Monday, December 28, 2009

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Almost everyone has heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, if only by means of the song most of us learned in grammar school (I don’t think K-5/6 is called “grammar school” any more, but that’s okay, because many of them don't teach grammar any more).In any case, the term “Twelve Days” refers to the season of Christmas which stretches between The Nativity of our Lord (December 25, and commonly called Christmas day) and Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on January 6. The Twelve Days boast another six or seven feasts, or celebrations—most of them related to various saints.

Now, we Protestants (and United Methodists are lumped-in there, though with some qualifiers) do not observe all the festivals and celebrations that our Roman Catholic or Orthodox friends do. While we do observe the temporal cycle, the basic seasons of the Christian year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost—we do not, as a rule, observe the sanctoral cycle (the “saints’ days”).

We observe the temporal cycle because it helps tell the story of Jesus, the times of his life—from the promise of his coming (Advent) to his birth (Christmas) as both King of the Jews and Savior of the world (Epiphany); to be King and Savior means he will suffer and die (Lent) but God will vindicate Jesus (Easter) and pour out the Holy Spirit on those who receive him (Pentecost).

The sanctoral cycle, though…well, let’s just say there are good reasons to bypass most of those days (though we do observe All Saints on November 1). That said, taking the detour we sometimes miss good stuff, important pieces of our history and lessons the saints and their days might teach.

I have found myself, this year, particularly interested in the feast days that fall immediately after the Nativity.

--December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen (“Good king Wenceslaus looked out…”). St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for his witness to Christ.

--December 27 is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. He is, by tradition, the only one of Jesus’ originals not to have died a violent death.

--December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The church remembers those children (and their weeping mothers) who died at the hand of murderous Herod who would stop at nothing to retain his power. He reminds us of all the “powers” in our own day who sacrifice their nation’s children for their own purposes, while the Innocents themselves remind us of those whose lives are taken on account the world’s idolatries and power-lust.

Notice: in the first “four days” of the Christmas season, the church’s celebrations alternate between light and darkness, life and death: Nativity, Stephen; John, the Holy Innocents. It is almost as if the church is saying, “This Child’s birth is not all sweetness and light; it is a matter of life and death.”

Hard to put a bathrobe or cardboard crown on some of these stories, which is not a bad thing to remember as we begin the new calendar year.

Still, if the sometimes and recurring word is dark and dreadful, the ever-answering and final word is always of light and joy. In spite of all, Joy to the World. JOY to the WORLD. Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mary is but the first...

of the theotokoi (God-bearers). Jesus said, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother."

Whenever we are faithful in the fallen world, our godless age--which really is a god-filled age, only the gods are not gods--we give birth to Jesus again. Perhaps this year we are every bit as uncomfortable as Mary in her ninth month, but something wondrous is about to happen!

Merry Christmas, and blessings to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sanctity and Self-Righteousness

I wonder if the sign of true sanctity is this: others seeing virtue in us that we do not see in ourselves. Pride and self-delusion, conversely, is seeing in ourselves virtue others cannot.

I have been thinking about that old saw, the one where the fellow asks another, "Are you a Christian?" The asked man answers, "I am not sure. I believe in Jesus, but as to whether I am actually a will need to ask my banker, my business partner, my neighbor, my children, my enemy. They can tell you."

I suspect that pride and self-delusion are at the heart of many of the church's ills...we see in ourselves what others cannot. We imagine ourselves to be humble, loving, serving, when that is not others' experience of us. True sanctity would be the opposite. That is, we would see only our failings, not our "successes"; we would counfess only our sins, not our righteousness (at least we believe in Jesus!). It would be left to others to say whether or not we are actually Christians, which is what Jesus said: They will know you are Christians...

Friday, December 18, 2009


Be nice if I included the link!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Joel Osteen and the Former Archbishop of South Africa

Gotta tell you, this video almost...almost...makes me rethink my opinion of Joel, his megawatt smile, crocodile shoes and unhappy traveler of a wife.

No, it really doesn't.

BUT...this is a GREAT video. Would love to lead a service like this once in my life.

The man at the 2:40 mark of the video (or so) looks for all the world like Desmond Tutu.

Surely not. You think?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

I Facebook...Therefore I Am

In this strange new era of connective technology--which is not to be confused with anything approaching the theological category of Incarnation (more like the gnostic ether, in fact)--I have finally gotten in line behind the other 350 million or so who have already crossed the cyberborder into the pleroma of Facebook.

Thomas Ray Steagald is my name in those precincts, but I am at a loss as to how to do much there. Don't know the language or landscape. But immersion is the key--this from a former Baptist--and so I will try to learn as I go.

Follow me there if you wish.

Descarte, forgive us.

Oh, and yes, I twitter too...sounds like too much information... but not often. Yes, Robin, I will try to do better.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

I Have Been Away Too Long

Since I last posted I have had a) a brush with death, b) administrative overload, c)deadlines, d) mental fatigue along with abiding grief and e) really bad back pain.

No excuses; just letting you know I have not been lazy.

That said, I find that when I am really, really overloaded I go catatonic. Muscle relaxers aid my retreat.

Still, I have been thinking that every Christian virtue has a kind of "evil twin," if not a vice, exactly, then an anti-matter version: an anti-virtue. Of particular concern to me right now is the virtue of detachment and its dark side.

Detachment is the humble acknowledgment that nothing depends, finally, on me. I can decrease while God increases. I am not indispensable, irreplaceable or that important. Things go on without me and part of what I need to do is get out of the way. Detachment is a corollary to the doctrine of divine sovereignty, I think, the basis of patience and serenity.

At the same time there is a kind of detachment that is not virtuous at all, but is rather a kind of bloodless passivity. Maybe even a kind of cowardice. I am referring to indifference in the sense of apathy. Not caring.

Detachment cares, but realizes the limitations of self regarding the unfolding of the divine plan. Indifference cares not.

The geography of both detachment and indifference is nearly the same: somewhere off-center, at the edges or nearly so. For the former the place is chosen; for the latter no choice is necessary.

I am thinking too that detachment is an active stance and requires real courage and trust. Indifference may be a kind of cowardice, a safe place to huddle and removed from any action, but born of a deep fear that one is not equal to the kind of engagement that a more engaged posture might summon from us.

Similarly, I have been thinking that early in my ministry I had an overabundant sense of my own adequacy, leading to impatience with others who did not honor or share my perspectives and strategies. These days I am burdened with an terrible sense of my own inadequacy--I am not hip enough, savvy enough, technologically proficient enough, smart or wise enough, winsome enough, handsome enough, funny and fetching enough, to minister to this generation. But that self-assessment may be more akin to self-loathing and itself both dishonest, cowardly and lazy.

Then again, it may be a humble confession that my inadequacy is reason to glory in those who are all those things--Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, the new monastics--to detach myself from the panic of translating the gospel to a new generation, content that quite apart from me the Kingdom will do quite well, thank you very much.

How to be detached without being apathetic--now THAT is the question.