Tuesday, December 23, 2008

From Day One: Christmas Redemption in Scripture

I posted these thoughts last year at Christmas, but thought I might repost them again this year with some slight edits.

May I write in the name of God, who is Creator, Liberator, and Sanctifier.

Throughout his life, Christ stood up to oppressive rulers and brought people from all walks of life together as equals. 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 submit to its powerful priests for confession and redemption. 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 Roman oppressors. There is, of course, more to Christ’s mission than just this - there is grace, salvation, love - but all too often, Christian communities forget their duty to stand up to abuses of money and power and to put God's children, every last one, first. And it turns out that that’s part of the Christmas story, too. This first occurred to me last December as I read the Rev. John Jennings' reflections on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas cautions:

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 the transformation that is Rev. Jennings’ focus, what jumped out at me was his use of the word “educated.” The Wise Men may not actually have been kings, but they were educated and well-respected. As astrologers, they may have belonged to some king’s court. Regardless of how you spin it, they certainly seem to have been 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 that we put up, divisions 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 to break them down - culturally, socially, and even politically. We see this from day one of Christ’s time on earth: both the rich wise men and the poor shepherds came to see the Christ-child and stand before Him as equals. They were all filled with the same wonder and joy, 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 Jews 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 to 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? How can He appeal to the poor if they cannot identify with Him first? As the Archbishop said, we may not know the precise circumstances of Jesus’ birth. There might not have three wise men and they probably weren’t kings, the birth likely happened in the spring rather than in December, 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 smash oppression and reconcile us in love and equality.

In fact, not only did Christ identify with the poor and bring them together with the educated on day one, He started fulfilling Mary’s prophesy and standing up to the mighty before even uttering His first words. King Herod wanted to kill the little guy, but Mary and Joseph did not submit to their ruler’s authority. They heeded Gabriel’s warning and fled to Egypt. Thus, the conflict between the new king of grace 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 actually worth the surrender 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 cattle's lowing and in the baby’s coo. But lest we forget, it is also found in the Magnificat, in the flight to Egypt, and above all, in the coming together of Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s wise men.

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