A “woke” Joseph and the great Christmas challenge

Merry Christmas!

With the birth of Christ, we’ve entered into the season of the Incarnation. The arrival of the Incarnation is God-made-flesh and dwelling among us as a babe long ago and God’s powerful presence active in each ordinary moment. God is near, God is here: peer into the humble love revealed among the heartaches, the light shimmering and providing peace. This is God among us.

We must wake up and pay attention to the many holy ways Christ is alive and in our midst.

Speaking of waking up and paying attention, in the past year or so I have heard a lot of folks use the word “woke” in phrases like

“Stay woke.”

“The woke people give me hope.”

“Now that I’m woke I can’t go back.”

If you’re not familiar with the modern colloquialism, my friend Sister Nicole Trahan offered a lovely reflection on what it means to “be woke” for Global Sisters Report in June.

Basically, as I understand it, “being woke” means to be aware of injustices; in-tune and conscious of what’s really happening in the world and how oppression seeps into many structures of society.

This sort of consciousness, I’d like to suggest, is a Christmas mode. We can’t help but to expand our consciousness when we come to know The Truth—Truth is one of the many names for God.

Praying and meditating on the Christmas Scriptures, I found myself pondering the impacts of Joseph being woke:

When Joseph awoke,

he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him

and took his wife into his home.

He had no relations with her until she bore a son,

and he named him Jesus.

~ Matthew 1: 24-25

sleeping-Joseph-baby-Jesus--catholicprayercards.org
“Sleeping St. Joseph” (courtesy of www.catholicprayercards.org)

A woke Joseph? I know the context might be a stretch, but hear me out. Although the word in the Gospel is awoke and not woke, and Joseph was literally waking from sleeping, clearly Joseph gained a new consciousness and awareness in the midst of his dreaming in the dark. When he was troubled, Joseph encountered God in the dark and was forever changed.

We all have been journeying in the dark; many of us still are. We have felt disturbed and troubled. The Christian invitation has moved us toward the pain.

We, like Joseph, have been transformed because we have come to know the Truth. Being woke, though, isn’t just about knowing. Nor is Christmas.

The Christmas challenge (that Joseph has modeled for us so well) is that we must move into action. Even bold, drastic, counter-cultural actions that might be misunderstood. Do you think it was easy for Joseph to have “no relations” with his wife Mary? Probably not. Can you imagine how much his friends might mock him for that if this story were to happen in the modern world?

And, what about the naming of his son Jesus? Would that have been an easy action for the sake of God’s plan? I’m no expert, but I don’t think it would have been. Breaking with tradition is always likely to disturb the status quo and confuse community. A scene from the film The Nativity Story comes to mind in which the midwives turn to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, after her son John is born, and say “What will you name him?” When Elizabeth replies John, they all protest. “But there is no one in your family by that name!”

Being woke with the Truth that many are suffering compels us to name Jesus, to help people know love in the midst of turmoil. This is the great Christmas challenge: we must let our conversion move us into action for the sake of God’s plan. Through bold acts of love, through courageous defenses of human rights and the dignity of life, we proclaim who Jesus Christ is to the world: Prince of Peace, Counselor, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Light of the World, The Way, The Truth, The Life.

Yes, Jesus Christ is born and is here among us; we shall never be the same!

Merry Christmas!

Fear, darkness, and Advent

Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.

Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:

Do not be afraid. (Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. (Matthew 6:25)

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)

Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.

Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/r2BhlllGqoQ

Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.

I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.

Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.

In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.

Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.

Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.

When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.

At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.

Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.

Joseph_Flickr
Photo credit: Flickr

There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.

Advent is drawing to a close

By guest blogger: Amy Nee

Advent is drawing to a close, Christmas is almost upon us.  Once again, I feel that the days have passed all too quickly.  I seem to have been too busy to attend to advent. Now Christmas Day is around the corner and I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve missed something, that I’m not ready yet.

How often this is the case!  I imagine that having a time for waiting is equivocal to having extra time.  So much time that it’s common to talk casually about “killing” or “wasting” it.  Then, as I do verbal violence to time I wound all that lives within it; killing and wasting the potential waiting to be born in every moment.  Momentous events that were meant to come as presents become a presentiment for which I am un or under prepared.

