Sharing God’s Riches

creche1-copyLike every culture, the Jews had to face fundamental decisions as to how open or closed they would be to others. The default mechanism tends to be flight or fight. In discussing remaining social groups living close to the level of what he calls “traditional” societies, Jared Diamond observed this phenomenon. A stranger wandering into the territory of a different tribe had better come up with a common ancestor or the encounter could prove fatal.

The type of encounters with other nations has an effect on such decisions. In the case of the Jews, most encounters were bad. Slavery in Egypt was followed by both cultural and military threats from the Canaanites who tempted the Jews to forsake the God who had delivered them from Egypt. Encounters with the Assyrians and Babylonians were catastrophic. But then the Persians destroyed the Babylonian Empire and invited the Jews to return to their homeland and revive their cultural and religious traditions. It is surely no accident that the return from Babylonian exile and resettlement back in their homeland coincided with the first expressions of openness to other cultures on the part of the Jews such as we have when Isaiah proclaims: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is. 60:3) With Isaiah, we have the breakthrough insight that the God who brought them out of Egypt and then delivered them from Babylon was the God for all people and not just them. Although Adam Smith took the title of his famous book The Wealth of Nations from Isaiah 60:5: “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” the prophet encourages a much more profound exchange than that of capital: an exchange of the riches of the Jews’ religious tradition for the riches other nations can bring to that same tradition. Unfortunately, retrenchment followed, climaxed by the expulsion of all foreign wives at about the time of the building of the second temple.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, the other nations, was complex and tense. Their religious traditions were mostly tolerated but at times menaced by the Romans. Although some individual Gentiles became God-fearers, practicers of Jewish piety such as the Centurion who built the synagogue at Capernaum, (Lk. 7: 4-5) there were few friendly relations between Jews and Gentiles. And yet in the face of this tension, Matthew sees in the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the exchange of wealth between the two peoples.

It was for St. Paul to return the gifts to the Magi. After his dramatic conversion, he was called to preach the Good News of Jesus, a Jew, to the Gentiles. To the surprise of many Jews who followed Jesus, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3: 6) That is, Jesus dissolved the fundamental division between Jew and Gentile when he was crucified by a collaboration between the two peoples who had suddenly come together for that brief moment. But when Jesus was raised from the dead as the forgiving victim, he bridged the gap between nations with one comprehensive act of forgiveness.

Ever since Paul’s commission, the Church has been tempted to retrench herself as the Jews did after building the second temple. This is to fall back into the default hostility to the stranger that Jared Diamond saw as part of “traditional” humanity. What the feast of Epiphany celebrates is the generosity of God who shares God’s riches with all so that all people can share this same richness with all others, not least with strangers who can then soon cease to be strangers.

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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.

The Child Who Supplants Us All

crecheThe angels say to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 2:10) They say the same to us today. What are we afraid of? The shepherds were afraid of the glory of the Lord shining about them. That sounds like a good thing, but most of us aren’t used to glorious light filling the night sky any more than the shepherds were. Even the most devout of us would at least be startled if such a light shone around us. When Herod heard of the birth of a child destined to be a king, he was afraid. Caesar Augustus would have been as afraid if he had been told about Jesus’ birth. His successors were sufficiently afraid to persecute the followers of Jesus for three centuries. What were they afraid of?

Herod and Caesar Augustus were afraid of being supplanted. They didn’t want to give up their imperial positions. The shepherds had a lot less to lose but if Jesus supplanted them as shepherds, how would they earn a living? As it turned out, no amount of fear would stop Jesus from supplanting all emperors and shepherds. The two jobs became one with the Good Shepherd who leads all of us, deposed emperors and shepherds included, through the sheep’s gate into safe pastures. Are we afraid of these safe pastures?

Here we have fear of the unknown (what is this strange light show all about?) and fear of being supplanted. Fear of being supplanted is a version of fear of the unknown; we don’t know what life will be like if we are supplanted. We might chuckle at lowly shepherds fearing they will lose their jobs and indulge in self-righteous laughter at horrid kings and emperors who don’t want to lose their power, but it seems to me that all of us should be afraid of having our imperial pretensions with which we makes ourselves little tin kings supplanted by the Christ Child.

The thought of being supplanted is frightening, but the angels’ song “Glory to God in the highest” seems to celebrate our supplanting as a wonderful thing. Can we believe the angels? The shepherds believed the angels enough to go and see the child for themselves, something Herod never did. Maybe glory to God in the highest is a much greater thing than glory to Me, Myself, and I. We won’t know if it is unless we try it. Can we accept the invitation that this Christmas celebration offers us?

Unwrapping the Future

crecheThe yearly cycle of celebrations and commemorations adds solidarity to our experience of time. Christmas, a holiday especially laden with traditions, is a particularly strong anchor, assuring us that everything is as it should be for all eternity. Amen.

One of the traditions of Christmas, however, is the giving of charity. That is a very good thing, considering the needs for generosity, and it helps that once a year, people have a custom of dwelling on such matters. But the need for such charitable giving suggests that not everything is as it should be. If huge efforts by charitable organizations have to be made to assure that no child is deprived of a Christmas, then obviously there are serious social problems that need to be addressed. That is, this cozy traditional holiday poses a challenge for the future.

Manger scenes with the new-born Jesus lying in the straw tug the hearts of many and have been a focus of devotion since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the custom in the twelfth century.  But the whole point of this nativity story is that Jesus was born in the stable because nobody had room for his mother, father, and himself. This is not business as usual. It raises the question: do we really have room for Jesus in our lives? Do we really have room for all the children being born and for their families?

The angel announced to the shepherds proclaimed that this newborn child was the savior, the Lord who was going to usher in a new era of peace. That may sound innocent when we hear this read in church today, but at the time, the Caesar thought he was the savior and he didn’t have room for somebody else to do his job! Of course, he was a savior and keeper of the peace his way, with military and cultural might. The story of the shepherds, then, challenges us to consider who really is our savior and the model of peace for us. Do we keep peace the imperial way though violence to keep everybody in line? We don’t have to have imperial armies to take this approach. All it takes is a drive to control people, by force if necessary. Or do we follow peace Jesus’ way, through vulnerability as a newborn child all the way to the cross and then the Resurrection where Jesus creates peace through forgiveness.

A major cog in the engine of Caesar’s peace in Jesus’ neck of the woods was King Herod. Killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem may not look like a peaceful action, but Herod was keeping the peace, imperial style. Most of us may think Herod a bit extreme, but if we are willing to sacrifice anybody who seems to threaten our control of life, especially the young, we are going the way of Herod, the way of Caesar. Jesus, although he had the power to send legions of angels against Herod, remained vulnerable, dependent on human protection until the time came to suffer the fate the boys of Bethlehem suffered.

All of this may be a downer for a joyful holiday, but the good news is that Christmas is a yearly wakeup call for renewal of life, a renewal fueled by the divine energy of a human child born over two thousand years ago. Everything that was wrong with the world at the time is wrong with the world now and a lot more. We can keep on going in circles if we want, but we have the chance to step off the not-so-merry-go-round and embrace the Christ Child. We will find that the Christ Child has a gift for us. If we dare to open it up, it is a gift for an open future that we can have if we really want it.

See also, Celebrating the Prince of Peace and The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh