Reading the Bible primarily as a pattern or blueprint for our life can lead to some dangerous theological misunderstandings and misinterpretations, not to mention that we may easily miss the beauty of Scripture itself. However, all the authors of the Bible certainly make use of distinct literary patterns. One of these patterns is the repetition of role reversals.
One of the most striking is God’s response to patriarchal systems in the ancient world. Although twins, the younger Jacob is God’s chosen recipient of promised blessings, and not the first-born Esau. It is through Jacob, renamed Israel, that God chooses to bless a nation, then the world. God demonstrates his wisdom and freedom in how he acts beyond human sensibilities. Later, Ephraim inherits a greater portion than the older Manasseh. The younger will serve the older. David is anointed as king before seven older brothers. The meek will inherit the earth. The humble are exalted. Not because God is contrary, fickle, or unjust, but because he is just.
God sees our tendencies toward abusive power and domination, and works to correct them and undo them. He accomplishes this in ways that, if we have eyes to see, command our astonishment.
From the first pages of Scripture, however, we read of the “second-born” Eve being extracted from the side of Adam, the first created in the image of God. In this version of the created order,* if we follow this biblical pattern, we might expect Eve to become the chosen of God, while Adam serves. But, no, they are co-workers, tending the garden, friends with God. This justice and solidarity in all relationships is what God is patiently working out in us.
During Advent, as we contemplate the Christ’s arrival, we wait with Mary and Joseph. What is striking about Gabriel’s visitation is that Mary, not Joseph, receives a vocation. Certainly Mary’s humility and willingness to trust YHWH is the avenue through which Jesus is born.
But Matthew clarifies Isaiah’s ambiguous noun, “a virgin shall give birth” (Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14). Of all the ridiculous things! This is God’s work, not from human passion or decision, and unequivocally not a man’s decision.
“Here am I. Send me,” says Isaiah.
“Here am I. Let it be,” says Mary.
The Spirit overshadows Mary, and without the presence or participation of any man, she gives birth to God-with-us. Mary birthed the Savior of the world without male initiative.
In the events leading up to the first Christmas, men are secondary, sometimes quiet, submissive, silently obedient. Joseph wordlessly submits to God in a dream. Sometimes, they have been stripped of their voice, like Zechariah, who must learn from the Lord how to be silent and let others speak.
Eve, the mother of all, and Elizabeth, the mother of the Advent forerunner John the Baptist, choose their words carefully. “Look what the Lord has done. With God’s help we have produced a son!” While the Spirit’s same work has removed Elizabeth’s disgrace of barrenness, Mary’s disrepute blooms from her supernatural fertility. The women believe, trust, and are given a prophetic voice. Mary and Elizabeth laugh, open their mouths in astonishment, and join in communal dissent. They call out oppressive regimes and decry injustice against the poor with proleptic boldness.
And so, from the beginning of the Christmas story, we see the pattern of God’s role reversals in the calling of Mary and Joseph. It is Mary who carries God into embodied flesh. It is a woman, no, a young woman, barely more than a girl who, with God’s help, produces the salvation of us all.
And so, from the very beginning, the kingdom of God takes us by surprise, turning things upside down, inverting our understanding of who and what this season of Advent and Christmastide are all about.
Behold, the kingdom of God is upon us. (Luke 17:21)
*Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 offer parallel accounts with slightly different chronologies and emphases. The first, man and woman seem to be created simultaneously. The second, woman is pulled from man’s ribs as he sleeps.
Epiphany is over. Eastern Orthodox Christmas was yesterday. And now, even peace and goodwill to humanity seem quaint memories, long abandoned. After the violence and political unrest over the last couple of days, I have decided to post an entry from my recently published Advent journal in its entirety. I need to refocus my heart to see Jesus more clearly. From Immanuel:When God Was One of Us, what follows is December 15, “The Incarnation in Suffering.” Be kind and gentle with all you meet. The Lord is near.
There is irony in Luke’s account of the angels’ visitation to the shepherds with their choral message of peace and good news. When the divine touched down on earth to save it, there was no immediate eradication of sin, violence or injustice. Instead, they seemed to be exacerbated. The darkness did not understand this peasant girl’s “bastard,” new-born son was the eternal light, the light of the world, for the world.
There is a grave irony in this child entering the world of the Pax Romana. The great Roman peace would eventually be unwilling to protect him, and would be culpable for his execution. Even shortly before his birth, Rome could not maintain the peace of its citizens in the outlying Jewish districts.