But it’s not too late!  Advent is not over yet!  And really, is advent about waiting through a patch of time or practicing a way of being, practicing and paying attention, learning to listen.  I am beginning to think of advent being akin to waiting on a table.  An active stance, attending to a particular table and to its place in a larger room; listening, watching, anticipating, understanding, acting according to what has been seen and heard.

Advent being a time of waiting that precedes Christmas gives context for the attention, a framework, a particular story, instead of a particular table, and how that story stands in the context of time, historical and present. This story reveals Mary, minding her own business, surprised by an angel who tells her not to fear, an angel to whom she responds with acquiescent boldness, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”  Joseph too is taken by surprise, no doubt.  Before any angelic intervention he discovers that his betrothed is with child (and it is evidently not his).  Analyzing the situation, channeling conviction, and perhaps affection, into a generous, socially acceptable action, “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.”1

And this could very well have been the last we hear of Joseph.  Indeed, we may not ever have heard of Joseph accept that, though he had “resolved” in his mind the action he would take, he was waiting.  Despite his logical, even loving resolve, “he considered these things.”  Joseph too heard the voice of an angel, speaking to him in a dream, saying “do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” he paid attention, overcame the constraints of his anxieties and in so doing entered a new life.

“Do not fear,” continually accompanies the angelic announcements.  Indeed, it would require a love that casts out fear to hear, receive and act on the words these angels delivered.  Had God’s messenger not intervened, had Joseph been preoccupied, he may have inadvertently been excluded from being a key player in God’s remarkable plan. What God desired of Joseph was not that he follow the law of the land (which would have allowed Joseph to divorce Mary publicly), nor to be politely philanthropic (to show continued care and preserve Mary’s life and some shred of dignity).  He was being invited as Mary was (dare I say, as we are?) to move from memory to imagination, to enlarge reason with faith, to take a counter-cultural stand, to stand with God.

The invitation is to participation in Incarnation, an it is an invitation continually extended, even today.  That is what the waiting is for and it is not just about a baby born in Bethlehem (but oh what a beautiful image of vulnerability and interdependence – what tender, bold risk!), it is happening everyday; God with us, in us, around us. To receive and respond to such an invitation we need to listen and allow the spirit to supplement and surprise our intellect with the impossible possibilities of God; we need courage.

Advent is almost over, but it is ultimately a reminder, and one that does not lose its relevance with the changing of the season.  The waiting is not wrapped up once Christmas arrives, nor is it an indication of empty time standing in the way of a day that is grander than that which is present.  The waiting is a reminder to attend to this moment, to recognize Emmanuel, “God with us.”

So I am learning to listen to God who is always with us, not only on a particular day or in a particular place, but on every day, in every place.  And to listen to my heart, attending to its quakes and whimpers. What voices are countering the echoing instruction, “do not fear”?  What inhibitions obstruct from taking part in God’s extraordinary vision?  Where am I blinded by lack of imagination?  What sights and sounds are keeping me so distracted that I’ve no longer eyes to see and ears to hear?

This is the time. Wait, be still, listen.

Footnote: 1. Scripture references from Matthew 1:19-20, ESV.

Advent Stumblings

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson

I didn’t get it right. The new mass words have begun this Advent and I have often found myself stumbling and failing at it. I hate that, failing. The irrational part of me flairs up in a puff of anger at myself and others. I want to be “right,” and such simple failure touches a profoundly deeper disappointment at myself and others for a world so wrong.

As I sit in disappointment the seasons change and it has gently become winter. The crisp and refreshing air, the thick sweaters and coats, and the relief of shelter all bring a sense of peace to my struggle. I need the comfort of warm protection and a home to reside amidst the quickening darkness.

My need reminds me it is Advent. “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” says the prophet Isaiah on the second Sunday of Advent. God is here to dwell and longs to dwell deeper admits our darkness. Jesus came to love, grow, and embrace our un-right selves and reality.

