Saturday, December 10, 2011

A rerun of sorts: what Christmas is all about

About a year ago I was feeling frustration over what at the time seemed to me a boomlet of blogs and other sources that appeared to advocate jumping the gun and questioning the value of the season of Advent in the liturgical life of the church.  The lectionary readings for the third Sunday of Advent last season prompted in me a response and, I suppose, a defense of Advent (not that it requires a defense from the likes of me).  Since I wasn't blogging at the time, or at least hadn't admitted to blogging at the time, it got recorded as a Facebook note.  
I would not call it a sermon, yet; I'm sure I'd be required to exegete things differently now, and probably scolded for combining scripture passages and such.  Nonetheless, it still expresses some things I find important and valuable, and if perhaps it is of worth to anyone else, make of it what you will.
(Again, remember that the scriptures are last year's, not this year's.)

             I have long been a fan of Charlie Brown.  Even as a child, I “got” him.  I could understand where his perpetual frustration with the world and its inhabitants came from, because I felt it often myself. 
            My favorite of all Charlie Brown/Peanuts stories was, no surprise, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Even today I’m willing to hold that the existence of that show itself single-handedly justifies the existence of television.  For one, I’ve always liked the music, even before I knew anything about Vince Guaraldi or how unusual it was to use jazz as an accompaniment to an animated TV show.  But most of all, again, I “got” Charlie Brown’s frustration.  At the dramatic climax, when the tree he selects has been laughed and hooted down, and he finally lets out his exasperated exclamation “isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”, well, I could feel where he was coming from.  I knew what I heard at church, and I saw what went on “out in the world,” and they didn’t match.  So yes, I could see where he was coming from. 
            Of course in the TV show, the absurdly philosophical Linus, having quickly memorized his lines under threat of violence from Lucy, takes center stage and recites the Christmas narrative from Luke (you can’t do that on TV today, that’s for sure!), and everyone is properly chastised; after one small setback the tree is decorated and all ends well.  Warm fuzzies safely delivered, everyone can go home happy.
            When I read the scriptures offered by the lectionary for this Sunday, the third Sunday in this irritant called Advent, I wonder if Linus has gotten things slightly wrong.  (Irritant?  It seems to me that this year I hear and see, depending on the media used, more and more people, even those whom I’d never think, looking for a way to edge out of the waiting and watching of Advent a little early and get on to “Christmas” ahead of time.  Or maybe I’m imagining things.  Anyway, back to the main point.)  Yes, Linus has given us a good summary—the best possible summary, you could even say—of what Christmas is.  I’m not sure, though, if he—or we—necessarily get from that what Christmas is all about.
            The reading from Isaiah 35 points to a day and a world we probably don’t recognize.  It is a world turned upside down and inside out.  A world in which the desert is blossoming abundantly is not the usual world of the prophet.  Words like “wilderness,” “dry land,” “desert” . . . these are not places in the biblical landscape typically associated with rejoicing and blossoming.  But the prophet keeps driving the images home:
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (Isaiah 35: 6b-7)

            But there’s more; it isn’t only the wilderness being undone.  We are also promised sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, dancing for the lame, and speech to the mute; even the infirmities and disabilities that afflict the body are turned around.  But beyond physical malady, even more emphasized is something not associated with the wilderness, or the desert: safety.
            Through this undone wilderness the prophet sees a road, one promised only to God’s people.  No threats will be found there; no lions, no predators of any kind.  But this promise is ultimately capped by the image of the “ransomed of the Lord…joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  All this undoing and turning upside down has a point. 
            If the prophet promises an undoing, the words of the Magnificat are a virtual assault on The Way Things Are.  The words out of Mary’s mouth exhibit no ambiguity at all.  God looks with favor on the lowly servant.  The proud are scattered in the “thoughts” of their hearts (here, I sheepishly confess, I kinda miss the old language; “imaginations of their hearts.”  Somehow that seems to get at the falsity of what we conjure up to comfort ourselves all too often.  But I digress.)  The powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted up.  The hungry are filled, the rich sent away without.  The reversal of the world’s ways cannot be more explicit. 
            [Even if one opts for the appointed psalm instead of the Magnificat, one finds no escape.  Even the psalmist proclaims the opening of blind eyes, food for the hungry and justice for the oppressed.]
            If there is still doubt, Jesus echoes the very words of the Isaiah reading in his message to a weary, worried, wounded John the Baptist, languishing in Herod’s prison.  One can hardly blame John for wondering.  After all those years in the wilderness (which was distinctly not blossoming and flowing with streams in his experience), it had seemed so certain.  Cousin Jesus, nondescript though he may have seemed, sure looked like he must have been the One, what with all those noises from heaven and things descending upon him. 
            But now, while Jesus was still preaching out in the countryside, John sat in Herod’s prison, a place people didn’t leave alive.  Is this how it ends?  Is Jesus really the One?  Have I wasted my life just to lose my head to this corrupt so-called king?  So he sends some of his disciples, maybe some of the very few left to him, and asks directly:  Are you the One?  Should I be looking for someone else?
            Jesus’s answer seems anything but direct, unless you remember your Isaiah.  Again, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.  Plus as a bonus, lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised.  And then the last, cryptic comment:  “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11: 6).  Is that a jab?  Something only John the Baptist would understand?
            All of these witnesses proclaim in concert that the world as we know it is due for an undoing.  A world in which the poor and lowly continue to be oppressed and impoverished, in which the powerful continue to lord it over the powerless, in which the rich are filled to a point beyond gluttony and the hungry only get hungrier; this is not the world proclaimed in Isaiah, in the Magnificat, in the Gospel. 
            Is it a mistake to tie this world undone, turned upside down and inside out, to Christmas?  I don’t think so.  While it is no doubt tempting to sprint ahead to the babe in the manger, we do so at our peril. 
            For one thing, we risk failing to understand exactly what we’re embracing.  Even that babe in the manger makes no sense at all without the words from Isaiah, from the Magnificat, from Matthew.  Look at it this way: should Prince William and the princess-to-be Kate Middleton ever decide to produce an heir to the throne, where do you think that child will be born?  I believe we can be certain it won’t be at a feed trough in Yorkshire, not with all those palaces at their disposal.  That’s not how it’s done among those of high status (I hesitate to say “powerful” of the British royal family, but there is certainly still some status invested there if one judges from the tizzy over the engagement announcement).  Yet the One we call Messiah, Immanuel, Christ the King, was born in a nondescript setting in a nondescript town in a nondescript backwater of the Roman Empire.  Nowhere near Rome, the seat of earthly power.  Not in Jerusalem, the focus of spiritual authority.  This cannot make sense to us without the images and contrasts drawn by Isaiah, by Mary.  Even this babe is part of a world undone.  Herod in all his power could not stamp it out, though he tried, brutally.  The Roman Empire couldn’t comprehend it. 
            For another thing, we run the risk of finding ourselves—dare I say it?—on the wrong side of this world undone.  Very few of us think of ourselves as “rich,” or “powerful.”  We are most proficient at casting our eyes longingly at those with more than us: more money, more power, a better car, a bigger house, a hotter spouse, you name it.  But is it possible, just maybe, that we don’t always remember the poor, the hungry, the blind, the lame, the oppressed as being those blessed of God?  Are we too comfortable, too much at home in a world where the powerful just get more and more powerful, the rich get richer and richer, and the poor . . . well, the Bible itself says they’ll always be with us, right?  Are we too ready to accept that justice is a thing to be bought and sold, that the Golden Rule really does say “he who has the gold makes the rules,” and that the only way to cope with The Way Things Are is to play the game, grab as much gold and power as we can, and as for those less fortunate, well, tough luck, you obviously deserved it somehow? 
            If that way, The Way Things Are, has found so cozy and comfortable a home in us, then there’s a serious problem.  Isaiah’s blossoming wilderness, that desert with springs bursting forth, is forbidden to us.  We become the powerful who, Mary warns us, are brought down from our thrones and sent away empty.  If we’re at home with the way things are, then we have no part of God’s world undone. 
            And this, Isaiah and Mary and even Jesus tell us, is what Christmas is all about.  All the “Silent Night”s and “Away in a Manger”s are just noise if that babe in the manger doesn’t grow in us into the One Who undoes and throws down the powers and thrones we humans so adore.  Without taking time to hear the stern rebukes of the prophets, we risk turning Christmas into little more than a too-cute idolization of a highly sentimentalized children’s story, something too easily accommodated to The Way Things Are and, frankly, something far worse than the crass overcommercialized boondoggle so many of us vocally deplore.  That at least is a clearly false and sham “Christmas”; to trivialize the real thing, to try to take what Christmas is without the life-changing demands a true Christmas makes on us, is something like an abomination. 
            So then, if Isaiah and Mary and Jesus may be allowed to bump Linus from his spotlight, what then do we learn?  The desert blooms and flows with life-giving water.  The blind see.  The deaf hear.  The lame walk, even leap (and dance too, I’ll bet).  God’s people walk in safety.  The lowly are exalted.  The poor hear good news.  The proud are scattered, the powerful dethroned, the rich denied.  And those who are not offended at this undoing Jesus are blessed.
            And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:47-54
Psalm 146:5-10
Matthew 11:2-11

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