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.
John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. – John 3:16-18
We who are labeled, or perhaps label ourselves, “progressives” in the Church – and oh how I wonder what that particular label means – are often accused by our brothers and sisters of being too mealy-mouthed, unwilling to offer both the bad with the good, at least when it comes to presenting the clarity of the message of the faith: that believing and living faith in Jesus Christ has real consequences, in this world and the next; likewise choosing not to hear or so live has real consequences as well, and not what any would call good. Just the other day, the Rev. Christy Thomas wondered in an aside in a piece recounting a visit to a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, if we who bare that meaningless label “progressive” have the ability to remain vital precisely because we concern ourselves with openness rather than building clear boundaries between ourselves and others; the latter, she noted, seems to be a particular human characteristic that is almost ubiquitous. Part of the discomfort, I believe, includes a hesitancy in presenting the message of salvation – what we call the Gospel, euangelion, Good News – in its full import and weight. That would include the flip-side of all our talk of Divine forbearance, grace, the holy life, and the Grand Welcome at the New Creation: the very real (in Scripture) word that some, at least, shall turn to God to plead their case and the God whose endless love, dogged pursuit, and all-embracing grace shall turn to them and say, “I don’t know who you are,” and their end shall be, shall we say, less than pleasant. First the Pit, then at the New Creation, a turn in the Lake of Fire before that, too, is destroyed along with all that is sinful, broken, and evil in “the former things”.
My wife and I have always enjoyed a good chuckle at the above partial-passage (the fancy term is the Greek word pericope). Yet, the message of Jesus . . . was it any different? Substantively, of course we have to say that it was, if only because of who Jesus was as opposed to John the Baptizer. Yet Jesus always insisted there was a not-so-happy ending for those who rejected him and his followers. The mystery of Divine Judgment is a difficult point of contention among Christians, to be sure. As I noted yesterday, our human understanding of justice have absolutely nothing to do with Divine righteousness. So, too, the passages in Scriptures regarding judgment, damnation, and most especially those that hint at predestination have led many over the centuries to conclude the mass of humanity, regardless of their most sincere efforts and honest faithfulness, shall nevertheless wind up someplace uncomfortably warm when all is said and done. Particularly in our current moment, with a resurgence of neo-Calvinist thought from what was once called “the Emergent Church Movement” offering young men especially the consolation that cultural and social norms of masculinity bear the stamp of Divine approval, it is with a wariness Calvin himself (if rarely in those who followed him) enjoined that anyone should venture to speculate on the mysteries of predestination, damnation, and how one could know how one fits in to the Divine Economy.
Personally, I’ve always thought the occasional hell-fire and brimstone sermon was a good thing. It reminds us that our business is serious, that this whole Christian thing is no trifle but, on the contrary even the most mundane moment carries eternal significance, both in a sublime but also in a terrible sense. I also think such things should be targeted carefully. Everything is context dependent. For example, telling a young Palestinian Christian that he has to believe in Jesus and be good or he will go to hell ignores the fundamental hellishness of his day-to-day existence. My guess is such a message would receive more of a shrug than anything. On the other hand, telling a young, upper-middle class white woman that baptism enjoins her to incarnate the love of God for this world; that failing to do so, whether out of ignorance or a preference for comfort or worst of all refusing to see in the naked, hungry, and imprisoned her brothers and sisters, does indeed bring with it a cost far more high than the occasional discomfort she might experience being with those who are dirty and in need. In other words, we privileged Westerners – we privileged white Westerners in particular – could benefit from the reminder that “the Good News” carries with it concomitant bad news. We are, after all, like the Pharisees as presented in another Gospel account of John the Baptizer, who responded to their approach: “You hypocrites! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” We need to recognize our place in the current Providence of God, and live accordingly, always with the memory that we are not Christians to be comforted in our already-comfortable existence. We are Christians because God has called us to a great work. Failing to do that work and coming up with excuse after excuse as to why we aren’t doing it carries an eternal cost.
This is serious business. Life-and-death stuff. Hearing the whole Good News and remembering it is always bad news for someone else – including us – is a good thing. Even for a mushy progressive like me.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and
Heaven ring – James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice And Sing”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ – Luke 19:39-40
There is a creek the runs by the house in which I grew up. I can’t count the hours I played down there, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. One of the great things about this little creek was that it was filled with fossils. I don’t mean to say there were dinosaur bones in my little creek. There were, however, an abundance of sandstone and shale bits, sometimes filled to overlapping, with the tiny imprint of all sorts of little creatures. If I found one of these, I might go back up to the house and sit on the back porch, turning the stone over in my hand, looking at each and all of the little impressions, thinking about time. Even now, as a middle aged man, I don’t really have any idea of the time it took to go from various kinds of mud covering the remains of these small animals, their remains eventually drying out and crumbling even as they left their impressions in the stone. The stones were buried – who knows how long? tens of thousands of years? millions? – then, at some point, uncovered. Then, perhaps during a heavy rain, perhaps something else, they wound up sitting in the bed of the creek behind my house.
Now, I have some rules – believe it or not – about things on this blog. They’re kind of carry-overs from my years of blogging on my previous site. Among those rules is I do not “debate” creationists. That my children attend a private Christian school where creationism is taught doesn’t mean I’m silent on the issue. It just means, here in this space, I refuse to discuss creationism, or debate the matter with those who adhere to creationism. Which, obviously, doesn’t mean I don’t hold to or celebrate an understanding of Creation as an act of Divine grace and love; on the contrary, among the many testimonies to the greatness, the love, and the freedom of God is our ongoing adventure of Creation, discovering how it works, that it is massive beyond our ability to comprehend, that it is violent and beautiful beyond our imaginings, and that each second of it, each moment in which it exists is both a and the moment of Creation.
One of my professors in Seminary, the late Dr. James Logan, said that Karl Barth was the great theologian of grace of the 20th century. As much as I admired Jim Logan, I would disagree. Barth was actually the great theologian of freedom of the 20th century. I believe Barth’s understanding of grace was a subset of his understanding of Divine Freedom. Barth’s initial and final (and succinct!) definition of God’s identity is: God is the God who loves in freedom.
Part of the evidence for this, worked out in meticulous detail in the four parts of Volume III of his Church Dogmatics, is Creation. Studying Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, we were told the basic philosophical question is: Why is there something rather than nothing? Barth’s answer to this question is: freedom. Specifically, Divine Freedom. There is no necessity about any of what we see. It is, in its minutest detail and its grand magnificence, sheer, gratuitous freedom, an expression of Divine Love. Each moment of time is both the sum total of all that has gone before, and the unique opportunity for something new to be. That is part of the doctrine of Creation about which we rarely think. As beloved children of God, freedom is part and parcel of what it means to be, to live in the love that holds it all together.
I look around the rolling hills not far from Jerusalem, and amid the grass and trees I see all sorts of stones. Large ones, pebbles, some with marks that show their age, others with marks that show they’ve been overturned by farmers tilling the land in the neverending cycle of life. Each of these stones makes me think of time, of the immensity of God’s creation, of the freedom that is ours because this is God’s creation. Most of all, it reminds me that even that part of creation we call inanimate understands its place. There are so many places, particularly in the Psalms, in which we are reminded that all creation does now or soon will offer God glory. We are surrounded by mute testimony to the greatness of Divine love, a love expressed in and through and as freedom.
I pick up a pebble, and drop it in my pocket. It is there to remind me of a couple things. First, it reminds me that I am not needed. None of us are. No matter how “necessary” we believe we are, whether it’s to the continuation of the church and its mission, to the spreading of the Gospel, or making disciples, that pebble reminds me that, in the end, there isn’t a particle of my existence, or a moment of my life, that has any necessity to it. Especially before God. That pebble will cry out praise to God were none of us here to do so; indeed, it might well be possible to hear that praise, if we have the ears to hear it.
The other thing that pebble reminds me is that I don’t really understand Creation. Oh, I understand how science explains various processes and what-not. I understand that the Universe is both far larger and far older than I can comprehend. In and of itself, this brings about praise: That something as insignificant as I am loved, upheld, and continue to be in the midst of all this immensity is certainly worthy of praise. I am not needed, which is why just being at all is such a wonder. That pebble, it tries to shout through my pocket, and I shut out all the other sounds and hear the praise of all Creation in that tiny voice and know it does so because of all the times I have failed to do so. This pebble, it does what I in my sin of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness, of hubris, and ignorance, it sings out louder than I have throughout so much of my life. When I get to that place called The Skull, I’m going to have to turn out my pockets, and let that pebble drop to the ground so that, at that moment, it can weep for the one dying on that cross.
