Christmas Meditation: Christ for All Nations

1-Philippino Nativity

Philippines Nativity

1-Chilean Nativity

Chile Nativity

One of those personal epiphany moments for me occurred in 1977 while visiting the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I was struck by the various national mosaics of Madonna and Child or the Holy Family fashioned after many different ethnic identities: China, Scotland, Poland, etc. This helped me see that ethnic narrowness is not helpful in the church, that Christ belongs to the people of all nations. Yes, he was a Jew, born in Roman-occupied Palestine over 2,000 years ago. But we really don’t know what he looked like. We don’t know what color his skin was or what shade his hair was. Our best guesses might be that he had olive colored skin tone and dark, even black hair, but this is guesswork. What color were his eyes? Don’t know. Probably not blue, but really don’t know.

1-African Nativity

Uganda Nativity

I have purchased nativity sets for my wife from various nations over the years, and they are proudly displayed in our home right now. There is one from the Philippines.

There is one from Chile (that I bought at a missionary convention).

There is one from Uganda.

And there is a traditional American one that belonged to my mother. It was hand painted ceramic, made especially for her by a woman in the early 1960s. You can see that while the folks in this one have middle eastern features, clothing, and beards, their skin is very white.

1-Traditional NativityDoes this matter. Does it matter if Jesus were white or black? Let me make two points here:

1. We don’t know and anyone who says they do is not telling the truth.

2. It doesn’t matter. Would you love Jesus any less if his skin color was different than what you have imagined?

So, let’s love Jesus in our own way. The Church of the Annunciation shows us that it is OK to imagine the Holy Family according to our traditions. He is the Christ for all Nations, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And his Kingdom and his Peace will be forever.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Meditation: Mary the Virgin

The fourth Sunday of Advent often has its candle designated as the “Candle of Love.” Various historical characters have been assigned to this week, but I like to think of it as Mary’s week.

Mary is one of the most celebrated and yet enigmatic figures of human history. We have a great deal of tradition about her, yet most of it is fanciful and comes from much later than the New Testament era. In particular, Mary is associated with two of the authors of the books we call the Gospels.

Luke has the most intimate portrait of Mary in the days of Jesus’ birth. A pervasive tradition is that Luke was an artist and painted a portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus (or several of them). Various religious shrines claim to hold such a painting, and they are often the object of great love and veneration. One is the Salus Populi Romani, a Byzantine-style icon now housed in the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome. The legend of this portrait contends that it was painted by Luke on the tabletop of the family table used by the household of Mary in Nazareth, having been built by Joseph and Jesus himself. It was supposedly found in Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Constantine, and eventually made its way to Rome.

Eudoxia coin, 5th century, depiction of the Empress on the obverse

Eudoxia coin, 5th century, depiction of the Empress on the obverse

Another is the original Hodegetria (Greek for “Waymaker”) in Constantinople (Istanbul). This designation is now given to a certain style of icon which presents Mary with an alert Jesus on her lap (looking like a miniature adult rather than a baby). Although there are doubts as to whether or not this original has been lost, legend holds that it was found in Jerusalem and sent back to the imperial city by the Empress Eudoxia. Eudoxia is a fascinating figure from Byzantine history, the wife of the Emperor Arcadius. I am inserting images of a Eudoxia coin from my own collection that shows, on the reverse, an angel figure painting a Chi-Rho insignia (the Christogram)  on an oval object, perhaps a shield. This is interesting because it highlights Eudoxia as

Reverse of Eudoxia coin with angel figure painting Chi-Rho on a shield

Reverse of Eudoxia coin with angel figure painting Chi-Rho on a shield

someone interested in painting and artwork. It is not surprising, then, to find both Helena and Eudoxia, two of the most powerful and famous women of the early Byzantines, interested in preserving a portrait of Mary.

The other Gospel author closely associated with Mary is John. John does not tell a conventional story of Jesus’ birth, but gives details about Mary in his story of the Wedding at Cana and his account of the last hours at the Cross. In the latter, Jesus is presented as entrusting the care for his mother to the author of the book, presumably John. Much later tradition is built on this presentation, with some even claiming that John brought Mary to Ephesus, and this was where she died. Today, tourists visit the “House of the Virgin” in this area, supposedly the last residence of the Mother of Jesus.

