Advent 4 – Mystery of Christmas

“The Mystery of Christmas,” Susan Ryder 

Mysteries abound this time of year, the perfect time for us to consider what it means to be a people of mystery. When we were younger, the mysteries of December included how Santa knows what we want for Christmas, and how does he deliver toys to all the children the world in one night? How does he get into your house to drop off gifts if you don’t have a fireplace and a chimney? How does he see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake, and which of his lists you’re on? Well, that’s not such a mystery anymore with Alexa and motion-detecting sensor cameras in our homes.

On this day after Winter Solstice, as the days finally begin to lengthen, we’ve pretty much solved the mystery that plagued human beings from the time they first looked up and noticed that the sun was rising lower and lower in the sky each day, and as the days grew shorter they feared that, one day, the sun simply wasn’t going to rise at all. It must have been frightening for those earliest human generations, who beseeched the gods that they would not be cast into eternal darkness because they didn’t know about the Earth orbiting around the sun, or the way the Earth tilts on its axis.

If we look at the biblical stories of Christmas, mystery abounds there, too. The star that rises in the east. The angels that visit the shepherds. Why was a poor young virgin chosen to give birth to the Sacred, and why did the three wise men bring such impractical gifts to a baby? But perhaps the greatest mystery of Christmas is why this baby, the incarnation of the Sacred, came to Earth in the humblest of forms instead of being born in a palace. Progressive Christians find the Christmas stories hard to swallow, I know. We’re hard-pressed to believe them literally. But just because something may not be factual doesn’t make it any less true – and in this case, the stories are powerful, and hold up generation after generation. I invite you to listen with open hearts and minds as we hear the two familiar stories from Luke and Matthew. I don’t know if it really happened this way or not, but I believe these stories are true.

 READINGS

Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Matthew 2:1-14 (abridged)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea.’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

Evelyn Underhill: “The Incarnation, which is for popular Christianity synonymous with the historical birth and earthly life of Christ, is for the mystic not only this but also a perpetual Cosmic and personal process. It is an everlasting bringing forth, in the universe and also in the individual ascending soul, of the divine and perfect Life, the pure character of God.”

REFLECTION
A church in California was recently in the news for an outdoor manger scene depicting the holy family separated – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph each in their own chain link cages topped with barbed wire. Other churches around the country have done something similar thing in recent years, the gestures evoking compassion for immigrant families who, after crossing the US border seeking asylum, have been separated and caged in detention centers, children literally ripped from their mother’s arms. Some have died in ICE custody, including at least eight children that we know of, and there are reports of newborns being put into the foster care system, waiting  for adoption while their mothers are being deported soon after their birth.

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Claremont United Methodist Church is one of the most recent congregations taking heat for their nativity scene. Their pastor, Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, shared the theological statement posted with the nativity on her Facebook page:

“In a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at our borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Holy Family. Shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee with their young son from Nazareth to Egypt to escape King Herod, a tyrant. They feared persecution and death. What if this family sought refuge in our country today? Imagine Joseph and Mary separated at the border and Jesus no older than two taken from his mother and placed behind the fences of a Border Patrol detention center as more than 5,500 children have been the past three years. Jesus grew up to teach us kindness and mercy and a radical welcome of all people. He said: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ In the Claremont United Methodist Church nativity scene this Christmas, the Holy Family takes the place of the thousands of nameless families separated at our borders. Inside the church, you will see this same family reunited, the Holy Family together, in a nativity that joins the angels in singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all.”

“We don’t see it as political; we see it as theological,” Rev. Ristine told LA Times reporter James Queally. But tens of thousands of people around the U.S. didn’t see it that way. As you might imagine, the display elicited many negative responses on social media, some of which threatened harm and were overtly racist. “May the Heavens send fire to take down your church when it’s empty,” one self-identified Christian wrote, adding a praying hands emoji to their response.  Well, at least they called down the fires of heaven when no one was in the building, how very Christian of them.

Sandy Banks wrote for the LA Times: “The venom the image generated shook the church community — particularly given the fact that Claremont Methodist has for several years celebrated Christmas with unconventional Nativity scenes built around social justice themes. In its first departure from the Nativity norm in 2007, Joseph and Mary were a modern homeless couple on a ghetto street. The next year the Holy Family was depicted as war refugees in bombed-out Iraq. In 2009, they were Mexican migrants, halted by the U.S. border wall. In 2010, Mary was an African American woman holding her infant, alone in a prison cell. Since then, the church has moved beyond Christmas liturgy to take on LGBTQ issues and racism — including one Nativity scene with no Holy Family but two same-sex couples and the label “Christ is Born,” and another featuring Joseph and Mary huddled over their baby, a hoodie-clad Trayvon Martin with blood streaming from his chest. Those drew some backlash. But nothing like this.”

One relatively benign critique shared in the LA Times caught my attention, “This is such a sad situation and my heart breaks for those separated. However, I think this display is so disrespectful to our Lord and Savior. Perhaps you could share this message in a different way.” Yes, the display is provocative and makes people uncomfortable. But to interpret it as disrespectful of Jesus or Christianity is to miss the point of the Christmas story entirely. The traditional image of Christmas is blended from the two Gospel stories found in Luke (shepherds, angel choir, manger scene) and Matthew (guiding star, wise men with gifts, Herod seeking to destroy the child), which I read earlier.

Our relationship with Christmas traditionally focuses on a sentimental longing for the innocence warm fuzzy feelings associated with Jesus’ birth – the hushed stillness of a midnight Christmas Eve service, as we remember and honor that young couple – usually with light skin tones – beginning their new family in a humble stable with friendly animals keeping watch. We tend to experience Christmas as a respite from the realities of life. “We turn down the news, turn up the Christmas music and try to cling to the holiday’s essential meaning: Hope. Peace. Goodwill. Joy to the world. We don’t want to disturb our cookie baking and home decorating with graphic reminders of the cruelty unfolding in our country, on our watch. We don’t want to think about the wrong being done to strangers in our name.” (Sandy Banks) So some chaff at the prospect of blending politics with twinkly house lights, presents under a beautifully trimmed tree, singing carols and enjoying hot chocolate by the fireplace where the stockings are hung with care, awaiting Santa with family and friends.

Of course these nostalgic traditions are fine and lovely, but the Christian roots of the nativity story are entirely political, and anyone taking exception to them ignores the essential meaning of the season. For Matthew tells us that not long after his birth, Jesus, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee to Egypt to escape Herod, fearing persecution and death. And when St. Francis created the first nativity scene in 1223 in Greccio Italy, inspired by Luke’s version of the story, he did so in part to illustrate the dire circumstances into which Jesus was born. Gospel writers were quite deliberate in associating the loving presence of God being born into our world with those who were most in need and at risk. God being born in a stable IS God being born among refugees, the poor, the disenfranchised, with God incarnated AS one of the refugees, one of the poor, one of the disenfranchised. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the glaring similarities between a refugee family separated into cages and the manger scene.

“I know we all want to have that sweet family Christmas. But there are hopeless people all around us, and we can’t pretend that they don’t exist,” said another pastor of an LA church with a similar nativity scene to the one in Claremont. And it is there that Christ is born anew, each and every year – among the hopeless, the lost, the separated families at the border. The mystery and miracle of Christmas are not to be found in a one-time story of a virgin birth with angelic messengers announcing his arrival – the mystery and miracle of Christmas are the good news of God’s yearning for a commonwealth of compassion and justice – which is continually birthed into our world in the most vulnerable of circumstances, year after year after year, in the most unlikely places. Christmas happened – Christmas continues to happen – in the least likely places, and that is the mystery we are called to celebrate and embrace.

The message of Christmas is so compelling and obvious that once you figure it out you can’t miss it, you can’t see it any other way – it’s the story of the Sacred inserting itself into the most desperate and hellish circumstances in the world, caring about the people who have been abandoned there. The mystery is how do we keep missing that? Why do people take offense at the nativity scene outside of that church in Claremont when it depicts the very message of the Christmas story itself? Why are some people MORE upset about the nativity scene in Claremont than they are about migrants separated from their families in cases just a 100 miles south? How do some continually find new and worse ways to ignore the message that God comes to most forsaken places?

With those questions and images in mind, I invite you to take a moment to consider what your manger scene would look like if you could create your own – who are the forsaken you would model in your creche? Where does the Christ Child need to be born anew – in your life or in the lives of others?

WINTER SOLSTICE

Perhaps for a moment the keyboards will stop clicking, the wheels stop rolling, the computers desist from computing, and a hush will fall over the city.

For an instant, in the stillness, the chiming of the celestial spheres will be heard as earth hangs poised in the crystalline darkness, and then gracefully tilts.

Let there be a season when holiness is heard, and the splendor of living is revealed. Stunned to stillness by beauty, we remember who we are and why we are here.

There are inexplicable mysteries. We are not alone. In the universe there moves a Wild One whose gestures alter earth’s axis toward love.

In the immense darkness everything spins with joy. The cosmos enfolds us.

We are caught in a web of stars, cradled in a swaying embrace, rocked by the holy night, babes of the universe.

Let this be the time we wake to life, like spring wakes, in the moment of winter solstice.

~Rebecca Parker