Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Christmas 2: What star is this?

The story is told of a Christmas pageant in a small church. It was so small that one child – a girl – represented all three magi. She proudly carried all three gifts on a pillow to the manger, and when she arrived, she announced, “Lo, I bring rich gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, circumstance, and mud.”

Most of us would be very glad to have the kind of supernatural guidance that the magi were given. Matthew’s account of the magi tells us that they were guided by a star. “We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”. And later the star that led them to Jerusalem also led them to Bethlehem. “Ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

There are few stars to guide us in the world in which we live. What guides you?

All of us are sometimes guided by the star of self-interest, and some people are guided by nothing else.

The Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, famously remarked that self-interest is “the invisible hand” that guides a free market to produce goods and services beneficial to all. Generally, I think Adam Smith was right, but I believe that we should be guided by more than self-interest.

It would be wrong for a business owner to neglect her bottom line. She has employees to pay, and a publicly-held business must also produce dividends for its stockholders. However, there is a time and place for business to consider the well-being of the community, as well as the bottom line.

Several years ago I taught an introductory ethics course for a group of so-called “mature students”. These were students who worked all day and could attend courses only in the evening. I decided that I would ask them to make brief presentations to the class on ethical dilemmas they encountered at work. This was the year that the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ came out, and one of my students worked for a chain of movie theatres. She did a report on whether or not her company should show this film and concluded that it would be OK to screen the film if it made money for the theatre chain. Other class members challenged her, saying that the theatre chain had a responsibility to the community not to present obscene and sacrilegious films.

Another class member worked for the largest electrical utility in the state of Alabama, and she talked to the class about the ethical dilemma posed by those who could not afford to pay their power bills during the coldest months of the year. She concluded that Alabama Power had a responsibility to its shareholders to produce a profit and so should cut off power when people could not pay. The class generally agreed with her. So, I said, “What is the difference between the theatre chain’s responsibility to the community not to show objectionable movies and the power company’s responsibility to the community not to leave the poor without electricity during cold weather?” And the class was silent. They saw that self-interest is not always a good guide for behavior.

Some claim to be guided by the voice of God speaking within their hearts.

Several years ago The New Yorker ran a story about a prominent journalist named John McCandlish Phillips, Jr. It seems that Phillips got his start in journalism when he was traveling by train from Baltimore to Boston. Phillips says that when the train stopped at New York’s Penn Station God spoke to him, saying, “Get off the train.” In New York, Phillips saw an ad for an editorial trainee at the New York Times and God spoke to him again saying that it was his mission to get a job at the Times.

I don’t want to disparage this man’s experience, but God doesn’t speak to me in that way. I think that such experiences of direct divine communication are few and far between. However, I do believe that God guides us.

Most of the time God guides us by the light of reason. Seventeenth century English theologians were fond of quoting this verse from the Book of Proverbs: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.” (Prov. 20.27) Those theologians identified the “candle of the Lord” as human reason.

Many times God guides me by opening or closing doors. It seems an inefficient way of providing guidance, and running into those closed doors is often terribly painful! However, this has been the way I have often experienced God’s guidance.

But God also guides us subtly and indirectly through prayer. I believe that if we are silent and open ourselves to God in prayer, then a star will arise in the skies and guide us on our journeys just as surely as the magi were guided on theirs. However, note this important fact: the stars are unimaginably far away and we receive only a tiny amount of light from them. In other words, the traveled in the darkness and received only the faintest of lights to show them the way. We, too, travel in the darkness, and the guidance we receive is seldom brighter than a star.

You and I are on the same journey as the magi, the most important journey of all – the journey to God. It is in that quest above all that we should be looking for God’s star to guide us. And God never fails to guide faithful seekers.

Friday, December 17, 2004

"Silent Night" A Christmas Meditation

Recently, a parent found “Silent Night” offensive because of its religious nature, and a New Jersey school deleted it from its holiday music program (although they later reinstated it). My first reaction was “How silly;” the school’s program was admirably PC (politically correct), including songs celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. But then after more reflection, I thought that perhaps this was a good thing. Maybe the parent who found “Silent Night” offensive understood a little more about Christmas than the teachers who put together the holiday music program.

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace

What’s so offensive about that? Well, to tell the truth, I’ve never been a big fan of “Silent Night.” It seems to belong to the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” school of hymnody. However, the Christmas story is there in shorthand. A mother who is also a virgin… a holy infant. I wonder about the “heavenly peace,” though. If we follow Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem was anything but peaceful. It was so crowded with weary travelers that the only place a very pregnant woman could find to rest was a cattle stall. Matthew’s version is even less peaceful. Joseph is tempted to “put away” his fiancée when she becomes pregnant before their wedding. And after the magi alert one king (Herod) that another king (Jesus) has been born, he has all the children in the region put to death.

We have let culture co-opt Christmas for so long that we no longer appreciate the hard and dangerous edge of the Christmas story. Christmas is both offensive and subversive. It offends our reason by celebrating a God who embraces human weakness so completely that we confess that the “holy infant” was in the most literal sense “God in the flesh”. And Christmas is subversive because the true King came to his kingdom to reign, and the “kingdoms of this world” were out to get him from beginning to end. Herod tried to use brute violence to kill Jesus and failed, but Pilate succeeded by using the tried and true method of getting rid of troublemakers: Try ‘em; convict ‘em; string ‘em up.

Some would argue that Christmas is a holiday for everyone, not just Christians. Perhaps it is. Certainly, the circle around the manger is wide enough to include all of us. But the marriage between Christmas and culture has blurred its distinctiveness. The Christmas story is a dazzling tale of daring adventure. It is about a rescue mission in hostile territory. Imagine parachuting into an occupied country during a bitterly fought war. That is a poor metaphor but it gives some sense of what God did at Christmas.

