Leaping Toward Christmas

Fourth Sunday in Advent | Luke 1:39-55

Leaping Toward Christmas

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

A baby kicks in the womb. That is all that is happening in the story, really, just an ordinary thing. But it is the kind of small ordinary event to which we attribute meaning, like a sign or some superstitious belief from old wives’ tales. A broom falls. A palm itches. A child kicks in the womb.

That is all it is.

Painting of the Visitation
Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Louvre, Paris.

In that simple kick, two women know portents of the future. They hear angels greeting them. They believe that the first Christmas is coming, before there is such a thing as Christmas. And they give praise to a God whom they have never seen, comfort one another in their faith that all will be well, simply because of a child’s restless dream in the warm darkness of his mother’s womb.

Two expectant mothers, one of them unwed, sit at the beginning of a new creation story. God is bringing about a new thing, and it starts in these two women, who are not seen by anyone in their world as persons of greatness or importance.

There is a powerful dichotomy at work.

“My soul magnifies the Lord…” So begins the famous praise offered by Mary in Luke’s Gospel. The tension is plain in the text. Far from being a simple expression of faith or praise, Mary’s words distill the message of the prophets. Her prophetic word to her world, and to ours, is that the proud shall be scattered, those who rule shall be torn from their thrones, and the rich shall go hungry. It is the gospel told as prophecy and as challenge—God shall favor the humble, empower the weak, feed the hungry. True power is not in governments or bank vaults or armies, the prophets are saying. True power, Mary tells us, is the ability to create life, not destroy it. And the face of God is seen on every newborn child.

People speak of Mary’s humility, her willingness to submit to what she perceived as the will of God, and they are right to do so. We should also list her among the prophets, like Elijah and Isaiah. In her grace and her humility, Mary gave us words of power and of warning.

In this Advent season, we would do well to look for the dichotomy of the prophets, this tension Mary proclaims at the coming of the first Christmas. If we think ourselves clever, or powerful, or rich and well fed, Mary is warning us.

Theotokos, they called her, God-bearer, but that was many years afterward, when enough time and enough words had passed to help the early Church see what had happened. When the Christ child was born and God in that moment began the making of a new creation, Mary was still in a stable, with straw for her bed, animals for her companions. In Bethlehem, she was a stranger who had travelled from far away. She was of low estate, no one of power, no one of wealth. And most blessed was she among us all.

MaryBabySnowCP

The Gospel of Doing

Third Sunday of Advent  |  Luke 3:7-18

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

The Gospel of Doing | Luke 3:7-17

John the Baptist was the sort of man who would get extra attention at airport security. Wild, bearded, long haired, wearing odd clothes—he showed every sign of being outside mainstream society.

Of course, he was outside the mainstream. While Jesus would later walk the streets of the cities and sit to teach in the synagogues, even venturing into the Temple itself, John left the company of society and went out into the wilderness to the edge of his civilization. It was as though he knew someone was coming, someone who would come from a world away.

There, in the wild places near the murmur of the river, John began to catch the attention of anyone who passed, and he began to preach. What he said, or maybe how he said it, or maybe simply the appearance of this man who happened (that is the word the gospel accounts use—John happened) out there in the wilderness somehow drew people to him. They left their towns and villages, left their well trodden paths and streets, and they made their way into the wild places to see this wild man.

LightOnWater

”What shall we do?” That was the question the crowds put to him when they found him.

His answers were remarkably simple. Share your food with the hungry. Share your clothes with the poor. Do not take what is not yours. John taught a practical theology.

Only his last answer was abstract. Be content, he told them, an injunction not so simple as the others. How should one be content? He didn’t give out instructions.

Perhaps we are content when we choose to be.

That is the implication behind John’s mandate. It is only reasonable to tell us to be content if it is possible for us to comply. We must be able to choose it.

Contentment, then, is not a feeling to be desired—that is a result, not a cause. Contentment must have more to do with how we see the world, what we choose to do in the world, or apart from it.

John the Baptist never told anyone to believe certain tenets. The closest thing to dogma he taught was the need to change. The people who came already knowing how to pass a theology exam, those people he called snakes and vipers. It was not an endorsement of mainstream religion.

He did not preach what people should believe. He preached what they should do. Rather than admonishing people to be right, he urged them to do right. Perhaps he was confident that faith would follow action, or perhaps he saw no difference between the two.

John preached a gospel of expectation and a gospel of doing. He told people to give. He told them to share. He didn’t tell them to love one another, but to act as though they did. He told them to live like Jesus was going to live.

He’s coming, John told them. Make way. Watch and learn, then go and do.

