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21. December 2016 · Comments Off on WE HAVE HEARD THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL · Categories: General · Tags: , ,

The Christmas story involves some familiar and essential characters.  Perhaps we have figures of them set up in the nativity scenes in our homes or churches.  There is the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus. There are the shepherds.  The Magi.  Although they did not come to the manger, but to a house that the Holy Family was in some time after the birth, we put the figures in the nativity scene anyway because they belong to the story, and look so nice there.

Then there are the angels. They also did not come to the stable where the manger was, but folks have found  a way to put them there.  Of course we know that it was the shepherds to whom the angels came: first one, and then the “multitude of the heavenly host” as Luke tells us.

But who or what are angels?  Do they exist, and why? There is of course a lot of misinformation out there, like for example this  picture.  That angel is so cute, and because of this he/she/it has crept into our Christmas christmas-angelcelebration. In the Bible we read a lot about angels.  They appear in the narratives of both the Old and the New Testaments, and the latter has a few things to say about the nature of these beings and their role.

But one thing the Bible absolutely does NOT say, is that angels are spirits of deceased humans.  We need to emphasize that, because more and more obituaries begin with saying that someone had been “fitted for her wings” or “received his wings” or that he or she is now “our little angel in heaven”.  Despite all the folklore about these so called angels “looking down on us” or “watching over us” there is absolutely no biblical basis for the notion that people turn into angels when they die. And if you read to the end of this piece, you will find out why that is a good thing.

In the language of the New Testament, the word that is translated as “angel” simply means a messenger.  The messenger is sent by God, and the message that the angel proclaims is tied to the One who sent the angel, which is why we often see the term, “The Angel of the Lord” in the various biblical accounts.  In that narrow meaning of the word, your pastor is also an angel, though few people think of us in those terms.

When the Bible talks about angels, it often refers to a supernatural being that interacts with one or more human beings.  Angels “appear” to people.  Hebrews 1:14 tells us that angels are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation”.

Here are some things that angels do, according to statements in the Bible that refer to “The angel of the Lord”:

  • Calls and speaks
  • Has physical contact with people
  • Appears sometime in human likeness
  • Appears sometimes in supernatural form, often evoking fear
  • Appears sometimes in dreams and visions
  • Reveals information about the future (in the Christmas story the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus)
  • Gives guidance and instruction
  • Comforts those in need
  • Affirms promises and gives blessing
  • Rebuked sinful Israel
  • Rolled back the tombstone at Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Rescued people from prison (Act 5:19; 12:8-9)

In the Christmas story the angel comes to the shepherds who were watching the flocks by night. As was so often the case, the appearance of the angel initially resulted in terror. But the angel (the Bible says it was “an angel” – Luke 2:9) comforted them by telling them not to be afraid, because he has “Good News which shall be to all people”. What then follows is the Christmas Story it its simplest and most beautiful form: I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)

What about Guardian Angels? In Matthew 18:10 Jesus was speaking about little children. In the course of what he said there, He referred to the angel that seems to minister especially to children and that they “see the face of God”.  Does this refer only to children having one or more guardian angels, or is it safe to infer that we all do?  Scholars seem divided on that point, but I believe the verse from Hebrews that we quoted above gives reason to believe that at least “those who will inherit salvation” have an angel assigned for personal duty to them.

Another thing we must note, is that if angels serve us, or protect us from harm etc. they must be incredibly powerful beings, i.e. they have a super-human power.  That is probably why almost all human encounters with an angel recorded in the Bible speak of the human having great fear, and the angel saying, “Fear Not”.  The cute angels that appear in Christmas pageants these days hardly evoke fear, but the real ones do!

Finally, lets consider for a moment the place of angels and humans in God’s scheme of things. In Psalm 8:4-5 we read, Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them, and make them a little less than the heavenly beings? The writer of Hebrews, who quotes this psalm says that in his humanity Jesus was for a little while lower in status than angels, but now crowned with glory and honour.

The Scriptures also tell us that not all angels are good; some are evil, and they are not “the angel of the Lord” but rather emissaries of Satan.  The creation story tells us that everything that God created, was created good.  That would include the angels. And if there are fallen or evil angels, it would mean that they at some point became that way through sin.  It should be noted that there is no promise anywhere in the Bible that a fallen angel can be saved.  The vicarious death of Jesus on the cross, was not for angels, but for you and for me.  That is why it is a good thing that we are not turned to angels when we die, but rather are promoted to glory, something that is of course promised only to those who have received the gift of Christmas that the angels brought to the shepherds.

I wish all readers a joyful Christmas and a fresh encounter with the message that is behind the celebration.

12. December 2015 · Comments Off on GRIEF, HOLIDAYS, AND MERRIMENT · Categories: Christmas, Death, Dying, General, Grief · Tags: , , , , ,

christmas-wreaths-on-grave

Two days ago I got back home from a trip to Africa.  However this post is not about Africa, it is a personal word about grief, Christmas, and related thoughts.  As many readers know, my father passed away in October.  Dad knew that I was planning to go on a missions trip.  I had told him about the plans right from the start when things got serious last winter. As always, Dad was supportive and encouraged me along the way.

Just before he moved into the hospice where he died, I visited Dad at his home on the last Sunday afternoon prior to his move.  As he walked me to the front door, he paused in the front hall, and matter of factly said, “I hope that I am gone by the time you leave for Africa.  If not, then I hope I can hang on until you get back.  But the first scenario would be better because I don’t want to ruin your trip.”  Those words, coming out of the blue, hit me like a thunder-clap.  As usual, Dad was thinking of others, before he thought about himself. A little over three weeks after this incident, he passed away.

The weeks after Dad’s passing were a whirlwind of final preparations for the trip as well as the work that comes with winding up an estate.  Then came a series of distractedness at the beginning of the trip: luggage left at the check in counter at Pearson airport, and retrieved in the nick of time; my laptop with all me work and talks for Kenya and Cameroon left at the security check point in Amsterdam; a jacket with a set of keys left on the airplane, and on the very first weekend of the trip a bad case of food poisoning.

inevitably, there came an evening in Kenya where I felt totally overwhelmed by it all.  Fortunately a good friend was nearby to listen and to pray with me.

Now comes the culture shock of re-entry into North American life, which I am finding much harder than I thought. The “shock” of coming back to Christmas lights everywhere, and Christmas carols being played over and over again everywhere you go is too much, as is the constant pressure to buy more things so that we have “the perfect holiday season”.  Someone has said that Christmas shopping is buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t even like. But what if we can’t get into the “Christmas spirit” (whatever that is)?  I have never been an Ebenezer Scrooge, but this year getting into the Christmas spirit is hard for me, as it is for many people who are facing hardships like terminal illnesses or bereavements.  So I’m going to give a few observations and suggestions in the hope that it will help someone.

  1. Grief is not easier than it was the first time.

My mother died in 2010, so this is the second time I have lost a parent.  Perhaps that  experience has helped me to know what to expect, but it doesn’t make it any easier. It is just as difficult, for each person we lose is special.   Just to review my thoughts in an earlier article on this: grief is not some sort of disease or disorder. It is a natural response to any loss that we experience. Yes people do grieve over the loss of  a job, or money, or even a pet.  But the more we loved an individual, the greater will be the pain of that loss.  In the early stages of grief, there is something called shock – which is nature’s buffer that prrevents us form feeling the full impact of the loss all at once.  Shock keeps us going so we can function.  But gradually, the full impact of the loss does bear down on us. In my case it involves coming to terms with the awful truth that Mom or Dad will not be coming back home, and I can no longer talk to them nor hear their advice.

2. There is no right or wrong way to handle grief, at Christmas or any other time.

If you want to help someone who is grieving, try not to tell them things what they should or should not be doing.  The well intended advice that people often give is not always appropriate. What works fine for one person, does not necessarily  work for everyone else.

Take Christmas for example.  When I got back home from my trip, the pile of mail included a card from the funeral home that served our family.  They were inviting us to come to their quiet candlelight  healing service that they have each year.  I knew that I could not be a part of that because I am still too raw; it has been too soon. I remember being at such a service after my mother died. She died in January, and  the following Christmas season was almost a year later.  This time it is just a few weeks or months later.

As for Christmas, I have decided to skip it this year.  There will be no tree at my house, I will attend no parties,  and write no Christmas cards. No turkey and all the trappings that are associated with Christmas in the western hemisphere. Why not? Because all of the above, which we normally have done in other years will just  bring back too many memories that will be too much.  This year after conducting Christmas Eve worship, I will simply go and have some down-time.    But isn’t Christmas the most important time of the year?

Well actually no.  Christians believe that the birth of Christ was a sacred event – when God became one of us through Jesus.  But Christmas Day is not sacred at all (notwithstanding all the “keep Christ in Christmas rhetoric”).  In fact it is because a Roman emperor in collusion with a pope wanted to synchretize and re-define a pagan holiday that we celebrate Christmas every December 25. But the early Christian church got along just fine without Christmas for the first 300 years of its history at least.

3. Time does not heal the wounds of grief.

In fact, if not processed properly, grief can on indefinitely; people actually stop living as they become obsessed with the loss of their loved one. I often liken bereavement to an amputaton.  First there is overwhelming pain and then gradually the stump heals — but the limb does not return.  On the other hand,  the pain of grief does subside – but not because of the passage of time, but because of the way we process and work through our love and and our pain.  People are sometimes afraid of feeling better because they fear that they might forget the person who has died. There are so many resources that are available … support groups, individual counselling, good insightful literature etc. I have always told people: you will never forget the person whom you have lost, but it isn’t going to hurt as much as it does now.

4. Don’t Make Assumptions.

Often bereaved people have their pain increase because of the way that old time acquaintances treat them or ignore them.  That is because  most of us are a little awkward, and don’t quite know what to say.  On that subject, little is actually more.  A squeeze of the hand, a hug, a reassuring touch on the shoulder, all of these speak more eloquently than words.  And if you must use words, keep it simple. “I’m sorry for your loss” or words to that effect. Hold the good advice and the  philosophizing about how the deceased is “in a better place”. (I know that Mom and Dad are in heaven and that I will be there and see them there.  But that doesn’t change how I miss them now, and deal with the fact that I can never ask them anything any more). Oh, and whatever you say, do not say “I know how you feel” (because you don’t, even if you once suffered a similar loss). Don’t make assumptions about what  you think a person’s needs are at Christmas.  Don’t assume that they want to be left alone.  A much kinder approach is to include them the way you always have, but give them the opportunity to  decline the invitation  or  to withdraw.

Well like I said, these are just my suggestions.  They may not work for you.  If you think of something that HAS helped you along those lines, feel free to leave a comment.

grief at Christmas

untitledToday’s post will be very short.  It’s intent is to wish everyone a joyful and blessed Christmas, wherever and however you are observing it. Here in Hamilton it is a wet and gloomy looking weather. Christmas joy of course, is not dependent on what is on the ground, nor can it be found in duplicating Christmases “just like the ones I used to know”, although last night, on Christmas Eve, I did reflect on the ones I used to know.  They are gone, but what remains are the fond memories of great times.

Today I am not venturing outside at all.  Family will be joining me later for Christmas dinner, so there is work to be done!

Finally, I wish everyone the PEACE of Christmas.  In my Christmas message at church last night I reminded everyone that Jesus came to give us Peace with God, Peace with others, and also peace within ourselves.

My gratitude this year also extends to those of you in the “blog” family who have read and supported my “Musings” since the launch of the blog in June. Some of you have corresponded, and others have posted your comments online, something that is always welcome. The blogging software allows me to see where readers are in the world.  And while most are here in North America, it has been great fun making contacts with people in other parts of the world also. Pray for peace in our world, and may God use you in the part of the world where you are.

 

 

 

 

17. December 2014 · Comments Off on THE MYTHS OF CHRISTMAS · Categories: General · Tags: ,

A_Kim_Possible_Nativity_Scene_by_drakkenfanNo, this is not going to be a rant about Santa Claus, the pagan origin of Christmas trees, nor the commercialization of Christmas.  I am not a Scrooge nor a Grinch that wants to take anyone’s Christmas cheer.  However, as Christians, it is imperative that we know the Christmas story about the birth of our Saviour. That story is beautifully told by the gospel writers Matthew and Luke.  Their account is stunning in its simplicity.  Over the years there have been many embellishments thanks to the folklore, traditions, and even music and art.  Even some Christmas carols have helped to spread some of these myths.  People who know their Bible well can spot these.  Those who do not, may confuse some fictional imaginative mythology with fact.

