A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ – Isaiah 40:3-5
—–People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers
From coast to coastFaith is the key
Open the doors and board them
There’s room for all
Among the loved the most – “People Get Ready”, music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield—–
Depending on when you counted the real start of the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement in America, by 1965 great legal strides had been made while socially and culturally things were hardly changed at all. The movement really peaked in 1963 with the March on Washington. Thousands still marched, still organized, still protested, still got arrested, still pushed and pushed the social and cultural boundaries.
That year The Impressions, a vocal group from Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project, released a song called “People Get Ready”. Similar to a slave spiritual lyrically, using the metaphor of a “train to Jordan” to talk about the need to continue to fight for African-American equality, it featured Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto reassuring people they “don’t need no baggage/Just get on board.”
Instantly this song became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. King would play it at rallies. The Impressions were invited to sing at various Civil Rights meetings, protests, and marches. The song’s greatness, usually missed, lies in the mixture of a sweet, easy-going melody, Mayfield’s clear falsetto, both of which mask the militant insistence of the lyrics. This is no “nice” song. This is a song for people facing cops with guns, dogs, and fire-hoses, people who won’t stop because they can’t stop. This isn’t a movement. This is a locomotive that will run over anyone who gets in the way, trying to prevent people from reaching their destination.
This fourth week of Advent is a time we recognize our waiting is coming to an end. There is still preparation needed, of course – isn’t there always? – but we should remember that when the moment comes, when the Day to remember the birth of Christ; the day to celebrate the presence of the Savior; the day to look forward to our fulfilled hope of the promised return; that day comes as a thief in the night. Whether we are fully ready, the Christ-child comes, God enfleshed and living among us.
This Christ is the one who travels the straight highway in the desert. This Christ is the God With Us who makes all things new. This Christ is the one who insists we need bring nothing with us except our faith and being along with Him, who can oppose us? At Christmas we do so much more than consider a babe being held by his loving mother and father. At Christmas we do more than welcome the risen Christ in to our homes yet again. At Christmas, we renew our pledge to climb aboard the train and head to the promised land.
And that promised land, like the one at the end of the desert highway; like the one King spoke of his last night; the destination of that train is the promised land of peace, where the wolf shall lie down with the kid, the child shall play over the adder’s den and not be afraid, and swords shall be beaten in to plowshares. We are on a train not just to racial equality. We are on the train that delivers us to the Kingdom, a place where the infinite worth of each and all is more than recognized; it is celebrated. We are on the train that delivers us to freedom, real freedom, the only freedom that matters: The freedom to be fully human, to be the people God created us to be.
This Christmas, as you sit and watch your children and grandchildren unwrap gifts; as you sip a glass of wine in the evening; as you hug your family; remember that baby whose birth we celebrate isn’t just “some baby”. This baby is the engineer on the greatest ride of all time, the Train to The Promised Land. We’ve been getting ready for three weeks, and here it is. You don’t need a ticket, so just hop on board.
N.B.: I won’t be around Sunday, and tomorrow is going to be pretty crazy, so I’m publishing this a couple days early. I’m sure Jesus won’t mind.
Take nothing less, than the second best
Do not obey, you must keep your say
You can past the test
Just move on up, to a greater day
With just a little faith
If you put your mind to it you can surely do it – “Move On Up”, last stanza, music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’- Luke 1:46-55
Week three of Advent is typically celebrated as the Sunday of Joy. As we move ever closer to the day of the birth of the Christ Child, what began with hope rooted in love now moves to joy as the full import and impact of the Incarnation grows in the hearts and minds and lives of believers. Who can help but be joyful?
Certainly Mary, the mother of Jesus, couldn’t. Upon arriving at her cousin Elizabeth’s, as the older woman told her of how she felt her baby move and the Spirit fill her, Mary offers a tuneful prayer to God for the blessing that shall flow from her to all. These blessings aren’t feelings. Her joy isn’t some private affair. On the contrary, the blessing she feels and that flows from her to all through the child she will bear is nothing else but the revolutionary upsetting of the powers and principalities of this world in the face of God’s love and justice to be embodied in the life and person and death and resurrection of Jesus. Joy overwhelms Mary, just as it should overwhelm all of us at the thought of what God is doing. Not just what God has done; not just what God will do; what God is doing here and now. If we can’t see it, if we can’t proclaim it, then we don’t know the power of God.
