December 2009 Archives
The Christmas story, whatever one does or does not believe, is a story of reversals. It's a story of tipping things over to set things right. Yet it all seems so familiar that we forget how much it requires wild imagination. The starring actors a poor family, the grand setting a tiny backwater town, heavenly angels speaking only to the sketchy demographic of sheep herders, and at the heart of it: a Jewish bastard (or so it would seem) in the Roman empire whom foreign envoys call "king," the God of the universe a naked baby. When you let yourself take it all in, well, it seems frighteningly relevant, (again) whatever one believes. I say frightening because no one really wants to embrace the unexpected, question assumptions, and allow that what is isn't always what should be.Yet it's time to do just that. I don't mean to suggest that chaotic anarchy is the answer. Not at all. But a cold hard look at what is love, what is justice, what is our place in the world, adopting a compassion so severe that we have to laugh,... and then to lighten up and change accordingly. Terrifying and exulting. Imagine.
Wonder and awe, wise men and shepherds, and the angels say, "Fear not." These are the days of extraordinary happenings, and in their very marvelousness, unnerving. The angels say, as biblical angels do, "Fear not," even while they dazzle and disturb. These are also the days, in pop culture, of vampires -- terrifying and dangerous. They, too, go in the between-places, and sometimes act as powerful guardians, just like the angels. Yet vampires and angels are categorically different, as Anne Rice recently noted. Or are they? I'm investigating the biblical shape, ways, and doings of angels, these days. And as I do, I can't help but think about our fascination with vampires, about life and death, courage and fear. In the biblical Christmas stories, the angels are heralds of life; vampires of death (no, no, they're not in the xmas stories; you know what I mean). The angels encourage; vampires terrify. But when we dig a little deeper, their roles are more nuanced and the boundaries less clear. And as we dig, we confront our own fascinations and repulsions and the wide wide realms of wonder and awe, mystery and possibility.
In this time of glad tidings, there's also no small amount hand-wringing on the one, er, hand, and disdain on the other. While some cry for a return of a Christ-centered to Christmas, others say "hey, it's not our holiday, so buzz off." Brit Robin Parry calls for a distinction between Advent and "Mad-spent," Christmas and "Wintermas" in his Christ-out-of-Christmas post, which finally is shares a lot in common with Russell King's put-Christ-back-IN-Christmas plea -- make space for those who celebrate differently. Peace, those greeting cards say. peace.
Nazareth or Bethlehem? Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke have infancy stories. They agree that angel announced Mary's conception, and they agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. They disagree on a number of other things, though, among them: at the time of conception, Matthew situates Jesus' family in Bethlehem. In Luke, they're in Nazareth. This reflects other, more general differences between the two: Matthew is a very "Jewish" gospel; Luke less so. In this case, Matthew may be recalling his Jewish sacred texts (Hebrew Bible), specifically Micah's prophecy from centuries earlier (late eighth century BCE): "you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Mic 5:2). And in Matthew, it's Joseph who receives the annunciation, Joseph through whose lineage Jesus is traced back to David (of Judah). Luke, on the other hand, focuses much more on women than do his gospel counterparts, and it is Mary who receives the annunciation. Mary, who is associated with Nazareth, in the Galilean region where Jesus would be remembered as conducting his ministry, teaching and preaching. Noting these differences needn't be an exercise is telling how the Bible can't be trusted, as some assert. Rather, among other things, they demonstrate the tremendous significance Jesus had for his followers in light of the richness of their traditions and theology.
Tis the season. Our local Tacky Christmas Lights Tour is gearing up for some big nights, and I can smell wood fires burning in the 'hood when I walk my dog at dusk. Tis the season for lights garish and warm, subtle and... well, not so subtle. What with the cheap cost of electricity and urban sprawl, we hardly feel the fall of night, much less its long intensity midwinter any more. But our lizard brains know it, and we celebrate St. Lucia Day, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas with the awed delight of our fire-dependent ancestors. So, welcome the dark and let there be light!
Or "old texts in a new medium." For a thoughtful blog about ancient Hebrew poetry, with links to some other great resources, too, you may be interested in checking out this one by John Hobbins (just follow the link)!