Monday, December 26, 2011

Food for Thought: Christmas Edition

Does "the Christ" really need to be in "Christmas"?

Maybe that sounds like an absolutely idiotic question coming from a Christian person, but bear with me for a moment. This is, unfortunately, not a fully-fleshed out essay, just an idea/question I'm sitting/wrestling with for the moment.

Two of my absolute all-time favorite Christmas stories are It's a Wonderful Life and, of course, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Last night, for whatever reason, it suddenly occurred to me that I could not recall a single mention of "Jesus" in either story. I went to the interwebs.'s true. The text of A Christmas Carol does not mention Jesus even once; there is a single mention of Jesus at the very beginning of It's a Wonderful Life, in a voice-over prayer for George Bailey by Mr Martini.

Does this strike you as strange? It seemed astonishing to me. And then I went and checked Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas: no mention.

So for an entire day I've been kind of preoccupied with this. Can these be considered "Christian" stories, however much they have to do with our modern conception of "Christmas," if they don't directly deal with the person of Jesus Christ?

Moments ago I had an answer/idea: well, none of the parables mention Jesus, either. Jesus told many, many stories to illustrate the nature of God and God's kingdom, and he never mentioned himself by name in these stories and, in some of them, I believe, he doesn't even appear, at least not as a character in the drama.

So, then, despite the lack of explicit reference to Jesus, these are, nonetheless, Christian stories, because they definitely are parables. And now I feel better. Maybe I will have more to say later.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

God's Promises & Our Expectations

Luke 1:26-38

The Gospel appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year* (Lectionary Year B) was Luke's tale of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel's visit to young Mary to announce that she will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit.

Last night I was talking to a friend who attends a different parish, which had their Christmas pageant this past Sunday. It was a hilarious story of confused children and general chaos; things definitely did not go as expected. "It was a complete zoo," he remarked, and then both of us suddenly remembered that Jesus was born in a barn in the middle of the night, and decided that probably hadn't been exactly what Mary had envisioned, either.

This set me to thinking about Gabriel's announcement. The angel tells Mary that her son "will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

What must Mary have imagined that would look like?

I'll bet, as she knelt and said, wonderfully, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord," that it never occurred to her that nine months later, after having endured a long, arduous journey in the last days of her pregnancy, she wouldn't even be able to give birth in a house, but out in the stable, surrounded by animals, and they'd have to sleep outside. Could she have imagined having to put her newborn into a trough for his first cradle? What must that have been like for her faith? Did she say to herself, as she reclined or squatted in the hay and the mud among the stalls, "Oh, who cares, I'm giving birth to the Savior!" or, perhaps, did she feel a sense of frustration and resentment? "The angel didn't say anything about this!"

Did it give her pause? I suppose the fact that she got pregnant while still a virgin gave her sufficient proof that God was at work in her life in a pretty spectacular way, but she must have wondered why God would want or even allow the future king of Israel to be born in such inconvenient and somewhat shameful circumstances; as St Ambrose wrote in his famous Advent hymn, "Marvel now, both Heaven and Earth, that the Lord chose such a birth." Did she perhaps think maybe she was entitled to a slightly easier time of it, having agreed to carry God's son in her womb for nine months? The Gospel of Matthew tells us that for a time Joseph considered divorcing her, and we can only imagine what the reaction from her family and friends might have been. Did they lie and say the child was Joseph's? Or did she say, "No, an angel visited me and told me I would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and, voila!" Would her friends and family have believed her? It was probably a very difficult time, and now, after putting up with all that, here she is in the mud, in the cold, no comfortable place to lie down, no place to wash up. Ugh.

"The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever."

How did Mary imagine herself, as mother of the king? Did she envision Israel free from its Roman occupiers, free from the corrupt, violent, illegitimate Herodian rulers? Did she see herself living in a palace -- in Jerusalem, or maybe on the coast? Did she imagine a future life of peace and prosperity, with her son reigning into his old age, the father of an unbroken dynasty of Davidic kings? In her darker, weaker, frustrated moments did she say to herself, "Someday, you'll be in the palace"?

