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.

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..

God to Rich: Read the Fine Print

bible“If you have taken a pledge from the poor,” says God to the rich, “do not say he is your debtor and you are therefore justified in retaining his garment. Remember you are my debtor, your life is in my hand. I return you all your senses and all your faculties after your sleep every day.” —Midrash Tanhuma

Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Midrash for Election Day

I am a manThe Torah of our Choosing by Rabbi Arthur Waskow (A midrashic interpretation of Deuteronomy 17: 14-20):

You may set, yes, set over you some to hold office
Who are aware that the Breath of Life is One,
Uniting all, breathing into life all God’s Creation.
You may not give power to those so alienated
As not to feel that you are kin to them.

Indeed! — the officials whom you choose
must not multiply the horses of a cavalry,
a standing army to invade other nations and oppress our own;
Your choice must not return the people
to living in a Tight and Narrow Place – that’s slavery!
For the Breath of Life has said to you:
You must not return yourself or others
to ignorance, to poverty, to subservience, or despair –-
all slavery!

The ones you choose must not become addicted to sexual obsessions,
Or to taking bribes or favors from the wealthy
For in these ways their hearts will be turned aside
From wisdom and compassion.

But it shall be when they sit in the halls and seats of power,
They are to clarify their understanding of Most Sacred Wisdom
And face the caring public; share their vision
in ways that could with honor
face the wisdom of our wisest forebears,
prophets and holy teachers,
and so be worthy of our trust.

Their understanding of the Sacred Wisdom
is to remain beside them,
to read it and rewrite it as each day, each dawn,
Brings new knowledge and new insight to our lives —
To make certain that the rulers whom we choose
Will remain steadfast in knowing that all Creation
deserves, demands, our wonder and our healing,
so that their hearts not rise in arrogance above their kinfolk,
all Earth and all her life-forms –
that they not turn-aside from what connects us all.

Only in this way can we prolong our days
among all peoples, all life-forms
we and all our children.–Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Read more from Rabbi Waskow at The Shalom Report.