  1. The Grumpy Innkeeper.  We all have seen him in Christmas plays and pageant.  He either appears leaning out of his window with a yawn, or as a gruff old man who impatiently answers his door and informs Mary and Joseph that there is no room in his inn.  But search as you may, you will not find this character anywhere in the gospel narrative.  We assume that there was such a person because of Luke’s statement that Mary laid her newborn into a manger “because there was no room in the inn”. However, that inn was by no means a 5 star or even 3 or 2 star place of lodging. In fact there is not a shred of evidence that there was any type of inn at the one-crossroad- town of Bethlehem.  Even stronger is the biblical evidence that the Greek word which Luke uses in his account really does not mean inn at all but rather “guestroom”. In recognition of this, the newest edition of the NIV Bible says, “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”  There is another word for “inn” which Luke uses in in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where there is indeed an inn, and also an innkeeper! So does this change the Christmas story? Not really. In keeping with the middle eastern value of hospitality, homes generally did have a guestroom at the front or the top of the house (cf. the story of the upper room for the last supper where the same “guestroom” word is used) as well as a stable, perhaps built into a cave behind the house, where the prized animals were kept safe from predators and thieves. Mary and Joseph had travelled to Bethlehem “because he was of the house and lineage of David”.  It is very likely that they would have stayed with relatives, but got there too late to use the guestroom.  Others were there first, and why nobody made room for Mary who was with child is anybody’s guess. They were relegated to the back stable.
  2. Did the Angel Choir sing?  The carol, Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains is one of my favorites. And there are other similar songs that refer to the singing angels.  What Luke tells us however is that the Angel of the Lord who had told the shepherds about the Birth of Jesus was joined by the “heavenly host, praising God, and saying Glory to God!” No mention of singing.  I have heard people counter that by saying, “angels speaking must have sounded much more beautiful than human choirs singing”. I tend to agree.  What is important here is to pay attention to what the heavenly host said, “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace on Earth”.  That must have sounded wonderful, even if they spoke it!
  3. Were There Three Kings of Orient as another Carol puts it? Well they certainly came from the east, but they were not kings, and we don’t know how many of them there were.  Matthew tells us in Matthew 2:1 “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem”. In antiquity, magi was a term which since the 6th Century BC referred to worshippers of Zoroaster, and who were said to have a special ability to read the stars and manipulate the fate foretold in them. The term also referred to people with the ability to engage in magic, and of course astrology, a primitive form of astronomy.  Their place in the Christmas story is significant, because of the Biblical prophecies that the Gentiles would come and worship Messiah. But were there three?  Some deduce that from the three gifts that are mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Only one problem with that.  While gold and frankincense were very valuable, myrrh was not…it was a common commodity readily available.  So if the number of magi depends on three gifts, then one of them would have given “like Santa and saved liked Scrooge” for it would take an awful lot of myrrh to make up the value of gold and frankincense of the others.  It is more likely, that the gifts given to Jesus consisted of the three items mentioned, rather than each of the magi giving one particular item. The number of magi is unknown; there were at least 2 and possibly more.  Moreover, the magi did not come to the manger. The Bible tells us they came to Jerusalem, researched where Jesus was born, found it was in Bethlehem, and the star guided them “to the place where the child was”. By now Jesus was no longer a new-born, as also seen in the fact that Herod ordered all boys aged 2 and under to be slaughtered. In other words, Jesus had been born some time before the appearance of the magi.
  4. Was Jesus “born on Christmas Day” as the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and other traditions say?  If “Christmas Day” refers to December 25, then we would have a problem.  That calendar reckoning would make it winter, and while there might not have been snow, the Judean winters were cold.  Then the shepherds would not have been in the fields “keeping watch over their flock by night”. The herds would have been brought in to the stables for the winter. The fact that they were out in the fields at night might be a reference to the spring time  ewing of lambs.  This would be a time when sheep and lambs were especially vulnerable to predators, especially at night, and so therefore shepherds would have to be vigilant.  The only thing we can say with absolute certainty is that we don’t know the month or the day, in fact we can’t even pin down the year with absolute certainty.  It is not the time or the date that makes Jesus’ birth special, it is the miracle of the incarnation – God becomes one of us.  We celebrate that on December 25, because some time after A.D. 274, Pope Julian fixed that date as the time to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Prior to that, this date had been the date of a Roman winter festival  to celebrate the birth of the “unconquered sun”.  During the first few centuries after Jesus’ birth, Christians had not celebrated his birth at all. But gradually the church adopted a strategy to “rescue” pagan festivals by giving them a Christian meaning.  That is how we got Christmas.

So what does all that mean for our Christmas celebration?  First I would say that the Incarnation is indeed something worth celebrating.  Doing so on Dec 25 is an old custom that is convenient. And the other “myths” of Christmas? To me they are harmless as long as Jesus remains central.  It doesn’t bother me that people like to think of angel choirs.  I don’t mind seeing “the three wise men” in the nativity scene, even though I know they weren’t there at the manger.  They are however part of the bigger story and that is what matters. And whether the manger stood in the back of a crowded residence whose guest room was full, or in back of some inn, or perhaps at the rest stop of a caravan as some believe, the main thing is that there is room for Jesus in the “front” of my life, and not the “back” as an afterthought.

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