Rev. Ted Huffman

The Seventh Day of Christmas

Regular readers, please note: I am on vacation, celebrating Christmas with my family. Over the next few days, the blog will be written daily, but published on an irregular basis. If you are used to reading it in the morning, never fear if it doesn’t appear. I’m alive and well and having a wonderful time - so wonderful that the blog takes a different place in my priorities. I’ll just be publishing at a different times of the day.

The seventh day of Christmas in the traditional Roman Calendar is a day set aside to give thanks for Pope Sylvester I. Sylvester I was pope of the church long before the Protestant Reformation, indeed before the Great Schism, and thus was pope of all of Christianity, including what would later become the Eastern and Protestant parts of the church. However, his memory is largely unheralded among Protestants. Here is the piece of church history that surrounds Sylvester I. He was Pope from 314 until his death in 335. That was a period of monumental change in the church.

The Council of Nicaea, which produced the Nicene Creed was held in 325. It might never have occurred had it not been for Pope Sylvester. Sylvester was a friend of Emperor Constantine and Constantine’s conversation to the Christian faith marked the transition for Christianity from being a small, illegal sect to becoming a mainstream religion. Prior to that time the church was largely a home-based religion, with meetings often held in secret for fear of government persecution. Christians continued to meet in synagogues, but there was always a tension between traditional Jews and Christians, especially in areas of the Roman empire where the majority of Christians came from the Gentile community.

Constantine’s conversion, however, made Christianity legal in the Empire and beyond that, it made it popular among Roman elites and soon Christianity was not only a mainstream religion, but it became closely affiliated with the Roman government. There are benefits to being a mainstream religion: more members, more financial support, and a more permanent place in history. There are also costs: less autonomy for the church, greater outside influences on the faith and practices, and even outside control of the faith itself.

Nowhere was this more clear than in the First Council of Nicaea. Constantine, thinking in the manner of an Emperor, wanted there to be a standard Christian belief to which all Christians ascribed. He demanded that a statement of faith be drawn up that would be voted upon by all of the bishops of the church and would be the norm for all belief and practice. The problem, of course, is that agreement was never at the core of the Christian faith. As one can easily tell by reading about the differences and discussions of the disciple and reading the letters of Paul, the early church was a place of different and divergent beliefs and practices, and sometimes even disagreements and infighting.

Although Constantine got what he demanded (he was used to getting what he demanded) the unanimous agreement of the bishops required defrocking the minority who refused to sign on to the creed. In fact, even with the defrocking of the dissidents, the creed continued to be an item of disagreement and controversy, and it was amended by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 into the Greek form of the creed that is known and used to this day. The Apostles’ Creed arose shortly thereafter, around 390 and has been seen by many church historians as a corrective to some of the language of the Nicene Creed. The Apostles Creed gained acceptance in the mainstream church by claiming to have originated form the 1st 12 apostles, with each of its 12 articles of faith coming from a different apostle. This clearly is an after-the-fact fabrication intended to gain the statement acceptance in the mainstream church, as the Creed clearly did not exist prior to Nicaea.

Virtually from the beginning of the Roman Church in the time of Pope Sylvester 1 and Constantine, creeds were abused and made into tests of faith. People were required to declare and sometimes even sign that they believed every point of a creed in order to be considered to be Christian, and in some cases, to escape persecution and even death for disbelief. In a very short order the church went from being an institution that was persecuted to a persecutor of those who didn’t fall in with the hierarchy of the Roman religious institution. Instead of being bold declarations of faith, creeds became weapons in a battle to enforce conformity.

In our corner of the church since the Protestant Reformation, we have asserted that statements of faith should always be used as testimonies and never as tests of faith. We affirm that the faith is beyond any set of words and indeed beyond the capacity of any individual to understand. Christianity is, for us, not a matter of a personal possession, but rather a participation in a community with a long and varied history and tradition, a global and multicultural presence and a future that stretches beyond our capacity to imagine. Christianity cannot be defined or contained in a single set of words. It is what the community believes together. It is a relationship with God, who comes to us in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.

So today, on the seventh day of Christmas, I look back at our history with mixed feelings. I do not venerate a particular person, or even know if it is appropriate to celebrate the Romanization of Christianity. That chapter of our history, however, is a part of our identity. While we can speculate on the pre-Roman church as a place of simpler (and perhaps purer) faith, such a moment has passed. We live in the time after Christianity became mainstream. We live with contemporary tensions between secular government and the lives of faithful Christians. And we see the creeds as tools for teaching the history of our faith, not as tests that might somehow determine who is and who is not a person of faith.

And, in the midst of this great line of history-making in the span of my life, there has arisen a new statement of faith. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ, which grew out of the union of the Congregational-Christian and Evangelical-Reformed churches may well be, as a friend has described it, the most significant and longest lasting words to have been written in the 20th Century. It will take centuries for that to be known. What I do know is that it is an eloquent way to express our faith and when a community reads it together, it gives voice to what we share in common.

And on this day, our shared history is a journey worth studying and celebrating. The contemporary church, which has grown out of that history, is a blessing and a gift.

I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

The Sixth Day of Christmas

The sixth day of Christmas is a day set aside to meditate on the Holy Family. It is a day for prayer for all families. The traditions of our people have taught us that families come in many different shapes and sizes and configurations. We really don’t know very much about Jesus’ family. The Epistles never mention Joseph, father of Jesus, nor does the Gospel of Mark. Most of what we know about Joseph comes from Matthew, with a few details added by Luke. Matthew gives us his genealogy and reports an encounter between Joseph and an angel in which Joseph seeks to do the right thing upon hearing that Mary is expecting a child. His initial instincts were to leave the mother, as that was customarily the choice made in such circumstances, but the angel’s words persuade him to remain with her. After Jesus birth, Joseph protects his family by fleeing to Egypt. Again we get this part of the story only from Matthew’s Gospel.

Other than that, we know very little of Joseph. In Christian tradition, he has become the patron saint of those who work with their hands, especially woodworkers. The Bible mentions that Joseph is a carpenter and that tradition has been honored throughout the history of the church.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been surrounded with story and veneration. Once again, there is very little primary material about her in the Bible. Most of the stories of Mary come from the Gospel reports of her. There are stories of her throughout Jesus’ life and ministry and she is witness to his death on the cross, and, most agree, to his resurrection.

Jesus also had brothers and sisters, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Both have essentially the same information. They name his brothers and mention the sisters without giving names: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

Jesus, like many other leaders of faith, however, reaches beyond his family of origin. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that Jesus asked, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus goes on to refer to those who listen to his teaching as his mother and brothers, indicating that he has strong familial ties to his circle of believers and followers.

But today is a day for more than prayers for the family of Jesus. It is a day of prayers for families everywhere. There probably is not such thing as a typical family. Each is unique. My family of origin contains the story of my mother initially being frustrated with the fact that she did not become pregnant for some time after their marriage. My parents decided to become foster parents and accepted two little girls into their home. I don’t think they expected to bond so quickly. As can be the case, it was love at first sight and neither of my parents could imagine life without the girls. They applied to become adoptive parents and the adoption was completed. They had a family: dad and mom and two daughters. Then pregnancies did occur. Three more children, another daughter and two sons joined the family. I was the middle of those children. Later two more boys were adopted. 7 kids, three born, four adopted; three girls, three boys. I grew up thinking that our family was normal. And when Susan and I formed our family, though it was smaller, we have a son who was born to us and a daughter who came to us by adoption. Clearly love trumps biology in my personal experience. Adopted family members are real family members in every sense of the word.

In our church there are families that have experienced divorce and reconfiguration in many ways. One of the larger families in our church is blended with children whose birth mother, though divorced, is still involved and cares for the children part time. Their siblings’ birth father is no longer living. Some of the children in the same family experience mother and step father as primary parents. Other children have mother, father and stepmother. They have found a way to pull off a family with love and grace. And the abundance of grandparents is an added blessing to this family group.

Today our hearts and prayers go out to another family in our congregation who are grieving the death of a child who died in utero. They had all of the excitement and expectation of a new life and were anticipating the birth, and the result turned out differently. Their spiritual maturity and strength have been evident in the midst of the grief and loss and I know they will continue to be a strong family for the other children, but there will always be a sense of what might have been that will dwell with them for all of their lives.

The more I think about it, the more I understand that there is no one model for family. We have families that are just mother and child or children. We have fathers with children where the mother is not in the picture. We have families that are couples who have never had children. We have families that have been reconfigured with multiple divorces and remarriages. We have grandparents who raise the children of their children.

And, like Jesus, there are times when we can see our community as an extended family. Events in our church family affect us as deeply as if they had occurred in our own household.

