Fear..Fear??? A Christmas Journey..

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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!”..

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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://i1.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*