NEW YEAR’S DAY: Ready or not, by Christopher Greco

I remember fondly viewing “The Hobbit” for the first time on the morning of Christmas Eve.  Such a long wait, it seemed.  And as many times as I am likely to watch the film again (as we did less than a week later in IMAX 3-D), I can’t ever see it again for the first time.

There’s something in that feeling akin to the close of advent.  We’ve done it again – Christmas is come and gone (though our smarter liturgical brothers and sisters aren’t done for a few more days).  And it wasn’t like the first time or like anytime ever before.

While waiting, it seemed that the coming would never take place, and once Christmas – or whatever it is - arrives, the coming dashes expectations.  Everytime.  Even if it exceeds those expectations.  It’s never what we expect.  We can’t predict what the coming will feel like.  We can’t control it.  We can’t stop it.

For all this blah-blah-blahgging about the agonies of waiting, there’s irony that once the day was upon us, regardless of whether we shopped or baked or not, whether we deepened the experience of the season with quiet reflection or just bustled December away, whether we waited well or impatiently or unawares, there was no going back, no slowing it down, no stopping it.  The coming came, ready or not.

And we are mostly unmoved. Not untouched. Not unjostled. And for many, not unemotional and not without joy or even without life change. But unmoved nonetheless. We still are what we were.  We face the undoneness of what we had faced before the awaited new thing had come and gone.  (And it always does come and go on this side of the eschaton.)

Reminds me of that feeling of going to a place for the first time and it taking forever  to get there (especially an uphill hike).  Then the return trip goes by in a blink.  Or even the opposite type of hike, as Anthony and I did into the Grand Canyon last June:  the down-and-in was the easy part of the hike and the up-and-out was the supposed hard part.  Still, the familiarity of the return trip made it seem anticlimactic.  And we both were seized with the reality that we could have gone much farther down past the scary “death awaits you” signs.  We had enough water, food, and energy to spare.  But it’s too late now that we’re back at the rim and the hike is done.  It’s time for something else.

Would that we had another chance to go back and do it again.  Take the hike up or in for the first time.  The slowness.  The agony of the distance and the unknown.  The long wait.  Only this time, we swear to savor it more.  The first sight of the peak.  The drawing nigh.  The breathlessness.  The moment of arrival.  Because once that new thing has been juiced, into the compost it goes.  And it never will be new again to us except when God makes all things that way.  Which sounds like a lot more waiting to me.  Just what I asked for!

Reminds me also of the day after I got married, the day after we had our first child, and the day after “the dear Christ entered in” for the first time.  Exhilarating moments.  Exceeded expectations.  Good news of great joy.  Everything is totally different. And yet not so totally different as I would have expected.  I am still me.  Now saved, yes.  Now married, yes.  Now a father, three times over.  Never alone.  But still myself.  Still hungry.  Still wanting.  Still waiting.  I remember that feeling well as it is what I am feeling right now.

Oddly enough, it was the same with my mom’s death.  The quickness and the horror were unspeakable while it was happening.  And yet, her death arrived on October 2, 2012, and our lives trudged forward without her.  I asked my dad whether Christmas was hard without her, and his profound response, “No harder than every other day.”

Death’s and life’s refusal to relent have a kind of authority to still tears, cheers, and even my seemingly endless flow of words.  As I turn from a genuinely traumatic 2012 and set my sights on (please God, not again) 2013, I am stunned to silence.

DAY TWENTY-THREE: Waiting and Dreaming in Ordinary Time, by Kim Messenger

In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph follow all the rules, calmly as if there is time to spare. Eight days after the birth, as custom dictates, they take Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. They arrange for his circumcision. Old Simeon and Anna greet them and bless the child. Then they travel home to Galilee, presumably to their hometown of Nazareth.

But Matthew’s gospel has them fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrathful paranoia. When Herod dies, they return from Egypt but learning Herod’s son is in power, they consider it wiser to avoid Judea altogether and head north instead, settling in Nazareth in Galilee.

Is the Magi’s gold enough to fund their traveling expenses—hotel accommodation in Egypt and travel back again, perhaps the purchase of a small house and shop in Nazareth? Do they hear reports on their return of the massacre they had escaped—reports of Rachel weeping for her children? We got away clean, but what about the others?

