Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Buddhist King, the Priest, and the Christmas Elephant

Christmas Eve midnight mass may seem like an odd choice for this Baptist, but I enjoy the ceremony, music, pageantry, and beauty of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church's sanctuary as a time for my personal welcoming of the Christ Child.  Our own Advent and Christmas services at my church are treasures, and I would not trade them; but somehow, after all the "Baptist stuff" is over, sitting as a stranger among friends, hearing the same scriptures and the same carols amidst the foreign - to me - liturgies, chants, responses, and rituals of these Christian brothers and sisters adds something unique and special to my Christmas.

Tonight, Monsignor Hart told the Buddhist parable of the king who invited a number of blind philosophers to touch something they had never before encountered - an elephant - to try to figure out what this creature could be.  One touched the legs, another the trunk, one the tusks, another the girth, and still another the tail.  When it came time to explain the truth of what an elephant is, one was certain that an elephant is like a trunk of a tree, while another swore that an elephant was like a woolen rug.  Another said that no, elephants were clearly like large storage rooms, but others said an elephant is like a broom, or a pillar, and so on.  And the king sat back and laughed at all these supposedly wise men who, persuaded solely by their limited personal experiences, were light years away from the truth.

In our post-modern world of relativism, many view religion and God as though they were blind men touching parts of an elephant.  God means this to you and that to me, and religion serves this purpose for one and that purpose for another.  We continue to seek God, to look for true religion as we wander the universe and to feel blindly into the creations that are beyond us.  Many become convinced that God and religion are different things to different people, with varying purposes and "truths" based on our own experiences.  And somewhere, we are sure that somebody laughs at us all.

But Christmas is here.  And Christmas teaches something else.

The Buddhist king does not know about Christmas.

Christmas teaches something audacious, something that many in the world - likely many of you reading this - are not ready or willing to entertain even as an option.  Christmas means that we can know the truth of God. 

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  And we have seen His glory.  He is the one who was present when the morning stars sang together and through whom the world was created; the one who declared, "I and the Father are one;" the one who answered the demand "show us the father" by saying, "Have you been this long with me and yet still do not know who I am?"  He is the exact representation of God.  The infinite, eternal God is beyond us; but He longed for us to know Him. We could not explain the elephant, so the elephant became one of us.

God is beyond us.  So He condescended to walk with us, as one of us, so that we can know and understand who He is.

Religion is not about our search for God.  Christmas tells us that God searches for us.  Christmas promises that God came to us because we were feeling blindly and getting confused by tusks and toenails.

Our king does not laugh at our blindness.  Our king ends our blindness by bringing light... and that light is the life of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.

The Buddhist parable about a too-clever-by-half king who ridicules his people was explained to me by a Catholic priest.  And out of it I got a picture of the Christmas elephant.  I was reminded that we can and do know everything we need to know about God.  I was reminded that our search for God gives way to God's search for us.  And I was reminded that our king does not ridicule our failures but instead opens our blind eyes.

Christ has come so that we can see who God really is.  Our blindness is over. 

Arise, shine, for your light has come.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas in Connecticut

How can the children who survived, the parents of those who died, the teachers, the community, or anyone in the nation have Christmas now?  Who can sing "Fa La La La La" with a straight face?  Who can light candles, receive presents, attend a worship service?  Who can bear to read about peace on earth and good will to men?

The reactions today have been as swift as they have been predictable.  Prayers for the families.  Psychological explanations.  Exasperated calls for gun control and exasperated replies that the only reason this criminal could do what he did was that he was a "gun free zone." 

Questions.  Questions.  Questions.

Asking "why" is normal.  It does not get us very far. 

I can ask why these children were gunned down.  I can ask why drunks drive and wars rage.  I can ask why shooters shoot and why abusers strike. 

But, eventually, we have to move past these questions about symptoms.  Sooner or later, we realize that asking why these bad people have done bad things... or even why apparently decent people have done bad things... leads to a much more basic premise.

I have seen this more basic issue - the disease - raised in different places today.  "Our world has gone mad...."  "What is wrong with us?"  "Evil is rampant....." We live in a world full of bad people ... and decent people who do bad things. 

The answer to this question is not universal health care, social security, gun control, reduction in taxes, capitalism, patriotism, more government, or less government.  The answer is not political because the problem is not political.

The answer to this question is not kindness, philanthropy, hugging each other more, or patience.  The answer is not social because the problem is not social.

This is a problem that the Bible addresses repeatedly.  We have a sin problem.  We are, at our essence, an unholy, stained people.  We fail.  We do not meet the standard that God has set for us.  The answer to the question "What is wrong with us?" is obvious to those who are willing to see - The answer is that we sin.  Our world is devastated by its failure to meet the mark.

Our world stinks.  It is full of jackasses and stupid sheep and other dumb animals who do nothing more than act on base instinct.  It is full of dung and smells like it.  It is every bit a stable.

The answer to this problem is found in one place.  And that one place is a manger in Bethlehem.

Jesus was not born because God was lonely or because the angels needed a chance to air that new chorus they had been rehearsing.  Jesus was born for one reason - to die.  Jesus came, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear, to save us from ourselves. 

How can those in Connecticut have Christmas?  They have no choice.  They must have Christmas.  They must find room for the Son of God to enter the stench of our world and do what only the Son of God can do.

Chris Rice has written: "Tears are falling, hearts are breaking; how we need to hear from God.  You've been promised, we've been waiting.  Welcome, holy child.  Bring Your peace into our violence, bid our hungry souls be filled.  Word now breaking heaven's silence, welcome to our world. So wrap our injured flesh around You, breathe our air and walk our sod.  Rob our sin and make us holy, perfect Son of God.  Welcome to our world."

Christmas in Connecticut will surely result in more kindness, philanthropy, hugs, and patience.  It may even resolve a political dispute or two.  If so, that will be nice.

But what a world where Adam Lanza can shoot dozens of elementary school children needs is more basic - and much more complex - than a hug and a handout. 

We have all, like sheep, gone astray.  We have turned, every one of us, to our own way. 

But behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and He shall be called "Emmanuel," which means "God with us."  And He shall save His people from their sins.  And the government shall be upon His shoulder.  And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  And the lion and the lamb will lie down together.  And a little child shall lead them.

It is absolutely time for Christmas in Connecticut.