Celebrating families is a wonderful way to spend one of the days of Christmas. And family celebrations are too wonderful to be continued in a single day.

Today we will complete our trip to our daughter and son-in-law’s home where we will be joined tomorrow by our son and his family. Our whole gang will be together for a few joyous days. The excitement I feel as I write is deep.

For some Christmas may have ended after December 25. For us, the joy is just too much for a single day.

I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

The Fifth Day of Christmas

In Roman Catholic and Anglican circles, the fifth day of Christmas is a day to remember Thomas Becket. Known as St. Thomas of Canterbury, Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He was murdered in the cathedral by four nights, who it seems thought they were acting on the direct order of King Henry II. The place of Becket’s death in Canterbury Cathedral is marked by a sculpture with a representation of four swords.

In our tradition, we remember Becket a bit differently. It isn’t that we differ with the basic biography of the man. It is that we see him a player in an institutional church that was becoming so corrupted that it was in serious need of reform. Although Becket lived hundreds of years before the Anglican Communion separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s, which itself predates the vestments controversy in England in the 1560’s which gave rise to Puritanism and the beginnings of our particular denomination as a separate group within the church, Becket’s story is seen as an example of the corruption and political in fighting that made radical reformation necessary.

To understand our side of the story, one has to go back and remember the mindset of the day. In the England of the mid 1100s, there was little distinction between secular government and the rule of the Roman Church. Although the church acknowledged the pope in Rome as its titular head, in England, the church was firmly ensconced as a governmental institution. The King wielded a heavy hand in the officials of the church and the funding of the government and the funding of the church were so intertwined that average citizens had no sense of the difference between a tax and a tithe. Both the church and government were institutions of incredible wealth and power in the midst of a society in which the average citizen was struggling just to get enough food to eat. Any sense of democracy - of power being vested in the people - had not yet arisen.

Church leaders were “elected,” but only a few elites within the church were allowed to vote. There was a hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals each of whom amassed considerable wealth and power as the result of his position.

Thomas Becket’s father was a lord who was a landowner. His mother came from a merchant family. Becket grew up with the luxuries of the rich and enjoyed hunting and hawking as a child. He studied in church schools and traveled to Paris and Rome as a young man. He never entered any advanced studies in theology or the law. He seemed destined to inherit his father’s lordship and perhaps might have aspired to become a petty knight, but his father experienced significant financial losses in Thomas’ early adulthood. Thus the young man was forced to take a job as a clerk - a position in which he might have remained all of his life. But Becket was a good clerk and his employer recommended him to the King (Henry II) for the post of Lord Chancellor, and Beckett assumed that position in 1155.

As Chancellor, Beckett was charged with enforcing revenue rules. He essentially was a tax collector who visited landowners, including churches and bishoprics to collect revenue to support the monarchy. In the tradition of the day, children of royals were fostered into the families of royal appointees, and Becket was charged with the care of young Henry (who later became Henry III). As such he had close ties to the king.

After 7 years as the king’s revenue agent, Becket was nominated by Henry II to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. The previous archbishop had died and Henry wanted a person in this powerful position who would be under his control. Church leaders were elected by councils of noblemen and bishops in those days. It is clear than Henry promoted Beckets candidacy because he wanted someone in the position who would put the royal government first and the church second.

Keep in mind that Beckett had no theological education and had not been particularly involved in the church to that point in his life. He had never served as a priest or a bishop. Nonetheless, he got the position and was ordained as a priest on June 2, 1162 and the very next day consecrated by archbishop of Canterbury.

As sometimes is the case with royal plans, Henry’s plan to have complete control of the church simply didn’t work out. The hierarchy of the church was more loyal to Rome than to the king. Becket seemed to have undergone a deep personal conversion at the time of his ordination and consecration and began to live as an ascetic. He devoted himself as fully to his religious duties as he had to the job of being the kings revenue agent. As conflict between the church and the king escalated, Becket clearly was taking the side of the church. Henry and church leaders fought over whether or not secular courts would have any jurisdiction over clergymen. They disagreed over the authority of the king in the councils of religious leaders. The fight became personal when it came to Beckett. The former friends had become enemies. Henry proposed new legal documents to limit the powers of the church. Becket refused to sign. Henry issued edicts. Becket refused to comply. At one point Becket threatened to excommunicate Henry. The king’s response has been lost to history - or at least there are several different versions . One version is “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Whatever he said, the result was the murder of Becket in the cathedral by the kings knights ended that particular chapter of the story.

Catholics and Anglicans recognize today as the day of Becket’s martyrdom. In our part of the church, we remember the whole story as an illustration of how corrupt both the church and the government had become and a sign that great reforms would be required for the church to focus more on its spiritual calling than on the order of secular society. Fights over money and wealth, taxes and land ownership with no awareness of the plight of common people seem to be very distant from the mission and calling of Jesus Christ.

However you interpret the story of Becket, the fifth day of Christmas is a good day to be reminded of the human tendency to seek power and wealth and the corruption that comes from such pursuits. It is a good day to invest in the continuing reformation of the church.

I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

The Fourth Day of Christmas

On a couple of occasions, I have been with parents on the occasion of the death of a child. Perhaps there is a miscarriage, or a baby that is born but unable to sustain life for more than a short amount of time. I have also been the one to inform parents of a sudden and traumatic loss of a child by automobile accident, suicide, or some other means. I have journeyed with families through a much slower trip of cancer or another major illness. During my intern year, I spent time with a family, including officiating at a funeral, for a 15-year old who died of a form of chemical poisoning that was the result of an after school job. These are times of deep pain and grief for all who are involved. There is something about the death of a child that seems to throw the general order of life off.

So is is no mystery that the two occasions when our people were the victims of attempts at destroying the people through the massacre of infants stand out and receive special emphasis in the Bible. The infant Moses narrowly escapes Pharaoh’s attempt to control the population of the Hebrew people by killing male children. There is a kind of parallel story with the Exodus plague of the death of the firstborns later in that story, when Egypt is the victim of the terror. And Matthew reports that Jesus narrowly escapes Herod’s attempt at dealing with his fear of the rise of a Messiah from the midst of the Jews by killing firstborn sons.

These stories don’t have a primary function of providing solace for parents who experience the death of their children. Rather, they tell of some of the larger dynamics of our history, including these great losses and their attendant suffering as evidence that we can survive even the most gross and cruel attempts at wiping us out.

But there is some small comfort in the simple fact of understanding that ours is not the first generation of people to have experienced the death of innocent children. We are not alone in our grief and sorrow and sadness. And when we pray, we pray to God who has seen this pain before.

The fourth day of Christmas is traditionally the day to remember the innocents as reported in Matthew’s Gospel.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.”

It might seem like a strange thing to pause in the midst of the celebration of the birth of Jesus to acknowledge a dark and tragic event in the story of our people in which innocent children were slain.

It is, however, extremely important that we do not forget the death of innocents. Whether the story be that of Herod, the death of Jewish children during the Holocaust, the death of children in the Laotian killing fields, the death of children in the conflict in Sudan or any one of the hundreds of of the conflicts that claim the lives of innocents, we who survive are charged with the critical task of remembering.

To forget is to behave as if they never existed.

To forget is to believe that they did not matter.

So we have chosen to remember. Every year we set aside a day to remember not only the innocents who were killed by Herod in his irrational rage, we remember the innocents who have been killed in our world today.

On the one hand, there is good news to celebrate. The last quarter of a century has been a time of significant decrease in infant mortality. The dramatic decline in preventable child deaths since 1990 achieved nearly a halving (49%) of those deaths. The world saved almost 100 million children - among them, 24 million newborns, who would have died had mortality rates remained at 1990 levels.

Still, far too many preventable deaths occur. And our country is proving to be a dangerous place for infants and children. Homicide accounts for one in five injury-related deaths among infants in the United States. And the infant homicide rate increased from 4.3 per 100,000 in 1970 to 9.2 in 2000. It has declined a bit in the past 15 years, but the horror of the death of a single innocent is far too much.

Worldwide 1.2 million babies died in the birth process. Nearly a million babies do not survive their first day of life each year. The leading cause of newborn death is inadequate or nonexistent medical attention for the delivery of the baby. Nearly 3 million babies die within the first month of their lives. Again the reason is lack of proper medical care. The number of deaths of newborns is four times higher in Africa than it is in Europe.

Newborn deaths are not inevitable. Most are easily avoided if the simplest of medical care is made available.

So as we rejoice in the dramatic gift of the Christ child and the incredible joy of God coming to us in the person of an infant, we also set aside one of the days of Christmas to mourn the deaths of the innocent and to renew our commitment to doing what we are able to end preventable child deaths.

