Hearing the Nativity Story Over the Din of Christmas

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The lectionary has done us a great disservice in attempting to silence the prophet Micah before he comes to the point of his proclamation. As you will see when you click on the link, the program governing Oremus Bible Browser was unable to honor the ecclesiastical directive cutting off the last line of vs. 5, in which the prophet declares:

If the Assyrians come into our land
and tread upon our soil,
we will raise against them seven shepherds
and eight installed as rulers.

The peace Micah promises is no abstract, utopian fantasy. It speaks to his peoples’ concrete circumstance, namely, imperial domination under the brutal reign of Assyria. Peace comes about through revolution, through the overthrow of Assyria and restoration for the kingdom of Judah under a new regime. Perhaps the lectionary gurus thought it tasteless to bring up colonial oppression and the struggle to overthrow it at this time in the church year. After all, this Sunday will fall just two days before Christmas. All four Advent candles will be lit and, more likely than not, the holy family will be comfortably ensconced in the manger with the shepherd’s looking on as the magi make their way under the star overhead. Chances are, this will be the Sunday of the children’s Christmas pageant. It’s not the time to be bringing up unpleasant subjects like injustice, political oppression and poverty.

Or perhaps it is. At least Mary the mother of our Lord seems to think so. The lectionary people were not quite as successful in censoring her. For Mary, the messiah’s coming is not about gift exchanges, family reunions and fun activities for kids. It is not exactly comforting either. Like Micah, Mary understands salvation in “this worldly” terms of a radical reversal of the status quo, a new order under which the “last are first and the first are last.” The messiah she proclaims “br[ings] down the powerful from their thrones, and lift[s] up the lowly; he…fill[s] the hungry with good things, and sen[ds] the rich away empty.” Luke 1:51-53. Those of us who live comfortably and have wealth sufficient to engage in our nation’s annual orgy of consumption and gluttony known as “the holiday season” have good reason to tremble at the coming of messiah. The shocking narrative of Christ’s Nativity is nothing like our cultural Christmas. The two cannot be reconciled and, I am coming to believe, neither can they co-exist. That replicas of the manger become a cultural fixture this time every year testifies less to America’s Christian heritage than to the American church’s abysmal failure to tell the story of the Nativity. We have been complicit with America’s hijacking of the gospel and its relentless efforts to render the Christ child “cute,” and therefore non-threatening. We have created an ecclesiastical environment in which the miracle of the Incarnation is drowned out by the din of Christmas.

I think it is high time for the church to let the Grinch have Christmas and return to celebrating the Nativity. When we get it right, it becomes painfully clear that the biblical story has no resemblance to the sentimental, saccharine Christmas so many of us have come to love, the one marketed by Hollywood, Hallmark and Hobby Lobby. The feel good Christmas that begins already in mid-October creeping into our stores, oozing out of our radios and lighting up our neighborhoods is about as empty of hope and meaning as the Santa Clause making his appearance on the cancer ward in Eunice Tietjen’s poem. By contrast, the Nativity is the story of an unplanned pregnancy, scandal, homelessness and political oppression in which God is nevertheless with us forging a new thing. That’s real news and it is news worth telling.

It might spoil Christmas for a lot of folks if we speak concretely about God’s judgment during this highly celebrated season of mushy good will, judgment that might terrify us, but which is good news for the poor. But I’m not sure we should be concerned about that. If now isn’t the right time, when will the time ever be right? What better time could there be for talking about the fact that one in thirty of our nation’s children is homeless than in this season when we worship the child of a homeless couple forced to give birth in a barn? What better time to talk about Jakelin Caal Maquin, the 7-year-old refugee girl from Guatemala who died of dehydration and shock in the custody of our Border Patrol than this holy season when we remember another young family driven to flee across the border as refugees from violence? These are, after all, the ones for whom the miracle of the Incarnation occurred. These are the ones among whom the Word becomes flesh. These are the ones God would “lift up” and “fill with good things.”

