Gifts to the Universal King

crecheThe story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Christ Child in Matthew is one of the archetypes of the Christmas season. Most popularly, the Magi are the archetypes of giving because of the gifts they brought to the Christ Child and they are often credited with being responsible for the exchanges of gifts customary during the Christmas season, even among people who otherwise have nothing to do with Christianity.

Theologically, the incident manifests the universality of the Christ Child. From the first, the child has received homage from representatives of other parts of the world beyond the Jewish culture into which he was born. The Magi were astrologers, but they had nothing to do with fortune cookie-type columns for daily newspapers; they studied the stars to probe the world’s mysteries. Since the sky was observable by all people, the study of the stars is an apt image for the universality of Christ. The star that the Magi followed is likely a reference to the prophecy of Balaam: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.: (Num. 24: 17) Here a mercenary pagan makes a favorable prophecy for Israel when he could have been richly awarded for doing the opposite. The gifts of gold and frankincense are often interpreted as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60: 6) The myrrh, not mentioned in Isaiah, would foreshadow Jesus’ passion and death.

The priestly authors of Numbers and the prophet called by many scholars “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) are among the writers of the Hebrew Bible who pushed for an inclusive Israel that would welcome all people from all nations against those who would shut the gates and keep them shut. In her book on Numbers, Mary Douglas offers the interesting argument that the story of Balaam’s prophecy is a lampooning of the exclusionary policies of Ezra who ordered his fellow Israelites to put away all foreign wives and their children after the return from the Babylonian Exile. (Ezra 9–10) The allusion to the prophecies of Balaam and Isaiah would put Matthew firmly in the inclusionary camp. The affirmation of an inclusive Israel where Jews and Gentiles come together, is also affirmed by Paul as one of his most fundamental teachings. In Ephesians, he writes of God’s plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1: 10)

This preaching of universality is among the more attractive strands in biblical thought. However, as with most good and glorious things, there is a shadow that we must deal with. It is very easy for an inclusionary view to become imperialistic and intolerant to the point that everybody must conform to the one particular inclusionary embrace that I happen to accept. Everybody must be a Christian, actually, my kind of Christian. As a committed Christian, I believe my faith is true and universal and I would like for all people to share its blessings, but I accept that people of other faiths feel the same about theirs.

The generosity of giving seems to be the best way out of this impasse. In the Isaianic prophecy fulfilled by the Magi, people bring their gifts to God from all over the earth. These gifts represent many cultures, many faiths. Each of these traditions have gifts that we all can benefit from and receive with gratitude. If we offer our talents, our insights, our beliefs, and the revelations we have received as genuinely free gifts, then we do not want to smother what others have to offer us in return.

An interesting question remains. If Jesus was given these valuable gifts at the time of his birth, how come he was a homeless itinerant teacher with no place to lay his head? If indeed he had some gold and other precious gifts when he was young, we have to assume that he did what he asked the rich young man to do: he gave all of it away to the poor. Jesus still keeps on giving us all of himself. What about us?

Jesus the True Human Being

creche1God is a mystery. That almost goes without saying since anything we can comprehend can’t be God. Humanity is also a mystery. One of the few things we truly know about ourselves is that we don’t know ourselves or our natures very well. When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the time God entered humanity, we have the mystery of mysteries to the zillionth power.

The notion that God would become a human being boggles the mind and is hard to believe. It is often suggested that modern people can’t believe it because the idea is out of date. Actually, it was hard to believe in Jesus’ time and in the early Christian centuries as well. Joseph himself had a hard time believing it.

Because of this difficulty in believing, there were thinkers who suggested that God pretended to be a human being and Jesus was some sort of phantom who looked like a human but wasn’t. Open Jesus up and, instead of the electronic wiring of an automaton, you see a blinding ray of divinity. In one of the infancy stories that were not included in the canonical Gospels, the little boy Jesus climbs up sunbeams as if they were a jungle gym. His playmates try to follow him up into the sky but they fall and Jesus has to bring them back to life to keep out of trouble with his mother.

Another variation on this unbelief is the notion that Jesus was just a human being who at some time or other became possessed by the divinity, sort of like someone being possessed by a demon who overtakes a person, only this time it is God who did the possessing so he didn’t hurt Jesus in doing that. This is a little like an episode in the Scythe trilogy by Neal Shusterman where a super computer with godlike qualities comes to the conclusion that it can’t create the next generation of super computers without knowing, however briefly, what it is like to be a human, so the computer possesses one of the characters, which is traumatic for the human. The point is, the super computer does not become a human and no superior force, not even God, could really become a human in that way.

Neither was Jesus a Superman in the sense of being faster than a bullet or a speeding train. The miraculous powers that he did show, such as healing and walking on water are not necessarily beyond all human possibility as stories of the sort are told of other holy persons. Besides, Superman was from another planet and Jesus was born on this one. Another version of a Superman Christology is the notion, taught by no less a theologian than Thomas Aquinas, that Jesus always knew everything and could never be taught. That would mean that Jesus knew everything about carpentry and could have instructed Joseph in the finer points when he was still a toddler. That’s sort of like climbing up sunbeams.

Unbelief often takes the opposite form where Jesus is considered just another human being, only nicer and wiser than most. This is still wrong, but at least we have a Jesus who could be taught how to use a hammer and a chisel.

In none of these errant models do we have much insight into the mystery of either humanity or God and we don’t learn much of anything about being human. The real mystery of being a human is developing, growing, learning, and changing over the years. Not even his virgin birth, as Matthew and Luke would have it, could change the need for Jesus to learn his table manners. Fantastic as stories like the one about climbing sunbeams are, at least they show that Jesus had to learn how to play nice. The story in Luke about Jesus in the temple is more incisive into Jesus’ young development. Here, Jesus was willing to learn from the elders even as he amazed them with his questions and insights. Like most other children, Jesus also has to learn to remember to let his parents know where he was and deepen his own sense of obedience.

The author of Hebrews stresses the importance of Jesus sharing our humanity in this respect, that Jesus was tested in the same way that we are, although without sin, so that Jesus can help us when we are tested. (Heb. 2: 18) In calling Jesus a “pioneer of faith,” this author is stressing the way Jesus is a model for us, a model for undergoing tests and trials as a human so as to learn how to be a human being. The author of Hebrews also tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb. 5: 8–9)

There are many things Jesus taught us about being a human being through his suffering, of which forgiveness is the most profound and challenging. We are prone to think that, in being sinless, Jesus separated himself out from humanity, but although to err is human, and Jesus could and did err, sin is not human; it’s inhuman. That is, we are not full human beings and Jesus is. That is why a tiny babe on his mother’s breast is a model for what it really means to be human.

The Throne of David: Part Two

crecheThe celebration of the birth of Jesus is a time to put all political differences aside in glad agreement that this child is born. I wish! I have pointed out many times over the years when preaching on Luke’s nativity story that it puts political issues front and center, forcing us to confront our political realities if we are to confront the Gospel.

The key political words uttered by the angel who appeared to the shepherds are: “good news,” “savior,” and “peace.” These words sound innocuous to most of us but they aren’t. In Luke “Good News” is not a cheery feel-good article in the newspaper or on the Internet. “Savior” isn’t a cartoon super hero who knocks out the bad guys for us. “Peace” has to be understood rightly or it isn’t peace.

“Good News” or “Good Tidings” are the usual translations of the word euangelion. It also provides the title of Luke’s book. In Roman times, euangelion was the technical word for tidings sent out from Rome by the Emperor who was the only one who had the right to send out “good News” or “Good Tidings.” Caesar Augustus had recently sent out the Good News that he had won the long civil war triggered by the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive father Julius. This “Good News” made Augustus the “Savior” of the Roman Empire. Again, only the Emperor was allowed to be the “savior.” By winning the war, Augustus had brought “peace” to the Empire. Nobody else had the right to be the “peace” maker. But Augustus had brought and preserved “peace” through violence. Although many biblical historians have cast doubt on the likelihood that the registration ordered by Caesar Augustus happened right at the time of Jesus’ birth, it puts the whole nativity story under the shadow of the Emperor’s controlling power that enforced “peace” by keeping track of his subjects and pushing them from place to place if “necessary.”

At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would inherit he throne from David from his heavenly Abba and reign forever, He would, however, be a very different king than his forbear. Another angel is now telling the shepherds that the true Good News is that this child has now been born and this child is the one who can truly save us from our own violence and establish true peace. Jesus’ rulership has been expanded beyond the House of David to the whole Empire, which is to say, the entire world. Caesar Augustus is the one who has usurped God’s role of savior and bringer of peace.

This neat contrast between Jesus and Caesar, however, looks like a political campaign between the competing leaders of two political parties. This is our human way of looking at it. The mystery is that Jesus did not come into the world to compete with Caesar Augustus the way he competed against Brutus and Mark Antony or David competed with Saul. Jesus came to preach and live a totally different way of living than the way of Empire, a way not based on violent competition but on mutual support. Rather than inflict violence in humanity’s never-ending civil war, Jesus took the whole violence of all empires in all times on himself in the place of all those who have been and ever will be victims of Empire. That shepherds, social outcasts in their time, heard the voice of the angel and the song of the heavenly host but the ruling elite saw and heard nothing should serve as a warning to those of us who are relatively well-off in our own time.

I suppose I shouldn’t spoil our Christmas party by bringing up Jesus’ death, but it is Jesus’ death that we will shortly commemorate at the altar. Closer to holiday cheer: we also celebrate at the altar the risen, forgiving resurrected life of Jesus that opens us up to a new birth, a new life, based on the forgiving risen life of the child whose birth we celebrate tonight.

See also The Throne of David: Part One

Sharing God’s Riches

creche1-copyLike every culture, the Jews had to face fundamental decisions as to how open or closed they would be to others. The default mechanism tends to be flight or fight. In discussing remaining social groups living close to the level of what he calls “traditional” societies, Jared Diamond observed this phenomenon. A stranger wandering into the territory of a different tribe had better come up with a common ancestor or the encounter could prove fatal.

The type of encounters with other nations has an effect on such decisions. In the case of the Jews, most encounters were bad. Slavery in Egypt was followed by both cultural and military threats from the Canaanites who tempted the Jews to forsake the God who had delivered them from Egypt. Encounters with the Assyrians and Babylonians were catastrophic. But then the Persians destroyed the Babylonian Empire and invited the Jews to return to their homeland and revive their cultural and religious traditions. It is surely no accident that the return from Babylonian exile and resettlement back in their homeland coincided with the first expressions of openness to other cultures on the part of the Jews such as we have when Isaiah proclaims: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is. 60:3) With Isaiah, we have the breakthrough insight that the God who brought them out of Egypt and then delivered them from Babylon was the God for all people and not just them. Although Adam Smith took the title of his famous book The Wealth of Nations from Isaiah 60:5: “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” the prophet encourages a much more profound exchange than that of capital: an exchange of the riches of the Jews’ religious tradition for the riches other nations can bring to that same tradition. Unfortunately, retrenchment followed, climaxed by the expulsion of all foreign wives at about the time of the building of the second temple.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, the other nations, was complex and tense. Their religious traditions were mostly tolerated but at times menaced by the Romans. Although some individual Gentiles became God-fearers, practicers of Jewish piety such as the Centurion who built the synagogue at Capernaum, (Lk. 7: 4-5) there were few friendly relations between Jews and Gentiles. And yet in the face of this tension, Matthew sees in the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the exchange of wealth between the two peoples.

It was for St. Paul to return the gifts to the Magi. After his dramatic conversion, he was called to preach the Good News of Jesus, a Jew, to the Gentiles. To the surprise of many Jews who followed Jesus, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3: 6) That is, Jesus dissolved the fundamental division between Jew and Gentile when he was crucified by a collaboration between the two peoples who had suddenly come together for that brief moment. But when Jesus was raised from the dead as the forgiving victim, he bridged the gap between nations with one comprehensive act of forgiveness.

Ever since Paul’s commission, the Church has been tempted to retrench herself as the Jews did after building the second temple. This is to fall back into the default hostility to the stranger that Jared Diamond saw as part of “traditional” humanity. What the feast of Epiphany celebrates is the generosity of God who shares God’s riches with all so that all people can share this same richness with all others, not least with strangers who can then soon cease to be strangers.

God-Is-With-Us: A Christmas Eve Meditation

creche1-copyTonight, we celebrate the birth of a child. Usually, there is rejoicing when a child is born. One of my family stories is that my grandmother was so excited about my birth that she burned two pots of beans.

When we celebrate a birth, we celebrate the fact that a baby is. The simple act of coming to be is a cause of wonder and joy. So it is that we celebrate Jesus before he did anything at all except come out of his mother’s womb and maybe cry a bit and suckle some milk. As a friend of mine said once about newborn babies: “They don’t do much at that age.” We also celebrate our hopes for the future and for the future of that child. We know that in the case of Jesus, the future wasn’t all rosy. That Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for him and his family and that Herod would be out to get him as soon as he found out about him shows that there was cause for anxiety from the very start. Unfortunately, many babies being born right now are born into much the same sort of anxiety that is mingled with hopes for the child. So not every birth leads to unequivocal rejoicing. Such anxiety is exacerbated by our tendency to focus on those who stir up fear in us, goading us on to adding further fuel to the violence growing all around us. We can see in news reports, Twitter, and Facebook that we are locked in violent systems of condemnation that stoke our fears exponentially.

Although we celebrate tonight the very being of Jesus, that Jesus is, when Jesus was apparently not doing much, God was and is already doing a great thing, an unprecedented thing: God had entered humanity. God chose to share, in frail human flesh, the very threats and anxieties that we all share. God has not left us to the human powers over which we have little or no control, powers we doubt we can trust with our well-being. Moreover, God shares the vulnerability other humans suffer from us on account of our fears and our own violence that we cannot see. In this way, God, in Jesus, lives up to the name: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God’s presence among us means many things. Tonight I will touch on one of them. By entering humanity, God has opened our human nature to God’s nature. We are no longer as trapped in our own human fear and violence as we often think we are. Later in life, Jesus spoke about God coming “like a thief in the night” but at the time of Jesus’ birth, God had already broken into the household of our humanity and started to sneak around, taking away bits of fear and violence and leaving bits of love behind.

This Christmas, let us celebrate the sneaky child who is already crawling around in the dark places of our lives, taking away the things we need to lose and giving us the gifts we need the most.

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?

Unwrapping the Future

crecheThe yearly cycle of celebrations and commemorations adds solidarity to our experience of time. Christmas, a holiday especially laden with traditions, is a particularly strong anchor, assuring us that everything is as it should be for all eternity. Amen.

One of the traditions of Christmas, however, is the giving of charity. That is a very good thing, considering the needs for generosity, and it helps that once a year, people have a custom of dwelling on such matters. But the need for such charitable giving suggests that not everything is as it should be. If huge efforts by charitable organizations have to be made to assure that no child is deprived of a Christmas, then obviously there are serious social problems that need to be addressed. That is, this cozy traditional holiday poses a challenge for the future.

Manger scenes with the new-born Jesus lying in the straw tug the hearts of many and have been a focus of devotion since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the custom in the twelfth century.  But the whole point of this nativity story is that Jesus was born in the stable because nobody had room for his mother, father, and himself. This is not business as usual. It raises the question: do we really have room for Jesus in our lives? Do we really have room for all the children being born and for their families?

The angel announced to the shepherds proclaimed that this newborn child was the savior, the Lord who was going to usher in a new era of peace. That may sound innocent when we hear this read in church today, but at the time, the Caesar thought he was the savior and he didn’t have room for somebody else to do his job! Of course, he was a savior and keeper of the peace his way, with military and cultural might. The story of the shepherds, then, challenges us to consider who really is our savior and the model of peace for us. Do we keep peace the imperial way though violence to keep everybody in line? We don’t have to have imperial armies to take this approach. All it takes is a drive to control people, by force if necessary. Or do we follow peace Jesus’ way, through vulnerability as a newborn child all the way to the cross and then the Resurrection where Jesus creates peace through forgiveness.

A major cog in the engine of Caesar’s peace in Jesus’ neck of the woods was King Herod. Killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem may not look like a peaceful action, but Herod was keeping the peace, imperial style. Most of us may think Herod a bit extreme, but if we are willing to sacrifice anybody who seems to threaten our control of life, especially the young, we are going the way of Herod, the way of Caesar. Jesus, although he had the power to send legions of angels against Herod, remained vulnerable, dependent on human protection until the time came to suffer the fate the boys of Bethlehem suffered.

All of this may be a downer for a joyful holiday, but the good news is that Christmas is a yearly wakeup call for renewal of life, a renewal fueled by the divine energy of a human child born over two thousand years ago. Everything that was wrong with the world at the time is wrong with the world now and a lot more. We can keep on going in circles if we want, but we have the chance to step off the not-so-merry-go-round and embrace the Christ Child. We will find that the Christ Child has a gift for us. If we dare to open it up, it is a gift for an open future that we can have if we really want it.

See also, Celebrating the Prince of Peace and The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh