Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas: Year A,B,C

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas I

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Our comments during Advent described Isaiah's paradoxical perspective: unvarnished realism about humanity contrasted with absolute hope. In the history of patriarchal Israel, hope in God's rescuing God's people in what seemed impossibly oppressed situations was focused on the birth of a son. That new life, full of promise, seemed a meaningful symbol for a fresh start out of the ruins of past failures of the people and of the leaders. In this passage, Isaiah links this universal hope to an idealized memory of the reign of David. But this new monarch will inaugurate peace upheld by justice.

This psalm illustrates how the Bible is frequently a compilation of texts in a new text. This psalm is a "mosaic" of excerpts from many psalms. The nationalistic aspirations for reliable peace and justice are now expanded beyond the Jews to the whole earth.

Titus (as well as First and Second Timothy) seem to also be compilations, this time of fragments from letters assumed to be by Paul. The emphasis here, however, is on deeds of love and mercy not so much as a response to our personal experience of receiving God's love and mercy as practical ways to be separated from larger society.

Raymond Brown's essential
The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Birth Narratives of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1977) speculates that Matthew began his gospel with a birth narrative and then continued, but that Luke wrote his gospel and later attached a birth narrative under the influence of similar birth/youth narratives for seminal leaders in the ancient world. Basic Lucan themes are clear: the essential role of some very unlikely people in God's work in the world-- a devout young girl and some simple, earthy shepherds; yet placed in the history of the world, specifically the Roman Empire, and the ancient longings of the Jews always centered on some restored form of the Davidic monarchy.  Fr. Brown also assumed that the details of the birth narratives were not historical "facts," even though Luke's narrative, especially, provides specific names and events.  It was, Fr. Brown demonstrated, instead a brilliant amalgamation of texts, extant interpretations, customs and popular beliefs mostly initiated by the Hebrew Scriptures, in particular the Books of Isaiah and Micah.  Its purpose was a point-by-point counter story to the dominant narrative of the day-- human invincibility as represented in the Roman Empire, specifically in the person of the Emperor Augustus, whose birthday had been made  into the first day of a new calendar and  surviving inscriptions hail him as "savior of the whole world." (p.393 ff)

Christmas II
Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus:3:4-7, Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

Written after the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon, this passage offers a vision of Jerusalem fully restored to its earlier grandeur and secure position as a sign of God's redemption of "the holy people."

This psalm is another example of the way biblical writers borrow and give new propose to habits of speech from neighbors. The image of the Lord surrounded clouds, thunder and lightning is borrowed from Canaanite mythology. But the power of the divinity is not an end in itself, it is to establish justice.

Unlike the earlier excerpt from Titus, this one seems to be closer to Paul's original writings. Followers are to be known for their "works of righteousness" in response to the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ.

See comments above for similar excepts from Luke's birth narrative.

Christmas III
Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12), John 1:1-14

Continuing Isaiah's powerful use of paradox, the writer depicts Jerusalem in ruins, but still calls for hope in God's action. Among the ruins and debris of destruction, he envisions the sentinels announcing God's salvation and calls for singing and celebration.  Walter Brueggemann interprets this passage as an announcement which has the force of creating what it announces: God reigns and God's people flourish!  "Where Yahweh rules, there is another world of human possibility." "a new world pushes with determination against the old one.  It begins in singing...." (Israel's Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988, p.49)

The psalmist recalls how God acted with decisive power as yet another form of god's "bounty," "kindness" and "faithfulness."  The "whole earth" is enjoined to "shout out," to "burst out in song" accompanied by strings and brass that also accompany the rivers and mountains, because "when the Lord comes to judge the earth" it will be with pure justice and righteousness.

Josipovici in The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), singles out the Book of Hebrews for its role in interpreting the ancient sacred texts to describe the life and significance of Christ. He details how this reinterpretation altered Hebrew assumptions and left a lasting impact on the Western imagination. Christian preachers today, who join the "sacra conversazione" of constant reinterpretation of scriptures can remain sensitive to the integrity of the First Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, and still retain the honored role of Jesus for Christians in the Second Testament.  In this except, the writer recalls that God spoke in the past through prophets, but now speaks through "a Son," who is "the reflection of God's glory and exact imprint of God's very being."  He then cites various excerpts from existing scripture to highlight what Christians see so compellingly in Jesus.

