How two nuances in the Christmas story saved Christmas for me.
For many, Christmas glitter and merriment seemed meaningless and frivolous this year and carols echoed falsely. I haven’t a doubt that I wasn’t alone in attempting to deal with that hard-hearted contrast.
Yet, as has often enough happened so as to be anticipated if I but look and listen, there were breakthroughs of light and promise. This time around, there were two such that I clearly heard, one of which sharply contrasted with Martin Luther’s far more familiar children’s hymn:
Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
Scarcely before Christmas, Plough magazine featured a 400-year-old Christmas sermon of the Church of England prelate, John Donne, and described Donne as a master of “thorough examination of mortal paradox”—mortal paradox: how well those two heavy words reproduced my Christmas being this year, and his sermon so well echoed the same.
The whole life of Christ was a continual Passion; others die martyrs but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified, even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of the same day.
I hardly know what touched me so deeply and immediately in those strange words. Memories of the farm quickly returned and of dry hay that must be harvested in summer heat despite the inevitable sharply cut stems and irritating leaves and dust, of cows needing dry straw that would be a comfortable bed against their tough hides but when handled, could scratch enough to draw blood. I imagined the exquisitely tender skin of a baby among those course, dry stems, the skin of his hands and feet broken by sharp straw, and his forehead that would be bloodied by thorns. Perhaps, here and there, on his hands, his feet, his forehead and side, were tiny drops of blood. Once again, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s nearly dying words returned in force: “Only a suffering God can help us now.”
Bonhoeffer’s words had come back to me on this same day in August, four months past, as I sat beside Annette at this same hour in late afternoon that I write this. Her coma was complete; her ending not far ahead. Her last days had brought much suffering that only strong sedatives could relieve, temporarily. What struck me with enormous force was that there was no need of prayer at that moment; what I heard clearly was the promise, “I am with you; I will not forsake you.” A suffering God never deserts sufferers. How shall one pray to a God who is at hand, other than to utter overflowing gratitude?
When a very few hours later, she drew a final breath, I felt deeply and almost with joy, that she hadn’t left alone but that God, the Father, the Son, the Spirit, the Holy Trinity, now held her surely. I knew I could not discern or differentiate that feeling with any certainty; it was far beyond my imagination, but whatever, wherever, however it was, she was safely in the care and perfect love of God who had brought her through her suffering to a wherever of utter peace and well-being to await that great, gettin’ up mornin’ we would all share. (Even, for a bit of time, I thought it strange that she would leave without me, who had traveled at her side hundreds of thousands of miles—but she did not leave alone.)
When churches can seem to find nothing but glory and triumph in the Christian message, except maybe, but not surely, even in the week of the Passion when suffering is allowed to be overshadowed by resurrection, they not only ignore the needs of many congregants and of a suffering world but also display a trite and colorless Christology that knows nothing of Donne’s faith that Jesus’ “birth and his death were but one continual act.”
Jesus’ escape from Herod would be followed by the horror of boys’ deaths in Jerusalem. How can one come to terms with such terrible enigmas were not God a suffering God present with those families who suffered the unimaginable loss of their sons, enfolding and bearing their suffering? Where do we go to find God except with the sufferers, the victims, transfiguring pain and death into Resurrection?
As I write, my mind, and far more my heart, are with a dear friend whose kindness to Annette in her suffering was faultless, now torn in pieces by the final suffering of her younger-than-50 husband whose cancer has grown seemingly beyond any medical help and who had to do her best to give their five-year-old daughter a decent Christmas. My mind was bare of words to speak to her; while my heart and soul felt the answer: “You are not alone.” What I felt but could not communicate, was the sight of tiny blood drops on the body of a wee baby in a manger, whose “Christmas and Good Friday were but morning and evening of the same day.” Nothing but a suffering God can help us now.
As this recently-past Christmas wore on, more ordeal than glory, and Epiphany approached, three kings loomed into view, and strangely, the last line moved in on their story as never before:
“And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed to their own country by another way.” (Matthew 2:12, RSV)
On Epiphany Sunday I heard an excellent sermon that worked deeply into the story of the three kings. I was reminded of their history as astrologers from somewhere in the Near East, for whom night was their workday when they searched for meaning in old and new stars. Their perennial search for wisdom may have led them to close-by Hebrew scholars, the descendants of the diaspora of Hebrews who did not return to Palestine after their exile from Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. Such an interchange could well have informed the Maji of the hope for a new star arising out of the east to herald the birth of a king whom the Jewish people expected to be a Messiah. Impelled and guided by just such a new star, they come to Jerusalem where, they were sure, the new king would have been born.
For all that, the child is not to be found there. Herod the Great, as always jealous of his fiefdom, plots to use the eastern visitors to locate the child, and they agree to return with that supposed good news. The star leads them to nearby Bethlehem, and there they find the child and worship him, then offer the costly gifts that had accompanied them from afar.
