Monday, December 22, 2014

Living beyond the rules

We know that Joseph was more than a bit concerned about his future with Mary. We know that when she was conceived they were not yet married -- and that the baby wasn't his. We know from the gospel narratives that he considered divorcing her, as was his right under Jewish law. It is immediately clear from these circumstances, that Jesus began his life - even in Mary's womb, in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Perhaps, this is one of the most important lessons we can learn from our retelling of the stories surrounding the birth of the Messiah. Not only in his teaching, but even in the pattern of his birth, Jesus showed us that life is often difficult and fraught with danger. It may even collide with the conventions of polite society. One thing that characterized the life and teachings of Jesus from the very beginning is that simply following the rules never leads to true righteousness.  Throughout the gospels we often find Jesus on the "other side" of the rules.

We might want to object to this idea. We may say that the Holy Family was special because of their special mission and vocation-- and that the rules don't apply to them -- that their case was miraculous and so does not compare with our own. And so it was. BUT the purpose of God's miracles in our midst is always to show us something about the way God works in the world. None of us is the blessed Mary nor the righteous Joseph. But by showing us these people in the proper context of their world, a difficult one as ours is in its own way, holy scripture challenges us to live up to the miracles that we see in their pages. This is how the "spirit" of Christmas becomes real.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Greetings and Change

The Christmas cards have started to arrive en masse. Many of them are beautiful religious scenes, often copies of great works of art, medieval illuminations, and, of course, stained glass. Some are depictions of those ideal Christmases of Victorian times -- sleighs in the woods, gas lamps, carolers. Almost all of them hearken back to an earlier time when things were "simpler," "more pure," "less complicated."

Yet, all we need to remember is that "A Christmas Carol" (the classic short story by Charles Dickens, describes Christmas in less naive ways: workhouses, families stricken by poverty and disease) reminds us that it was never really simpler, more pure, or less complicated.

Our longing for "back in the day" is, in some ways, an escape from the present difficulty. No matter how much we dress them up in bows and glitter, the institutions (ways of life) for which we long will not magically transport us from those difficulties. We deceive ourselves for a few moments but ultimately have to return to the fact that we still face disease, poverty, inequality, racism, unconscious bias, reliance on force and fear. This story is as old as the original Christmas story itself.

Jesus came into a world plagued with poverty, inequality, and disease. The story of his birth makes no mistake about that . . . and his ministry focused precisely in these elements of the human condition. He came to proclaim that the world into which he was born need not be a place filled with unnecessary human suffering. What we need to do is to trust in God and God's loving plan for humanity.

This trust cannot be based on naive yearnings, however. That is clearly the message of John the Baptizer. That trust is born of true repentance, metanoia, a change in direction that can occur only with a deep change of heart.

And so we come full circle to the pile of seasons greetings on our sideboard. Each one of these actually represents the potential for an incremental move toward that kingdom Jesus came to proclaim. If we send those greetings in sincerity and truth and not out of mere habit, tradition, or worse, obligation, then each one represents on opportunity to realize the change of heart required for the kingdom of God to take root.

That was the transformation wrought in Dickens' tale. The greetings that were given in earnest by passersby and by family and friends to old Scrooge were finally heeded . . . and a heart was changed . . a metanoia occurred . . . a heart hardened against the grace of God melted in love and became human again -- just as human as the Christ Child.