And I so look forward to hearing it on Easter morning.
Sublime I’ve been shedding snakeskin…
so blind I’ve been destroying the noise
my worst enemy
Deconstructing my identity
soaking shoulder deep
in oceans of humility
feasting upon fruits of tranquility – J S Lambert, “Sublime”
Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. – Luke 12:3
One of my favorite movies of all time is 48 Hours. It’s a movie of its time, and certainly couldn’t be made today. Still, there are scenes and moments in there that make me laugh, no matter how often I see them. Perhaps my favorite is when Luther, flushed out of his apartment, tries running right past the car in which Eddie Murphy sits. Murphy opens the door with his feet, kicking it out, and Luther hits it hard, landing on the pavement. Eddie Murphy looks down and says, “Luther, man, sorry about the door. That looks like it hurt.” And, of course, the humor from that is we all know Murphy isn’t sorry in the least; he did what he had to do to stop Luther from getting away, and enjoyed causing a bit of pain to someone who got away while Murphy’s character is stuck in prison.
Who doesn’t enjoy laughing at other’s pain? Let’s be honest. Warner Brother’s cartoons, Tom & Jerry – they’re predicated on enjoying others’s pain. When these cartoons moments are transferred to real life, such as in America’s Funniest Home Videos, we laugh uproariously, even as we cringe at whatever pain might be evident. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I get a splinter. Humor is when you fall in an open manhole and die.” Sad as it is to say, this is true. There’s just something in our makeup as human beings that finds enjoyment in the pain of others.
When my foot landed on solid ground, I opened my eyes. Far from the darkness beyond description, I am surrounded by light. It is warm, the road in front of me stretching on, just as it had. I look behind me, and there is no endless wall of darkness. I want to take a step back, but I must always move forward on this road. Even a single step backward, and I know I will never continue forward.
I look around and what I see astonishes me at first. Then, after it sinks in, I’m terrified. It isn’t images I see. Around me are scenes from my past, both banal and horrible. Me as a child bullying a child even smaller than I was, for no reason other than to express whatever anger I might have been feeling at that moment for whatever teasing I might have received, teasing, I might add, that means nothing at all. I want to turn away, but when I do, I see myself, telephone in hand. I hear an all-too-familiar voice ask, “What about us?” None of that conversation had gone the way I wanted it to go. None of what had gone on the previous several months had gone as I might have preferred. Pushed in to a corner, however, for the first time in years, I spoke a truth I knew would break hearts. “There is no ‘us’.” The line went dead, and I stood there, hating myself. As I look at myself, I hear laughing voices off to the side. I’m walking with a group of friends down a street in Washington, DC. I know it’s April, 1993. We’re on our way to an enormous Gay Rights March. As we walk, there’s a man lying on the sidewalk, asleep on his coat above a heating grate. It may be spring, but the nights can get chilly, and those vents bring both warmth and dampness that can chill. Immediately, I wonder – who is going to march for him, this warm, sunny day?
Other Washington, DC scenes are around me, all of them involving me refusing to meet the eye of a man or woman, sitting or standing, sometimes with a sign, sometimes with that pleading in their voice, but always with a cup or hat or something else to hold whatever meager money might come their way. In those moments, where I watch my face set, my eyes making sure they look straight ahead instead of in to the eyes of my sisters and brothers, asking only that I spare a bit for some food or shelter. What would it have cost me to meet their eyes, to acknowledge they are my sisters and brothers, those in need from someone who, no matter how poor I might have felt, had so much more than they did.
I hear yelling. It’s my voice. I cringe, knowing full well what I’ll find. I never change, just standing there yelling. In front of me, though, flash my wife, my children. I want to run over and grab myself by the shoulders, ask him to stop. I also know I cannot. These are not things over which I have any power. They are images of what has been. Nothing I do or say can stop what’s happening. I also know that I cannot turn away. I can no more deny any of these images than I can deny the color of my eyes.
There is so much more I see, times I have lied, I have hurt others through thoughtlessness, times I have taken advantage of others to satisfy whatever evil thought flitted through my head at the moment.
Worst of all, I see money I have paid in taxes, paid faithfully, willingly, and with a sense of honor, slipping in to the pocket of a man sitting in front of a large bank of computer screens. On one of them, a camera attached to a missile approaches its target. It is with horror I scream, “NO!” because rather than a terrorist fleeing down a road, the missile approaches a child riding a bicycle. It cannot be stopped. The screen goes dark, telling both the pilot of the UAV and me the missile reached its target. The scene shifts back to the UAV camera. Below is nothing but fire and destruction. Pieces far too small to be anything but those of a child lie spread out on the road. I may not have flown the UAV, fired the missile, or guided it toward its target. That child’s blood, however, is no less on my hands than on those who made the mistake of thinking a group of children gathering to play was actually an al Qaeda cell in need of destruction.
The darkness through which I stepped was indeed mine. Far worse, it was a darkness that refused to remain in the dark. Those of us who call ourselves Christian, no matter how marvelous we believe ourselves to be, we know there lies hidden in our lives moments we would rather not have happened at all. That they happened, well, we would rather they not be brought to mind. When they are brought to mind, we would rather have the opportunity to go back and undo all the hurt we have caused.
A man far wiser than I shall ever be, once told me about the ripples that spread out from our actions, ripples that touch the lives of others, whose actions cause their own ripples. Sooner or later, without us knowing it, something we have done comes back around, impacting our lives. The hope, of course, is that these are good things. The reality, all too often, is that the pain we have caused someone will, over the course of years, revisit us with pain, increased exponentially by time and tide. Like an old game of telephone, in which the story changes from one end of the line to the other, so, too, do our actions become more hurtful, most especially regardless of our intention.
All at once, these images from my past stop. I disappear, while around me gather a host of those who I’ve hurt. While the pain the eyes of my wife and children makes me want to turn away, when I do, I see the faces of others, some strangers, some whose names are long forgotten. I am now given any choice but to look in the eyes of those whose eyes I once avoided. Worst of all, the broken, bloody body of a child stands there. All of them, in unison, repeat the same, single word over and over: Why?
What can I possibly plead in the face of this chorus demanding an explanation for the pain I’ve caused, either through my action, my inaction, through supporting wars indirectly, or by redirecting anger at innocent targets? “The Devil made me do it,” certainly won’t cut it. Not with this bunch. “For I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” sounds so pious and hollow and empty. “I’m sorry”? Really?
I do the one thing I can do. I fall on my knees before all of them and each of them. I confess, in detail that I am, indeed, responsible for these actions. I have neither excuse nor respite. There is no shadow in which I can hide, no other upon whom to pin blame. From strangers whose eyes I only now see in their fullness both of grief and humanity through the sadness in my wife and children’s eyes to the blank, non-seeing eyes of a dead child, all I can do is confess that I am, indeed the one who has done what I did. I dare not ask forgiveness. That is as self-serving as the actions that brought me to this place to begin with.
Around me, the images begin to fade. Starting with the oldest moments, and those furthest from me, there is no sound, just each disappears. Until, at last, I’m left with four: My wife, my daughters, and that dead unseeing child whose eyes nevertheless see me all too clearly. For the first three, I know I can do better. I know I am doing better. I try each day. I know they know. I say nothing, but they seem to sense what I’m thinking, and they smile and nod. To the boy, I can only weep. I want to learn his name. I want his death to be more than a simple military screw-up, to which far too many will say, “Whoops.” More than any of this, however, I want his death to stand as making sure none shall die as he did. I want others like him to grow up not having to fear sudden, ineradicable yet mistaken death from a distance. I also know there is so little I can do to change something that drastically; yet I also know that to do otherwise is to leave him just another anonymous corpse among far too many.
