Monday, December 24, 2012

The Santa at the Manger

The Santa at the Manger
Julie Worcester in Abingdon press preaching annual relays a story of Christmas

“Advent and Christmas are always beautiful, but one of my fondest memories is of celebrating the season with my new spouse in our new church home, First United Methodist Church. The lovely sanctuary was made even more beautiful by the greenery adorning the windows, the walls, and the chancel area. Children’s eyes sparkled as they gazed upon the beautiful Christmas tree and heard stories behind the hand-stitched symbols and stories of the saints. One of the few decorations in the sanctuary that was not greenery or Christmas candles was the small statuette
of Santa kneeling at the manger. It sat atop the church’s organ. It was so unique, so different, so appropriate, and it piqued my curiosity. I asked the organist and some fellow choir members about the statuette following worship the Sunday prior to Christmas and was surprised by the varied responses. The comments ranged from, “I know, don’t you just love it?” to “Humph!” to “Yea, well . . . ,” and my favorite—“We don’t talk about it.”

Don’t talk about it? What was so controversial? Instead of laying the issue aside, I pressed on in search of an answer. I asked church members and our pastor. I first found out that those who knew who purchased it would not divulge the identity of the family for protective measures. Some in the congregation felt Santa had no place in church, some felt it childish, for some it didn’t matter one way or another, some liked it but were bullied by factions that didn’t like it. Those wonderful congregational disagreements; I know, another sermon for another time.

It took me almost ten years to find out the story of the statuette. The purchase was made by a fellow choir member. She and her husband had happened upon the statuette during a vacation in New Mexico. The purchase was made because this couple felt that Santa should be in the
church. It’s where Santa began and where Santa served. Church was most definitely where Santa belonged and where he should have been all along….”

Saint Nicholas was probably born near 270 C.E. in a port city known as Patara in Myra. Patara was the major naval and trading port of Lycia (Modern day Turkey), located at the mouth of the Xanthos River, until it silted up and turned into a malaria-plagued marsh.

Nicholas of Myra was born to wealthy merchant parents. Nicholas’ parents were Christian and the family worshiped in a congregation that was begun by the Apostle Paul toward the end of
his third journey where he had done some missionary work in the area between voyages.

Legend says that Nicholas’ parents were childless for most of their married life. They prayed every day for a child, and in later life their prayers were answered by the arrival of a son whom they named Nicholas, which means “God is victorious.”

Unfortunately By the time Nicholas was thirteen years old, he was an orphan. The plague claimed the lives of his parents. With no other family, Nicholas turned to God and the church for
solace. Nicholas gave his entire inheritance to the Roman Catholic Church and became a priest. He was appointed Bishop of Myra at the age of twenty-four and lived a life of service to others.
The young bishop was respected and beloved by his congregation and his community for his many acts of generosity.

Nicholas fought for truth, justice, and the Christian way. The gifts that Santa Claus brings are meant to be representative of the gifts and acts of kindness demonstrated by Nicholas for those in need, be it money for dowry or money to help a family pay their taxes to Rome that kept a child out of slavery, arguing before the Emperor Constantine for lower taxes on behalf of a community and region, or saving the lives of those who had been wrongly accused.

Nicholas died in 345 C.E., but within one hundred years of his passing the Santa we know today began to take shape. The stories of the Bishop of Myra spread to all parts of the Roman Empire, including present day England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

Saint Nicholas, Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession became known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and that is how he became the model for our modern concept of Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions ( which is a removal of sounds) and corruptions of the transliteration of "Saint Nikolaos" 

In one story attributed to Nicholas a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. When he heard of this, Nicholas decided to help him, in order to be humble or more likely to prevent the man from being embarrassed by accepting charity he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses(one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.

There are three versions of this story one has him throwing the gold through the window on three different nights, and another over three different years, each time just before the daughter comes of age.  The third year the father lie in wait to see who was bringing these gifts when caught Nicholas states that he should not be thanked but the glory should be given to God.  In a final version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; and finally it may have been that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

See some traditions beginning in this story.

Over time the bishop’s robe, staff, mitre, and Bible were replaced with toys and other treats as symbols of St. Nicholas. His name even began to changed form  Sinterklaas toFather Christmas,
Papai Noel, Niklaus, Père Noël, Winter Grandfather, and Christkindl

Over the years Saint Nicholas became something for the children as opposed as a story of compassion and justice for all people.  He became a cartoon character finalized in a coke add in Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s.

Finally Back to where we started and Julie Worcester’s story of Jesus at the Manger she asks “Would Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, approve of the changes? No” she answers. “
 This pastor and priest, Nicholas, would have insisted that the focus be returned to God. Nicholas would have been directing our attention back to the manger of our Savior where Nicholas’ present-day likeness was kneeling. Like the good bishop, we should be pouring over God’s holy word and worshiping the One who came to this earth, fully human, fully alive and fully divine, the One who was sent to free us, free us from our own preconceived boundaries and allow us to be expressions of the God whose image we are created in.

If we look around, we will find that the kneeling Santa is us. As people of Christ, we, the modern day Santas, present ourselves to God with open hearts and open minds in search for opportunities to help those in need. As disciples of Christ, we should not limit to whom and when we should offer help, and we should seek justice for those who have no voice. We can accomplish all these things because of God’s amazing grace.

As I think of the image santa at the manger, I discover that, like Nicholas, I have been transformed. I have knelt before the manger and left as a new creation because of the grace and forgiveness found in Christ. Like Nicholas of old, and the kneeling Santa of today, may we live always in Christ and strive to live as the Spirit leads us, and may the Prince of Peace and Wonderful Counselor be with you and yours this coming new year. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

To Be Silent

Luke 1:67-79

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),

salvation from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us—

to show mercy to our ancestors

and to remember his holy covenant,

the oath he swore to our father Abraham:

to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,

and to enable us to serve him without fear

in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

to shine on those living in darkness

and in the shadow of death,to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

To Be Silent!

In the desert there are these big green thorny trees that have thorns like long nails a comedian I heard call these wait-a-minute trees.  You can be innocently just walking past when suddenly your shirt will catch on one of these thorns and the tree says “wait a minute”,  You have to stop…untangle yourself and then be on your way.

In today’s story Zachariah has a wait- a- minute experience with God which leads to a spirit filled prophecy.

But it all begins with..


To be silent, is to respond to sound in a very physical way because you may have chosen not to speak as in a vow of silence, perhaps one is incapable of speech or perhaps has never heard speech, without speech our response to sound and communication becomes something very different; be that sign language, or drawing a picture or attempting to write, it is very different from what we are used to.  

In the sound of silence Paul Simon writes;

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

Zachariah is living in silence before our reading today. An imposed silence but a silence just the same.

Ken Gehrls the Pastor of Calvin Christian reformed church writes;
“Silence, sometimes, as they say, it can be golden.
But sometimes, well, sometimes, it can be a difficult thing to experience.
Like the silence of the night.
When you lay in bed, alone, with all the thoughts that roar through your brain
you wish you had someone to share them with, but the entire world is asleep except you.
Or the silence of distance.

You'd love to be able to communicate with a loved one. But for whatever reason you cannot reach them. You can remember them. And wish you could touch them, and hear their voice.
That kind of silence can really get to you after a while.
Zachariah’s silence was altogether different;
Zachariah was a priest in the order of Abijah which is of the eighth of the twenty-four courses (or classes) into which David divided the priests, and his wife Elizabeth was of the house of Aaron.  Zachariah as a priest had duties at the temple in Jerusalem which alternated between each of the family lines that had descended from those appointed by king David (1st Chronicles 24:1–19).[1]
The daily blessing of the priests in the Temple serves to open the Heavenly gates of mercy. Through it, the people of Israel merit not only material well-being - including offspring and longevity - but spiritual blessings as well; mercy, Divine protection and the greatest blessing of all... true peace. Since the priests themselves represent the attribute of kindness, their service brings the flow of God's blessing down to His people.
 Luke states that during the week when it was the duty of Zachariah's family line to serve at "the temple of the Lord", the lot for performing the incense offering had fallen to Zachariah while Zachariah ministered at the altar of incense, an angel of the Lord appeared and announced to him that his wife would give birth to a son, whom he was to name John, and that this son would be the forerunner of the messiah.  Gently reminding the angel of their advanced age, Zachariah asked with disbelief for a sign whereby he would know the truth of this prophecy. So the angel identifies itself as Gabriel, sent especially by God to make this announcement, and added that because of Zechariah's doubt he would be struck dumb and "not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed".  Be careful what you ask for! Consequently, when he went out to the waiting worshippers in the temple's outer courts, he was unable to speak the customary blessing (Luke 1:18–22).
So imagine now Zachariah comes out of the temple after performing the ritual with the Incense and here are the people awaiting the blessing from God through the priest and the priest cannot announce God’s blessing.  The priest is silent, therefore, God is silent.
Ken Gerhls  goes on to write;  “Perhaps we don't think about it much, but between the last page of the Old Testament and the first pages of the New Testament is a span of some 400 years. 400 years since the last prophet had declared the divine word of God to His people. 400 years where the space between earth and heaven seemed absolutely monstrous. 400 years during which the silence began to thunder.
Remember - these were the days before the Holy Spirit was poured out.

There were no prophets.

No inner voice of the Spirit.

Just silence.”  Now this silence is emphasized by a priest of the ancient line, who is married to the lineage of Aaron, to be struck dumb.

The story goes on to state that just by looking at him the people could see that he had experienced a vision.  It also goes on to say that Zachariah keeps motioning at them throughout his time to serve.  We don’t know if anyone was able to translate his gestures or what he was trying to say just that when his time in service was done he went home.

Zachariah went home to be silent but, unlike the silence of Yahweh before, this silence was loud and vibrating through his life.  God had truly awakened him and soon the people of Israel as well but, at this time, he could do nothing about it.  It was his and his alone to carry.

Now I find kind-of sacred bracket here, a frame of Holy silence if you will. A prophecy has been proclaimed in stillness.  The silence of 400 years has actually been broken though no one will be aware of it for a nine months.  Yes events of the prophecy start to manifest but until Zachariah speaks no one will know what has transgressed.  Much like the silence between Good Friday and Easter morn a prophecy is fulfilled but no one knows it in the silence in between.

But in this sacred silence of Zachariah what occurs within him?  I assume it was looked upon as some sort of illness or malady.  He probably couldn’t go back to work; he definitely could no longer serve in the temple for many of the duties required verbal prayer, chants and or blessings.  All he could do was go home and be silent and reflect.

Renowned author Gerald May, in Let Your Life Speak, speaks of some of what I think Zachariah was suddenly called into.  In this sacred silence all he could do was take time to listen, and listen, he had to do.  He had to try to understand this prophecy and what turn his life and generations were to take because of it.  He had to try to understand what his life had been, and now, what it is and will be. To this Gerald may says; “I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about- quite apart from what I would like it to be about.” I would add, in Zachariah’s case, what he may have believed his life to be about.  Zachariah, after a lifetime of service to the temple, to God, and to Jerusalem, he had to re-evaluate everything.

This is a sacred time a time of silence and preparation in anticipation of that which is to come in fulfillment of the prophecy by the angel.  (That sentence applies as well to this story as to today in the midst of advent.)    Now, shortly after Zachariah comes home in silence his wife Elizabeth goes into seclusion herself as she is pondering the miracle that has occurred for her. The Gospel states “she stays there for 5 months saying ‘this is what the lord has done for me as God looked favorably on me and took away my disgrace I have endured among my people.’”  The whole house is now in silence waiting for a birth and for the prophecy to be fulfilled.

