December 24/25 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Christmas Eve/Day
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Theme: Pretty obvious, really, however we choose to express it. I'm going with "The Gift of a Child." It may be worth pausing at that point and pondering that simple phrase. Of course, in this context it refers to the infant Christ; but it also applies to all new-born infants. And who is the gift from in those cases?
Introduction. The pattern we have become used to through the Season of Advent continues here. An amazing and mystifying prophecy from centuries ago is fulfilled in an equally amazing and mystifying way. Somewhere around 700 years before that first Christmas, Isaiah proclaims a message of hope to the people devastated by defeat, capture and exile. A child is to be born! And centuries later that child is born in Bethlehem, exactly as Isaiah had foretold. And that has made all the difference, as St Paul writes in his letter to Titus.
Background. During the Advent Season I have been trying to flesh out the idea of the progressive stages of the spiritual development of humanity, at least that part of humanity that has been influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Taking a cue from the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, I have suggested that, for a long period of time, humanity in general did not have the spiritual "equipment" to encounter God directly. Just as we have evolved physically and mentally over millennia, so we have needed to evolve spiritually. As always, evolutionary progress does not happen in all creatures of a particular species at once. One or two "get there" first. So it was that God first revealed himself to exceptional individuals – particularly gifted or "anointed" to receive from God and share with everyone else.
While such an evolutionary process is gradual, there comes an occasional leap forward. Some years ago a popular book advanced the theory of the "Hundredth Monkey". This idea came from observing a troupe of monkeys in a fairly limited environment – I think they were confined on a particular island. One monkey discovered a new technique for doing something – sifting grain from earth by dropping it in the water; the grain floated and could be scooped off. Another monkey saw this and copied it. Then another, and so on. So far, so understandable. But the observers discovered that when the number of monkeys in this confined habitat that knew this trick reached a certain number (think, tipping point or critical mass), other monkeys of the same species in entirely separate environments suddenly "acquired" this same technique! How to explain that? Jung might say it points to the collective unconscious. Whatever the explanation, it suggests that at a certain point the whole species is somehow gifted with a new ability.
It's something like this I have in mind as I try to understand something of the mystery of the incarnation – and later, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. In some way we cannot explain rationally, this new life that is born is Bethlehem has entered, not just Mary, but all humanity: our human nature has been forever changed by the birth of this child that Isaiah talked about all those centuries before the event. That's why both Isaiah and the angel that frightened the wits out of the shepherds broadcast a rather strange birth notice. Not to Mary (and Joseph) a boy... But UNTO US. There in those little explosive words is the great miracle and the great mystery of Christmas. Even FOR US might have sounded right; but unto us?
Perhaps one way into this is to think about the way in which a baby can be said to be born unto (or at least into) a whole family. The child belongs to the parents as child, to the grandparents as grandchild, to the parents' other children as sibling, and to the parents' siblings as nephew/niece. (And so on through cousins, etc.) So a child can be said to be born unto his/her family; and if we accept that all humanity is one family (God is the Father of us all) then here is part of the mystery we are grappling with.
But only a part. As St John grasped perhaps more than any other biblical writer, this particular birth is about the incarnation of the Divine in the flesh of all humanity. From then on we could no longer insist that we are "only human". We are (at least potentially) both human and divine, and that potentiality is realised in general at Pentecost and in the particular case through baptism.
We make a great mistake if we allow ourselves to be drawn into debate about the details of immaculate conception or virgin birth. The joy of Christmas is part of the joy of the whole Christ-event, which is the process by which we become children of God through the Spirit as well as children of our parents through the flesh. More about that next year.
Isaiah. This is one of those passages that makes marvellous sense to us, but must have made absolutely no sense to the people of Isaiah's time, and probably to Isaiah himself. The people have been decimated by the Assyrians; their land has been pillaged, their leaders killed or taken hostage, their men slaughtered, and their women and children enslaved. It doesn't get much worse than that. And what is God's solution to all that? Another great military leader, an alliance with a stronger nation, or at least some sort of credible rescue plan? No, God's answer is embodied in a baby! Think about that for a minute – actually several minutes! Take any more manageable calamity you can think of – the earthquakes in Christchurch, for example. Imagine Gerry Brownlee standing up in the middle of the devastated CBD and announcing that he brings good news for them. The Government is to be placed on the shoulders of a new-born baby! And yet at a literal level that's basically the message from Isaiah.