With that, I am alone again. The road in front of me stretches on. On either side, light continues to shine, yet I no longer fear what the light will reveal, any more than I fear the darkness I encountered before. I have no idea if any of this will make any difference at my final destination. All I know for sure is I believe I have faced at least some of my fears – some of me – and not only survived, but see the road continues to stretch out in before me. I know it will continue to carry unpleasant surprises for me. I also know I feel emptier now than I have in a very long time. Traveling will be more than a little lighter from here on in.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:17-20
So it’s Christmas. The day for which all the craziness and preparation, the shopping and baking, the cards and gifts, the visits and kindnesses have been about. The beginning of twelve days in the Church’s calendar in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, remember his circumcision and the appearance of prophets and seers; we hear the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, teaching the teachers. “Christmas” as a church season doesn’t end until “Twelfth Night”, with the coming of Epiphany and the celebration of the arrival of the Magi.
On Christmas Day, the shepherds are given information about “Good News” which shall be to all people. Yet, that “Good News” is little more than a birth announcement. What’s more, the baby, whom the angel declares will be called the Son of the Most High, a King whose Kingdom shall have no end, is to be found in a manger. That’s the “sign” that what the angel has said is true – a baby whose family is so poor they can’t afford a proper room; a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a cow’s feeding trough. After seeing what they’ve been told to see, St. Luke tells us that the shepherds returned, praising God for what they had seen and heard as it had been told to them.
In one of his early, post-World War II books, French Christian scholar Jacques Ellul wrote that ours was becoming a world ever more ruled by “facts”; indeed, he said that people were becoming enslaved to “the Moloch of fact”. Facts in and of themselves, Ellul insisted, are uninteresting. They tell us nothing. Which is precisely why those in power love them so; to call something “a fact” seems, in our world idolizing such a horrid god, unarguable. Even now we hear, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. No one is entitled to their own facts.” Yet, Ellul insisted, facts are precisely what people make them to be. Manipulated by those in power, they become more than tools. They are weapons of control, so defined as to be impossible to deny.
Except, of course, facts are unimportant things. Meaningless in and for themselves precisely because they are no more than events in time, whatever meaning they might or might not have only exists because human beings give them meaning. Whether it’s weather, a law has been broken, the status and place of social realities in human lives, or the birth of a child, these events have no meaning in and for themselves. Their only meaning comes from what we human beings give them.
The birth of a child is certainly meaningful for the parents and other relatives. For the shepherds, part of a people waiting and waiting until they had grown old and tired in waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the “Good News for all people” certainly heralded the coming of the Messiah. Which is precisely what the angel says. Yet, then the Messiah tells the shepherds the Messiah is a new-born baby, lying in a manger wrapped in rags. Even with the Heavenly Host appearing, glorifying God in song and saying, the shepherds agree they just have to go see what the heck all the fuss is about.
Sure enough, right where the angel said, there’s a baby. It’s wrapped in swaddling cloths. It’s lying in a manger. It must, indeed, be the Messiah. Doing their obeisance, they return to their fields. Along the way, however, they tell everyone they meet about the angel’s message, about the song from heaven, and most of all about the baby and who he is. Mary, even with all she had been through, wasn’t quite sure what the fuss was about, but rather than push the issue, she held these things quietly. Any mother would, I suppose. These are moments to which any Mother would return when a child does something wonderful and strange.
See, a poor family giving birth in a barn probably wasn’t exactly an unusual occurrence at that time. The fact there was a barn might well have been something of a miracle, let alone some cloths in which to wrap the child and a manger filled with hay as a soft bed in which to lie. Had the angel not appeared to the shepherds, they would have returned to the barn that day or the next, found the family and baby there, and chased them away as interlopers, possibly thieves. Using a baby as an excuse would have been a good ruse, too.
The shepherd did hear the angel’s words. They did hear the Heavenly Host singing praises to God. The father, mother, and child were right where the angel said they would be. This was not another poverty-stricken family, using a baby as an excuse to steal a lamb or a calf for food. The angel was clear. This baby, lying in this manger, wrapped in these cloths, was no less than the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of the Most High, the King whose Kingdom would have no end. Without that information, the shepherds would have had no way of understanding what it was they were seeing, or who it was they were encountering.
