|Guest Post by : The Rev. Dr. Don Carlson
As you can see below, in this post I am also going to say a word about the texts for Advent 4 and Christmas Eve. But, before I wade into them, a “seasonal thought.”
Mark and John didn’t seem to be much interested in nativity stories; neither did Paul. However, for Matthew and Luke it seems like they needed to put one in for some reason. They are very different stories which are quite incompatible with one another; despite our Christmas pageant penchant to conflate them. I certainly do not believe they are “historical” in any modern understanding of historicity; despite Caravaggio’s painting where the angel dictates to Matthew. (There’s also a famous one by Rembrandt.)
I think that the stories are made up. (I’m retiring at the end of May anyway so don’t waste time with the heresy accusations.) They are myth; but please understand what I mean by that. As Frederick Buechner says of myth in his book Wishful Thinking, “In popular usage, a myth has come to mean a story that is not true. Historically speaking, that may well be true. Humanly speaking, a myth is a story that is always true.”
I think that Matthew’s mythic birth narrative is for the purpose of dealing with the Matthean intra-Jewish question, “If Jesus is Messiah, then what about the law?” And so, Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth and the surrounding narrative bear a striking resemblance to the birth story of Moses; “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” In Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses who redefines the law. “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” And, Matthew becomes a new Torah for Christians; question answered.
Again, I think the Lukan intra-Jewish question is, “If Jesus is Messiah, then what about the Gentiles; what about people that ain’t us?” Well, if that’s the case, we might expect that Luke’s mythic birth narrative seeks to get at that in some way. More when I comment on the Christmas Eve texts.
Two things that the nativity stories do have in common are: 1) the birth being at Bethlehem; and, 2) the virgin birth. Focusing on the virgin birth issue, we need to remember that accounts of virgin or miraculous births were not uncommon antiquity . However, we also need to remember that such accounts were intended to express something about the character of the person born. They were a “character reference” or “credentials.” They were not intended to explain where the individual got 23 of his or her chromosomes. An understanding of fertilization and pregnancy in antiquity was, let’s say, “agrarian” at best.
As I will talk about with regard to the Christmas Eve text, I think that part of Luke’s reason for including the virgin birth is the Kingdom of God vis-à-vis the Kingdom of Caesar. Or, as Crossan has said, “The Roman Empire was a kingdom. Caesar was a god. The Roman Empire was the kingdom of god.” So then it becomes the kingdom of god ala Caesar vis-à-vis the Kingdom of God ala Jesus. Augustus the Christ vis-à-vis Jesus the Christ. And, according to Suetonius, Book Two, Section 94, Augustus was the product of a miraculous birth.
Now, I wouldn’t bring all of this up on Advent 4 or Christmas Eve, but I think that how we address the nativity narratives effects our peoples’ understanding of what the Gospels are about and how they might better be read. Otherwise, the theological point or edge is often missed and they become mired in Hallmark sentimentality.
A discussion of the birth narratives – Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright – can be found here. However, in this article, N.T. Wright is quoted as opining:
Jesus’ birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants. Christmas looms large in our culture, outshining even Easter in the popular mind. Yet without Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 we would know nothing about it. Paul’s gospel includes Jesus’ Davidic descent, but apart from that could exist without mention of his birth. One can be justified by faith with no knowledge of it. Likewise, John’s wonderful theological edifice has no need of it. God’s glory is revealed, not in the manger, but on the cross. Yes try to express any New Testament theology without Jesus’ death and resurrection, and you will find it cannot be done. “Man shall live for evermore,” says the song, “because of Christmas Day.” No, replies the New Testament; because of Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost!J
But, ’tis the season; onward through the “most wonderful time of the year.”
ADVENT 4C – DECEMBER 23
Micah 5:2-5a – But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Luke 1:47-55 – Magnificat: And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”
Hebrews 10:5-10 – When Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) – Mary visits Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.
I don’t know. It just seems silly to me to read the Magnificat in lieu of a Psalm, and then read the verses preceding it later on as the Gospel reading. It’s out of whack IMHO. If one is going to separate the Magnificat from its context of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, I think it’s best to use it as a sung canticle in the “Psalm slot” and then also read it as the Gospel; Luke 1:39-55.
Perhaps have someone sing the Magnificat from “Holden Evening Prayer.” Or, in the ELW there are lots of variations: Gospel Canticle in Evening Prayer, p. 314, and hymns 234, 235, 251, 573, 723, 882. I personally like 251 and 723.
Also, as I said a couple of weeks ago, the narrative structure of the Luke is:
- 1:1-24 = Annunciation of John
- 1:25-56 = Annunciation of Jesus
- 1:57-80 = Birth of John
- 2:1-52 = Birth of Jesus
- 3:1-20 = Ministry if John
- 3:21-34:53 = Ministry of Jesus
So, this is part of the “Annunciation of Jesus” section for which the “Annunciation of John” section has prepared the way.” That, I think, is what the “one baby leaping” is about. However, I think the focus should be on that song of Mary. That song that turns the world “upside, down.”
I return again to the words of Walter Brueggemann’s short monograph, “Counterscript.” (If you haven’t read it, it’s worth a read. If you have read it, it’s worth a re-read.) The kingdom of Caesar is the dominant script; the Kingdom of God is the counterscript. And, as Brueggemann says, and as I have oft quoted,
The entry point into the counterscript is baptism. … And so we ask, by inference, “Do you renounce the dominant script?” The issue cannot be put directly; it is, however, latent in this thick moment of holy vows as we watch the splash of the holy water and hear the uncompromising name of the irascible Maker of promises. Baptism creates an alternative context for praise and preaching and for mission.
Ministry is conducted in the awareness that most of us are deeply ambivalent about the alternative script. We do not want to choose decisively between the dominant script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism and the counterscript of the elusive, irascible God. We are characteristically double-minded [in bondage to sin], standing between two scripts the way Elijah found Israel standing between Baal and Yahweh.
From years back I can remember my good friend and colleague, Jim Snyder, musing about the birth of his first child. “What will he/she be like? What changes will he/she bring? Who is ‘in there’ anyway?” I suppose that’s the thing about pregnancy, and birth, and new life: who really knows what it will bring. It will turn the old life upside, down; that’s what most parents have told me. Mary senses this also; but in more of a cosmic way. Her song is a foreshadowing and a forecasting of the kingdom – the counterscript – that Jesus will bring.
Are we ready for the birth? The changes? Are we ready for our world and the world to go upside, down? We say we are, but I doubt it; not really.
Christmas Eve – December 24, 2012
Isaiah 9:2-7 – The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For unto us a child is born, a son is given.
Psalm 96– Sing to the Lord a new song, all the earth.
Titus 2:11-14– He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify a people of his own.
Luke 2:1-20 – In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus… Shepherds watching their flocks by night… And angel of the Lord appeared, then a host: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace…”
As I said a couple of weeks ago, Quirinius was not appointed governor of Syria until 6 CE. A census for taxation purposes was part of his appointed duty, although having everyone return to their hometown to be enrolled wasn’t how the Romans rolled. It would have been economic chaos. But Luke has somehow got to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, so there you go.
There is no room for them. There is no welcome; this baby will be born as an outsider. Luther hit Luke’s agenda squarely in one of his Christmas sermons:
Her time came as they were drawing near, and Joseph sought room for them in the inn. But there was no room in the inn. Of course there was! There was all the room in the inn, but nobody would give up a room! Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem; you should have been burned with brimstone!
And don’t let you people in this congregation think you’d have done any better if you were there. I can just hear you say, “Oh, we would have loved to take care of the Baby Jesus. We would have washed his diapers.” No you wouldn’t! If you’d been there you wouldn’t have done a bit better, and if you think you would, why don’t you do it for your neighbor in your midst, who is Christ among you?
Joseph did the best he could. But nobody came to give a hand. There the guests were in the inn who could have helped, but they were guzzling and carousing – unmindful of the wonder that was taking place in their midst.
Mary and Joseph were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle, lodging, table, bedchamber and bed, while many a wicked man sat in the hotels and was honored as lord. [Magnificat!] No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable. He lets their inhabitants eat, drink and be merry; but this comfort and treasure are hidden from them. O what a dark night this was for Bethlehem, that was not conscious of that glorious light! See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has, or desires [the dominant script]; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and done [the counterscript].
Yes, that’s pretty much the sum of it, isn’t it? Making room for the outsider – for those who ain’t us – may require us to give up our room .
And the story line continues with the angel appearing to the shepherds. They are the outcasts of society. Unclean. And yet it is to them that the gospel announcement is made. The word about the outsider goes to the outsiders. As with the word of God going to John in the wilderness, God shows up where least expected. It reminds me of a story that appeared years ago in the Christian Century.
And the words of the angel are a counterpoint to the Inscription at Priene that pointed to the “gospel announcements” about the birth of Augustus, the “savior of the world.” Now there is another “gospel announcement.” There is a “kingdom clash” at hand.
“New Heaven, New War” – Robert Southwell
(adapted by Benjamin Britton)
This little babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.
With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield,
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows, looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns, cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, hay-stalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that He hath pight;
Within His crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.
There is much more I am thinking, but I am also thinking that this is getting long. But I do think that these Advent and Christmas texts have edge to them; they are extremely political. (From the Greek “polis” which means “city” – but carries the connotation of “how we live together.”) People have heard them so much that they don’t really hear them anymore. So, I think that our task – amid all the glitz and schmaltz – is to tell the old mythic story in a way that that it is heard anew, and once again calls us to a new way of living together and living in the world.
My favorite poem for Christmas Eve….
“Special Starlight” – by Carl Sandburg
The Creator of night and of birth
was the Maker of the stars.
Shall we look up now at stars in Winter
And call them always sweeter friends
Because this story of a Mother and a Child
Never is told with the stars left out?
Is it a Holy Night now when a child issues
Out of the dark and the unknown
Into the starlight?
Down a Winter evening sky
when a woman hovers
between two great doorways
between entry and exit,
between pain to be laughed at
joy to be wept over —
do the silver-white lines
then come from holy stars?
Shall the Newcomer, the Newborn,
between soft flannels,
swaddling clothes be called Holy?
Shall all wanderers over the earth, all homeless ones,
All against whom doors are shut and words spoken —
Shall these find the earth less strange tonight?
Shall they hear news, a whisper on the night wind?
“A child is born.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
“And they crucified Him . . . they spat upon Him.
And He rose from the dead.”
Shall a quiet dome of stars high over
Make signs and a friendly language
Among all the nations?
Shall they yet gather with no clenched fists at all,
And look into each other’s faces and see eye to eye,
And find ever new testaments of man as a sojourner
And a toiler and a brother of fresh understandings?
Shall there be now always
believers and more believers
of sunset and moonrise,
of moonset and dawn,
of wheeling numbers of stars,
and wheels within wheels?
Shall plain habitations off the well-known roads
Count now for a little more than they used to?
Shall plains ways and people held close to earth
be reckoned among things to be written about?
Shall tumult, grandeur, fanfare, panoply, prepared loud noises
Stand equal to a quiet heart, thoughts, vast dreams
Of men conquering the earth by conquering themselves?
Is there a time for ancient genius of man
To be set for comparison with the latest generations?
Is there a time for stripping to simple, childish questions?
On a holy night we may say:
The Creator of night and of birth
was the Maker of the stars.