We need to dig down to a lower level. The child is surely about starting all over again. About new life in the midst of death. About God once again doing an entirely new thing – when the time is right – when enough people are ready.
Finally, as we ponder this whole idea of the birth being "unto us", have a look at the beautiful little liturgy called "Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child", which begins on page 754 of the Prayer Book. Read through it slowly and prayerfully. Thinking of the baby Jesus, pray the prayers in that service, and be thankful.
Taking It Personally.
· Focus on verse 2(a). Can you recall a time when you suddenly had a bright light shone at you in the midst of darkness (perhaps the headlight of an approaching car while driving at night)? Remember how your eyes take a moment or two to react, during which you cannot see properly. (Think Paul on the road to Damascus, temporarily blinded by a bright light.) Perhaps our spiritual blindness results from the Divine light being too strong for us?
· Now verse 2(b). Birth in a world where death is part of our reality. The wording reminds us of psalm 23. Read that psalm through. How does it relate to Christmas? (A clue, Emmanuel – God with us!)
· Read verse 3-5, and think of the destruction of war: Hiroshima, Afghanistan, Iraq – pick any of them. Focus on the sheer bloody horror of it all. Then read verses 6 and 7.
· Finish with a period of quiet meditation on Isaiah 55:8.
Titus. A little Christmas stocking filler! Christ is the embodiment of the grace of God. Because of the appearance of that grace among us all thing have been changed, including our human nature so that we can now lead godly lives. Time itself has changed; we are now in an age that will end with the return of Christ.
Taking It Personally.
· We feel different at Christmas, don't we? Do you? Do you feel more tolerant, more kindly disposed towards others, even ""difficult" others? How do you explain that?
· We anticipate Christmas, look forward to it, and become more hopeful. What are you most hoping for at this time? What are you most looking forward to? How do your hopes relate to your faith?
Luke. The birth takes place in a real, historical world, as Luke is at pains to record. Quite possibly he is guided in part by his great love of irony here. Caesar wants to puff himself up by recording how many subjects he has. But for Luke only one new-born baby really counts. Notice that there is no reference to an innkeeper in this story, despite countless nativity plays involving such a character (often with comic-tragic results!). Come to that, Luke does not specifically mention a stable (or an accompanying cast of animals): all that comes from his reference to a manger.
Above all for Luke this birth is a reunion of heaven and earth. Heaven takes the initiative. The angel (messenger) appears, accompanied by a blinding light (the glory of God). As usual, the humans involved are terrified, and so the angel has to begin where they all do: "do not be afraid". Then comes the birth announcement, and that same little phrase: the baby has been born "to (or unto) you", followed by the full angelic choir. And all this for a bunch of shepherds, universally looked down on at the time as the lowest of the low. When they had recovered their wits, they set off for Bethlehem to see for themselves. What they found was a man, a woman and a baby – nothing out of the ordinary. But they told people about the angel's message and we are assured that all who heard their testimony were amazed. Mary, however, stored these things up in her heart and pondered them, while the shepherds went on their way praising God.
And then...not much happened for 30 years! Things were still not quite ready.
Taking It Personally.
· Read the passage slowly, noticing the details that are there and those that aren't. Place yourself in the encounter between the shepherd and the angel. How do you feel? What can you see? Can you look or is the light too bright? What are the sheep doing? Have they seen what's going on or are they just continuing to chew or sleep?
· Go with the shepherds to Bethlehem. What do you see when you get there? How do you feel? Contrast the vision with the pictures of the Nativity Scene you may have seen over the years. Does Mary look like a woman who has just been through the trauma of labour and childbirth, or is she all serene and beautiful? What's Joseph doing?
· Look at the infant. Does he look as though he has just been born? What can you smell? Are there animals around, or evidence that they have been around? What are the shepherds doing? Do Mary and Joseph seem welcoming or do you feel intrusive? Are you in a hurry to leave, or would you like to stay? Do you say anything to Mary or Joseph? Do they speak to you?
· What are your thoughts as you leave? What does that birth mean to you? Do you feel in any way that this baby has been born to you?