Jesus has this covered

On his blog, Wally Fry asks the rhetorical question, “The weatherman says, ‘a storm is coming,’ and everyone panics. The preacher says, ‘Jesus is coming,’ and no one cares.” OK, that’s not a question, but it’s still a rhetorical statement. “Everyone” and “no one” are exaggerations, but the point remains that people react more strongly to a little winter weather than they do to the warnings and promises of the Bible.

So I commented, “I suppose it wouldn’t make much sense to rush to the store and buy bread and milk and eggs and a shovel because Jesus is coming. J.” That was merely a quick and casual reaction. Now that I’ve had a few more hours to think about Wally’s quip, I find that I have more to say.

First, it’s true, at least in Wally’s part of the country (Arkansas), the threat of a little snow or (worse) ice sends everyone to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs. Toss in a little sugar and cinnamon and you could make French Toast. Why people want French Toast with their ice and snow, I don’t know. Of course, they also buy shovels to move snow off the sidewalks and driveways and salt to melt the ice. The city and county and state governments invest very little money in snow removal equipment, since most of the time the snow is gone in twenty-four hours without any human effort. There is always a risk, though, of a longer freeze, possibly with the electricity out, so people in Arkansas have learned to be prepared. And by “prepared,” I mean that they rush to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs.

Jesus told a parable (found in Matthew 25:1-13) about ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so the wedding celebration could begin. Five were wise and brought extra olive oil for their lamps; the other five were foolish and had no extra oil. When the bridegroom’s imminent arrival was announced, they saw that they had no oil and begged to borrow some oil from the first five, but there was not enough oil for the wise ones to share. Instead, the foolish bridesmaids went to find a store open all night where they could buy some oil. The bridegroom arrived, the doors were locked, and the party started. When the foolish bridesmaids found themselves locked outside of the party, they knocked on the door, but the bridegroom did not recognize them and left the door locked.

Bible interpreters sometimes chase the rabbit of “what does the oil represent?” The olive oil could be almost anything, and the parable still makes sense. Anyone who feels a need to rush out and purchase supplies because Jesus is coming is in danger of missing the party. Like the wedding guests who thought that their own interests and possessions were more important than the wedding of the king’s son (Matthew 22:1-14), these bridesmaids found something to be more important to them than the arrival of the bridegroom. As a result, they missed the party.

Why would you need to run to the store when you know Jesus is coming? Do you need milk? Jesus brought the Israelites to the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17); he can certainly supply us with all the milk that we need. As for bread, we know that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), but still Jesus says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he that has no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself with rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2). He who fed crowds of thousands with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish also promises that when he comes, he “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). Do you need to buy eggs? Jesus says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12). Believe me, or believe his own words: Jesus has this covered.

Jesus can even provide the shovel. We know that he is our Great High Priest (Hebrews 8:1-7), and we read in the Old Testament that shovels were part of the equipment given to every high priest (Exodus 27:3). They were used for clearing ashes from the altar, but still we know that Jesus has his own shovel. And what of salt? Jesus says to his followers, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). So Jesus is prepared for any bad weather. No storm can defeat him.

Jesus has this covered. We do not need to run to the store because Jesus is coming. Instead, we prepare to welcome him joyfully, knowing that when he arrives, the biggest party ever is going to begin. J.

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

(Reposted from February 2, 2016)

Are you ready?

This time of year, the usual greeting of “How are you?” tends to be replaced with the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” For some reason, this year that question is striking me as a rather odd thing to ask.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” It sounds as if people are preparing for a storm. In Florida people prepare for hurricanes by boarding up windows, carrying moveable things indoors, and tying down whatever cannot be brought indoors. Further north, people prepare for a winter storm by checking on their snow shovels and sidewalk salt, perhaps running out to the hardware store to buy a new shovel or another bag of salt. Then they stop by the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread. When the grocery store is running short of milk, eggs, and bread, you know that the weather forecasters have predicted that it is going to snow.

I don’t know why forecasts of winter weather make people hungry for French toast. I have my own favorite meal to prepare for winter weather, but it is a lunch, not a breakfast. It starts with a pound of cubed meat–my first choice is summer sausage, but I can use hot dogs, ground beef, chicken, pork, or ham. (Fish doesn’t work as well.) I chop and sauté some onion and green pepper, add a can of diced tomatoes, the meat, oregano, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile I prepare a box of macaroni and cheese. When everything is prepared, I stir the macaroni and cheese into the skillet of meat and vegetables and bring it to the table. I have been known to walk a mile to the grocery store in four inches of snow to buy ingredients for this meal if some were lacking in the kitchen.

But, “Are you ready for Christmas?” No doubt this question means different things to different people. To one person, it might mean, “Have you bought and wrapped Christmas gifts for everyone on your list?” To another, it might mean, “Have you made fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies, along with peanut brittle and fudge?” To a third, it might mean, “Have you finished decorating your home and your office for Christmas?” To a store owner, it might mean, “Have you stocked your shelves with everything your customers will want to buy?” To a preacher, it might mean, “Have you prepared your sermons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I’m tempted to answer, “With appropriate counseling and the right medications, I think I will survive.” The other day, I heard someone answer, “Is anybody ever ready for Christmas?” I think the next time someone asks me if I am ready, I will reply, “Is Christmas ready for me?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I have not finished my shopping for gifts, and I have not started wrapping gifts. I am still in the process of adding decorations to the house, one decoration each day until the 24th of December. But, yes, I am ready for Christmas. I am looking forward to celebrating the Incarnation of the Son of God. I am looking forward to sharing good news about how the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I am primed to remind Christians that the real meaning of Christmas is not found in the gifts or the sweets or the decorations, but in the birth of Jesus who came to fulfill the meaning of that name: “The Lord saves.”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” If my job was to prepare myself for Christmas, I would have to say, “No. I’m not ready.” But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who are under the Law.” God has made his people ready for Christmas, and ready for an eternal celebration in a new world, one in which every day will be a holy day. J.