How Christmas Happens

My first Advent after taking Scripture courses at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry was a memorable one. Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Raymond Brown, John Dominic Crossan, Elizabeth Johnson, and Marcus Borg books lined my shelves. Their ideas filled my thinking which in turn informed my praying. I had different ears when I heard the familiar proclamations in liturgy of Isaiah’s promise of lions and lambs living in peace, Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem, Joseph’s dream, the birth of Jesus.

There are two infancy narratives in the canonical gospels, each of them quite distinct, though through carols, pageants, and Christmas cards they have been seamlessly merged in our imagination. Looking at the narratives with a critical scholarly eye is an entirely different exercise than looking at them on the surface level. A hermeuntic of suspicion had replaced a hermeneutic of sentimentality.  Through study I wrestled with the questions: who wrote these narratives? When, why, and to whom? How historically accurate are they? What can we know or reasonably infer about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth?

Like many a divinity school student, the influx of academic knowledge changed my experience of Advent and Christmas.

“Do you think it really happened that way?” I asked my friend Brian one cold winter evening at the Catholic Worker farm as we gathered wood for a Christmas Eve bonfire.

“I mean,” I explained, as we tramped through the woods picking up kindling, “do you think there were really shepherds, wise men, the star, angels…all that is described in Luke and Matthew?”

I was asking about his perception of the historical veracity of the infancy narratives in the canonical gospels, but Brian heard my question differently.

“I think it really happens that way,” he answered. “I think God comes into this world poor and in unexpected places.”

He went on to say – his breath coming out in cold white puffs before his face – that the stories need not be dissected as historical documents but rather offer us a timeless pattern of truth. That it’s not so much a matter of what literally happened 2,000 years ago in Palestine. Instead they provide a lens through which we can look for the inbreaking of God in the world today.

Coming in ways that are small, poor, hidden, unexpected.

Coming into a world torn by violence, battered by the death-dealing forces of empire, struggling against powers and principalities that seek to extinguish the light.

Coming in glory – though not a glory that we understand or can even see.

“I think it really happens that way.”

His words pulled me out of the academic rabbit hole into which I had plunged and put my feet back on the earth. Brian’s response invited a new set of questions for me. Not questions to be explored through poring over Greek intralinear Bibles, studying the cultural and political realities of the Ancient Near East, or reading weighty academic tomes on the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship – as worthy as those endeavors may be.   Rather, they are questions to be explored through the mysteries and messiness of service, community, and human relationship.

In what poor, unexpected corners of today’s world might the Divine be being birthed?

Where the one named Prince of Peace might be found amid the violence of Syria, Honduras, Ferguson?

Who are the ones for whom there is no room at the inn?

Brian and I gathered with other members of the Catholic Worker community that Christmas Eve, about a dozen of us gathered in prayer under the stars of a cloudless night sky. We were black and white, young and old, children and elders, ex-felons and ministers. Some of us wrestling with demons of addiction or mental illness others with those of consumerism and compulsive over-achieving. Saints and sinners all, standing in silence before the heat of the light of the fire. All of us claiming the promise of Emmanuel – God with us.

Christmas happens this way.

bonfire night sky

About the author: Rhonda Miska is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, she spent the last nine years living in Central Virginia where her ministries included accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

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The continuing incarnation

009In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome. The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary. Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. –Kalends of Christmas Day, from the Mass at Midnight

It is hard to write about Advent or Christmas. It is hard to come up with something that has not already been said. What I am about to say has been said elsewhere and said better. But I will say it anyhow.

In Jesus, the Word does not only take flesh. The Word takes on a biography, a story with a thousand characters and details. It is the same litany of particulars that make me into Justin, or you into yourself.  Continue reading

Christmas 2014: What To Buy a Progressive Catholic

This one goes out to all my progressive Catholic comrades who feel misunderstood. Does your family inch away from you when you conspicuously gender-neutralize the prayers at mass? Does your queer community give you the stink eye for hanging around a church that still sort of teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically evil?” “I can explain,” you begin. “See, there’s this concept in queer theology called the ‘Transgender Christ,’ and…” but you’ve already lost them. Yes, we’re a confounding bunch all year long, but once it’s time for the office holiday gift exchange, things can get stressful. That’s why today I offer what may be the first-ever Christmas shopping guide for progressive Catholics. Share it with your confused loved ones, water cooler pals and OK Cupid dates today, so the only mysteries left this holiday season will be the sacred ones!

Let’s get started. In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sophia-Wisdom-Spirit. Amen.

DSC_00361. Rainbow Rosary

The Equally Blessed LGBTQ-and-ally pilgrims who made waves at World Youth Day this summer gave out rainbow rosary swag – and I almost flew to Rio just to get my hands on one. Make some for the roamin’ Catholics in your life, and turn their prayer practice from drab to fab.

