Pondering. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 2: 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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..

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Merry Christmas.

You can do it. Whatever it is, you can do it.

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The Manger. A Christmas Journey..

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:

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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:

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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

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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?

and,

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.

 

Mary’s Song. A Christmas Journey..

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.

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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.

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..

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“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

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.

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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.