Tuesday, December 25, 2007

From Day One

Relevant Scripture
Isaiah 9:1-7
Luke 1:26-56
Luke 2:1-20
Matthew 1:18-2:18

Last year at Christmastime, I wrote about the St. Luke’s Christmas Eve sermon. I thought I would do the same this year, and add a few thoughts of my own. And lest you think that I’m blogging instead of spending time with my family, know that we just got wireless and I’m watching A Christmas Story on TV with my Dad as we speak. :)

Pat's Christmas Thoughts

Our rector, Fr. Pat, gave the sermon. It was a good one. The main message was to avoid routine at this time of year. He spoke of how amazing a story the Christmas nativity is, and said that if there were any visitors in the congregation who had been dragged along and found the whole story a little hokey (virgin birth? angels in the sky?), “You’re in good company!” The King James Version said all who heard the shepherds “wondered” about their message. Pat told us that that word, "wonder," is defined not as amazement, but as a mix of doubt and curiosity. To doubt the Christmas story is to somewhat share that feeling. Though Pat didn’t discuss it, this made me think of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent BBC interview, in which he explained that Christianity and intellectualism do not clash, as the Christmas truth isn’t necessarily what our favorite TV specials suggest. Pat did say that wonder is a beautiful thing, and described the deeper feelings the Christmas story can elicit. He warned us against letting Christmas become routine. Hauling out tinsel and the Nutcrackers, cutting down a tree, shopping, wrapping, and baking, even setting up a Crèche – it is easy to just go through the motions out of obligation: this is what we do every year and I can’t wait for Dec. 26 to get here. When this happens, the deeper meaning is lost. One example: Christmas is becoming a huge celebration in India, even though the dominant religions there are Hinduism and Islam. It’s not a religious holiday, but a day of random celebration where the big hit is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Pat was referring to an NPR story called “India Embraces Christmas Consumerism”. There’s nothing wrong with a secular holiday, he said, but if we let it, Christmas can be quite powerful: it can be about wonder. ‘Tis the difference between walking in the rain and just getting wet. He closed by soloing “I Wonder as I Wander.” (What a crisp tenor he has!)

My Christmas Thoughts

I also had a few Christmas theology thoughts of my own. Throughout his life, Christ stood up to oppressive rulers. By forgiving our sins in the streets and fields, Christ brought down the corrupted Pharisees who told us we had to go to the Temple and its priests in Jerusalem for confession. He treated women with respect, whether at the home of Mary and Martha or at the well with the Canaanite woman. Walter Wink tells us that part of the Sermon on the Mount taught people how to stand up to their oppressors. There is, of course, more to Christ’s mission than just this: there is indeed grace, salvation, and love, but all too often, Christian communities forget their duty to stand up to abuses of money and power. And it turns out that’s a part of the Christmas story, too. This occurred to me as I was reading what the Rev. John Jennings wrote about the Archbishop’s Christmas cautions (link above):

We are also told that there were witnesses from the fields, shepherds taken by surprise by the news from the angels, rushing down from the hillsides, wondering in awe and then going back to their sheep, transformed by the coming of the baby.

The Wise Men were witnesses of the opposite kind. They were careful, calculating, educated men who think that they begin to discern God’s imminent arrival and who blunder their way across the region until they find what they think they’ve been seeking. They, too, go back transformed.

These are the really important bits of the story.

Though it is not Rev. Jennings’ focus, what jumps out at me from this passage is the word “educated.” The Wise Men may not have been kings, but they were educated and well-respected. As astrologers, they may have even belonged to some king’s court. We do know Herod invited them to his palace. Regardless of how you spin it, they certainly seem to be respectable members of the upper class, something poor shepherds sleeping in a remote field most certainly were not.

We all know that Jesus came for everyone, that Galatians says in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, no male or female, no slave or free. We should pause more often, I think, to reflect upon the meaning of those words. Christ views all as equal, and He came for all. The divisions we put up, of race, income, class, education, and more are false, and to reinforce them is to mock all that Christianity stands for. To be truly Christian, we must stand up to these divisions and do whatever we can, in a cultural, social, and perhaps even political way, to break them down. We see this from the very beginning, from day one, of Christ’s time on earth: both the rich wise men and the poor shepherds came to see the Christ-child. They were all filled with the same wonder and joy, and no distinction was made between them!

From day one. This means that the Nativity is not just a story in and of itself, but that it also sets the tone for everything that is to come. One reason so many people have rejected Christ as a Messiah, as a Savior, is his humble beginning. We expect our king to be born a king and behave like a king, not roll around in smelly hay with peasant parents. But for me, this makes Him all the holier. What kind of a Messiah can truly save a people without uniting them? And how can He appeal to the poor if they cannot identify with Him first? As the Archbishop says, we may not know the precise circumstances of Jesus’ birth. There might not have three wise men and they probably weren’t kings, and the words “inn” and “virgin” may well be mistranslations. Some call this blasphemous historical revisionism, but I say, who cares? What matters is not that we have a pretty image for our Hallmark cards, but that Christ had humble beginnings, setting the tone for His entire mission.

