Friday, December 29, 2017

Heralding the New (Simeon's Song from Luke 2)

On the fireplace mantle of my parent’s home, shepherds, magi, a barn full of animals, and an angel hovering above, have attended the holy family these last few weeks. The Nativity set hails back to my mother’s time as a nurse in the early 1970s, a career she gave up when lo unto her, I was born. During her years there, my mother was given this nativity set made by some of the patients. It is one of her treasures in this life, and every year, the Nativity figurines appear in the wooden manger scene that my father built. Even though I do not get home very often for Christmas, I know without a doubt, the Nativity is there.

The Holy Family appears on fireplace mantles, windowsills, even underneath some household’s Christmas trees. Folk who would not consider themselves religious will have one. Perhaps it is just the cultural influence, but I wonder if the image strikes a primal chord within. The scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus reminds us of one facet of human life: family. That word “family” can be complicated, as not all household configurations are the same, not all families have good stories to tell. Somehow, thought, deep down, we are drawn to these figures of mother, father, and child. The Holy Family is holy, yet they are also like us, persons hewn in the same flesh as the rest of us, prone to suffering and joy, part of this world where one can know great success and great hardship.

While most of us just put out the Holy Family or Nativity sets and leave them there, there is one tradition that recalls the great difficulty of Mary and Joseph finding no immediate welcome or hospitality. For many Hispanic Christians, there is a grand tradition celebrated from December 16 to Christmas Eve, called Las Posadas, with each house in the neighborhood agreeing to be the host of each evening’s celebration. Each evening, adults, and children go through the neighborhood, carrying candles, little statues of Joseph guiding a donkey bearing the pregnant Mary, and the crowd sings of the Holy Family looking for a place. They go household to household, ritually turned away until they arrive at the host’s home, where they are welcomed inside.

The lack of hospitality in Bethlehem is one part of the many hardships endured by the Holy Family. The annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary is scandalous as Mary conceives the child out of wedlock and while most certainly a virgin. The hardship of travel to Bethlehem while pregnant, the annoyance of having to be compliant with a census demanded by the occupying Roman government, the frantic scramble to find a decent place to spend the night, and…oh no! Mary’s water just broke!

The scene at the Temple is passed over in the stories of Jesus’ birth. We focus on the manger and the shepherds, angels, and magi. Nevertheless, here again is a story that fits into the difficulties faced by this family. More travel is necessitated, this time to Jerusalem, to fulfill the baby’s ritual purification requirements. Mary and Joseph make their way to the Temple, a place where the people of God gave praise and sacrifice and class distinctions as pilgrims found themselves dealing with the commerce built up around the Temple. The choice of two turtledoves sounds quaint, given the Victorian era carol regarding what one gets over the twelve days of Christmas. The selection, however, gives a very clear indication of Mary and Joseph’s peasant status. These two birds were all they could manage to afford.

To be a peasant in the first century CE was to be one of the multitudes of people who eked out a living as artisans, carpenters, fishers, and day laborers. There was no middle class in Jesus’ day (might not be the same much longer in our day, for that matter), just the peasants, the very few who owned land, and the elite. If you could make a living, you were lucky. If you were a landowner, you were among the few.  If you were an elite, you lived the good life, standing on the backs of everyone else beneath you while helping Rome and its local government thugs to assure your comfort and status (at least for now).

Studying the gospels necessarily involves understanding that most of Jesus’ inner circle, the crowds hearing his teachings, the recipients of his miracles and healings, and the demonically possessed were from the peasantry of the day. Most of his conflicts came from those who were vested in keeping the Temple’s religious and economic interests or keeping Rome’s vice grip of power on Palestine, Jerusalem, and anywhere else that Rome decided it should have power.

We learn that the Holy Family is set in a scene not too far off from our own day, the one that perhaps we try to make go away this time of year. We want a reprieve from the bills, the worries about utility costs rising, the deadlines at work, the anxiety of not having a job or at least one that pays a livable wage, the doctor’s report that we didn’t want to hear, the bully that will still be there on the playground when school resumes after New Year’s. The Holy Family becomes that set of parents you know, struggling to make ends meet, hoping that they have enough to care for their newborn, even if they have to go with one less meal themselves.

Years ago when visiting Ireland, the train we were on loaded up its passengers, and there they were, not “the” Holy Family, but a young family with a little baby, settling into seats near us. The couple could not have been older than perhaps their early 20s, and the baby was not quite a toddler, content to sit on a little table between his parents. For the record, the baby was not a “tiny terror” baby: that child that you somehow get “blessed” to be with on a transatlantic flight, who bellows at high decibel shortly after takeoff and just before landing, or who keeps wondering all over a public event, getting agitated once the parent finally scoops the child up in arms. No, this baby knew he had a good deal. He was cute, and with every burble, every passenger playing “peek-a-boo” with him (myself included), the baby held court among his loyal subjects.

The train door opened, and a grizzled looking old man, postcard of Ireland perfect, came through the doorway, heading for the diner car just behind us. The guy looked like he was itching for a Guinness and some conversation about the latest football match and his scowl said do not stray him from his task. As he passed the young couple, he stopped in his tracks, and a slight smile creased his wrinkled face. With a long bony finger, he tickled the baby’s chin and the baby gurgled with glee.

The old man said, “Long life to thee. May ye walk the earth many years.” With that, off he went.

In the midst of the hubbub of life, in the struggles and challenges of the Holy Family, along comes this elder named Simeon. He spotted them across the courtyard, made his way to them, and as he beheld the infant Jesus; he could not help but burst into song.

Simeon is described as an elderly man who lived his long, long life “awaiting God to comfort Israel”. He has kept a deep and abiding sense of hope that God would provide for his people. The Greek word for “comfort” is “paraklesis”, which is to say that one has “a sense of an aid or help [that] one [can] lean on”. In another Gospel, Jesus tells his faithful that after He has returned to God, Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to be with them, calling the Spirit the “Paraclete”. Simeon has spent his life not worrying about how things are going, or when things will come crashing down. Simeon has learned to wait upon God.

Simeon is one of the many faithful folk you encounter while reading the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that there was once a father who embraced the prodigal, or God being like a woman who never stops looking for that lost coin. Earlier in the story, Mary sees great promise rather than personal scandal in having a firstborn child with no wedding ring yet. Throughout Luke, the many who eat at table with Jesus and are bedazzled or befuddled by a new worldview beckoning in an after-dinner parable.

The Gospel of Luke keeps tossing that word paraklesis here and there into the narrative, particularly as it relates to what people ought to be looking for. Jesus claims the rich, the select few “elite”, have to find their comfort. To Jesus, the poor comprised most of his audience, inner circle, and nearly anyone else around. He claims the poor have another sort of gold standard: the kingdom of God, a vision of the world that Jesus’ disciples have continued to seek, live out, and await for two millennia.

Simeon sees the world with its rough edges, undoubtedly the scars to prove it, just like you and me. He knows that Rome likes to keep control by peace-veiled fear, he knows the Temple itself has become less than what it was intended to be. He knows that this baby will be the great hope he is awaiting as well as one who will suffer mightily in bringing things about. Yet, Simeon knows that in the moment, as well as the beginning and the end, God has the last and abiding word

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

Last weekend, I found myself in a similar moment of great anticipation. The lines were long at the movie theatre, but somehow with some friends and my spouse and what seemed to cost about the same as a down payment on the national debt to purchase popcorn and soda, we made it to our seats.

Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi began with the traditional “opening scroll” setting up the story about to unfold, accompanied as always by the powerful overture of maestro John Williams. This time around, the opening scroll talks about the dire circumstances of the Rebels against the First Order, the post-Darth Vader bad guys. The last film in the series left heaviness with the death of a key character and a great deal of loss.

Yet, the narrator holds out that good word that “a spark of hope” will rekindle the fortunes of the downtrodden. A return of Luke Skywalker might be the ignition that the future needs!

Throughout the new Star Wars’ film, characters keep talking about hope: its absence and its abundance. They face difficult situations and great threats, yet even in the depths of loss, the characters find something greater. When Luke is found, he is a hermit, living where he would prefer not to be found and resigned that he had failed. For someone thought to be “the” spark of hope, he is just as down and dejected as those who are on the front lines. What will it take?

For Star Wars, it’s the Force, a somewhat mystical power that solves all manner of plot devices (while creating no end of plot holes, if you talk to the particularly faithful fan base! So the Force is a great human idea, not really anything approaching God’s way of being with us in the world).

As a Christian believer in the midst of Advent, I could feel an even greater hope stirring within, as pop culture often reflects the glimmerings of what the Gospel reveals in full: despite the world doing its worst, Christ brings us into an abiding, lasting hope and way of living our lives faithfully, boldly and without any fears. Luke’s Gospel shows us the true power in the world, one that has no patience for Empire, nor a desire to be anything like whatever humans could conjure up alone. 

No wonder we believers have such great joy in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the hope given has raised up the persecuted, the marginalized and the forgotten, just as surely as Mary’s great song, aka the Magnificat.

