deep gratitude for the wisdom of the late Ray Brown.
What does it mean to celebrate Christmas as an adult disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ? There are a variety of cultural manifestations from excessive gift giving to sentimentality, but I am haunted by the absence of grown up ways of celebrating Christmas in our culture. That’s why I’ve been asking myself: how do our holiday activities help us ripen and mature as people of faith, hope and love? How does our journey to the cradle of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem empower us to walk in the wisdom of his Cross?
+ The earliest teachers of our tradition, St. Peter and St. Paul, taught that there is a time to be a child and a time to grow-up: When I was a child I thought like a child, I acted like a child and I said childish things. But now that I am an adult, it is time to put childish things away… (For) we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, or by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.
So this morning I want to lead you through a quick survey of the adult themes in our Advent/ Christmas texts and then suggest something you can do to strengthen your mature faith, hope and love in these challenging times.
To do this we must begin with why our Advent tradition insists on having us read about John the Baptist for two of the four Sundays of this season: any thoughts or ideas? The fundamental answer is that the early church concluded that Jesus was the Messiah – the one who broke open God’s grace in radical and life-changing ways – not John the Baptist or any of the other prophetic leaders of the era. John was honored by the early church. John was named a prophet of the most high in our Scriptures. But John was not the anointed of the Lord who would bring healing to the wounded, hope to broken and new life and light to those who walked in the darkness.
+ The stories of the Baptist suggest that in the first century, as well as the 21st century, people are searching for direction and meaning in their lives. In John’s day, some followed him out into the wilderness hoping to experience something transformative. Specifically, they went in quest of a prophet who would challenge injustice, speak truth to power and lead them to the path of healing personally and politically.
+ They were looking for something like what happened when David Archambault greeted Wes Clark, Jr.’s battalion of American vets up at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Did you see those war-tested veterans get on their knees in humility and contrition and confess the sins of our nation, asking our Native American sisters and brothers for forgiveness for 500 years of genocide? It was prophetic – cleansing and healing – making clear the role of a prophet: one called to point us towards the path of renewal.
So let’s cut through the romanticized Victorian fluff that still clings so closely during Advent and state clearly that the reason John the Baptist took his people out into the wilderness by the River Jordan had something to do with the fact that King Herod and those who collaborated with the Roman Empire had big old, first century McMansions out there. As a prophet, John understood that he was called to help his people see why so many were hurting, afraid and embittered. And in his day as in ours it had something to do with the 1% hoarding so much wealth and power while others literally starved. John’s ministry was as a prophetic protest outside the gated communities of the elite in ancient Israel.
+ And just so that we won’t miss the point of this prophetic protest, our Advent tradition asks us to read the words of the prophet Isaiah as our first reading. John points out the source of the people’s suffering, he is a prophet. But not the Messiah. Which is to say that John comes into the Advent/Christmas story to remind us of the pain in the world; he asks us to look for the prophets in our own day who are pointing out places of injustice, fear, hatred, darkness and confusion. His is not a childish story but one of maturity. So in an adult take on Christmas, there is always the invitation to recognize and respond humbly but boldly to the suffering of our generation. Any thoughts, questions or insights you want to share about John as prophet?
Another truth about celebrating an adult Christmas is found in the birth narratives of Jesus. They are NOT literal history and must never be considered as such; that would be childish and untrue. But, like Joseph Campbell used to teach, there are truths that are truer than facts – and the stories of the birth of Jesus are carefully constructed symbolic and spiritual interpretations that emerged over time to teach us about the death and resurrection of the adult Christ. The stories of the cradle, you see, are really about the Cross.
+ You may recall that the first message the early church shared about Jesus was that he gave himself over to death on a Cross to show that God’s love is greater than human fear, hatred and death. He trusted God into – and then beyond – the tomb. And God raised him from the grave so that we would have the courage to trust that love wins. Easter, not Christmas, has always been the starting point for the Church.
+ Over the course of the Church’s second generation, the ethical and spiritual teachings of Jesus started to be shared alongside the story of the Cross. Think of the Sermon on the Mount and the various parables of the Lord; these were not the first messages, but became important as disciples looked backwards and saw signs of the Cross in Christ’s words. By about 70 CE, other parts of Jesus’ life took on significance, too including his birth, leading to the creation of two sets of stories that teach us about the life and death of the Lord even in his infancy.
The late Raymond Brown, New Testament professor at Union Seminary in NYC, gave his life to
documenting how the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke are actually a summary of Christ’s passion. He taught that there is always a two-fold response to God’s presence in the world: whether it is the Ten Commandments; the prophetic call to love justice, share compassion and walk humbly with the Lord; the freedom of the Exodus; or baptism into the way of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection: some believe and come to worship the Lord; others reject both the message and the preachers… some draw close to the adult Jesus and become his disciples; others reject him and choose to hate him. And THIS is what the Christmas stories of Christ’s birth tell us in short hand: some people embrace God’s grace while others oppose it in the ugliest ways possible.
Think about it like this: The story of Christ’s birth in Matthew is all about the Magi – the Gentiles who came to worship Jesus – while the birth narrative in Luke is all about the shepherds – faithful Jews who returned to the way of the Lord of Israel after a long exile. Both Matthew and Luke shape the Christmas story using important Old Testament images that link Jesus to both Moses and King David.
In the beginning of Matthew, Joseph is told about Jesus’ birth by an angel just like the births of Isaac and Samson were announced by angels. Joseph is instructed to escape death by going to Egypt just like the ancient patriarch Joseph fled to Egypt to save his life in the book of Genesis. Matthew paints King Herod like the cruel Pharaoh in Egypt who put to death all Jewish male babies under the age of two in the story of Moses in Exodus. And while Moses was wandering through the wilderness of the Transjordan desert after leaving Egypt, he was threatened by still another cruel king, Balak, but saved by a Gentile astrologer named Balaam.
+ Do you see where this is going? King Balak of Moab summoned a magus named Balaam to help him kill Moses. But the seer saw a star rising over Israel in a vision, so he tipped off Moses, opposed Balak and made certain that God’s people were able to escape to the Promised Land. Sound familiar?
+ Matthew took these and other ancient stories, rewove them into the tapestry of the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, and started his story by noting that nature itself – a star – called out to the Gentiles – the Magi – who recognized what many in Israel could not see. The star in our Christmas story led the Gentiles to the Jews, God’s unique people, who explained the meaning of the scriptures to them. And when God’s love in the Old Testament was revealed to the Magi, they responded by worshipping Christ as Lord. Some, you see, are attracted, and follow. Others, like Herod, reject the Lord and plot against Christ and those who love him.
Fr. Brown writes that “the Matthean infancy story is not only gospel – that is, good news of salvation – it is the essential gospel story in miniature… it tells us that God has made himself present – Emmanuel – in the life of one who walked on this earth: Jesus the Christ.” Are you still with me? The gospel of Luke, written maybe 10 years after Matthew, does something similar with the story of shepherds: the Magi bring gifts to Jesus and pay him homage; the shepherds praise God for all that they have seen because the angels appeared to them and led them to Bethlehem. Both encounter a proclamation and both respond with faith and adoration.
Now we would do well not to sentimentalize the whole business of there being no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn, ok? Nowhere in the Scriptures are the innkeepers described as heartless or greedy souls, because the whole point of Luke’s story is not the inn, it is getting Jesus into a manger. And here’s why: the prophet Isaiah wrote that “the ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of the Lord; but Israel, in disobedience, has not known me and my people have misunderstood me.” Hmmmmm….!
What Luke was telling the early church was that in Jesus the disobedience of Israel has been repealed because the shepherds now literally recognize the manger of the Lord. They go to it as the angels asked. They rejoice and praise the Lord like the angels do in heaven. And who in the Old Testament is the singing, praising shepherd par excellence? David, right? King David, the once time shepherd warrior become king, who played the lyre and wrote the Psalms: Luke wants us to know that the Cross of Jesus is the fulfillment of what David began 500 years earlier.
+ And, once again, the rhythm of proclamation and response is at work in this story, too: The
shepherds hear the call of the angels and respond by giving glory to God. Some who hear of the good news, however, always choose not to respond; the story says they are astonished – they didn’t know what to believe – so they chose passivity rather than praise in the presence of God’s good news.
+ And then there is Mary who kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke tells us that she represents the church – those who held all of Christ’s mysteries in their hearts, looked backwards at them in time for signs of God’s grace, even in the birth of Jesus, and stayed faithful to Jesus even at his death. “Mary takes time to interpret what has happened… becoming the model of Christian discipleship” for she refuses to rush to conclusions or control especially when the darkness is most troubling.
I could say a lot more about all of this – Fr. Brown wrote his 600 page magnum opus on the subject – but that’s for another time. What I want to say to you know is this: our nation – and our world – is entering a time of both uncertainty and fear unlike anything we have ever known. Regardless of who you believe might be a better President or Governor or Mayor, there is no question that our social contract is unraveling. Fear of immigrants and refugees is out of control. Economic ambiguity and injustice is the rule of the day. Race hatred has been unlocked among Americans again. And violence against Jews, Muslims and the LGBTQ community is on the rise.
Good things could come out of this hard time, I trust that God is still in control, but I know that there will also be a ton of grief and more pain and suffering. So, I believe the signs of the time call us beyond our comfort zones to become more public, more visible, vocal and active as a living and prophetic alternative to this darkness. As adults, the call of the Baptist at Christmas is to align ourselves with God’s compassion among the most vulnerable. As women and men of the Cross, we must pick up the way of Jesus and make it visible so that others can see a clear alternative to fear and hatred.
As we approach Christmas, let us know that we have been called to bear witness to the Cross in the cradle – and anything less cheapens the sacrifice of our Lord. The Spirit of our God is calling, beloved, so let those who have ears to hear, hear.
2) The Advent Door
3) God, Faith, & Fitness
4) Washington Post
5) Cleansing Fire