Each year Save the Children issues a report on ending newborn deaths. In addition to reporting the statistics, the report contains specific proposals for actions that can be taken by governmental and non governmental agencies to save lives.Hopefully the world will continue to prevent infant deaths.

As long as one mother weeps over the death of her child, however, we will continue to share her sorrow and grief.

On the fourth day of Christmas, we weep with those who weep.

I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.

The Third Day of Christmas

Yesterday, when I wrote about the Feast of St. Stephen, I failed to note that the days of Christmas have different meanings in different traditions. Some of the holidays of the Christian year, most notably Easter, don’t line up in the same way on the calendar of the Eastern Orthodox church as they do in the Western tradition. Christmas, however, does. We all celebrate the first day of Christmas on December 25. After that day, however, there are many different traditions. The Eastern church celebrates today - the third day of Christmas - as St. Steven’s Day. In the Western tradition, the third day of Christmas is a day devoted to John.

Each of the four Gospels has a different flavor. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, tracing his lineage back to Abraham. The gospel then goes on with a narrative about how Joseph responded to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. In the second chapter, we get the visit from the wise men and the escape to Egypt.

Mark doesn’t bother to tell a birth narrative. His telling of the story of Jesus begins with the proclamation of John the Baptist, followed by the baptism and temptation of Jesus.

Luke is where we get most of the Christmas stories that we tell in this season. After a brief dedication, he has the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist and then that of Jesus. Mary visits Elizabeth and sings her incredibly beautiful song of praise and justice. John is born and Zechariah, finally regaining his speech, gets a prophetic song. In the second chapter, Jesus is born, the angels visit the shepherds and the shepherds visit the child, Jesus is named and presented in the temple, Simeon and Ana recognize the child as messiah, and the family returns to Nazareth. At the end of the chapter, Jesus is 12 years old and the family returns to the temple.

John takes a different approach, beginning with a powerful prologue that reads like well thought-out poetry and gives a complex theological description of the coming of Jesus.

In the Western tradition, especially in Roman Catholic congregations that observe the octave (eight masses on eight days from Christmas to New Years), the third day of Christmas is a day for the study of the Word and the reading of the prologue to the Gospel of John. That tradition has been expanded in other Western congregations to include not only the Gospel of John but the other stories about John the Baptist that appear in other parts of the Bible.

It is good to read Luke to learn of John’s parents and the drama of his birth, but it is the Gospel of John that gives a bit of a window on John’s role in the story of Jesus and his way of thinking and speaking.

Some years ago, I memorized the prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18. It makes a direct reference to John and his role:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

After the prologue, the gospel reports that John was questioned about his identity by priests and Levites from Jerusalem about his identity. He answers with a direct quote from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

It is also from the first chapter of the Gospel of John that we first hear of Jesus as the Lamb of God. When Jesus comes to John in the wilderness, John sees him coming and declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

That declaration is repeated in many different ways in the liturgies of the church and is often cited in the celebration of Communion.

In our church this year, one of strong images of the season came at the beginning of our Christmas Eve service, when we recalled Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and her song. Two women, both expecting the birth of children, portrayed the parts, with Mary singing her song while Elizabeth played the flute. It was, of course, just a pageant - a play to remind us of the story. But for me it was a powerful moment as we were invited to reflect on the courage and vision of the two women and of the vulnerability of the babies that they bore. God comes to us in human form, small and fragile and in need of constant care. God enlists human partners to bear this great gift to the world. Mary’s role as bearer of God is such an important one in the narrative. Perhaps that is a role that we can assume to one another - to bear the gift of God to others. Kendra Creasy Dean and Ron Foster used that image in their book about youth ministry, “The God Bearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry.”

So today, as we continue our celebration of Christmas, is a good day to spend some time reading and reflecting on the words of the Bible. The first chapter of the Gospel of John would make a good read, though the opening chapters of any of the Gospels are filled with powerful images and ways of thinking about God’s great love for the world.

In his Christmas message to the faithful, Pope Francis reminded us to remember those who are suffering at this time of the year: “Truly, there are so many tears around the world this Christmas.” In an artful way, he reminded listeners that all infants cry. The tears of the infant Jesus are a reminder of the tears of those who suffer under war and disaster around the world. As the days pass and we mature into the season, it is appropriate that we turn our attention to the needs of others.

More on that topic tomorrow.

I wrote this. If you want to copy it, please ask for permission. There is a contact me button at the bottom of this page. If you want to share my blog a friend, please direct your friend to my web site.