Mary ponders it all and waits for what her son will become.

Mary ponders. Joseph dreams. First when confronted with Mary’s unplanned pregnancy, he’s given the job to raise this child. The second dream—flee to Egypt. The third–okay, it’s safe to return. The fourth—but steer clear of Jerusalem. Better go north to Galilee, to Nazareth your hometown, familiar and out of the way.

And meanwhile, back in Nazareth, safe and sound with a new baby to look after and a living to make, now what? Only all those ordinary mundane, everyday small tasks. No more angelic visitations. No more troops of shepherds leaving muddy footprints. No more wandering kings bringing strange gifts. No more road trips to foreign lands. Only setting up shop, sweeping the floor, budgeting the money for the household expenses, raising a child, changing the swaddling clothes, teaching him please and thank you, schooling him in the old stories, training his hands to work. Amidst the ordinary, does Joseph ever dream of what this child is to become?

Mary, on the other hand, lives to see what her child becomes. When she receives the body of her son from the cross does she dream of returning to ordinary time, when cradling her child, she imagined she could keep him safe?

W.H. Auden has a poem that I read every year after Christmas. It’s called “Well, so that is that” and it’s about the return to ordinary time after the hol(y)day. Another Christmas has passed and once again we have missed the miracle of God born among us. Returning the decorations to the attic, warming up the leftovers for dinner, another Christmas has come and gone and once again we have “attempted—quite unsuccessfully–to love all of our relatives, and in general grossly overestimated our powers. Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility.” After Christmas, we return to ordinary time. No more presents to wrap and open, no more carols at the mall, no more cards to write. No more rush of good feeling. No more spiritual highs, worshipful or even nostalgic. The children return to school. We return to work. And all the ordinary, mundane tasks begin again—paying the bills, emptying the dishwasher, driving to work, answering emails, going to meetings. How then do we live and keep faith in ordinary time?

Jesus came. God birthed Himself into the world of ordinary time. God’s dream for the world’s rescue begins to come true. Wake us, Lord, to see it coming true in ordinary time, which is the only time we’ve got.

DAY TWENTY-ONE: The Massacre of the Innocents, by Roger Dewey

It’s such a jarring note in the otherwise glorious story of Christmas miracles and fulfillment. We usually do a good job of ignoring it. But it was, and still is, all too real.

The entire city of Bethlehem wept. There was no relief from the pain. Thousands of babies, the delight and hopes of their families, had been slaughtered. All history has been drenched with such massacres. And now, Newtown. How can I talk of walking through life with a loving and powerful God who desires only our best. Have I not heard of Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia, the organized rape of millions upon millions of women and young children in country after country, the genocides in Serbia, Uganda, and too many other places to list, the slaveries – obscenities all, that destroy the weak and the innocent. How can anyone believe in a good God who intervenes?

How could a real God allow such misery? No wonder that millions across the world have left religion in dismay or anguish. How could I ever be Ambassador for One who does not use his power to halt the desolation? How can I ask God to heal my small problems in the face of surrounding unmitigated disasters, when already we are the richest, most pampered people the world has ever known?

I took these questions to God. For three months, I read nothing but the words of Jesus, and demanded an answer. Repeatedly, for hours at a time, I complained and vented all the anger I had built up through decades of seeing wretched, disgusting excesses, of praying endlessly for the slightest relief, not for myself, but for those I loved, and read about, and saw on TV, whose hopeless lives seem to be no more than gasping for air until they starve to death.

“I ask you, God, do you exist? Is ‘justice’ a sad joke? I want an answer. I call you ‘Daddy,’ and see myself crawling into your lap and drifting off to sleep totally secure. Yet this other reality intrudes, this common experience of brutality by vast numbers of those you love as much as you love me. How can you stand it? Don’t our billions of anguished, tortured prayers turn your heaven into hell? I am so small that I have no right to ask, but I need an answer!”

It took more than a couple weeks, but I thought I felt God speak. He was weeping, but it was not the cry of the powerless. No, he had sent Jesus as a baby into this most brutal arena where he shouldered all the evils to defeat our misery. God’s sorrow it seems, this sorrow, is that we still are such prisoners of earthly time. And then another baby-image came, as common to humanity as the birth we all have experienced: “I am your expectant father. I wait, eager to receive you when finally you escape this twisted birth canal of life.”

