Saturday, December 25, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: A Great Light in the Darkness - For Christmas (12/25/04)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7) [NRSV]
My favorite Christmas Story is probably Gian Carlo Menotti's little opera for children, Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was televised during my childhood, and my father once took my brother and me to a live production at the Cincinnati Symphony, when we were about nine and seven. That didn't work out so well, as my brother turned out to have intestinal flu and threw up in the middle, necessitating a return home, but I spent the rest of that December listening to the record and memorizing the score. I used to sing Amahl to myself, in my pathetically tuneless voice, as I wandered the sandy paths of a cottage resort in Florida the next spring, awaiting my father's return from his second wedding. Something about that Christmas miracle was sustaining to a child whose life was going to change yet again.

When I had children of my own, I introduced them to Amahl via a grainy VCR recording; today they, too, know at least bits and pieces of the music. And we did make it through an entire beautifully staged production a couple of years ago. Every Christmas I set aside a portion of an evening to sit in my quiet and candle-lit home and listen to the CD.

The operetta turns on the story of the Three Kings, journeying across a barren land in search of the meaning of a star. At its heart are the Amahl and his mother, living in isolation and need. He is cheerfully oblivious to the poverty that has taken from them sheep, goat, and food; she is increasingly irritated by his propensity for amusing himself with fantastical stories. She furiously sends him to bed after he has stayed out too late playing his flute, only to come inside with some of his biggest lies ever, about a star "as big as a window [that] moves across the sky like a chariot on fire."

Into the rest of the short production are packed the arrival of the kings (whom the mother at first believes to be another figment of her son's imagination); Amahl's humorous interactions with them; the musical and dancing entertainment provided by the local shepherds; the mother's longing looks at the visitors' display of wealth, which prompt one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of Christmas music in existence; her desperation for her son's circumstances; the revelation of the true character of the new king; and Amahl's innocent generosity, which leads to the first miracle of Christmas.

It's a simple enough story, full of whimsy, sorrow, and triumph. Overarchingly present are the great lights -- the light of the star which entrances a young child, puzzles his mother, and exerts a powerful pull on the three strangers, -- and the greater light to which it points. It is a children's opera, but it presents in an hour the entire sweep of Isaiah 9:2-7 as played out by the curious cast of characters who assemble in our imaginations each December.

"Have you seen a Child the color of wheat, the color of dawn? His eyes are mild, his hands are those of a King,As King he was born.
Have you seen a Child the color of earth, the color of thorn? His eyes are sad, His hands are those of the poor, as poor he was born.
Incense, myrrh and gold we bring to his side.And the eastern star is our guide."

Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Do You Believe in Dreams and Angels - For the Fourth Sunday in Advent (12/19/04)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25) [NRSV]

This year, for me, Advent has had an ominous feel to it.

Maybe it was that first reading, in which Jesus warned that "about that day or hour, no one knows." Maybe it was John the Baptist, with his seemingly unbalanced rants. Maybe it's the appearances of these angels, last week to Mary, in person, and now to Joseph in a dream.
Maybe it's just the stresses of the season. It seems to get harder, not easier, each year. The rampant materialism -- last December I thought that one of my friends was going to have a complete breakdown right there in the coffee shop as she described her distressed attempts to avoid all malls and stores effective immediately the day after Thanksgiving. This year, I'm her. The organizational challenges -- children moving around the globe, home from college and gone again, one in France as I write this; college applications in the mail, meaning even more airline angst next winter; parents hours away dealing with a devastatingly serious illness; a job that offers no break until Christmas Eve; a house in chaos in which, nevertheless, 30-plus people will gather for Christmas dinner.

But no -- it's not the tensions inherent in my own little life. There is agitation out there, in the cosmos, well beyond the strains here at home and those pulling our nation and planet apart. And Christmas is the beginning of the church year, the beginning of the annual cycle of trying to identify and address and reconcile those grander movements. For Joseph, they at first appear to dwell in his own little life, just as mine do for me. He's just an ordinary man, a carpenter and an observant Jew, planning to marry the young lady down the road who has turned up pregnant. He's a decent sort of fellow, so he's going to break the engagement quietly, hoping to put a stop to the gossip around the village well before it even begins. Mary will have her own humiliation to deal with, but he won't compund it for either of them.

And then an angel appears, in a dream. What do you believe about your dreams? Joseph probably knew that the other Joseph's dreams turned out to be fairly significant. Israel was saved because of those dreams. When things happen in dreams, at least in the Bible, the tensions of family and home pale in contrast to the strains suddenly illuminated in the world.
My own dreams are fairly confusing and seldom remembered, except in those awful predawn hours when I find myself frantic to get back to sleep so that I can dream up a happier ending than the tortured one that has just awakened me. I wonder if Joseph tried to alter the course of his dream.

If he did, we will never know. In the story as we have it, he wakes up and does what he has been told to do. We don't hear anything about his surprise or his unrest; we are left to imagine that for ourselves.

Did he know, somehow? Did he understand that he had been pulled away from his personal concerns, away from even the concerns of the world as he knew it? His son is to be named Emmanuel, which means "God with us" -- how terrifying is that?

No wonder he woke up. His chances of ordinary fatherhood are gone. No typically tedious arrival for this baby, no simple pleasures of teaching his craft to his son, no anticipation of a son's successes to be enjoyed from the vantage point of old age.

In an essay I read recently, the author's wife prays "for the grace of a normal day."* Looks like that's out for Joseph.

