Dancing with God. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1:46-

 “And Mary said,  ‘I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.”

image She is, let’s say, 16 years old. She’s not married. We must assume there’s a Mom and Dad around somewhere, and given the Deuteronomic law they live and move and have their being within, the parents have got to be upset. And her boyfriend has the legal religious right, almost obligation,  to get a gang of his buddies together and stone her. To death.

Are they looking at her? Can they see yet? She’s brought shame on her family, her fiance, her neighborhood, and herself. She deserves whatever happens to her! She does!

Dirty, dirty, shame, shame..!!

All right, now..what follows now is my imagine gone wild (but certainly within these wide-getting-wider scriptural boundaries ). I’m imagining the “wise-beyond-her-years” Mary becoming more and more aware of her predicament. She knows what it looks like to the world. Maybe she has put off telling anyone about that weird night that may have been a dream, but it wasn’t a dream, and now her belly is swelling and she knows she’ll be able to hide for awhile from the men around her.. but not from her Mama. Mother will know.

Her periods began just last year, and Mom has helped her each time to clean herself because that was important and the scriptures said that’s how a Mother and a daughter should do it. This month, Mom would be wondering then asking why Mary was late, “Let me see,” she might say, and so Mary has to tell her, show her. Her breasts are a little sore now too and while she is not afraid of her mother, she is- afraid? yes, a little/ a lot- of the men around her.  Because that’s the only way a baby could get in there- right?- but she hadn’t done anything.. had she? She doubted herself sometimes- maybe? somehow? what if?- but no!no! nonono: she knew what she knew and even if no one else believed her.. she knew.

Will he believe her? Will Joseph believe her? How could he? But he will! Of course he won’t; who will ever believe me, she wonders. So what will happen?

Mary knows she should be afraid than she feels and part of her is-really- but it’s like she has to remember that she is supposed to be afraid because there is something really weird and..it feels kind of wonderful..about this thing growing in her- this baby- a baby?- yes, a baby. She even imagined that she could feel it moving. She knew it was a boy, somebody said it was a boy, or had she dreamed it was a boy?  She feels..peaceful, and she knows she shouldn’t be feeling that way; it doesn’t make any sense to feel that way!. And she doesn’t understand why but she feels so peaceful, that it’s like some kind of strange joy that seems to run like oil from the top of her head down to her feet. She walks outside and stands between the olive tree and the back of her house and because she must she raises her arms into the air and she laughs and she dances and she dances and she dances…

because it is the only thing she can do and it is the only thing she wants to do and she can, if she must remember to be afraid later..,

maybe..

or maybe she will never need to feel afraid again..

***

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

— T.S. Eliot

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Irony, Paradox, Tension. A Christmas Journey..

In a court of law, the whole story would be torn apart by even a mediocre prosecutor as soon as the words “virgin” and “pregnant” were used in the same sentence.

The defense could very well sway the jury by bringing out their main witness- Joseph, the put-upon and betrayed, but also believing, forgiving, and accepting fiance of the young “virgin mother.” 

Throw the dice. OK, 2 out of 3? 4 out of 7? Rock, Paper, Scissors? Eenie, meenie, miney, mo? Draw straws. Who’s right; who’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth; who’s lying?

Who is being good? Who is being bad?

Here’s one more really great thing about the Christmas story that not many people have considered: it makes no sense. Two completely different birth stories- Matthew’s and Luke’s- that come together only on Hallmark Christmas cards and childrens’ Sunday School handouts. Unlikely scenarios, difficult time-lines, and a cast of characters that includes a chorus of singing angels- it is through that wild potpourri of people and events that Jesus the Messiah appeared in the world, and turned that world into a new creation.

Luke 1: 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

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It made no sense and neither, if we admit it, does much of life. If we had a nativity story that followed a logical, consistent, and progressive series of facts, we would have every right to question all of it. When that kind of defense is put forward in a criminal court- when all of the witnesses and facts line up in perfect and straight rows, the prosecution can pretty easily show that there has been collusion and rehearsal in the presentation of a fictional defense.

Life, as we live it, is rarely an either/or set of decisions. We deal with people both as we hope they will be and as they are. We enjoy the food at a restaurant even though the service has been lousy. (Both/And) We do not throw our kids out of the house because their room is an unhealthy mess (Either/Or).

We learn to cut slack because slack is being cut for us all the time. We learn to give love and accept grace because we’re accepting love and extending grace all day long in our daily affairs. We may talk a lot in black & white, and even make some decisions based on what seems good and what seems bad, but we live in the inconsistencies of human interaction and in the chaos of a world that always being recreated.

The story of Jesus’ birth is a mess. So messy that Mark and John ignore it altogether. But that makes the story a lot like us. At least a lot like me. I’ll let you decide for yourself. That way both you and I will be right.  

Joseph, chagrined. A Christmas Journey..

fewMatthew 1: 18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

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carved Santos figures, “Mary and Joseph”, Guatamala, early 20th C.

According to Matthew, Joseph had a choice. What to do about his fiance Mary who was now pregnant, without his participation? Stop right now if you’re imagining how it went with your cousin/brother/neighbor who went through the same experience just a few years ago.  Mosaic law was a whole other animal than the rage and hurt faced by that guy you know.

First of all, Joseph and Mary weren’t just caught in a personal dilemma, nor was it a matter of sorting through various civil rules or cultural standards in any way we can relate to today (unless you’re a very conservative Muslim). Mary’s pregnancy forced  Joseph, his family, and her family into dealing with Mosaic law. Along with not eating oysters, mixing cotton and wool in a garment, or breaking up a fight by grabbing one of the participants by the testicles, getting pregnant before marriage was a wrong, wrong, wrong spiritual move. And unlike the other spiritual sins just listed, this one could get a girl dragged by the hair to the edge of town and stoned. Which happened then, even as it happens today. (And we hear about it happening, once in awhile, in a few countries like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia among some of those who practice fundamental interpretations of Sharia law but, in fact, it probably happens more frequently throughout in other small factions and communities of Islam, where  reporting to the outside world rarely happens.)

In other words, this wasn’t the kind of problem that would merely cause the neighbors to gossip, or prompt the local judge to make  the “wayward girl” wear a red A across herr chest. This was the kind of sin that could cause YHWH Godself to regard a person for the rest of her life with an angry scowl and a slingshot full of punishment.

Decisions, Decisions, indeed! Matthew describes Joseph as chagrined, chagrined but noble. He was noble in that he didn’t give into his chagrin and do the “easy thing,” which would have been to let Mary be stoned. (I remind you, don’t try to project the way we might think about such an incident as 21st C. Americans. These were people that had a place just outside of town reserved for stonings. They happened regularly for a whole variety of spiritual and civil crimes. It was a BIG DEAL, yes, but not the kind of incident that would cause Nancy Grace to scream indignantly [and correctly] on cable TV for months and months).

Joseph and those close to him- because this kind of decision would have been an extended family decision- decided not take the easy way but, instead, “[they took] care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” Or dead.

Most likely that meant keeping her under the radar of the religious legalists- the ones who love- LOVE!- the black ink of rules much more than the red blood of humans. It meant, to some degree, becoming a family of religious outlaws- purposefully breaking the Mosaic law in the way Jesus himself would often break Mosaic law when it interfered with the lives of humans. In that way, Joseph foreshadowed the kind of decisions his step-son would become famous for making.

Jesus didn’t die with his mother at the stoning ground before he was born, as could very well have happened. He did die at a similar killing ground, though, about 33 years later when the religious legalists colluded with the civil authorities to shut him up.  His season in the sun that preceded Golgotha was, apparently, planned and coordinated by Jesus’ acknowledged heavenly father. But let’s be sure to always give his earthly step-father his due, too.  Joseph stopped the horrifying from happening before the story ever had a chance to begin.

***

From just two weeks ago, the stoning of a 13 year old rape victim. Who will ever know? Perhaps she was pregnant with Messiah, too:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7708169.stm

Mary, the Girl. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1: 37  And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.

Mary was young. In the context and customs of her time, she was (almost certainly) 15 or 16 years old. There is nothing biblical that would make Joseph too much older than that, either.

Until the 18th and 19th centuries, artists were pretty much constricted by the Church to painting Mary as the Mother of Christ, period. As such, she was largely depicted as sexless, even a bit cold. After then Reformation and then later, the French Revolution broke the stranglehold of the Church in most of Europe over art and much else, Mary was freed to be represented artistically as human. And she was shown as vulnerable in her youthfulness, and even sexual in her budding womanhood. Examples:

“The Annunciation” by Henry Tanner, 1898. The angel Gabriel here is a column of light. Young Mary is alone. This painting was controversial because, like the earlier painting shown next,  it portrays Mary on a bed.

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“Acce Ancilla Domini” by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1850. Despite the confidence we read into the words of Mary as they were scripturally preserved, she was no doubt confused. THERE WAS AN ANGEL- A MAN ANGEL!- IN HER HOME TELLING HER SHE WAS ABOUT TO BECOME PREGNANT! Painters felt free now to portray that surprise, that fear, that hesitation.

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“Annunciation” by John Collier (1980s?) Put into a very modern setting, the schoolgirl and the archangel’s initial encounter looks and feels..well, creepy. But we are able to see here, in terms we understand, a pretty good rendition of the age and immaturity of the girl/woman Mary. (Note the lily in front of her which is just beginning to bloom- an interesting artistic touch.)

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By the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had opened many psychological doors for painters and other artists to explore- psychological doors of the painters themselves, their subjects, and of viewers of the art. By the time  the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (yes, the same artist who did “The Scream”) painted “Madonna” in 1895, there were few restrictive religious rules or prohibitions still in effect. This painting reflects both the freedom felt by artists of this period, and freedom from the enforced non-sexuality of Mary by the Church.

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Religious art is an outward and visible means of better understanding contemporary theology. The biblical story is not a static one. It has been thought about and understood in many different ways and it is too easy for any one cultural group in a particular time to believe that theirs is the only and proper interpretation. Artists remind us that God is not suspended in anyone’s time. And they remind us that Jesus, the Word made flesh was born of a very real young woman: the flesh made Word.  He was like us because she was like us.

First Steps. A Christmas Journey..

Liminality is a seldom used but much needed word. It comes from the Latin word limina, which means threshold.  The place of liminality is a crossover point, a threshold to step across, a door to go through. It involves the movement from one state of being to another- the movment from single life to marriage, for instance. That period of engagement is the threshold to marriage; steps have been taken away from being single toward marriage. The time of preparation, from the time that agreement is mutual to those moments before the marriage vows are completed, is liminal time.

*Knock* *Knock*

Who’s there? asks Mary

The Angel Gabriel.

The Angel Gabriel who?

OK, you know the rest; but what happens between Gabriel’s  *KnockKnock* and the acceptance of the Angel’s message by Mary, is liminal time. It is very much like the still point in dance- that moment when the dancer completes one movement and prepares, in stillness however briefly, for the next movement.

Luke: 26-38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David… Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.

[liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality]

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
    I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
    just as you say.

https://i2.wp.com/www.sai.msu.su/wm/paint/auth/greco/annunciation.jpg

The Annunciation”, El Greco, about 1615

Mary had to agree for the contract being proposed by Gabriel, between her and God, to be completed; she had to take a step across the threshold. In doing so, she knew her life would never again be the same as it had been the day before. Liminal times demand decisions.

Our own liminal moments occur with incredible frequency. We are often moving across, through, and over thresholds that cause everything to become new. It’s not like we have to become pregnant with the Messiah, or even to get married for all things to become new (although both those things will do it!). We are often presented with opportunities (large and small) for education, for meetings with new people, the chance to visit new places, or to participate in new experiences. All of those events are filled with liminal possibilities. But they are not all opportunities or chances that are easily entered into. Many  have curtains of fear- imagined and real- draped across them, and which must be crossed. People don’t go to school because they’re afraid they’ll run of money. People don’t get married because, “Who will take care of Mom and Dad?”  People will stay at mundane, mind-deadening jobs, because they dare not risk losing a guaranteed paycheck. The dance for them, stops. The still point becomes a period, the end of a sentence that could have become a paragraph, even a chapter in an epic saga!

So, in liminal fog, a suspended animation, so many/ too many people choose to be safe. They stay where they are, though unhappy; they refuse to look beyond the fence, because the grass over here is good enough; and they miss the mysterious smorgasbord of Life in favor of the already familiar meat loaf special.  They choose to miss being pregnant with Messiah. They choose to miss being part of all things becoming new.

*Knock* *Knock*

Gabriel, Archangel. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God.”

38“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “Let it be.” Then the angel left her.

I’m not a student of angels. They flit, they appear, they’re gone. Because they are nebulous and because not much is known about them, they are the easiest divine targets onto which humans can project their religious wishes and whims. Thus, we have the purely human concocted concept of guardian angels. (Everyone who is alive at this moment has a guardian angel. Can you argue with that statement? Neither can I; all I can do is smile as politely as I can and ignore it.)

Gabriel was an archangel, an angel from the top of the hierarchical angelic heap. Archangels are given the big jobs biblically, and Gabriel drew one of the biggest jobs of all: telling Mary that she was going to have a baby. “And such a baby it will be!” (I’m thinking of Gabriel as kind of a Larry David, by the way)

But, just in case that upsets your comfortably established image of Gabriel, just below is part of an altarspiece painted by Fra Filipppo Lippi. He paints Gabriel and Mary in the setting of the European Middle Ages which is also absurd by about 1400 years and 1500 miles. But, of course, it somehow  nicely “fits” our sensibilities about “Bible times”, yes? (Gabriel’s on the left. I know, he looks more like a housewife from next door but, then, who says archangels must look like Dwayne Johnson?)

 

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“The Annunciation” by Fra Filippo Lippi, circa 1460

Perfectly trusted by God, chosen by God, and ready to serve God, Gabriel is a divine ideal, a man so perfect he cannot be allowed by men to be a man. For humans wanting to move toward divinity the angels serve as intermediaries- roadside parks on the way to the Grand Canyon! No matter how close we come to them, angels will be just a little bit beyond us. In the religious narrative, they are good goals: they are both approachable and beyond our reach.

But Gabriel, in all European art of this period, is always shown in his super-humanness as crouched or bowing in front of Mary! No, we cannot be like Gabriel no matter how hard we try, but Mary- it seems- is like Gabriel without trying at all! She simply is. “I am that I am,” could be her name, too.  She didn’t need to aspire to worthiness, and she didn’t need to ritualize her way to godhood. She didn’t have to be good enough, righteous enough, or educated, pretty, or well-dressed enough. She just had to be. And then to be willing.

38” ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘Let it be.’ Then the angel left her.”

After Mary said that, what else was there for an archangel possibly to do but leave?

***

Now, enjoy Paul McCartney singing ‘Let It Be’ as you think about all the above

Mary, it begins. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1: 26b-28 (The Message)

“God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
‘Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.'”

aa-leonardo_da_vinci_-_annunciation_-_wga12677

 

Annunciation, by Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1475

The artworks which fill our memories as we read the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, it must be noted again, are all from the post-Constantinian period (312 C.E.). After the declaration by Emperor Constantine that Christianity would heretofore be the official religion of the (now) Holy Roman Empire, all paintings would subsequently depict the institutional and divinely ordained Romantic nature of the biblical narratives, as approved by solemnly nodding church and state collusionaries.

So, let us concentrate, as we will throughout this Christmas Series (which I am tempted to call a Holiday series, just to rankle those who are easily rankled), on the text that I think gives a feel for the pre-Constantine, politically incorrect language used by the earliest Christians . I’m using the text of Eugene Peterson’s The Message to do that.*

Let’s, in these first paragraphs, deal with the camel that is always in the tent: Mary’s virginity. Here’s my immediate take on it: I doubt she was a virgin within the intact-hymen definition of virginity. I think real, verifiable virginity would have been the kind of BIG DEAL that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul would have all written about in CAPITAL LETTERS, and at length. Yet, only Matthew and Luke mention virginity. Mark, who is generally regarded as the earliest gospel writer and John, regarded as the latest, didn’t mention it at all. The actual birth story of Jesus played no part in the story these two gospel writers told, nor in any of the even earlier letters written by Paul. The Matthean and Lukan narratives seem (IMHO) to mention the virginity of Mary as a means of ingratiating themselves to the particular audiences to whom they were writing.

Now I know that’s a deal-breaker for some. Those preachers and teachers who have Jesus enclosed in a perfectly sized, dogmatically-wrapped container will not/cannot accept the gospels of Mark and John as the stand-alone gospels they were for many decades for many many of the first followers of The Way.   C’est la vie  (you’ll see that phrase often from me. It means “Don’t bother arguing with me about it. I don’t care.”) There’s too much cool stuff, big stuff, enlightening, transcending, and revolutionary stuff to say about Jesus to get hung up on whether or not the sheets of Mary and Joseph’s connubial bed were bloody. Jesus was the son of God and the son of man exactly as we are all the children of God and the children of men and women. That’s flat out exciting to me and that is an excitement I hope I am capable of sharing in the coming weeks.

(For the record, just so those who need to know will know, I am not a complete heathen! I do not believe in the virgin birth of any of these well known personages either: Alexander the Great, Zoroaster, Perseus, Kabir, Buddha, Horus, Quirrnus, or Adonis. )

Mary- kissed by the morning sun, embraced by the divinity she felt warm against her skin. Mary- beautiful inside and out, a cradle for the Christ. Mary- God is with her. Perhaps it was that she was unusually unaffected by the human selfishness, shame, or guilt that can bend too many young woman so severely. Perhaps she was able to see clearly beyond the regrets of yesterday or the anxieties of tomorrow that violate the innocence of mindful and present living. Perhaps it was that purity and grace, that tenderness and simplicity that enabled Mary to love first the one who would teach generations about real love, true love.

Let’s follow her for awhile, starting tomorrow.

*I don’t know Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek and am not about, at the age of 60, to begin learning those languages. Let’s assume (correctly) that for some years after the story of Jesus happened (however-it-did in fact happen), that it was passed along verbally  before being written down by the many various gospel writers. It would have been told in its essentials in a conversational way. The Message does that, too. It is not a perfect translation, but we don’t have one one of those anywhere, in any language. So The Message will do for these musings, because I say so.