Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Sunday after Christmas--2008

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

62:1 For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.

62:2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.

62:3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Psalm 148

148:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

148:2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!

148:3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!

148:4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

148:5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.

148:6 He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,

148:8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

148:9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!

148:10 Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!

148:11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

148:12 Young men and women alike, old and young together!

148:13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.

148:14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!

Galatians 4:4-7

4:4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,

4:5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

4:6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"

4:7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Luke 2:22-40

2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

2:33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

In an ideal world, this would be presented with music: interwoven with song, with only the lack of harmony to tell you when one had stopped and the next started. In an ideal world, you would hear this, not read it, and it would be part of a continuous presentation, a flow, a harmonious whole. In an ideal world this would be presented in a gathering of the faithful, and the context would be clear, and the audience's expectations fairly predictable. But while this isn't an ideal world, there's no point pretending this is a sermon and you are a congregation and we all have come to this point from an experience shared over the past 30 minutes. This isn't an ideal world, but that doesn't mean it's so broken this cannot be shared, anyway.

There should be music to start this, to lead us into this song of Isaiah:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
and that music would, ideally, make us think of Mary's song, her Magnificat:

My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-56, SV)
Isaiah sings for Israel; Mary does, too. Isaiah cannot keep silent. Mary can't, either. Isaiah tells Israel history is over, that soon it will all change; that's Mary's song, too. How funny, then, that after that song, Mary is as silent as the grave. Mary, like Simeon, is lucky. Rather than hearing the story second hand, years later, she has seen God as a baby. She has seen what can never be seen again, and the rest of us are left to look for God in other places, in other ways. "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word." But not us; not yet. No peace for us, not dismissal.

This day is all wrong for us. The Nativity itself is all wrong for us. Today is the day to remember the Holy Innocents, the ones slaughtered by mad Herod. This is the day to sing laments:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
bye, bye, lully lullay.

...

Herod the king in his raging,
charged he hath this day,
his men of night, in his own sight,
all young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee!
And every morn and day,
for thy parting not say nor sing
bye, bye, lully lullay.
1500 years later, and we were still remembering it. 500 years after that carol, and we have almost forgotten it all together. There is the dimmest echo in Simeon's words to Mary: "...and a sword will pierce your own soul too." The story pierces the soul of anyone who remembers it, especially at this time of year. So here we are, the ashes of Christmas Day not 72 hours cold, the angels's news of the miraculous birth still ringing in our ears, and already death has returned to the picture, even in Luke's gospel. Just when we thought we were safe for the 12 days of Christmas.

It's the Nativity; we get it all wrong. We emphasize the Virgin birth, as if the preserved virginity of Mary were the miracle, when in fact it is merely the sign. It's our knowledge that gets in the way, which is not to say ignorance is a path to faith. But our knowlege mislaeds. Until the discovery of cells and microbiology, procreation was thought to come from planting the man's seed (which could be seen, even "spilled") in the woman's womb where, like seed in soil, it could grow into another human. Mary, then, was a receiver of God's "seed." Her virginity was proof the child was holy, not solely human. It was a sign, a semeia. Mary's virginity wasn't a miracle; it was simply logical.

So we miss the point of Mary, and we misunderstand Paul's word to the Galatians, We should surround it with a song, too, because it is no less special than the story from the gospels. Pick, if you can, Benjamin Britten's tune for Robert Southwell's words:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows made of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior's steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;

The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
The Angels' trumps alarum sound.

Now, listen to Paul:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"
Listen, because the babe is your brother! Listen, because this birth means you, too, have been adopted of God! Listen, because this is very important; this goes back to Mary and Joseph and to our misunderstanding this whole story!

Even as the man's seed was important, his paternity could only be established by his action. Then, as now, we always know who the mother is; but the father has to identify himself. The practice that prevailed in Luke's day was for the father to make the son his heir by naming him. Zechariah does it for John, and recovers his speech and sings the Benedictus in praise. Mary sings when Elizabeth recognizes her as the mother of their saviour. The angels sing to shepherds, so happy are they at the birth. And Simeon sings the last song, which is a warning. And Paul? He makes this birth one for all of us, by the language of adoption, the Roman practice of adoption where the father names the child, and so makes that child his heir. It is an adoption already present in this story from Luke.

Which is no more historically accurate than the moving star that led the Magi, than the census that brought the Holy Family to Bethlehem. The ritual Luke describes simply doesn't exist in Jewish practice. This isn't history; it's gospel. It's good news, not the news. Luke puts it here to show the mensch and the virgin publicly acknowledge as their child the god. They don't think of him as a god, of course. They are astonished at what Simeon says; and who wouldn't be? Matthew's Magi bring frankincense and myrrh, aromatics used for perfuming a corpse before burial. Luke's Simeon tells Mary that what her Magnificat predicted will come true, and the sword will pierce her own soul, also. What a plaster saint Mary would be if she didn't love her first born. What a cold piece of fish she would be, if she didn't weep for what became of him. What a strange person she would be, if she didn't wonder at what Simeon was saying to her, and tremble. A mysterium tremendum, indeed. Still, you have to wonder: didn't the shepherds tell her anything? Didn't she wonder why smelly. dirty men were coming to look in awe and wonder on the birth of another peasant child? If she kept all these things in her heart, did she never take them out and wonder at them?

My love, my pride, my treasure, O
My wonder new and pleasure, O
My son, my beauty, ever You
Who am I to bear You here?

The cause of talk and tale am I
The cause of greatest fame am I
The cause of proudest care on high
To have for mine, the king of all
Oh, there is too much bitter and sweet here, too much joy and sorrow blended together, too much salt among the sugar:

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
There is so much pleasure there, but this is a death chant, a song by a man who knows he will not live to see this happen, but still he knows it is true. You don't need to know anymore than these words to know what he is addressing. But he also speaks to the astounded parents:

"This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
Ponder that: a sign that will be opposed so the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. Consider how much our opposition tells others about us, tells much more than we might want them to know. "Advent is the beginning of the end in all of us that is not yet Christ," Thomas Merton said. Frightening what that could mean, what secrets could be revealed. It stirs a mysterium tremendum, what might yet occur. But we are children adopted by God. What do we need to fear? "For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations." Do you see what we have to look forward to? Even Simeon and Anna rejoice: not for themselves, but for the nation, the peoples, the children yet unborn. We can still do that. Instead of looking backward across 2000 years and trying to decipher what happened and what it means for us, we should look forward to what the future will be now that this has happened. We should sing out like Isaiah, or Mary. We should close with a Te Deum. Te Deum Laudamus is a better prelude to a benediction than "Silent Night" and burning candles. If you don't know the words to that one, Psalm 148 is a good choice, too:

148:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

148:2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!

148:3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!

148:4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

148:5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.

148:6 He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,

148:8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

148:9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!

148:10 Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!

148:11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

148:12 Young men and women alike, old and young together!

148:13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.

148:14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!
Amen, indeed.

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