Good for: Catholic Workers, Evangelii Gaudium cheerleaders, Occupy Catholics and other simple livers who actually mean it when they say they don’t want you to buy them stuff.
Continue reading

Empty Christmas Masses

My last scheduled post was on Christmas Day, which I didn’t come through on, partly because I didn’t have a great Internet connection where I was staying, but partly because I felt an awful lot of pressure, posting on Christmas.

Yet, here I am two weeks later, and it’s Christmas that’s on my mind. In particular, how different Christmas Mass was this year than what I’ve grown used to.

I attended Christmas Mass out near Rapid City, with my husband’s family. I was anxious about leaving with plenty of time, expecting parking lots and pews to be full for the 9 am service. When we arrived, we found quite the opposite — plenty of space in the lot, and lots of gaps in the pews. My family has traditionally gone to the Christmas Eve services, where we try to arrive half an hour early to get a parking spot and a seat, where my mom mutters under her breath about people who “only go to Church on Christmas and Easter,” and where we’ve ended up standing through the service on several occasions. I wondered, was 9 am just too early for people?

But then my husband’s relatives who had gone to service the night before reported the same thing — a relatively empty church, and very little Christmas fanfare. When I celebrated Christmas with my side of the family the following weekend, they reported the same phenomenon for the Masses they had attended. My mom said, “I’d be surprised if there were any more than 30 people there.”

As I wondered aloud what was going on, my mom said, “A lot of people stopped coming to church with the new translation of the Mass.”

I told her I wasn’t thrilled with the new translation either, but that it didn’t seem sufficient reason to leave (similar to outdoor weddings). But she said, “I think there were so many people who were already dissatisfied, and this was the final straw.”

That, I understood.

While empty churches at Christmas saddens me, at the same time I wonder if this might be the wake-up call the Church needs — similarly to how I feel a bit of begrudging satisfaction when gas prices get especially high. Although it inconveniences me, I hope it will be the wake-up call the rest of the culture needs to start agitating for less dependence on oil as a fuel source — and more judicious use of their personal transportation.

Several months ago, I attended a session about the Vatican II council at a local church. The deacon leading the session talked about how parishes wishing to offer the Tridentine Mass had to get special permission from Rome — but that Rome often grants this permission because it wants to “bring back” those who drifted away from the Church due to dissatisfaction with the changes made after Vatican II.

Which leaves me wondering — when will the Church offer alternatives to “bring back” those who have left because of non-inclusive language, because they or their loved ones were not accepted as GLBTQ individuals, because the entire power structure is decided by celibate men, right down to who is allowed to stand on the altar at an individual service? I’m not holding my breath on any of these offerings from the institutional church — but I, like many others, have discovered that Church as the People of God are already providing them. And while none of these alternatives are available where I live (although the Tridentine Mass is), I feel hope in knowing that it’s not just about empty Christmas services — that there are house churches and alternative Catholic churches that are being birthed, growing, and thriving. Every time I’ve visited a radically progressive Catholic Church, the place has been absolutely packed. And until the institutional church opens its doors to those who hunger for a more inclusive spirituality, it might have to accept sparsely populated pews — while the pews in alternative churches become ever-fuller.

“And the darkness has not overcome it”

On Friday, December 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza swathed himself in Kevlar, armed himself to the teeth, and put several bullets in his mother’s head. He then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, shot the door open, and fired his way through the school. The death toll of twenty-eight, including Lanza’s suicide, made it the second-worst school shooting in an America now infamous for the clockwork regularity of such horrors.

Two days later, December 16, was the Third Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin command to rejoice, as in the opening words of the second reading (Philippians 4:4-7) where Paul proclaims: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” And Monday, December 17, began the cycle of O Antiphons, more familiar in their lump-sum form as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The refrain: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

The liturgical cycle suddenly seemed a terrible cosmic joke, a plastic smile after the end of the world. This Christmas, we need to talk about alternative meanings for the word “rejoice,” meanings that transcend having something to be happy about.

Whatever rejoicing is, it can neither shortcut the process of grief nor ignore the hell in which mourners live. Rejoicing will have to account for those who stare blankly at presents they bought for children no longer here to receive them. Rejoicing does have something to do with faith, “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), but only a glib faith can bypass the obliteration of so many living hopes who had names and faces.

I believe the biblical writers understood that. The people whom Paul told to rejoice lived under an iron Roman thumb that did not stop jabbing down on them. Isaiah, who wrote what we know as the first Christmas midnight reading (“the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” 9:1), did so while Judah faced invasion and destruction. And the composers of psalms blended their praise with litanies of pain: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2). The commentary in my Bible states flatly: “There are more psalms of lament than of any other type.”