In her song of praise, the Magnificat, Mary says of God, “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.” This is not an attack on or indictment of the rich or powerful, but it is an indication that the strong should not prey on the weak, and that God sees no difference from one person to the next. The former rector at Dartmouth’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fr. Henry Atkins, says if we are to try to be Christlike, shouldn’t we do what we can to identify those mighty and lift up those lowly in a modern context, to level the playing field? From the very beginning, Christ came to reconcile us and unite us in love and equality.

(On a side note, I want to say that the Catholics are onto something: I have great admiration for Mary. I do not consider her a female equivalent to the male Trinity, as some Catholics suggest, nor do I think her status comes from her special bond with Christ. I also do not think she stayed a virgin her whole life; heck, I’m not even convinced she even conceived Christ as a virgin in the first place. What I do know is that when Gabriel gave her a very frightening message, she did not say, “God’s will be changed!” but rather, “God’s will be done.” To raise the savior of the whole world, and to face the pain of watching your son be mocked all his life and then killed, is an enormous weight for a young teenager to bear, but bear it Mary did. We can learn from this obedient yet courageous example, an example that holds true no matter what her sexual status. Remember Elizabeth’s words to her young relative: “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”)

In fact, not only did Christ identify with the poor and bring them together with the educated from day one, He even started fulfilling Mary’s prophesy and standing up to the mighty before uttering His first words. King Herod wanted to kill the little guy! Mary and Joseph did not submit to their ruler’s authority, but heeded Gabriel’s warning and fled to Egypt. Thus, the conflict between the new king and the oppressive kings of old was set from day one. For the first and last time, here was a king worth submitting to, a king worth the surrender (not that He would demand it) of our free will! From day one!

Yes, the spirit of Christmas is found in the angel’s message to the shepherds, in Mary pondering those shepherd’s words in her heart, and in the praise and worship the astrologists gave to Jesus. It is found in the wise men’s worship, and in the baby’s coo. But lest we forget, it is also found in the coming together of Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s wise men.

Other Recommended Christmas reading:
Anglocat on the Prowl: ’Tis the Season for Mariology?
An Inch At A Time: Holy Family Values
Caminante, No Hay Camino: Christmas Eve Sermon
Caminante, No Hay Camino: Christmas Day Sermon
Caught by the Light: The Tapestry of a Holy Night
Father Jake Stops the World: God has a Better Plan
Reverend Ref: Sermon, Christmas Eve
Telling Secrets: A Sermon for Christmas Eve


Annie said...

Never thought about it before - but yes, the reconciliatory work of Christ did show fruit from day one! Thanks for pointing that one out.

I am curious, very curious, that you are not even convinced Mary was a virgin when Christ was conceived. Yes, there is an alternate translation (coming through the Septuagint?) that renders the word "young woman," not necessarily "virgin", and in fact that ambiguity really wreaks confusion on at least one of the Isaiah prophecies - the one that says "the child will not eat curds and honey before destruction comes" or something like that.

But at the same time, I think it is pretty important that Mary be a virgin. Because that is the ancient prophecy and the wonder of God. I don't think that chastity was necessary for Christ not to be defiled in her womb or whatever, because I don't have that conservative a view of the moral status of sex, but I do think it is necessary because it was prophesied, and Christ is the fulfillment of those prophecies. The themes of birth, conception, marriage, unity, God and man, man and woman, the womb and life, the womb and death, the womb and the promise of God, regeneration and generation, are all far too prominent in the Bible. I think it changes the thematic structure to tear down that prophecy.

Now of course I will go think about it because it is also just plain a new idea and I might change my mind with thinking.

Incidentally, that same thematic consistency above, linking human reproduction to the redemptive work of God, is the root of my sometime conviction about homosexuality. I'm reexamining all that right now. But it would be a good talk.

Nathan Empsall said...

There are certain theologies that Mary's sexual status is very relevant to, but I don't think they stand at the heart of the Christmas story and its message. As such, they're a bit tangential to my point, which is why I gave it half a paragraph out of a much larger post. But we can certainly talk about it later! :) I will say that it's an area I haven't delved too deep into, which is why I wrote that I'm not convinced she was a virgin rather than I flat out don't believe it.

liturgy said...

“In Mary God has grown small to make us great.”
St. Ephrem (d. 373)

Christmas blessings from one Anglican blog to another
Bosco Peters