From the early-1950’s through the early-1970’s, the African-American community moved from resistance to resistance, from victory to temporary defeat to victory to confrontation to defeat again. From the days of some early Supreme Court victories that began to strip segregation in public employment, public housing, then private housing, then public higher education, the edifice of legalized white supremacy began to crumble. With each victory came a desire for more, for real freedom. With freedom came the desire to declare the dignity of a people worn down, despised, dehumanized, murdered, their art and their work and their lives stolen for the material and spiritual gain of those who hated them. From the simple, earnest declaration of equality to the defiant declaration of Black Power, the African-American community made great strides in forcing the larger society to see and hear them as human beings.
Curtis Mayfield, as the poet-laureate of the struggle for black freedom and dignity, offered a vision of Black Pride and Black Power that defied white stereotypes of “the angry black man” that still rule way too much white thought about African-Americans. He’d already penned themes for the Civil Rights movement that Martin Luther King had incorporated in his rallies. Now, with “Move On Up”, he showed that pride and struggle are rooted in joy. One cannot contend for freedom and dignity unless one already knows one is free and of equal worth and value. As Che Guevara said, all revolutionary movements are rooted in love; so, too, the Black Power moment, while certainly tinged with rage as the recalcitrance of white supremacy and the constant violence visited upon black people, their lives, their communities, and their persons, was also buoyed by joy. After all, why fight for equality, for dignity, and for justice if the reward isn’t joy at finally, after far too long, arriving at the promised land? And why hold back that joy until the end?
In the words and music of “Move On Up”, Mayfield offers African-Americans more than simple advice; he offers them a vision of movement from their current down-trodden state through the ever-present often violent resistance of the white power structure to the joyful penultimate (“Take nothing less than the second best” makes clear that the faith that roots the struggle, a faith that was always at the heart of Mayfield’s life and music, is the best and last or ultimate) arrival. The whole setting of the song, it’s insistent beat, the horns and voice all in the upper register all show both the strength and happiness at the heart of the struggle for freedom, equality, dignity, and justice. The long instrumental section is nothing more than a soundtrack for that movement. Faster, polyrhythmic, with the guitar and piano doing a call and response with the bass underneath a sax solo, this isn’t a march at all. This is all about having arrived. This is party music!
And that fight? Well, what else was Mary singing about when she said, “[the LORD] has brought down the powerful from their thrones”? That “[the Lord] has filled the hungry with good things”? Of course, everyone always points out the contradiction at the heart of the Magnificat; it speaks in present tense of things that have not yet, even two millennia later, happened. Doesn’t that render the joy just a tad premature?
Well, full African-American emancipation hasn’t arrived either. But who would deny the joy of the insistence to”move on up”? Mayfield acknowledges the road is both long and will be filled with resistance. All the more reason, then, to be joyful; he knows the reward is that much greater precisely because of the violent resistance that will dog his people all along the way. Just like we know that the declarations Mary makes in the Magnificat are still to be fully consummated and there will be resistance to that finality, we still sing with joy with Mary as we move ever closer through this season of waiting for the coming of the birth of Jesus.
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ* for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – Romans 3: 21-23 (emphasis added)
Sisters, Brothers and the Whities Blacks and the Crackers Police and their backers They’re all political laughters
Hurry, people running from their worries While the judge and his juries Dictate the law that’s partly
Cat calling love balling fussing and cussing
Top billing now is killing For peace no one is willing Kind of make you get that feeling
Everybody smoke Use the pill and the dope Educated fools From uneducated schools
Pimping people is the rule Polluted water in the pool
And Nixon talking about don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry
But they don’t know There can be no show And if there’s hell below We’re all gonna go
Everybody’s praying And everybody’s saying But when come time to do Everybody’s laying
Just talking about don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry – (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, words & music by Curtis Mayfield
As we move through this Advent season with our guide, Curtis Mayfield, we should take a moment and consider the usual or “traditional” appellations given for each week. Last week, the first Sunday in Advent, is usually considered the Sunday of Hope. So it was we considered what “Hope” means to a people who continue to live as strangers in their own land. We heard Mayfield offer to the African-American community a vision of themselves as the “people who are darker than blue”. It is a call to name the community’s sins one by one; only a voice from within that community would have either the authority or power to do so. As is usually the case, however, a call to repentance carries with it the promise of redemption. Why else name one’s community “darker than blue” is, in the words of Ebeneezer Scrooge, one is beyond all hope?
Last week I also noted that it was precisely the specificity of the song – it was not addressed to everyone; it was addressed to the African-American community at a particular time in their history – that opened it to all. Had Mayfield written a call to repentance to everyone, how might that have worked, exactly? How would it be possible to list the collective sin of all the various groups in the United States? Hearing Mayfield’s call to his people however, opened to those with ears to hear the possibility of considering their own people’s sin. It opens up hope for redemption to all.
The Second Sunday is usually named “Faith” Sunday. Yet, what “faith” is proclaimed? In what are we professing our faith? Nothing less than that the God who has created the Universe will not leave us to wallow and die in our sin. The coming of the Messiah is first, foremost and always for a particular people; again, it is only because of that specificity that we can make the universal claim that the Savior to be born, to come to us today, the return of the risen Christ to bring about the final consummation of the New Creation, is something for all of us.
A popular question is always, “Why do we need a Savior?” It’s a good question. It is part of our faith that we profess our need for salvation in part by talking about something called Original Sin. In this song, Mayfield moves from the specific hardships of the African-American community, their need for salvation and the hope of redemption to the declaration that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not just anyone can make such a claim with authority. In a world divided by nationality, by race, by class, by religion, it is only the voice of those who suffer at the hands of history’s victors who have the power to say that all face the prospect of eternal judgment. As James Cone noted decades ago, it isn’t up to the white power structure, secular or religious, to tell African-Americans what they need to do to change. It’s up that community, as Cone writes, to get their shit together. In doing so, however, they can pronounce judgment not only upon themselves but upon all precisely because of their unique perspective.
Many people are turned off by the idea of Original Sin. It just seems to violate our contemporary sensibility, our belief in our fundamental goodness. We reward ourselves by saying that “sin” isn’t meaningful; only “sins”, individual or collective acts, are that which need forgiveness. Curtis Mayfield, however, isn’t buying it. The world isn’t just filled with people who do bad things; those people aren’t bad because they are powerful political actors (Nixon, judges, police and their backers, people on drugs, the pushers, the pimps). People do bad things because all have sinned and face the ultimate judgment not for their acts but because they refuse to see the fundamental brokenness that leads them to commit these acts.
“Don’t worry,” Mayfield says, turning the words of the powerful around not only upon them but to all, “if there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go.” Hell isn’t something that awaits bad people who do bad things. Hell isn’t the reality in which the oppressed live right now. Hell is something that awaits everyone. Our faith this Advent has to include a profession of our need for salvation, otherwise the need to prepare, the need for this child to be born, the need for a Savior is meaningless.
As we prepare, we need to remind ourselves not only to hope for the possibility of redemption; we need to declare this redemption is redemption from something. And it is a call laid upon all of us. No one escapes the final judgment. No one is so blessed that they can escape the promise of eternal separation from God. If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go. Only Faith can give us the strength to hear this Word. Only faith could give Curtis Mayfield the power and authority to declare this judgment.
N.B.: I had this idea last spring, actually, and worked through some ideas. I thought I’d offer these Advent thoughts here, just to see if and how people respond.
We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We’re just good for nothing they all figure
A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?
We people who are darker than blue – “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
Come to earth to taste our sadness; – “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, lyrics by Charles Wesley
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-4
If Bob Dylan and Joan Baez made white folk feel good about themselves in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles, Curtis Mayfield, both with his group The Impressions as well as a solo artist, gave voice not only to the hopes of a people; he offered African-Americans the simple message that they were a great people, deserving of legal and social equality. His power as a musician is best exemplified by the fact that his songs were used as soundtracks both by Martin Luther King and the Black Pride/Black Power movements. Here is a man who really could speak for his people through song.