Instead, she got a son who was, certainly, wonderful in many ways, but must also have been a source of worry and frustration. He just sort of wandered around, and while he was a great teacher and healer, he didn't seem to be getting himself ready for the promised kingship. As the years wore on it must have gotten harder and harder to imagine that Israel would ever be free from the Romans. Every popular revolt against them was mercilessly and bloodily crushed. How was her son who was maybe in Capernaum today, maybe in Samaria, maybe in Bethany, going to end up being chosen king? No one even knew who he was. Was he somehow going to figure out how to lead an army into Jerusalem? His friends certainly weren't going to be much help; a couple of fishermen, a former tax collector and others of uncertain backgrounds. Bunch of slackers, all of them -- heck, James and John actually left their father in the boat and went and followed Jesus around the countryside.

The one time he did come home to visit, he went into the synagogue and told the assembly that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy; the villagers were so outraged they nearly pushed him off a cliff and chased him out of town. Mary and her other children went to go see Jesus where he was teaching, and when told that his mother, brothers and sisters were here, he could only say, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?"

"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God."

Well, he has a funny way of showing it.

And then came the end, suddenly, out of nowhere. One day you hear a rumor that he's headed for Jerusalem, and then a message -- maybe a friend or relative, maybe one of the apostles. "Jesus was arrested late last night and taken to Pilate."

That could only mean one thing.

There was no habeas corpus, no bill of rights. Commentators over the centuries have marveled, like Pilate himself, that Jesus didn't seem to want to say much in his defense. But truly, what could he have said that would matter? It was a show trial, a pretense of justice. No appeals. No right to a jury, no attorney. And by the next afternoon, he was dead.

And not just dead; arrested in the dark of night, dragged before the officials and an angry mob, summarily condemned and then beaten, viciously. Flogged. A crown of thorns mashed onto his head. Spit on, hit with reeds and poles. Forced to carry the instrument of his own execution through the city streets. His friends, terrified for their lives, had mostly abandoned him.

But there, on that gory hill, was John, Mary Magdalene, perhaps a couple of other women (the Gospels have different accounts), and his mother. There they watched him stripped and nailed - nailed! - to a cross, where he hung for a few hours among criminals, and then he died.

"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

One of the most famous recurring images in religious art is the Pieta, depictions of a grieving Mary holding the body of her son after he has been taken down from the cross.

What must she have thought?

Had she misunderstood? This was not what she was promised. Had God been defeated? Had God deceived her? "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God." How? How is this favor? He's dead! He's not king. Far from assuming the throne of David in a liberated Israel, he was brutally murdered by its occupiers and Jewish collaborators. He's dead. It's over.

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior." How empty and bitter the remembrance of those words must have seemed. "All generations will call me blessed." Ha.

But we, on the other side of Easter, know that Gabriel's announcement and God's promise were true. In this last week of Advent, we recite or chant or sing the Magnificat every day: "For he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever."

Many of the appointed lessons in the Advent season are apocalyptic in tone; as we prepare for the celebration of Christ's first coming into the world, we anticipate the second, and we imagine what the coming reign of glory will look like.

If Mary's experience is any guide, we haven't got a clue.

* Turns out it is also the Gospel appointed for today in the daily lectionary! Because the Sunday cycle is three years and the daily cycle is two years, it only happens once every six years that this passage will be appointed twice for the same week.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Eve of Advent IV...or VII...

I'm not terribly proud of the earlier post this week on the parable of the talents. I think I'm "on" to something there, but I don't feel at all confident that I articulated it well, let alone proved my case. I wish that I had had more time to work on it, but there's so much going on this Advent season. It wasn't my best writing, and I'm out of practice. Recently I have also found that my extemporaneous speaking is not what it used to be, and I think there's a connection: I need to write more to practice training my thoughts to be both succinct and eloquent, and also, frankly, to "rehearse" talking points. I used to be better at this. May I find more time and energy to devote to this in the new year.

Today, however, was a special day. Today really felt like Advent. Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Parable of the Capitalist Jerk

Matthew 25:14-30

The Gospel appointed for today is the "parable of the talents," the story of the rich man who went on a journey and left some of his money with his servants. To one he gave five "talents," to another two, and to a third just one.

