A couple of recent stories on NPR provided a look in microcosm at the vast income inequality in our society today. In one, someone had paid $800K for Orson Welles’ Oscar® for Citizen Kane at a Sotheby’s auction. $800,000 for a statue to gather dust! Absurd and outrageous, and yes, immoral in this day of so much suffering and such disparity between the uber-well-to-do and the rest of us.

The other piece was about a mother in Austell, GA, outside Atlanta, who had been unemployed since 2008, as I recall, and was now underemployed with a not-for-profit. She had to tell her son that she did not have the gas to take him to the church camp in nearby Villa Rica, GA that he wanted to attend. All she could afford was gas to get to work and to church. She told the tale through tears. How much gas would that anonymous bidder’s $800K have bought for that mother and other people like her? I was outraged. (I heard these stories on “All Things Considered,” Wednesday, December 21, 2011.)

Of course, there are great stories on the news about good-hearted people who fix and give away bikes or who are paying off layaway accounts for families who can’t afford to get their toys and other gifts. That even happened right here in Starkville, MS, where a man paid $1000 at the local Wal-Mart for layaways of toys and bikes, obviously for children, as identified by the clerk.

But these wonderful acts of charity in a way only punctuate the lack of income justice in this nation, where so many claim to be Christian, but ignore the poor and cater to the rich, and focus instead of trivialities like an SNL skit about Jesus and Tim Tebow or complain about people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Probably the best recent commentary on this situation I have seen is this video from Stephen Colbert’s program on Comedy Central, which I saw posted by someone on Facebook. Colbert says it all. http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/368914/december-16-2010/jesus-is-a-liberal-democrat.

The birth of Jesus is cut from the same cloth as the rest of the gospel. It can’t be separated from his teaching, his death, his resurrection and ascension. The baby in the manger is the same Lord we are called to give our ultimate loyalty to, the same one who told us that in the least of these we serve him. Christmas is a calling, a way of life. Let us honor Christmas in our hearts every day by following Jesus and doing justice.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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On Highway 82 just outside of Albany, GA, near a landscaping firm, there is on a hill a single tree done up completely in white lights. Simple, bright, elegant.

Just up the road is another business, a car dealership, featuring a used car in gaudy livery, with Santa waving from the driver’s seat, with colored lights and the traditional mash-up of accoutrements of Christmas. Vulgar, overdone, in your face.

I thought as I drove past these displays last Friday evening that they represented two approaches to this season. One is quiet, contemplative, focused, restful. The other is rushed, full of unnecessary drama, stress, and worry. And it further seemed to me that the way people approach Christmas is the same way they live their everyday lives. Some seek to do one thing well and without shouting and self-promotion. They are the single tree standing bright against the night. Others are constantly rushing and spending and running, and to what end? Only their own exhaustion and brokenness. They are the gaudy, too-much Santa car.

“Purity of heart,” said the philosopher, “is to will one thing.” And Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem grown up, taught us what that is: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

A single star shone at Christmas, pointing the way. Maybe God was reminding us that life doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

++++

“Competitive shopping turned violent at a Los Angeles–area Walmart when a woman fired pepper spray to keep other shoppers at bay. Police say 20 people suffered minor injuries from the spray and subsequent “rapid crowd movement.” Witnesses say they heard screams coming from a crowd of shoppers rushing for discounted Xboxes and Wiis” (see note 1).

“A Black Friday shopper who collapsed while shopping at a Target store in West Virginia went almost unnoticed as customers continued to hunt for bargain deals.

“Walter Vance, the 61-year-old pharmacist, who reportedly suffered from a prior heart condition, later died in hospital, reports MSNBC.

“Witnesses say some shoppers ignored and even walked over the man’s body as they continued to shop, reports the New York Daily News

“Friends and co-workers saddened to learn of his death, expressed outrage over the way he was treated by shoppers” (see note 2).

++++

Assaulting others for a game console? Stepping over a dying man? (At least some nurses shopping in Target assisted the man until paramedics arrived. Kudos to them for having a moral compass and being true to their oath as medical professionals.)

We hear these kinds of stories every year. And I’m sickened by them. How is hurting other people as you rush to get a deal a fit preparation to celebrate the birth of the One who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many? Answer: it’s not. People really don’t care about living like Jesus did, no matter how many Christmas carols they sing about “preparing him room.”

It’s because of the flawed or non-existent moral sense of shoppers and all of us in general that we need to pay more attention to the season of Advent. Not an easy calling. Nothing could more counter-cultural than to emphasize its focus on simplicity, humble repentance, and waiting (AKA deferred gratification) over excess, shameless self-promotion, and rushing into stores and toward Christmas Day itself.

Don’t expect much along those lines, though, from the dominant churches in this nation, namely, the evangelicals and fundamentalists. A radio host on a “Christian” radio station I tuned into while surfing the frequencies last Sunday gushed about how glad she was that we could now “legitimately” say “merry Christmas,” since it was after Thanksgiving. A Baptist church in a nearby town already has scheduled for tonight tours of live nativity scenes and a mock-up of the biblical Bethlehem. These kinds of Christians contribute to the culture’s fixation on rushing toward Christmas, instead of helping us to step back and ask questions about our consumption, our need to get and have, and our reluctance to repent.

