Mary had begun this adventure nine months before with words from angel Gabriel about being “highly favored” with God, and more words from cousin Elizabeth about Mary’s being “blessed..among women.” And later she heard shepherds- nobody knows how many of them- going on and on about what they had seen on their way to Bethlehem and how angels had told them that Mary’s baby was a Savior- the Messiah! Pretty heady stuff for a young girl who probably hasn’t been out very much. It the kind of stuff which would send most teenage girls’ noses into the air while dozens of other less fortunate and less blessed girls tried to friend her on Facebook.
According to Gabriel, it sounds like Mary could have called down a few dozen lesser angels on her own, and according to Elizabeth, Mary could almost certainly have set up her own little cult, replete with special gifts and favors worthy of her being blessed among other women.
But Mary did none of those things. She treasured them, to be sure, but pondered them in her heart.
Pondering those things (pretty momentous things IMHO!) meant not making a big deal out of them..maybe not making any deal at all out of them. She would simply be the mom. She didn’t have to have others serving her for her to be able to define herself as blessed. She didn’t have to spin the wise men’s gold into showoff accessories for the Emily Strange separates which all cool mothers-of-God are wearing this year. Mary just was, because she was complete, whole, and accepting of herself, and of that angel, those shepherds, and accepting even of the craziest story this side of..well, this side of heaven.
And the really, I think, one of the main points of this whole story: Mary was chosen to do something extraordinary because she knew she could do something extraordinary. She didn’t need mall bling to prove that to herself. She didn’t need applause or 2,975 Facebook “friends” to affirm her of her worthiness. She didn’t need a posse, new tats, or paparazzi to know that she was beloved, able, and trusted by God with this fairly important task.
Which tells me (maybe you) what? That I (and maybe you) in our seeming ordinariness are capable, able, trusted, and loved enough- as we are, because of who we are not what we are- to do great things when offered the opportunity to do them. Remember, while Mary was giving birth to A Savior the Messiah in the eyes of the shepherds, in her own moments she was giving birth to a baby. Period. And that was extraordinary enough! Who could ever properly bear and raise a SaviortheMessiah? But she could, like most women, bear a child, take care of it day to day, teach him, feed him, love him, etc etc etc- all the things an even mediocre mom does well.
We don’t give birth to Messiahs. We give birth to babies.
We don’t plant gardens, we plant seeds.
We don’t live 60,70,80 years, we live one day, one hour, one tiny breathtakingly valuable second at a time.
Treasure those thoughts up and ponder them for a moment, then an hour, then a day and a lifetime..
You can do it. Whatever it is, you can do it.
This really has little to do with Oral Roberts himself, who died today at the age of 91. The story has much more to do with my Grandpa who was a fan of Oral’s, and of my Grandma who (to my admiration) wasn’t.
My grandparents lived in rural Pennsylvania, on top of an Allegheny mountain. The context of this set of memories is the late 1950s, and the mountaintop is relevant because that meant black and white television signals from Dubois would make it weakly to the tinfoil-enhanced rabbit ear antenna on the brown Philco in my grandparent’s front room.
It was enough of a signal for Grandpa, in his early 70s and slowed down by a stroke, to have become a big fan of two made-for-the-new-television-medium phenomena: professional arena wrestling and televangelists. Dick the Bruiser and Gorgeous George shared grandpa’s imagination with the two earliest TV preachers, Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts.
I was about 8 or 9 when I became aware of Oral Roberts through grandpa’s receiving of Robert’s monthly magazine, which he received for sending money to the Roberts ministry. It was a magazine which, in my memory, more resembled a comic book. The one I remember specifically chronicled a miracle healing which occurred during one of the Oral Robert’s crusades. One panel depicted a man sitting in the audience while a healing was happening on the platform many rows in front of him. He was healed while someone else was being “HEALed” by Roberts. And you knew this had happened because yellow lightning was shown going into (or coming out of) the man’s knee!
I don’t know why this fascinated me, but it did. In fact, I think I can say this little Oral Robert’s comic book was the beginning of a life-long fascination with the marketing of Jesus on television in America and my own attempts to follow Jesus in spite of that marketing. I don’t know for sure if that was the starting point or not, but I do know I was spooked/ fascinated/ curious as hell about those lightning bolts.