Jean-Luc Marion notes, "for every mortal, the first word was already heard before he could utter it," she can only "undergo by receiving it...."  Therefore, "some gift happens to me because it precedes me in such a way that I must recognize that I proceed from it."  (Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, p.270)  Applying Marion's primacy of "the word" to Genesis, we appreciate better the import of the announcement that God "speaks" and then order, beauty, meaning, relationships follow.  The opening of John's gospel, which invokes the opening of Genesis, announces that "the Word became flesh,"  inaugurating a "second" beginning/ birth/ genesis.  And God's motive is the same in both beginnings-- love for creation.

Luce Irigaray, psychoanalyst and philosopher, reacted to a sermon she heard at Notre Dame, Paris, on Christmas Day. "There wasn't so much as a trace of the birth of God made man, and no incarnation save the choice of text, the voice of the preacher, and the congregation gathered there." "why invite the people to a celebration of the Eucharist on Christmas day if not to glorify the felt, the corporeal and fleshly advent of the divine, this coming, the consequences of which theology seems far from understanding." (The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, ed.
ed. Graham Ward, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997, p. 205)

The appearance of the divine in the Bible does not separate the human from the divine, it embodies the divine in the human-- literally. Luke's simple story, unselfconsciously mixing angels and smelly shepherds, an act of God in the confines of a shelter for animals, requires the Christian preacher to also point out the divine in the human. That divine love can and does penetrate and illuminate our lives in all its messiness is cause for celebration if there ever was one! God is not aloof from creation. Now the child depends on the basic human care of a young mother and father. The most mundane, human actions are now imbued with the full stature of the divine. The most mundane, human actions can become means of salvation. There is hope. There is cause for joy.

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance...
Behold, the body includes and is the meaning , the main
Concern, and includes and is the soul

Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass

Further thoughts---
Throughout the Tanakh, when the future seems to be trailing off to a dead end, when humankind's prospects seems doomed to cycles of repeated failures, when faith in God seems nearly foolish, God enables a miraculous birth that in an instant wipes away what seemed crushingly inevitable. Indeed, the entire story of this journey with this God begins with a miraculous birth of a son to an elderly Abraham and barren Sarah.

More than Matthew, Luke uses this tradition with its powerful emotional undertow in his narratives about Zechariah and Elizabeth, a new Abraham and Sarah, and Mary and Joseph, through whom God does something even more spectacular to participate directly in human life. The birth of Jesus originates not with a barren woman and an old man, but a virgin who is "overcome" by the Holy Spirit with the exemplary support of her betrothed.

Hannah Arendt, a non-practicing Jew who knew the horrors of the Twentieth Century first-hand and who struggled with the resulting moral crises along with some of the most probing thinkers of her time saw clearly and could write:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from it's normal, "natural" ruin is ultimately the fact of natality.... It is, in other words, the birth of new men (sic) and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora's box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announce their "glad tidings": "A child has been born to us." (The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1958, p. 247)

Further thoughts----

What began as modest tropes on biblical/liturgical texts became in the Middle Ages day-long plays with hundred of characters in as many as forty-eight different scenes. Among the most elaborate and popular were those plays presented on the Feast of Corpus Christi in the Medieval English city of York, from which we have the most complete, extant script. Each guild of workers in York became responsible for the production of one of the scenes, which were written and performed in the vernacular with a few, well-known phrases from the Latin liturgy. Each scene was imbued with the whole range of human emotions, from deepest sadness to light comedy. The Corpus Christi play was performed in York from 1375 until 1569, having been banned in England in 1534. The scene of the nativity of Jesus was the responsibility, appropriately, of the roofers or thatchers in the city. In the script, after Joseph expresses his joy and anxieties about the impending birth, Mary assures him "God will advise, full well, you'll see" and then she sings this song:

Now in my soul great joy have I;
I am all clad in comfort clear.
Now will be born of my body
Both God and man together here.
Blessed must be he.
Jesus my son that is so dear,
Now born is he.

[after the birth, Mary continues]

Hail, my lord God, hail prince of peace;
Hail, my father, and hail, my son;
Hail, sovereign Lord, all sins to cease;
Hail, God and man on earth to run;
Hail, through whose might
All this world was first begun:
Darkness and light.

Son, as I am a simple subject of thine
Permit, sweet son, I pray to you
That I might take thee in these arms of mine,
In this poor weed to cover you.
Grant me your bliss,
As I am your mother chosen to be
In faithfulness.

from a "Modernization" of the text by Chester N. Scoville and Kimberly M. Yates, copyright Toronto 2003

For a full text of the York play, see