“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
“Two steps forward and one step back,” we say, often out of frustration even disgust. But the truth is, backward is the way forward. We have to go down to go up. Death is the way to life.
That’s the message of the cross of Jesus. It’s also how Jesus’ ministry started. With a big step backward. Jesus withdrew. He backed up, slowed down, disengaged.
You’d think we would get the message since it’s plain to see in the gospel, from beginning to end. But we remain people of endless progress, perpetual growth. We demand it from our economy, our children, even ourselves. We can be quite disoriented, shocked, and unkind when life doesn’t play along.
And yet, even there in this step backward, God does God’s best work within and through us. One step backward and two steps forward is God’s rhythm of salvation. It’s heaven’s dance step. And when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means to lead us deep into darkness on the way to great light.
Suffering is just part of the deal. And Jesus, by his own suffering, reveals what we could never see on our own. There is nothing inherently good about suffering and death. But God made even them dance to heaven’s music of healing, grace, and life.
Withdraw now with Jesus. Ask Jesus for help trusting the backward steps. Remember what steps forward were made possible by the backward steps in your life.
Many Christians are stunted in this growth. It’s not their fault, but it’s true. Many are simply unaware that this transformation is the great living tradition. Some go looking for it in other experiences or other religions, while others settle for a rote and static Christianity. Other Christians are stuck arguing about whose words, worship, and way of serving are the best. This is the old, dividing, superiority-game-playing self at work.
A starting point for all of us is this: accepting that we are accepted, fully. The world is soaked with Christ, you included. If you were excluded, Christ would neither be universal nor the reuniting Word made flesh. All must mean truly all, or it means nothing. God loves things by becoming them, uniting with them, not excluding them.
Coming to trust this for you is a lifelong journey of transformation. Jesus’ call to “Follow me” and to “Carry the cross” is to accept our disbelief and rebellion and failure as fully as Christ does, and more to accept others as well.
This is where the rubber hits the road. It’s the healing miracle—the Lord opening the eyes of our heart—that can only be accomplished through prayer.
Jesus said to them, “Come and see.”
“Come and see” are Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of John. Two disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus a question, trying to get a feel for where he was coming from. But Jesus declined to answer directly or explain himself. “Come and see” was all he said. Strange. Why doesn’t the “Word made flesh” say more?
Take notice of newly-built stores and restaurants. Their street-facing walls are nearly always glass: huge windows. People want to see what’s happening inside before they decide to come in. And yet, how often have the most important people or events in your life been complete surprises?
For those two disciples--Jesus’ first--John the Baptist was their great window onto Jesus. He painted the picture for them. John said what he saw in Jesus and told them who Jesus is. They were drawn to Jesus.
Rather than say any more, Jesus simply invited them to experience for themselves, maybe because it’s indescribable. Like what people mean when they say, “You had to be there.”
“Where are you staying?” they asked. “Come and see.” “Stay with me,” Jesus seemed to say. ”Be here with me and you’ll see.”
Who was your window onto Jesus? What did they say or do that attracted you? When you came closer, what did Jesus show you? Who have you told about what you saw? What if this is the reason God sent you--that Jesus might be revealed?
The cross of Jesus Christ is/was/will be the catalyst for the death of the old and the rebirth of this new way of processing. The cross was no mere transaction of God gives X and we return Y but the revelation of the universal pattern of transformation woven into the very fabric of reality.
Life, death, resurrection is the pattern. It’s the pattern of your individual life, of nature all around you, of stars and faith and the seasons. This is Christ, and Christ is in all things, because God created it this way. “All things came into being through this Word, and without it not one thing came into being” (John 1:3).
As God “opens the eyes of our hearts” or “wakes us from sleep” or gives us “the mind of Christ,” we become more aware of this pattern called “Christ.” We recognize Christ in every thing and in every one. And more, we learn to let go and trust. Our old self “dies” and God “raises” a new creation in us. We change, and we help God in God’s great changing, reuniting of all creation.
“Open the eyes of my heart, Lord” begins the popular praise song by Michael W. Smith. Smith was inspired by Paul’s prayer-filled opening words of his letter to the Ephesians. Paul prayed God would give them a new way to “see”—with “the eyes of your heart filled with light”—so
you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe, according to the working of God’s great power.
Paul talked as if all that God wants to give us starts with these new “eyes.” And indeed, scripture itself is filled with similar talk, sometimes using other metaphors:
• ears, hearing, and listening
• waking up from sleep and staying ready
• becoming a “new creation” or being born “again” or “from above”
• being “baptized in the Spirit”
• having the mind of Christ or knowing God
• God writing the law on human hearts
Scriptures in the Old and New Testaments, using diverse metaphors, promise a radical new way of processing life, the world, suffering, other people, and everything.
We can’t experience a fully Christ-soaked world with the same, old “operating system.” All good religion unites. That’s what re-ligio means, “to reconnect.” The Word made flesh is a great reunion. So our old ways of dividing—separating, competing, striving to be superior—has to go. In Christ, they are going, will be gone, like it or not.
“In the beginning was the Word… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
The world is soaked with Christ. Christ fills and saves every thing, all creation, not just a few “holy” people. The seed of these promises is buried in this central opening verse from the Gospel of John: “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Over many centuries, the Western and Eastern Churches interpreted this verse differently. The West understood the Word made flesh as Jesus Christ. The East, as creation itself and all of it, from atoms to zebras, plus all human beings and, yes, Jesus Christ.
How impoverished we are, when we take Christianity to be only what it was where I grew up! And how small Jesus becomes.
Astronomers give us a window on an infinite universe. And here the Gospel of John tries to give us another window: on a Christ who is at least that big too. Christ--and Christ’s love and saving presence--is truly universal!
You’ll get to dig more into this through a St. Paul “book study” in February and March on Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ. (I say “book study” because it will also be an introduction to the practice of contemplative prayer.)
For now, in this new year, ask God to give you new eyes to see Christ in every thing and every one.
Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.”
Trying to kill Jesus, Herod the Great killed all the children two years old and younger. But warned in a dream, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped to Egypt.
What a brutal and disturbing story for any time, let alone Christmas. It echoes the story of Moses’ birth: the Pharaoh of Egypt killed Israelite children. The faith, courage, and defiance of his mother and midwives saved Moses, who, led by God, would later lead Israel to freedom. Matthew portrays Jesus as a toddler as the New Moses.
The gospel also reveals God’s presence and providence in dangerous and turbulent times and God’s victory over vindictive leaders and nations’ violent pursuit of greatness. God is not a puppet-master in full control of history and people. Instead, God’s influence is from the inside out--in vulnerable flesh and blood and in human dreams and courage and faith. Jesus lives, even after the worst humans could do. And because Christ lives, we all shall live, including all innocent children.
Where are you finding God’s guidance, protection, and hope? Take a moment with God to celebrate the greater gifts of Christmas and to consider who God is calling you to be.