And so, apparently, was Grandpa in his own way. He would kneel in front of the TV with his hand on the screen when Roberts prayed. Sometimes, several cousins would sneak peeks around the corners of the room with me while this was happening. It was not an occasion for giggling, though- not at all! I really did wonder if we would see lightning bolts on grandpa, because I knew he was praying about his stroke-slowed body. We didn’t see any lightning. Neither, I guess, did Grandpa.
But Grandpa continued to send Oral Roberts money. It wasn’t much, maybe 50 cents every couple months. I found this out years later from my mom and one of her sisters, though, that Grandma often intercepted this miracle money on the way to the mailbox and slipped it into her apron pocket! She had never had much extra money (in fact, NO extra money much of the time), and she just decided that those quarters would be as appreciated by her at least as much as they were appreciated by Oral.
I love the example set by Grandpa. And I love the example set by Grandma, too. I appreciate the faith Grandpa lived, but- like Grandma was- I am no fan of those who stand between the faithful and God with promises of super-conductivity.
Dick the Bruiser
from spiraling ecstatically this
proud nowhere of earth’s most prodigious night
blossoms a newborn babe: around him, eyes
–gifted with every keener appetite
than mere unmiracle can quite appease–
humbly in their imagined bodies kneel
(over time space doom dream while floats the whole
perhapsless mystery of paradise)
mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings against the silence of his mother’s smile- whose only secret all creation sings.
We think we know the story of Jesus’ birth. Some of us were drawing pictures of what we were told had happened on Christmas Eve when we were in grade school, and almost everyone has seen creche displays in peoples’ homes or painted on store windows with 3″ brushes and poster paint (with optional blown foam snow). We could all, regardless of our personal faith traditions or non-traditions, recite the components of those nativity scenes: Mary, Joseph, Jesus-in-a-manger, wise men (3), shepherds (several, one of which is grizzled, one of which is a young boy), angels, various camels, sheep, donkeys, and cows, and a stable. Here’s an old Christmas card that captures some of those elements:
That was one of those Christmas cards from when Jesus was Norwegian. Here’s another representation of that collection of holy artifacts, a a 50% life size crèche assembled in a church:
The trouble is, even for those who believe every word of the New Testament, every jot and tittle of every verse, every comma and capital letter and space (even where none appeared in original Greek), even for those people, this conglomeration of texts, imaginations, and cutesy Hallmark artists, is not true- it’s not the way it was. The one thing we can absolutely, positively, 100% KNOW about the birth of Jesus is that none of it looked like anything like any of the above! Here’s what we DO know- literally, from the gospel of Luke, chapter 2, about the place Jesus’ birth:
5 He [Joseph] went there [Bethlehem]to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
There is no stable, cave, barn or other outside shelter mentioned- only a manger and that could be anywhere: under a tent, in a courtyard, under an overhanging roof, in a grove of trees, or in a stable. Shepherds will show up in a few verses, in response to the sound of angelic singing. And, in the gospel of Matthew, some magi (or wise men or astrologers or scholars, depending on your translation, will follow a star and find Jesus in a house. A house, really. That’s all it says and it doesn’t say when. (Later in the chapter, there will be evidence that the wise magi astrologizing scholars visited when Jesus was about two years old.)
Almost everything we carry around in our mind’s and imagination about the birth of Jesus has been placed there by seeing old paintings, which gave birth in the late 1800s to Christmas cards. Which spawned Christian book stores. Which led to the selling of Christmas cards with glitter, and the selling of stuff like this:
The 2009 Thomas Kinkade Christmas Pocket Planner
As fanciful and silly as are the paintings of Kinkade, which always seem to feature darling thatched-roof cottages with blazing-fireplace light pouring out of every window and built (almost always) on the flood plain of a creek or river, so are the images we have of Jesus’ birth also fanciful and sometimes, just as silly.*
It leads me to wonder two things:
Why are so many people not aware of the very synthetic nature of the Christmas story as it is popularly portrayed .. syntheses which they have come to believe are historical truths?
