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Today’s Gospel was from John chapter 12. One verse caught my attention.

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“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

 

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In the homily we were reminded of the process whereby a seed grows. It has to be in the right temperature and level of moisture. Then its protective shell has to soften and crack open. Only then can the seed send out a root and a shoot and make food and grow. The hard shell has to be broken.

Two things came to mind as I listened. The first is the obvious prophecy of Jesus’ death and the beginning of the church. Without Jesus’ death would his words have taken root? Without his death would others have been willing to die for their faith? Secondly, I reflected on what happened to bring about his death? He became vulnerable, he let down his defenses, he opened up and spoke the truth that was within his heart.

I recently re-watched a TED talk by Sociologist Brene Brown. She spoke about her discovery that vulnerability is the basis for living a whole life, for being what she calls a whole-hearted person.

“And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

According to Brown in order to be whole-hearted people we have to live with authenticity, “we have to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee, to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love this much? Can I believe in this this passionately?”

Let us hope that as we learn to become more vulnerable, more open, more whole-hearted, we will not be asked to die for the truth the way that Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Romero and so many other martyrs did. But in this season of Lent let us at least stretch enough, and soften our shells enough, to allow growth to happen.

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“…biblical authors often used humor and the absurd to alert their readers that something very important is about to happen. The births of Isaac and Jesus were my two examples. The idea that either a woman in her nineties or a virgin can give birth is, I said, absurd, and the authors knew this to be so. They never expected their readers to take them literally. Rather they were saying, look these births herald the coming [of] something new into the world and hence break with the normative ways of producing offspring.” Rabbi Rami Shapiro, http://rabbirami.blogspot.com/2012/11/stand-up-theology.html

We all love Thanksgiving dinner and all its trimmings – a beautiful family tradition that brings our families together and mends and heals and nurtures. Now, just a few weeks later we are immersed in the Christmas story and all its trimmings. And, once again, we prepare for family gatherings and for opportunities to renew and reclaim, to nest and remember. But what is it as Christians that we are called to remember? What is the Christian heart of our Christmas story?

Obviously, it’s not Christmas lights and fir trees; it’s not snow men or reindeer. It’s not Santa Claus or even Saint Nicholas – he came much later.

Is it the angels singing in the fields, and the shepherds? Is it wise men from the East and their gifts? Is it Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – that’s hardly festive? Okay, what about the stable and the ox and ass and manger? There has to be a manger because of the song, right? And everybody loves the scene of the angels and shepherd and the baby!

Everybody loves a story of a baby, especially one in which there is danger and pathos and heroism and compassion and beauty and a happy ending with angels singing and a star from heaven guiding a family to safety so a baby can be born under a starry sky….ahhhh! Cue the heavenly chorus. Then add the mysteries and treasures of the Orient and a baby lamb and some portentous dreams. What is not to like about this story? But we still haven’t gotten to the Christian heart of the story. We are still in the Christmas Story. And that is where Christmas stays for so many people it seems, and not just children.

In my experience, adult Christians who have become disenchanted with Christmas have become disenchanted with the Christmas Story not with the Christian Story. In fact they may not really know the Christian story. And here we get to Rabbi Rami’s point.  The Gospel writers, writing decades after Jesus’ death, were not historians of his life; they were not biographers. They were tellers of his Teaching, Death, and Resurrection – and only as an afterthought his birth, and only because, after all, he had to have had one.  In telling about his birth their main concern was to say that God was involved, and that from the very beginning the Jesus Event was a God Event. Not just from the moment of his baptism (Mark), not just from the moment of his announced conception (Matthew and Luke) but even from before the moment of creation (John).

The Gospel writers, when addressing the issue of Jesus’ birth, were giving us theology not biology.  They weren’t interested in eggs, sperm, uteruses – they didn’t know about such things. They weren’t interested in the human person as evil matter versus a good spirit, that idea was a Greek idea that didn’t have any influence on the Gospel writing, obviously, because Jesus clearly had a body in all the Gospel narratives.  The Gospel writers weren’t concerned about Original Sin either; Augustine would create that idea a few hundred years later.

