Advent 2013: The Usual Suspects

oil_lampA few thoughts after posting 2013’s fourth and final Advent reflection . . .

This year, my reading of the familiar—oh so familiar—scriptures inspired me to imagine a few moments in the lives of Advent’s “usual suspects.” As always, I didn’t know exactly what I’d write until each essay was finished. But I was confident Isaiah would make an appearance, initially assumed Mary or Joseph (or both) would be ignored, and had no idea a Pharisee would encounter John the Baptizer. Ah well . . . humans plan, the Holy chuckles.

As the digital dust began to settle, these questions nudged me . . .

  • What caused Isaiah to claim the imagery of turning swords into plowshares?
  • What made John the Baptist’s message compelling, but inadequate, especially in the eyes of a “religious authority?”
  • Wouldn’t self-doubt and confidence accompany Mary’s anticipation of birth? And . . . could Mary have heard Hannah’s song/prayer for inspiration?
  • Why did Joseph, key to the nativity stories, vanish from the verses that followed?

Behind all the questions is a core belief: Christmas is a myth. The facts about Jesus’ birth are sparse and pedestrian. He was born. He had parents and siblings. And from birth to death, Jesus lived under Rome’s brutal, corrupt government. Continue reading →

Down By The River

Matthew 3:1-12  – The Second Sunday of Advent – for December 8, 2013

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…” (Matthew 3:1-12)

The Jordan River, just around the next bend...
The Jordan River, just around the next bend…

I came to this godforsaken place because everyone came.

Some traveled from as far away as Jerusalem. I could tell by their accents and how they acted superior to the rest of us.

I didn’t want to come.

I did want to come.

For weeks, in town, and in the countryside beyond, the gossip had all been about the wild man, about how no one had heard of him, and then it was as if he’d become more popular than praying for rain or despising the Romans.

I’d heard the snide comments.

The wild man ate insects down by the river!

“He’s got the brain of a locust,” a friend of my father muttered two days ago. “Why bother with him? Let him shout and curse. Like all the crawling creeping things, he’ll be gone by season’s end.”

But I’d seen my father’s friend sneak away to the river. Don’t actions speak louder than words?

The wild man feasted on honey down by the river!

A scrawny kid, just outside the synagogue yesterday, in a shrill voice I couldn’t ignore, claimed he’d seen the man reach into a beehive to scoop out sweet nectar. Continue reading →

Yes or No?

Luke 18:9-14  – The 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, October 27, 2013

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…” (Luke 18:10)

Black and White signJack Reacher is one of my guilty pleasures. He is author Lee Childs’ fictional hero of numerous best-selling mystery novels. Strong and self-assured, Reacher travels America with his wits, the clothes on his back, a toothbrush and saves the day by the conclusion of each novel. The former military cop goes where hitchhiking or a bus will take him. With Reacher, author Childs has created pure reading escapism; there’s not much thinking and lots of action.

Last month I finished Childs’ Never Go Back (2013). Perhaps halfway through the novel, one of Reacher’s decision strategies began to irk me. In scene after scene, he claimed the choices he faced were 50-50 propositions. Yes or no. He’d go this way or the other way. The bad guy will appear now or he wouldn’t. The next action will be correct or incorrect. And yet, as irritated as I became with tough guy Reacher depicting such a black-and-white world, a nagging corner of my mind agreed with his logic.

(Or, maybe—dare I say it—his faith?)

Jack Reacher’s stark worldview also crept into my wondering about Jesus’ parable of the bragging Pharisee and lowly tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

The Pharisee touted his accomplishments in the synagogue. He was loud, proud and darn happy to be overheard in a crowd. The tax collector, “standing far off,” simply cried for mercy. He confessed he was a sinner. Or, if you’d prefer fancier language, he’d fallen short of the glory of God. He felt a failure.

Two people.

As is oft the case after reading Jesus’ stories, I wondered . . . which one am I like? Mr. Pharisee or Mr. Tax?

The Bible does this quite often. Cain or Abel? Joseph or his brothers? Jacob or Esau? Moses or Aaron? Thomas or the rest of the disciples? Judas or the rest of the disciples? Peter or Paul? (And, since an inordinate number of This or That choices in the Bible are men, another 50-50 decision for modern readers could be: do I think the only worthwhile examples for faithful/faithless choices are found in the Bible’s male-centric worldview? But that’s an exploration for another day.)

Today, with a catch in my throat, I persist with my question . . . am I more like the haughty Pharisee or the humble tax collector?

One, or the other? Continue reading →