Christmas has turned into a time when, typically, we re-tell the beloved story of Mary and Joseph, who, on a mission to pay their taxes, turn a Bethlehem barn into a birthing suite complete with farm animals, shepherds, angels, camels and three gift bearing travelers representing science, sorcery and scholarship. Like any pregnancy, it is the natural culmination of a period of expectant waiting. And as we ooh and awe over a new born and rejoice in the health of mother and child we sing joyful carols. We decorate our home, our business and our place of worship. We give and receive presents to our loved ones. With compassion we look to those around us whose needs are unmet. And I enjoy it. Most of us do.
The December issue of Quaker Life includes a piece by Howard Macy, recently of George Fox University, telling how his Meeting daringly, feeling almost naughty about it, decided to observe Advent in the weeks before Christmas. I found it particularly interesting because, for a change this year our Elders chose a different path from the Advent cycle for us, to consider gifts and giftedness. This last message of the 2011 and on Christmas day completes that series. Admittedly it is hard for Quakers to stick with the message of traditional Advent because it is principally about preparing for a yet to come Christ. For Friends, Christ has come, already, to teach his people himself. We’ve always been careful to emphasize the images found in the colored candles of hope, peace, joy and love.
Somewhere in all that I’m afraid the real message of Christmas has gotten lost. The Prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “ ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ which means, ‘God with us.’”.
In the person of infant Jesus, God came into a troubled world. We know from the historian Josephus how troubled that part of the world really was. It was ruled by a mad man. After a bitter family feud, in 40 BCE, Herod successfully lobbied to have himself declared King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. He then returned to Judea and after a three year struggle re-captured Jerusalem, proclaimed himself king. Much earlier his family had converted to Judaism so King Herod publicly identified himself as a Jew but his religious commitment was undermined by the way he lived. He had several members of his own family executed, including his wife. He disowned an earlier wife and her child and in the process murdered quite a few Rabbis. This didn’t go down well with the general Jewish population. That helps us to understand why the Gospels make a great deal of Jesus being heralded as King of the Jews. It sets up how it was that that from the moment of his birth Jesus’ life was threatened. Matthew tells of Jesus being taken to Egypt because of the threat from Herod and tells of Herod’s fanatical slaying of innocent children trying to ensure the death of this new threat to his throne. In making the connection to Jewish expectations for the Messiah Matthew quotes a line from the Prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son”. Apparently Hosea was referring to how God had acted to save his people from bondage.
In effect, the Christmas story as told by Matthew says that Jesus is God’s new exodus, the new version of how God is acting to reclaim creation. Yes, we all know what it meant for Moses to tell Israel that when your children ask, “Why do we do all these things?” they were to remind them of God’s great act of salvation. “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; …the Lord brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. . .”
But this is a newer version and its only two thousand years old. It isn’t about forty years of recalcitrant wandering in the wilderness. In the new exodus, the exodus we know in Jesus Christ, it isn’t about a massive tribal or national geographic relocation where the people go to find God in a new land.
In the last stanza os what is my favorite Christmas carol, Phillip Brook’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, we hear the story so well: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend on us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in; Be born in us today.” “We hear the Christmas angels, The great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmannuel.”
Rufus Jones, in his last publication, tells of his dealing with the death of his son Lowell. The untimely death of his wife had left him to raise Lowell alone. They were extremely close. In the spring of 1903, when he was seven, Lowell survived a bout with diptheria. In July, thinking he was fully restored to good health, Rufus left him with his grandmother in upstate New York as he traveled by ship to participate in the opening of Woodbrooke in England. On his arrival he received a cable gram which informed him of his son’s death. It was devastating. Rufus wrote: “When my sorrow was at its most acute stage I was walking along a great city highway, when suddenly I saw a little child come out of a great gate, which swung to and fastened behind her. She wanted to go to her home behind the gate, but it would not open. She pounded in vain with her little fist. She rattled the gate. Then she wailed a though her heart would break. The cry brought the mother. She caught the child in her arms and kissed away the tears. “Didn’t you know I would come? It is all right now.” All of a sudden I saw with my spirit that there was love behind my shut gate. Yes, “where there is so much love, there must be more.”
God comes to be with us. It isn’t us finding God, it is God coming to be with us. Like the little one in Rufus’ story we might find that we’ve ventured outside the scope of God’s garden with the gate fastening behind us and but in our Christmas story God opens the gate and comes to us, in the middle of our outburst, our tears and disappointments. Those earliest of Friends, those who first trembled with an awareness of God’s nearness to them, and who rightly got the name ‘Quakers’ were in no doubt about one main fact. There was One nearer to them than breathing who ‘spoke to their condition.’ As Rufus Jones put it, “They felt the healing of God drop upon their souls. The whole creation had a new smell.” They were called from the plough, the shop. They were moved to take up some new task to relieve suffering, free from bondage. There was no mediator. It was Emmanuel – God’s own spirit known in and among them.
Yes, this is the story of Christmas. So much more than bright decorations, thoughtful gifting, reunions and heart warming carols. It is the earthly beginning of God’s greatest saving act. So the great glad tiding which the angels bring include the message that the babe born in the manger, and whose life was a threat to the political and religious powers of his day, told us what so many even today find hard to accept, that God, the God of all creation is foremost a God of love. And so filled with that love, the worst humanity could do to this one who called himself ‘son of man’ could not deny his being ‘child of God’. Our faith tells us he left this life so that Christ’s spirit could come again to live in and among us. Emmanuel finds us in our greatest distress, embraces us in arms of divine love, kisses away our tears and shame and ushers us into a kingdom of light and love.
“O holy child of Bethlehem! Descend on us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in; Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, The great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.” Amen