The Gospels for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day: Luke 1:26-38, 2:1-20
Living the Peace
I spent half of Sunday in the Acute Medical Ward with my sister and my Mum. It was a place of astonishing humanity mixed in with gritty practicality. During Handover to the new shift I heard this:
"Now, Mrs. 'Smith' is 95. She's an absolute sweetie. Just lovely. You'll enjoy talking with her. And she's completely incontinent, poor Dear, so… …"
The next patient was very clearly not as easy to live with as Mrs Smith. Yet the Shift Coordinator listed the practicalities of caring for them with professional restraint, and a certain compassion.
Just before Mum's ambulance finally arrived, two nurses from the Emergency Department breezed in to say goodbye to her. They'd treated her when she came in the day before, and had missed saying goodbye then, because Mum had been shifted up to AMW while they were on a meal break. I don't think Mum could remember them, but the grace she's practiced for so long allowed her to receive them with all the ease of the Queen herself. And that grace, of course, is what lets folk like Mum, and Mrs Smith, feel like they are being treated like the Queen: the staff warm to the gift of human compassion from those they care for, and the love builds upon itself. At the very gritty end of life, when Scripture says "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it," it means that even when our mind is failing, the light still shines.
I was reminded this morning of one of my favourite quotations, with which Paul Nuechterlein begins his Christmas reflections. Walter Wink said
God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.” (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, p. 102; and a parallel in The Human Being, p. 26)
In the hospitals, we see extraordinary glimpses of our humanness, even though it is a humanness which we can only grasp partially in life's emergency wards, and even when we feel rather like one of my colleagues who wrote this week: "I am feeling particularly fried this year, worse than usual, which is saying a lot." My partner Wendy spent most of Saturday in a different hospital's emergency department with her mother. Both of our pastoral charges have been more than usually challenging. I'm not sure if the relentless cheerfulness and excess of the shopping centres is denial of one of the most painful times of year, or compensation for its pain. But I noticed the Blue Christmas Tree at Flinders was festooned with prayer cards; on Saturday we printed off another hundred cards for the tree Wendy looks after at the Lyell Mac.
And now it's Christmas week!
The Christmas Gospel Readings for this Year B come from the story of Luke. We preachers may point out that Luke and Matthew have quite different birth narratives, and that we join them together. We may point out that there has long been an injection of imagined sheep and cows into the stable; in fact, the stable is an assumption, and the inn itself may well be a cultural assumption and mistranslation! (eg here) In some places it will be safe to mention that the whole story has a very few key historical facts and is, instead, a glorious narrative theology. For folks who can hear it, there is a wonderful, exciting, and frightening, centering of Christmas in Homo sapiens' journey towards Humanity. Sacraconversazione sums it up beautifully:
Raymond Brown speculates that Matthew began his gospel with a birth narrative, but that Luke wrote his gospel and later added a birth narrative under the influence of similar birth/youth narratives for heroic leaders in the ancient world. Basic Lucan themes are clear: the essential role of some very unlikely people in God’s work in the world– a devout young girl, a loyal father-to-be, some smelly shepherds, a hapless innkeeper– yet placed in the context of world history, specifically the might of the Roman Empire vis a vis the dire circumstances of the Jews and their ancient longings always centered on the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. Fr. Brown also assumes that the details of the birth narratives were not historical “facts,” even though Luke’s narrative cites specific names and historic events. Luke’s birth narrative was, Fr. Brown demonstrates, instead a brilliant amalgamation of texts, extant inter-testemental interpretations, customs, and popular beliefs initiated by the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the books of Isaiah and of Micah. Luke’s purpose was to create a point-by-point counter story to the dominant narrative of his day– human invincibility as represented in the Roman Empire, specifically in the person of the Emperor Augustus, whose birthday had been made into the first day of a new calendar and who was being hailed as “savior of the world,” which is a verbatim quote from surviving inscriptions in Rome. (SACRACONVERSAZIONE is quoting Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Birth Narratives of Matthew and Luke, p. 393 ff)
I said, last year, in Keeping the Peace that "The Peace begins with Jesus, who is born in the midst of an ordinary peasant family." And that Augustus, the Emperor whose propaganda is countered "point by point," was a
a parody of the one who brings The Peace. Luke's story of the birth of Jesus is a direct and total challenge to imperial power. He is announcing the real Peace. The Peace God gives begins at— grows from— the base of society; a loving family which will not allow others to be excluded.
Yet our parody of Humanity has continued with "Peace in our time," and "A New World Order" "Making America Great Again." And here, in Australia, we have been promised "A stronger Australia, a better future", whose poverty defaults "Stop the Boats."
Somehow, all of Christmas needs to be held together.
If Christmas cannot deal with having both our Mums in hospital— and we are the fortunate ones;
if Christmas instead settles on relentless cheerfulness and overspending in a kind of denial of the world's pain;
if Christmas preaches only the wonder of a Real Peace, but, as it were, simply goes home to its Christmas Tree by-passing the hospital…
then Christmas, too, becomes a parody of the Peace.
Where is the glue, what is the humanity, which lets us keep together the high vision of what it means to move towards being human, and the grotty reality of incontinence pads, drug detox, and knife wounds, which were the background carols to my Sunday afternoon? What will keep us from being a parody of ourselves?
Sacraconversazione reflects upon work by Catherine Keller as
she explores the implications for action in the narratives of the news to the barren Sarah and then to virgin Mary of pending births. Keller notes that with both women the miracle story of something impossible actually happening begins with their receptiveness to a stranger. Keller writes: in their “respective annunciation scenes– of Sarah at Mamre and Mary at Nazareth–… a child is conceived at the visitation of strangers, visitors who give life to an ‘impossible’ child– namely, Isaac and Jesus.” (Reimagining the Sacred, p 63) Keller sees this common detail to both women as initiating a central biblical theme. Throughout the life of Jesus, right to the very end, it will be strangers, with unreasonable requests and unexpected generosity, with whom he will engage and through whom his identity and mission will be made clear, to himself and to others. Keller writes: “In both cases [Sarah and Mary] the impossible becomes possible at the moment of responding to the stranger’s call.” (p. 64) We can continue her observations when we think about the basic hospitality of a harried inn keeper, or anonymous shepherds or exotic magi. The miraculous in the gospel story depends on and elicits quotidian [daily] “deeds of love and mercy” to the stranger, who is, by definition, always unexpected.
The request of the stranger breaks us open. Indeed, it breaks us. It leads to the astonishing and contradictory gentleness of hospital staff, who laugh at the un-laughable, indulge in risqué banter and dark humour, and then still love the sometimes unlovable, and ease our indignity and shame as we are body-slammed by illness. Sometimes unwittingly, but often very deliberately, they are living the cycle Christians describe as Discipleship. Loving the stranger is to live the Peace.
When we give up our safe comfortableness and open ourselves to the stranger, it opens us further. Something— mysterious grace— gives us unexpected compassion not only for the stranger, but for those nearby— even family— from whom we have always been a little apart. And, this is the most unexpected gift, it opens the door to the greatest stranger; the one within— ourself. And we find not only the crowded corridors of a hospital, but a wide roadway to becoming Human. And find that even we are loved.
Andrew Prior (Christmas Week 2017)
Luke's Christmas: Background notes to the text of Luke 1, in particular (2013)
Taking Christmas Seriously (2011)
May You be the apple of my eye (2011)
Red Pills for Christmas (2011)
The First Chaser (2010) On parody…
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.
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