The Gospel writers were telling us, using hyperbole and using Old Testament allusions, that the Jesus Event was a God Event, and that it had always been a God Event, since the beginning of Jesus’ life, or even since the beginning of all time. Moreover, the Jesus Event had been prefigured by many different stories in the Old Testament, showing that Jesus was indeed the true Messiah of Jewish expectation. For example, Micah prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew especially took great pains to connect his version of the Infancy Narrative, as it is called, to prophecies in the Old Testament. For example he connects the family’s trip to Egypt, and the ensuing slaughter of the innocents – two stories no other Gospel includes – to prophecies in Hosea and Jeremiah respectively. It is generally agreed that Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish-Christian and in his use of Old Testament quotes and allusions he may simply be using a literary device to make his theological points: the Jesus Event was a God Event; Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah.  The early Christians hadn’t gone any further than this in trying to figure out Jesus’ relationship to God yet, other than the basic language of Father, Son, and Spirit. The debate about the Trinity took nearly four hundred more years to settle (Council of Nicea 325, Chalcedon 451).

So what then is my point? If we are suffering from Christmas ennui, maybe it’s because we simply have lost sight of the Christian Story.  My solution? Let’s give ourselves the gift of a LITERARY GOSPEL CHRISTMAS. Let’s do some reading of the Gospel narratives with a footnoted Bible translation and/or scholarly commentary at hand and really attempt to understand the Christian Story beneath the Christmas story before we call Bah Humbug to it all!

Advent is a good time to remember that there is more to Catholicism than the mass: there is the Christian Faith.

The Mystery of Christmas, a quote from a reflection on the Taize site.

“The Word took flesh, became flesh (John 1.14). And so God is linked to a process of becoming. He is not the unchangeable one that the philosophers imagine. His transcendence does not consist in remaining aloof, far from human beings. The transcendence of the God of the Bible is to penetrate human history and to bring newness to it. Where everything was old, worn out, apparently exhausted, with no future, the Word brings freshness, newness, zest for Life or quite simply what Christians call forgiveness. For if John writes, “The Word became flesh” with the connotations of weakness and finiteness that we have pointed out, he does not say, “we have seen his misery”, but “we have seen his glory”.

An intense beauty, which John calls “glory”, shines forth from the incarnate Christ. In his manner of living in the midst of our world, in accepting human limitations, in a total surrender into the hands of his Father, in receiving his existence day by day, glory shines forth. The face of God reveals itself.”

In a speech to Young Republicans last weekend, Herman Cain likened himself to Moses, an initially reluctant ambassador for God. As we move closer to election time God seems to be getting busy again with political campaigns. Of course there has to be time set aside for sports, as more and more athletes give God credit for their successes. Apparently God has an opinion about who should hold political office and who should win football games. But what about those religious candidates and athletes who are unsuccessful? Do they take this as a sign of their unworthiness in God’s eyes and give up running for office or for the next touchdown? Or do they blame God for letting them down?

It’s not that I’m against thanking God…in the big picture sense everything is gift, everything is grace. But when we take the view that God is busy micromanaging our lives and our fortunes (or misfortunes) we are losing sight of that big picture and giving our individual lives too much importance.

 Athletes can be forgiven for being overcome in the moment of victory, but politicians should be more circumspect in their attribution of political calling to a personal invitation from God. Not only does it give them an even greater appearance of hypocrisy when their inevitable shortcomings are made public, it also makes God or at least faith in God seem a little ridiculous. And God deserves better than that. Maybe God should get a campaign manager.

I learned something today in our Synagogue staff meeting that really blew me away. As a Catholic Religious Educator I was used to the simple (now I understand simplistic) correlation between the Last Supper and a Passover seder.  (Seder means order or sequence, as in order of service – the sequence of prayers in the ritual meal.  The Passover Seder is a particular order of service for Passover.) But the Last Supper was not a Passover Seder, could not have been a Passover Seder. So the struggle within Christian theology to figure out the day of the week of the Last Supper and whether it coincided with Passover is pointless. Why? For the simple reason that the Passover Seder is a Rabbinic tradition developed AFTER the destruction of the Temple in 70AD and codified in Rabbinic texts around 200A.D.

