About a year ago, I heard a National Public Radio pledge drive testimonial by one of their reporters. Describing an issue he had recently covered, he said, “it’s a complicated story and NPR does complicated.”
I loved that. In spite of a culture that is increasingly asking for life to be described in simplistic, dualistic terms – we know it is complicated. Nuanced. Full of greys and competing truths.
It is why I like the progressive church. We do complicated. We know faith is also nuanced, messy, uncertain, truthful, hopeful and mysterious. We do not come in search of platitudes but a wholehearted, robust, truth worthy of the lives we are living. Worthy of both our minds and our hearts.
On this Christmas Eve 2017, we need a durable Christmas story. We need a rugged and resilient truth.
Poet Adrienne Rich once wrote,
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed, I have to cast my lot with those who,
Age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”
This is the Christmas we seek, this is the coming of God we await – one that despite all that has been destroyed, will reconstitute the world.
One of the great treasures of the season is the music; and in it we find a powerful thread of rugged hope and possibility. This morning, I’d like to take a short journey through some carols that emerge from stories and experiences that speak to bravery, determination and the prophetic witness to love – against the forces of evil, corruption, apathy and oppression. These songs and these stories arose, and continue to be sung, in an anxious, tension filled world. By holding the aspirations of the carols with the truth of our lives, we embrace a faith worthy of the complex life we live.
For me, the journey almost always begins with “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) – an Episcopalian preacher and committed anti slavery advocate, wrote this Christmas hymn following a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. According to the story, Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and was struck by beauty and timelessness of shepherd’s work.
And yet, Bethlehem, the birthplace of the baby, is today a city under siege. The Israeli ‘separation wall’ cuts it off not only from neighboring Jerusalem but also the Palestinian West Bank. It is difficult for tourists to enter Bethlehem and almost impossible for residents to leave.
Just last week I received an email from Mitri Raheb, Palestinian Lutheran pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. He wrote in the wake of our president’s unilateral decree naming Jerusalem the capital of Israel, ignoring decades of sensitive debate and negotiations for how to help two peoples share that sacred land.
“The situation is very volatile. Today the whole West Bank and Gaza are on strike. The Palestinian people are in a state of mourning; mourning justice that was lost in the allies of power. And yet we do not believe in the power of Caesar but in the power of Christ, born in Bethlehem under occupation and crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authorities. Most Caesars brought only bloodshed, destruction, and animosity to Jerusalem because they were not able to realize “what makes for peace”. No (presidential) decree will deter us from working for a just peace in Jerusalem. We will continue to raise the next generation of creative leaders for Jerusalem and to grow hope all over Palestine. This is Christ’s legacy in this country and we are determined to keep it alive.”
The truth is that the troubled Bethlehem of today probably has more in common with the Bethlehem of Biblical times than not. Certainly those in Jesus’ time would have known it as a place of both “hopes and fears.” And yet, it is in this troubled and neglected town that a seminal story of Jesus’ birth is set. It is to such complicated realities that God has come, and continues to come, anew.
A second carol to explore is Joy to the World, which we will sing in just a bit. There are many theories about the lyrics and how they seek to mimic the style of Handel. What stands out for me however is the tune. It is named ANTIOCH, recognizing the Syrian City of Antioch. It was here that the first church outside of Jerusalem was reportedly established. The Syrian church remains the oldest and one of the most unique in the world today. It still uses a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken; as well as an ancient liturgy.
As we sing it, we do so in partnership with Syrian Christians. In the midst of a tragic and ongoing civil war, Christians and other vulnerable minorities are subject to even more terror and violence.
In a recent interview, Old Testament theologian Walter Bruggemann suggested that we need robust spiritual practices to live prophetically, in resistance to the ‘empires’ of our day. He encouraged us to look to communities of ‘alternative consciousness’ – communities of color, communities that care for people with dementia, or provide healthcare for the poor. These and other such communities ‘share the conviction of both grief and hope that escapes the restraints of dominant culture.” (Sojourners, January 2018, p. 20)
It seems to me that it is in such communities that we also find real joy. Joy with a long view of faith. Joy rooted in a longstanding story of hope and possibility, and a story that continues to be told centuries later.
As we sing this carol, we remember that the advent of joy is always in the flesh – in and through us – as we embody love to a world weary and in need of grace.
The next carol is What Child is This
What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Why lies the child in manger bare, where ox and ass are feeding?
This carol was written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. At the time of it’s writing he was afflicted with an unexpected and severe illness that caused him to be bedridden and overcome with depression. That we still sing his carol highlights the truth that the Christian faith at its best always allows for the wide range of emotions that define being human.
With so many versions of Christianity offering a prosperity gospel that suggests all will go well for the faithful, we cherish a tradition that sings out of depression.
Seeing and celebrating the presence of God in our low moments; indeed acknowledging that creativity and faith often flow from such moments, is a gift we need in the world of curated Facebook and Instagram personas.
There is so much to love about Christmas, but in our celebrations, may we not forget how this season names a series of truths that first of all challenge the dominant empire and secondly, offer a pathway to alternative consciousness. By definition these are pathways that will not be highlighted in debates about which holiday greeting we use, it will not be preached on TV Christmas specials, and will not be delivered in 2 days by Amazon Prime.
And yet, this is the Christmas we seek, this is the coming of God we await – one that despite all that has been destroyed, will reconstitute the world, in love.