No theology “answers” the evils in our world. But the painful miracle of birth is the redemption story we all experience. The trauma recedes in our mother’s arms. Yes, the evil one rips at us through all our time, and some of us much worse than others. But our God is with us through the pain, and then, reborn, pain dissipates into joy. In endless eternity with him, even Rachel’s harshest memories of the massacre recede like a forgotten dream. Outside of time, brutality is defeated, and the sting of death reversed.

The promise is that heaven cheers us on to a delight beyond anything we can now imagine, where our tortured cries are calmed by love and by eternity itself. And we will live, finally at peace, with the awesome eternal creator God of the universe, our father, and friend. That is my hope. And on some days I can even begin to sense it now.

DAY TWENTY: An Unexpected Detour, by Dorothy Greco

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I was driving home on auto-pilot after an exceedingly long day. As I crested the hill before our exit, I saw the flashing blue lights of the police car and a fluorescent sign warning, EXIT CLOSED-CONSTRUCTION. Had the work crew placed the notification just 100 yards sooner, I would have been able to get off earlier and thread my way through town. Instead, I had to drive a twelve mile, very inconvenient detour which landed me in our garage twenty minutes later than I had expected. To heighten my irritation, as I passed the closed ramp, I did not see a single human constructing anything.

Sometimes, God seems to re-direct those who attempt to follow Him as capriciously as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. And it’s no less irritating or disconcerting.

Mary, mother of Jesus, faced her share of holy detours. The growing child within her womb. The last-minute trek to Bethlehem. I can imagine that by the time Jesus was born, Mary might have have been quite done with the unexpected and more than ready to embrace a life of normalcy.

If Mary had not yet realized that this option disappeared the moment she agreed to God’s terms, it certainly must have dawned on her as she and Joseph began their second major journey—this time to Egypt. Bethlehem to Alexandria is such an odd excursion that Mapquest cannot even suggest a route. A conservative estimate of the distance traveled, by foot, through the desert, would be three hundred miles. And even though her toddler was the Son of God, I’m sure he had a few needy moments.

Did Mary and Joseph doubt? Did they revisit the dreams and the prophecies, agonizing over whether they had made grave mistakes? Did they despair? Did they grumble? Unfortunately, we aren’t offered many details. Matthew 2:14-15 simply reads, “That night, Joseph left Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother. And they stayed [in Egypt] until Herod’s death.” End of narrative.

It’s possible that four or five years passed from the moment of Jesus’ conception until the holy family’s return to Israel. This small slice of history offers us much insight into the reality that when we say “Yes” to God, we must expect unexpected detours.

Though our stories are generally far less dramatic than Mary and Joseph’s, we can find a common through-line. We hunger for God. He responds with an invitation. We accept. Immediately, the enemy of our souls attempts to thwart this divine connection. Perhaps via the death of a spouse. Perhaps by birthing our own other-than-what-we-expected child. Perhaps by producing such an intense dust storm that we can no longer see the compass coordinates. We trudge towards our Egypts with tears running down our cheeks, fighting intense maelstroms of doubt and despair.

Mary and Joseph had the distinct advantage of angelic visitations and prophetic words corroborating their decisions. We rarely have such powerful, supernatural confirmations. Mid-journey, we mostly notice only the ground beneath our weary feet.

Throughout the arc of the Bible, Egypt becomes a metaphor. A destination no one would choose of their own volition. A place where God sends his people in between. Perhaps like me, many of you currently have tent pegs hammered into the hard, dry Egyptian soil. Perhaps you also lie awake at night massaging the variables and querying a mostly silent God, “What are you asking of me?” While I can’t answer that question for myself, let alone for you, I do know that the holy family’s unexpected journey, while lonely and inconvenient, actually saved their son’s life. Though we may never fully understand how much pain God spares us by leading us into the desert, perhaps we can gradually grow in our capacity to trust His plan for these holy detours. And may we all sense the comforting presence of Emmanuel as we journey on through the dark.