As the Civil Rights struggle withered and the Black Power movement was choked to death by official conspiracies, however, African-American urban life took on darker tones. No longer confident they could assert their full humanity and be accepted, the realities of official neglect and a variety of social pathologies created conditions in which hopes and dreams died at the end of needles or disappeared up people’s noses. This, too, brought Mayfield’s prophetic witness to life. Most clearly in the soundtrack to the blacksploitation film Superfly but through much of his work in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, he refused to remain silent while urban communities were ravaged by drugs, poverty, crime, and neglect. The always-present shadow of the criminalization of black life – something the United States has done well even before we were an independent country – left fewer and fewer options or free spaces for action.
That didn’t hinder Mayfield, however. As courageous as he was gifted, he preached through song, offering the picture of a life that had become the epitome of racist fears and bigoted stereotypes. In “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, he held a mirror up to life in African-American urban communities and asked a simple question: Is this who we want to be? Really?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the first season of the Christian year. We all seem to know it’s our time to get ourselves ready for Christmas. Too often, we slide quickly through Advent, ignoring our need for real preparation because Christmas, now no longer solely a religious holiday, has come to embrace much of our national life from early November through the beginning of the New Year. We think preparation means decorating our houses and churches. We prepare cookies and pies. Moving through crowds at large stores and shopping malls as we prepare to buy-buy-buy, we seem grateful only that the stores are open later so we can shop. Preparing for the birth of the Son of God is something toward which we nod on Sundays; the rest of the time we’re preparing for the stockings and wrapped packages and parties and relatives we just saw on Thanksgiving.
Curtis Mayfield, however, offers a different vision of the meaning of preparation. Before we can even get ourselves ready, we need to be clear about why preparation is necessary. It is never easy to admit just how lost we are, how in need of saving from our own blindness, our missplaced sense of self-sufficiency, and the need for our communities to see just how broken they are. If we are to bow down before the Christ-babe, however, we must see who we are. It’s true that God knows the truth, that little baby understands us better than we do ourselves. Yet if that remains the case, how is it possible to receive the blessing that lies cooing in rags in a cattle’s trough?
“We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, like Psalm 137, expresses anger. Unlike Psalm 137, however, this song doesn’t misplace the anger on some Other. Mayfield takes the measure of his people and asks a simple question: Do we want to become someone else’s worst nightmare? African-American communities seemed unable to sing their songs in this foreign homeland of theirs. Not that there weren’t artists like James Brown and George Clinton and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock who still told their tales. Their musical witness was washed away in the promise of drugs and violence and sex that too much became the soundtrack of urban life in the 1970’s. Mayfield, already present when the dreams and hopes and pride and power seemed poised to tell a different story was now demanding that people see who they were. Only then could they be clear about what was needed.
The music of Curtis Mayfield was always a music for his people. Precisely because of that specificity, however, others, too, can hear in his words and sounds, his unique guitar playing and clear falsetto voice, the demand we be honest with ourselves. How can we make ourselves ready for freedom, for power, for equality when we are a sinful, broken people? The brokenness of our affluent white communities is no less real than that of others. The hurt, the sin, and the anger is as much a part of working class white folk as it is urban African-American communities. Violence as an expression not only of social pathology but of that fundamental brokenness we call sin is ubiquitous; it knows no color line, no socioeconomic class, no neighborhood boundaries. Until and unless we are able to hear in Mayfield’s song our own song, we aren’t ready even to get ready.
By voicing this prophetic call to repentance, however, Curtis Mayfield offers all our different communities the opportunity for real preparation. When we acknowledge just how broken, just how hurting, just how much in need of salvation we are, then Advent can really begin. First, however, we have to say yes when Mayfield asks “Now we can’t hardly stand for that/Or is that really where it’s at?”.
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his wn words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 3, literature.org
I have often bragged about my special edition of A Christmas Carol. It was the sesquicentennial edition. It included a facsimile of the original manuscript, in the rare collections at New York Public Library, along with sketches for the original illustrations before the one’s used were chosen. The introduction includes the history of the writing of this book that seems as universal as the original Christmas story. In the summer of 1843, one of Dickens’ benefactors took him to one of the larger parish poor houses, so that he could see the conditions in which children sent to live in these homes, were subjected to. The hope was that Dickens, who knew of poverty, and was passionate about justice for those suffering, would advertise the deplorable conditions of the newly established institutions and, by raising awareness, convince the public to demand improvements.
Originally planning to write a long tract, at the end of the day, the tract wouldn’t come. And wouldn’t come. Instead, Dickens set himself to writing a novella. In the days before marketing and agents and the long lead times contemporary books need to move from manuscript to print, Dickens’s “little ghost of a tale” was completed in the fall and printed in time for Christmas, 1843. The public’s reaction was extremely positive, not only in Britain, but in the United States (where Dickens had an enormous following, thanks in large part to the serialization of his novels in popular literary magazines), where one factory owner gave his employees an extra day off after reading A Christmas Carol.
As the author of that introduction says, it’s important to remember that this story, so much a part of our Christmas celebrations, has a history – a time before it existed; a beginning; an initial stage of acceptance; its gradual weaving in to Anglo-American Christmas traditions – so that we would remember that it, just as we, is a creature of history. It was not only the story that has a history, but it emerged at a particular time in history, when Britain, rising as the world’s only real superpower, was beginning to celebrate that new-found power, and was the original “Christian nation” (with more justification that the United States; the Queen, after all, is head of the Church of England) who understood itself as having an evangelizing and even civilizing mission to the world (whether those being evangelized or civilized wished to be or not).
While class divisions within Britain have been, and were then, very clear, the nouveau bourgeoisie, represented by Ebeneezer Scrooge, that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”, understood themselves as having escaped the vicissitudes of poverty, perhaps only by the skin of their teeth (like Dickens, who spent most of his adult life in dire fear that he would end up like his father, imprisoned for debt). The last thing they wished was any association with the petit-bourgeoisie or proletariat who made up the bulk of the nation. Small due to poor nutrition, undereducated, underemployed, underpaid when employed, not welcome in churches (despite Bob Cratchit’s visits with Tiny Tim; the rest of the family, surely, wasn’t there precisely because they weren’t wanted, dirty, poor, and ragged as they were), their only hope the emerging system of social welfare that too often relied upon the local parish to which Parliament had first devolved responsibility without oversight. Scrooge understood his position very well; it is not just his personal history*, but the whole emerging socioeconomic structure of Britain that mitigated any fellow-feeling for those around him, including his only living relative, his nephew Fred.
Much attention is often paid to the ghost of Marley baying out his confession of a life wasted in greed in avarice, as well as the punishment to which he is sentenced – to know what might have been and know it is, now, always beyond his grasp. Yet, for my money, it is the Ghost of Christmas Present’s indictment of Scrooge, with the old man’s words no less, that is far more pointed, far more damning, and for our purposes today, far more important. When the Spirit says that “in the sight of heaven” Scrooge “might be more worthless” than those Scrooge himself has named as the surplus population, his words should ring a bit more loudly in our own ears. After all, at this particular moment in time, are we not more callous, less interested in seeing our fellow human beings as just that, lining up in various queues of “Us” and “Them”, taking sides. Most of all, we are at a moment when many Americans are just tired of all the demands from those below us on the socioeconomic ladder to be heard. We don’t want to hear them. We don’t care about them and their needs. Circumstances are precarious enough, after all, for those who have “made it”; why should we expend energy, and more importantly money, helping those who are where we were not that long ago?
And the indictment of the Second Spirit rings down the decades, demanding we hear, again, that our worth is not something we ourselves determine. Ours is a world filled with “surplus populations” ignored, beaten, shot, murdered in mass numbers, forced to live lives outside the sight of the rest of us so that, as Scrooge tells the gentlemen who come by his office asking for a donation to help the poor, he “doesn’t know that”; in other words, he has only the words of the gentlemen to go by when it comes to the lives and conditions of the poor. It is easy, even now, with 24-hour news channels and thousands of cable channels and the internet, not to see and not to hear the truth far too many live each day.