Facts do not speak for themselves. They are Moloch, idols that can be used by those who control them for whatever purposes they wish. In this case, however, the fact of the birth of the baby Jesus was wholly in control of the God of Israel. Telling of the birth, the promise of the freedom that lay sleeping in that stable, that was something that made those who heard the shepherds “amazed” at what those dirty old men were saying. Amazed, yes, because who could imagine the Messiah entering the world in such a way? Yet, there was no other way to understand and interpret it. Not because of the shepherd. Certainly not because of the scene itself, no matter how much syrup we have poured over the scene over the centuries. No, it was the angel, the announcement of “Good News”, of gospel for all people, that’s what made all the difference. That message interpreted the facts, gave an understanding to what otherwise might have been taken as a nothing, just another baby born to another poor family.
My wish for all of you and each of you this Christmas Day is that you go forth, proclaiming all that you have heard and seen this day, praising God for all God has done. Leave people amazed so they, too, will come to the stable and really see the tiny baby, the Messiah, the King whose Kingdom will have no end.
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.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. – Luke 2:25-26
All over I’m seeing signs that Christmas is already here. People are posting their Christmas posts on their blogs. Post-Christmas sales are being advertised. Both the world and the church seem to be rushing toward Bethlehem without considering that the trip takes time for a reason. Just as we all tend to rush through Holy Week, and try as hard as we can to ignore Good Friday, just so we can get to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection, so, too, we ignore Advent as much as possible. We sing Christmas hymns the first Sunday in Advent. We decorate our sanctuaries with Hanging of the Greens services. We have Nativity scenes with the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, instead of a scene of Joseph and a very pregnant Mary on their way to Bethlehem.
This time of preparation is necessary. Like Simeon, we have been promised something special – to see the Messiah. Simeon, however, grew old waiting, having been told he wouldn’t die until that moment happened. He didn’t despair, however; he kept waiting, growing old and gray, wondering which day would be that day. His faith, however, gave him the power to wait, even as his family and friends, perhaps, died around him, or moved away. Perhaps his grandchildren thought him senile, blabbing about not dying until he saw the Messiah.
No one likes to wait. Especially for Christmas. We decorate our houses, wrap our presents and put them under the tree, we watch those TV Christmas specials over and over and over until we memorize every line, every nuance. We bake cookies and pies, then have to bake more because in our haste to get to Christmas we gorge ourselves on sweet treats, rather than wait with patience for the only gift that matters.
We don’t want to wait. Advent, like Lent, is a pain in the butt. “Let’s just get there,” we say.
Simeon had to wait. He waited a longer lifetime than he might have preferred. Mary had to wait. Mary to wait and travel, wondering what would await her in Bethlehem, wondering if the village midwives would help an unmarried woman give birth. The world had to wait, a people living in darkness were waiting for a light, a single light the darkness could not overcome. The people of Israel had been promised a Messiah, a deliverer from the line of David. That, of course, meant a King, perhaps even a warrior King who would not only toss the Romans out, but unseat the Herodians, puppets of Rome and usurpers of the rightful royal line. While they waited and prayed, they saw a world filled with evil and sin. There seemed no end, no reason to hope other than ancient promises and a string of dead self-proclaimed Messiah’s hanging on Roman crosstrees or simply cut down by sword and spear.
St. Paul said that Jesus came “in the fullness of time”. That is, Jesus came at just the right time. Not a day, week, or month sooner or later. Israel had waited. The people, suffering under a yoke of sin waited. Mary and Joseph, travelling a hard road made all the more hard by Mary being very pregnant, had to wait. We, too, must wait. We must wait and pray, like Simeon, trusting that day will come when the promise, made so long before, will be fulfilled. We wait, our world dark, filled with no reason at all for hope; no sign that God is even listening. As DMX says, “I’m ready to meet him,” because there’s nothing left in his world to which to cling. Until we have reached that point, until we are able to make clear all the reasons we are ready to meet him – despair for the hatred, the killing, the violence, the sin, our own weakness, our own complicity in the brokenness of Creation . . . until we have reached that point, we aren’t ready to meet him. We haven’t traveled the hard road of Advent; haven’t waited as Simeon did. We would rather rush to the stable and see the beautiful baby boy without all that muss and fuss.
Christmas, however, is Thursday. Today is Saturday. So, we wait. And pray. And believe that God’s promise to us and the world will come when the time is right, not a minute too soon, most certainly not a minute too late.