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Advent Alphabet: W is for Waiting

waiting-on-the-clockW is for waiting. Advent is a season of waiting.

When we were children we may have anxiously waited for a special gift on Christmas morning. With the passing of years, material gifts that once seemed so important come to matter less and less, and the meaning and feeling behind them matters more and more.

What are we really waiting for? What do we hope for?

At church these past few Sundays we lit candles on an Advent wreath, signifying Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love. Each of these are gifts more precious, more vital, more necessary to our living than any material object I can imagine giving or receiving for Christmas.

What do you hope for? What do you really need? What are you waiting for? You may not actually know.

For two years I studied, lived, and worked with Quakers, members of the Christian denomination also called the Society of Friends. Quakers talk about prayer, especially silent prayer, as “expectant waiting”- waiting upon God with faithful confidence that God is present with us, and God knows what we need.

My hope for all who read this letter, is you may find time in the midst of the busy-ness of the season, perhaps while you are waiting in line, or in traffic, to pray. Open yourself up to God, if only to ask if there is something for which you should be waiting.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: V is for Virgin

virgin-mary-iconV is for Virgin. A word with volatile overtones of sexuality, judgement, and purity codes. In the western world at least, there is no time of year we hear that word more often than the season leading up to Christmas.

“Silent night! Holy night!

All is calm, all is bright

 round yon virgin mother and child.”

Did you know that Jesus’ virgin birth is a tenet of Islam? The Quran consistently refers to Jesus as “Son of Mary”.

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, without having sexual intercourse with Joseph. Mark’s Gospel does not contain information about Jesus’ birth or early years before his public ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, John’s Gospel has the famous “in the beginning was the word” passage, a poetic description of the presence of “the word” with God when the world was being created.

The oldest parts of the New Testament, predating the Gospels by at least a generation, are letters from Saint Paul. They don’t discuss Jesus’ life before his public ministry, and offer no hint of anything unusual about his birth.

By the 2nd century after the death of Jesus, his virgin birth was accepted and taught by the Christian church. It went largely unchallenged until the scientific enlightenment of the 18th century.

In Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology, the Virgin Birth means Mary a virgin when she conceived, and she remained a virgin when she gave birth. The later doctrine of Immaculate Conception expanded on this, to say Mary herself was conceived in the normal way, but from her conception she was free from the “stain of original sin”. Protestant denominations such as the one I serve do not accept this doctrine.

Modern commentators point out the Virgin Birth story reflects a pre-scientific (and misogynist) view of reproduction, in which the “male seed” is planted in the “fertile ground” of the woman. It was believed in the ancient world a male child carried only the genetic inheritance of his father, while a female child was a male seed “corrupted” by the “vessel” into which it had been implanted.

Scholars suggest Matthew and Luke included the Virgin Birth for one or more of these reasons:

  1. They accepted the tradition as passed on to them.
  2. They gave Jesus an origin story to rival that of Caesar, said to be the son of the god Apollo.
  3. They told a story meant to be taken as allegory, rather than literally true.
  4. They were answering slanderous charges made against Jesus by Jewish detractors (and others) that Jesus was an illegitimate child.
  5. They were doing theology, presenting Jesus as fulfilling the prophesy in the book of Isaiah that a Saviour would arise from Bethlehem, and that he would be the son of a virgin.

Some scholars dispute the accuracy of the translation of Isaiah available to Matthew and Luke. It was called the Septuagint, and it was in Greek. (Matthew and Luke seem not to have known Hebrew.)

The passage Matthew quotes (Isaiah 7:14-16) uses the Greek word “Parthenos”. The original Hebrew text used the word “almah”, which translates as either “young woman” or “virgin”. In another letter I asked whether Isaiah’s words were meant to be taken as predicting the future. (The Old Testament tends to discourage people from listening to the words of anyone who claims to know the future- that was considered the work of soothsayers and necromancers, and other generally disreputable people.)

