Is the Christmas Story Midrash on Our Own Times?

Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas
Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas

Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic sister who is now an authority on religious history.  Armstrong has a very nice commentary in the LA Times on the true meaning of the Christmas story in the Bible.

She says, if we study the Christmas story carefully we are left with a disturbing sense that the world’s future lies with the very people cast to the margins. Read an excerpt below:

For the rabbis, scripture was not an arcane message from the past but a miqra, a summons to action in the present. Similarly, Matthew and Luke designed the Christmas story as a program of action for their mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles, who were attempting the difficult task of living and worshiping with people hitherto regarded as alien. Their Gospels make it a tale of inclusion: From the very beginning, Jesus broke down the barriers that divided people, so Jesus’ followers must gladly welcome outsiders into their midst.

If, therefore, we read the Christmas story as commentary, as Midrash, it becomes a miqra for our own time, and for circumstances the evangelists would recognize. We might, for example, reflect on the fact that Matthew’s Magi probably came from Iran. Or note that in our multicultural societies, we must come to terms with people who are different from ourselves and whose presence in our lives may challenge us at a profound level. Moreover, as a species, we are bound tightly to one another — electronically, financially and politically. Unless we manage together to create a just and equitable global society, in which we treat all nations with respect and consideration, we are unlikely to have a viable world to pass on to the next generation.

The Gospels paint a picture that is very different from the cozy stable scene on the Christmas cards. They speak of deprivation and displacement. The Messiah himself is an outsider. There is no room in the inn, so Mary has to give birth in the 1st-century equivalent of an urban alleyway. As victims of Herod’s tyranny, the Holy Family become refugees; other innocents are slaughtered. If we attend carefully to these parts of the story, the specter of contemporary suffering — within our own society and worldwide — will haunt our festivities. And we are left with the disturbing suggestion that the future, for good or ill, may lie with those who are currently excluded.

For Luke, the pregnant Mary becomes a prophetess, proclaiming a new order in which the lowly will be exalted and the mighty pulled down from their thrones. At the beginning of his story, he reminds his readers of Caesar Augustus, who, like the Roman emperors who succeeded him, described himself as “God,” “Son of God,” the “Savior” and “Lord” who would bring peace to the world. Official proclamations and inscriptions throughout the empire announced “the good news” (Greek: euvaggelion) of Roman rule to the subject peoples. Luke’s readers would have noticed that the angel who proclaims “good news” to the shepherds applies all those imperial titles to a child born in a hovel.

Read the full commentary here.

Armstrong’s most recent book is The Case for God. In November 2009, she launched the Charter for Compassion, a global initiative to bring compassion back to the center of religious, moral, public and private life.

Boxing on the Feast of Stephen

December 26th is the feast day of St. Stephen. He’s the patron saint of “Boxing Day” as it’s known in England. The day families make boxes of rich Christmas meats and presents to redistribute the wealth among the poor.

All that we know of Stephen’s life is in the Acts of the Apostles (6-7). He was one of the seven deacons, probably a Hellenistic Jew, appointed by the apostles to look after the distribution of alms to the faithful (especially the widows) and to help in the ministry of preaching. To judge by his famous discourse, even if it is somewhat ‘retouched’, Stephen was learned in the Scriptures and the history of Judaism, besides being eloquent and forceful.

The gist of his defense of Christianity was that God does not depend on the Temple, in so far as, like the Mosaic Law, it was a temporary institution and destined to be fulfilled and superseded by Christ, who was the prophet designated by Moses and the Messiah whom the Jewish race had so long awaited. He finally attacked his hearers for resisting the Spirit and for killing the Christ as their fathers had killed the prophets.

They then stoned him for blasphemy apparently without a formal trial, while he saw a vision of Christ on God’s right hand. The witnesses placed their clothes at the feet of Saul (afterwards Paul), who consented to his death.

Here’s the old English Christmas carol referring to Stephen:

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the winds blow stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page. Treadst thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Nate Bacon: From Guatemala to Jerusalem to Pakistan

Here’s an update from my colleague Nate Bacon, who works for InnerChange in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and is a participant in one of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative roundtables:

“Nine people were killed, and 35 injured, on Sunday morning [17 December] in a suicide bombing attack at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Pakistan. In the light of such tragedy, it was consoling to be on a zoom call this morning with 10 members of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative from all around the globe, and hear a Christian Palestinian woman in Jerusalem offer empathetic words of comfort and encouragement to a Catholic priest in Pakistan!

“Even more encouraging was to hear that same priest describe to us how (instead of staying away in fear) Christians have been flocking to churches in even greater numbers to light candles and pray for the victims and for peace. And what a gift to conspire with these amazing leaders on how to promote and integrate Gospel Nonviolence in the Catholic Church and beyond, in a world drenched in blood.