So any paralleling between the Passover and the Last Supper is anachronistic. Perhaps in fact the Last Supper ritual of bread and wine was a Sabbath ritual or Sabbath-like. Certainly the tradition of the four blessings with wine did not exist at the time of Jesus death.  Was the Last Supper ritual written as a theological midrash (interpretation) by the Gospel writers, comparing Jesus with the Passover lamb? This would have made sense after his death when they were struggling to find some redemptive value in it and not see it simply as a failure.  Did Jesus compare himself to the lamb which was sacrificed in the Temple on the feast of Passover for the expiation of sins ? Again, that is possible if he knew he was going to die and saw his upcoming death as that of an innocent victim whose death brought salvation to his followers.  But what if Paul developed the midrash of the Last Supper?  Paul who was a rabbinic scholar. Paul who came to believe in Jesus after his death.  Paul who was the first to write the account of the Last Supper.

There is a lot to consider here. 

Reflection on the Infancy Narratives by retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in response to a concerned Christian who worried because wasn’t sure he could accept them literally.

There is no doubt that most people have literalized the images that Matthew and Luke have in their birth stories of Jesus (See Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2), but I do believe it is quite clear that neither Matthew nor Luke thought of them as literal events. The great majority of biblical scholars share that perspective. The facts are that stars do not travel across the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with them; angels do not break through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds; and human beings do not follow stars to pay homage to a newborn king of a foreign nation, especially when the same gospel that tells us that Jesus was the son of a carpenter. To continue this train of thought, no real head of state, including King Herod, would deputize eastern magi that he had never seen before to be his CIA to bring him a report of this threat to his throne. Virgins do not conceive except in mythology, of which there were many examples in the Mediterranean world. A man does not take his wife, who is “great with child,” on a 94-mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that the expected messiah can be born in David’s city. One lay Roman Catholic woman theologian said of that account, “Only a man who had never had a baby could have written that story!” Kings do not order people to return to their ancestral home for enrolling for taxation. There were 1000 years between David and Joseph, or some 50 generations. David had multiple wives and concubines. In 50 generations, the descendants of David would number in the billions. If they had all returned to Bethlehem, there would be no wonder that there was no room at the inn! Certainly, both Matthew and Luke were aware that they were using these stories to try to interpret the power of God experienced in the adult life of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew drew his wise men story out of Isaiah 60, I Kings 10 and Numbers 22-24. He wrapped his interpretation around the well-known story of Moses. That is why he repeated the story of Pharaoh killing the boy babies in Egypt at the time of Moses’ birth, transforming it to be a story of Herod killing the boy babies in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. What these narratives were designed by the Gospel writers to proclaim are: • Human life could not have produced the presence of God that people believed they had met in Jesus. • The importance of his birth was symbolized by having it announced with heavenly signs, a star in Matthew and angels in Luke. • In the life of Jesus, they believed that heaven and earth had come together and that divinity and humanity had merged. • Messiah for the Jews had many facets. Messiah had to be both a new Moses and the heir to the throne of David. The heir to David was the reason his birth was located in David’s place of birth (Bethlehem) instead of in Nazareth, where Jesus was in all probability born. • This Jesus draws the whole world to himself, symbolized in the Gentile Magi as well as the humble lives of the shepherds. These are the interpretive details of the Christian story. All of them came into the Christian faith only in the 9th decade. None of them is original to the memory of Jesus. Neither Paul nor Mark (the earliest Gospel) had ever heard of them. John, the last gospel to be written, must have known of these birth traditions, but he doesn’t include them and, on two occasions, calls Jesus the son of Joseph (see John Chapters 1 and 6). Given these pieces of data, there is no way the authors of the Christmas stories in the Bible thought they were writing literal history. They were interpreting the meaning they found in Jesus. As long as we understand that, I see no reason why we can’t sing, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” or “O, little town of Bethlehem”, and other Christmas hymns. Your faith can be robust without being literal. My suggestion is that you separate mystery from history and then enter into and enjoy the mystery of the season. Dream of Peace on Earth and good will among men and women, and then dedicate yourself to bringing that vision into being. In that way you will understand the intentions of the Gospel writers.

John Shelby Spong

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