His dream is as ominous as all the other events of Advent. I have never been struck as I have this year by the incongruity between what we as a noisy and acquisitive culutre make of Advent and what the Bible actually says about it. Good things are going to happen, but in a very, very hard way.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Reversals - For the Third Sunday in Advent (12/12/04)

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise . (Luke 1:47-55) [NRSV].
Henry Ossawa Tanner's Annunciation 1898
The Bible is often an inhospitable place for women and yet here, after the dark insistence of the first two Sundays of Advent, is this exquisite anthem celebrating the gracious acceptance and wonder experienced by a young woman whom we would not criticize for a second had her song been instead one of fear and resistance.
The Gospel writers were, as far as we know, all men. Yet Luke finds room, again and again, to celebrate the spirit and contributions of women.
The Bible is full of people who resist God's call. Some of them murmur, "But I can't," and must be persuaded that they can. Some of them launch extended arguments with God. At least one of them has to be consumed by a whale before he gets it. And yet Mary, the least likely in a series of unlikely choices, embraces God's claim on her life without hesistation.
Mary refers to her "lowliness" and surely she, of all people, would know. Naive, unmarried, impoverished, and in something of a predicament. And yet, full of confidence that God has favored her with God's presence, bodily and spiritually.
Mary is not, so far as we know, an educated woman. Not a politician. Not a speechmaker. Not a sociologist or economist. And yet she grasps and proclaims, from the moment it is announced to her, the import of her pregnancy: the low, as always in the economy of the New Testament, will be lifted and the mighty will be, just as inevitably, laid low.
Pay attention! That is the recurring theme of Advent. Pay attention to the prospect of mystery in an isolated cave. Pay attention to the uneasy juxtaposition of material excess and spiritual poverty. Pay attention when angels show up unexpectedly.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Advent Unease - For the Second Sunday in Advent (12/5/04)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:1-12 [NRSV])

There is no way to get around it; this material always sounds a jarring note prior to the Advent we like to experience, the one where we sing carols and anticipate angels and shepherds and wise men from afar. Sheep and cattle and camels, too -- no scowling tigers or lunging bears. We like to limit our Advent discord to family squabbles over fake versus real, pine versus spruce, steady versus twinkling. No vipers ands burning chaff for us, thank you very much.

But there it is, right at the beginning of the Gospel, and what are we supposed to do with it?
I always wondered about John the Baptist. I mean, he sounds quite ill. Who would listen to a man wandering around in animal clothing, crunchy locusts and honey dripping from his hands as he shouted his unique mixture of invective and ecstatic proclamation?

Years ago, I used to work downtown, and a large lady with a tamborine made frequent lunchtime sojourns up and down the block in front of a major department store, shouting the good news of salvation to all the passers-by, who studiously looked the other way. A gentleman in a suit often roamed the same block, preaching fire and brimstone at the top of his lungs. One day he walked right up to me, pointed his finger in my face, and intoned in a deep bass voice worthy of James Earl Jones, "God sees all of your secret sins!"

That was not good news to me.

I spent this past Thanksgiving week-end in Chicago with my family, and we went to see the Christmas displays at Marshall Field's. Sure enough, the Chicago version of John the Baptist inhabited the corner in front of one of the Snow White display windows. This one was a yoing man, eanestly sincere as he repeatedly insisted into a bullhorn that the oblivious shoppers needed to hear the words of the Gospel and ensure their salvation. Most of the crowd, of course, ignored him or, if forced by the crowd in his direction, turned politely away.

John is extreme, for sure, and his harsh words interject, at minimum, a sense of unease into our holiday festivities. But Christmas is an uneasy holiday. There is such a gaping disconnect between the meaning of Christmas and the endless round of shopping, decorating and partying that we try not to notice it. But there is John, to remind us.

I'm not, by nature, much of a shopper, so I think it's wise for me to refrain from criticizing people who are. I can think of few less appealing ways of spending my Thanksgiving holiday week-end than racing through stores. But we did have fun inspecting the elaborate Marshall Field's window displays and checking out the giant tree inside. In years past, we've taken kids to see Santa, attended Nutcracker and Christmas Carol productions , and made a family tradition of one big night of downtown shopping. We host a huge dinner on Christmas Day, and a couple of years we've taken elaborate trips. We could by no means be mistaken for clones of John the Baptist.

But that unease is always there. Christmas, after all, is really about Easter. And before Easter comes the ministry of Jesus, with its passionate focus on the poor and distressed. And after Easter comes Pentecost, the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire of which John speaks, which we are supposed to use to bring Christ into the world. There's just nothing in there about maxing out credit cards to buy stacks of plastic kitchens and toy weapons.

One of my favorite Christmas songs, which I've heard only at the church I now attend, is entitled "And Every Stone Shall Cry." You can read the lyrics and listen to a portion of it here. Its haunting melody reminds us that

Yet He shall be forsakenAnd yielded up to dieThe sky shall groan and darkenAnd every stone shall cry
but also that
But now as at the endingThe low is lifted highThe stars will bend their voicesAnd every stone shall cry*

That song, I think, reflects on what we are meant to hear in the story of John the Baptist each Advent. The outrage is there, of course -- outrage over a world which persists in focusing on the glitz and the tensions of holiday preparation rather than the incarnate presence of God, and which finds expression in a concluding prediction of angry judgment. But so is the disappointment, at our sad inability to recognize that, in the economy of the Bible, the low is always lifted high.