Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say December 29? 1st Sunday of Christmas

  The days after Christmas, and that Sunday after Christmas: time feels very different, maybe slower; we exhale a little, worship has a simpler, earthier, emptier feel. I love Isaiah 63:7-9’s unintended meaning: “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord… all the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to Israel – his mercy, the abundance of his steadfast love” – and I think without being supersessionist, we who are Christian hear a resonance here that these gracious deeds, acts, favor, mercy and abundance of love are not any thing at all, but simply Jesus himself, God with us.

   Psalm 148: did Mary and Joseph sing this one during Jesus’ early days? “Praise him in the heights, all his host” (a la the angels on Christmas night?). Echoes of Job in this stirring tour of creation, including not just the pretty and photogenic, but also monsters, frost, stormy wind, wild, dangerous animals. All praise the Lord, even unwittingly, simply by being. Annie Dillard (in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) muses over the mind-boggling diversity and experimental dazzle that is creation, saying “There’s nothing God won’t try.”

   Why the incarnation? A major piece of the answer is in Hebrews 2:10-18, which doesn’t feel very Christmasy until v. 17: “He had to become like his brothers and sisters so he might be a merciful and faithful high priest.” God is like us. We are like God. All of us were born. I have a book coming out early next year entitled Birth, with a section on the very earliest days of Jesus’ life, some of which is reported in Matthew 2:13-23; here is an excerpt reflecting on that text and those earliest days:

   We love the carol which suggests “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Surely he cried. We should hope he cried. He became one with all of us who cry. Babies cry, and we may be grateful, as that sound is the sign of life, vitality, a protest against being so rudely removed from the warm safety of the womb, a declaration to the world that “I have arrived” – and “something’s wrong.” As an adult, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, over the death of his friend Lazarus, and he surely still weeps over us. His name, after all, is a cry, yeshu’a meaning “Lord, help!” 

   Mary nursed him, rocked him, whispered and sang to him. Like all mothers, she fought through the weariness. Did she suffer any postpartum depression?... Remember those long shadows in Rembrandt’s “Adoration of the Shepherds”? Immediately upon the birth of this child, history’s ongoing struggle of good versus evil got ratcheted up quite a few notches. A thin view of Christmas might elicit giggles over the image of parents with their sweet child. But a cosmic battle just got touched off. “Why do the nations rage?” (Ps. 2:1). The idolatrous, unholy powers, immediately upon Jesus’ birth, seemed to realize that their domain had been invaded.

   And so they recoiled – like that haunting moment in Peter Jackson’s film version of “The Lord of the Rings.” The wicked “eye of Sauron,” atop a high tower, casts its evil beam over the land, probing, ruling, intimidating, always watching for signs of good to be dealt with; “its wrath blazed like a sudden flame and its fear was like a great black smoke, for it knew its deadly peril, the thread upon which hung its doom.” When Frodo put on the ring of power, the eye was seized with some paroxysm of envy and terror, jerking suddenly in Frodo’s direction, far away. Jesus was born quietly at a distance of many miles from Herod or Caesar Augustus. But in that moment, there was a recoil, a leap to secure the borders, and police the people so the powers that be will remain unchecked. How astonishing, that this birth struck anxiety into the hearts of those dwelling arrogantly and securely in the corridors of power.

   An appalling, gruesome manifestation of this evil recoil was unleashed by King Herod. Notorious for his paranoia, famously feeling threatened by and then killing members of his own family, Herod flew into what for him was a typical rage, ordering the cruel slaughter of all male boys under the age of two in his realm. The arrival of the Christ child was no security blanket to shelter the people from harm. On the contrary, his advent actually brought on intense sorrow, such is the ferocious kneejerk retaliation of evil in our broken world against the good that would bring life – back then, and throughout history.

   The laments, the shrieks of the mothers of Judea have echoed through time. If we listen, we can still hear them, and also all mothers who have flailed and strained and crumpled to the ground in sheer agony as they have witnessed brutal violence against their children. A mother, wrenched from her small son in Auschwitz, was forced to watch with the rest of the horrified crowd as he dangled by a rope around his neck. A man in the crowd asked, “For God’s sake, where is God?” Elie Wiesel, who was there, said he heard a voice answer, “This is where – hanging here from this gallows.”

   Of course, thanks to a good angel who had warned Joseph, by stealth the homily family fled to Egypt. Legend has it that lions and leopards in the wilderness bowed their heads and wagged their tails in homage. Palm trees bent low to provide food for them. Two thieves pounced on them, but then relented when Mary wept – the same robbers who were crucified next to Jesus thirty years later. The symbolism of this flight to Egypt would not have been lost on Jews of Jesus’ day or careful Bible readers today. This child, who had come to be the deliverance of the people, descended to Egypt, as Joseph and his brothers had centuries earlier, only to return in peace to the land of promise.

   Still in his infancy, Jesus was a refugee, joining the ranks of countless throngs of people through history pushed out of their homelands, in desperate flight to survive grisly armies, rulers and thugs. I have known Jews who managed to slip out of Europe and elude the Nazis; a neighbor of mine was hidden in a potato sack and thrown onto the back of a truck by her parents, whom she never saw again. Refugee camps dot the globe. Particularly haunting are those camps in the land of Israel to which Jesus came. In Bethlehem itself, camps like Dheisheh and Aida have been the home for thousands of Palestinians expelled from their homes, living in harsh conditions for generations now since the war in 1948.

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