24 December 2007

merry christmas to all

As we celebrate the feast of our Lord's nativity, I want to wish everyone a blessed season and a happy new year. I will return to blogging when the holidays are past.

In the meantime, may God's Spirit lead us to wonder anew at the strangeness of the event we celebrate: of the Creator of all things born of a virgin's womb, the One whom all the universe could not contain held in an animal's feeding trough, the mouth that spoke the cosmos into being suckling at a mother's breast, the hands that set the stars in their heavens clutching Mary's hair.

When the time had fully come, he who was rich beyond all splendor for our sake became poor - cold, helpless, homeless, marked by the scandal of a pregnant girl at first unwed, under the oppression of imperial power, subject to a wicked local regime, and forced to winter the night in a barn because of an emperor's whim.

He met us in middle our of own human ruin in order to bring us to a world made new. Let us remember and wonder at such a God as this.
Eternal God,
in the stillness of this night
you sent your almighty Word
to pierce the world's darkness with the light of salvation:
give to the earth the peace that we long for
and fill our hearts with the joy of heaven
through our Savior, Jesus Christ.

08 December 2007

advent: hans urs von balthasar

From an Advent message by Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) in "You Crown the Year with Your Goodness": Sermons throughout the Liturgical Year (Ignatius 1987):
At this point we must remember that it is not the Judgment, with its measuring rod, that is ultimate; what is ultimate is the opening of the door to eternal life: "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" - and even earlier, as Paul tells us: "God chose us in his before the foundation of the world." All that constitutes the world, all that has shape and form and outline, is really only a parable. Not in the sense that it must vanish in smoke and mist to make room for the Infinite, for all room and all places belong to God and he grant his creatures an eternal place with him. But the finite is not petrified: it is a fluid motion, coming from God and returning to him. "I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father." Our following of Christ is also drawn into his Ascension, his return to God's heart. The Image, Christ, opens and points beyond himself to his Origin; he is utterly and totally the exposition of the Primal Ground; he is our invitation and initiation into the mystery of God's heart.

In the Son's parousia there takes place the parousia of the Father, which is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit; we are endowed with this Spirit in advance, so that we may live in the bridal, thirsting longing for God's coming, as the Bible's final words tell us: "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come!' And let the one who hears say, 'Come!' And let the one who is thirsty come and take the water of life without price" (Rev 22:17).

06 December 2007

st nicholas day

This morning my five year old daughter Claire awoke wanting to run downstairs and check her shoes. Last night she'd left them, along with her stocking, by the main ductwork of our heating system, which in our home is marked out by a pretty, though faux chimneypiece, a dark green tile "firebox," and an antique heat vent of ironwork in a vine pattern.

Fortunately, the secret emissary (otherwise known as my lovely wife, Laurel) who was sent to help commemorate St. Nicholas had the wherewithal to place the candy-filled shoes up on the mantle - out of the reach of a curious feline who is invariably attracted to anything in a shiny foil wrapper, the ravenous canine who will eat anything below knee-level, and the chocolate-melting forced hot air that blows considerably less from the vent after midnight.

Today, of course, is December 6th, on which the church has long remembered the onetime Bishop of Myra who died on this day in AD 342. Nicholas had been born to a wealthy Christian family, though was later orphaned during an epidemic, after which he sold his inheritance to succor the needs of the poor and sick of his region of what is now modern Turkey.

During his lifetime he was known for his loving kindness to children, great deeds of generosity, and concern for sailors and ships. Like many bishops in his day, he suffered persecution and exile during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, though later was able to enjoy freedom after the Edict of Milan proclaimed religious tolerance in 313, paving the way for the great gathering of bishops at Nicaea in 325, which Nicholas attended.

Perhaps the most well known customs surrounding St. Nicholas - the ones in which our Claire joined - have to do with a story concerning the three daughters of a very poor man. In centuries past, only a girl with a sizable dowry would have been marriageable. With three daughters, a poor man might be able to scrape enough together in order to marry off at least one daughter, leaving the others to stay at home, be sold into slavery, or enter the life of a religious celibate.

In this particular case, the man was so poor, that none of his daughters could marry and they faced the dire possibility of slavery, which was often attended by a rather worse fate for girls, as is likewise the case even today with female victims of human trafficking. (That observation, on a lighter note, calls to mind Claire's comment, while helping decorate the tree this past weekend. Laurel was placing the ornaments on the tree as Claire took them from their box, making sure each had a wire hanger attached. Our five year old quipped, "Mommy, you can be a hanger and I'll be a hooker.")

Returning to the story of the poor man: one morning, the legend goes, the man awoke to find that a stocking hung by the fire to dry now bulged with a sack of gold coins, apparently tossed in through the open window. It would be enough for one daughter's dowry. Another night a second sack of gold appeared, providing for a second daughter and then, another night, a third sack of gold. And so, through the secret generosity of Bishop Nicholas, the girls were rescued from what would otherwise have been a most unfortunate future.

And these sorts of stories have shaped traditions down to contemporary culture from the Greeks to the Dutch and beyond. In his wonderfully and wistfully funny book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, story writer David Sedaris tells of a trip to the Netherlands in which a Dutch friend explained to him their customs concerning St. Nicholas.

Sedaris notes how, unlike the "jolly, obese American Santa," the saint is "painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy" - of course, a reference to the bishop's mitre, from Nicholas' former vocation in Myra. Sedaris comments upon how wrongly this struck him, noting that St. Nick is "not retired and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. It's too dangerous there and the people wouldn't appreciate him."

Sedaris continues by relating how, in Dutch versions of St. Nicholas, instead of elves, the saint is accompanied by six to eight black men (a curious holdover from an era in which African slavery prevailed, ironic given Nicholas' efforts to rescue others from slavery). And, rather than leaving lumps of coal for naughty children, he kicks them and beats them with a switch or, in the case of especially recalcitrant delinquents, throws them into his sack and sails away with them.

Sedaris' whole story is well worth a read, simply for the comedic value. But his story does underscore what a travesty St. Nicholas has become under the care of his American handlers who, in keeping with our so-called "values," have fattened him up on cola and corn chips, put him on jolly-producing Prozac, privatized his religion, and set him working to make sure the 2007 sales figures exceed last year's.

Over the centuries, our European ancestors' children commemorated the life and Christian witness of Nicholas as the good Bishop of Myra and servant of Jesus Christ. In many cultures they would place their shoes or a stocking by the fire (or radiator or stove or, in our case, heat vent) on the eve of December 6th, often filled with hay or carrots or a turnip for St. Nicholas' horse (no, not reindeer, which were hardly common in 4th century Asia Minor). Then, in the morning, they would find those shoes and stockings filled with oranges or a handful of change or treats or gold foil wrapped chocolate coins, reminding them of the stories associated with this great saint of the church.

Today Claire - who knows the story of kind pastor Nicholas who lived long ago - was probably among a dwindling number of heirs to these older traditions, though even her experience had its own contemporary twist. In addition to foil wrapped chocolate kisses and candy canes reminiscent of a bishop's crozier, she found a new lavender shirt with a silver and white glittering steed emblazoned across the front, which she immediately recognized as Nicholas' trusty horse.

For more on life and legends of Nicholas of Myra visit the St Nicholas Center online.
Almighty God, in your love
you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra
a perpetual name for deeds of kindness
both on land and sea:
Grant, we pray,
that your Church may never cease to work
for the happiness of children,
the safety of sailors,
the relief of the poor,
and the help of those tossed
by tempests of doubt or grief;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

04 December 2007

advent: augustine

From a sermon by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), concerning the final advent of Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead:
The first coming of Christ the Lord, God's Son and our God, was in obscurity; the second will be in sight of the whole world. When he came in obscurity no one recognized him but his own servants; when he comes openly he will be known by both good people and bad. When he came in obscurity it was to be judged; when he comes openly it will be to judge. He was silent at his trial, as the prophet foretold: "He was like a sheep led to the slaughter, like a lamb before his shearers. He did not open his mouth." But, "Our God will come openly; our God will come and not keep silence." Silent when accused, he will not be silent as judge. And he is not silent now. By no means; when people of today recognize his voice and despise him, Scripture assures us he will not be silent...

But if he always gave sentence now, there would be nothing left for the Day of Judgment. That is why much is kept for that day; but in order to put fear of God into those whose cases are deferred, that they might be converted, some judgments are made here and now. Yet it is clear that God takes no pleasure in condemning. His desire is to save, and he bears patiently with evil people in order to make them good. Still, we have the Apostle's warning, "The wrath of God will be revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and God will reward each one according to his deeds"...Do you despise him and think his judgment a matter of no account because he is good to you, because he is long-suffering and bears with you patiently, because he delays the day of reckoning and does not destroy you out of hand? "Do you not know that the patience of God is meant to lead you to repentance?"

02 December 2007

advent 1

This morning we awoke to a light dusting of snow, marking a definite change in season. Autumn lingered late this year, with leaves on many of the trees even just a few days ago, brilliant with gold and red. But now, looking out the window, a dull gray blankets the landscape, brightened only by patches of white snow and the warm lights of neighbor's windows.

Laurel and Claire (with some help from me) spent the day yesterday decorating the house with greens, ribbons, candles, lights, and shimmering gold, seemingly just in time to meet and push back the dark cold this morning brings. And all is fitting, because today the church year begins anew with Advent.

"Advent" means "approach" or "coming near." Thus, it's a season of anticipation of and preparation for the Lord's drawing near to us.

First, we look forward in hope to the second coming of our Lord when he will set everything right and renew his world. At that time, he will deliver us finally and fully from the world of sin, the flesh, and the devil.

But, second, we also await the Christmas celebration of his first coming, looking back in faith to what God has already done. Living between the times, and unlike God's old covenant people, we know our Lord as the Incarnate One in whom all God's promises for humanity have already come to fulfillment and remain "yes" and "amen."

And, third, we also wait, watch, and pray in the love of Christ who still comes to us now. We find him in the word of the Gospel, holding out God's forgiveness to us. We meet Christ in words of pardon and of blessing, in proclamation and prayer, in bread and wine, in the love of one another, in the stranger and the hungry.

To mark Advent, we use Advent candles, this year in "Sarum blue" rather than the standard purple. The candles are really mostly a kind of time-marker, a visual representation marking out the weeks, a calendar in light - though of course there are naturally overtones of lighting more candles as the days grow shorter and darker, visually reflecting our meditation upon the Light of Christ coming into the world.

I know the first several weeks of Advent will be busy for me, as they always are, with the end of the semester upon us. This doesn't leave much time for original blogging.

Thus, over the next couple of weeks, I'll likely post mostly quotations and reflections from others, pertaining to the season and following from the Sunday lectionary readings.

A blessed Advent to all.

01 December 2007

british cuisine

No, that's not an oxymoron. In fact, Britain boasts some wonderful traditional recipes, including several of my favorite dishes.

Of course, classic British cuisine isn't known for high levels of complexity or ostentatious presentation or snobbish refinement. And that is precisely why it is so attractive - British cuisine provides good, solid comfort food, ideally suited for a chilly evening, with a pot of strong tea and a nice berry crumble.

I mention this because tonight we enjoyed an absolutely wonderful supper of Scots bridies with gravy and rumbledethumps.

Bridies are lovely, flaky pastry - in this case golden and shiny with an egg wash glaze - stuffed full of leftover bits of roast beef, chopped up and sauteed in a pat of butter with onions and seasoned with ground pepper. In this instance, the beef had been roasted covered with sea salt, peppercorns, garlic, and mustard seed, ground together in a mortar and pestle into a rough paste. The beef made very nice bridies, especially with gravy made with drippings from the roast.

Rumbledethumps is one of those items of British cuisine sporting a quirky name - along with bashed neeps, bubble and squeak, champ, clapshot, cullen skink, howtowdie, kedgeree, punchnep, skirlie, stump, and so forth. Rumbledethumps is, very roughly, mashed potatoes with onion and cabbage. As I like to make it, I cube the potatoes with a bit of their skin left on, boil them in milk, drain them partway when they're tender. Add sauteed onions, boiled cabbage cut in thin slivers, some sour cream, and shredded cheese - I used a combination of extra sharp cheddar and smoked gouda because that's what I had on hand. Then you roughly mash it all together with ground pepper, salt, and a pinch of mace and serve.

For these recipes and a large number of other classic British recipes, you can go to the website of The Great British Kitchen, which has a terrific online cookbook. Among my favorites are the braised pork, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, beef in stout, not to mention a variety of vegetable dishes, sausages, baked goods, and wonderful English cheesy snacks and sides (I have an awful weakness for English cheese, especially when accompanied by a nice ale or bitters).

Of course, mentioning beer, a meal isn't really British I suppose unless it somehow involves the consumption of alcohol - though from reading British novels and watching television shows, I get the sense that alcohol consumption often comes before, during, and after the meal - cocktails before, wine with dinner, and port or sherry to follow. But that's likely a caricature. Still, I've read novels where I've come away thinking, "Man, these people drink like fish."

I suppose I should be enjoying sherry or port at this point then, but instead I'm very much enjoying a very special gin and tonic made with Tanqueray Rangpur gin. Rangpurs are a strongly lime-flavored citrus fruit produced from an old Indian hybrid between a lemon and a mandarin orange. The gin and tonic itself also comes from India where quinine laced tonic - consumed for protection against malaria - was mixed to gin to go down more smoothly.

At any rate, Tanqueray Rangpur has a strong tangy lime flavor, very smooth, a bit sweet, with hints of ginger and bay leaf. It makes a terrible martini, but a fabulous gin and tonic. Whatever one might think of British colonialism in India, this particular gin and tonic almost seems to justify it.

Hail Britannia. And cheers.

world aids day 2007

Each day 6000 children lose a parent to AIDS somewhere in the world, creating a humanitarian crisis. Africa stands to lose an entire generation to AIDS where, in some pockets of sub-Saharan Africa, up to 20 percent of the population is infected with the virus that causes the disease.

On this December 1 - World AIDS Day - there are many sources online to raise your awareness about the global effects of HIV. Resources available from World Vision are a good place to start and provide also ways you can help the vulnerable who are most affected.

You might want to take a moment out today and pray for those who are affected by HIV/AIDS - those in your own local community, your church, your nation, and throughout the world. Following the Gospel, the church has often stepped up to care and pray for the sick and diseased, even when those suffering were alienated in some way from others.

World AIDS Day was started in 1998 to raise awareness about the impact of HIV and AIDS on our world.