I feel like most explanations say that the master is Jesus, who has blessed each of us with certain "talents" (though we don't all get the same talents, in the same quantities), and expects us to do something with that treasure. We will have to give an account to Jesus/the master when he returns of what we did with the "talents" he gave us. According to this interpretation, it's pretty clear from the end of the story that we are expected to do something with those gifts. The story shows up in the lectionary in Advent season, and following as it does immediately on the heels of the story of the wise and foolish maidens waiting for the bridegroom, sounds like it is alluding to the second coming and the judgment.

But I just don't see how that can possibly be.

Here's how the story unfolds: the first two servants take the money (five and two talents, respectively) and invest it, doubling the initial amount. When the master returns, he praises them ("Well done, good and faithful servant!") and says, "You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master."

The third servant simply returns the original talent, having buried it in the earth, and then rather brazenly says, "I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours."

The master furiously responds, "You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest." The master takes the talent back and gives it to the first servant (so that he now has eleven, total) and then dismissing him as "worthless," orders that he be thrown "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Where is Jesus in this parable? Frankly, I don't think he's in it at all.

The story is also told in Luke (19:11-27), and I think there are several clues that reinforce the suggestion that this "master" is the furthest thing from Jesus. Luke says that the reason Jesus tells them the story is "because [the people] supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately." This time, rather than "a man going on a journey," Luke is specific that the master is "a nobleman [who] went to a distant country to get royal power for himself."

Again, it seems that the easy allusion here is to Jesus, who has "gone on a journey," so to speak (or is, at least, not physically present with us as he was with the disciples) and will return crowned as the King of Heaven. But I am uncomfortable with Luke's actual language here: "to get royal power for himself." Jesus, who is and who was and who is to come, was always the king; hence the magi who bowed before the child and presented royal gifts. Jesus did not have to die and "go away" in order to claim his kingship; he doesn't have to "get" royal power. And does he do this for himself?

I don't think Luke prefaces the parable meaning to explain that the kingdom of God is not near because the master still has to go on his journey, so listen up to what y'all are supposed to do with the "talents" he's going to give you. I think he sets it up this way precisely to illustrate that the Kingdom of God is not near because this is the sort of story that is happening right now, all around us. Luke and Matthew are saying that the kingdom and our relationship with God will be very, very different than the master/servant paradigm to which we are accustomed.

Here's the test for me in this story: let's say the third servant had taken that talent and used it to buy food for hungry people. What do you think this master's response would be?

Is Jesus a harsh man, reaping what he does not sow and gathering what he doesn't plant? And wherefore is this slave "wicked"? Wicked? Which commandment has he violated? What sin has he committed? What law has he broken?

"You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest!" says the master. Do you know, in the KJV, instead of "interest" it says "with usury"? I would have received what was my own, plus what was not. That is exactly what the servant is saying: you make money from money. You don't make anything, you don't plant anything, you don't do anything for anyone, you just put your money in the bank -- or have people do it for you -- and you get more money. After all Jesus has told them during his ministry: sell all your possessions and give to the poor, it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, blessed is the widow who donated two cents because it was all she had, pass out free food to five thousand people, take people you find lying by the side of the road and pay for their lodging and medical expenses...all of that, and now suddenly Jesus is warning us that come judgment day, he will be mighty pissed off if we haven't wisely invested his money?

I think our discomfort with what seems like a cognitive dissonance has caused us to read this story metaphorically, that Jesus is not really talking about "money," he's talking about "talents." Do something with the "talents" God gave you. But this story is, emphatically, about money. A story can have multiple layers of meaning and can make sense literally and metaphorically, but if you have to read it metaphorically because the literal reading is nonsensical, then something is wrong.

What's "wrong," what does not make sense, is Jesus as this particular master. "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

This is not the Kingdom of God, this is the world we live in right now. This is not an illustration of what is to come, this is a scathing indictment of what is already wrong. It is a parable right out of Occupy Wall Street.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Length of Advent



The sign at the entrance to my suburban Episcopal parish might well have puzzled visitors. Advent 5? There are only four Sundays in Advent...and three more weeks to go until Christmas. What gives?