Personally, my faith in God does not depend on whether Matthew and Luke got it right, and Jesus actually was conceived without sexual intercourse. I believe every person who is born, and every life is holy, and miraculous, and an amazing gift from God. Jesus taught us we are all God’s beloved children.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering of Rev. Darrow Woods, minister of Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: U is for the United Church of Canada

ucc-crest U is for the United Church of Canada

The last few letters have been about ways to read the Bible I hope are helpful to efforts to think about God, and our relationship to God. I am grateful much of my formation as a person of faith, and as a preacher, teacher, pastor, writer, and spiritual director has been within the United Church of Canada. As a denomination we almost always seem to be in the middle of some kind of confusion or controversy as we continue to sort out how to be faithful followers of Jesus. In 2006 the United Church produced “A Song of Faith” which contains good words about Jesus, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate:

 

We sing of Jesus,

a Jew,

born to a woman in poverty

in a time of social upheaval

and political oppression.

He knew human joy and sorrow.

So filled with the Holy Spirit was he

that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.

We sing praise to God incarnate.

 

Jesus announced the coming of God’s reign—

a commonwealth not of domination

but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

He healed the sick and fed the hungry.

He forgave sins and freed those held captive

by all manner of demonic powers.

He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.

He preached and practised unconditional love—

love of God, love of neighbour,

love of friend, love of enemy—

and he commanded his followers to love one another

as he had loved them….

 

By becoming flesh in Jesus,

God makes all things new.

In Jesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering,

God empowers us to live in love.

In Jesus’ crucifixion,

God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.

In Jesus’ resurrection,

God overcomes death.

Nothing separates us from the love of God.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering of Rev. Darrow Woods, of Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

 

 

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Advent Alphabet: T is for Theology

t-_jpgT is for theology. The first half of the word, “Theo” refers to God. The second half, “logia” (study) is connected to the word-family that includes “logos”, which means “word”, and “logic”, which suggests a system or method. We are doing theological reflection when we think about God, and the activity, the identity, the purposes of God. “What is God doing?” “Who (or what) is God?” “Can we understand God’s will, or plan?” “What does God have to do with me, or I with God?”

Saint Francis of Asissi famously spent whole nights praying two questions, “Who are you, God, and who am I?”

We do theology when we read the Bible stories about Jesus’ birth. We seek to understand something about God, and our relationship with God. This is good for us, and even better if we do with it with humble awareness it is not a simple task. We bring a lot more “baggage” with us than we may realize.

I remember a lecture from my time as a philosophy under-grad, about the distinction between “Event” and “Event Meaning”. The professor said:

” Two groups of people, wearing clothing that identified them as members of opposing sides, faced each other across a wide expanse. There was a loud noise, and then a fairly large projectile was seen flying through the air, from an area dominated by one group, towards an area dominated by the other group. Then there was a lot of confused movement, and more loud noise, and it appeared that members of both groups were quite agitated.”

The professor asked, “Can anyone tell me what I was describing?”

One student made a convincing argument the scene was a battlefield. Another said it was a football game. A cynical soul at the back of the room wondered if there was a difference.

We needed more information to interpret the story. If that information was not available, we might “fill in the blanks” using our own memories, creativity, or biases. The result might say more about ourselves, than the author’s intended meaning.

An author brings their culture, and beliefs, and language, and biases into their work. We as readers are on alert to sift through and get a sense of the meaning. We may be hampered, or helped, by our own education, experience, and attitudes. In an earlier letter I mentioned how important it is to read what is in the text, and not what we expect to be there. (Can you find an inn-keeper or cattle in the nativity story?)

This issue of interpretation can crop up with relatively simple documents, like a shopping list or a sales receipt. (I have never learned to read a baseball box score in the newspaper.) When the subject matter is much more complex, there is even greater need for humility.

I believe we are meant to use our minds, and ask questions, and think carefully about matters of faith. I don’t mean to suggest it is a purely intellectual exercise- we definitely need to listen to our hearts, and pay attention to our experience in life.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, drew upon scripture, tradition, reason, and experience when he sought theological understanding. He encouraged all followers of Jesus to do the same.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: S is for “So what?”

so-what-babyS is for So what? (It’s also the title of my favourite track on the classic Miles Davis jazz album, Kind of Blue.)

Over the last twenty or so years, when I have taught the material in yesterday’s letter about the “real story” of Jesus birth, I have encountered three basic responses.

People have asked, “Why have I been involved with church most of my life, and never heard that Matthew and Luke tell different stories?”

They find it hard to believe there are significant factual differences between the two gospels. The best way to check it out is to read Matthew chapters one and two, and then read Luke chapter one, and chapter two up to verse 20.

The second response, fortunately less common, has been anger. “Why are you telling me this? I like the story the way I remember it.”

The story as many of us remember it from Sunday School pageants, and story-book retellings is a “conflation”- which is what scholars call it when two or more stories are fused into one.

The third response, the one I secretly hoped for in these teaching situations, is part of the title of today’s letter. “So what?” Why does it matter?

The differences in the stories of Jesus’ birth serve to remind us Matthew and Luke were written as gospels, rather than history. The authors were doing theological, rather than journalistic work.

Matthew was written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke may have been written a little later. The authors were at best 2nd generation members of the Jesus movement- not amongst the original disciples. (It was common in the ancient world to attach the name of an honoured figure to a religious document- in tribute, and to claim some of the authority of the person.)

Matthew’s author was probably a Jewish scribe (perhaps trained in the Jewish religious system), who lived in Syria, and was a Jewish convert to Christianity. Scholars see hints that he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome in the year 70 C.E.

Luke’s author was probably a Gentile who became a follower of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in “koine’ ”, the ancient greek that was the common language of government and trade in the Roman empire.

Each Gospel writer used stories from the Jesus movement’s oral tradition, as well as hymns and sermons, and other documents shared amongst the early congregations. They wove them together with their own style, and agenda. They wrote for specific audiences, and aimed to be accessible, and sensible to the people who would hear their words read aloud in worship.

The authors of Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses to any of the events they described.

What they were witnesses to, was the effect Jesus and his ministry had on people whose lives were touched. They saw the movement that grew around the first disciples, and quickly began to spread. They were aware of God at work in human history- of God being with them through Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced the spiritual presence of “the risen Christ”, which they saw as fulfillment of ancient promises about a Saviour. They were passionate about spreading the “Good News”- the Gospel.

Spreading the Good News is not the same thing as reporting on “the news”. When we try to talk about the reality of God, and the work of God in our midst, and our response to God, we rely on allegory, and metaphor, and images and concepts that are already part of our vocabulary. Many scholars are convinced that in the ancient world, those listening to a “religious story” would not expect it to be factually true- they would be listening for the underlying truth more than for facts.

I think gospel writers have more in common with jazz musicians, painters and poets than reporters. They used human language to communicate the meaning and power they saw in the Jesus movement to change lives. Jesus is still at work in the world, bringing hope, and healing, and meaning, purpose and joy.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: R is for the “Real Story”

luke-illuminatedAt our house on Christmas morning we have a tradition of reading about the birth of Jesus, usually from the Gospel of Luke, before we do anything else. At times it is enough to hear the story again, listen with the heart, and open our spirit to receive God’s gifts. (Then we move on to exploring our stockings, and tearing away at wrapping paper!)

While there are moments to just soak in the wonder of the biblical stories- there are also times to use our intellectual gifts. It is worth the time to read from Matthew and Luke, and note any differences you see, in their treatments of Jesus’ birth.

Both Gospels offer a “genealogy” for Jesus. (Matthew’s is in chapter one, Luke’s is in chapter three) These family trees are very different. One example is that Matthew says Jacob was Jesus’ grandfather, and Luke says it was Heli.

Matthew does not describe the birth of John the Baptist or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. Matthew does not describe Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, or Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat (which is almost certainly lifted straight from Hannah’s song in the Samuel story). Matthew makes no mention of the journey to Bethlehem. There is no Roman census. Jesus is not wrapped in bands of cloth or laid in a manger. There is no inn, no stable, and there are no shepherds or angels (except the angel that appears to Joseph in his dreams). In Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house.

Luke’s story does not include the Magi, or the star. There is no mention of Herod ordering the death of all Hebrew boys under the age of two, and Mary and Joseph do not flee to Egypt with Jesus.

Despite the efforts of pageant directors to “harmonize” these two stories, a close look reveals they are not complimentary tales that fill in blanks left by the other.

There are some things about which these writers agree. They both say that Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod. Bethlehem was his birthplace, but he grew up in Nazareth. They both present Joseph as the father of Jesus (in fact, the genealogies, though different in detail, demonstrate that as Joseph’s son, Jesus was of the line of King David.) They agree that Mary was the child’s mother, and that his name was Jesus. In both stories an angel announces that this child is destined to be a saviour. (In Luke the angel tells Mary, in Matthew, Joseph is told by an angel in his dream.)

Both gospels say that Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married at the time of Mary’s pregnancy, and that Jesus was born after they began to live together. Both suggest that Mary was a virgin, and that Joseph was not involved in Jesus’ conception- that it was by the Holy Spirit.

Outside of the two Nativity stories, and the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) in deep discussion with the Temple priests, the Gospel stories are all about Jesus as an adult. (There are fanciful tales about the boy Jesus as a trouble-maker and wonder-worker, but they are not found in the Bible. These are in documents written much later, considered of doubtful authenticity.)

Until the moment Jesus began his public ministry, and gathered followers, why would anyone (outside of his family and neighbours) have known of his early life? He was the child of simple, probably illiterate people, from an obscure village in an unimportant province of a small territory of the Roman Empire. Who would have been there to write down the “real story”?

What do we do with all of this? Personally, my faith in God, and my passion for following the way of Jesus do not depend on the reliability of stories about his birth. If we read the rest of the stories about Jesus, as we have them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are many more disagreements. As I have mentioned in other letters, I don’t think they were writing history- they were telling stories to teach theology. I am drawn to the meaning of the stories, and the “rightness” of the way that Jesus taught.

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Advent Alphabet: Q is for Questions

question-markQ is for questions. I asked in an earlier letter if it was possible to have faith, and also have questions, even doubts about what we have been taught about God, and Jesus. I quoted a friend who makes the distinction between having faith in God, and believing everything put forward in our religious tradition. (His name is Rev. Del Stewart, and I had his book “Thinking About Christmas” with me as I wrote some of these letters.)

I continue to have questions and opinions about Christian tradition. I hope to encourage your thinking, and your questions. My friend and editor Tom Ehrich addressed some questions about the stories of Jesus’s birth, in his latest edition of the online magazine Fresh Day:

Question about the infancy narratives

The Jesus movement, as it evolved first in the early church, and then over time, to the current multiplicity of churches and sects and denominations, has collected a big “box” of ideas about God, and Jesus, and our relationship with God. Different groups keep their own special containers of ideas that make them distinct. There have been terrible feuds over the centuries about what should or shouldn’t be in the box.

Many denominations, including the United Church of Canada, have creeds, or statements of belief. (The word creed comes from the latin word “credo” which means “I believe”.) Often we use creeds not so much to teach people about what we believe, but to say, “If you agree with these statements, you can be one of us”. I remember when I attended confirmation classes as a young adult, the minister used each session to “explain” a section of the Apostles Creed. (Not be confused with Apollo Creed, who faced off in the ring against Rocky.)apollo-creed

Creeds have been a kind of “entrance examination” we require before welcoming someone into the church. Before we baptize an infant, we ask the parents a set of questions- that contain fairly abstract and complex ideas. They are expected to say “Yes, I believe that”, if they want to have their child baptized.

There are good reasons for asking the questions- we want to make sure people know what we stand for, before they agree to join us. But there are problems with the “faith in a box” approach. It does not always encourage independent thought. We often ask our newest members to agree to things the average person in the pew could not explain. This also perpetuates what I see as the “faith as a noun” problem.

To require people to give assent to a package of ideas about God and Jesus can lead to thinking about faith as something we “have”. To “have faith” is often thought of as accepting what is in the box. (The other side of this would be that if you question or doubt anything in the idea box, you obviously don’t “have” faith.)

I think that faith should be a verb rather than a noun, action rather than static object. Faith is praying, loving, risking, trusting, hoping, thinking, doubting, doing, building, helping, singing, living. It is what we do, not what we have. We can do these things in the company of people who have different ideas. We can be active faithful people, even when we are not sure we agree with, or understand everything in the box.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario