God-Is-With-Us: A Christmas Eve Meditation

creche1-copyTonight, we celebrate the birth of a child. Usually, there is rejoicing when a child is born. One of my family stories is that my grandmother was so excited about my birth that she burned two pots of beans.

When we celebrate a birth, we celebrate the fact that a baby is. The simple act of coming to be is a cause of wonder and joy. So it is that we celebrate Jesus before he did anything at all except come out of his mother’s womb and maybe cry a bit and suckle some milk. As a friend of mine said once about newborn babies: “They don’t do much at that age.” We also celebrate our hopes for the future and for the future of that child. We know that in the case of Jesus, the future wasn’t all rosy. That Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for him and his family and that Herod would be out to get him as soon as he found out about him shows that there was cause for anxiety from the very start. Unfortunately, many babies being born right now are born into much the same sort of anxiety that is mingled with hopes for the child. So not every birth leads to unequivocal rejoicing. Such anxiety is exacerbated by our tendency to focus on those who stir up fear in us, goading us on to adding further fuel to the violence growing all around us. We can see in news reports, Twitter, and Facebook that we are locked in violent systems of condemnation that stoke our fears exponentially.

Although we celebrate tonight the very being of Jesus, that Jesus is, when Jesus was apparently not doing much, God was and is already doing a great thing, an unprecedented thing: God had entered humanity. God chose to share, in frail human flesh, the very threats and anxieties that we all share. God has not left us to the human powers over which we have little or no control, powers we doubt we can trust with our well-being. Moreover, God shares the vulnerability other humans suffer from us on account of our fears and our own violence that we cannot see. In this way, God, in Jesus, lives up to the name: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God’s presence among us means many things. Tonight I will touch on one of them. By entering humanity, God has opened our human nature to God’s nature. We are no longer as trapped in our own human fear and violence as we often think we are. Later in life, Jesus spoke about God coming “like a thief in the night” but at the time of Jesus’ birth, God had already broken into the household of our humanity and started to sneak around, taking away bits of fear and violence and leaving bits of love behind.

This Christmas, let us celebrate the sneaky child who is already crawling around in the dark places of our lives, taking away the things we need to lose and giving us the gifts we need the most.

Blueprint of the Kingdom

buddingTree1The blueprints for a building are a lot less exciting and interesting than the building itself. However, blueprints are useful for showing the fundamental shape and structure of the building at a glance. The readings for Epiphany 3A are more like a blueprint for the Kingdom of God than a tour of the Kingdom in its fleshed-out form.

In Mt. 4:17, Jesus says:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting does not mean to make a laundry list of our little sins and try to stop doing them. Repenting means to turn around, to switch our minds and our hearts, to see life in a new way. This is the fundamental thrust of the Kingdom. But what specs can we get from the blueprint?

The quote from Isaiah, especially the part about Zebulun and Naphtali may not seem exciting but they show some important shapes in the blueprint. These places in Galilee are Gentile territory, lands of the enemies of Israel, lands that were occupied by the Assyrians in their invasion of Israel. The darkness has to do with the power and might of military occupation and enmity between peoples. Isaiah’s saying that God broke the rod of the oppressor as on the day of Midian suggests that God’s Kingdom will free us from military force that inevitably creates darkness. Reconciliation with the Gentiles involves forgiveness for past wrongs, even past atrocities such as those committed by the Assyrians and then the Romans in Jesus’ day. Matthew notes that Jesus moved to this area of Galilee after Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist, another instance of Roman oppression. One might feel this is not applicable to most of us because most of us are not high government officials or military leaders. However, all of us live either in a country bursting with military might or in a country that is in some way, perhaps economically, occupied by another. That means we need to turn away from anything that contributes to the enmity this situation creates and start breaking the yokes we impose on each other.

In First Corinthians, Paul gives us another example of darkness that is very close to everyday life for all of us. The church is in conflict with its members using slogans such as: “I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Cephas!” One could say that this is war on a small scale but the darkness is the same as that created by the Assyrians and the Romans. Paul suggests that the light of the kingdom which Jesus is bringing near is to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose,” which for Paul is the mind of Christ, whose cross is foolishness for those who are perishing in the darkness of violence but is the power of God for those being saved.

The “power of God” doesn’t look much like power as we usually understand it. It isn’t exactly a large-scale military invasion like D-Day. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But the cross is power in the sense of shedding light in the darkness which John says the darkness cannot overcome. The light reveals the darkness of the military might of the Assyrians, the Romans and all else who imitate them. The light also reveals the hatred of victims for their oppressors, however understandable, for what it is: a wall of enmity that perpetuates divisions between people. As I struggle with my almost constant anger at many politicians in this country for their misuse of power and the public trust, I have to repent of this anger minute by minute.

Where does this darkness come from? Isaiah and Matthew are not portraying darkness as part of the created order in the sense that night time is natural. This is not darkness that God made, or in fact had anything to do with. This is darkness as a human creation. It is human beings who organize armies to oppress people or who tear congregations apart with petty party politics. This sort of behavior is highly contagious. The more people build walls or fight, the more people feel the need to build walls and fight.

What does the Kingdom of God, founded on the foolishness of the cross look like? The blueprint we have in these readings doesn’t look like much, but then a crucified criminal in Roman times doesn’t look like much either. When we read just a bit further in Matthew, we enter the real-life rooms of the Kingdom outlined in the blueprint. We find many rooms, many mansions, all of which offer contagious possibilities such as being blessed for being poor or for being a peacemaker, or turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile, and then finding in these weaknesses the rock that supports the house of faith we are building against the storm of Rome and Assyria and the power brokers of our time.

The Prophet Between the Fox and the Hen

turkeys1We often think of a prophet as a person who speaks the word of God such as Elijah and Isaiah do, but Jesus gives us a deeper definition of what a prophet at the climax of his diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees in Mathew: “so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom  you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Mt. 23:35) Here, the prophet is one who says not a word but speaks the Word of God nonetheless in the sense that Abel’s blood cries from the ground.

This diatribe is often cited as a proof that Jesus, at least at times, was violent. It is worth noting, however, that Jesus didn’t shoot an automatic rifle at anybody; he spoke truth to presumptive power with a two-edged sword for a tongue. More importantly, these harsh words are followed by Jesus’ wish that he could gather his “children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Here we see very clearly the Two Ways of Gathering outlined in my blog post of that title.

In Luke, the lament over Jerusalem is put in a different, but similar, context. Warned by some Pharisees that Herod wants to kill him, Jesus calls him “that fox.” (Lk. 13:32) In preaching on this Lukan text, Prior Aelred here at St. Gregory’s, drew out the comparison of the fox and the hen. In the face of a threatening fox, Aelred suggested that Jesus might have been a better protector by being a tougher animal, such as the Lion of Judah. But no, Jesus assumed the role of a vulnerable hen gathering her chicks. Aelred went on to extoll Vicki Soto and her colleagues at Sandy Hook who covered as many of their small pupils with their bodies as they could to protect them, a contemporary embodiment of Christ the vulnerable, protective hen.

A fox scatters, while a hen gathers. What if Jesus had chosen to be a lion to deal with that fox Herod? It occurs to me that a lion would scatter all foxes who might threaten the chicks. Sort of like a superhero crushing the bad guys so that good guys like us can get on with our lives. Aelred noted that Jesus the Hen is not a popular image in Christian lore as is the Lion of Judah. The problem is, if Jesus the Hen gathers, then not only is Jesus the Hen trying to gather the scribes and Pharisees,  but Herod and his court as well, thus robbing us of more favorite enemies.

Celebrating the Prince of Peace

snowKatrinaCrossBW1This year’s rejoicing over the birth of the Christ Child is darkened by the recent murders at Sandy Hook School in Newton, CT. Lest I be accused of being a killjoy by keeping these two events together, let me remind you that Saint Matthew is just as much of a killjoy when he tells the story of the Holy Innocents who were killed in Bethlehem. Christmas has been darkened by human violence from the start.

When a tragedy like this strikes, it is only responsible to find ways to prevent it happen again, or at least lower the chances of it. The problem with prevention is our tendency to fall into a blame game. Some of it is absurd, such as blaming homosexuals or the banning of prayer from public schools, never mind the countless attacks on schoolchildren that predated that Supreme Court decision. Then there is the NRA. There is unquestionably a long overdue need to re-examine the ubiquity of firearms in our country but we have to dig deeper.

Which gets me to what we need to learn from the baby laid in a manger on a cold winter night. When this child grew up, he became the victim of collective violence in a tense city, the one blamed for that tension. And yet God raised this victim to prove his innocence. When Jesus encountered human problems, he did not blame people, he healed them. Even when he spoke strongly, as he did to the Pharisees, he was trying to heal them. When threatened with violence, Jesus told the disciple who drew a sword to put it back in its scabbard and stay there.

The killing of the children at Sandy Hook was violent, but the casting of blame is also violent. Hacking the Internet pages of the Westboro Baptist Church, egregious though its actions are, is only a further escalation of violence. The problem with the blame game, even when there is some truth to the charges, is that it always distracts us from other factors that are at least as important.  We all need to look at the logs in our own eyes, at the resentments within ourselves that fuel the violent tensions in our society.

The angels appearing to the shepherds sang of peace for all people. Not peace orchestrated by a violent empire, but peace emanating from the human heart that wants to protect not only Jesus from Herod, but all children from all who would hurt them, most of all, ourselves. By taking responsibility for ourselves, we make ourselves responsible to all. Then we can really celebrate Jesus as the Prince of Peace.

See also Two Ways of Gathering