“In the light of this and other distressing situations we discussed (including DRC, the Philippines, South Sudan, US politics, and Honduras), our friend from Jerusalem asked: ‘Who is going to monitor humanity to remain human?’ ‘Where do we go?’

“After a pause, she responded softly to her own question: ‘We must keep following the Star of Bethlehem.’

“…Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight… Amen.”

Third Tuesday in Advent

Francis and the Christ Child
Francis and the Christ Child

“Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence. It is the season of humility, silence, and growth. For nine months Christ grew in his mother’s body. By his own will, she formed him from herself, from the simplicity of her daily life.”–Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Hannah, his mother, approached Eli and said: ‘Pardon, my lord! As you live my lord, I am the woman who stood near you here, praying to the LORD. I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request. Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.’ She left him there.”—1 Samuel 1:26-28

A classic Chasidic story says that when the rabbi of Kotzker was asked, “Where is the place of the Messiah’s glory?” he replied, “Wherever we give Him room, wherever we make space for Him.” Where is the tender place in you where the Messiah will come to birth?

The Christmas crèche is a tangible reminder for us to make room for the Christ Child. The tradition dates back to St. Francis of Assisi. As the story goes, on Christmas Eve in 1293, Francis gathered with friars and townsfolk in the woods on Mt. Subasio. There, under the canopy of flowering ash and downy oak, was laid a trough filled with hay. Oxen and a donkey were tied to a tree. In his delight at the sight of Bethlehem in his own little corner of the Umbrian hills, Francis danced in praise and sang the gospel.

When the impromptu mass was over, Francis went to the crib and stretched out his arms as if to hold the infant Jesus. And for a moment, so the story is told, the Christ Child appeared. The empty manger was filled with a radiant light.

Remember to set an extra place for the unexpected guest at your Christmas meal.

“O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Son of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Third Monday in Advent

Balaam by Ben-Zion (1897-1987) “This Advent, forgive, forgive, and forgive. Draw others close to you. Draw yourself near to other people. In bridging gaps we draw nearer to God who this season draws ever closer to us.”—Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Balaam did not go as before to seek omens but turned toward the wilderness.”Numbers 24:2

The story in Numbers 22 of Balaam and his ass is a favorite for Sunday school. The antics of the donkey who can see the angel of God while Balaam remains blind lends itself to classic comedy. In fact, it is the donkey who is actually the prophet because God speaks through her to correct Balaam.

Balak, the Moab king, is surrounded by Israelites who are prepared to attack. Balak has decided to fight fire with fire. He calls for Balaam, a Yahwist priest, to curse the Yahwist army. Balak thinks he’s got Balaam in his pocket because Balak can’t imagine anyone refusing money. But Balaam’s curse on the Israelites cannot be bought. Instead, God stuffs Balaam’s mouth with poems blessing Israel, which he then spews over the gathered army.

In this instance, the Moab king recognizes defeat and withdraws. The battle is won with poetry and without a single death.

The Christ-figure in this story is the donkey. She obeys God. She does everything in her power to keep Balaam on the path of righteousness. She submits to unjustified violence when Balaam beats her. And she speaks the words of God honestly. Filipino priest and activist Karl Gaspar would say this story exemplifies the “weapons of the weak.” The slave animal acts with honor and the war is won with weapons of beauty.

Pay attention today to the most overlooked living creature or person in your path. What example might they teach?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Second Friday in Advent

Fire Dance by Elena Kotliarker

“Till like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah whose words were as a flaming furnace. Their staff of bread he shattered, in his zeal he reduced them to straits; by God’s word he shut up the heavens and three times brought down fire.”—Sirach 48: 1-3

The book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) is a collection of folk wisdom interspersed with songs of admiration for great figures in the Hebrew tradition. The scientific era has taught us to devalue folk wisdom, but the bible demonstrates that the common wisdom of poor people should be valued alongside the learned wisdom of the priests and prophets. The book of Sirach is a storehouse of shared stories. Stories are the bones of a culture. Without stories, things fall apart. Life no longer makes sense.

Sirach 48 is a praise poem honoring the prophet Elijah who used what might be called natural magic or earth-based science to defeat the priests of Baal. Elijah’s dedication to Yahweh opened him to receive Yahweh’s wisdom on how to win this particular battle. To win the hearts and minds of the people who worshiped a rain god it was necessary to defeat the rain god at his own game. So Yahweh demonstrated superiority by controlling water. When the priests of Baal lit a fire to sacrifice a bull, Elijah called down rain to put it out. And when the priests of Baal called for a downpour of rain, Elijah “shut up the heavens” causing a drought in the land.

The setting of these power struggles and the weapons used are foreign to us—but the basic dynamics are not. Some people interpret these Old Testament battles as the One True Religion against the Other. Jesus, however, drew the line differently. There are those who use power and institutions to oppress the poor and those who do not.

In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Jesus’ students ask him, “Why do the scribes say Elijah has to come first?” In typical Jesus fashion, he ignores the narrow-mindedness of their question and goes to the heart of it. It is not important what the scribes have said in the past. Elijah has already returned and the Messiah is now among them. This is what they must realize. This is what they must open their hearts and minds to understand.

What power struggles are present in your own life? What wisdom do you need to face them?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Second Saturday in Advent

“We are only syllables of the Perfect Word.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”Matthew 11:19

merton1Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from the Abbey of Gethsemene in Kentucky, died on this date in 1968. In his life, he worked for peace and prayed and argued for an end to war. “Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and women and love God above all,” he wrote in Seeds of Contemplation. “Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.”

Merton was electrocuted by a faulty wire on a fan in his room where he was attending an international meeting with Eastern and Western contemplatives in Bangkok. His body was shipped home on a military transport plane alongside the bodies of soldiers who died in Vietnam. Merton would have appreciated their common lot.

One man who knew Merton described him as a “merry monk,” like in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He recalled Merton’s bright, inquisitive eyes, filled with humor…more like a “chip monk” one person told me. Though he was a cloistered contemplative, and at times tried to be a hermit, Merton kept up a lively letter writing exchange with atheists, artists, communists, bohemians, women, poets, Buddhists, and radicals. In Merton’s life, “wisdom is vindicated by her works.”

Christmas Eve is less than two weeks away. Who will sit at your Christmas table?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Second Thursday in Advent

St. John of the Cross (Hacienda Los Olivos, Spain)
St. John of the Cross (Hacienda Los Olivos, Spain)

I believe with all my belief … in the coming of the messiah. … And even if there is a delay, … I believe.—Hebrew song

But I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD.Zephaniah 3:12

One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
—Ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;
In darkness, and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
—Ah, the sheer grace!—
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now all stilled;
On that glad night,
In secret, for no one saw me,
Nor did I look at anything,
With no other light or guide
Than the one that burned in my heart;
This guided me more surely than the light of noon
To where He waited for me
—Him I knew so well—
In a place where no one else appeared.
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.
Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
And I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

—Saint John of the Cross, from “Noche Oscura”

Can you make a tryst with the Lord and steal away to meet him?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.


Second Wednesday in Advent

"The Holy Thing" by Bruce Manwaring
“The Holy Thing” by Bruce Manwaring

“Everyone should open their heart very wide to joy, should welcome it and let it be buried very deeply in them; and they should wait the flowering with patience. Of course, the first ecstasy will pass, but because in real joy Christ grows in us, the time will come when joy will put forth shoots and the richness and sweetness of the person who rejoiced will be Christ’s flowering.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’”Luke 1:26-28

The eight-day Jewish “Festival of Lights” called Hanukkah starts next week. It commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in reclaiming the temple in Jerusalem’s from the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. As the people prepared to dedicate the temple, they realized they only had enough purified oil to kindle the menorah for a single day. Miraculously, the light continued to burn for eight days. Each evening of Hanukkah one more menorah candle is lit with a special blessing. The candles are not to be “used” for light, but only for enjoyment, savoring their beauty.

“We will prevail through the dark night,” sings Rabbi Shefa Gold in her Hanukkah song from Zechariah, “but not by might, and not by power, but by Your Spirit. These are the words of God.”

Jewish midrash tells an interesting story on how the first menorah was made. Apparently, Moses had a difficulty remembering God’s instructions on menorah making. Every time Moses left the mountain he would forget the pattern, so God engraved the design into the flesh of Moses palm. Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg says that after this experience Moses’ hands took on new power. Later, when Moses instructs Joshua to lead the Israelite force against Amalek, Moses does not direct with his staff but only his open hands. “In this gesture, according to one midrash,” writes Zornberg, “ Moses models prayer to his people fighting below. In a surrealistic description, their involvement in battle is refigured as a miming of Moses’ prayerful gestures: ‘they saw Moses kneeling down, and they knelt down, falling upon his face and they fell upon their faces, spreading their hands to heaven.’” Whenever the people modeled Moses, they prevailed.

What a powerful image of nonviolent resistance! In the midst of a battle, all the Israelites knelt down to pray as Moses instructed them. “As long as the Israelites gazed upwards and submitted their hearts to God in heaven, they would prevail,” says the Mishna Rosh Hashana, “and if not, they would fail.”

What healing of the masculine to you need in your life?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..