The birth of Jesus gripped King Herod the Great with fear. Here, in this helpless baby from Galilean parents, was a threat like no other he had experienced in his political career. The prophecies, though intangible, heightened his paranoia. Having already done away with his wife and numerous other family members, Herod met his problems head on.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
Why would God introduce his Son into the world in such a way? Why should there be the slaughter of innocents succeeding glad tidings of peace to all humanity? A mother who watched as her toddler is impaled, and flung to the side, would have a difficult time hearing the angelic herald:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among
those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
Still, today, the world reels with the pain and confusion of suffering and injustice. It is often the innocent who suffer. As we suffer, or watch others suffer, we question why God doesn’t intervene. We doubt his love, his justice, or his ability to protect us from the evil of the imperfect world in which we are trapped. This isn’t the first time in the text that other innocents have perished for the sake of the deliverer. As the Israelites cried out to Jehovah for salvation from the Egyptian bondage, God answers their cries. However, he answers them much later, four hundred years later than they expected, and not before hundreds of enslaved baby boys were left exposed to die, or be impaled, strangled, or dumped into the Nile River. With the death of Christ, the One died for the many. At the birth of Moses and Jesus, however, many died for the one.
It is like this today. Empires, and powers-that-be, will always engage in acts of self-preserving violence. At some point, the government or empire that God has ordained, will step out to be a god itself. Invariably, if questioned, power will react with oppression or violence. Empire claims God until God is the enemy. When power is threatened, ego lashes out in ugly ways. Public service lasts only until God himself is perceived as the threatening enemy. Empire acts from self-preservation, fear and bondage to absolute power. God always acts out of freedom and with love. It is not God who slaughters for the sake of his messenger, but empire.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. (Matthew 2:3)
Can we, in the twenty-first century, imagine in the United States of America or in other powerful, democratic Western nations, a tyrant’s paranoia and fear infecting an entire city? Would an entire nation of people succumb to fear and bigotry simply at the prospect of someone or something destroying their way of life, their global prestige? Nations and empires have always been in the business of excluding others, frequently through dishonorable, or even violent, means. Yet God is determined to include us all: Magi and Jewish scholars, small town peasants and turncoat peddlers, sixth generation church members and struggling immigrants barely getting by.
The good news for us today, whether we are in the United States or modern-day Egypt, France or Uzbekistan, is that we do not have to make sense of fragile but powerful egos, nor monolithic political systems and religions. Matthew’s gospel tells us that some misguided but gentle wise men came from the East to meet a new king. Some historians believe them to be of the early monotheistic Zoroastrians. The crazed Herod, part Jewish, part Gentile sell-out to the Roman empire, offered little moral guidance. There is no proof which indicates the “right” religions are based on superior morality alone. If morality was the world’s salvation, we could all pick our favorite moral system, and the world could certainly be a better place. Only God is good, however. No, Jesus did not invade legal systems and political regimes in order to make us moral. He came to obliterate death and to elongate the bridge over sin and to unite us back with God.
So, there is no violence that will end our suffering. There is no oppression which will broker peace. We might be able to bandy about terms like “peace keepers,” “preemptive strikes,” “casualties of war,” or worse, “collateral damage,” in order to desensitize ourselves to the fact that we are bowing down to the idol of stability and empire. We might say the ends don’t always justify the means. Novelist Min Jin Lee, rather, says sins can’t be “laundered by good results.” Dirty is dirty, and our world of empire with some God poured on top has grown filthy.
Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, shows us the uncomfortable side of Christmas. After we wait through Advent, we are shocked when it isn’t all sweet and joyful. Much of Advent deals in oppression and injustice, and even death. For when the divine intersects with a hurting, blinded world, there will always be adverse reactions. Let us live, then, sighted, for a different world.
Christ came as Immanuel to embrace humanity. He came to be like us, so that God could re-create us like him. Christ did not come to topple tyrants and dictators. We are still left to live in the midst of them—for now. Rather, he came to walk about with us, work in our cubicle, be treated unjustly and to demonstrate acceptance in unforgiving, unaccepting regimes that insist on maintaining a firm grip on their power. Jesus came to demonstrate love, and to reveal the truth of his eternally established kingdom.