At Christmas Eve, we turn from the lead-up to the great Nativity stories themselves. Boldly, we hear this word: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors”, is the message of the angels. As for the earthly powers that be, those who see the world as their plaything, it is a word that they would not want to hear, even if the angels showed up in the halls of power rather than the meadows out in a remote place. The ministry of Christ is one that takes each person seriously as God’s beloved, worthy of worth, able to be the glory of God, fully alive, as an early Christian theologian would put it. A spark of divine hope, indeed!

But how does the believer live in the here and now, where the powers that be would frankly find such talk annoying as it is sort of hard to keep an empire running when the glory is directed elsewhere to a much higher authority (i.e. God who is neither Caesar nor one of many). The Roman Empire plastered every wall with their promise of “Pax Romana”, but any cursory study of Jesus’ day reveals that it was rarely and holistically for every person. (Indeed, Rome was the original Empire that strikes back!) Comparatively, the angels above sing of peace meant for the good of all, not just a politicized commodity that you can control at your whim or to your advantage.

Thus, that baby in a manger is a contrary word to the world very content to keep to its own devices and vices alike. No matter where you flip through the pages of the gospels, Christ in the manger, Christ and his parables, Christ on the cross, Christ and the empty tomb, all are stories of unexpected twists that God alone brings to the plot of life and the status quo we have come to expect or to which we have resigned ourselves.

We seek a lot of things in life, sometimes because we want the perfect moment, the right path, or the charmed life. Christ lays flat all these things, asking us to look at the unlikely, the unadorned, and see there in its vulnerable humility all the power and glory in the most hidden of places. Sin can be found frequently in the world’s glittering appeal, yet in the midst of the world came the Word made flesh, nestled into the swaddling clothes that constrain a baby, and by choice, God’s Son come to be with us, Emmanuel.

That manger may not look like much, but if you look more intently, you will see the very glory of God shining forth as the cattle low, the shepherd bustle in from the hinterlands, and Mary and Joseph marveling at this wee babe born in Bethlehem, destined for Golgotha and here to redeem the world.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Advent One: Turned the Right Way

On a walk in my neighborhood this week, I noticed the lawn and home decorations for Christmas have arrived in earnest.  Some folks appeared to change to Christmas just after Halloween, but most waited until Thanksgiving dinner leftovers were parceled into twelve days of Tupperware.
One yard had two familiar decorations: an inflatable lawn ornament and a Nativity set.  For the former, I find the daytime walk a bit disconcerting, as the family is not home, so the decoration’s fans are shut off.  At night, you will see a jolly old St. Nick standing on the lawn with a bag of presents over his shoulder.  During the day with the power turned off, the decoration’s fabric is a misshapen lump on the ground, as if Santa stepped out of the sleigh at 30,000 feet and met his untimely end.
The grace of the Nativity set thankfully saved me from other distasteful imaginings.  The plastic form of the Holy Family, the Three Kings, a Shepherd and a couple of cows returned my mind to more sacred matters. 
While my beloved New Testament professor Dr. David M. May (Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City) has reminded a generation of students each year in the Intro to the Gospels course, the Magi likely did not arrive anytime close to Jesus’ infancy, nor was it likely that the cows paid much attention to the family suddenly taking up the corn crib for a makeshift cradle. 

The reality is that the Nativity took place in the midst of an overcrowded small village, the cacophony of strangers from the hinterlands grumbling about being summoned by the Romans and laughing uproariously at the inn’s tavern likely overwhelmed the newborn cry of little baby Jesus. 
The Nativity set can be “lawn decoration”, but I suspicion in our less religiously adherent times, the sight of one usually marks a household wishing to honor devotion rather than custom or cultural expectation.  Nativity sets are not common in my neighborhood, located in Albany, New York, part of the “Capital District”, which is one of the leading “less religious” metropolitan areas in the United States. 
Around these parts, beholding the Nativity in front of a private home tends to signal more intention to share faith than decorate like the Griswold family of cinematic lore.
Curiously, this Nativity set was arranged differently than I had seen in the past.  The Manger is at the center, but the “grown-up” characters of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi are not positioned in a way that you might expect.  Instead of sprawled out to show the scene to the passing car or pedestrian, the figures are focused on the Manger in the middle.  You are more likely see the backs of some figures, all turned inward to direct one’s gaze to the baby.
With the candles of Advent ahead of us, the “12 Days of Christmas” already playing on repeat in the aisles of box stores praying for your brick and mortar commerce, and the sugar shock of various holiday gatherings for home, family and workplace still to tempt us into weight gain, I hope we too will find ourselves turned in the right direction.