Sunday, January 25, 2015

Life as Usual--Despite the Text?

January 25, 2015 

Dear Friends,

Because The Return of the Magi and The Flight into Egypt are such great stories I was tempted to make drama and intrigue the theme of today’s blog, but my sense of the importance of truth triumphed over my enjoyment of theater.

God did make the announcement of the Baby’s birth a big deal—heaven sent star works, angel choruses and careful identification of the Baby Himself—but after this initial announcement, God seemed to major in the ordinary. 

When Mary and Joseph went to the temple for the ordinary purification rites, Anna and Simeon had a somewhat startling message for them, but otherwise things went as would be expected for any ordinary first-born male. 

The family went back to Nazareth, and Joseph went back to work and Mary tended the house and the baby and life went on. There continued to be some gossip of course, mostly from those cousins of Joseph’s over by Cana [Hubbard’s footnote to the story—not in the Text]. 

But then those strange visitors came—camels, can you believe it?—and everything stopped being normal. The visitors brought impressive gifts, then left in a hurry rushing off in a very strange direction if they planned as they said to go home.  Then—in the middle of the night, mind you—sensible Joseph came in and said they were to get up and pack just the necessities because they were leaving for Egypt—Egypt!!!—immediately.

Then, after a long journey, there was a stretch of the uneventful again for Mary and Joseph and the Child. Life in Egypt was ordinary—well, almost ordinary.  Joseph’s cousin had family there in the large Jewish community near Alexandria [Hubbard addition—not in the Text] so they had help getting settled.

Behind them, there was a dreadful kind of ordinary in Bethlehem.  Insane with rage when he learned that the Magi had tricked him, Herod ordered all male babies two years of age or younger to be killed. Herod did not change—the alleged arrival of the Messiah simply triggered more cruelty and sacrifice of innocent life. Having been warned, Joseph kept the family in Egypt until Herod died, then returned to Nazareth. 

Certainly there are remarkable elements of drama in the story—and, as you saw, I could not resist the temptation to add a possible story-teller detail from place to place—but, overall, the bottom line is remarkable for the ordinary way in which the story unfolds: God comes to be with human-kind, and announces His arrival clearly so that it was difficult to make a mistake about the matter.

God reinforced His original message that Messiah had come—there was Anna and Simeon at the temple and those odd visitors from the East—but life remained remarkably unchanged. The Jewish people remained subjects of Rome, Herod remained insanely murderous, and the human family into which God had chosen to come remained poor, fugitives from a tyrannical pagan government, and life went on.

This week I studied a number of old maps, wondering about the direction the Magi chose to travel home. I traced the coastal road that Joseph and Mary likely took to Egypt, and I read about the large Jewish community that resided there. But then as I put my books away, it occurred to me that perhaps I had missed an important point.

Don’t you think it was remarkable that God came to be with people then (and announced His arrival rather clearly) and people continued doing life as though nothing unusual had occurred? 

Then I thought—do people behave in the same fashion now? Is it possible that God comes to us now, in this world, and we respond in much the same manner—life as usual, no matter what the Text may say?

Thinking with you that this week I mean to keep a sharp eye out—God has come to be present in this world just like it is. I don’t want to miss Him.

See you next week.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Who Were Those Guys Anyway?

January 14, 2015 
Dear Friends,

I am indebted to my friend’s pastor for the introduction to today’s portion of the Christmas story.

In his Christmas sermon this year, my friend’s pastor began the story of the Magi by saying thoughtfully, “The story of the Wise Men—the Magi—reminds me of Paul Newman.” 

Listening to the tape, I can hear an initial moment of surprise—Paul Newman and the Magi?!!?—then a soft ripple of laughter spread through the congregation.

The pastor paused, then continued.

“You may remember the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Paul Newman was Butch Cassidy, and Robert Redford played the part of the Sundance Kid. The two of them were on the run, barely ahead of the posse determined to catch them and bring them to justice. In numerous scenes, Butch and Sundance pause, look back and see the posse behind them in the near distance, then Paul Newman (Butch) says each time to Sundance, ‘Who are those guys?’”

The pastor chuckled, then added, “When I think of the Magi, I find myself saying, like Paul Newman, ‘Who are those guys anyway?’”

Actually, we don’t know how many of them there were (the image of three kings with specific names is pure fantasy). We know that they were political advisors (think State Department, diplomatic envoys, ambassadors and associated staff), not royalty. 

It is likely that as representatives of their government that they had journeyed four to six hundred miles across the desert coming to Jerusalem from the area commonly identified as Persia. 

Near-eastern politics were likely as conflicted and unstable at that time as they are now. Then, as now, keeping close watch on political loyalties (at home and abroad) would have been politics as usual. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” as Shakespeare noted. Both Herod and emissaries from “the East” would be pointedly curious about a report that a new king had been born, no matter how unlikely the report might initially seem. 

Serious official study of prophetic documents was common (any clue pointing to possible future competition was worth attention). Comets, meteors and other stellar phenomena were regarded as signs of the rise and fall of kings and their competitors, and study of the stars was, consequently, serious science.  

The “intelligence section” of the “state department” of this “eastern” country, so to speak, was aware of a prophecy in old Jewish documents about a king coming to restore David’s throne, so when their star scientists reported an unexplained stellar disturbance possibly confirming this prophecy, a delegation was sent to investigate.  

The delegation stopped first in Jerusalem and asked at Herod’s court (proper protocol) where to find this new king. 

This was a politically-incorrect explanation for any visitor to give to Herod, but, cleverly, it was, at the same time, a “scientific” reason that Herod would have difficulty rejecting.  

