Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas II: It's Something New

So Lisa and I were watching the movie The Nativity Story yesterday.  Being who we are, we stopped it at several points and talked about things that occurred to us.  After Mary returns from Elizabeth's, obviously pregnant, she and her parents and Joseph are in an intense confrontation.  Mary sticks to her guns, that she has not had sex but is pregnant by Divine love.  I turned to Lisa and said, "Isn't it funny?"

"What's that?" she asked, stopping the movie.

"OK.  These people all say they believe in God, right?  And God says, 'I'm going to do stuff.'  Then, God comes along and does something and no one believes it."

"Isn't that the way it always is?" Lisa asks.

That's why she's the pastor and I'm not.

It goes all the way back to Moses, really.  Moses encounters the burning bush and, after hemming and hawing, demands a sign.  The answer from the bush is, to our later ears, a wonderful example of God getting more than a little impatient.  In essence, the answer is, "You want a sign?  I'll give you a sign.  Get busy doing what I told you to do, then come back here for more instructions."

Now, just as with Moses, so, too, with Mary and Joseph.  There aren't any details.  Mary, remember, is a single woman for whom becoming pregnant is not only a cultural and social disgrace but a crime.  As told in St. Matthew's Gospel, Joseph is well within his rights to accuse her of adultery and have her stoned, but demonstrating more character than most people then or now, decides not to do so.  He will quietly release her from the vows they shared.  Only then does an angel come in a dream and tell him the story we read in St. Luke's Gospel.  After that, he took her to his home.  In the film, Joseph comes to Mary and tells her of his dream and his decision to raise the child as his own.  Mary tells Joseph it won't endear him to the rest of Nazareth.  And, indeed, the rest of the townspeople look upon both of them with disgust.  You can almost see the thought-balloons above the women when they look at Mary: "Whore."  Joseph's friends and co-workers look at him like he's lost his mind, taking this tramp in to his house.  As they're leaving Nazareth for Bethlehem, the people in town watch with disgust as they travel together, and Joseph turns to Mary and he says, "They're going to miss us."

Like Moses, neither Joseph nor Mary get any instructions on dealing with the kinds of social opprobrium heaped upon them.  Like Moses, neither Joseph nor Mary are told how to raise this child, what kind of instruction he is to receive, or much of anything else.  In a place and time where many children died young, there aren't any guarantees he won't catch some dread illness and die.  In a place and time where children are taken from families for any number of reasons, there are no guarantees he won't be ripped from their home, sold to slavery perhaps or some other dread end.  All Mary and Joseph get is the notification the child Mary is carrying is the Son of God.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I'm no fan of the word "miracle".  I'm not even sure how anyone would define it, understand it, or recognize it if confronted by such an event.  There isn't much talk of "miracles" in the Bible.  There is, however, a whole lot of talk of God doing something new.  We are so used to the Christmas story I think it's easy to overlook the astounding new thing God is doing here.  I had an exchange with an old and dear friend yesterday.  He told me of St. Bernard's commentary upon the story in Luke, chapter 1, after the Annunciation, as we all wait for Mary's reply: "Let humility be bold!  Let modesty be confident!"

In the face of the astounding reality that she is to carry and bear the Son of God, the One promised and hoped for for centuries, St. Bernard calls for an act of faith that should be our own.  First and foremost - hear the Word from God and believe it.  It is real.  This thing that's happening, it isn't some weird or outlandish event.  A young woman is carrying a child.  How ordinary!  This young woman professes this child came to be through the power of the Spirit of God.  Let us celebrate what God is doing!

In the midst of all this ordinariness, God is doing something new.  We should be bold in our humility, confident in our humility, and even faithful in our materialism and hear the Word of God doing something new here and now in all the humdrum events of our everyday lives.  You want a sign?  You want a miracle?  Look at the pregnant lady.  Watch the folks in the stores and shopping malls.  See the crowds milling around the airports and bus terminals.  These are your signs.  Here are your miracles.  It is for this and these that Mary faced not just humiliation and rejection but death because she said, "Yes," to that most outlandish thing: God's messenger telling her she was to have a child.

A merry Christmas to all of you and each of you, your families and friends, and the whole world.

Virtual Tin Cup

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