Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hear the Magi, Christmas is a time to search and discern well!

St. Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Christmas is a time when we come together in a rushed time of holidays, get together, shopping, exchanging gifts and making and buying cakes. The lent comes to an end with a lavish spread shared between family. It is a celebration befitting a kingly and grand occasion and the birth of Christ is indeed lavishly and joyfully remembered. But what does Christmas symbolize? It does among many things symbolize the realization and search of spirituality by the Magi (wise people) and takes us back to the time when the Magi and King Herod looked at the same birth in two different ways.

The Magi followed the star and thought of the great one as being naturally in the palace and kingdom and may have been misled into thinking that Herod would know about the whereabouts of the child Jesus? It might have been natural for them to think that the child would be in a palace. But they are not helped by Herod as the birth is news for him as well. He is shocked that someone else could come to question his authority and his stranglehold on the people. Rather than being happy about the news, he is worried and he calls his advisors to know what this is all about. They confirm his worst fears and he thinks about what to do in the light of a new challenger to his unquestioned rule.

He does what he thinks best and that is to make the Magi spy on his behalf. He outsources the spy work that would have been done by his own army, to the wise people. Either this was a horrible short sight from his part or he was so confident that the Magi would be faithful to his power and arrogance that he left the job with them. His own wise men also fail him because they did not inform him about this before he came to know through the Magi. The Magi follow the star, see the baby, offer their gifts and go their way. This passage speaks to us in a big way in a time like Christmas.

One, the wise people come to the palace because they are misled like many of us that spirituality and prosperity are interlinked. They expect the baby in the palace and perhaps stop trusting the star. It was natural, like it is for all of us to trust the leader that we have and expect good things to come from the leader. Why would one expect anything else? But this is not what happens. To the contrary the leader is the opposite of what they think. He is scared and challenged by the news of the birth of the Messiah and a ruler other than himself, even if it was for the good of all. Power, position and authority don’t mean truth and sincerity. Our society teaches us to overly depend on positions and people in places of authority so blindly that we finally end up being like the wise people who went to Herod trusting him. They did what we would do today.

Two, listen to your voice which may sometimes be the opposite of what people in authority say. The Magi fall into the trap laid by Herod and they go to see the baby as spies of Herod, without being aware of it themselves. They also fulfill the official duty of representing the authorities, although they originally come of their own accord. But after they see, pay homage to and give the baby the gifts they had brought, they make a very important decision. That is to not listen to Herod and instead go their own way. Till here Herod has everything covered. But the wise people trust the voice of God which comes to them and question authority and the role given to them and move on. Even though they were law abiding citizens, they listen to a higher voice which tells them to stand for truth rather than authority laced with abuse of power and corrupt practices. This nice group of people pulls of a coup without making a bone of it.

So let this Christmas be a time of two things. We should be able to search to see where the Messiah is. We should also bring ourselves to a position of accepting that the Messiah is in a place we least expect. We should also be able to discern for ourselves and go against the official point of view of being spies for people in authority and have the courage to being followers of the light which will lead us to our own paths and our own decisions. Amen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

St.Joseph: Powering us to a higher spiritual realm

St. Matthew 1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[b] and he named him Jesus.

The passage talks about the seldom revealed and exalted Joseph, husband of Mother Mary and father to Jesus. Joseph in comparison with local culture and customs is the man who takes a step back so that the woman he is betrothed to can take a step forward. Today, in all probability he would be referred to as the weak husband who does not speak and remains powerless in front of his wife. Yet Joseph’s powerlessness becomes Mother Mary’s and our power. That he chose not to express his power and his position makes him someone who took the route of equitable spirituality, meaning spirituality for all with special emphasis on exaltation of the vulnerable.

Mary was vulnerable in the position that she was in. She had nothing to let go off. But Joseph could let go of many things and it is this letting go which we can indeed learn from. Joseph lets go of his ego, his manliness, his position of future husband and plan maker. He leaves everything so that God’s will be done on earth. Only those with power and some leverage can let go and become powerless. In terms of countries of the world, it is pointless to expect a country like Nepal to let go of what they have in comparison to the USA. It is only when someone with power lets go that it becomes sacrifice. Joseph here sacrifices and it is a sacrifice which will in our society be looked upon as weakness and the act of a spineless man.

Mary had nothing much to let go off. Joseph on the other hand had something to let go. He was respected, he had status in the eyes of the general public, he had a reasonable amount of money and he had age on his side as signs of a man who had much more than the woman he was betrothed to. His reaction on knowing about the pregnancy of Mary was decent and even unexpected. He was already being a gentleman. But God wanted more. It was not just to be a gentleman but to let go of everything which defined who he was. That was what God wanted of him.

Spirituality is easy to define when everything is from our perspective. It is our God, our church, our family, our blessing and everything is in the singular with the emphasis on I, me and myself. Spirituality becomes more complex when it has to be shared and the challenge is for those of us who are in positions of power to devolve ourselves of the power we have and share it with others.

1. Powerful to power-us- situations where one has to be powerless are criticized especially when people with no power have to further give up what they have. In family, church and societal contexts there should become a guiding principle where we can share power. Individual spirituality then becomes equitable spirituality where everyone is treated the same way and everyone has access to the grace of God. Joseph is powerful in comparison with Mary and yet when the angel tells him about Jesus, the baby who is to be born and is to save people from their sins, he turns this equation around. Immanuel, meaning God is with us leads Joseph to change his situation of power which was individual and unidirectional into power-us and not powerless. When husbands treat their wife’s with respect and give opportunities to them, society sees it as loss of power for the husband. But rather than being loss of power it is sharing of power.

2. Godless to God is with us- we are always expectant of great things in our life. This expectation also goes to the extent of hoping that God be with us, and Immanuel becomes a great hope of God being with us. But our life becomes a sign of us forgetting the immense role of God in our lives. We move away from God and move onto our own thoughts which exclude others from the grace of God. Our acts end up being Godless acts of selfishness and greed which take away the essence of spirituality from us. The understanding that God is with us should also bring us to the understanding that we have become power-us, meaning that we have to work with God and do acts of Godliness in our lives. This brings upon great responsibility in our lives and will allow us to look at things from the perspective of God and God’s willingness to power-us. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Let God’s grace empower us to speak up

St. Luke 1:57-80
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Zechariah’s Prophecy
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior[a] for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[b] us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Elizabeth and Zechariah rejoice along with others on Elizabeth giving birth to a child. The people rejoice with them as well. But then they come to the point of having to make a critical decision. They have to name the baby. Those present naturally think it is going to be Zechariah, coming from the father and meaning “God remembers.” But to everyone’s surprise Elizabeth says that the baby’s name should be John which means “God is gracious.” The remembrance changes into the grace of God.

The onus immediately rests with Zechariah and he asks for a writing tablet. He could have written his own name giving importance to himself. But instead he writes John, giving all importance to God and God’s justice. “Unfortunately we sometimes write for ourselves. We should be able to transcend this and write for the benefit of others and for the rightful justice of others.”1 Zechariah was aware of what the angel told him but I don’t think that fear lead him to say what he did. Instead he does what he thinks is just and right. He writes perhaps what is the most important thing that he has ever written in his life.

Zechariah is aware of the justice people are yearning for. This can come only through God and acts of people who are close to God. Dec 2nd and 3rd commemorated thirty years of the worst industrial incident that took place in Bhopal. Thousands were killed and lakhs of people were maimed for life. Even today, children are suffering the after effects of the pollution which was brought about by corporate greed. But many have forgotten that Bhopal ever happened and others feel that they don’t live in Bhopal and so need not worry about it.

Elizabeth and Zechariah may not have had personal difficulties and problems. But the problems of others become their problems and the birth of a child to them becomes also their crusade against injustice. Zechariah regains his voice and prophesies
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[b] us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

How meaningful a hope is this for people who have been suffering from human made calamities? Zechariah does not just speak to those who were there but offers hope to us, that darkness will indeed turn to light and things will turn around.

In the advent it is easy to get caught up with the spirit of the Christmas season with the gifts and festivities. For children the Christmas father, St. Nicholas becomes an unavoidable presence during carol rounds and celebrations. But how can we become like Zechariah and Elizabeth whose happiness was in bringing happiness to others? The grace of God or God is gracious was an onus to speak up and write for the justice and well being of others. This indeed gives others hope during the Christmas season. It is not anymore to suggest that this is our festival of remembering the birth of Jesus but to say that Jesus will open our mouths from slumber and inaction and make us strong and energetic however young or old we are.

It is not just to say that we remember, and this season is a festival of remembrance but to say that this is a time which tells us that God is gracious. Our gracious God will make us rise and prophecy like Zechariah did. We will be able to say that people who are made to suffer in darkness will indeed see light through the grace of God and the collective goodness of God’s people who come forward to work for God. May God be gracious and may we be graceful to use God’s grace for the betterment of humanity. Amen.


Picture courtesy

Monday, December 1, 2014

Let’s make this world a better place

St. Luke 1:39-56

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[a] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary[b] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Mary goes to meet Elizabeth. Mary’s presence itself makes a difference and the baby in the womb of Elizabeth leaps with joy. Our presence should ignite and make happy those who see us. A Christian should bring happiness by his/her presence and this happiness is possible only with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth feels the joy of life in her womb when Mother Mary comes. The ordinary woman Mary who becomes extra ordinary with the acceptance of God in her life, gives hope and life to others and especially in this instance to her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary goes into a trance of happiness and speaks God’s revelation to her. She talks of the sense and art of giving. When we keep whatever is with us, in our own hands, it does not lead to any happiness but rather to tensions. On the other hand when we are willing to give, we bring about the opportunity to renew ourselves and strengthen ourselves even more. It is not by giving that we weaken ourselves but by keeping and not giving that we weaken ourselves beyond repair.

In Mother Mary’s case this is made clear by God. God gives to Mary out of God’s immense riches. God does not keep to God’s self but rather wants God’s will to be done through her, a poor young lady. If God would have been like us and hardened God’s mind, Mary would never have been chosen. Both Elizabeth and Mother Mary realize this. Elizabeth proclaims “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and she then makes this proclamation. Mother Mary carries on from Elizabeth when she realizes for herself and says “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Mother Mary then makes the most important song of praise or magnificat. She says
“His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

St. Mary through this suggests a turn of events where the strong will become weak because they have never emptied themselves and chosen to be weak by themselves. The biblical notion of the weak becoming the strong is lost on some people. Mother Mary reminds us that her elevation suggests the bringing down of the proud, powerful and rich. Instead the mercy of God will be on those who need it and this will lift the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.

Mother Mary shows us two important things. The will to come down and help from a position of power is very theological and Godly. It does not suggest defeat but to the contrary points to victory. God chooses a young and ordinary woman to exalt not just Mother Mary but the thinking and wish of God’s self. No one loses in the church by coming down from a position of power and offering ourselves to work for God. That is not foolishness but it is newness.

Secondly, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, whereas those who humble themselves will be exalted. A lot of people work very hard for the church but once riches come in they tend to forget the church and the needs of the church. But feeding the poor and ensuring that the poor change their status and become rich one day is the responsibility of all. This parity has to be attained in significant ways. It is interesting that Mary on being exalted by God and praised by Elizabeth does not hold on to the peak of achievement, rather she talks of the lowly and the hungry and sings hope for the lowly and the poor. Such is the inspiration we receive from Mother Mary. It is not anymore to say that I can lay back and live my life but to say that I am an object in the hands of God through which God is going to do God’s will on earth.

Are we capable of following the model of St. Mary? She forms the inspiration not just for Elizabeth but also for the baby in her womb. The baby gets a sense of the Holy Spirit inside Mother Mary and wakes up to the fact that the world is going to be a better place. This is the better place that St. Mary sings about. Let us join hands together to make this world a better place. Amen.

Excerpts from the sermon preached in St.Ignatius JSO church, K. R. Puram, Bangalore on November 30, 2014.
Picture courtesy