But truth be told, the oldline/offline (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal…) and Catholic churches don’t do much better, even though we recognize Advent and hear texts on its Sundays about judgment and longing and changing our ways. We are urged to make the crooked straight and the mountains low. Yet we either have so little influence on the culture or we have been so co-opted by it or the pressure is so great to conform that our voices go unheeded. The cacophony set up by all the ads and horrible Christmas Musak and kids clamoring for their favorite toys and electronics is so loud, so harsh, so utterly crushing that even the strong preaching of John the Baptist is drowned out, not to mention the warnings of Jesus or the singing of Mary.

I truly despair for our nation and for its churches. But maybe as in days gone by, a few will be able to reset their moral direction by sighting on the “bright morning star” (Revelation 22:6) and lead the way to renewal. That would be the most wonderful Christmas present of all.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Note 1

http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2011/11/25/woman-pepper-sprays-shoppers.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_morning&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_morning&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet

Note 2

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/27/black-friday-target_n_1115372.html?utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily%20Brief&utm_campaign=daily_brief

My dad passed away suddenly earlier this month. This post is excerpted from the funeral meditation I shared.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change…. The Lord of hosts is with us…” (Psalm 46:1,2, 11a).

When someone passes away at Christmastime, it’s probable that the holiday will for a long while or maybe forever have a pall cast over it. But let me suggest that more than any other season besides Easter, this time of year offers profound hope for the grieving.

That’s because it bids us “Don’t be afraid,” just as Mary and the shepherds were called not to fear. Why? Because God is “with us.” When all other companions are gone, even the companion of a lifetime, God is with us in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should move.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

One of our favorite Christmas books is the award-winning The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. We also love the extraordinary animated movie of the same name. It’s the story of a skeptical boy at the beginning of adolescence who learns the power of belief when he takes a magical train ride to the North Pole. There he meets Santa (“Mr. C.”) who grants him the “first gift of Christmas,” a bell from Santa’s sleigh.

 

Given the beauty and the positive theme of the book and movie, it was disconcerting and troubling on a recent trip to see a criticism of The Polar Express on a sign outside a fundamentalist church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “The first gift of Christmas was a child,” read the message. I’m sure if an emoticon had been available to put up, it would have been a shouting face expressing disapproval or even anger. And if italics could have been included, the word “child” would have been so emphasized.

 

What kind of believers have to put down a work for children, whether The Polar Express or some other, to make their point? They must be terribly insecure in their faith! And how is it that they saw in the book and movie a threat to Christianity, another front or issue in the alleged “war on Christmas” (the totally bogus invention of the Religious Right)? The author’s and screenwriter’s subject was not the biblical Christmas story at all. In fact, it had to do only with one boy’s journey back to belief and the embrace of the true spirit of the season at one particular Christmas. Surely a heart-warming and uplifting message for all people!

 

The Bible and the wonderful story of the first Christmas point us to our Savior, and the gift of the first Christmas was a child. Indeed, each year he is born in us. That truth is not diminished or rendered false by other stories or approaches to the season.

 

Christians who live with joy and hope and regard others with good will need not be threatened by truth and beauty whatever its source, whether a children’s tale or someone of another faith or no faith at all. The God of the Bible, the God whom the Child of Bethlehem reveals to us, is so big that all truth is his truth, all beauty his beauty. It’s a shame that some of those who consider themselves defenders of the faith deny and/or forget that all too often.

 

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

 

(O Sapientia)

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,

pervading and permeating all creation,

you order all things with strength and gentleness:

Come now and teach us the way to salvation.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Adonai)

O Adonai, Ruler of the house of Israel,

you appeared in the burning bush to Moses

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come with outstretched arm to save us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Radix Jesse)

O Root of Jesse, rising as a sign for all the peoples,

before you earthly rulers will keep silent,

and nations give you honor:

Come quickly to deliver us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Clavis David)

O Key of David, Scepter over the house of Israel,

you open and no one can close,

you close and no one can open:

Come to set free the prisoners

who live in darkness and the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Oriens)

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light,

Sun of justice:

Come, shine on those who live in darkness

and in the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Rex Gentium)

O Ruler of the nations, Monarch for whom the people long,

you are the Cornerstone uniting all humanity:

Come, save us all,

whom you formed out of clay.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Emmanuel)

 O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver,

desire of the nations and Savior of all:

Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Come, Lord Jesus.

         

            Silence

 

God of grace, ever faithful to your promises,

the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming

and looks forward with longing

to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to

receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever.   Amen.

 

 

Since at least the 8th century CE, the “O Antiphons” have been sung or chanted in liturgy in the Western Church during the Octave before Christmas (December 17-23). They may have been used as far back as the 5th or 6th century, when there is a reference to them in the writings of Boethius, a philosopher and poet. French Benedictines not so long after were reciting the prayers and then giving gifts to each other.

 

Those same monks arranged the antiphons in such a way that they formed an acrostic. Starting with the last title and taking the first letter of each in turn, they formed the Latin phrase ero cras (“tomorrow, I will come”): Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia. Their creative arrangement reminded them of the promise of Jesus’ advent (coming, parousia): “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20). 

 

I love this litany! First, for its extreme age. In this time of disposable everything, we need truly ancient traditions that have been developed and shared and valued over the millennia, enriching the lives of countless numbers of believers. In reciting the O Antiphons, we are connected in a deep and enduring way with those who have gone before us.

 

Second, for its imagination. We become so lazy in our address to God and Jesus, preferring only a couple of titles like “Father” or “Lord.” But the Bible is full of wonderful terms that would take our worship and prayer to a new level, if we would but seek them out. The seven words (in Latin) used in the O Antiphons barely scratch the surface of what the Scriptures offer us as a resource for our relationship with our Lord.

 

Third, for its longing and passion. Can’t you feel the ache in these prayers? Surely in these days of economic crisis, unending and fruitless war, genocide, corruption, greed, fear, and on and on, we need the intervention of divine providence that these ancient lines call for. Particularly for those bound in whatever way—by debt, by addiction, by prejudice, by lust for power—these prayers plead for freedom and help. And for us all, in our deathly culture from which we cannot extricate ourselves, there is no other hope for breaking free from the tomb than our God’s swift coming.

 

You readers who worship in a liturgical church that observes Advent and follows the customs of the ages will most likely pray these prayers yourself this Sunday as part of the gathered community. If you do not have that opportunity, I encourage you to use them for personal devotions, ask your pastor to include them next year on the Sunday before Christmas or both.

 

Have a blessed Christmas, and be encouraged by these words “ero cras,” “tomorrow, I will come.”

 

© Tom Cheatham

 

Notes

 

The version of the O Antiphons I use here comes from Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

My source for history is Fr. William Saunders, “What are the ‘O Antiphons’?” http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0374.html

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” (Psalm 126:1,2a).

 

ABC Family network recently showed all the Harry Potter movies through Goblet of Fire as part of their “25 Days of Christmas” line-up. (What Harry Potter has to do with Christmas, I don’t know. But I’ll figure that out later….) As I watched Harry and Ron and Hermione use their respective talents to solve puzzles and ultimately battle Voldemort, I noticed how many comic moments in these films I had missed or ignored. Apparently, the pratfalls and silliness will be even more evident in Half-blood Prince, so that even I can’t miss them.

 

Certainly as the storyline becomes ever darker, the body count mounts, and Harry moves toward his ultimate showdown with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, comedy is even more essential. We cannot emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually sustain constant horror, suspense, and sorrow. Somewhere we need a chance to take a breath, relax, and laugh a little, to entertain hope that the heroes (and we ourselves in real life) might just get out of a dire situation after all.

 

Especially in the Roman Catholic and liturgical Protestant churches the upcoming third Sunday of Advent (December 14, “Gaudete Sunday”) provides such comic relief. It invites us to laugh like those whose dreams of homecoming have been fulfilled by the startling action of the God who does great things (Psalm 126). We exchange our garments of sadness for gaudy, festive finery (Isaiah 61:3, 10). We are called to sing with Mary, so that our spirits rejoice in God our Savior (Luke 1:47).

 

And how we need our spirits to be lifted and refreshed! We are in the midst of a global economic crisis. New jobless claims in our nation are at a 26-year high while AIG executives get $4M bonuses. The automakers, once the bastions of American industry, have had to go hat in hand to Congress asking for a bailout, a bid which has now been rejected. Corruption in government has once again reared its ugly head, this time embodied in the governor of Illinois.

 

But even if corporate executives were not greedy and incompetent and government officials not arrogant and unresponsive—in other words, if we had been spared this current crisis—even then we would still be subject to the common maladies of the season. Lonely people would continue to long for companionship at a time when there is so much emphasis put on togetherness. Families would keep squabbling and fighting over anything and everything from the holiday meal to the number of presents under the tree to unmet expectations and failed promises. As in past years, stress would increase exponentially (for reasons, see previous sentence).

 

Advent and Christmas bring us the promise of deliverance. Not merely a temporary reprieve from the sorrow and stress (comic relief), but a permanent solution we might call “karmic” relief. In the coming of Christ at Christmas and the Second Coming we also anticipate in Advent, God breaks the endless cycle of sin and its consequence, the relentless crushing load of hopeless destiny. We hear words of comfort, assuring us that our sin is forgiven and our warfare ended (cf. Isaiah 40:2, KJV). The world is turned upside down, which is to say back to the way God intended, as the proud and strong are scattered, but the humble and poor are lifted up and fed (cf. Luke 1:47-55).

 

As Frederick Buechner once observed, the gospel is comedy (Telling the Truth). It’s a story that makes us laugh like those who dream, and through and beyond the laughter leads us to hope that weathers any crisis.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham