This past Thursday’s Enquirer carried a cartoon by Jim Borgman that might well capture the spirit of the week. The picture is of a man, labeled “Politics” trudging through the snow back to his Iowa farmhouse after having discarded his Christmas tree at the end of his lane. The tree is in the foreground, looking ready for the compost. Still hanging onto the tree but also lying pathetically in the snow are a couple banners that read “Good Will Toward All” and “Peace.” The figure who just tossed the tree and its banners is walking away, dusting off his hands, and muttering to himself, “Enough of that.” (Thursday, Jan 3rd, Local Section, B6)
The image implies that the message of the Christmas season is a pleasant, but short lasting, ideal that must give way to the more pressing realities of life. After a brief change of decorations and rhetoric, we are officially back to the hardnosed real world, with Peace on Earth already a fairly distant memory.
In the middle of the 20th century the poet WH Auden wrote a long piece called “For the Time Being,” which goes through the different aspects of the Christmas story. He ends the poem by saying what many of us might be experiencing emotionally and spiritually after having come through this season. These are some of his words:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate… city…where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this.
To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all…
(WH Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio)
We in the church might appear a little out of step with things since we’ve still got these candles up front – and we’ve even added a few more to note the light of Epiphany; we’re still reading scriptures about Jesus’ birth, and still talking about this as an event that somehow changes us and the world. We’re not quite able to chuck this whole thing out like a dry tree that’s losing all its needles. Advent is over, the child has been born, so what business do we have not moving on like everyone else? What’s left to look at in this birth scene now that the election season is in full gear, and we’re back to work, back to school, and back to a more normal routine, life in The Time Being?
The story of the magi from the East is one that speaks to what happens after the birth of Christ. We’re not told how long after Jesus’ birth this all happened. The only reference to time we get from Matthew is that it was in the time of King Herod. It might have been a little while since Matthew gives no indication of a manger scene and mentions that they visit Jesus in a house.
When the magi meet Herod in Jerusalem, during their search for the child, we are confronted with the two directions this story can go. Is this birth an ending, a flash in the pan, short lived event, or is it a beginning, something that will take on a life of its own and grow in significance? From Herod’s perspective, this is all best ended as soon as possible. The magi tell Herod they have come to pay homage to the one born King of the Jews. As one with an agenda to hold on to the status quo, hang on to people’s allegiances, and maintain a grip on power, Herod sets out on a campaign to put this potential rival king as far out of memory as possible.
His first tactic is to lie. To use language not to express truth, but to manipulate other’s thoughts and actions for his own purposes. He tells the magi to “go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” However much the magi or we would like to believe it, Herod doesn’t want to pay homage to Christ. Not the Christ born in the backwoods town of Bethlehem. Not the Christ who will teach people to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Not the Christ who will give equal dignity to rich and poor, not the Christ who will lower himself to the position of a servant and wash the feet of his friends. This is an affront to kind of order that Herod seeks to maintain. He would like to put an end to this and put these kinds of thoughts far in the back of people’s minds.
Because his lying doesn’t work, Herod goes to a more extreme measure. Like Pharoah, Herod is willing to take the lives of infants and children. All done in the name of national security, no doubt. He orders that all children two years old or under who live around Bethlehem be killed.
The magi have the chance to collaborate with Herod, but their experience of this birth is the other direction that the story can go. Their homage goes not to Herod, but to Christ, and to them this birth event marks not an ending, but a beginning. They offer, of course, their gold and frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus, but the real riches are flowing back toward them. In Christian tradition the magi are representative not only of the people from the East, but all Gentiles who are drawn to the light of Christ. Through them the God of the Israelites was being revealed as the God of all peoples. The God of slaves, the God of exiles, the God of the oppressed, was being made known as the God not just of the Hebrew slaves, but all slaves. Not just of the Jewish exiles, but all people in exile – immigrants and refugees. And so the words of Isaiah are finding fulfillment. “Arise, shine, for you light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Rather than letting the birth of Christ dwindle away in its significance, these Scriptures treat it as if it is like a dawning of a new day in history. Herod’s lies and his killing can no longer be seen as the only option that we have for where we give our allegiance. There is a making known that is happening that extends from Christ’s birth on into the present moment.
But I guess the question still remains in my mind: that when we put away our manger scenes, our nativity calendars, our candles, and our other reminders of the announcement of “Peace on Earth,” what is it that we have left? What kind of concrete reality is there in this period we may call The Time Being?
The apostle Paul makes a statement to the church in Ephesus that I find fairly remarkable. He says in Ephesians 3:10 that “now, through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Now, through the church. What we have left, Paul would like us to believe, is church. The “church” that Paul is speaking of is not any particular denomination, but “church” in its primal form. The word used is ekklesia, which simply means “gathering,” or “assembly.” The concrete reality that we continue to live with is the assembly of those who continue to follow the ways of Christ over the ways of Herod. It is inherently relational. Church happens when we gather together for worship on Sunday mornings, but church also happens whenever there is any kind of relationship defined by the peace of Christ. Jesus said he is present even when two or three are together. In other words, the relationships that we have with others, no matter where those are happening, can be ways that the wisdom of God is being made known. Someone has called a marriage ‘little church,’ as it meets the minimum requirement of two, gathered in relationship. Church happens on the street corner, in the coffee shop, or in the local tavern, in the car, and at the workplace.
So somehow what we are doing here together as church is part of the way that God is being revealed to the world. Earlier Paul spoke of the church as the body of Christ. Our gathering and our relationships are a part of the visible, concrete way that Christ is alive.
One of the advantages of having a long car ride for vacations is the chance to listen books on CD. Abbie and I had never heard or read any of the Harry Potter series, so we checked out the first two audio books from the library and listened to them on the trip to Kansas and back. In the first book Harry receives as a gift a magic invisibility cloak, which he uses in certain cases to move around undetected. Underneath the cloak, his body disappears to anyone who might be looking his direction. One of the things going on in the birth of Christ, and the birth of the church, is something even more mysterious. Jesus is sort of the equivalent of God’s visibility cloak. Making known instead of making hidden. A body that God puts on to move around detected. The apostle Paul believes that this cloak is now in the possession of the church, us, the gathering of those who continue to embody God’s presence.
I wonder how we are being a part of this making known through our formal and informal gatherings in our worship and in our daily relationships. I wonder what sorts of new ways of being church will evolve among us during the year 2008. I wonder what sort of unexpected ways we will experience peace in our lives through our times together. I wonder who all might be drawn toward the light of our community and how we can welcome them into our gathering. I look forward to what’s ahead for us and to how we can continue to be instruments of Christ’s peace.