Treeline

Anchored in Christmas

Second Sunday of Advent | Luke 3:1-6

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Anchored in Christmas

The passage from Luke begins by establishing the date, or at least that is what it appears to do. The author grounds what is to follow, anchors it in history, by listing the names and years of rulers—the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, during the rule of Herod Antipas and of Herod Philip and of the otherwise unknown Lysanias of Abilene, during the priesthood of Annas and of Caiaphas.

In that time, according to Gospel of Luke, the word of God came to John the Baptist. Literally, we are told that the word of God “happened” to John, just as the word of the Lord always happens to prophets.

So why start talking about John the Baptist? Why does Luke go to so much trouble to establish the historical setting of John’s ministry? After all, it’s the beginning of the story of Jesus. Why go to such trouble to anchor John in history instead?

It is not merely about establishing a date for the events. A date would be just a fact. The setting — the Gospel claims that these things happened in a real world, to real people, not in any way that different from ourselves — is more than history or biography. It is theology. It tells us something about God.

The story of Jesus is astonishing. The Christian claim that he was God become human is nearly unbelievable, particularly to us closed minded modern folk—first one must accept the reality of God, and then one must also accept that this God could and would become incarnate in human form. Of course, the notion was not new to the ancient world. The Romans, Greeks, Persians, and many other people before them told stories of gods who walked on the earth as human beings. There were plenty of tales of the children of gods. One might even say that those stories prepared the way for people to accept the possibility of a man who was also God.

RiverRocks_DrybrushIf we, as Christians everywhere claim, accept the idea that God was doing something new, something never seen before or since, in the life and ministry of Jesus, we are also tempted to think of the Jesus story as an event outside of time, more akin to a meteor falling from space than to anything growing naturally on the earth.

Luke goes out of the way to make precisely the opposite claim. This is no act of God that comes falling like lightning from the sky. This is grounded. This is God growing the miracle of incarnation in a real world, in a particular moment of human history, surrounded by the joys and troubles of humanity.

In a real time and a real place, God called John. In that time and place, God happened to John. In that real world, John set about preparing a way, making a straight path to the minds and hearts of people who hoped for more of their lives than work and taxes. John got their attention, even as he prepared the way for someone else to eclipse him.

In responding to God, John the Baptist was covered in the dust of the wilderness, surrounded by anxious people, bound by government laws and religious rules.

It was not an ideal situation. It was real.

We can take comfort in the historical grounding of John’s call. If John could engage with the experience of God in such a place and time, then the same can be true for us in ours.

We do not need a perfect world in order to engage with God. We do not need great opportunities, perfect connections. We do not need to be perfect people. Look at John. According to the other gospels, John the Baptist roamed the wilderness, ate locusts, dressed in camel hair—he was not what we might today call well adjusted. He was not normal, not even by first century standards.

We begin great and wonderful things where we are, as we are. That is an important part of the good news, the gospel story.

Advent is about making a way, not about waiting for things to be perfect. The season of Advent is about straightening the paths we have, starting from here and now.

Christmas, like heaven, may seem to have more to do with one day and some day and the promised land, but it is anchored in the present. Our present wilderness.

Advent begins wherever we are.

Christmas Truth

First Sunday After Christmas Day  |  Luke 2:22-40

Christmas Truth

The Lectionary Project

Luke tells a story not found in the other Gospels, a story about the infant Jesus Holly4x6being presented at the temple in accordance with Jewish law. He was circumcised and named, and he entered into the life of the Jewish people with the blessing of the establishment that would later condemn him and call for his crucifixion.

In this short story we meet Simeon and Anna, an old man and an old woman, both waiting in faith to meet the Messiah. Had they grown old looking forward to this day, or were Simeon and Anna looking forward to God’s becoming because they were old? We don’t know. Luke does not tell us, and there is no other mention of them.

Luke’s account of the birth of the Messiah differs from that of Matthew. Other than the symbolism of John’s prologue, John and Mark skip over the birth narrative entirely. We could fret over the differences and the omissions, or we could accept what we have. Truth is not the same as factual detail. The facts of our existence are small and lose importance over time. The truths of our existence are less substantial but more important.

We might hear the story of the birth of Christ as mere fact. We might also hear it as truth, the elements of the story each relating something true about our existence and God.

The temple is huge, clean stone walls and walkways, polished bronze and gold, guards and priests with fresh robes and gleaming adornment. It is a gateway, the keeper of the rituals and the entrance into the communal life of the Jewish people. It is also the symbol of the establishment, the place where communion with God is being traded for observance of rules, because the rules are simpler and easier to follow than a God who cannot be seen.

HollySkyThe old man and woman are also symbols. They are the wise, the seekers, the faithful, not trading their faith for rules or their expectation for empty observances.

The temple and the old wise people are part of us, within each of us. We value such rituals as we have, whether kneeling in prayer or checking our emails, for the way that they help us to define our existence. Stone by stone, we build the temples in our minds. At the same time, deep in our minds dwell a Simeon or an Anna, telling us to look for more, something we have not seen in the great temples we construct around us. Look for something real, the old ones tell us, something that may not be so much a fact of our existence as a mark of genuine truth.

Then there is the child. This infant, now named Jesus—both a name and a meaning, Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, Savior—is a small thing, of little importance by comparison to the great stone walls and priestly rituals surrounding him. This child does not look more special than any other child the temple walls have held, no more special than any we ourselves have seen. Only the two wise ones recognize him. This child, born in poverty, in the muck and straw of a stable, is God becoming, Emmanuel, truth unremarked by eyes that are filled only with the splendor of the temple.

Christmas is not a day or a season. We open the presents, put away the ornaments, and say that it is over, but that is only the ritual, a small thing that we have named and welcomed and that passes, facts and details that mark a holiday. The truth of Christmas is in the expectation of what has come, and what is yet to come. That is what our Simeon and Anna are waiting to see. That is what we are waiting to see, the coming of truth, the becoming of God in our lives.

StoneRose

Mary and the Angel

Fourth Sunday of Advent  |  Luke 1:26-38

Vision of Mary

Gabriel didn’t tell her everything. Mary knew that.

“Greetings, you favored one!” Gabriel said. “The Lord is with you.”

Mary was no simpleton. She knew from stories that angels making announcements were just the start of the trouble, and so she stood there and tried to work out what kind of greeting this Gabriel creature was offering her.

The angel, perhaps seeing that it did not have her full trust, went on to say that she would have a child. This would be not just a child, the angel claimed, but a king, and not just any king, but king forever without end. It was quite a claim, backed up by nothing but words. Sure, these were the words of an angel, but words nonetheless.

Mary’s presence of mind was remarkable. Most of us would stare slack jawed at the spectacle of an angel, but Mary was thinking on MaryBabySnowCPher feet. She listened to the promise of a son, and she knew that the angel was skipping over an important step in the process.

“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” she asked. It might be the best question anyone ever asked, when you think about it. She could have asked for proof that Gabriel was, in fact, an angel. She might have asked for miracles, or gone into whys and wherefores. She might have lost her self control and fallen into a cowering heap at the sight of an angelic being. Instead, Mary (her actual name was Mariam) chose the path of empirical evidence. Mary was a woman with a scientific and logical mind.

With statues and paintings, rosaries and Hail Mary prayers all over the world, it may sound strange to say that we don’t give Mary enough credit. Maybe it is more precise to say that we do not give her credit for the right things. People speak of Mary’s purity, and her humility, and her faith, but this story reveals a woman with remarkable intelligence and courage.

Gabriel told her that a holy spirit would come upon her, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, whatever that might mean, and that the holy one being born to her would be called the son of God. Then the angel changed the subject. It began to talk about Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, who was pregnant even though she was thought to be too old, like Abraham’s Sarah. To top the announcement off, it told her that nothing was impossible with God.

“Behold, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “May it be to me according to your word.” And Gabriel, satisfied with the response or having nothing else to say, left her.

We should admire her intelligence at least as much as her other attributes. She could have objected that the angel was a little vague on the biology question, and she could have asked what Elizabeth’s situation had to do with her own. Instead, she asserted her faith, and she added a sensible, “May it be so.”

A son who becomes king sounds like a good thing. This was an angelic being standing in front of her. Whether one believes in the angel or in what it says, there is little point arguing.

In so many words, she said, “We’ll see.”

The Gospels tell us that Mary faced a pregnancy that came too early to be respectable. She traveled. She raised a family. She did all of this with courage, intelligence, and more than a little grace.

Perhaps this Advent season, we might welcome a new vision of Mary. This one has nothing to do with robes and roses. This new vision of Mary is of a woman who thinks clearly and acts with courage. Our daughters, and our sons, would do well to look past the statues and to imagine the overwhelming difficulties she faced, to learn from her sensible and steadfast nature.

In this season, we might ponder—as did Mary—the journey of God toward humanity, on unexpected paths, announced by unlikely messengers. We may meet no angels. We do not know whether such visitations are rare or whether we simply do not recognize them when they happen to us. Perhaps that was one of Mary’s gifts, to know an angel when she met one.

Hail Mary, full of grace.

MaryandJosephSnowWide