Advent, for readers not cued in to the liturgical tradition, is the first "season" of the Christian year; for most Christians, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. It is a time of introspection, waiting and preparation. As "Retail Christmas" now starts earlier and earlier and becomes an increasingly cheap orgy of gaudy materialism having essentially nothing to do with Jesus at all, Christians are finding renewed meaning in Advent. The Christmas "season" in American culture, which begins to appear in stores by mid-November at the latest and explodes on Thanksgiving weekend in a flurry of print and TV ads and the media frenzy of "Black Friday" shopping, has become an extended period of stress and chaos, so that by December 25 we are exhausted and bored and sick of it all.

The frustration with the way Christmas has been robbed of its joy and beauty and co-opted for the glory of the Dollar Almighty (and become a tedious culture-war touchstone for the fundamentalists) has led many Christians to reconnect with the traditions of Advent, and some are advocating expanding the season to seven Sundays instead of four. The Eastern Orthodox Church has long celebrated Advent for the 40 days prior to Christmas, just as Lent is the 40 days prior to Easter. Our parish is one of several around the country experimenting with a longer Advent this year.

I was skeptical at first, but my priest is a very wise (and liturgically generally very conservative) man and I wanted to be open-minded; I also believe the church does itself no favors with blind adherence to tradition. In explaining his decision to give this a try, the priest pointed out that the lectionary (the three-year cycle of Bible lessons appointed for Sunday worship) already begins pointing to Advent themes in November, and gave voice to the kind of inchoate general Christian sense of helplessness in the face of Retail Christmas by making a bigger deal out of Advent.

Without heading off into a complicated tangent about the Christian calendar (which I could easily, passionately do), let me just point out that the calendar is meant to be cyclical, not linear. We don't "number" our years, and we don't celebrate a "New Year's Eve" when Pentecost passes into Advent again. In figuring out that "lectionary" system for appointed readings for various holidays and seasons of the Christian year, the ancient church drew a parallel between the coming of Christ into the world as a newborn at Christmas and the anticipated second coming at the end of time. And so, while it may seem ironic and incongruous in the weeks leading up to Christmas at the beginning of the year, the worship directs our attention to the End.

This was the angle that most piqued my interest; not only am I in favor of Christians standing up and telling the world to slow the heck down before Christmas because they are really missing the point, the crazy eschatology (theology of the "end times") of some of our fundamentalist brethren has so dominated the popular imagination that the orthodox understanding of the Second Coming has been almost entirely eclipsed. Complicated timelines and checklists for identifying "the Antichrist" and predicting the Second Coming are so common that even wild-eyed crackpots like Harold Camping can make international news by predicting -- as he did twice this year -- the "precise" date of the End of the World. (He was, not surprisingly, wrong both times, and made himself and every other Christian look like fools in the process.) So, yes: the mainline churches standing up to counter the perversions of fundamentalist eschatology and reclaim Christmas from Wall Street? Count me in!

In practice, however, this experiment has been disappointing. I think, frankly, that my beloved priest overestimated the cultural impact of bringing out the blue altar cloths three weeks early.

Instead of feeling like a counter-action to the ever-earlier creep of Retail Christmas, starting Advent early seemed like surrender. And while we dutifully sang the traditional Advent hymns like, "Sleepers, Wake!" and read the appointed lessons full of warning, that seemed all we were able to muster. Granted, we still have two Sundays of Advent left so maybe I should not throw the manger out with the four-candle Advent wreath, but so far this process has not deepened in me a greater awareness of or appreciation for eschatology or supported my interest in a truly counter-cultural Advent. We have had no fiery sermons on the end-times texts or passionate calls to resist secular culture's idea of Christmas. We've not had any meaningful parish activities to further either goal. It's been Advent just like every other year, except longer. And no wreath.

Ultimately, I don't think I'm going to come down on one side or another as to how long Advent should be. The folks who support an expanded Advent have the right idea, and I am completely, totally and utterly in favor of making a much bigger deal out of Advent. But I'm also afraid my initial misgivings were correct: if you want to do Advent better, you have to really do it better, not just longer.