In the Advent Meditations by Henri Nouwen  it says :

An awaiting person is a patient person.  The word “patience” implies to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.  Patient Living means to live actively in the present and wait there.  Impatient people expect the real thing to happen somewhere else, and therefore they want to get away from their present situation and go elsewhere.  For them, the moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are, waiting.[1]

Here is a whole Household who has chosen to be in silence and stay, and wait, awaiting the promise of God.  Through the moment of Silence the promise of God is roaring, moving, changing lives.  2/3rds of the way through this whole process the angel appears to Mary proclaiming what is to be.  No sooner does Mary hear the news then she runs to visit Elizabeth and at Mary’s greeting the child leaps within her  and “Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41)

Suddenly after 400 years of silence, of going through the motions, after 400 years of waiting, God is active physically in their midst.  It was as if their lives had gone form a grey mundane experience to suddenly have color.  It is like Dorothy stepping from her old tattered and torn farm house in sepia tone out into Oz in full Technicolor.  God is doing amazing things.  Elizabeth is pregnant, Mary is expecting, and Zachariah is in quiet, patient, prayer waiting, waiting for that moment when he will be called to do as the Angel said.

Finally the day arrives when Elizabeth gives birth and everyone knows the name of the child is to be Zachariah but Elizabeth says no it is to be John.  All those around are confused for there is no one in his family named John and tradition holds first born is named after the father or a grandfather on one side of the family or the other.  Zachariah starts shaking his and gesturing no.  Then Zachariah writes; “his name is to be John.”  Now this is when things get really lively.

For the Bible states; “Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” (Luke1:64) Praising God for, for what?  I believe he started praising God for his 9 months of silence.  For his 9 months to pray, observe and wait.  For His chance to review what his life had been and what he once saw as mundane and maybe even as a rut now had meaning and purpose for all of it, everything he had ever done had all led up to this moment the fulfillment of a prophecy and a story that only he could tell from the beginning for he is the only one that was in on it from the beginning.

“Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”  (Luke 1:66)

I find this odd and yet somewhat expected of human nature.  The initial reaction is fear.  There is no mention of fear when a priest comes out of the temple fully dumb and gesturing trying to communicate what had just happened.  No mention of fear when they can see that he truly had some experience of God.  No mention of fear when a woman who has been barren suddenly comes out of seclusion 5 months pregnant. 

Yet a man is suddenly relieved of his affliction and starts to praise God for the miracles he is witness too and now there is fear!  Why, because the name of God is spoken aloud in Joy?   Why because a prophecy is fulfilled? Or is it more to do with the Prophecy, today’s reading, the Canticle of Zachariah.

For now God is no longer silent. Zachariah proclaims and claims all That which the people had read so much about as happening to the father of faith, patriarch Abraham, and through the generations  of prophets and to the people -
- that was now continuing and coming to fruition among them!

And more would be to come. That's what the prophetic song speaks of - loud and clear for all to hear. No more silence here!
God is redeeming the people. Meaning God is coming to push their enemy out of the way. God is coming to set them free. God is about to become God incarnate, the Human One who would bring salvation to all people.

There would be a future without fear where they could live in the presence of the Holy One, serving the Creator in holiness and righteousness. Meaning they would have the assurance of belonging to God – whole-ly and completely.  They would be able to focus on living God’s will and focusing on being a people of God – living rightly and freely. Nothing would be able to rip them away from God ever again.
No more silence.
No more distance.
No more waiting for distant prophesies to be fulfilled.

That's Zechariah's song, a song of hope, a song of prophecy, a song with which all the events of the advent season are ignited. Now God is once again active in the world, never to be silent again. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has looked favorably on his people.” (Luke1:68)
In this, our advent time, we take time to remember how people prepared for the coming of the Christed One, the anointed one, the One in whom the saving power of God was manifested in human flesh. We prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ physically in this world over 2000 years ago and daily in us. Daily, in moments of silence, daily in those times when we choose to stop and see God active in our lives and we can proclaim, because of this, our lives are never mundane and that; “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


[1] Advent Meditations Fromt He Writings of Henri Nouwen (Fenton, MO: Creative Communications for the pariash, 2007), 10.