Please Note: The time has come to step back from writing this blog every week. I began “ForeWords” in September 2010 with the hope that I might bring some insights to those, especially in Community of Christ, preparing sermons, classes, and personal devotion time using the Revised Common Lectionary. At the same time, this blog has offered me a path to practice my own spiritual discipline. During those nine years and four months several people have offered insights of their own, along with appreciation for my work. For that I am truly grateful and humbled. But with the beginning of a new decade in a few days, it’s become clear to me that it’s time for younger folks in my denomination with fresher (and no doubt much more relevant) thoughts to take the lead. To what extent they will value the biblical record is not for me to say, of course. From time to time I will continue to share my thoughts on this blog, just not on a regular basis. All previous ForeWords posts will be archived here, listed chronologically at the bottom right of the page. Both of my books, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile and What Was Paul Thinking? will still be available on Amazon in print and e-book editions.
Advent and Christmas have come and gone. The old year is ending and a new one set to begin, along with the start of a brand new decade. The obvious next step would be to take down the tree, put away the Christmas decorations, unstring the lights from outside on the house, and just get on with life. A long, bleak winter is surely ahead (that can be taken literally or metaphorically, especially considering the US political season that never really ended after the 2016 Presidential election but now will crank up unmercifully in preparation for November 2020–and, oh yes, there’s Trump’s impeachment, too). So much for Advent’s four Sundays of hope, peace, joy, and love.
True enough, Christmas Day has come and gone by the 26th, thereby bringing to a close the month-long Advent season. But that puts us into the 12 days of Christmas. No, it’s not just a song filled with lords-a-leaping, drummers drumming, a partridge in a pear tree, and all the rest.
On the Christian calendar Christmas Day begins the actual Christmas season (not to be confused with all that hurried gift-buying and such since Black Friday, the day after U.S. Thanksgiving Day, if not much, much earlier). This liturgical season of Christmas runs right up until Epiphany (January 6), when traditionally we remember the visit of the Three Wise Men (or Magi) who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
There’s a whole other side to the “Christmas story,” as well, that maybe we’d prefer to just pack away with the ornaments and the colored lights. It’s what happened right after what we celebrate in beautiful nativity scenes and the visit of the Magi. To start with, we have to deal with Herod–and that’s where it gets not only really ugly but tragic and bloody and, well, a whole bunch of nasty stuff that would frighten the kids, as well as many adults. That’s why nobody’s ever staged a pageant in a church basement about this part of Christmas. Let’s hope nobody ever does, either.
The centerpiece of that, of course, is the Slaughter of the Innocents, the murder of boy babies and toddlers by Herod’s soldiers once he’d been tipped off by the Magi that they were on a search for a new King of the Jews after seeing his star in the east.
The Gospel writer Matthew includes this grisly episode in his account, although there is no corresponding and corroborating account anywhere else. It’s possible, however, that Matthew tossed this detail in simply as another way to connect baby Jesus’ story with that of baby Moses from centuries earlier (the dark side of Passover, an otherwise celebratory event for Jews). This, perhaps, is one of those times when something can be true without it being an actual, literal, historical fact. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened in the Bible.
Equally interesting is how Joseph (once again at angelic direction) fled secretly by night with Mary and Jesus across national borders, ending up in Egypt. The term “undocumented persons” would easily apply to them.
Eventually the refugee family returned to their homeland, but not to Bethlehem. Rather, Nazareth in Galilee was the site of Jesus’ upbringing. Keep in mind that one source in the Hebrew scriptures had foretold the birth of the Messiah in David’s ancestral town of Bethlehem, while another source identified the Messiah as a Nazarene. Matthew had to find a way to connect all the dots.
All of this is to say that Jesus’ earliest childhood took place while his family was living anything but what we or his contemporaries would call a stable lifestyle. That alone might suggest to the rest of us today that we might become a less judgmental of people living on the various margins of our society: the homeless, undocumented workers, those wanted by civil authorities for who knows what, or people who are just adrift (and here I’m not thinking about the legions of RVers whose only home now is a 40-foot-long house on wheels). We may think they are invisible to our comfortable lives, but they’re still there nonetheless.
And if Jesus was indeed true to the name Isaiah proclaimed for the Messiah, Emmanuel (“God with us”), then it’s not a stretch at all to say that God is always on the move, too, near God’s people wherever they are and wherever they’re going.
Furthermore, what is God doing out there? Joseph named the child Jesus, after all, for he “will save his people.” And so the questions arise: Who are God’s people today and how will they be saved?