For more words and images by Dorothy Greco, see http://www.dorothygreco.com

 

DAY NINETEEN: Living Life When You Don’t Have Cake, by Darren Bouwmeester

At some point early in his life, Simeon received a promise. He would see the Messiah. Great!

Now wait. . .Now wait some more. . .He’s still waiting.

Simeon doesn’t just wait. He waits in “prayerful expectancy.” He’s not just sitting on a bench outside of the temple waiting for his number to get queued up, he’s engaging in a conversation with God.

As parents of young children, (seven and four), it often feels as if my wife and I are in a place of waiting. When will we be able to take family trips without having to deal with kids fighting in the backseat of the car? When will we be able to make a dinner without including some combination of chicken, pasta or broccoli? When will our kids finally sleep through the night (while letting us sleep through the night)? Standing outside in the rain, we wonder when soccer season will finally be over. Overall, there is not a lot of prayerful expectancy here. Sometimes, it’s more like, “God help us make it through this day.” It’s telling your kids to wait patiently for dinner, even while you yell at them to stop raiding the pantry.  What I’m experiencing seems more like the waiting room model of waiting, rather than the prayerful expectancy of Simeon.

At Kids Church recently, the kids were asked, “What do you do when you’re waiting a long time for something and nothing seems to be happening?” Johanna, my oldest daughter, responded, “Eat cake and forget about it.”

But waiting isn’t easy, especially if you don’t have cake.

When it comes to waiting, I’m probably more like my children, than I’d like to admit.
“I’m bored! How much longer! Are we there yet!”

Like my children, I want resolution. Yet, it often seems to me that faith does not bring resolution. I know and understand God’s promise. But how do I wait? How do I live while I wait?

The absence of resolution might feel like disappointment and this makes the waiting all the more difficult.

There was a time in my life of faith when I felt lost. I had gone through a difficult church experience. I had put all of my trust in the wrong people, and the end result was disappointment. Eventually, disappointment gave way to something else. . .anger. Why didn’t God do something? I still don’t fully understand what happened during those years of my life, but in the time since then, I’ve come to realize how part of faith is moving forward, even in the absence of answers.

I imagine how Simeon must have had many of those days when answers were absent. Why God? Why haven’t you come yet?

Part of faith means living in a place where there is no resolution. I know God’s promises. I want to believe in God’s promises. All of these things are true, but then when I look at my own life and surroundings I find myself in a state of bemused frustration. I am no longer a young man and in my current position, life seems characterized more by limitation than possibility. I don’t understand how it’s even possible to experience those promises in the present season of my life.

When we are living our life with waiting, the commonly heard refrain can be, “When?” or maybe, “Why?”

“Now would be a good time, God.”

For Simeon, God’s promises meant living in prayerful expectancy for a long time, without receiving a resolution. No answers. No Messiah. No baby Jesus. And yet, I can’t help but think how along the way, Simeon was growing in understanding about God’s plan. Yes, maybe the reason Simeon was waiting, was because God was not ready to send his Messiah. On the other hand, maybe it was equally true that through the process of waiting and prayerful expectancy, God was readying and preparing Simeon.

Maybe the same thing could be said for us. God is readying us. He is readying us for the fulfillment of His promise, and here’s the best part. . .Wait for it. . .

God keeps His promises.

 

For more reflections by Darren, check out his blog at http://momentarydelight.com

DAY EIGHTEEN: Journey of a Magi, by Mary Ann Honaker Bender

This poem is reprinted with the writer’s permission from the 2004 Fear Not project.

When I was yet a young man,
I decided life would not be to me
an empty cornhusk tossed about
on Fortune’s winds.  Come what may,
poverty or riches, honor or shame,
I will know the truth of things
and by that Truth will I live.

So I have known many things:
drunkenness and women, finery, want,
love, abandon, dusty streets at midnight,
folly, shame, the scent of death.
I sought revelries and divinations,
stars and ancient sages, teachers,
frauds, friends.  I have known many things

but none can compare
to one midnight, when I,
after spending many years
as a professional sage, teller of fortunes,
reader of livers and leaves,
feeling yet the cornhusk that my life had become,
dry and rattling its supposed wisdom,
cried out into the night:
“O Truth I have sought!  Where are you?”

“I am here,” said the Truth,
and I was afraid.  “Watch the stars.”

Two years later a fellow diviner and I,
called into the service of the king,
sat around a liver plying our trade.
I gagged on the odor.  He confided
that foolishness often smells foul, and
that a Spirit had spoken to him in the night.
“Watch the stars,” it had said.

In time there were three of us under this commission,
watching and waiting.  We saw a strange star
appear in the skies one night, while we all stood rapt,
discussing the king’s business.  It erupted,
a sudden bloom.  We gasped.  The next day
we went before the king to plead release
from his service, to follow the star.

To our surprise he gave us camels
loaded with supplies.  Nights by campfire.
Days blinded by brightness, foreheads afire.  One night
we were taken in by a learned and hospitable Jew.
“It is the messiah, the King of the Jews,
that you seek,” he cried out as his eyes moistened.
“Praise the Lord, that I would live to see these days!
Go to the court of King Herod, and speak with the scribes,
for they will know the prophesied birthplace
of the Holy One of God.”

“Come worship the King with us,”
we begged.

“I cannot,” he said, “I must tend
my fields and flocks.  But go on your way.”

We sold the last of our provisions
and purchased from a passing merchant
gifts fit for such a king.  We stopped at houses of prayer
every day of rest, and music filled us
at their teaching.  Hospitality
met us every night, and we were neither
cold nor hungry.

Dancing entered my feet and songs of birds
filled my bosom; splendid
were the colors and sounds on those days.
My companion, who had pain in his legs
fifteen years, received wholeness from our new Lord.
We learned his name was Yahweh,
and sang it under His star every night.

When Herod sent us on our way,
a strange pensiveness came over us.
The star came and stood over a small hut,
sending a strong ray over the thatched roof,
blue and terrifying.  We waited until morning,with a buzzing in our bones.

The lord of the house approached us
where we stood pale by his gate the next morning.
“Go in and see my wife, travelers;
she will give you food.”
We entered.  Light fell through chinks
in the roof.  Breathless, we saw him,
a young child whose face was filled with light.
He giggled when we fell on our faces,
laying gifts at his dirty little feet.

We stayed with them for a day and a night,
eating together in joy and innocence.
They heard our tale without surprise.
We learned the mother, young and heavy
with much wisdom, was a virgin
when she gave birth.  We heard of angels and shepherds.
The child tugged at his mother’s skirt,
ran through the house, played in the dirt,
and told us he wished to be a carpenter.
We were amazed.

That night we all awoke with cries of terror.
I saw a sword come out of a crown
and chase the lovely child about,
while blood dripped from the hut’s walls.
The angels who foretold the child’s coming
stood by the marriage bed and told the father
to hurry to Egypt.  “Your gifts are timely, sirs,”
he told us, “for they shall buy our safe journey.”
We gave our camels to the family,
and fled, cursing our own folly.

We heard of blood filling the streets,
grieving mothers wailing long into the night,
raving fathers with torn clothes,
until the city we left behind
grew heavy with death shrouds, sackcloth, and ashes.

O great is our folly,
we who were called wise,
and yet told a king
of the coming of his rival!

We slept without campfires at night, alone on our road,
chilled by the air like spears in our lungs,
and afraid.  The star had vanished,
swallowed by the dark as if by Mot’s gaping mouth.
Long one night I saw with darkness
laid thickly over my eyes.  I saw a vision.
The child stood before me, blood running from
his forehead and his wrists, tears in his eyes.
I fell at his feet, which were also bloody.
“O ghost!  I have slain you!”  I wept.

“Fear not,” said the child, “for I still live.
Your folly is forgiven.  Mourn no longer.”

Then he was gone.

DAY SEVENTEEN: How Everything Pulls Toward Everything, by Erica Charis

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After Mary Oliver

I.

What
if you were
a star,
a collapsing cloud

of ionized gas and metal dust
held together
by gravity and chance,
and there you were

so many tons
spinning
maybe even
gravitationally bound to another

and billions of miles
away from your nearest sister?
And just as you began to fail,
to flicker

into the dark,
then heard
a thousand year old wish
whispered

by the lips of a stranger,
and what if you could
for that moment,
burn

a bit brighter
for the heart
long stopped
that was counting on you–

what would you feel then

of space

as, in endless night,
you floated there–

oh happy prisoner–
shining, glowing,
fusing
one heart to another?
II.