“We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him,” the Magi explained. They were correct in their anticipation of Herod's response. Herod dealt cautiously with this reported star business.

However, canny old fox, Herod immediately called in his own scholars and prophets and demanded that they tell him exactly where this new king was to be born.  

“In Bethlehem,” they replied specifically, immediately, without hesitation. No research was needed; they knew, and cited their sources by memory.

Armed with this information, Herod then sent the Magi to Bethlehem with a socially acceptable explanation for his interest in the matter. “Go find this child,” Herod instructed the visitors, “and when you’ve found him, come tell me, and I will come and worship him too.” 

So the Magi set out to find the child, grateful, I'm sure, at having safely departed from Herod’s court despite the unpleasant news they had brought him.

At this point the Matthew text explains simply, without detail, that the Magi were again guided by “the star” to the house where Mary and the child was.

There is space here in the text for two possible scenarios: Mary, Joseph and the child were still in Bethlehem, and the Magi found them there.  Or, alternatively, Mary, Joseph and the child had returned by this time to Nazareth to Joseph’s house there. By means of the star, the Magi were given guidance that led them to Nazareth, not Bethlehem as Herod had directed.

I am convinced that the house Matthew refers to was in Nazareth; I think that Matthew’s account of subsequent events fits more logically into that option.  But the essential point is this: having found the child, having worshipped him and given him gifts, the Magi then received further instruction in a dream. Do not return to Herod, they were warned: go home another way. Then, having been warned, they did so.

When Herod discovered what they had done, he was furious—insanely so.  But that is next week’s story. We are well into Epiphany now, and poised for the flight into Egypt.

But think with me about the Paul Newman question: who are these guys anyway?

Factually, they are part of the story of God’s great promise keeping, foretold by the prophets and announced by the Bethlehem angels—that Messiah was a gift of great joy to all peoples. 

In a sense, these were our delegates (representative of us Gentiles) who came to greet the child. It is interesting to think that factually Jesus may have been a toddler by the time the Magi’s long journey had reached Joseph’s house.
But whatever questions there may be regarding the timetable, we know that foreign visitors, informed by the sacred texts of God’s chosen people, and led by the sign given them, Gentile God-followers came also, bringing their gifts, acknowledging the new King who had come. 

I don’t like nativity scenes in which camels look over Joseph’s shoulder and kings with crowns kneel with the shepherds around the feeding trough where a blond baby sleeps. 

That muddles up the story. I particularly dislike those kings and camels in the stable because those kings make nonsense of my part of the story.

In the millenniums that have passed since God’s miraculous entry into human experience, many of us from far, faraway places have come to celebrate the birth of the child who came to be God-with-us and our King. 

Thinking with you that one of the men managing the camels for those distinguished visitors may have been my great grandfather (well, likely a hundred greats). I want the Christmas story to show that some of my people believed too, and came a long way to bring a gift to the King.

Next week to Egypt.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wise Men in the Garage

January 11, 2015

Dear friends,

My friend’s ‘Epiphany Project’ as she called it started in November.  

One day (before Thanksgiving) she walked by a department store in which the display window had jumbled together Santa Claus, someone who may have been intended to represent the inn-keeper, Mary, Joseph, cows, sheep, donkeys, camels, shepherds kneeling side by side with three imposing Kings, various sized angels singing while the little Drummer Boy played energetically for a blond-haired Christ Child lying in the manger.

My friend who shares my passion for the meaning of the Old Texts called me to share her irritation. “How can we expect people to have any historical sense of the Christmas story when we do things like that?” she fumed.
“We can’t,” I agreed.

“Well, at our house things are going to be more accurate,” she said firmly, and added, “I have an idea. I’ll call you after I get Advent things put together for the kids, and you come see what you think.”

What I found when I went to visit was amusing and instructive: the wise men, looking like ordinary people (not a gold crown to be seen) along with their servants and luggage, their donkeys and ill-tempered camels were all assembled on a packing case in a far corner of the garage.  

The nativity scene and the advent candles were, as usual, beautifully present on the table in front of the east window in the living room. (No Christ child to be seen, however.)

Her five-year-old granddaughter Gina explained the garage scene carefully to me. 

“These people are coming to see Jesus too, but they have to come a long way and it will take them a long time. Tomorrow Grams and I will move them over there to that shelf to show that they’re coming as fast as they can to see Jesus too.”

We then adjourned the garage to visit the other figures in the living room. 

She saw me glance at the empty crèche, then hurried to explain.  

“Jesus is in the piano bench, because He’s not born yet.  We’ll put Him out on Christmas Day.” 

We stood together quietly looking at the figures arranged to tell the old, old, story.  

Then she added confidently, “You know those people in the garage? Grams said that God gave them a star so they wouldn’t get lost. They’ll be here too.”

G.K. Chesterton wrote once that our perennial spiritual and psychological task is to learn to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again.

Epiphany calls us to learn again to see God in the ordinary, to wait and wonder about His purpose and sense His presence.

Epiphany exercise:

Take the figures out of your nativity set that represent the wise men and their camels and find some boxes for luggage and figures for stubborn donkeys and quarrelsome camels (cute and pretty NOT permitted). They were strangers, you know, and doubtless looked rather odd.

Assemble the whole noisy, untidy bunch of them on some flat surface in the garage. 

Then get out a lawn chair. Sit down and look at these odd travelers. 

Move them a small distance each day, then sit down in the lawn chair again and look at them.

Practice looking until the familiar becomes unfamiliar again.

It was a strange journey and a dangerous road home. 

How does this story make clearer the journey of your life?

See you next week.