By John Rieping | Published 28 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
"I will kiss you!" / cried a little bird to the Sun up above / Her little heart light with love
"Come," laughed the Sun, / "and we shall be wed!"
But, though she flapped, / Sky would not bear her / Her wings grew so heavy! / Soon down to the mud sank she
"I am too weak to fly up so high," / the muddy bird cried, / and how deeply she did sigh
Sun beamed and laughed, / "Then I will come down!"
And He did.
And no, my greeting is not late -- at least for me. For centuries, many Christians have celebrated Christmas not as a single day nor as a season that ends Dec. 25. The traditional carol "The 12 Days of Christmas" and even the title of William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" continue to remind us of this.
While the calendar of the Catholic Church will observe the Christmas season through Jan. 12 this year, the traditional "12 days" extends from the evening before Christmas to the holiday of Epiphany, which customarily falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany looks to the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus, described in Christian scripture and seen by believers as the first revelation of the Jewish messiah to non-Jews.
In many nations, such as Mexico, gifts used to be exchanged for centuries on Epiphany, not Christmas. But the U.S. tradition, which in the 20th century was exported globally together with the myth of Santa Claus, changed that for many.
Catholics extend the Christmas season until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which commemorates that ceremonial washing of Jesus in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this latter event is instead remembered on Epiphany, which is for them the primary holiday of this time of year -- not Christmas.
Regardless these times are not jolly for all, whether Christian or not.
One Madera (California) couple I know inwardly grieves the absence of their babe, who died months ago -- far too soon for Christmas. Another couple elsewhere in the U.S., cousins of a friend, has a two-month old boy, Atticus, in intensive care (to help with the medical costs, see http://goo.gl/MmogHC). Due to his precarious health, he received his baptism and confirmation Friday.
A third couple has been bereft of two grandsons, one to a drug overdose and the other to jail. Grief colors their holiday. Meanwhile a fellow columnist at this newspaper had a serious and unexpected brush with death.
Then there is the local family planning the funeral of a 15-year-old boy who died shielding his 13-year-old brother from bullets in a purposeless shooting (how that noble act calls to mind John 15:3).
Isn't the birth of Jesus supposed to bring peace and good will to humanity? That oft-repeated phrase is a variation of the words sung by many angels to shepherds outside of Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2:14)
Yet, despite Christmas, pain of all kinds remains and there are no easy answers. This mystery of suffering can only make sense at the foot of the cross, upon which the grown babe Jesus died -- the self-sacrifice for which Christians believe he came. If we Christians believe even our God was not spared a terrible cross, how can we think we will? Yet that is not cause for despair or stoicism.
Jesus himself would tell his closest followers, the apostles, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you -- not as the world gives, I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid... These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have affliction, but take courage. I have conquered the world." (John 14:27, 33)
Peace and courage can be found in God, even amidst hurt.
May the love of God be born anew in our own hearts that we may bring what consolation we can offer, by prayer and deed, to those in need. Let us be men and women of good will to those around us and to our own selves.
"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
By John Rieping | Published 21 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
The elderly widow of the tribe of Asher took each step carefully as she climbed the stairs up mount Moriah, upon which stood Solomon's Temple and the highest point within the metropolis of Jerusalem.
The stone would not be forgiving if she fell.
Though not a festival or holy day, Hannah would have company enough. Services took place daily. Each week a new shift of priests, chosen from all parts of the land, would perform all the functions of the temple, with a different priestly family responsible for each day and all working together on the Sabbath. Few faces were familiar to her.
But she did not come for them. No, the daughter of Phanuel lived up to her sire's name, for she longed for the "face of God" ("penuel" in Hebrew).
At the top of the stairs she rested, her vigor slowed by age and fasting. But she had learned patience. Behind her the city sprawled, each quarter set apart by sandy, gray and white walls. The roads flowed with people, though not equally or always well. The cool of morning was preferable to the heat of the afternoon.
The interior courtyards of rich homes lay exposed from above, encircled by narrow buildings that looked like absurdly thick walls, some with red sloping roofs and others topped flat -- private paths upon which to look down or out on the city. The homes of the poor were not so impressive, but no less lively.
In either case, all manner of washing, play and work could be seen -- and all seemed equally small now. They did not captivate her attention as in younger years.
Her eyes may have lingered, out of reverence, upon a square building rising above the others with a pyramid-like top pointing to the heavens. Within it the bones of King David rested. How long until one of his kin would sit again upon the throne instead of a puppet of Rome? When would come the mashiah? (Hebrew for "anointed one," in Greek "christos")
Hannah continued onward toward her daily appointment with the love of her life. The view of Jerusalem could be contemplated no more as she walked upon the wide open space of the temple mount, lined with great roof-topped pillars on all sides. Here was enough room for several temples (or 24 football fields), but such multiplicity was unthinkable. On great festival days, massive crowds could be seen here, human overflow from the one temple of the one god.
Smoke rose from the altar of sacrifice, hidden in the heart of the temple, which sat tall at the center of the level top of mount Moriah. "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?" sang the psalmist in her memory.
"He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully... Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob." (Tehilim/Psalm 24:3-4, 6)
Beyond an ornamented railing that non-Jews could not pass, another tier of steps ascended, but a kindly stranger assisted her with them. Soon she entered the walled-in court of the women, the treasury. Beyond it, she too would be allowed no further.
Coins clattered in the 13 wooden boxes that could be found between columns that supported a covered passageway surrounding the court. The offerings were dropped into each box via trumpet-shaped openings of bronze, and some liked to guess and judge the generosity of others by listening for the distinctive sound different-sized coins would make. But she had no interest in that.
As she walked forward, her eyes spotted a particular crack in a stone and a memory awoke of a woman charged with adultery. The penalty for her fault was death, as dictated by the law (Debarim/Deuteronomy 22:24). Hannah's eyes grew wet, and she directed her heart to God and began her prayers.
She remembered the woman, her late husband, her own children and grandchildren, and more. Each loved one led her thoughts to another as she emptied her heart before her God. She lifted each of them up with a trust born of long experience that God listens and cares. "For I know that my redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth." (Job 19:25)
Thus she prayed upon the stones, and she was heard.