Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Eve 2015

Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara

I offered this last night at our 8:00 pm “Midnight” Mass.  Perhaps more a reflection of lectio than a full-blown sermon.

Thoughts on Luke's story of the birth of Christ:

1.  Political background: 
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is located in a specifically political environment: The census of Caesar Augustus.  Why should a government take a census: to control, to impose its will effectively from the top down, to make effective, practical policies possible. 

But for the people of Israel, and for the people of the new community of believers who will come to be called Christians, looming behind the Roman census is that other great census – the census of David (2 Sam 24). 

David’s census displeased God.  So David was told to choose one of three punishments: "Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' plague in your land?”  David chose the plague and 70,000 men died.  It is almost the last thing he does as king: 70,000 people die for his rational governmental act.  Not how you want the curtain to go down on your reign.

Power, the power of government, even the power of the very best of kings, which by definition acts in and for the “world”, is deeply ambivalent in this story.  70,000 people: If that’s what happens with the best of kings, what’s in store for us?  Something awful is looming, this seems to say.  And what’s the way out of that?  Luke places this joyful story in a context of foreboding.

2.  Social background:  
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus takes place in the world of “us” and “them”: Coming home to Bethlehem, looking forward perhaps to contacting relatives long unseen – no one takes them in.  Aren’t they family?  To come home and no one takes you in. 

Compare John 1:9 ff: Read this with Luke’s story in mind: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

Doesn't that sound like the story outline for Luke's nativity?

    Who isn’t receiving him?  His “own” – family, kin. 
    Who is receiving him?  Shepherds – anonymous, poor, strangers, outsiders, “other”.
    And what about the light? 

3. The way Luke’s story is told:
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus has a meaningful structure, a framework:  It begins with an act of power – the power of the state – and ends with another act of power – the opposite of the world’s power, as far away from Caesar Augustus as you can imagine – God’s power, which is so very, very different.  Both acts of power encompass all the people.  But to very different ends!

4.  Monastic silence before the Word:
Br. Timothy has told us that the Carthusians keep a special silence on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – silent so that the Word might reach them.  Silence is a kind of powerlessness – to keep silent is a refusal to define, to comment, to exchange, to assert one’s self.  It allows the other to speak.  In fact, it removes our privilege as those who might speak.  

Silence is a joining the powerlessness of Jesus. By it we are entering in to the reversal of all things that is Luke’s great theology of God’s action: by turning things upside down God is bringing his Kingdom. 

5.  What sort of messages might these thoughts on Luke’s story of  the birth of Christ bring?
Well - maybe these:

Action is important.  But good political and economic and military organization – the tools of the powerful of this world – are not guarantees that God’s kingdom will come.   No matter how fine your intention, it might just blow up in your face.   It is a good thing – and in fact inevitable – that we should try to understand the proclamation of the Word of God in practical ways and construct programs to put it into action, but it is well to remember David and his census.   

The people we thought are “our” people may not be the ones who know who people really are, who know what is really going on.  They – we – may not be the ones who recognize who is a Word Bearer.  Humility might be a consequence of this realization.
Where we find the Word of God WILL be a surprise.  As God’s people we should be on the watch for its arrival.  But we may not be very well prepared to recognize it.  It might be embedded in people we don’t think much of.  In Jesus’ time the Judeans didn’t think much of the Galileans - not learned and sophisticated like us, but rude, ignorant, not up to date, superstitious country people, perhaps a little simplistic about things.  Galilee is where Mary and Joseph were from.  Who might such people be now?

    And for monks? 
    Maybe our gift is a different gift from the busy folk of the world. 
    Maybe silence in the face of the Inbreaking Word is our gift. 
    Maybe our silence allows us to try to trust God more than we trust ourselves.  
    Maybe our silence lets us be daring in who we let in. 
    Maybe, just maybe, we will hear the Word. 
    If we join in solidarity with those who have no voice in this world of power, maybe we too can   see the great light and hear the angels praising God: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to people on earth.
    Maybe that’s the gift monks can give at Christmas time.


anchorhold said...

Indeed--Holy Silence is the gift the world needs, and the gift we can give.

Rhonda Woodfine said...

Beautiful. I learn so much through the insights of others. Thank You.