There the story usually ends, doesn’t it?—but to be sure, it doesn’t. Their journey is but half done. Awash in their new experience, they plan a homeward journey as they had come, but one morning, about to leave, one of the three announces unflinchingly, “We cannot return the way we came. I have had a dream. We must not return to Herod.” In my imagination, I suppose that the dreamer is the youngest of them, the novice, who is obliged to convince his superiors of his vision. Sensitive as they are, and attuned as they now are to divine guidance, they too trust the vision that leads them to a different trade route, likely to the south and likely a greater distance, the way less known, yet firm in conviction that they traveled the right way.
Peculiarly, I have felt a compelling obligation to look carefully at these departing actions of the Maji, for surely they portray a high level of awareness and obedience that appears to be well beyond simple human decisions. What is really going on?
The sermon I heard on Epiphany Sunday moved me to consider carefully what is happening when those supposedly pagan stargazers knelt to worship Jesus. Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have decided ages ago that there were three of them named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar and have placed them among their venerated saints. An ancient story tells that their “different way” led them to India, where for several decades they remained, waiting for further news of the child king they had worshiped. Eventually, the apostle Thomas came to India, and he baptized the three, soon naming them bishops.
What now strikes me as vastly important is that, indeed, to meet the living Christ meant for them, as it has and does for anyone of us, is to be essentially changed. Is it too much presumption to feel that these newborn disciples then were so keenly sensitive to the will of God that was heard by one of them in a dream that they would readily change their plans so as to obey? To know one must take a different way in ones discipleship will come from a clear sense of divine guidance for without that guidance, how does one even begin to realize that another way is an obligation beyond opportunity, that it is on that way that ones discipleship—or a church’s true mission—will be discerned?
(As an aside, I am impressed by the fact that the word in this story translated “warned,” with the implication that carries of danger, is in some other settings translated, “called,” and in another place, “appealed,” which for me, provides an urgency beyond fear for a primal obedience to God’s calling.)
I admit that what seems so compellingly meaningful in this story, and particularly in the obvious sensitivity to God’s appeal, has much to do with my loneliness and uncertainty that have followed Annette’s death. The companionship of 64 years is simply gone. The closeness that she and I managed to have in the last few years of her growing disability has been taken away from me. Reassurances that, “Well, she is surely with you,” are trivial compensation for the feeling of walking hand in hand or of sitting side by side as we traveled, or a tender, sensual kiss. I am alone! What appeals to me in this beautiful story of the Maji is the promise that surprising messages of God’s intentions for me are likely to come if only I am truly attuned to hear or open to surprises that carry their own weight of God’s purpose.
It is also clear from this story that it is not about one person acting alone. For sure, it is one person who has the dream, one person whom God entrusts with that particular message, but others are there to be persuaded to be companions on the new and unknown way. Lest I give any impression that I think this is necessarily an individual’s journey, let me try to be persuasive that it is a story for the church, especially the church that has become bound by old and comfortable pathways, that has forgotten that the way of Jesus has twists and turns and surprising destinations, that obedience to the call of God—and sometimes that will come from an individual disciple who has listened and heard a fresh appeal from God—is the only sure guidance to be sought and expected.
Evangelical Christians will surely want to turn to the Bible for their guidance, but there are pages in the Bible that do not have the old page markings and highlighting of familiarity. It’s for sure that the Bible has new callings to be heard, new ways to be traveled. One way or another, churches have books of order that seem to be chiseled in stone. Could it be that the Bible be recognized as a book of disorder, the source of visions and callings to new ways? It will be, but only for those willing to read it and listen to it in new ways.
So it is for me, with a new year ahead, the way foggy and unknown. What will it be: the voice of a close friend, the insight of someone wholly new to me, a story from the Bible, a dream, an awakening to a surprising new day? I do not pretend to know. There remains just one caveat: will I hear that appeal when it comes? Then, will I sense the obligation to obey and have the courage to go a new way? What gives me most assurance as to the answers is that I know I do not move into this new year alone—for sure.
What remains, then, is to draw together some sort of fusion of these two stories to blend the guidance they provide, which brings to mind a quotation from John Howard Yoder that Stanley Hauerwas used as a foreword to his “With the Grain of the Universe,”
The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think—true as that is we still sing, “O where are Kings and Empires now of old that went and came?” It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social processes to mechanical and statistical models, nor by winning some of one’s battles for the control of one’s own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb. (John Howard Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology”)
“Apocalyptic” reminds me that the Gospel story ends well beyond our most distant vistas. The three kings are pointed toward a far country. That, then, attunes our present focus on the journey that will ultimately, at God’s direction, bring us to a far country. Donne’s sermon keeps the focus on the suffering built into Jesus’ existence in the world, assuring us of a suffering God. Even his birth is laced with that suffering. The Maji kneel face to face with the suffering Savior and believe. Their obedience then to the divine guidance places them on that new and promising Way. They bear the cross that their discipleship implies. That way is unpredictable and foreboding. Always, the journey is incalculable, the risks formidable, yet with other pilgrims we join in singing of the Resurrection at the end of it all. Moving forward, knowing that to turn our backs on Herod has been right and good, we follow in the Way of the Cross that parallels the grain of the universe on God’s way home.