Advent candles

But such a coming is not un-situated; Jesus is not a Santa Claus of sorts that dwells outside of what makes the night dark. Amidst the cold systems that crush the many and uplift some, Jesus was born with the forgotten. His life was a constant struggle against the dehumanizing structures of his day and was powerful enough to be killed as a political criminal.

Such thoughts of Advent remind me of the old activist adage, “Be hard on structures, soft on people.” God desires to dwell with us and incarnate in us to affirm our human goodness. God births in us patiently as we love, care, and belong to one another.

This birth comes while we are positioned and contributing to the structures of sin, reminding us not to ignore our responsibility as if they were as natural as the weather or barns burning themselves down. God shoulders the weight of reality in our church, our government, and our economic systems as we struggle in them.

As we look towards Christmas, we remember Joseph and Mary searching for a home to give birth to our savior in.  Caught up in a system of mandatory forced migration for a census, they needed personal care and institutional justice.  In 2010 there were 30,978 homeless children in the city of Chicago.  They not only need care and shelter, but a state that does not cut funding and citizens who ignore it when it happens.  This is one issue among many we are invited to start caring about and use reason to truly move structures towards the good.

We are to have the faith that God is at it too, as St. Paul states on the third Sunday of Advent, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/3dmg/5273355807/

Joseph’s dreams and the meaning of life

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod had died, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream
to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel,
for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
He rose, took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea
in place of his father Herod,
he was afraid to go back there.
And because he had been warned in a dream,
he departed for the region of Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets
might be fulfilled,
He shall be called a Nazorean. -Mt 2:13-15, 19-23

A few years ago one of my seeking friends called me a lot to have discussions about the meaning of life.  “I just don’t get it Julia,” she would say.  “Why are we born, if our death is inevitable?”  Her insightful question is certainly valid, and undoubtedly common.  Because my friend is normal, I was embarrassed to admit that I had never really thought about the question before.

I don’t think that I have ever worried about the meaning of life because I made a choice when I was a child.  Early on I decided what life’s meaning is for me.  Now I know how to say it: the point of all this living is relationship.  It’s so true for me and it guides all my actions.  When I am lazy or selfish, a mantra bubbles up from inside, like a signpost directing me where to turn:  the point of life is relationship. It’s all about relationship.

Then, guided by the Truth and challenge of relationship, I turn away from my ego and my desire to hide.  I choose to relate.  I shut up and unplug and listen to God within and around and tell God my deepest secrets. We get closer and I am reminded that good relationships always take a lot of work and time.

My friendship with God then turns me out again; I orient toward the other in community, friendship, family, city, creation, neighbor.  I sit with my elder sister and laugh and love. I talk to my siblings on the phone. I listen to the stranger, even when I feel like I should rush.  I pray with my friends and cry with the suffering.  I ask my students questions. I gaze at the moon because I know she is my sister and I pray for the earth because she is certainly my mother, in a way.   Over and over, I struggle to let go of my agendas and notice how the moments of  my days beg me to pay attention to other beautiful elements in God’s kingdom.

Because I relate to all sorts of people I am forced to stretch and grow.  My perspectives change and I am required to leave the ordinary behind.  I let God give me new encounters and accept the fact that I never get to be the same.  I now understand that considering relationship the meaning of life is not only Christian and Trinitarian, but Franciscan.  And, as scientists are now discovering and teaching, it is human.  So, it’s a good thing I am one.

Joseph got this, it seems.  Because he was friends with God and was familiar with His voice, it was very clear to him when his dreams were from God.  Because he understood the language, he could follow the directions and then so lovingly care for the Blessed Mother Mary and the Holy Child Jesus.  He chose to obey, because the relationships with his wife and his Son mattered most.

Like Joseph teaches, when we let dreams direct us we aren’t picking what’s comfortable, or even about what makes sense. Even though it may seem impractical, when we let our relationship with God and others guide us, we’ll quickly realize that we are dancing with the holy and becoming a blessing to others.

There’s a great beauty in the blessing.  When we let relationships be our meaning we are free to be a holy family.  Thanks be to God!

Photo from Flickr sharing http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidking/2117259520/in/photostream/