These folks often had no cause to celebrate, and much cause to mourn, which they did. But at the same time they made a statement, and slowly cleared a path ahead, by rejoicing. Rejoicing was, among other things, a calculated decision to deny legitimacy to encroaching evil. It was the choice to rebel, to revolt.

The “principalities and powers” did not suddenly tumble. The wounds inflicted by those powers only healed at their own slow pace, and cheerful platitudes were as offensive then as now. But by rejoicing, by stubbornly affirming that there is an alternative way of being, God’s people both yesterday and today have made space for love to enter and survive. Darkness remains real and even constant, but “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

So, even now: rejoice, rejoice, O Israel. And come, O come, Emmanuel.

Ghosts of Advents Past, Present and Future

Well, here we are less than two days before the Christmas season starts and at the end of Advent. Now, I really have to ask myself “where did the Advent season go?” Sure, I knew Advent was coming. Before Halloween was over, stores were selling Christmas decorations, so the gem of the Christian Tradition that is Advent had to be coming as well. Yet, since the first week of November, I’ve been running one of the longest marathons of my life. While taking 6 graduate courses at once (this is NOT recommended), I also chose to attend both the Call to Action Conference and the SOA/WHINSEC Vigil at Ft. Benning, Georgia held only two weeks apart and a collective 36 hours roundtrip of driving on top of the marvelous and life-changing activities in between. Following that, I had to write about 200 pages worth of research papers, study for and take my final exams, and devote time to the candidates and catechumens in my parish’s RCIA program which I coordinate. With all of that, I have unfortunately not had the chance I usually do to reflect on and enjoy our Advent season. My prayer life has been reduced to “God, thank-you for your many gifts…” as I collapse into an exhausted sleep nearly every night. This is not the way I have prepared for the celebration of the Incarnation ever before in my life, and I hope not to again in the future, but I certainly have gained some needed insight this year.

I have always loved the Advent Season because we get to hold both our past and future in our hands at the same time. With the darkest days of the year forcing us inside, we are offered a time to reflect back on the joys and sorrows of the year as well as the mystery of God become human nearly 2000 years ago. We then get the opportunity to revel in our lives with God today and prepare the way for the future coming of Christ and the Kin-dom of God.

On Gaudete Sunday, the St. Louis NextGen Faith Sharing group gathered, and while we were sharing a bit about how our Advents were each going this year, I began thinking about the past Advents of my life. I am so thankful for the ghosts of Advents Past because they allow me to uncover the many meanings of Advent 2008 and the advents that may come as we await our future in God.

As a child, my diocese used blue candles instead of purple to remember the aspect of Advent in which we are all called to travel with Mary, the first Theotokos—“God bearer,” through whom we learn the lesson of saying “yes” to God, and praising and thanking our Creator for the blessing of the Incarnation. We are all then called to bring Christ into the world through our own actions and words. In the fourth grade, I may have played the Angel Gabriel in the Christmas pageant at school which taught me to preach the Gospel, but I began the lesson of being a theotokos in spending several days in Advents past volunteering with one of my local anti-poverty organizations.

I learned the lesson preached by both the Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist during my first year of college. I sang for the 9 PM Mass as a part of the Chapel Choir Ensemble, and we had prepared some traditional and contemporary pieces for the first Sunday of Advent. At the last minute, our conductor chose to turn the lights out in the chapel and send Andy, our long-haired, peace loving, Catholic hippie tenor up to the balcony to welcome in the Advent season by being a voice in the wilderness singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell. Sure, it might have been a little theatrical, but it struck a spiritual chord within me that comes back every first Sunday of Advent. During this season and throughout our lives, we are called to prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of Christ in our own lives, and we are also to be like Isaiah, John and Andy by helping others understand the importance of Christ’s presence and work today. We are surrounded by the wilderness, and whether we live on a farm in Iowa or in the heart of New York City, we must be that voice crying out Emmanuel—“God with Us”.

Advent 2008 has been a lesson in truly being present to the people around me even when I have a list of things to do that has never been so long. Though I may not have been able to devote as much time as I would have liked to the people around me or to my God, this Advent taught me to cherish even the small opportunities I am given. Since we never know when the time is coming, and just in case there are no more Advents, I have done my best to be here now in the brief moments of this advent. If there are ghosts of Advents future, I hope they will offer me the opportunity to be present, watchful, and give me more time to devote to this preparation season.

May the end of Advent and this Christmas season encourage us all to live this difficult and most blessed Christian life throughout the year. Peace be with you!

Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.