No Guarantees

1ChildKiss:vince-fleming-487796-unsplash

“Communication as a bridge always means an abyss is somewhere near.” — John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod slaughtered every child of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its surroundings, because he was trying to kill the king of the Jews whom the magi from the East had come to worship.

To put the Bethlehem massacre by Herod in its full horrific context, the writer of the gospel reaches back to the prophet Jeremiah’s lament for the slaughter of children in Ramah, an Ephraimite village eight miles north of Jerusalem, before those who remained were deported to Babylon. He needs a historical parallel of sufficient magnitude.

“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because

they are no more.”

Thus, the good news (for that is what euanggelion, the ‘gospel’, means) of the coming of the Christ child, the promised one, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, unfolds in haste and secrecy in the midst of a bloodbath. But it has ever been so, as powerful and corrupt rulers are threatened by women and children.

The family escapes to Egypt, being warned in a dream, and they remain there—we don’t know how long—until news comes that Herod is dead. They make plans to return to Bethlehem, but Joseph is again warned off in a dream. Instead, they find their way north to Nazareth, a village in Galilee so insignificant that there is no mention of it in historical records outside of the New Testament. Their caution is well-founded, for Herod’s son, King Archelaus, rules for only two years before the Roman emperor, Augustus, removes and banishes him for brutality. If Herod could kill a generation of Judean children with impunity, what must Archelaus have done to incur the wrath of the emperor? Or perhaps it was a pragmatic decision on the emperor’s part, knowing that even the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed will eventually rise up.

Advent is a season when Christians celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, the earthly beginning to Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the short, intense journey that brings that child, now a man, to an abrupt end on the cross. But then there is Easter and resurrection; the unexpected turn of a tragedy become comedy, the ultimate trick on the Trickster, and a silent nod off-stage to where Job stands alone in the wings, with an amused shake of his head and a smile. There are innumerable crucifixions without a resurrection, but in this story, there is no resurrection without a crucifixion.

When lies become the norm we cherish the truth even more, and for us in this century, truth is found in facts. We want the gospels to be history, a medium we think we understand as a story that corresponds to the facts. But behind the facts lie assumptions, and assumptions are most often invisible to those who hold them and inaccessible to those who don’t. What is not mentioned in the gospels about Jesus may not have been known by the gospel writers, or was known, but thought so obvious that their concise narratives did not include it, or was known, but considered insignificant to the core of the story. Their assumptions are not our assumptions; the stories that result are strange to us and sometimes even inexplicable.

Albert Schweitzer devoted years to a search for the historical Jesus and finally concluded that “Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus,” because one typically “created him in accordance with one’s own character.” “There is,” Schweitzer said, “no historical task which so reveals someone’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”

Thus, there are multiple versions of Jesus in all ages, as Jaroslav Pelikan so lucidly illustrates in his Jesus Through the Centuries, a cultural history. “For each age,” he comments, “the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny, and it was to the figure of Jesus as set forth in the Gospels that those questions were addressed.” And we could add that people of faith, as well as those who profess no faith, nevertheless carry refracted images of Jesus in their minds that are often at odds with each other. We see Jesus as through a kaleidoscope rather than through a microscope. The gospels give us a collage, not a portrait.

The fragmentary glimpses we get of Jesus are not the result of inattention on the part of the eyewitnesses nor are they lapses in the discipline of the story. Rather, they are the best that people could do to reveal a figure so mysteriously complex and yet so transparently good, that no one close to him could ever say they knew him through and through.

Jesus was not an open book to those who knew him. The disciples were often confused and distraught by his words, drawing him aside to ask for the meaning of a parable or to clarify for them his differences with the religious authorities. Jesus rejoices that God has hidden His truths from the sophisticated and has opened them to those who learn best from actions and images.

We simplify the story of the nativity down to what we can carry without dropping all the other things that fill up our lives. In a creche, the animals form the background, their benign expressions of placid acceptance mirroring our own. Joseph stands to one side, proud but peripheral. The wise men, kneeling or standing, present their gifts with reverence. Mary and Jesus are front and center, the focal point of everything and the period to the exclamation mark of the star that stands above the stable. There is something so achingly touching about this, a child’s toys arranged just so to mimic the world she imagines. Add to this the innumerable Christmas plays in schools and churches acted out in front of proud but anxious parents, each play another means to build a bridge from an ancient culture to our own.

The question for Christians and other people of faith is how to tell this story, this coming-to-Earth story of divine kenosis, of an emptying out and pouring in of God become human. As the epigram suggests, a bridge implies an abyss, otherwise what is its purpose? In communication with one another, in telling the story yet again, we recognize the abyss to be the fact that we cannot clearly and completely express the truths we comprehend, nor can we be assured that our comprehension is correct. We are the ‘speaking animals’ whose verbal options are almost limitless, but by that very fact, we must often grope for the words to match the images we have in our heads.

From within our comfort zone, the Advent story is theologically safe, hermetically sealed, predictable in its results. It’s a ritual we cannot do without, yet it often bypasses the heart.

We need to recapture the ‘otherness,’ the very alien nature of this story of God become a human, a story that rings through history with tones both dark and bright. There are other gods who have appeared in human form, but none of them as a baby and none who stayed around to be murdered—and then rose again.

The thing that we must never forget, that if understood will disrupt our lives and break our complacency, is that nothing in the events of this story can be taken for granted. Joseph could have laughed off his dreams, Mary could have said no, the baby could have died before the age of five from diseases that take the lives of 15,000 per day of newborns in this world. The family seeking asylum in Egypt could have been turned away at the border, held for questioning, or simply murdered on the way.

People made choices without much to go on, save what they held in faith. As strange as those times and that culture may be to us, the common factor we may share if we wish is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that from the foundation of the earth this has been a work of love.

Photo: Vincent Fleming, Unsplash.com

Seeing Things

ChildEyes:ilya-yakover-267697

In this Advent season we await the coming of the Christ-child. Our sources for this are Matthew and Luke. Mark begins his gospel breathlessly with Jesus as a man, coming up out of the waters of baptism, the skies splitting open above him. John’s gospel begins even farther back, among star-trails of light in the cosmos, the Word materializing out of the blackness of the space between the stars, to arrive uncloaked as the very being and presence of God across the universe. It’s Matthew who gives us the credentials first, the genealogy of the Saviour, beginning with Abraham and running neatly through three sets of fourteen generations each until we arrive at “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

And it’s Matthew who calls up astrologers from Babylon who, in their glad and awe-struck homage, ply the family with precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then, after being warned of Herod’s baleful intentions in a dream, take another road back home. No sooner had they gone and the family settled down for fitful sleep, when Joseph yields to a dream (a language he was learning still) to take his wife and newborn child and slip through Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. So, with the gold he buys his neighbor’s horse in whispered haste at three a.m., shuts up the house, and off they go, under the stars, across the rock-strewn miles of desert to seek asylum in Egypt.

With Luke we get the bells and whistles—no wise men this time—but more dreams and angels and shepherds and cousins and songs of humility and unalloyed triumph; an older woman with child who thought herself barren, and a mere girl-child, trembling before the sudden, glittering form of a being who stoops to enter her room, and toward whom she bows her head and shields her eyes because, against the evidence, she is certain she is seeing things.

We look at our own infants and imagine who they might become, what they might do, even (God forbid) the harm that might come to them and the resolve we feel to protect them from anything like that. We wonder how the world will change in the time that passes as they grow into adulthood.

In time, we realize that they are not clones of ourselves, but persons in their own right, with personalities and temperaments that may reflect our influence, yet with their own perspectives and motivations. They are not us; they have their own path to travel.

The being whom Luke names as Gabriel greets Mary in a way that is deeply troubling to her. “Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.” The angel hastens to add, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus.”

The singular event that transforms human history has begun. It begins, as Luke tells us, with a girl, one among thousands, who is filled with awe and confusion at being singled out, placed at the head of the line, in the spotlight, up on the stage.

Every woman and girl could wonder in quiet moments if she might be the one to bear the Messiah. More than one watched with secret joy at the sweetness of her child, only to have her hopes dashed when he turned out far less messianic than even the most generous grandparent could vouch for.

Luke’s Gabriel is hitting all the keys with full chords now. “He will be great,” the being sings out, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

There is silence. The being looks at Mary expectantly. “How can this be,” she says deadpan, “since I am a virgin?” She may have only been 14 or 15, but she knows how babies are made. The being sighs; this is going to be tougher than he thought.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he says, and glances sidelong at her. “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” A simply deductive syllogism, he thinks. Two premises followed by a conclusion—a conclusion which must be true if the premises are true. And, of course, they are. There is silence. Mary’s head is down, but the being can see that her gaze is fixed and unmoving. She does not blink. He looks more closely; yes, she is still breathing.

He tries again: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” He pauses. “For nothing is impossible with God,” he finishes up with a flourish. Mary’s shoulders shudder and she lifts her head. Her cheeks are wet with tears, but now she is smiling as she presses her palms into her eyes. She looks up, this girl who has been lifted and spun, whose heart is ablaze with ancient titles, prophetic proclamations, words spoken that were always like objects of wonder heard but not touched, words so overwhelming that they overshadowed the sky and made tense the present.

“Here am I,” she says in a whisper, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And Luke recounts laconically, “Then the angel departed from her.”

Let us not diminish the utter awesomeness of this scene. The word ‘awesome’ has been debased in our time, liberally applied as easily to ice cream as to lending someone a stapler. I want to reserve it for the numinous, that which raises the hair on the back of your neck, that which is awe-full. “The Lord is in this place,” breathes Jacob, looking around in the velvet desert darkness as his eyes adjust to the explosion of light as ten thousand angels ascend and descend on a stairway to heaven. That’s awesome.

No matter how many times we may read of angels appearing to people in the scriptures, we mustn’t forget that it was at least as strange to them as it would be to us. The difference between them and their time and us is that we’ve built in defenses against this kind of thing, so that the numinous cannot be part of any algorithms we might use to calculate what we agree is reality.

She could have said no, Mary could. That is just one of a thousand decision-points that could have diverted or ended the stream of this story. Without that yes, that heart-stopping yes, none of our own yeses would have been possible.

The threshold at which we can linger and then stumble through into Mary’s room after the being is gone, is in the thought of the perilous journey ahead for this promised child. In a matter of moments, Mary has gone from a girl with a predictable life ahead of her to the promised portal through which the Son of God enters the world undetected. This is a joy so deep it can only be expressed with tears. There is a holy terror that rockets her up above the world, giddy at that height and breathless as she yields to the heat that courses through her body.

It is a glorious madness that she has opened herself to. If we are brave enough, we will not turn our eyes away as the arrow arcs into the sky to pierce her heart with the certainty that darkness impenetrable also lies ahead. Joy and terror; this is how her ‘Yes!’ thrills through her body.

***

In his tripartite poem, Seeing Things, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney tells of crossing open water as a child from County Galway by boat to the island of Inishbofin in the Atlantic.

All the time

As we went sailing evenly across

The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,

It was as if I looked from another boat

Sailing through air, far up, and could see

How riskily we fared into the morning,

And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.

From our distance, looking back, we are both the girl-child that says yes to the being and we are the guardians of the child still to come. Our hearts are full for that child in his early peril. In the Advent season we await his coming into a world both cruelly cold and wondrously beautiful.

Photo: Ilya Yakover, Unsplash.com