Things Jesus Said. . . and meant (3)

Jesus’ view of family was expansive. He loved his mother and all his extended family, but his views of family went far beyond blood relationships.  The gospel of Mark tells us that “all who do the will of God” were considered to be the mother,  brother and sister of Jesus (Matt. 12:50).

When Jesus was hanging on the cross, slowly losing his life, he saw his mother standing there, along with “the disciple he loved” (possibly John, the one who wrote the gospel with this story). Knowing that he could no longer care for his mother, he asked this disciple to care for her…and for her to take care of the disciple:

40 Lent--Holy Week--Words of Jesus--Woman here is your son (click on image to enlarge)

Over the centuries, Christians have interpreted this in a variety of ways, and that is as it should be. Scripture is full of meaning–many layers of meaning, like a poem.

 So what does this bible passage speak to me today? I’m thinking about how this nearly-final utterance of Jesus crosses boundaries. Jesus could have told Mary to go live with her brother, uncle, or cousin. Instead, he asks Mary to take up residence with his friend, a disciple.

His choice is significant because it breaks with blood relationships–and, I assume, the social/religious customs of his time and place.

Jesus’ mother, Mary, enters into a kind of familial relationship with the disciple. John is to treat Mary as his mother, and Mary is to treat John as her son. Considering their culture, this makes it quite likely that Mary would go to live at John’s home, or that John might go to live with her.

All this reminds me that Jesus invites us to view others outside of our blood relatives, as if they were family members. “Love one another” is not only a slogan for those in one’s family, but rather reaches down the street, through the village, beyond culture and nationality–and, in our time, into the global community.

This is especially relevant in this time of intense polarization in my country. Jesus does not love only Democrats or Republicans; rather Jesus loves them all as members of his family. Jesus does not love only “straight” or only “gay” people–Jesus loves them all, and welcomes all to be his “brother” or “sister.” Christ does not view people outside of the Christian church as enemies, but rather as created by God, loved by God, as children of God.

 This is what I believe: Jesus loved all people while dying on the cross.  Jesus died to bring life to the world… the whole world, and all the people in it.

And Jesus continues, this day and into the future, to love all people.

Until next time, Amen! 

Visual Meditation: Attending the Mystery of the Incarnation at Christmas

How do you picture the birth of Christ? Do you think of a little Nativity scene like the one sold in stores, Mary kneeling in adoration beside the Baby Jesus, with the protective Joseph standing with staff in hand? Are there angels, shepherds, and wise men? Who or what do they represent? A historical moment or an ongoing spiritual mystery?

For people of Eastern Christian heritage, Christ’s Nativity is recalled using a highly symbolic picture, called a sacred icon. (“Icon” is the Greek word for “image.”) This image is created in such a way to act as a sacramental window into deeper spiritual truths. The icon below is a modern example of a Nativity icon.

Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.
Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. http://www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.

Religious icons are not only beautiful works of art, but more importantly, created as a instrument for pondering the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. One meditates on the works of God by beholding the various truths represented in the icon and “pondering all these things” in one’s heart.

In the icon above, the various bible stories surrounding the birth of the Messiah are portrayed around the central figure of Mary and the Christ Child. Many events are portrayed, but each little picture relates to what is at the center, the birth of Christ. In this manner, we are reminded that, as Christians, Christ is to be the center focus of our lives.

Most of us can readily pick out the three wise men, angels, and shepherds in this icon. But if you go a little deeper, you will see the wise men are of differing ages, proving that God’s wisdom can dwell in people of any age. Two angels have their hands in the ancient open position of prayer, their “job” being to glorify God (something we are also to do). The other angel is descending from the heavens, to bring the good news of Christ’s birth to shepherds on earth (bringing good news of Christ to others is something we are to do, too!).