And what
if you were
a man,
and an odd star

and a heart full of curiosity and awe
had summoned you
out of the East,
and there you were

an astrologer
searching
maybe even
a little lost

and hundreds of miles
from home?
And what if you had tribute,
gifts for a king

days old but powerful
enough to strike
fear into Herod, himself
a puppet crown

of a eminent Empire,
and what if you had
a sort of dream,
a forboding

warning to return
another way
as unknown as the first,
begun months ago–

what would you think then

of fate

as, night after night,
you check the sky–

oh happy traveler–
seeking, following,
drawn
one wisdom to another?

III.

And what
if you were
a mother,
and a small child

lay in your arms sleeping,
suddenly real,
pushed from your body,
and there you were,

counting the fingers
grateful,
maybe even
still afraid something could go wrong

and the night sky
like a womb around you?
And what if you began to cry,
tears swelling,

in your eyelid’s cradle,
water breaking
onto the up-turned
face

of this strange gift,
and what if you had
a sort of blanket,
a cloth

to pull close
to his trembling
body,
helpless yet whole–

what would you see then

of love

as, hour after hour,
you lay there–

oh happy prisoner–
gazing, treasuring,
beholden
one being to another?

DAY SIXTEEN: UNKNOWN HEROES OF THE NATIVITY, by Jonathan Rowe

When I was about ten or eleven, I was in a Christmas play organised by the children’s ministry of the Assembly of God church in Lynn, Massachusetts. While I was fortunate enough to play Joseph, some other children had the role of the traditional shepherds of Bethlehem. On stage they had a solitary line of dialogue, agreeing to one another to go see the baby Jesus.

In most stories, secondary characters are treated as an inferior breed. They drag the plot along and are a coincidental bridge to help the main character reach his or her agenda. In most cases they have no back-story or history and are there to be used and then discarded like a movie stunt double.  No one wants to feel for them and most of the time everyone forgets them.

And yet, secondary characters form the backbone of the plot of the Christmas story. Without them this story would have no authenticity and feel more rooted in dreams than reality, making it impossible for the us to make ourselves a part of the story. Secondary characters have their own unique jobs to do.

I feel the role of the shepherds in the Nativity story is one often overlooked. They are seen as a few fortunate men who just happened to bear witness to the newborn Christ while looking after their flock that night.

In scripture, the shepherds are only mentioned in Luke 2:8-20. They had no names, lived in a village close to Bethlehem and were God-fearing Jews. As verse 15 (NIV) says,‘‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’’

As for their importance to the Nativity story, the shepherds’ value is only realised in verse 17 and 18 after they saw baby Jesus,‘‘When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told to them about the child, and all who heard it were amazed….’’

Through God’s invitation, the shepherds’ became the first evangelists to spread the Good News about Jesus Christ. Without them heralding the arrival of the Emmanuel, Jesus’ life might have not been taken as seriously or worse, gone unnoticed. The shepherds made people aware that a heavenly child had been born that night and made them ready for the amazing life he would lead.

The shepherds may have only learned about the miracles that God did for Israel and Judah from tales passed down by elders through generations. Their frightened reaction to the appearance of the angels declaring Christ’s birth can be expected since there had been no heavenly revelation or manifestation for some 400 years.

This is where the theme of advent comes in: It wasn’t just that the shepherds created awareness about Christ’s birth, but the reaction they had to the angels ‘‘News of great joy’’ was symbolic of the spiritual state of the Jewish nation at the time.  It had waited for almost half a millennia under the yoke of Syrian and Roman rule for the Lord to reveal himself to his people, as shown in Zechariah 9:9(KJV),“ Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee….” The Jews had been waiting steadfastly for so long that they had forgotten whom they were waiting for.

This season, let us not just remember the lowly shepherds and their grand work in letting the world know its saviour had come, but also let us increase our faith to be in a state of advent going into the new year; waiting diligently on the Father’s sometimes forgotten promises for us.

