The evangelist Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by embedding the story in the imperial world of Rome and their occupation of the land of Palestine. There is an emperor – Augustus, a name meaning “Revered,” given to Gaius Octavius who ruled during this time. There is a governor – Quirinius whose territory was that of Syria. And there is a census, a decree that all the world should be registered. The purpose of such a census was not to see how many families had fallen below the poverty line so the Romans would know how far to extend any kind of social safety net. The purpose was for that of taxation and military conscription, and it was a way of extending control over peoples, who were counted, head by head, reminding them who was in charge.
These are the opening statements of the story, which propel a peasant couple, Joseph and Mary, to leave their current residence of Nazareth and go to Bethlehem. To have their heads counted. To get their names on the list of the subjects of the kingdom.
It is here, in Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth to her firstborn, a son, and wraps him up in bands of cloth, and places him in a feed trough for animals, a manger, because all the hotels in town were at capacity limit, no vacancy.
When Mary’s son grows up, he will speak often of a kingdom. He will tell stories about “The kingdom of God,” say that it is already coming into the world. He will present a different way of being that contrasts with the ways of the kingdom of Rome. Rather than strict accounting of subjects, he will speak of seeds, extravagantly flung across the landscape, which grow and multiply who-knows how many times – 30, 60, 100 fold. He will tell a story about a disobedient son, whose father does not exile or punish, but who waits longingly and runs to greet the son and showers on him kisses and gifts and a grand scale party. He will say, “Love your enemies.” He will say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He will say, “Follow me.”
The gospel presents the nearly-impossible-to-believe idea that the scene of the barn in Bethlehem carries with it more lasting significance, more power, more of the Real, than any scene in the courts of Rome. Who could believe such a thing? Probably not someone like the emperor. Perhaps not even someone like you or me. So the people who get the first birth announcement, who are the first to bear witness to this possibility, are those who themselves knew a thing or two about hanging out with animals, sleeping on the ground, insignificant religiously and politically, unable to fulfill any of their people’s purity laws, perhaps not even noteworthy enough to be counted in the census. The angels come to the shepherds and give the heavenly counter decree which will be for all the world: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.”
In 2007 Nelson Mandela founded an organization called The Elders. The group’s self-description is this: “The Elders is an independent group of global leaders who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity” (www.theelders.org) Some of its members along with Mandela include Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and a leader of empowerment for women in India, Ela Bhatt. There are others whose names I do not recognize. The elders are old people, who no longer hold any official public office, but who use their moral and spiritual influence, and the wisdom of their life experiences, to promote harmony among the human family. I love that I, we, have these global elders watching out for us, working for something that they themselves will not see come to full fruition in their lifetime.
Simeon and Anna are the elders of the Christmas story. Simeon, whom Luke describes as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” one on whom the Holy Spirit rested; as the Lullaby poem says: “Old Simeon waits in the temple, mostly blind now from overlong watching.” Simeon is led by the Spirit to an encounter with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, and he recognizes something he’s been looking for. In a beautiful picture that begs to be painted, sculpted, drawn, etched, whatever, Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms and praises God: “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples.” And then he blesses the parents.
Anna, widow, prophet woman, temple dweller night and day, comes upon the child and she too praises God, much to the amazement of those around her.
The elders are watching, waiting, praying, blessing; now gently influencing, now boldly proclaiming. Like the father of the prodigal son; watching, gazing out as the days pass and the son does not yet return home, the elders are gazing, looking, keeping watch, over a prodigal world, gone astray. Yet now, a flash of hope. The elders call for a grand celebration, extend their blessing, and in doing so, extend their vision, their holy longing, to the next generation.
Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3 ; Galatians 4:4-7
We are sharing in Communion this morning. Today we celebrate Jesus’ birth, the first night of his life, but our Communion liturgy always points to the last night of his life. “On the night he was to be betrayed, the final night of his life, Jesus gathered around the table with his closest companions. He took the bread. He took wine. He said eat, drink.” Communion means many things to us. Its primary connection to Christmas, however, is the reality of incarnation – spirit and matter as one, pointing us to God. In the words of John’s Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”
The church writers go to great lengths to emphasize that the physical body of Jesus which was born through Mary was an ordinary human body. It was not an angelic body that only seemed human. It was not a superior heavenly body that temporarily put on the cloak of inferior flesh. Many of the “heresies” of the early church were actually trying to make Jesus less human and more other-worldly. Jesus, the Apostle Paul says, was born of a woman, born under the law, just like the readers of the letter to the Galatians. Jesus’ body, like ours, was a coming together of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, and organs, physical matter that ages and dies, or, in Jesus’ case, was tortured, and died. It was a normal human body, and atoms cycled through his body just like ours, so it’s kind of a cool thought that there are some atoms and molecules out there somewhere that actually were a part of Jesus’ body for a short time in their life.
The bread and the wine of Communion were one of Jesus’ primary strategies for communicating his ongoing presence with his followers, and the reality of incarnation. “This is my body.” “This (bread) is your body, Jesus?” “Yes, this is my body, which is broken for you.” Whoever eats of this bread, takes the body of Christ into their own body, and becomes part of the body of Christ.
Amy Jill Levine is a biblical scholar who believes that Luke’s imagery of placing the baby Jesus in a manger, a feed trough, is intentionally foreshadowing that Jesus’ body is food. If this is the case, I like that it’s not just human food, as if we’re the only ones in need of salvation, but it’s food for the animals, for all of creation. The prophet Isaiah compares God’s righteousness growing up to that of a garden, which causes what is sown in it to spring up. All of creation groans for redemption.
It brings us around to what that first liturgy that we recited together calls, “the point of it all.” This is a story that involves observation and seeing, it involves remembrance and retelling, but it is primarily a story that involves participation, the point of it all.
Recognizing God’s presence in this Bethlehem scene is a call, to ourselves be participants in incarnation – matter and spirit, as one, pointing to God. To allow the atoms and cells and organs of our bodies to become animated by the same Spirit, breath, energy that animated Jesus. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of the Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” In other words, we get adopted in on the incarnation because the same Spirit of Jesus is available to us.
The Apostle Paul, at times, comes across as a bit heady, heavy on theological language, but it comes down to this. Bread and cup, and the invitation to partake, to participate. How much more simple could it be?
Taste blessing, chew on grace, ingest humility, metabolize love. Experience the incarnation of Divine Love. Be nourished. And then, become food that nourishes others.
We live in the fullness of time. The Spirit that makes us sons and daughters of God is loose in the world, and seeks bodies to inhabit and animate.
We are moving slow motion toward Communion because we have a couple things we want to do before that…