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?

What We Should Fear

Statue_of_Dame_JulianMany of the words in today’s Gospel are fearsome but many events in the past couple of weeks have also been fearsome so they fit right in. We are rightly anxious about Terrorism although I personally find the hateful and fearmongering rhetoric of some politicians around the world, not least in the US much scarier.

I think it highly likely that Jesus is speaking about earth-shattering events in the sense that major terrorist attacks are earth-shattering. When such things happen, it feels like the sky is falling but it isn’t really. Since the prophets similar such language for horrific events, it makes sense to understand Jesus’ words in this way. This hardly takes the edge off the words or the events happening in our time. This point becomes all the stronger when we look at Jesus’ words earlier in the chapter. Jesus begins by warning that “not one stone will be left on stone” of the temple his disciples are admiring. For the Jews, the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70 was indeed earth-shaking, to put it mildly.  Jesus goes on to warn of wars and rumors of wars and people all over the place claiming to be the Messiah, just like what is happening all around us today. Jesus goes on with persecutions and refugees fleeing violence, again an up-to-date report on what is happening. So, there is much reason to be afraid.

And yet Jesus tells us to hold our heads high because redemption is near. He further assures us with the little parable of the fig tree that will bear fruit in due season. The fruit may not be visible now but it is latent in the tree and the fruit will come.

Veronica Mary Rolf, a leading scholar of Julian or Norwich, has posted a timely article on her blog about what Julian has to say about fear. Julian faced the same fears we do so her words are most apposite. We can be afraid of 1) sudden alarms, such as a terrorist attack; 2) physical or spiritual pain, such as fear of sickness or fear of Hell; 3) “doubtful dread,” the fear that God’s forgiveness may not be complete These fears can have their uses but they should be overridden by “rightful fear,” which can also be called “reverent dread” or “holy awe.” This is awe of God’s lordship and God’s gift of salvation. We should shun the first three fears in favor of the fourth. The more deeply we are rooted in “rightful fear,” the less we will experience the first three.

Clearly, it is “rightful fear” and “holy awe” that gives us the power to hold our heads high amid the swirl of violence around us. Fear-mongering that would have us close our hearts to refugees and other people in dire need is clearly rooted in the first three fears with not a trace of the fourth. But with “rightful fear,” what we fear most is to fall short of the love God has for us and for all others, especially those fleeing violence in the dead of night. This is the fear that bears fruit when the season for it comes. John says that perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18.) The obverse is true: perfect fear of the first three types casts out love. What will be our choice of fears?

Running Away from the Resurrected Life

yellowTulips1The ending of Mark’s Gospel is abrupt and enigmatic. So much so that the early Christian community added a “completion” that doesn’t connect well with what Mark wrote. There has also been speculation that the ending broke off from the manuscript or that Mark was nabbed by the Romans and thrown to the lions just before he could quite finish it.

The conclusion where the women run away because they are afraid is so strong that it is enough to make us forget that it is preceded by a ringing proclamation that Jesus has been raised and has already arrived in Galilee where he is waiting for them and the disciples. When we remember this proclamation and let it sink in, we realize that this enigmatic ending is not pessimistic or skeptical about the risen life about Jesus, but perhaps it is pessimistic, maybe even skeptical, about the ability of human beings to come to grips with the risen life of Jesus. After all, Mark’s Gospel was pessimistic about the ability of anybody to understand Jesus throughout, not least the closest disciples who made an especially poor showing of themselves with their obtuseness and in-fighting.

Mark is not unique in saying that the women at the tomb were afraid when they found the tomb empty. All of the Gospel accounts say as much. Moreover, whenever the risen Jesus appears to someone, he has to tell them not to be afraid once they recognize him (which they usually don’t at first.) What is unique to Mark is that he only says that the women were afraid as they ran off while Matthew says that the women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” (Mat. 28: 8). Moreover, in Matthew they did tell the disciples. What were they afraid of? What are we afraid of? Usually fear is our response to a threat. If I think a big dog might bite me, I am afraid of it. If someone drops some bombs over my house, I am afraid of being blown up. But what about Jesus who never bit anybody or blew anybody up? Well, we can be afraid of having our understanding of the world turned upside down and that is precisely what the Resurrection does. With Easter well-integrated into our yearly cycle of Christian worship, it can seem to be business as usual, but that is an illusion. The great value of Mark’s blunt proclamation followed by women the running off in fear like Goldilocks in triplicate is that it reminds us that the Resurrection is not business as usual; it is the bankruptcy of everything we thought kept us in the business of life.

But the Resurrection is a good thing, isn’t it? What is there to be afraid of? If the Resurrection is just a happy ending to a story we celebrate and then move on to the business of living, then the Resurrection isn’t much to worry about. But then it isn’t much to celebrate, either. There are other excuses for having a party. The women ran away from the tomb, not to have a party, but to get away from what had just broken apart their worldviews. And ours. So what worldview might we run away from? There is over two thousand years’ worth of theology to draw on to answer that question but the women at the tomb didn’t sit down and do a seminar on worldviews. They ran. What was so frightening was that they simply didn’t know what this new meant to them except that all bets were off. Remember, in Mark’s Gospel, nobody understood Jesus and the misunderstandings of him only got worse as the Gospel got on until the story ended with Jesus hanging on a cross. So, how could the women or the disciples understand what was happening to them? Maybe the disciples, maybe even the women who remained faithful to the end in tending to Jesus’ body, were relieved that the man they did not understand was gone. At least they could understand grief and resentment over what had happened. But Jesus wasn’t gone. They were going to have to go back to Galilee where the whole story started and try again.

Being sent back to the beginning suggests that God was giving them, and us, a second chance. They and we have the advantage of knowing the end of the story and we can use that as a key to what led up to it. We learn that the world was broken apart by a God who would choose to die on a cross rather than start a violent revolution but who remains alive in the face of such an appalling event and thus is a God who remains alive in the appalling events we face today. Worse than that, Jesus has broken the cycle of resentment and rage that, though painful, was tight and cozy and predictable. This means we havae to redefine the ways we relate to one another. Worse yet, we are threatened with the challenge of life that just isn’t going to let up now that death is broken apart. This Eastertide, let us go back to Galilee and see what else we can find.