The story of Jesus’ birth goes from bad to worse, but Immanuel did not intersect the divine with the human for such shadowy reasons. Jesus meets us at the worst of times and ushers in a new way of being and a new way of waiting. Instead, Matthew insists that this is God’s story, and that regardless of how it appears now, he is the One for whom we are waiting. It is his Advent that gathers us about the evening candles, and they are his promises we cling to when the world seems overcome with the brutality and fear of empire.
Just and righteous God,
Although our empires cry out for violence, we long to live in the goodness of your peace. Instead of lashing out in fear, grant us patience that your righteousness will prevail. Grant us tolerance and compassion in this time of suspicion and intolerance. We pray for the Magi around us that you will protect their journey and that you will work through us to be channels of Christmas grace and peace for those who seek you. Give us courage to stand against imperial power, knowing that all truth is your truth, and all power belongs to you, oh good God!
Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the travels of the wise men to meet a new kind of king. The true identity of this long-promised baby was revealed to these Easterners. I have always been curious what these foreigners expected from this infant visit. Did they know intuitively, or from their charts, that they were to be included in the promises as well?
It is difficult to focus on a church calendar when the obligations of the world’s calendars force us to turn the page prematurely. Our Christmas decorations are mostly still up in our house, but we started back slowly into our home school schedule yesterday. Depending on the boy, we are turning our attention back to fractions and decimals, Latin, British history, poetry, and Christian worldview studies. My husband is back to work, albeit from his home office. Our friends are in the process of moving, and we are having to say goodbye. My daily Bible reading has pulled me back into Genesis chapter one and Job. We need to make decisions about how to care for my mother-in-law who lives in an assisted living home. My oldest is about to graduate from high school. I don’t feel I have stepped through this year of COVID-19, social and political tensions with the focus and strength required to face 2021. That is, I may have more in common with these dazed magi than I initially might have imagined.
Detailing their thoughts on the return journey would be purely speculative. And yet, speculate is precisely what T.S. Eliot does in his 1927 poem, “Journey of the Magi.” Eliot speaks from the perspective of one of these travelers as they make the long journey homeward. They have experienced a kind of revelation, a conversion of sorts, in witnessing this tiny deity, but Eliot’s description is unsettling. There is an honesty and sobriety in the final lines. There is no jubilant feeling of triumph at a newborn king. There is both salvation and death, however; there is ache and weariness, but newness.
It is a fitting piece for me to read as we enter 2021, turning our backs on a rough year, but with precarious hope, facing a new calendar. As we near the end of Christmastide, listen here to the poet’s own voice as he portrays the world entering the gospel story.
JOURNEY OF THE MAGI
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T.S. Eliot, 1927
How does this wise man’s perspective make you feel? Was it worth pursuing the bright star to now carry this bright sorrow?
Although I grew up celebrating Christmas, it was not until recently that my family and I began to observe Advent more in earnest. During the last several years, we began reading through the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament throughout the month of December. Our church annually held candlelight Christmas Eve services. We bought our own wreath with pink, lavender and white candles. We struggled year to year to find a devotional that seemed right for us.
I was eager to write down my own thoughts around the profound gospel message of Advent and Christmas. While my kids worked on math or grammar at the kitchen table during our home school year, I stole fifteen or twenty minutes here and there, delving into Scripture and the unfathomable idea that God would love us so much that he would become human.
This idea of incarnation from a God who loves us and longs deeply for us seems rich with meaning and significance far beyond the scope of one holiday season. It has been a spiritually rewarding experience to attempt to articulate the implications of God being one of us. In living a small, specific life, Jesus shows us he understands, he loves, he walks alongside us. There is so much comfort and challenge in that!
Immanuel: When God Was One Us is available through Amazon both in paperback and Kindle editions. I pray it may be a help during these times of chaos and stress and distraction.
from the Preface:
Christmas is a favorite time of year for many people, and for many, it is the most stressful or depressing. My desire is that this book may be an encouragement to both. In acknowledging both the joy and anguish of the season, we honor our dependence on God in a genuine way. It is my hope that this daily devotional will help quiet and focus our minds and hearts to celebrate and worship the Savior who came down to be one of us….In whatever way you participate, I pray you experience the truth of his presence, and eagerly await with me his final Advent.
Today, I would like to share a Christmas poem with you. It is by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Wendell Berry. I am not sure it is really a Christmas poem in the most traditional sense, for I think part of the poem speaks to the ordinariness of the moment. So much of the time we want Christmas to be extraordinary.
I appreciate authors who remind us of the holiness and the beauty in daily routines. I love when someone can effectively point and say to me, “Look. Don’t forget to notice this. Here is the divine thumbprint right here in the middle of your day.” Berry does this beautifully with his suggestions and anticipations of the holy family appearing in an ordinary barn.
So much of the time I fight against compartmentalizing holy things and ordinary things, spiritual and earthy. But Berry’s poem here showcases what the Gospels also do in extraordinary ways: it points out that we are not unreasonable to think that the most marvelous things can appear on a Tuesday, in the middle of a routine we have encountered countless times before.
Berry’s caution is that we be ready to see the holy.
Christ came not when we were ready, but when he was.
This has been a difficult year for us. It has been a particularly difficult year for my husband who lost his father just at the end of September after long, strenuous health issues. He has shouldered a good bit of stress at work, and we have been stretched to our parenting limits this year. Can you relate? Christmas may have come this year with us feeling weary and unprepared. There is, somehow, good news in this.
The grace of the embodiment of God on earth is partially wrapped in the fact that we were still a mess upon his arrival. We were far from ready. We had forgotten to be expectant, and had instead grown hurried, harried, and lacking in purpose. Christmas arrived before all the cookies were baked and frosted, it arrived before packages were wrapped and bows tied. We were caught in the middle of some major mishaps. Our lives were ugly and twisted. We had forgotten to hope.
The shepherds were leaning on their staffs, cleaning the excrement from their sandals when the heavens were ripped open and angels burst in chorus above their heads. And even Anna, (Luke 2:36-38) who was waiting in the house of the Lord, may have risen from a despondent corner of the temple, doubting anything hopeful would ever happen to her again.
We were distracted and agitated and frazzled. But then, before Mary had time to prepare a nursery, he was born. Before we tied up the loose ends, and resolved the mess our lives had become, he came. While we were embarrassed, stressed, anxious, and lonely, he arrived, donning tendons and truth. Or we were proud, arrogant, and crass, yet he wouldn’t wait for us to clean our lives up. He would not. We couldn’t.
As his infantile arms flailed erratically, he waved them about and cried, “Behold, I am new! Look, I will live next door. I make everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).
As he breathed on Mary’s cheek, so he had once breathed in us the breath of life. As his divinity seemed to take on a weaker nature, he poured into us his spirit of hope (Romans 5:5).
He came when he was ready, not when I was.
As I vacuum the house in preparation for Christmas guests, I feel the frustration of an imperfect house. It will not all get done. Let’s face it, with three boys, and trying to squeeze in time for a math lesson, is the house ever clean? There will most assuredly be dusty surfaces and blankets piled in a corner. It is an imperfect house full of imperfect people. If I am not ready with the house cleaning, how much more unprepared am I with my spiritual life? My soul needs dusting and there are certainly things I need to purge from my character. If I can welcome family into an imperfect home, then I can welcome this Savior into my imperfect world. He is here! Joy to the world!
His uncoordinated knees knock together as he now kicks, but his movements proclaim, “Come to me. My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30). And Mary, not having prepared perfectly for his arrival, picks up her burden, snuggles him deeply, and discovers, it is indeed light.
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
A frequent greeting which falls from our lips this time of year is “Are you ready for Christmas?” And by this we mean, have you finished your Christmas shopping, do you have the meals shopped for and planned out, do you know where all the relatives will sleep, or how you will get to both sides of the family on Christmas Eve. We might rethink our intentions with this inquiry.
Are you ready?
Are you eagerly awaiting what has been long promised you? Are you resting in exuberant hopefulness? Is the Advent of the Son foremost in your thoughts? Are you ready to celebrate his once-upon-a-time birth and his most assured return?
May we be open to receiving the divine in our life. May we be open to recognizing the blessings and the light, just as the wise men recognized the bright, auspicious star. May we make room for him as we make room for the others before us who need a place to stay, a warm meal, or a sympathetic ear. Are we ready to welcome him as we welcome others in our lives? As we wait this advent, may we grow into a reflection of the holy Infant’s abiding love.
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
“Come and lie down with me, Mom! Just for a minute.” Exhausted, and ready to be on my own, my six-year-old pleads with me to snuggle in bed with him as I tuck him in for the night. His safari bedsheets and fleece dinosaur pajamas create quick, blue sparks with each wiggle. I would never have volunteered this on my own, but once I lay down, I realize the simple blessing my son has given me. It is something I will remember. We are having a moment, together. It quiets me, and I can feel the roughness and chaos of the day slowly ebbing from my fingertips and the top of my head. I let out a sigh.
“Aah, this was a good day.” G smiles under the covers.
And it was. I had just forgotten. I had chosen stress instead of appreciation and gratitude, so it had seemed rushed. I had felt there were so many things to get done that day, but that moment, cuddled up in whispers, there in my son’s twin-sized bed, I had been given the most productive part of my day. And that is what I am choosing to remember. I hope he does, too.
In the past couple of weeks, a few different people have encouraged me to ask my children to name their favorite family Christmas tradition. All children love receiving presents, and sometimes it seems our family doesn’t do anything particularly unique to any other American family for Christmas. Sometimes, I wonder what they will really remember about our family traditions once they are grown. I encourage you to ask your own children. It may surprise you once you do. To be honest, I half expected my own boys to shrug their shoulders, and not know what to say. However, they each had a ready answer. Their answers made me smile for their simplicity, like taking a moment to lie down on a bed, and for the fact that I recognized our particular family through their responses. We do celebrate in special ways I believe they will remember.
Here is how they answered:
G ‘s favorite is eating chocolate croissants on Christmas morning after emptying the stockings.
A likes picking out his own new Christmas ornament each year at Cracker Barrel or Kohl’s, and he likes the beautiful candle light Christmas Eve service at our church.
S remembers eating Trader Joe’s Panettone every year since he was little. Seriously, he would sit and eat an entire one on his own if I let him.
Nothing special….except that they are. They are special memories because they have become something we expect. They began effortlessly and unintentionally, but have become part of our favorite traditions. They are foods and moments and shared experiences. We can’t imagine the holiday, our life, our relationships without them. You may go to Trader Joe’s and enjoy the panettone, but in no other house does it taste as sweet as in ours.
Candles and pastries and ornaments. A quiet moment lying together on the bed. This is what they’ll remember.
“The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.”
May you be still, and at peace. May
you know the message the Angels still sing. May we be like Elisha and his servant whose eyes were opened to perceive the ancient heavenly armies about him (2 Kings 6:17). May our ears likewise be opened to hear the angels sing.
Peace. Good news. Joy to the world.
He has come!
Someone asked me a day or two ago if my kids were getting antsy during our school time, ready for Christmas. I laughed out of frustration, admitted they were and questioned why in the world they should be. I mean, we took a large chunk of time off in November, going to Florida earlier in the month, and then spending a week down south at Oma’s and Opa’s. But it’s true. When there is an impending holiday, it IS hard to keep your nose to the grind stone, regardless of how much time you have had off previously.
We are struggling to teach new concepts at this point, and are basically treading water. My attempts at simplifying include possibly cutting grammar down to one more lesson until the new year (or possibly out altogether until after the new year). This is both for their sanity’s sake as well as my own. We are plodding through with math, happily continuing with volume four of Story of the World, and doing bits of reading and answering questions for science. I hope the older two are enjoying our Christmas read alouds, as well as the novels they are reading on their own.
As for my five-year-old G, he drifts in and out of our read aloud, depending on the story. He and I always read at bedtime. Currently, we are making our way slowly through Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sometimes he wants to read out loud to me, but will only do so if it is Honus and Me by Dan Gutman, a book series A enjoyed a few years ago. The last week or so he is constantly trying to escape from me. He wants to play by himself, or most often with S. He has become increasingly more difficult to find in a compliant frame of mind for anything having to do with kindergarten curriculum. I think he needs a break from me. I am trying not to burden him with too many “have tos” this month.
Today after building with our citiblocs and our calendar time I let him play alone, collected paper and cookie cutters, and invited him back to make an advent calendar.
Don’t judge. We are not a crafty bunch here, and this was a spur of the moment thing. He chose the gingerbread man shape. We’ll remove one figure from the stairway each night before going on up to bed. Only two more weeks! In the meantime, we wait…
We wait for cookies and friends, for outings about town and unwrapping presents. We wait. Just as so many people have waited throughout the years for an answer, a lightening of their loads, waiting with anticipation and trepidation and waiting in faith.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to…live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope- the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ..