Saturday, December 21, 2013

she who has received grace

Today has been an ungracious sort of day.

I was late for a volunteer recruitment meeting. I struggled, aggravated, through my Hebrew studies as a bewildered mama tried unsuccessfully to control her screaming toddler. I very aggressively slammed a shopping cart into the corral in frustration that the grocery store customer before me felt too hurried to put it back. I had a little temper tantrum in the car as my commute to a friend's house was doubled in the crazy holiday traffic. I ranted to my family on the phone about some unwelcome news I received this week. Despite a lovely brunch with friends this afternoon, I headed home annoyed that there was more work to be done for church tomorrow.

Chalk it up to the shortest day of the year and the winter blues, but I did not feel Christmasy. And I certainly didn't feel full of grace.

The past year has been like that. I have wanted to be brave and beautiful in the midst of little challenges and more looming adversity. But I haven't handled each trial with the sort of poise I would have hoped. Instead it has all felt pretty clumsy.

I hate these sorts of days because gracious is what I want most of all to be.  That and gutsy.  But the grace usually feels harder to come by than the guts.

I was feeling frustrated with myself when I read the loveliest words in the Gordon-Conwell Advent Devotional, day 20, written by early Christian history professor Dr. Donald Fairbairn:

When the angel Gabriel greets Mary, he uses an expression that has proven difficult to translate. The Latin Vulgate renders it with the equivalent of, "O one who is full of grace." The King James renders it, "Thou that art highly favored." And the ESV has, "O favored one." The Greek expression is a single word, a passive form of the verb for "to grace." Perhaps the most precise way to render it in English would be "O you who have received grace." Gabriel is not talking about Mary as a source of grace, but as a recipient of grace. 

The Vulgate's translation feels darn near impossible to live up to, and I bet Mary would agree. Maybe her temperament was a bit less fiery than mine, but I'll bet she had some ungracious days, too. {{She was human, after all.}} But Mary had received grace--literally, had been graced--in the most precious, Incarnate way.

Dr. Fairbairn continues: 

As for what this grace consists of, the next phrase holds the key: "the Lord is with you." At heart, grace is not God's giving us just any kind of favor; it is his giving us his very presence. 

God with us--grace for my unloveliest, pitch-a-fit sort of days. Unmerited favor in the here-with-us presence of God. The Word become flesh for us, giving us access to the Father, making us sons and daughters.

I am not always {read: hardly ever} full of grace. But tonight I am most thankful for the grace received through the Incarnation, God's strength in my weakness.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How Christmas Myth Prepares Us for Advent Truth

We're already more than a week into Advent and I've barely begun the daily Scriptures, much less posted them for friends to download. {they're included at the bottom of this post!} I have to confess that I'm a little sad my Christmas decorations are all neatly packed away in storage. I think their absence this year has made me feel less Christmasy, so I've finally decided that I must get at least a tabletop tree to adorn "the Shire" (my room at the Dorsch Casa, affectionately named because it has a short, hobbit-hole door that opens into a large, high-ceilinged space with lots of glorious light--it reminds us all of a hobbit hole!).

Tonight I'm shamelessly re-blogging a post I wrote for my Church since the Reformation class in response to a forum question about whether or not Christians should observe the secular traditions associated with Christmas.  I hope it inspires you to read not only the Advent Scriptures this month, but also some fancy that will help you to believe in the seemingly too-wonderful story of God in the manger.

My family has always celebrated Christmas with a lot of intensity and sparkle. In an almost Narnian way, the fanciful traditions of Santa Claus were mingled with the nativity, which I understood from an early age to be the true meaning of Christmas. While I have heard many of my gospel-minded friends express concern about confusing their kids with notions of the jolly old elf sliding down their chimney, these two aspects of my family's Christmases never seemed to me to conflict.

I remember one special Christmas Eve when Santa Claus made a visit to my grandparents' living room.  I was about five and desperately enthralled with the magic of it all, although my older cousins recognized the man in the red suit as a man from their church. Being the youngest, I anxiously awaited my turn as Santa addressed the cousins one by one, giving us each a gift and whispering a secret in our ears. Finally, Santa presented me with my gift, and then, pulling me close whispered, "You know that Jesus is the real reason for Christmas."  In a strange way, it was one if the holiest moments of my life, when I sensed that all I had heard about Jesus was true.  Thus began an even deeper faith in Santa {{he was a Christian! Somehow I had sensed it all along!}} and in the Jesus we both shared.  Believing in Santa helped me to believe in Jesus. And when I stopped believing in Santa, I kept right on believing in his God.

I recently read a Wall Street Journal article from 2008 in which a Christian father explains why he encourages his kids to believe in Santa. He writes: "This sheds light on a seeming paradox in St. Paul's letter to Roman Christians: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. . . ." How does one see "invisible attributes"? Only people raised on fairy tales can make sense of that. It belongs in a terrain where magic glasses can illumine what was heretofore hidden, where rabbit holes open into wonderlands."  

I dearly love this idea that myth prepares our hearts for Truth, and never sense it so profoundly as at Christmastime.

I must say that I am disturbed by moralistic interpretations of Santa Claus, such as the Elf on the Shelf tradition (although the lighted-hearted Facebook pictures of his mischievous escapades are hilarious) that conflict with a gospel of grace. But that was not the Santa I knew growing up--thanks, I suppose, to the fact that my parents didn't rely on his pending visit as a way to make me behave.  I agree with others who have commented that we need to resist the secularization of Christmas, including the accompanying, all-too-prevalent materialism. However I think there is a way to hold the mystery of the Incarnation in tension with the fairy tails--and traditions--that help us to believe it.   
 As Sally Lloyd-Jones retells the meeting of Mary and the angel Gabriel in her beloved Jesus Storybook Bible, "So Mary trusted God more than what her eyes could see. And she believed."