We Hear what We want to Hear

Peter’s speech in Acts 10:36:43 is pretty much the same way Peter and the other disciples have explained the Gospel all along. “Peace [comes] by Jesus Christ,” “He is the Lord of all,” Jesus was “anointed with power by the Holy Spirit,” he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” he died on the cross and was raised up, and the disciples were “commanded to preach to the people and testify that he is the one ordained by God.”

But while this sermon is all the same words, it’s completely different because Peter is talking to Gentiles who have never converted to Judaism. Until a few hours prior to this, Peter didn’t believe that was possible. But God gave him a dream to disturb his sleep, and Peter was man enough to recognize that he got it all wrong and he recognized that the Gospel was for everyone (as Paul would describe it later, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female). As a result he is minutes away from baptizing the first Gentiles who have not first converted to Judaism into the Christian church.

Thus, the first two verses (34-35) that I didn’t include above are the critical ones. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

And this is the point of these weeks following Epiphany. Epiphany (Jan 6) is the twelfth and last day of the Christmas feast, when the Western Church celebrates the revelation of Christ to the Magi. It is preceded by Jesus’ Name Day (Jan 1) wherein it is revealed that this baby is the promised Savior (the meaning of the name Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew). This is followed in quick succession by celebrations of his baptism by John in the Jordan and his first miracle at Cana. It concludes (in the Revised Common Lectionary readings) on the Sunday before Lent with Jesus’ Transfiguration

In short, this is a period when hopefully we have the ears to hear the Gospel all over again, and this time, like Peter, actually hear it. Peter listened to Jesus for three years but he always put the message into his familiar categories and thus he thought of the Gospel as an improved Judaism and not something shatteringly new.

And this is what we do also; it’s not Peter’s failure, it’s a human failure. We come to the Gospel with a set of assumptions about how the world is, what its problems are, and how to fix them. And when we hear the Gospel we tend to hear something that improves what we already “know” is right.

This is why Christianity in East Texas sounds suspiciously like a Republican precinct meeting, while Christianity in Boston sounds suspiciously like the Democratic convention and Christianity in the Orange Mound neighborhood of Memphis sounds suspiciously like an NAACP rally. It’s why “Panos,” the YouTube character, is able to make such wicked fun of the Greeks and their weird marriage of culture and religion.

We hear what we want to hear.

Great preaching isn’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Spiritual retreats and Bible seminars aren’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Daily devotions aren’t enough. We hear what we want to hear. Maybe we all need to … if we dare … pray for a shattering dream that troubles our sleep. Maybe we need to “un-know” a lot of what we “know” is right. Maybe then, we can finally, like Peter, hear the Gospel.

That, my friends, would truly be an Epiphany!

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On The Proper Day to Take Down a Christmas Tree

I know this is burning question (yeah, it’s a pun) for many of you. I now have an authoritative Orthodox answer. (And I know that’s exactly what you’ve all been looking for. ha!) That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! Smile

Growing up we went to the mountains (okay, hills … but they had pine trees on them) south of town on Friday after Thanksgiving and cut our tree. That thing stayed put until Epiphany: Thanksgiving until the end of the twelve days of Christmas. Fire hazard be damned! It’s not that we celebrated Epiphany. I grew up in a family that was highly suspicious of anything smelling of Roman Catholicism, but mom just loved the Christmas tree lights.

Of course, in many communities if you don’t have your old, dead tree out by the curb during the week between Christmas and New Years you’ll miss the tree pickup and have to dispose of it yourself. It’s all a bit of social engineering as community leaders try to avoid Christmas tree fires involving very dry trees wrapped with electrical cords.

In response, many Christians have been busy on social media insisting that the tree should stay up until Epiphany (Jan 6) which is the twelfth day of Christmas on the Roman Catholic calendar. But from a family systems standpoint, this is rather impractical, because the kids are back in school, and typically this means that mom gets stuck removing the decorations and taking down the tree all by herself.

But this year I have stumbled upon a solution that is community tree removal friendly, sympathetic to family dynamics, and liturgically correct … you just have to be Orthodox for a week or so. In the Orthodox Church the Christmas Feast is only seven days long. The Leavetaking of the Nativity Feast is Dec. 31. January 1, the eighth day after Nativity, is Name Day (or Circumcision), when Mary’s baby receives the name Jesus – not technically part of Christmas, but a feast in and of itself. We then move into the Theophany Cycle with what is called the “Forefeast of Theophany.”

So, if you really want to take your Christmas Tree down but have been cowed by your religious zealot friends who insist the tree must remain up until the end of Christmas, you can now be “holier than them” and inform them that they are liturgically misinformed. Christmas ends on Dec. 31 in the East. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

P.S. This scheme has the added benefit of making that ridiculous song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” totally irrelevant. You can now throw that out on the curb along with your old, dead tree.

P.P.S. Oh, and Happy Name Day! And since you’re Orthodox for a week, I certainly hope you served up a St. Basil’s Cake today.

Blessed and glorious Theophany to all!

“In other words, away with the manger!” (See below):

The Christian west calls today (Jan 6) Epiphany while the Christian east prefers to call it Theophany. As alluded to in my previous post, the west tends to focus on the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world through “the three mysteries” of which the coming of the magi is the most iconic image. The three mysteries, by the way, are “illumination” (the wise men following the star), “baptism” (the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated the following Sunday), and “eucharist” (Jesus’ first miracle – the water into wine), all of which reveal the babe in the manger to be the Second Person of the Triune Godhead.

The east, on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on the Baptism of the Lord and the cosmic significance of water (the Old Testament symbol of chaos) being transformed into a saving thing. In Adam creation was turned against humanity; the good and perfect creation became, in a sense, the means of our destruction through Adam’s sin. In Jesus Christ, the last Adam, creation becomes the means of our salvation. To put the feast into the broader struggles of the ancient church, Theophany is the celebration of the nexus of Creator and created; it’s what keeps us from being Gnostic.

I revisit this topic with a second post today (the previous post is here) because of what Jason Peters wrote today over at The Front Porch Republic. Peters makes the two points of Theophany (ie, the Eastern version of this Feast) with such wonderful turns of phrase, I can’t help quoting him:

Now I would no more start of fight with a Unitarian than with a polytheist, a pantheist, or the Head Pastor and his hairdresser at FamilyChurchDotOrg. But one of the things the Church attempts to do here is to tell us that without a clear and resounding Trinitarianism we cannot properly understand ourselves. We cannot orient ourselves to our incarnate—which is to say our full and proper—condition.

Peters isn’t satisfied with mere theological profundities. He also emphasizes the implications of this profound theology:

In other words, away with the manger. Now is the time to get on with the business of renewing the whole created order.

His whole article can be found at http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=7832

Blessed and glorious Epiphany to all!

This is from St. John Chrysostom, from his homily on Mt 2:2. It has a wonderful Epiphany theme:

But what was it that induced [the magi] to worship? For neither was the Virgin conspicuous, nor the house distinguished, nor was any other of the things which they saw apt to amaze or attract them. Yet they not only worship, but also “open their treasures,” and “offer gifts;” and gifts, not as to a man, but as to God. For the frankincense and the myrrh were a symbol of this. What then was their inducement? That which wrought upon them to set out from home and to come so long a journey; and this was both the star, and the illumination wrought of God in their mind, guiding them by little and little to the more perfect knowledge.

This reminds me of one of the great Epiphany hymns written by a French Roman Catholic who dipped deeply into German Pietism. [He also criticized the pope and got excommunicated, but that’s another story not necessarily apropos to the twelfth day of Christmas.] Here are the final two verses of “What Star Is This, with Beams So Bright”:

O Jesus while the star of grace / Impels us on to seek your face, / Let not our slothful hearts refuse / The guidance of Your light to use. / To God the Father, God the Son, / And Holy Spirit, Three in one, / May every tongue and nation raise / An endless song of thankful praise. (Charles Coffin, trans. by John Chandler).