I might be a liturgical/theological Scrooge. But at least I am in good company. Listen to what Martin Luther had to say in preaching on Christmas:

“Now let everyone examine himself in the light of the Gospel and see how far he is from Christ, what is the character of his faith and love. There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, when they hear of such poverty of Christ, are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem, denounce their blindness and ingratitude, and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more becoming service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow men need their help, and which they let go on in their misery unaided. Who is there upon earth that has no poor, miserable, sick, erring ones, or sinful people around him? Why does he not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him?” Sermon for Christmas Day, Martin Luther, from his Wartburg Church Postil, 1521-1522.

I think that Luther would probably take a dim view of much that passes for Christmas preaching these days. I think he might have a word or two for people who clamor for closed borders, cheer when twenty million people lose their medical insurance and finance corporate tax breaks by taking bread out of the mouths of homeless children and then show up in church on Christmas Eve singing hymns to the newborn king. I think Luther’s first order of business would be to tell such a congregation that it is in no sense Christian. He was not above playing the Grinch and “stealing Christmas” if that was what it took to tell the story of the Nativity.

Yes, I understand that the gospel is good news and that preaching is not all about clobbering one’s hearers over the head with moralisms and inflicting guilt. Furthermore, I, along with most of my colleagues, am just as caught up in the rip currents of this frantic season and its false values as anyone in my congregation. I don’t have the standing to address my people in the way John the Baptist did his. More importantly, God’s last word is never condemnation. It is always salvation. To be sure, the rich and the powerful are also objects of God’s compassion and grace. But this good news sometimes has to be heard first as bad news before it can be received as good. We need to see ourselves as we are before we are capable of understanding what it means to be loved by God. We need to understand that from which we must be saved before the promise of salvation can have any meaning. We need shock therapy to jolt us out of our coldness, our indifference and our self-centered fixation on our own security and on what we regard as ours.

The truth is that the same unjust and oppressive systems killing refugee children on our border, denying medical care to the chronically ill and financing corporate economic interest at the expense of our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors are also hardening our hearts, suffocating our souls and distorting the image of God in which we were created. That is the condition from which we need so desperately to be saved. We need for the Word made flesh to become incarnate within us so that we can become human again. Salvation for us means learning to weep for Jakelin Caal Maquin. It means having compassion kindled in our hearts so that we can see beyond the blinders of our social, racial or political stereotypes and respond to those neighbors in our midst lacking food, shelter, medical care and human companionship. Until that happens, we will never recognize or receive Christ Jesus, however melodic our hymns to his praise might be.

The following poem is deeply upsetting, but illustrates, I think, the emptiness of Christmas in an environment crying out for the good news of the Nativity, the Word made flesh in the heart of human suffering.

Christmas at Saint Luke’s Hospital

By Eunice Tietjens

Here in this house of mystery and death,
This challenge flung at God, who has set pain
And heart-ach and slow torture in his world,
Dawns Christmas Day.

We have outwatched the night.
Vainly, in tight-lipped silence, we have wrung
From creeping death a piteous hour or two.
Now it is day. The long white corridors,
Naked and empty in the winds of dawn,
Stir in the light, and grow alive again
With flitting nurses and internes in white,
Who talk and laugh together-as they must.

They wish us “Merry Christmas,” and we try
To cover our soul’s nakedness, and smile,
And as we wait, dumb with long agony,
A jingling of loud bells breaks the white clam
Absurdly. A man enters, dressed in red,
Tricked out in furs, white-bearded for the saint
Of rapturous childhood, and his deep eyes wear
A haunting, wistful mask of gaiety.
He laughs and capers, jingles bells and jokes
With mad abandon, speaks a word to us-
A frothy nothing; then, still jingling, goes,
And the white calm returns.

Source: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. 5, No. III (December, 1914). Eunice Tietjens (1884 –1944) was an American poet, novelist, journalist, children’s author, lecturer, and editor. She was born in Chicago on July 29, 1884. She was educated in Europe and travelled heavily. She lived in Florida, New York City, Japan, China, Tahiti and Tunisia, among other places. Tietjens served as a war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News in France from 1917-1918. She began early on writing and served for twenty-five years as associate editor for Poetry. You can learn more about Eunice Tietjens and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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