As Dickens’s little masterpiece is now as much a part of many households’s Christmas preparations as reading the Nativity story in Luke 2, perhaps we should remember this Advent the words of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, that we open our shut-up hearts and see those around us as fellow-creatures on our way to the grave. Preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ child should include not just “charity”, although God knows there is never enough of that. Preparing ourselves for the birth of the Son of God includes recognizing all the ways we, whether we recognize it or not, whether we name it or not, whether we admit it nor not, are part of the very problem Dickens named so long ago – living a life “solitary as an oyster”, closing ourselves within our own lives and cares, never lifting our eyes to see the world around us as it really is. In so doing, we might not only approach the stable with a tad bit more humility. We might also remember that this tiny baby, perhaps finally asleep on a bed of hay, has come to earth, emptying himself not for “us” but for “all”. Our job, in no small part, is to step out of those lines into which society and culture push us – “Us” and “Them” – and wander among all, seeing them, loving them, helping them, giving of ourselves to them.
Perhaps then, we can hear Tiny Tim’s blessing: “God bless us, everyone.”
*And Dickens is a master of psychology in storytelling. He understood, in a visceral way, how a life history shaped the personality of an individual. That he also understood the social roots of personality is clear enough from the rest of his works. In A Christmas Carol, however, he weaves a psychological novella to be read with awe.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-37
N.B.: This is my favorite part of the film. As Joseph and Mary head out of Nazareth for the long journey to Bethlehem, and we have seen how Mary’s friends and Joseph’s friends have deserted them because of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph turns to Mary and says, “They’re going to miss us.”
The Roman Catholic Church is far more aware of the whole conception/pregnancy/birth timing thing, placing the Feast of the Annunciation in March, yet we Protestants cram it all into Advent. Textually speaking, there just isn’t a whole lot in St. Luke’s Gospel about what Mary’s surprise meant for her. St. Matthew’s Gospel at least hints at the man Joseph, his sense of honor as well as compassion, preferring to end his engagement to Mary quietly rather than threaten her life with an accusation of adultery. Then, Joseph’s dream comes, and rather than let her go, he takes her in to his home, which all but announces to Nazareth the child Mary is carrying is his. Both, then, have broken both the Law and their vow to God to remain pure for one year.
The film The Nativity Story does for the season of Advent what a thousand sermons and years of study could never do. We see the social and political and religious turmoil. We see the people living out their faith, sometimes under the most difficult of conditions. We see how living out that faith impacts how they live in community with those believed to have broken the law. Even little things, like Mary touching the mezzuzah at the entrance to her house; the bodies of rebels left to rot hanging on trees, prostitutes and pick-pockets, the money-changers at the Temple doing their necessary yet greedy task. We see the ruthlessness of King Herod – a necessary trait for one in a position such as his – even as he tries to rebuild both the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, restoring both to their former glory.
The story of the Annunciation – the angel Gabriel comes and tells Mary she’s going to conceive and bear a child and after a bit of haggling over the physical details she submits – seems so wonderful. Who wouldn’t want an angel to come and tell them they’ve been chosen to do a job? Not just any job, in this case, but be the mother of the Son of God? It seems something young women would be fighting over, right? Except, alas, as with all the stories in both Testaments in which God says, “Yo, got a job for you,” all the person gets is the “what” of the job. Moses is to free the people from Egypt; David is to be King, but not build a Temple; Jeremiah’s been a prophet since before he was born; St. Paul’s got work to do among the Gentiles. This is all fine and dandy. The problem, of course, is there is never a how. The only one to challenge this neglectfulness is Moses who says to the angel in the burning bush, “How do I know you’re really who you say you are, calling me to free the Hebrews from Egypt?” The voice from the bush answers by not answering: “You’ll know when you bring the people back here and come up here for more instructions.”