For us, in this season of advent, Mary holds a special place. It was in her that the miracle and mystery of the incarnation took place. The ability of women to grow babies in their bodies is mysterious enough for men like me, but the idea of a baby implanted miraculously by God himself is still beyond my comprehension. I cannot fully understand it, only believe it. But how else could this have happened? Would the Savior of the World been as credible if he has appeared fully grown, age 30? Then he would have truly been the “New Adam,” without mother or father. Or would it have been better if we did not know about the mother and father of Jesus, keeping his ancestry and family background in mystery? This would not have allowed for him to be the heir of David and the fulfillment of the prophecies of Messiah.

God, in his infinite and mighty wisdom, chose a humble peasant girl to be the mother of the Christ. Jesus was not born in a palace, to be immediately taken away by nurses and attendants. He was born to be nurtured by a young woman who loved him more than life itself, who endured the pain of childbirth for the joy of a newborn son. O Mary, we wish we knew you better, for what insights you would bring! But may we admire you, two thousand years after your great day, and may we repeat your words now, “Lord, I am your servant. Do with me what you will.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Meditation: The Shepherds’ Visit

adoration of the shepherds ZURBARÁNThe candle for the third Sunday of Advent is often designated the “Shepherds’ Candle.” This is in recognition of the first announcement of the birth of the Messiah to a group of shepherds who were on duty outside the village of Bethlehem. This story is told only by Luke, who gives clues elsewhere of having access to tradition from eyewitnesses to the Gospel events. One of the sources for Luke seems to have been Mary herself, either directly from her or from a reliable tradition that came from her. I have found it helpful to see Luke 1-2 as almost being told by Mary herself, and thereby including details that were important to her. Twice, Luke tells his readers that Mary “treasured up all these things.” This could be translated, “Mary preserved these things,” giving the sense of the preservation of tradition.

So what did Mary think when these shepherds showed up? This all happened the same night, probably within a few hours. The midwife was probably still there, cleaning up and making sure everything was OK. and that the baby was resting comfortably. Mary, exhausted, was excited and drained at the same time. Joseph was like any new father, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. And then these uninvited, unexpected shepherds show up, telling a fantastic tale of angels appearing to them. Mary and Joseph don’t think they are crazy, though, for both of them have been visited by angels. Mary would have asked, “What did they say to you? Surely they said something, what was it?”

The shepherds had those words stamped on their hearts, and they repeated the angelic message for the first time to Mary and her husband:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

While good, none of this was news to Mary. She already knew her son was the Messiah. She was the one who had wrapped him and laid him in the improvised cradle. But the shepherds had something else to tell. The angel who spoke to them first was joined by a host who were saying (singing) a praise song:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

There is an interesting twist in the story here. The “favored one” earlier in Luke was Mary herself as announced by the angel:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

The shepherds are the bearers of a message that Mary needed to hear: God was still favoring her. God was giving her peace (shalom), the blessings of a life dedicated to him. It must have seemed that everything had gone wrong for Mary in the last 24 hours. They had arrived in Bethlehem and could not find proper accommodations. Her labor pains began and she was not ready. But babies do not wait, even the Messiah. Mary surely wished for her mother, her aunts, the women of her village. They were not available. We can assume that a local midwife was summoned, a stranger to Mary. Then our surprising, unpredictable God used these ragged, dirty, smelly, sleep-deprived shepherds to tell her the angels’ message: Peace dear daughter. Peace. God has found favor with you. And in her heart and perhaps with her tired voice, Mary may have been the first to sing the angels’ song:

Glory to God in the highest. Glory to God. All Glory to God. May he reign forever!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Christmas Gift Idea: Rory Noland CD

Transforming-Worship-Shopify-1_1024x1024Quick blog: If you are like me, you are always trying to find something a little different to give for Christmas to special people. My followers of this blog know I do not use it to promote anything commercially, but I want to let you know about a new CD featuring worship songs written by my friend and colleague, Rory Noland. It is not a Christmas CD, but an eclectic set of songs for contemporary worship. It includes a little bluegrass, some  a capella men’s chorus and other things. Often there is a rich cello background. It is available through this link with the Transforming Center in Chicago. I think many of you will like this.
Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Meditation: John the Baptizer

Advent Week 2A traditional way of understanding the weeks of Advent is to designate the second as the “Prepare the Way” week. This is often associated with John the Baptist (or Baptizer). John is closely associated with the infancy stories of Jesus in Luke, with certain parallels and connections in their births.

Both are the result of a miraculous conception. John’s mother, Elizabeth, is too old for normal pregnancy (presumably past menopause in our categories). Mary, Jesus’ mother, becomes pregnant without a man’s participation, a complete miracle.

Both have fathers who don’t quite understand what it going on. Zechariah, John’s father, is visited by an angel to announce the coming birth of his son, but his first move is to doubt. The result is that he is caused to be unable to speak until the boy is born. Joseph, Mary’s husband, somehow manages to take his young wife on an arduous journey to Bethlehem in the final stages of her pregnancy. When they arrive, we learn that Joseph has made no arrangements, and Jesus is born in a stable, causing his mother to improvise and use an animal feed trough as his baby bed.

The birth of both boys is accompanied by words of prophecy. Zechariah delivers the famous “Benedictus,” a prophetic word concerning the future of his son. The baby Jesus is greeted in the temple by the aged Simeon, who delivers his prophetic word, traditionally called the “Nunc Dimittas.” Both words are also recognitions of the fulfillment of prophecies that each boy represents. Simeon sees Jesus as the “light to the nations,” a fulfillment of Isaiah 9:2 (and other Scriptures):

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.

But what are we to make of the ministry of the Baptizer? He is pictured in the Gospels as one who “prepares the way of the Lord.” Luke sees him as a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5:

A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’

The imagery is profound, a construction crew making the path to a village into a road fit for a royal entrance. The twists and turns of the path are eliminated. The ups and downs of the little roadway are leveled. In general, “the rough ways are made smooth.” This is so that the crowd can gather and “all people will be able to see God’s salvation” as he enters the city.

And that is a ministry still worth celebrating during Advent. We have the opportunity to prepare our hearts. To take out the crookedness. To knock down the hills of pride. To lift up the valleys of depression. To make a broad, smooth, all-weather road so that the King of Glory can access our innermost being. Don’t lose this part of Christmas. Don’t let the excitement, the busyness, the traditions, the commercialism, and the fun of the Christmas cause you to leave your hearts unprepared.

Peter  Cornelius expressed it this way in the last verse of his poem, “The Three Kings”

Thou child of man, lo, to Bethlehem
The Kings are traveling, travel with them!
The star of mercy, the star of grace,
Shall lead thy heart to its resting place.
Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring;
Offer thy heart to the infant King.

Offer thy heart!

Yes, let us offer our hearts!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Praying to the Wrong God

parable of the unjust judgeIn the “Parables of Jesus” class I am teaching, a student gave a presentation today on the Parable of the Unjust Judge. Here is the parable from Luke 18:1-8:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Before studying this parable carefully this week, I had only heard it preached one way: that it is about persistence in prayer. I have used this principle in my own prayer life, and do not regret it. It has been central to both the way I understand prayer and the way I pray.

However, I have also been a little uncomfortable about this interpretation. We should pray often and earnestly; that I believe. But is that what this parable is about? Even further, I have been taught that the point of this parable is to teach us that if we pray long enough, hard enough, and frequently enough, God will surely be moved and answer our petitions.

In the parable, the judge acts like a cranky, corrupt, selfish dude. He does the right thing (give the woman justice) but for the wrong reason (to escape her whining). We know that this does not mirror God’s character. God grants justice for the right reason: he loves justice. Yet I feel like the idea of persistence in prayer in based on the wrong qualities we see in the unjust judge. God is just and loving, we are taught, but we still need to badger him with repetitive prayer requests until he gives us what we want.

I wonder that if we do this we are praying to the wrong god. I am reminded of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). When the prophets failed to get a response to their prayers to Baal, Elijah taunted them and said they must try harder. They needed to be louder in case Baal was taking a nap or was relieving himself. Maybe he was on a journey. Maybe Baal was daydreaming. Maybe he was busy. Pray louder. Keep praying until you wake him up and he listens!

I don’t want to pray to that god. The God I pray to hears me when I pray for reasons I do not fully understand. He is not a cranky, corrupt, selfish judge. He is my Father. This does not mean that I get all my requests answered pronto in the affirmative. Prayer is not a tool I use to get my way with God. Prayer is not conversation between peers. But praying without giving up is part of being faithful. Giving up on prayer is giving up on God, and that is the opposite of faith. Always pray and do not give up. When Christ comes again, he will find that the faithful have been praying.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Meditation: Prophets of the Christ

crush-serpentI recently attended a morning of sessions at the Evangelical Theological Society devoted to the “Historical Adam.” There were four papers read, ranging from a Canadian scholar who completely dismissed the idea of a historical, literal person named Adam (or a woman named Eve) to a Californian scholar who demanded we see Adam and Eve as real people created about six thousand years ago during a period of six, 24-hour days in which the Lord did his creative work. The other two papers were in between, one seeing the Adam/Eve story as typological, the other seeing it more literally, but not subscribing to the young earth theory.

I am closest to this last theory (and to be sure, all of these are theories). I am not an evolutionist, although I think that science in this area has yielded some interesting results, particularly the emerging theories coming from genetic evidence. I also believe that demanding a reading of Genesis 1-3 that sees 24-hour periods (“days”) of creation activity as a misreading of the text. A “literal” reading can be no more than recovery of the author’s intended meaning when the text was written, and I don’t think the author of Genesis intended chapter 1 to be understood that way.

But what does this have to do with Advent? In Genesis 3, we have the story of the great disobedience, the rebellion of the woman and the man against God’s decrees, God’s rules. They chose to believe the serpent, the Deceiver, rather than their Creator, and the result was their expulsion from Paradise. This was much more than a relocation. It was a break in fellowship with God. It had consequences for this pair and for all of their descendants (us). This rebellion resulted in lawlessness, and this is seen in the next chapter where a brother murders his brother, and two sons are lost to their parents. There is no joy in sin. There is no hope in sin. Rebellion against God is looking into the deep black abyss and seeing no end. Shaking our fist in anger against our Creator is choosing death over life.

After the sin in the Garden is confronted, the Lord makes a series of pronouncements: to the serpent, to the woman, and to the man. They are the first prophecies of the Bible, and they do not come from a human prophet, but from God himself. This takes away any contingent, predictive element from the pronouncements and makes them promises given by the omniscient and omnipotent Master of All Creation. The serpent is cursed to be eternally loathed by humankind. The woman is promised the pain of childbirth and the unjust domination of men. The man is told he will no longer enjoy the bounty of the Garden, but must work hard to eke out a subsistence living from the earth. The words of God end with the promise that all will die and their bodies will decay.

In these tough words, there is a promise of hope. It is surprisingly not given to the woman or the man, but to the serpent:

And I will cause hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

This has been called Protoevangelium, the first telling of the good news. There will be an “offspring” from the woman who will strike a mortal blow to the serpent. Although this promise is without details, Christians believe this is a prophecy of God’s plan for humankind’s redemption. The first prophet of the Christ was God himself, and this prophecy was given at what must have been the lowest point in human history. Adam and Even could not be expected to understand what the consequences of their sin would be for us, but they did have some understanding of what it meant for them. Paradise was lost and God’s fellowship was withheld. They would be alone in the universe, and many hard days of pain and sorrow awaited them. Yet here is a sliver of hope, a word that says that the plans of the serpent would be eventually thwarted and ended. As Edward Markham has put it:

Love and not hate must come to birth;
Christ and not Cain must rule the earth.

This is still the promise we hold to as we begin the advent season. We celebrate the prophecies of God’s men and women who spoke of a better future as planned and orchestrated by God himself. And these were not cleverly devised myths. They were words of hope that began with this Protoevangelium, a word from the Lord without human intermediaries. Charles Wesley put it this way in one of the verses from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that we don’t sing any more:

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

So, as we prepare for Christmas during this advent season, may we sing in our hearts this week:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College