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--MidwivesIn the lower righthand corner, midwives wash the newborn Babe, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, the strips of cloth used for ordinary newborns of the time. This story of the midwives, told ancient written sources, reminds us that Christ was not only divine, but also truly human. (The direct line from the star at the top reminds us of Christ’s divine nature, and that he came to dwell in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.)

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--JosephJoseph’s posture, with his back to Mary & the child, startles me.  Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky explains that the figure next to Joseph is the devil disguised as a shepherd, who is tempting Joseph to doubt in the miracle of Virgin Birth. (Remember how Joseph doubted Mary’s word about the angel at first?) Despite this, his halo reminds us that he was a holy man, redeemed by Christ and loved by God.

Returning to the central focus of the icon, Mary gives birth to the Christ Child, placing him in a manger box that also symbolizes the church and tomb.  Christ is born in a dark cave–he enters into the “darkness” of this world in order to overcome sin, evil, and death. (The golden light in icons is a symbol for God, the unapproachable Light, who nevertheless choses to enter into our earthly reality.)

With so much suffering in the world, the Nativity icon reminds us that no matter who we are–wise scholars or simple shepherds, young virgins or doubting Josephs–Christ comes to free us from sin, to re-create us into adopted sons and daughters of God. No matter what we have done or failed to do in the past, God reaches out to us now, in this and every moment, with unfailing divine love.

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--Mother & Child

This is reason for Christmas joy.

Until next time, Amen!

Note: Many thanks to The Printery House for help with information and the image for this blog post. Read more or purchase this icon at www.printeryhouse.org (click here)

3-Minute Prayer Break–Say Yes by Bob Franke

The Advent/Christmas season is a blessed time for all, but sometimes it can be a painful time for those who experience separation from loved ones (as, for example, in time of war) or death of close friends or relatives.

When Mary said yes to the angel Gabriel (see last post), it was surely an exciting and joyous time, even if there was the terrifying side of being chosen as mother of the Son of God. It is right to celebrate the joyous event of the Incarnation, but sometimes we forget the high price Mary paid to follow through on her commitment to God.

In her obedience to God, Mary almost lost Joseph. Surely some people ridiculed her for having a child out-of-wedlock, perhaps even more so if she tried to explain about the angel’s involvement. Later, she and Joseph would face the labor of birthing in Bethlehem, away from familiar surroundings. They would have to flee as political refugees to a foreign land to save their child from death. One day, Mary would see her beloved child put to death on the cross.

Saying “yes” to God carries the great joy of new life and resurrection, but sometimes we Americans forget what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship.” Following Christ is not always easy.  

Below is a 3-minute prayer break, a mini-time-out from the busyness of holiday preparations. The song “Say Yes” by Bob Franke (name rhymes with Yankee) reminds us to stay true to Christ even when the going gets tough. (Thanks to Barbara Keffer for sending it to me! And, of course, thanks to Bob Franke for such an inspiring song.)

If you are receiving this message via e-mail, the YouTube video may not appear. You can find it by visiting YouTube and typing in the search window these words: say yes by bob franke . It’s worth the effort.

May God grant you a peace-filled Christmas and bless you in 2012!

Until next time, Amen!

Theotokos–Carrying Christ our Light

 “Greetings,  favored one! The Lord is with you. . . Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” –The angel Gabriel to Mary, in Luke 1:28, 30-31.

If you’ve ever been on crutches, you know that carrying things is a challenge. I broke my leg a few weeks ago, and find myself stuffing cans of pop into my sweater pockets, shuffling dishes along the countertop, and sliding books along the floor using my crutch as a hockey stick (apologies to librarians!). Objects tucked into my waistband tumbled to the floor so many times I wished I was a kangaroo with a built-in giant pocket.

In the midst of this, Advent began and I found myself thinking about the mystery of the Incarnation. It would not have mattered if Mary had used crutches: the baby Jesus was growing deep within her womb and naturally went with her everywhere she went.

Theotokos--detail from the Virgin of the Sign Icon

In the Eastern Christian Church, the mother of Jesus is often called Theotokos, a Greek title that means “God-Bearer.” Mary carried Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, within her being in a literal sense, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Early church fathers observed that while Christ was truly divine, his truly human side grew out of Mary’s flesh and blood.

That a woman of 2,000 years ago carried Christ within her, feeding him from her very body through the umbilical cord, is reason enough to be filled with awe and wonder. However, this amazing spiritual truth does not end there. For Mary, as premiere disciple, is a model or “spiritual type” of what we are also called to do. We are to carry Christ within our hearts and souls, to “give birth” by bringing his words of mercy and his compassionate presence to all those we encounter.

In this manner, the words of the angel Gabriel are also addressed to each one of us: “Greetings, favored one!” (“Hail, Mary, full of grace!”). Each one of us, and all of us together, are “favored” by God, shown by the superabundant love of Christ by his dying for the whole world.  As a result, we, too, are favored, that is, graced by God,  and chosen to bring the Christ our Light into the world.

May God bless you this Advent and Christmas season–and may the Spirit empower you more and more each day to “give birth” to Christ in the world.

Until next time, Amen!

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Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Married Contemplative

Some Christians think of the month of May as a time for honoring the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, known also as “Mother of God” or the “Theotokos” (the God-Bearer). Where I live, May is the month when the earth comes to life again after the long Minnesota winter, and families celebrate Mother’s Day. Below is a spiritual reflection I wrote about Jesus’ mother, a short excerpt from a book I wrote.
 

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. –Luke 2:19.

Was Mary a nun or a wife? Growing up Catholic, I associated Mary more with nuns than with married women. After all, she wore long, voluminous garments and a veil like that of the nuns who taught my religion class. Her statue was displayed clear across the church from that of Joseph; even in the manger scene they kept a respectful distance. Although I hadn’t a clue about the meaning of the phrase “ever virgin,” I clearly understood that Mary and Joseph were a special case.

The above Scripture verse (along with a similar one, Luke 2:51) is often used to represent the prayerful, contemplative side of Mary. She marvels at the surprise visit of the shepherds, who speak of heavenly beings revealing that her baby is the Messiah and Lord. Mary carefully stores the amazing details into the motherly scrapbook of her heart.

In the Bible, the “heart” is the hidden center of the entire person. In the heart one thinks, discerns, feels, hopes, reasons, and intuits. The heart is the inner space within, the place in which one encounters the Living God. When Mary ponders things in her heart, she is prayerfully mediating on the mystery of God acting in her life. Luke paints a picture, not of a stereotypical peasant woman, thought to be of no account, but of a woman who thinks, reasons, remembers, and meditates, trying to put all the pieces of her life together to make sense of God’s plan.

Because of this, Mary is sometimes called the contemplative par excellence. Yet, contrary to what we might subconsciously think, Mary was not a vowed nun. She experiences God’s presence while cooking for her family, nursing her baby, or stroking her husband’s hair as they drift off to sleep. She meditates while walking to the town well to fetch water and prays while baking bread or weaving fabric. Mary’s heart is open and pure, praying and acting in total communion with God at all times. In short, she is the married contemplative.

–Excerpt from The Pearl of Great Price: Gospel Wisdom for Christian Marriage by Julie McCarty (Liturgical Press), pages 28-29.

Spiritual Aerobics

For journaling or small group discussion 

1. How do I think of prayer and the life of married couples, families, or other laypersons? Is deep holiness and prayer only for those viewed as the “professional religious” (priests, ministers, parish staff, nuns, etc.)? Is that what Jesus taught in the gospel?

2. Get creative: How would you portray Jesus’ mother in drawing, collage, paint, clay, or other art form? You don’t have to be an artist. How do you imagine her daily life? How did she pray when the angel Gabriel wasn’t visibly present?

3. Is every Christian or every human called to be contemplative? Just what does that word “contemplative” mean to you, and what might it mean for the future of Christianity?