Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas, reading between the lines. . .

Last year around this time, I had to have the battery in my watch replaced. So I went to my favorite jewelers, and while I was waiting, the saleswoman asked if she could share with me the story of her seven-year-old son. It seems that their church had just selected the cast of characters for its annual Christmas play, and her son had been chosen to be Joseph, an obvious honor for this young boy. Then, imitating her son’s enthusiastic reaction upon hearing this wonderful news, she placed her hands upon her heart, and smiling, shared his precious exclamation: “Oh, thank you.  I have waited all my life for this!”

God, too, had waited a lifetime, in fact, for an eternity to become flesh within Mary’s womb and within the world of humanity!  Tonight we are invited to share in the story of Luke’s account of the nativity, a narrative that is highly charged with social, religious, and political overtones. He wrote this specifically for his Gentile/Christian audience and emphasizes that this divine child has humble origins, with no royal trappings surrounding his birth. He is born during the course of a journey; the first guests to his birthday party are the marginalized shepherds. He is a child for all people, of all nations.

In our Gospel, we further contemplate the scene that is depicted so vividly: Mary and Joseph are transients, equivalent to the homeless of our city streets. She is a young woman in a patriarchal society, living in an occupied nation, "and brought her child into the world in the manner of enormously disadvantaged people, that is, without the security of a home." 

Mary and Joseph have traveled some 7-10 days to Bethlehem, so as to be counted like sheep and registered according to the dictates of the government.  Bethlehem was an arduous 94-mile journey from Nazareth, and Mary, in the last weeks of her pregnancy, rode on the back of a donkey. Scholars assert that one could not travel this journey except in the twilight or early hours of the morning, as both the heat of the day and the darkness of the night drove people to cover. There were no hotels, restaurants, or waysides, and sojourners carried water, perhaps some figs, olives, and a loaf of bread, and slept on the side of the road. It was a difficult, dangerous, and grueling journey for anyone, but in particular, for a young woman in the last stages of her pregnancy. Indeed, it is quite reasonable to assume that no health care provider would ever recommend either the journey or the primitive mode of transportation for a woman preparing to bring her child into the world.

Bethlehem is crowded with others who have made a similar journey, and the expectant parents seek shelter, but to no avail. Finally, they are directed to a cave, where they shelter with village animals. Upon the birth of her child, Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes, the traditional Palestinian way of securing a newborn, and laid him in a manger.

Meanwhile, the first to hear the message of the miraculous yet humble birth were shepherds tending their flocks in the fields, laborers of low economic and social rank. They hurried to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the child just as the angels had said. "There, within the simple cave, the displaced couple, the manger, and the shepherds came together to form the clear image that our God comes to the world through the poor, the marginalized, the powerless, and the oppressed." 

However, if we listen between the lines of Luke’s account, we will hear a foreshadowing of who this divine child will be as told through the images, intimations, and figurative language in this sacred story.  

This child, too, will one day ride a donkey into a crowded city, seeking an inn with an upper room to celebrate the Passover. There will be no straw-filled manger, but his whole life will be a sacred table of welcoming and mercy, and he will name himself as bread, wine, the Way, the Life, and a shepherd who is good.

Raised as a carpenter, he will be familiar with the feel of the wood beneath his beaten body, remembering the smell of Joseph’s small shop. He will be laid in the arms of his loving and faith-filled mother once again, as he is removed from his cross. He will be wrapped in a linen cloth, much like his swaddling clothes from his moments of birth; but now, they will embrace him in his death.  He will be laid in a cave-like tomb, not warm with the breath of animals nor shielded by the loving protection of Joseph as he was in the stable at Bethlehem.

Then, with an inconceivable and unfathomable mysterious movement, God will bring forth a cosmic energy that will move away stones and break through boundaries and fears, and God will raise Jesus as the Christ born again in every heart of humanity.

Yes, even angels will gather once again upon his rising from death to new life and will sing of his glory as Messiah, Savior, Emmanuel, Wonder-Counselor, and Prince of Peace. Jesus will have waited for this all his life!

This night’s story is known and re-enacted in almost every country throughout the world, children dressing up as shepherds, wise ones, Mary and Joseph, angels and innkeepers, sheep and camels. Yet, what does it mean for all of us?

Each of us this evening is invited to reflect on our own nativity story, recalling the images, details, visitors, and celebrations. We each have been given the task of carrying forward the dreams, the vision, and the mission of our God. Our faith does not depend upon an empty tomb or a lowly stable. Our hope does not cause us to look to the heavens for angel choirs or cosmic convergences of planets or celestial constellations.

But let it be known, “that the mystery of the nativity is that love is made incarnate every time it deepens in us.” As we grow in love individually, as a community, and as a people of God, we make love more present in the world. “As Christmas is born again in each of us, it comes forth again into the world.” No matter where we live, work, play, grieve, or celebrate, the message and mystery of the Incarnation cannot be brought out once a year like the nativity set decorations under our tree.

It is our everyday challenge to accept our call to carry on God’s dream and vision for all humanity. . . And in the words of Pope Francis . . . We are “to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded....   That is what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in Bethlehem: ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”

Finally, since this is the season and night of story, let us be people of the story . . . stories of faith, hope, resilience, and love, as we continue to share in the Word, the breaking of the Bread, the cup of Wine, the sign of peace; and, shortly hereafter, as we take leave following the light of the stars . . . for God has waited an eternity for us this night.

And so we pray:
“Light looked down and saw darkness.  “I will go there,” said light.
Peace looked down and saw war.  “I will go there,” said peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred.  “I will go there,” said love.
So the God of Light, The Prince of Peace,
The King of Love, Came down and crept in beside us.”   (Rev. John Bell)

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