Most people are now aware that there is no Christmas story. You knew this, right? There are only fragments drawn from various prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures, and unconnected stories pieced together from the gospels.
Those Hebrew prophecies were not actually referring to the birth of Jesus, and those gospel fragments contain details that differ wildly from each other. Not only that, but the earliest Christian witnesses-the apostle Paul and the author of the Gospel according to Mark-those closest to the time of Jesus’ birth-say nothing about it at all. So either they knew nothing about it, or they didn’t consider what they knew worth sharing.
But stitched together, these fragments create a grand myth we call the Christmas Story. Despite the unlikelihood that any of it actually happened, this story contains a deep and abiding truth, the hope of Christians throughout the ages: that God is born into our midst, and not as a powerful warlord; rather, as a defenseless baby.
Yet this changes everything, even the world itself. For this baby toppled the Roman Empire and, to this day, strikes fear in the hearts of despots and tyrants. We know that God resides in the corners of our own lives, requiring both our tender care of this divine presence, and also our strong reliance upon it in times of need.
Parish churches are microcosms of care. And mid-sized midtown congregations, like St. Stephen’s, are particularly well suited to this calling. Like villages scattered throughout the urban landscape, it is here that we become known, that we have a sense of belonging, that we learn to welcome into our hearts our neighbours, learning to love as we ourselves are loved.
This capacity of Christian congregations to become communities of care is especially critical when church members face hard times brought on by physical or mental illness, or by bereavement, or by financial disaster. It means no one has to face such challenges alone.
St. Paul wrote that, as Christians, we are all members of one body. When one member suffers, the whole body suffers; when one rejoices, the whole body rejoices. So as we get to know one another, and welcome each other into our hearts, we find quite naturally that we reach out to one another. We pray for each other, we check in with each other, we visit each other, whether in home or in hospital. We extend our best wishes by sending flowers, or providing casseroles.
The city can sometimes seem like one big anonymous machine, and social isolation is the result. But not at church. Look around you. These are your brothers and sisters. When they hurt, you hurt; when they laugh, you laugh. It is here that we learn how to love the world, by loving one another. This is God’s gift, and our greatest calling
Men are like icebergs. Not that they are cold and unfeeling (anyone can be like that); but they have a lot going on beneath the surface, of which they are largely unaware. So, like an iceberg, hiding over 90 per cent of its bulk in the icy depths, that weight can suddenly shift, upending the entire mass, creating devastating consequences for anyone close at hand.
Once a month, a group of men meets at St. Stephen’s as the “Company of Men”. They share stories of what life is giving them to work on—which may come from relationships, from dreams and preoccupations, or from their work lives—in order to bring into the light the darker movements from the depths.
A man shares his story, while the others listen silently. When he is done, each one affirms the speaker, reflecting back one thing they heard him say. Then those who want to, reference similar stories from their own lives, confirming that the story they just heard is not as uncommon as the speaker might have thought.
The effect of this simple process is “sanctuary”—a safe place to access what is going on beneath the surface. The men don’t tell each other what to do (the one rule is: “No Advice!”). But they listen in such a way that “normalizes” their work, reminding each one that they are not alone, that their struggles, however unique, do not make them weird or strange. In such a way, men are warming up.
The next gathering of the Company of Men is on Saturday, December 9, from 8:30 to 10 a.m., in the Canterbury Room. All men are welcome.
Happy New Years’! That’s right, it’s out with the old, in with the new—at least according to the church’s liturgical calendar. The Christian year begins four Sundays before Christmas, on the First Sunday in Advent, and ends the Sunday before that, which is traditionally celebrated as The Feast of Christ the King, or, more recently, the Reign of Christ.
The original calendars were set according to the lunar cycles, from which we still set the date for Easter (the first Sunday following the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox). But those calendars set the start of the year variously as May 1, March 15, and even September 1—until, that is, the Julian calendar was established in the 1st Century, CE, and which was then upheld by the (more refined) Gregorian calendar we in the West have used since the 16th Century.
While still observing the Gregorian calendar for civic purposes, the church regards the year as the unfolding story of Jesus Christ. So it begins, in the West, by backing up four weeks from the traditional date of Jesus’ birthday, December 25, to hear the prophecies concerning his arrival. It then tells his earthly story up to his death and resurrection at Easter, and then beyond, with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The rest of the year is a wide-flung consideration of Jesus’ parables and teachings, until we roll it all up in a celebration of his reign … and then start again.