Jonathan Rowe lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with his parents, Nicholas and Sheila, and his sister, Alexia.  The Rowes’ work with Arise Urban Ministries is supported by the Greater Boston Vineyard giving team.

DAY FIFTEEN: Circumcised and Well-Fathered, by Christopher Greco

On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. Luke 2:21

[NOTE FROM THE WRITER: This piece was originally written for the Fear Not project in 2004. Ultimately, it was not included in that elegant package, and soon you’ll understand why.  It contains mature subject matter, in a manner of speaking.]

I am embarrassed (but not entirely) to admit that Jesus’ circumcision speaks to me. To go off on the subject of circumcision is to risk dismissal as a theology freak or, more precisely in my case, to wonder whether I am a prurient literalist.

I’ll be blunt – the fact that Jesus had a member and lived the life he did may be enough to sober me into accepting his every claim for world domination. Interest in reading the rest of this post may have sharply declined for members of a certain gender. But anyone who has ever been a boy can follow my logic (though we boys have probably not given this point much thought, and it didn’t come up in Sunday school).

A father of boys, I have had opportunity to apply my circumcision theology apart from its metaphoric significance or overearnest sermon applications. I have given authorization for not one but three circumcisions in my life. (Collective gasp or no big deal, depending upon your level of detachment on the subject. My wife hadn’t a strong opinion one way or the other.)

In the first two cases I, Christopher Dominic Greco, son of Eugene James Greco, Jr., son of Eugene James Greco, Sr., stood on one side of a hospital window as an unnamed surgeon on the other side ushered the screaming Anthony Littell Greco, and two years later, GianCarlo Littell Greco, into the Abrahamic covenant with the blink of a scalpel. I can remember one nurse singing the praises of GianCarlo’s surgeon for her excellent circumcisions. What she meant by excellent, I dared not ask, but believed entirely and hurriedly as new parents are wont to do.

Yes, I felt their pain in a heartfelt, cosmic way, like the patriarch offering Isaac to God in resolute obedience, but by the time of Matthew Christopher, nearly four years later, I went to work (in the days before a two week paternity leave was offered), and shed not one tear leaving my wife, Dorothy, to keep watch. There was no extra charge for these unlikely and, according to this century’s experts, unnecessary procedures – an ironic holdover from an earlier era when medical and pastoral care were not divorced.

The choice to have my boys circumcised was in my face, so to speak, every time I changed those early diapers. Special care had to be taken in the days following the most excellent circumcision to make sure the wound was kept clean and to apply new gauze as needed. These are daunting orders for uncertain, unmedical parental hands – but nothing, in the end, that excessive applications of petroleum jelly could not handle. When in doubt I fastened the diaper hurriedly, hoping it would all be fine in the end, and it was. The special gauze and Vaseline ritual passed once the circumcision had healed properly. (How one measures whether a circumcision has healed properly, I dared not ask. It doesn’t just fall off, like the umbilical cord.) My wife was always grateful for the passing of this holy season.

So why’d I do it? That’s the bottom line men of faith and substance want to know as they watch the Patriots game over a flight of beers in a sports bar, contemplating how they will handle Junior’s junior. Had I noticed sooner the verse in Luke’s gospel mentioning Jesus’ circumcision, I could claim that’s “WJD”, but I hadn’t. I had only the litany of trivial pro’s and con’s to consider.

1) I was circumcised, so they should be for the sake of carrying on the legacy. Or
2) I was circumcised, so they should be so they don’t freak out in the locker room when they realize they are different from their dad. Or
3) There’s no good reason to circumcise – either a) medically, because it has been shown that blah, blah, blah; or b) politically, because it is another example of the patriarchal church’s inability to ‘focus on your own damn family’ as the retro bumper sticker proclaims, or c) theologically, because God means to circumcise our hearts, and we’ve heard raves about his excellent technique.

In the end, I admit that I had my sons circumcised for the simple reason that I was afraid not to. Here I must tip my hat to my treasured Catholic upbringing, which taught me to fear God and much else. Though it makes no sense, I am also afraid to be cremated after my death because what will happen on the last day when the dead shall rise and meet Jesus in the sky? Never mind that we’re getting new bodies in heaven, or that thousands upon thousands have no interred remains for the rising (for totally kosher reasons); I don’t want to be caught at the second coming without a body, or uncircumcised. I may be truly a literalist at heart.