So this Christmas, by all means let’s sing “Silent Night” at the elementary school holiday program. But the words of Robert Southwell (1561-1595) that Benjamin Britten set in his Ceremony of Carols give us a better sense of the grandeur and mystery of Christmas:

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 unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

Glory to God in the highest!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Advent 4A: Christmas according to Paul

For a couple of years I taught Old and New Testament survey to college students at a small liberal arts college in the deep South. It was a great experience because I finally learned all those things that Brevard Childs and Luke Johnson had tried to teach me, but even more because I had some wonderful students. Every teacher has a list of his or her favorite wrong answers. On a New Testament final I asked my students to list three of the symbolic animals in the Book of Revelation. One student wrote, “The lion, the dragon, and the seal.” I asked her, “Seal? There are no seals in the Book of Revelation.” And she replied, “Of course there are. It talks about the seven seals, doesn’t it?’ Another question was “’BLANK and BLANK to you’ was Paul’s characteristic greeting.” Instead of “grace and peace,” one student wrote, “Hello and how are you?”

One of my favorite thought-provoking questions to my students was “Just what did Paul know about Jesus?” and watch their faces grow puzzled. St. Paul may have known a great deal about Jesus’ earthly life, but his letters give us very little information about him. Paul tells us that Jesus gathered with his friends for a ritual meal the night before his death; he gives us Jesus’ teaching on divorce (1 Cor 7); and of course, he knew that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. But other than that, Paul says very little about the historical Jesus. There is nothing about the miracles and the parables. All that Paul tells us about the birth of Jesus is that “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4.4) And he adds in the epistle for Advent 4A that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh”.

It would seem that if we want to “hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind … go even unto Bethlehem”, then we need to look somewhere other than the letters of Paul. But Paul’s letters are the oldest documents in the New Testament. What would Paul tell us if we asked him to tell us the Christmas story?

One clue is in the first verses to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Notice that Paul collapses Jesus life into two events: Paul tells us that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection”. That’s a breathtaking example of the Bible’s way of compressing an extensive narrative into a few words. Paul moves from Jesus’ earthly lineage to his resurrection without pausing to tell us anything that happened in between.

For Paul, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection were everything. To borrow a metaphor from science, Jesus’ death and resurrection were Paul’s Hubble telescope. For Paul, the perspective of the cross and the empty tomb brought everything else into sharp focus. For Paul all of human life was lived under the sign of the cross and in the light of the resurrection. Another way of saying this is that the New Testament was written backward; it was written from the perspective of the resurrection. Just ask yourself: what would we know about Jesus of Nazareth if it were not for the resurrection? To be sure, he was a remarkable man. He healed the sick, spoke eloquently of God’s love for us and our obligation to love others, and boldly denounced religious hypocrisy. But the same could be said of any number of great religious leaders. What set Jesus apart is that he rose from the dead. Christmas shines with the brightness of the resurrection. The “Gloria” that the angels sang to the shepherds echoed the Easter “alleluia”.

So this Christmas let us go again “in heart and mind …even unto Bethlehem” and “hear again the message of the angels”. But this year, let’s ask Paul to tell us the Christmas story which is also the Easter story, the story of One who moved from borrowed manger to borrowed tomb. And because his story did not end with a borrowed tomb, we, too, can sing the angel’s song of Christmas glory and Easter triumph.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Advent 3A: Are you the one who is to come?

In almost every Eastern Orthodox Church the apse, that is, the space behind the altar, is covered with an enormous fresco of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus out toward the world. For the Orthodox, Mary is an icon or image of the church. The painting in the apse is visual shorthand for what the church is supposed to be about: conceiving Christ within us by the power of the Holy Spirit and presenting him to the world. Mary seems to be seeing, “Look here! Here is one we have all been waiting for! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The readings for Advent 3A bring together two figures who point toward Jesus: Mary and John the Baptist. The painter Matthias Grünewald also brings them together in his Isenheim altarpiece. One one side of the altarpiece we see the Beloved Disciple supporting Mary the Mother of Jesus. Although devastated by grief, she is looking at her son’s body on the cross. Her gaze guides us to the cross, so in a sense, she is fulfilling the function that Orthodox iconography assigns to her. On the other side of the cross is John the Baptist pointing his bony finger at the Crucified Christ and holding a book on which is written the words, Ecce Agnus Dei – “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

Theologian Karl Barth had a reproduction of Grünewald’s painting of John the Baptist on the wall above his desk. He said that it perfectly exemplified the task of a theologian: to point the way toward the Crucified Christ. Perhaps if Barth had been a little more Catholic and a little less Reformed, he would have had a reproduction of the entire altarpiece above his desk, because Mary, no less than John, points us toward her son.

In the gospel reading for Advent 3A, John's disciples asked Jesus an intriguing question: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" And even more intriguingly, Jesus did not directly answer the question. Instead, Jesus told them what they would see when the true Messiah came: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” The Magnificat, the canticle of Mary that we may use in place of the psalm on Advent 3, also tells us what to look for. When the Messiah comes, he will “scatter the proud in their conceit… cast down the mighty from their thrones… [lift] up the lowly… [fill] the hungry with good things… [send the rich] empty away.”

Perhaps Jesus did not give John’s disciples a simple yes or no answer because he wanted to keep us on our toes. That’s what Advent is about: staying on our toes, being awake and alert, and watching for the signs that the Messiah is drawing near. And if we really long for the Messiah to return, then we will not only be like Mary and John, pointing the world in the direction of the Crucified and Risen One, we will also find that we are the ones opening the eyes of the blind, helping the lame walk again, and filling the hungry with good things. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!