What do you say about a story so familiar? Where do you start when nearly every phrase of this chapter has been the text for Christmas sermons, or written in fancy script on Christmas cards, or memorized by a third grader for the congregational Christmas pageant … or for those who prefer another pop-culture reference … the phrases recited by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas?”
I could use this as an opportunity to discuss the Christmas myths … talk about what’s historically accurate and what isn’t, share the Greek and Roman influences on our stories, illumine the three very different gospel accounts of the birth narrative and how we’ve merged the details into one seamless script. We could discuss the character of Mary and her reaction to the presence of Gabriel, or her honor of being the “handmaiden of The Lord” in the midst of the shame of an unwed pregnancy. We could look into the character of Joseph and how he discerns his dreams and lives in a more than righteous, more than “decently and in order”, but a loving, risky and compassionate way.
We could come at the story from the point of view of the shepherds, or the magi, fleshing out the meaning of the story for the peasants or the people of other lands. We could focus on the baby, born amidst the animals, wrapped in rags, and resting in a feed sty. Or the not-yet-bar-mitzvahed tween who, after having been a refugee in Egypt, seeks to learn about his own people’s heritage and faith in the temple, instead of being on the road again with his parents, brothers and sisters, and the whole caravan.
Today, though, I’m struck by the expectation of a people … It’s like we’re at the performance of a Broadway musical. Act 1 came to a close. We were in the lobby (or the rest room) for the last 15 minutes eavesdropping on other show-goers’ comments about the lighting, the acting, the singing, the story. Some of us strayed outside the realm of the theater for a bit … We returned text messages, answered an email or two, listened to voicemail, or updated our Facebook status. We may have had a glass of wine, or an overpriced handful of mixed nuts. But now we are ready … ready for the lights to dim, and the spotlight to illumine the conductor of the pit orchestra. It’s time. Act 1 was good, really good … But we expect something more in Act 2 … Something more delightful, more tear-jerking, more profound. We sit attentively, listening, and the music starts …
As the music starts, we hear the allusions to the first 21 chapters of the story. This act begins with words that are reminiscent of creation itself, “in the beginning …” Hear it? “In the beginning was The Word.” … “Let there be light.” … “The light shines over the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And then the narration of Moses and the Law: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Remember? Moses met God on the mountain and in the tabernacle, but he was the only one to see God face to face.
We meet the young girl, Mary, who upon learning she is to be mother of Christ, asks “how is that to be?” It’s not quite the snarky laughter of Sarah who claimed to be too old to be pregnant, but the sweet naïveté of a child claiming she is too young. And then, while she’s “sent away” to her aunt’s home in another city, Mary sings the song of Hannah.
Joseph is the father of Jesus, the son of Jacob … Sound familiar? And he, too, is a dreamer. God speaks to him, gives him direction through his dreams. The dreams lead the holy family to Egypt … not as slaves, but as refugees.
The angels appear in the night sky to shepherds … Shepherds like Joseph’s brothers, like Esau and Jacob, like King David … And the magi come from far off lands to bring homage to the boy-king, just like people came from far and wide to Joseph in Egypt during the famine a couple thousand years earlier.
Herod is out to kill any young king, so he gives an order that all young boys will be killed … Do you remember how Moses was saved from infanticide? And the lover of musicals will hear the Egyptian motif played softly by the strings beneath the poetry of Act 2, scene 1 …
Clearly the birth of Jesus isn’t the beginning of the story. It is the opening of Act 2. And, just like an overture to the second act of a musical will include reprises of the melodies and allusions to the plot points of the first act, this chapter is filled with memories of what had come before — now in a new light. What’s coming in this act? We sit on the edge of our seats knowing and hoping Act 2 is not just more of the same, now we listen with awe and anticipation for the climax of the story. We’re not disappointed. Chapter 22 a not just another king story, it’s not just another prophet story or priest story … it’s the Messianic story, that not only points to the words of God in the Law and the writings, but reveals The Word of God in the flesh.
I had a real hard time coming up with something to write this week. After all, this stuff is all so familiar. Even people who don’t know anything else about the church know the Christmas story. What new could I add? As has been my pattern in the past when I got stuck like this, I went back and read the full text of the biblical narrative, not just the reduced version we have in “The Story.” Even that didn’t help at first, until I talked it through with Wendy. It was in my conversation with her that I realized that what had stood out was something seemingly boring and mundane – the genealogy of Jesus, through Joseph, as presented in Matthew 1.
Many of the names presented in that list have figured prominently in our studies of the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, on down to David and beyond. But the names that stuck with me weren’t the kings or the patriarchs. They were the women. Tamar, who played the prostitute to conceive by Judah; Rahab, the outsider prostitute from Jericho who protected the spies; and Ruth, the Moabite who came back with Naomi during the time of the Judges. All of these women were outsiders in one way or another. Yet they are the only women named in Jesus’ family tree. (Bathsheba is named indirectly as well, and, while an insider by birth, she certainly has some “outsiderness” associated with her story)
In general, throughout the Old Testament, we’ve seen a message of exclusion of outsiders — the goal has been the purity of the people, not the inclusion of others. In the coming of Jesus, we see a shift. It’s most clearly illustrated in what is known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” Latin for “Now Let,” which is the beginning of Simeon’s prayer on encountering the baby Jesus:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou has prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel
(I normally quote from the NRSV, but this passage is so well known to me in this form from musical settings, I just had to use King James)
The section that I marked in bold is the key phrase. Jesus is coming not just for “the glory of thy people” but also as a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” Jesus is joining those two worlds. Not necessarily making them all the same, but joining them in their differences.
Beyond that, we have some of the “well known players” in our Christmas pageant: the shepherds, and the magi. Both groups bridging that gap between “insider” and “outsider” in their own ways. The shepherds were, we assume, Jews. Insiders of the people of God. But, as shepherds, they would have been scorned and avoided. Surely as “outsider” as an insider can be. Yet these are the people the angels speak to, announcing the birth of the Messiah. Then, there are the magi. They are also referred to as “kings from the East.” Surely outsiders. Yet they were wealthy men, met with honor by Herod, the king of the Jews. They were the ones who saw that star heralding the birth of new king, not the priests.
So what does all of that mean?
My own feeling is that, just as we are called to be followers of Jesus, we are called to be that bridge between those on the inside, and those on the outside. To be a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” To live our lives such that we can be a guiding light to others.
This week we’ll be reading the story of the birth of Jesus. That’s Chapter 22: The Birth of the King. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2; John 1. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory.