Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Remembering

So much has been and is being written about Christmas, one pauses before presuming to add anything of meaning or value. Second in the Christian calendar only to Easter, the birth of Jesus announces the shifting of the very axis upon which time and space, past and present, God and creation turn in their relation to one another. Incarnation names the center point of history, because nothing before or since approaches its import, depth, gift, or power. (This is the mystery at the heart of G.K. Chesterton's magnum opus The Everlasting Man.) Quite literally, from Christmas on, everything is changed.

So: herein I step lightly; we are on holy ground.

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One helpful way to come to the stories of Scripture is as memory. The memory of God's presence and character and actions in the ongoing life, through time, of God's people and creation. So much of Scripture is filled with a prophet, an apostle, or God himself calling Israel/church to remember. Here forgetfulness quite nearly equates to sin, because spiritual amnesia is one and the same with spiritual atrophy. When memory fails, identity follows; and there is no faithfulness out of false identity.

So in reflecting on Christmas, I want to do a little remembering.

The first thing we ought to remember is that the infant named Joshua (for, of course, "Jesus" is the Greek approximation of "Yeshua," the Hebrew name meaning "Yahweh saves") was not an everyman, not a universal non-ethnicity; he was Jewish. The baby son of Miriam (for, of course, Mary's Hebrew name was that of Moses's sister) shared with his mother Jewish flesh: the same flesh as Ezra and Nehemiah the reformers; as Jeremiah and Isaiah the prophets; as Josiah and David the kings; as Deborah and Samuel the judges; as Joshua his namesake and Moses the lawgiver; and as Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, the fathers of Israel, God's people. This little baby boy is a son of Father Abraham.

Why remember such a seemingly obvious detail? Because the church has chronic memory loss about this "minor" fact, and -- true to Scripture's equation between forgetfulness and unfaithfulness -- the result is centuries of vitriolic anti-Semitism. (Many think this has been cured in the way modern American Christians interact with their Jewish neighbors. I have my own thoughts about that.) Therefore we cannot emphasize enough in our tellings and retellings of this grounding story that the baby Jesus was, in fact, a Jew.

Next we step back and look at the surroundings. A pregnant teenage girl, traveling with her fiance, looking for a hotel. Nine months along, no less. Though we might not repeat them in church, we have names to whisper behind such people's backs.

Illegitimate. Slut. Bastard.

Let us have no doubt that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph heard these things (and worse) along the way and throughout their life together. Not exactly what we would expect for the earthly arrival of the sovereign God of the cosmos -- and undoubtedly bewildering to a young engaged Jewish couple whose child, they were told, was the promised deliverer of Israel.

Building off of this disreputable situation, we see in the very beginning of Matthew's gospel the genealogy of Jesus (the "genesis" of the Messiah, as well as of the New Testament): the coming king as "son of David, son of Abraham," rightly so, for we expect the anointed one's lineage to be both royal and unquestionable. Yet ... oddly, there are four women mentioned, not a usual feature of these kinds of lists. Not only that, but -- as Richard Beck wonderfully draws out -- these women, each one, were involved in sex scandals: Tamar the trickster, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the foreigner, Uriah the adulterer.

Of course, even our labels view them from a place of masculine power; they could equally be called the wise, the cunning, the faithful, the victim. But that is the point for Matthew's gospel, because it is precisely the (male-dominated) cultural expectations he is subverting with the inclusion of these women, crescendoing with the young virgin, pledged to be married yet already pregnant, the ultimate sex scandal herself.

This is the way the Son of God comes to us: a pregnant, unwed teenage girl.

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What else to remember?

The place: not a sweet or well-kept "nativity scene," but a dank, dark, tomb of a stable. An inlet cave smelling of urine, manure, and sweaty animals. When God comes to us as unexpected stranger, he is welcomed not by the warmth of a bed or the knowing hands of a midwife, but rather by the cold darkness of braying and crying, straw and seed. Into this swirling chaos of creatures, the promise of new creation is born.

And the time! Occupied Israel is threatened again with genocide, and this holy family must leave in temporary exile from God's given land, for this threat -- unlike the days of Moses -- means safety is in Egypt, rather than out of it.

That is one kind of time; another is what the New Testament writers call "fulfilled." The days are complete, and now is the time when Yahweh, the God of Israel, will bring his plan to completion to deliver, once and for all, his people and his creation. The apex of history is nothing other than the birth of this powerless infant. He is the anointed one, the Messiah, the coming king, the Lord of all in human flesh.

And this is a new thing.

Looking back, we can see the signs; but in fact God has done the utterly unexpected, exactly because he is that kind of God. Even at his birth he is seen only as threat, and that will not change. This new thing God is doing will not forsake its humble beginnings: it will be faithful to the end. All the powers of the world -- religious, political, social, whatever -- will have their way with him, and he will die a cruel, shameful death as an executed enemy of the state. Just as we would have never expected the beginning, the chosen entrance, of the incarnate God into the world -- a birth canal -- so we are shocked at the end, the exit, he takes. The cross is the faithful end of a God who would come into the world through a scandal like Mary's.

So we remember the fine details, and retell the story even when we think we know it backwards and forwards. Because this story alone -- faithfully remembered in all its gossipy, uncommercial, expectations-dashing untidiness -- is capable of reminding us, truly, who it is that lies in Bethlehem's manger. This new thing that God is speaking, teasing, breathing into life -- it is indeed the hope and light of the world. Peace on earth! This tiny, helpless, vulnerable child is good news for all the people.

Who would've guessed?

Merry Christmas.

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