you among women” which historically were military conquest phrases.  In Jesus the universal message of the Cross through the Church would rock the world.

and you yourself a sword will pierce—- Here is where the bittersweet comes in.  Luke previously wrote about what is apparently a sweet old man who holds and blesses sweet baby Jesus who would grow up to be a sweet blessing for the world.  Those perceptions hold true but not by themselves.  The Good news has to have the hard news on its coattails.

For some who have seen the Passion of the Christ they come away that it could also be of Mary’s passion in seeing her son die on the cross.  Her hope was in God but her heart was broken that her son would suffer.  But for the good of the world would she still cooperate with that. 

so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed— This is important because Jesus in the gospel brings in many turning points who encounter the message and what it calls for.  This “sign” would change everything in conversion because the word of God exposes those things that are and are not of God and necessitates our own turning points. A full understanding of God redeeming humanity in the incarnation brings to light the dignity that humanity is supposed to walk in.  This is where the bitter is comforted with the sweet in the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Going On A High Note

Happy Old ManCHAPTER SEVEN

For people of great or low stature, there tends to be a drive for their lives to matter.  Some people have moments that encapsulate that sense of meaning that their interaction with this world has meaning above themselves.  For some, they peak early.  Others have that moment much later. 

One man who had a sense of meaning later was a man named Simeon.  Here is his story and how it connects to where a God-given hope comes in.

  Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go

in peace, according to your word,

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and glory for your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:25-33).

a man—- Typically when someone thinks of Bible characters they think of pomp and circumstance as kings, fighters or wise people.  The first key here is that God wants to use normal people.  “A man” like him shows that, “normal people” can have an encounter with the divine. God does not have an agenda for special ones only in humanity but all of humanity. 

righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him—- This is also loaded in meaning.  He had that low burn in keeping and seeking a relationship with God and engaging his faith into God’s restorative but mysterious agenda for Israel.  He was a patient man.  With the amount of revelation he had he was faithful to the salvation theme of the Old Testament.  The key point is that he centered on God’s agenda beyond his own interests.  Upon a heart that is disposed that way, the Holy Spirit was on him.

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit—  this was key in the sense that such a life met with the wholeness of God to be known in a personal presence.  The Old Testament was pointing to an anointing by the Holy Spirit that would write God’s law in people’s hearts.  The Messiah to come would bring it all together relationally and this day he would be known rightly by this man. 

He came in the Spirit into the temple… he took him into his arms and blessed God— Simeon, because he is guided by the Holy Spirit, is able to recognize Jesus for who he is because he engaged in his understanding in the ways of God as matter of spirit.  Much later Jesus explained to a racially marginalized woman that the coming true worshippers would worship the Father in spirit and truth. Guided by the Holy Spirit we can lay hold of truth as the collective people of God. 

he took him into his arms and blessed God—Although it was a point of contact with what he prayed for, the beauty of Simeon’s response was a true worship of God.

Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace…light of the Gentiles— Simeon finds that his greatest treasure to attain is that favor from heaven would be realized on earth before he leaves it.  Somehow Simeon knows that this grace of God in the Messiah is for the world beyond Israel.  I can only guess that Simeon, true to the Hebrew meaning of his name, was “one who hears”.  In hearing God through a lens of sustaining grace it is made known to him that the true light has come. 

It is worth noting that Simeon does not see that the universal application of the Messiah is at the detriment of Israel.  Simeon may likely have known that the successive covenants of the Old Testament increased in the number of people they effected (Adamic- couple, Noah and Abrahamic- family, Davidic-  nation/kingdom).  Simeon saw the day of Jesus meaning salvation to the Gentiles and he embraced it.

One more thing I see in this passage is that in addition to Simeon seeing God’s grace beyond bigotry was that he turns in a moment to the next generation.  The vision God brings to his people is not for his generation but the next.  He is ready to die in peace and pass something on in joy to Joseph, Mary and the newborn Jesus.  In other words we see that Simeon was “a man” who, like a personified twilight of the Old Testament, grew old gracefully making room for the new.

As I write this I ponder that I am a 48-year old man.  I am not at the end of my life as far as I know but I pray that I can cherish Jesus in all he is and pass on the knowledge of him in any way I can to my next generation.  What is stopping you or I from being “ righteous and devout” by the merits of Christ?  It is only our own self-centeredness which we can leave anytime we want to.

Christening This Vessel

AnnunciationCHAPTER THREE

If our lives are touched by the grace of God, and we are to go forward in applying it, how is it applied in the context of a relationship with him as things get more complex?  Here I think there is a lesson to be learned from Mary. 

As I noted previously, Mary was approached by Gabriel and told that she would conceive the long awaited Messiah of Israel who would bring freedom and it would be in a way that is very expansive.  When God challenges us, those things that are truly of him that we do in grace and do not go away but are like gold refined in the fire.  When we are refined in a divine conversation of God, it is only for our good and that of the world around us.

“But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:34-38).

How can this be…?….I do not know a man—  It is important to see that this is not a matter of doubt on God’s agenda being carried out for two reasons.

First, since God is just, it would follow for her to be silenced like Zechariah if she was cynical against the word of God. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was struck mute for doubting John’s miraculous conception.  The difference is that Zechariah inserted that the natural decay of death with his age was stronger than the author of life.  For him in that moment, natural law was an end in itself.

But for Mary there was the principle of consecration totally to God and such disposition lends the soul for the unexpected and even the miraculous.  There is a strong case to be made that Mary was promised to God as a temple virgin and aged out of serving directly in the temple when she gained her menstrual cycle.  She would be saying this to say she was consecrated to God as a form of worship which would be against her understanding of God to belittle. 

Far fetched?  Not so much if one sees celibacy as part of a spiritual life and law. For her, consecration unto God was an end in itself and she understood God was permanently there meeting her in that which superseded any other relationships.  We can look to Sacred Scripture for some precedent.  I would suggest along with the Sacred Tradition of the early church that she vowed her virginity even through marriage. 

There is reasoning for Mary’s perpetual virginity to not be far-fetched. Imagine there is a wedding shower and there are comments that one day the bride to be will have a baby shower.  Then the bride says, “How can this be?”.  There would be an uncomfortable silence as people wondered who is going to explain the biology of the marital embrace.

The commentary of the Ignatius Study Bible explores this further.“The Greek text literally says, ‘I do not know man’, which refer to Mary’s virginal status rather than her marital status.  Her concern is not that she is unmarried but that she is a virgin at present and that she intends to remain one in the future.”

There are doctrinal and devotional applications to this interpretation of that verse.  Doctrinally, in the subset  of what is called Mariology, we see a great case for her perpetual virginity which was believed by Luther, Calvin and Wycliff.  There is also scriptural foundation for a husband to know of a wife’s pre-existing vow and endorse it by silence (Numbers 30:11-13).

But for the personal devotion life of the believer there is something important for individual, spiritual formation.  Mary answered back defending the beautiful premise that saving herself for God alone was important to her.  If your calling is to be a spouse, celibate, or single but looking then bring God into that. Cherish his will for your life with an attitude of thanksgiving one day at a time.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you—- This line goes toward the profound establishment of God’s kingdom with wording that is reminiscent of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple.  God came in a cloud on that temple and an anointing was put on the king who was referred to as the meshiach or “Anointed One” where we get Messiah.  Mary would be the first person in the New Testament who would be a true worshiper because she would carry the Son of God truly and not as an honorific title for the Davidic dynasty. In addition to temple imagery, it is marital too.  In the Old Testament it would be a husband who covers his wife and a child would be born.  To be overshadowed with the Holy Spirit for her would be the conception of the Jesus.  This is why many times in both theological and devotional language in Christianity Mary is referred to as a spouse of the Holy Spirit. 

Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived.—-  I have long cherished an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”  The encouragement Mary receives is that she is not alone and God has a plan for her to be worked out in community.  God calls all of us beyond ourselves first to Him but often in the faces of others.

Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.——  Mary was at peace in her consecration to God, had a mission refined in God and knew her place in community. Mary is in a very mature state to give an informed yes and live it out.  Our names, circumstances and callings in life may be different but the principles are there.  We can benefit from all those principles so that we can be flexible when God knocks on our doors and calls us to make a new way for Him.  The absence of welcoming is the only things stopping us from those even quieter conversations with God when he comes.

For further research on point of Mary being a perpetual virgin, I recommend looking at the Protoevangelium of James written in the second century and highly attested by many early church fathers including Ambrose of Milan. This includes a major implication that Joseph took her as his wife but did not know her sexually.

Here is the link.

http://ministries.tliquest.net/theology/apocryphas/nt/protevan.htm

Also believed by a major leader in the Reformation. 

“A new lie about me is being circulated.  I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ” (Luther’s Works, 22:214-215). 

An Offer She Wouldn’t Refuse

Mary Magnify

CHAPTER TWO

It takes two perfect people to have the perfect relationship. Some spouses will compliment the other one saying that the other person’s perfection makes it happen.  That sounds sweet, but it is not entirely accurate when humanity is involved.  But not so if one is divine.   But if one is divine and changes the setting for the human involved then the whole dynamic is different. Grace tends to do that. 

A prime example for one who could see the kingdom of God for all it is as part of long-term called out community of God was someone who was “full of grace”.  This is why the first person in this “micro-church” I will address is Mary of Nazareth.  For a teenage girl, she had a lot to say because she was “full of grace” and was a daughter of Zion. Such is the case in the Bible when one comes to Mary. 

Here we see the most perfect collaboration between the infinite God, through an angel, and a finite, specially touched human.  She was specifically a young woman in an age where women were not highly esteemed.  But in relationship to God, she is empowered in a faith journey that is not for cowards of either gender. She had faith and knew what it was to step up in courage. 

There is another part to the historical backdrop in the Bible before getting to Mary: unfaithfulness.  God’s people in the Old Testament were described as unfaithful with those who  struggled righteously and unrighteously living one day at a time.  God starts things anew with someone in Mary that had a context of being faithful to God and called to be on the offense just like what light does with darkness.

 “And he [Gabriel] came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.  And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”(Luke 1:27-33).

Hail— The “Hail” is not a casual “hi”.  If one looks at the correspondence of the first century between highly esteemed officials, this word is used only to someone of notable, royal distinction.  Mary had that going on as one set aside by the King of the Universe for a special station in life.

Yet from an Old Testament perspective there is a Zion, or Davidic dynasty, connection.  The following verse from Pope Benedict XVI is pointed out also with that same Greek word, “Rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout, Israel…the king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst” (Zephaniah 14-17).  Pope Benedict also states, “The essential reason for the daughter of Zion to rejoice is stated in the text itself; ‘the Lord is in your midst’.  Literally it says: ‘he is in your womb’ (Pope Benedixt XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives). 

What is being heralded in just that word alone is like a shorthand for God’s kingdom to come—- and is coming now in the Christmas Story.

Full of Grace—  The original Greek is Kecharitomene, the perfect passive participle, shows a “completeness with a permanent result. Kecharitomene denotes continuance of a completed action” (H. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar [Harvard Univ Press, 1968], p. 108-109, sec 1852:b; also Blass and DeBrunner, p. 175).  Or one can say she was too full of grace to have room for anything else.  Therefore, to me, she stands as the perfect prototype, as the Theotokos (God-bearer as defined in the Council of Ephesus 431), and how the Bride of Christ is supposed to be.  The words I have commented on here and others to come in the infancy era of indicate concretely she was without sin.  The Early Church Fathers were unanimous on this point and also Reformation leaders like Luther.

“But the other conception, namely the infusion of the soul, it is piously and suitably believed, was without any sin, so that while the soul was being infused, she would at the same time be cleansed from original sin and adorned with the gifts of God to receive the holy soul thus infused. And thus, in the very moment in which she began to live, she was without all sin…(Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther’s Works, English translation edited by J. Pelikan [Concordia: St. Louis], Volume 4, 694).

So here we have royalty for a grand scale and grace with even grander ramifications all set for an expanding influence as demonstrated further.

The Lord is with you…she was greatly troubled—-  This is not a goose bump phrase. This phrase in the Old Testament was for servants of God like Moses, Joshua and David who would go into the land promised to them by covenant.  They were used by God for natural warfare for that level of revelation in the Old Covenant.  Mary was to be used, launched in the contexts of covenants, to expand God’s influence through a spiritual warfare but at that moment she did not know that.  She just knew that this greeting indicated a level and form of influence beyond what she would think was her humble state in life could handle.  So there was some awe there. Her scope of knowledge could only guess a troubling battle of flesh and steel like a Middle-Eastern Joan of Arc.

Do not be afraid, Mary… you have found favor with God. — Mary was full of grace but Gabriel elaborated that God’s favor for her and her mission was in grace to overflow by the direct hand of God with the undeniable fact that the source and summit of the grace and favor for her was external to her in God.

you will conceive—  as the angel unfold’s God’s plan for her life there is a connection to the Incarnation. God would be with her, it would be form of warfare but it would be the Word made flesh. 

you shall call his name Jesus—- Jesus means “God saves”.   The Incarnation means salvation in some way yet to be revealed.  The Word, dropping in behind enemy lines, is to save humanity.    

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;—-  Here is the framework in that it will be in the pattern of David as the throne is from David.  This savior bring a visible kingdom and it would be consistent with the pattern of the Davidic dynasty.    

and of his kingdom there will be no end——  The declaration of God Incarnate and being savior of the world happens within a framework of a kingdom that has no end and thus continues.

On the devotional side, how can a modern person relate to these lofty subjects?  Well, we know through the rest of the story that Mary cooperated with a kingdom that is personal, holistic, authoritative and beyond our earthly limitations if seen by faith.  God initiates to us for full participation.  She was to carry God in her womb.  If we respond in the same humility to the gospel of the kingdom, we carry Jesus in a different but substantial way. Possibly it is we who really can stop us from this encounter. 

HOLIDAYS BEYOND ROUTINE

new-beginningCHAPTER ONE

Too often, church is seen as something carnal, full of empty ceremony or both. 

To illustrate this point, I heard a joke about church once that bears repeating. A horde of chipmunks were flooding a street that had three churches on it. The first two used brutal, inhumane means to kill the chipmunks and felt bad about it. The third was a Catholic Church. There the priest said that their method would not get rid off all of them all of the time and his method would make sure that they would only have to deal with them Christmas and Easter. He would baptize them.

The joke made the audience and I laugh but there was a kernel of truth to it. Often there are people that will do their duty by darkening the door of a church for those special occasions but stay away otherwise even if they felt “touched” by their experiences. People that are only holiday church goers also find church attendance then as less threatening. So they get a spiritual feeding and go home and not to return until later. Hardly the layout of a good spiritual family to just take the blessing and run.

The truest Holy Family is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three in One. Three Who’s and one What. It is the highest experience of a community of persons we can presently point to.  In those three persons are the Father who initiates love, the Son who responds the love and the Holy Spirit who proceeds as the personhood of love between. 

Church, as founded by Jesus, is meant to be an extension of this divine fellowship where heaven and earth meet. Not because it looks nice nor gives the members goosebumps.  A gathering of people as Christians is always to join together in Jesus and worship the Father in Jesus.  It is his higher purposes to be met whether it is set of two or three gathered in his name or something even more deliberate. A gathering for higher purposes in the Old Testament was considered a solemn assembly. It was their everything.  It was the qahal.  When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in 2nd Century BC an assembly was translated as ekklesia

Church was about being called out to something.  The Greeks would refer the a small democratic town leaving the village to a nearby forest for a vote on what we might call a ballot measure.  the “ek” was the out of.  This comes to mind where we read in the Bible where God tells his people to come out and be separate for the world.  The highest point for an assembly is to be consecrated in some way. This was needed because it was a sacrifice. 

The important thing to note is that the advancing kingdom of God has an aspect that transcends what we can measure with our senses but still is true. The traits are there.  This is why for them then and in modern times we need eyes to see and ears to hear and all the while without fear. For this family God started is supposed to walk in the, “[P]erfect love [that] casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:17). 

But in looking at the splendor of these truths of Jesus and the kingdom he founded in a heavenly context, we should not forget the roles of simplicity and humility that are communicated in the four gospels.  This is why two of them, Matthew and Luke, give what is called the Infancy Narratives.  Most of the storyline centers on three persons who are called in different Christian traditions the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  They serve as a basic template in truth and virtue for communities to be inspired by in the ages to come that call themselves Christian.  One is not recorded for any of his words but suggests a sense of wonder.  One is filled with grace and says a yes heard for all time.  And one is grace and truth realized (John 1:17), “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and was born in the “house of bread” called Bethlehem.  Let us go forward and explore this Church of Bethlehem. 

My hope in drawing the reader to the events that surround the birth and nativity is that they would allow the truths in those scriptures with a new perspective that would inspire a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ.

But skepticism can kick in if inquiring into Christianity when seeing what does not appeal to common sensibilities.  Items such as mystery in ceremony, demands of “thou shalt not’s” and traditions that are not at first explained. For the modern person who wants to make sure everything makes sense it can be a bit distasteful to an inpatient mind. But with patiences one can ponder the Christmas story the right way and in turn ponder the person of Jesus and his call to follow him but in a different view by a baby’s coo.  Encountering who Jesus is can be best seen through the lens of a responding to a proposition and not a passionless obedience to an imposition.

Seeing the participants in the Christmas story in a full way can reinforce that the plan of God is not oppressive but a guide to how and why we are made in the first place. This small family points obedience to the will of God that honors our design and does not demean it.  In the words of GK Chesterton, “When is a train most free? When it is on it’s tracks”. Bethlehem, meaning house of bread, is a beacon that points us to tracks of the Father’s house instead of a courthouse.

Thus, we are called to encounter God with head and heart. A recurring point in the narratives is that the gospel is meant especially for those most in a humble state of mind so they can grasp the simplicity of the gospel. Jesus rejoiced at this saying, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25).

Going forward, let us prepare the way of Jesus in our hearts individually but in the context of disciples be intentional as the church of Jesus on the terms of Jesus. A Christ-centric community is to decrease as Jesus would increase.

RECONCILIATION

woman-caught-in-adultery

It is a beautiful thing to be reconciled to someone you love when you were in the wrong.  It may feel disempowering to admit ones guilt in the moment but if the other person is of good will then they will forgive you.  Reconciliation in its etymology has a context of thought with the Latin work cilia and can denote a connection like two people that are eyelash to eyelash. 

Within the Christian domain it is likewise hoped for that one can have an ongoing Christian experience of conversion by minding their side of the street and connecting with confession.  A common theme that could be looked at on sacraments is how they are a heavenly language and practice that connects the spiritual and material in harmony.  Such harmony is the fruit of the gospel with a pivotal point on how “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and as we will see also connects to the “laying on of hands” (Hebrews 6:2). 

Walking on the earth Jesus came to set people who were oppressed from sin and this was connected in the gospels several times where he forgave sins and healed in the same encounter.   

For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men (Matthew 9:5-8). 

This last statement was not a slip in language by the narrative of Matthew.  People were being healed and baptized under the hands of the apostles in Jesus’ ministry. Thus Jesus was able to speak sacramentally on such authority later. Jesus said to Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). 

In the event that someone is engaged in serious sin and will not repent after the progressive disciple protocol Jesus founded, then excommunication is more than implied. 

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:17-18). 

So what we have here is the beginning structure of authority in a church that is tangible and would have say on ones standing spiritually in heaven and earth.  But this is not to be a matter of holding something over someone’s head.  A few sentences later Jesus speaks about forgiveness seventy times seven.   As we see below, the context of reconciliation extends from Jesus through the apostolic succession already referred to.  After the Resurrection Jesus puts the sacrament of reconciliation in the context of peace, family, delegated authority and a profound sense of intimacy with God’s mercy. 

[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23).

We can see how the pattern of Jesus as Apostle and High Priest of the Christian faith hands both the sacraments of healing and reconciliation together beyond just the 12. 

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Eli′jah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit (James 5:14-18). 

What we see here starts with the anointing of the sick as addressed before but presupposes that there will be forgiveness in that encounter as a predictable, factual thing. 

What is worth addressing from that passage is the idea that they were to “confess your sins to one another” means there is no priesthood needed.  One can draw from both Old and New Testament passages to see the linking theme of sacramental intervention for especially serious sins to compliment this passage.

This command must be interpreted within the context of the anointing rite, where the elders (i.e. priests) presumably hear the confession of the sick person before his sins are remitted through the sacrament.  Such confession has its roots in the liturgical practice of Israel (Lev. 5:5-6, Num 5:5-10) and is implicitly mandated by the teaching of Jesus (John 20:23).

In ongoing church history such an interpretation was reinforced by notable church fathers.     

“The priests of Judaism had power to cleanse the body from leprosy—or rather, not to cleanse it at all, but to declare a person as having been cleansed. . . . Our priests have received the power not of treating with the leprosy of the body, but with spiritual uncleanness; not of declaring cleansed, but of actually cleansing. . . . Priests accomplish this not only by teaching and admonishing, but also by the help of prayer. Not only at the time of our regeneration [in baptism], but even afterward, they have the authority to forgive sins: ‘Is there anyone among you sick? Let him call in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if he has committed sins, he shall be forgiven’” (John Chrysostom, On The Priesthood 3:6:190ff [A.D. 387]). 

Still there are allusions to this a few centuries later. 

Let him bring in the presbyters, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins, they will be forgiven him. . . . (Caesar of Arles, early 500’s. Sermons 13[325]:3). 

I would like to address the emotional arguments now.  As someone who had a Christian life that seemed to be overall formatted well, to go to confession went against ingrained beliefs that translated to muscle memory.  My lifelong principles were that Jesus is the sole mediator between God and man with his intrinsic holiness and no man should ever make it without him.  I can say with confidence that those principles have not changed nor would there be contradiction on this point by a priest in my church.  My pastor has said that if someone goes to him for the sacraments based on the idea that he is intrinsically holy then they will be in trouble with false hope.  A priest is a human element of Christ’s pure priesthood extended on earth as Jesus intended in his post-resurrection message when he breathed on the disciples as shown above.  This is referred to as en persona Cristi (in the person of Christ). Any subsequent counsel I get will be listened to and is not even protected by a mystical infallibility.  Their counsel is not the point, but the mercy of Jesus is. 

So going forward, there is a beauty to confession.  The gospel is indeed good, true and beautiful.  What do you have to lose in doing it except your sin?