Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Quebec is proposing a limited form of euthanasia. The "dying with dignity" legislation would allow doctors to end the life of a terminally ill patient, who is of sound mind and who is receiving palliative care, to end their life.  These are the only conditions under which physician assisted suicide would be legal. 

I will be posting some more thoughts on this subject in the next few weeks. In the meantime, interested readers may want to read an November 2011 post, "Euthanasia: a slippery slope" which is accessible at http://faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.ca/2011/11/euthanasia-slippery-slope.html.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The blue box of New Year's Resolutions

It’s three weeks into January, and it’s time to check our progress on those New Year’s resolutions that we embraced with enthusiasm.

I have a standard resolution: stop eating sweets after the Christmas holidays. Because we had an excess of chocolates and baking this year, it was necessary for me to approach this resolution strategically. While the chocolates were in the pantry, and the baking was in the freezer (frozen cookies are the most tempting), there was no point tackling this resolution. The best course of action, and I undertook it with aplomb, was to finish up the treats first. With that dutifully accomplished, I have conquered my first resolution of 2013. 

My policy for resolutions: "reuse and recycle"
Photo: public domain
I am prone to repeating resolutions from year to year. My New Year’s resolution policy might best be described as “reuse and recycle”. The plethora of advice on how to keep New Year’s resolutions suggests that many people share my policy.

Our good intentions to remake our selves are usually short lived. Before the end of January, the majority of our resolutions are languishing in the blue box, waiting to be picked up, dusted off, and reshaped. 

Breaking free from our excesses
Many New Year’s resolutions focus on physical wellness. Year after year, weight loss, fitness, smoking cessation, and reducing alcohol consumption top the lists of the most popular resolutions. With resolutions of this type, we seek to break free from our excesses, and to transform some aspect of our self.

While our resolutions are not outwardly spiritual, there is an underlying spiritual context to our annual obsession with self-improvement. Our resolutions express our desires for a new beginning. We seek to heal the past, and to improve the future. Our resolutions are signs of hope. This hopeful longing for transformation is an expression of spirituality.

Based on the lists of popular resolutions, the majority of us rarely consider our need for spiritual wellness. Spiritual practices do not appear on our lists. This seems to me to be an unfortunate omission. Spiritual practices, when incorporated into our regular routines, will gradually accomplish the substantive transformation for which we long.

While not a quick fix, spiritual practices are life giving
Praying hands - public domain
In my experience, spiritual practices are much like resolutions. As our initial enthusiasm wanes, they become hard to keep. Resolving to pray, to read spiritual texts, to attend church, to comfort the afflicted, or to serve the poor, for example, does not mean that we will consistently do so. Like other resolutions, spiritual practices are not a quick fix. We do not suddenly become saints because we try to pray more, just as we do not become super models because we try to lose a few pounds. 

There is a difference between our efforts to incorporate spiritual practices into our lives, and our attempts to remake our selves through New Year’s resolutions. That difference lies in the ability of a spiritual practice to deepen our friendship with God, our knowledge of our selves, and our willingness to reach out to others.  And so, I have always found that spiritual practices are life giving, regardless of the number of times I fish them out of the blue box.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Message from the Magi

Adoration of the Magi
On the twelfth day of Christmas, some men arrived to see, a baby on his mother’s knee. 

While we know very little about these men, they are compelling characters that have captured the Christian imagination. The men appear only in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2. 1-12).  

Matthew tells us that the men, who came from the East, followed a star until they found the Christ child. Along the way, they checked in at King Herod’s palace. After consultation with some experts in Jewish messianic prophecy, they carried on their way. When they found Jesus, they worshiped him, and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Disobeying Herod’s command to return to the palace, they took an alternate route home because they dreamed that Herod intended to kill the child.

The men become legend
From Matthew’s account, the men became the stuff of legend. As early as the 2nd century, the men were a trio. By the 3rd century, the trio had become a popular subject of art. By the 5th century, the magi had become kings, and, in the west, had acquired the names, Balthassar, Melchior, and Gaspar.  In the east, they were Melkon, King of Persia, Gaspar, King of India, and Baldassar, King of Arabia.

Zoroastrian priests?
Over the centuries, the men have been called “kings”, “wise men”, “sages”, and “magi”. The word that Matthew originally used was “magos.”  Magos is a specific term that refers to a Zoroastrian priest.

Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world, possibly dating to about 1800 BCE.  It was the religion of three ancient Iranian empires, including that of King Cyrus, who is mentioned favorably in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah calls him “God’s anointed one”.  Cyrus liberated the exiled Jews from Babylonian captivity, and rebuilt the Jewish temple. 

Interfaith dialogue
An overlap of religious ideas between Zoroastrianism and the Judeo-Christian tradition strongly suggests that 500 years before the birth of Jesus, Jews and Zoroastrians were engaged in interfaith dialogue. By the time Jesus was born in the 1st century, Zoroastrian communities were a strong, and influential presence throughout the Middle East.  It is possible that Matthew’s magos were indeed Zoroastrian priests, were familiar with the Jewish messianic scriptures, and were looking for the messiah.

The magi as examples of conversion, perseverance, and trust 
Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus lends itself to numerous spiritual interpretations.  Justin Martyr, writing in the 2nd century, saw the magi as examples of conversion, and the renunciation of pagan ways. Origen, another one of the Church Fathers, said the magi were the first individuals to recognize Jesus as the messiah, and were witnesses to Christianity.  Pope Leo the Great, writing in the 5th century, compared the journey of the magi to a spiritual journey. The star was the light of faith leading the individual to truth. In his eloquent words, “the star attracted their eyes, but the rays of truth also penetrated their hearts.”

Over the years, homilists have added to these interpretations. Some see the magi as examples of perseverance in faith. For others, the magi demonstrate that the servants of God are sometimes found outside of established religious organizations; attending church does not guarantee that a person is serving or honoring God well.

As a compelling example of tolerance
I think that the magi bear today’s world another important message. The magi sought, encountered, and accepted God’s revelation outside of their own religious system, and cultural experience. The unfamiliar did not threaten them; it presented them with an opportunity to discover God in a new way, and to grow spiritually.

Matthew’s magi represent the principles of dialogue, tolerance, and acceptance.  These are principles that improve our personal relationships. These are principles that bring greater harmony to the world, and are especially needed in the Middle East, the region where the magi travelled, and where the Christ, the prince of peace, was born.

My reading of Matthew’s account is not in keeping with the purposes of his infancy narratives.  In his stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew wants to show that Jesus fulfills the Jewish messianic prophecies, that his birth is universally important, and that he has authority over men.

As part of the living word of God, the magi reach across time, continuing to speak with relevance to the present generation. Their generous spirit of openness and acceptance is a compelling example for all people of goodwill. In a world plagued with various forms of intolerance, the magi are symbols of those noble principles that foster harmonious relationships among individuals and nations.

Adoration of the Magi, http://www.shl.lon.ac.uk/exhibitions/reading-the-bible/