Why get circumcised? Indeed. Why attempt to follow the examples of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? And, of course, Jesus – the chaste revolutionary who challenges all power structures while allowing himself to be ended by one of the most potent. Why embrace the suffering at both ends of a life – one symbolic and passing, the other ultimate (and passing)?

The reason to circumcise is ineffable. It is beyond words and the obvious. It feels good to be connected to Jesus at an inexplicable level. It feels good to be irrational. It feels like power within, which belongs not to me, and therefore it cannot be defended or abused.

There’s something about manhood in this, I’m inclined to believe these many years after my consequential choice to have my sons circumcised. Perhaps, circumcision is the first battle scar. No slight to my uncircumcised brothers (Philistine or otherwise).

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This morning I walked through the woods having procrastinated slightly the day’s writing which was to include finishing this unnecessary reflection on the relationship between male genitalia and masculine spirituality. I sensed I was not alone on the brown-needled path (and no, I don’t mean chipmunks). Perhaps I was being beckoned away from people not in order to write or for solitude’s sake, but to be with somebody Else. An engaging thought, if sentimental. I wondered to myself to what extent my avoidance of being alone in the wild has been not only a holdover of my (lower c) catholic fears, but a rejection of an invitation to be fathered.

There is a kind of fathering which does not begin and end with – again, forgive the obsessiveness of this essay – a penis. This fathering follows the pattern of how Jesus was fathered: conceived first by G-d in a hidden and unknowable place, then fathered by a virtuous man who worked with his hands in the company of circumcised men of his blood and land. Ultimately, Jesus had to return to the domain of the G-d who created him (and everything) from nothing, without need of a penis, and so must we. This is the G-d who speaks through clouds, “This is my son in whom I am well-pleased.”  There is no other.

I wondered to what extent my perpetual obeisance to other men’s measurements of my masculinity has been not simply my peculiar manifestation of father-woundedness, but an obsessive willful refusal of G-d as my actual father. To what extent do I want not to be named and have my heart circumcised by One Whom I cannot control? It seems less costly, if literal and small-minded of me, to live in the world of penises and compare, measure, and comfort myself with the illusion that I am controlling those men who may actually be controlling me.

On this day, the illusion failed, and I could see clearly. To the extent that I continue to ungraciously demand something of my circumcised father or brother or boss and allow them to demand things of me which only our uncircumcised Heavenly Father can give us, we remain less godly and less manly.

As I kept walking, I came upon a mature pine tree some 40 feet tall, which was thriving at its very top, but had nothing green in its first 30 feet of life, due I suppose to the trees around it blocking the sun. Some dozen or so stump-like branches, of 4, 6 or 8 feet lengths, grew randomly from the trunk in diverse directions, aimed slightly upward like erect phalluses marking failed attempts to extend its life in any way possible. There was nothing prurient or shameful about this tree, unlike as it was to others around it. It seemed maturely masculine to me – very much alive, with its low branches seeming not like failures but signs of unusual hunger and ambition, which have been finally satisfied, judging from the 15 foot diameter canopy it cast against limitless blue.

While I beheld the tree, over its left shoulder, the morning sun stripped itself of passing clouds and shone directly in my eyes. The sun warmed and blinded me slightly. Literalist that I am, I received this as the presence of my Father measuring me and receiving me as He did this tree.

There was no way to justify the bald branches as worthy, meaningful enterprises, nor could I hide behind my own such efforts – be they creative or sexual. I stood on the path, very much in my man’s body which, like my soul, often expresses itself in nonerotic and unproductive erections, so to speak. There’s that play I wrote a few years back which sits in my file drawer unproduced, there’s the back catalogue of songs written and never heard by others, there are the seemingly infinite adolescent sexual fantasies of attaching to this male or that female, there are the dreams of worlds I might have created, places I might have lived, identities I might have explored. Like the branches, they are dead now like so many fruitless erections – no needles, no cones, nothing.

I stand alive and unashamed, bonded with wife and sons, like this one tree among many, and if I can only take it in:

Circumcised and Well-Fathered.