The Nativity Story fills in the gaps between the Annunciation and the birth in a way that is enlightening, funny at times, sad, horrifying, and reveals just how precarious a position Mary and Joseph occupied, socially and religiously, by not only carrying the baby to term, but Joseph inviting Mary in to his house prior to the end of the year’s betrothal. As with all God’s callings, we need to remember that we get a “what”. The “how”, well . . . that can get tricky, even dangerous. The thing is, however, somehow what God says God wants the Divine Servants to do gets done, even in the midst of threats of death. Perhaps it reveals Mary’s faith – and Joseph’s – in the midst of their fear. Yet, it is a reminder that faith does not erase fear; it can accompany it, and if we persist, the fear does not overwhelm our faithful commitment.
Part of preparing ourselves for Christmas might well be understanding the complexities of faith, how fear and faith can yet intertwine, and that we should persevere not despite the fear, but rather even in the midst of it. The Nativity Story does this beautifully. I highly recommend it as part of your family’s Advent celebration.
The two officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, had no chance to defend themselves and might not have even seen their assailant, Bratton said.
The shooter, identified by police as 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, approached the patrol car at 2:47 p.m., took a shooter’s stance, and fired several shots through the passenger side front window, the commissioner said during a news conference at Woodhull Medical Center. Both officers were struck in the head.
After firing on the officers, Brinsley ran into a nearby subway station and turned his weapon on himself, Bratton said. Brinsley died from the wound. Police recovered a silver 9mm handgun at the scene.
Investigators believe the gunman posted a threatening message on a social media account before the shooting, according to one law enforcement source. “They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs,” said the post on Instagram, which was accompanied by a photo of a silver handgun. – Jonathan Dienst, “Gunman ‘Assassinates’ 2 NYPD Officers, Kills Self”, nbcwashington.com, Dec. 21, 2014
And so, more people die. Two officers, sitting in their patrol car, with no chance to defend themselves, gunned down in a planned attack by a man too cowardly to face the consequences of his crime. Two families without husbands, brothers, fathers, sons just days before Christmas.
Some might say, “You called cops racists. How dare you decry their murders as if you cared!” Which completely misses the point. Since events in Ferguson, MO, and even before that, I recognized and have spoken out against what I see as the systematic use of police to control the social and racial status quo. ‘Twas ever thus, and shouldn’t be all that surprising given our history, and the history of the use of police forces by the powers that be.
That does not mean that the lives of any particular officers are of less value than the lives of the victims in Ferguson, MO or anywhere else. Indeed, a horrible crime like this highlights just how precious all our lives are. This crime demonstrates how our institutions and systems of Administration and control have become so blatant and unafraid of accountability in their use of force and violence that innocent people, whether police officer or citizen, of whatever race, suddenly no longer become human. Instead, they become targets of rage and hatred, objects to be eliminated because they represent those institutions rather than the people who they are, individuals with specific lives and loves, all gone in a moment of terror.
This also demonstrates the work all of us have to do, not only addressing police on civilian violence; also, we need to address those communities that are systematically targeted by the police, try to get them to vent their anger in constructive ways. Those who rage is overwhelming, who become committed to violence are as much a part of the problem as are officers who beat, shoot, and choke-hold persons, regardless of guilt or innocence. This is a task for our churches and synagogues and mosques. This is a task for city Administrators, for Ward representatives and City Council members. This is a task for each one of us to recognize the ways violence begets violence, leaving nothing but a trail of dead bodies, broken lives, and yet more animosity, hatred, suspicion, and ultimately more death in its wake.
I pray for the families of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, those left behind, full of anger and confusion and a sadness too deep for words. I pray for the family of the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, whose death by his own hand will leave more questions than answers despite a trail of very public pronouncements on social media. I pray for the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, that it not succumb to fear or anger. I pray for the New York City Police Department, that it not succumb to rage, fear, and violence.
Most of all, I pray for each one of us looking on, this final Sunday of Advent, four days before Christmas, that we might still cling to the faith and the hope that carry us through this season of waiting. I pray that the promise of peace, of salvation, of liberation, will continue to live in our hearts. Most of all, I pray for each of us and all of us that the light that cannot be overcome by the darkness – even the darkness of death – will mean just a little bit more to use this year as each of us and all of us pray for an end to the cycle of violence, an end to the death and hatred. If ever we needed to believe in a Deliverer, a Wonderful Counselor, an Almighty God, the Prince of Peace, it’s right now.