Dec 22, 2009


This past Sunday's New Testament reading was from Luke 1: Mary Visits Elizabeth and Mary's Magnificat. If you're like me and you've been going to church for years, it's easy to gloss over the Christmas stories with detached calm. You know it turns out OK: Joseph doesn't divorce Mary, Jesus is born, and the wise men return home by another way. Personally, I have a hard time visualizing the players as anyone other than the figurines from my childhood crèche: blonde Mary in her pink dress and blue robe: a couple of barn animals and a shepherd boy who looks like Percy Bysshe Shelley. My placid nativity diorama didn't change until Larry added a lacquered piranha and a Norwegian troll to the scene. You know, to mix things up.

But the story was mixed-up from the very beginning: the rulers were brought down and the humble were lifted up. God used the unqualified and the scandalous in his plan to enter the world; and the proud missed it. I have to be careful not to miss it myself, and for that I need to get down into the story: understand the culture and circumstances into which Jesus arrived. It took a scholar, a sermon, and a movie to do that for me.

First the scholar: N.T. Wright's study guide, Luke for Everyone, explained the setting and circumstances in a way I'd missed all these years. We all know Israel was being occupied by Rome and longed for a Messiah to liberate them. Well, the Jews were divided on how it would happen. The Sadducees didn't really believe in an afterlife, so the best was to cooperate with the Roman authorities.Peace was a kind of liberation, wasn't it? They had their token throne, and Herod sat on it. If there were a messiah, their eyes were on the house of Herod. Boy, were they off.

The Essenes had totally given up on the world; salvation was not of it. So they went out to the desert and lived in community. Like the hippies. They ate bugs, took enemas to purify themselves, and hoped Messiah would arrive via some transcendent experience. They were partly right. (About the transcendent experience, not the enemas. Enemas may purify you but they won’t make you see God). Anyway, it's a good thing they didn't have telescopes to see Hale Bopp, or it could have gone terribly awry.

Then there were the Pharisees. God had promised a Messiah, and God didn't lie. If Messiah hadn't shown up yet, it was because Israel wasn't obeying the law God gave them.  So they would do whatever it took to get messiah to come: even if it meant bludgeoning the people into obeying that law.  Oh, we love to hate the Pharisees, don't we? They were the whitewashed tombs; they got Jesus killed. But they were true believers. They hadn't forgotten God's promise.  We love to peg our modern day Pharisees, too, don’t we? They're the fundamentalists, the people who flame out everyone else as a heretic. But be careful whom you call a Pharisee.  How often I have clucked my tongue at those bible thumpers or those uber-hip Jesus followers. But as Pastor Matt Chandler said at a conference recently: "Liberal hippies versus old white guys. I've never seen the Christian world so polarized by secondary IDIOT issues." Besides, Jesus didn't arrive in the camp of the compromisers, the hippies or the fundies. He went thatta way, and none of them were looking.

That's where the movie came in. "The Nativity Story" humanized the story for me. Mary's parents were no one special. The actress who played Elizabeth was over fifty; imagine her getting pregnant sans in-vitro? The actress who played Mary was 15. (Okay so she went and got pregnant a year later, but at least she didn't parade it all over "Entertainment Tonight" like every other single-mom celeb does. But I digress.) Mary was just some unmarried teenaged nobody. If she were around today, she'd look like an Hispanic girl in the barrio, or a dropout in Appalachia, or the girl in "Precious."  I wouldn't have believed her. But Joseph did. We don't know much about Joseph, except that he was a merciful enough not to let Mary's "infidelity" be exposed and risk her being stoned to death. But the movie showed his heartbreak over it. And when an angel told him the truth in a dream, he didn't write it off as bad lamb the night before. He went with it. He trusted Mary. The movie showed their relationship blossoming in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

And into those circumstances this teenager went to hide out at Cousin Elizabeth's. Maybe Mary was unsure how Elizabeth would react. Maybe Elizabeth was unsure herself. But when Mary walked in, Elizabeth's baby kicked, Elizabeth got it, and Mary  broke into song.  Kind of like an episode of Glee.

"He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."
Oh but there were perils ahead: the difficult journey to Jerusalem, the later  escape to Egypt, and of course the inglorious birth - not in some Gainsborough pastoral but in a cold dark cave; with no one to notice except a few barn animals, some migrant workers and three tarot card readers to notice.

To the sermon: last Advent, I visited my sister's church. Her pastor used to be a Buddhist and ran a dojo in California. When he became a Christian he never lost respect for the seekers he'd met. He was quick to remind us that the wise men were astrologers. They were reading horoscopes, my dear devout friends, and that's how God alerted those pagan new-agers: through star charts. Egads! Their methods were wrong, we argue.  But their hearts were right, God throws back in our face.

If Jesus were born today, would God tell you and me? Or would we be so proud of our scriptural purity or cultural relevance - so busy arguing secondary idiotic issues - that God would move on to Miss Eugenia the palm reader? Would Juan, the illegal-immigrant grape picker, be the only guy available to come? 

But before we despair over how blind and unlike God we are: remember that's why Christ came. Because no matter of scriptural knowledge or cultural relevance will make us more holy or groovy or like God. So God became like us.

Preach it, Linus:


Maureen said...

Wonderful post Susan....thanks for telling it like it is (had to include a hippie quote:)

And thanks for posting our favorite perennial Youtube video....the wisdom of Linus....yea!

ps. LOVE your Nativity scene, the giant flesh-eating fish is a nice touch (eek)....ours is missing the baby Jesus courtesy of our canine 'baby'....we are not entirely amused.

Billy said...

Bravo. Thanks for sharing and thanks for reminding (us) how loved we are... even now.

I love how and why and for Whom you write. Happy Christmas, Susan. And may God continue to bless us through you... on and on and on.

Best to Mr. Wilson.

Larry said...

I love Nemo's gangbanger cousin at the manger... I wrote my take on Joseph on my blog, if you are interested:

The name of the post is: A Forgotten Man Remembers.

I loved your book! I look forward to reading your blog.

Tim McGeary said...

Susan, were interesting post. I am really starting to love NT Wright and adding him to my GoodReads list often. Luke for Everyone goes on next write after I click publish on this comment.

It is often very hard for me to humanize this story, and I roll my eyes much too often when I hear the single verses of prophecy taken out of Isaiah to make this story more spiritual. And while I really do want those that proof-text those verses out to go back and understand the context of those verses, I'm missing the point, too.

So thank you for this reminder. And actually it is helping me connect with a statement my 3-year-old daughter Amelia keeps saying while pointing to a nativity scene:

"Look, Daddy; Look, Mommy. It's heaven."

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