Why is there the need by many to embellish, romanticize and ‘make pretty’ the story of Jesus’ birth?
I have opinions (of course), but I think both of those are questions which serve best as jumping off places for your thoughts. Really, whenever we ponder questions, we are led closer to the Truth. So, ponder! And, as I’ve said before, you’ll know when you’re getting near Truth, when you start seeing more questions. It’s a never-ending cycle- a conundrum some might call it. Maybe we’ll run into some of those wise men along the way..
* Apologies to those who may love Thomas Kinkade, may he rest in peace. But I just can’t stand anything about his “art”- his style, his marketing, his assembly line production of new products, nor the purchased adoration of fans. He was, once upon a time early in his career, a pretty decent painter. But…$. The rest of the story of his art manufacturing company is not one you’ll want to read if you are dedicated to really loving Kinkade’s art.
Zachariah was a priest. Married to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. They were childless until they, like Mary, had one of those – (pregnant pause)- visits from the angel Gabriel. Then, Elizabeth and Zachariah, at the ages of 60 or 70 or so, became the proud, however old, parents of John. John who would grow up and become known as John the Baptist.
When Mary felt Jesus kick from within, she sang a song. When Zachariah saw his son, he sang a song, too. (Which may be a lesson for new mothers: remember, while you’ve been feeling that little kicker somersaulting for months; daddy’s just now holding the child, feeling/experiencing him/her in extraordinarily intimate ways for the first time. Forgive dad his initial blubbering.) Anyway, here is Zach’s song (remember to put a tune behind it!).
76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
St.Zachariah, as depicted on an Orthodox icon, a subject worth a whole blog’s worth of discussion some day. But here’s a preview: that is gold leaf behind St. Zach, and it has been hammered into position. Each stroke of the hammer was accompanied by a prayer, a specific prayer. Literally, sometimes prayers are the sounds of a hammer.
Note that Zachariah, as written about by Luke, is associating the story he’s become a part of to the ancient and well-known Hebrew story. Just as Mary sang of her being used to continue the covenant between Abraham and YHWH, Zachariah’s song establishes his son John as a continuation of the prophetic tradition in Israel- a tradition that has been silent, since the days of Malachi, for 600 years!
As all prophets do, John will be preparing the way, clearing the path, establishing a route for another who will follow- in this case, Jesus. And as all prophets also seem to do, John will die for having done a good job. John’s character will, about 1900 years after his birth, play a prominent role in the opera, “Salome,” by Richard Strauss, where he was represented, in a final shocking scene, as a severed head.
Zachariah, though, the real subject of this piece, did his job and did it well. He would have died a happy man, having had an offspring. Thus, he had fulfilled the long-proscribed roles of husband, father, and priest very well. We are, after all, talking about him even at this moment, some 1980 years after Salome danced with his son for real!
Zachariah may have been one of the minor players in the drama of Jesus’ birth, but his presence helped establish Jesus in the Jewish mainstream, past and present. What Jesus said, did, and lived his whole life was as a Jew. He learned about his faith, as did all all Jewish children, from his parents and the other adults in his world. Cousin Zach, a priest, would certainly have been one of those persons he learned much from, and Jesus would have spent much of his growing-up years with his six month older cousin John.
It takes a village..yes? And Jesus had one, made up of real people who cared for him as a child, son, and relative first, before they ever fully knew him as a Messiah. That “village love” would have been a huge part of his decision to accept the call on his life made by God. It had been there since before he was born, and he’d grown up surrounded by it. So it was natural that Jesus went first to a family member- John the Baptizer-when he came out of his Messiah closet.
He knew he would be accepted and safe in those first moments of his declaration. Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, Joseph, and Mary: what a village it was!
Mary gets pregnant and she sings.
When my wife got pregnant, she quit smoking.
Maybe all women do something significant when they find out that their body has begun to replicate and much of the time, according to brief survey done today among five women around me who had, like Mary, been pregnant (though not immaculately), that thing is usually to get quickly into some form of community with other women. This is, after all, one of those things in a woman’s life that a man, no matter how empathetic, metrosexual, or even gay he may be, cannot- try as he might- understand in the way another woman, with a womb, can.
Mary went to be with her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant under very very odd circumstances. Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, was her baby’s father, but she was a senior citizen- beyond menopause, beyond all hope for having a child in a culture where having a child or, even better, childREN, was a religious necessity for being cool in the eyes of YHWH. So, that Elizabeth was pregnant after also having her pregnancy announced ahead of time by Gabriel, was a pretty big deal. About as big a deal as anyone except Mary could even begin to imagine.
Mary went to be with Elizabeth and while she was there she sang, according to Luke, a song. It’s not the kind of song that Elizabeth or Mary would sing to their soon-to-be-born sons, nor is the kind of song that would stick in someone’s mind if they overheard Mary singing it. But it did serve a couple vital functions, primarily- I must admit, as I see it- for the narrative of Luke. For those first century readers of this gospel of Luke, Mary’s song linked the Jesus story even more securely to the Hebrew monotheistic traditions which many in Luke’s primarily Greek audience would have already been comfortable with, even if they weren’t Jewish. From Luke 1:
46And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”
It is helpful to me when reading songs in the Bible- be it Hannah’s song, any of David’s songs, or, in this same chapter 1 of Luke, Zechariah’s song, to put some tune behind the words. Yes, it sounds odd and it doesn’t work out rhythmically at all, but for the sake of history, go back and add a song. “The Hallelujah Chorus”, or “Happy Birthday”.. it doesn’t matter but it will be historically helpful. It will give you a feeling for history. It will.
The song places Jesus very much in the Jewish tradition. As YHWH was faithful and merciful to Israel beginning with Abraham, God is now continuing to be faithful and merciful with Israel through Mary and her child. Mary is grateful to God because she is Jewish and because this is something vital and important to the people Israel.
An unusual interpretation of the Virgin Mary by the Polish-born children’s book illustrator Jan Pienkowski in All Saints Chapel, Marsworth, Buckinghamshire, England.
Mary sings the song in response to Elizabeth’s admiration of Mary’s faith. Mary consistently deflects attention off herself onto Jesus, even here, in the beginning. It is reminiscent of John the Baptist’s declaration made after he baptizes Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease.” According to Luke this is a Christian ideal- diminishing to self and exalting Christ- that began with Mary. It is a tradition which sometimes, in some circles, among some believers, continues today.
It’s another chapter today but in a different place: a doctor’s office- an ob/gyn where it doesn’t matter what the matter is because I, as one of those two who love this woman most in the world, will not allow anymore treatments of anything for anything except pain. If she wanted some Mogen David wine after 40 years of no Mogen David, I’d be on my way to buy some now, and a wine glass, and a linen napkin, here, Mom, sit here and I will pour a glass for you. 2009 was a very good year and if you’re in pain or not, drink all you want..
She won’t sit still. “I want to get up I’m tired of sitting,” so she is up and she walks and there is nowhere to walk so it is ok to walk everywhere, and when she’s done walking she can sit down anywhere or lie down in whatever bed is nearby..it is the doing the moving the getting up the sitting the movingmovingmoving steppstepstep which matters, it is her work, her quest, and then she stops and turns around and I catch my breath when she asks anyone nearby, maybe me:
“Where’s my Mother? Where did she go?”
For the 10,000th time in the last five years I lie, “She went to town to get some groceries.”
And I, and we, are told again, that “She is the best Mother in the world. She is.”
“Where is she again?” She went town. (10,001)
“When will she be back?” In about 30 minutes. (10,002)
“I can’t sit that long.” We’ll walk around for awhile then..
There is an aide from the Care Center with her who will accompany Mom into the exam room where the doctor will probe. Probe. Does an 84 year old who is not-in-pain, who also has alzheimers and doesn’t know or care that she has some slight vaginal bleeding, really need probed?
Does a woman who used to bake pies, organize church dinners, and teach high school Sunday School classes and who doesn’t know her mom and her husband are dead or where she is, or who I am at this exact moment really, really need to be probed? And with what? Nonono..I don’t want to know and please don’t tell me even when it’s over I don’t ever want to know..
She doesn’t want to be probed. She wants (she said it again 10 minutes ago and 2 minutes ago) to go home and go to bed and let God come and get her. She said that and she says that often. Please, God, hear her prayer.
Hear her prayer, please, her and my prayer and Denny’s prayer, and Karen’s and Robbie’s prayer and JoshuaDarcySarahEmilyLizzieBob’s prayer and her sisters’ prayers and her nephews’ and nieces’ prayers too, and let her go home, let her go to bed, and take her. Come get her. One more time, come get her. That’s what she wants. She doesn’t need to be probed anymore.
ArcAngel Gabriel by Jan Oliver (www.janoliver.com)
Luke 1: 13 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah.”
Luke 1: 29,30 [Mary] was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear..”
Right off the bat, in the first chapter of Luke, the story of Jesus begins. Included in that first chapter are two commands to not be afraid, both made by the archangel Gabriel, on behalf of God. The first admonition to “fear not” is made to Mary’s cousin-in-law, the priest Zachariah. The second is spoken to Mary herself.
From those two thematic statements there grew a stream of such statements throughout all four gospels. Trust me on this, or get a concordance. One angel or another or, most often, Jesus himself is always telling someone to “Fear not.”
“Fear not” must today be one of our main mantras. Speak it in lectio divina– divine reading. Let the words begin to echo, from instinct to instinct within yourself. From the instinct to be afraid of new things, to the instinct to flee whatever seems to be threatening, let this command to be not afraid bounce between and dull the sharp edges of such words.
Because all of us are working at a disadvantage. All of us have had the realities and residuals of fear, guilt, and shame sharpened to cutting edges within our hearts and souls. All of us have learned about or spent huge, inordinate, and ever-growing amounts of time to evaluating everything- the world around us, the people in that world, and ourselves. How has that happened?
The gospel story has changed, because those of us who are hearing it are part of a culture that has changed. We have moved from that message of “Fear Not!” to the predominate spiritual message of today which says, “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid!”
Here’s part of a poem (anonymous) written around 1820, the same year “’twas the Night Before Christmas” was published. It is from a Dutch/German tradition, and is in the voice of Santa Claus. The preceding verses contain lines about rewards given to good children; but this is what children of 200 years ago were already hearing:
But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent’s hand to use
When virtue’s path his sons refuse.
From “Fear not!” to “the dread command of God” and “leave a long, birchen rod” for use on the skin of “children naughty.” That’s the movement of the Christmas story through time. It’s the too-easy, infectuous descent from Love to Fear, and it is the perpetual plague of Christianity. It’s part of the also-perpetual perplexity that many students of Christianity face at some point in their lives. Historical pogroms of Jewish settlements, the murder of peasants in Luther’s Germany, The Roman Catholic Inquisition in Europe, Christian Church endorsed colonialism throughout the “New World”, and today’s endorsement of government torture by some evangelical Christian groups and political leaders…What the hell is all this anger and hatred and killing and blood and shame and guilt and war being done in the name of Jesus who was born while angelic choirs were singing “Fear Not!” ?? It has been enough for many many students of Christianity to be so perplexed, so unable to make such disparate parts jive, and so disappointed and sad at the ugly scream they perceive the wondrously whispered opening gospel sounds to have become, that they leave. In droves. And those droves are increasing.
My intentions today have been to simply introduce the dichotomy, and say out loud what many people wonder about, but hesitate to publicly question. I want to spend more time examining some of those so-strange twists and turns the story of Jesus has taken through the darker corners of human history, because I believe the real story of Jesus is best expressed in those opening lines of fearlessness. The gospels were not written in, about, or because of fear. The life of Jesus was not lived so that humans could attach their ravenous egos to his name and terrorize their ways through history. The baby Jesus wasn’t born in a manger so that other children could be threatened with beatings in anticipation of his birthday’s celebration.
If we see where the story went wrong (and I believe it did, too often and horribly so), then we can perhaps again hear Gabriel say “Fear not!”..