Power to Become
Meditation for Christmas Lessons and Carols Thompson Memorial Chapel – Williams College December 12-13, 2015
As you listen to the patchwork pieces of the story we assemble to fashion a composite Christmas narrative, the gospels of Luke and Matthew (our only real sources) agree about hardly anything.
One breaks the news of a miraculous birth to Mary, by means of an angel; the other sends the message to Joseph in a dream. One tracks the visit of impoverished shepherds to a stable; the other follows a group of sages or magi lugging along their extravagant treasures. One has a sky full of unforgettable angel songs – the other, a sky full of silent, ambiguous stars. One seems to suggest a peaceful childhood for the spiritually precocious boy Jesus; the other has him scooped up in desperate haste by his parents and whisked into exile in Egypt just ahead of terrible danger.
But it’s interesting that there’s at least one thing both Matthew and Luke agree about, and that’s that the whole drama of this birth unfolds against the backdrop of the flaunting of earthly power.
In Luke, as we’ve heard, it comes in the form of an edict from Caesar Augustus, by virtue of power delegated to some local flunkie named Quirinius – a footnote about power in a story with a mainspring wound by power for Christmas service participants through the centuries to have to pronounce. The edict upends the region, sending each family skittering back to its ancestral town for purposes of getting registered and, probably, taxed.
And in Matthew, as we will hear, the backdrop is the malevolent interest of King Herod, another local puppet ruler. You may remember that the wise men, fascinated by astronomical portents that they alone seem to know how to read, set off toward Jerusalem in search of some dramatic event on earth to which the stars seemed to be pointing. There they have the bad luck or bad judgment or both to ask King Herod, of all people, for directions to the birthplace of a ruler whose authority will overshadow his. Herod hides his distress long enough to shrug them off toward Bethlehem with not much more than a ‘Good luck with that’– then sharpens up his sword, waiting for the wise men to stop in on their way home again and return the favor with more precise directions to the focal point upon which he will vent such power as he has. But the wise men, “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, returned to their own country by another way.” More of that warning, and its aftermath, in a moment.
That the common thread in the sketchy narratives about Jesus’ birth should be the assertion of temporal power says more, I think, than we usually notice, at Christmas, about the meaning to be heard between the stanzas of angelic songs or glimpsed between the brightness of stars. Christmas gives us pause, now, to consider the high ground of the ethic of love and justice, the life of compassion and community, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation. But to any of the pilgrims who made their patchwork way to the manger, seeing any kind of power in the birth
of an infant to an impoverished family on the fringes of an empire would have added the taxation of the imagination to the taxation of Caesar’s census. The prophecies that anticipated the discovery of such power in such weakness must have been passed down through the ages like candles in the wind. Isaiah ’twas foretold it, as the carol has it: that, in the fullness of time, one would come who would judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, and gird himself only with righteousness and faithfulness in a world, then as now, armed to the teeth. And Mary erupted in a song of either flagrant or ludicrous hope that the child she was carrying would “scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, fill the hungry with good things,” and hold high the promise of mercy. But the rulers of that world, like the powers of this world, saw only an easy mark for their legions, and deployed them accordingly.
This is a contest between power and vulnerability – and may God help us now to be re- surprised by who’s going to win.
We get the most emphatic reminder of this lopsided confrontation in the epilogue to Matthew’s version of the manger story – one piece of the patchwork narrative that we almost never hear because we don’t know how to tell it, don’t have the heart to tell it. The part of Matthew’s story we usually read at services like this one ends with that ominous warning to the wise men to return to their own country by another way. But even if we don’t read the rest, don’t we remember in our bones what happens next? And, if we forget, isn’t the world re-telling us now? Joseph, too, is warned in a dream of imminent danger, gathers up his little family and flees south through the desert to Egypt to wait it out. And then, the unthinkable: Herod, having made the remarkable calculation that his power is more valuable than the lives of a whole generation he might otherwise intend to rule, decrees the wholesale slaughter of children in the region. This year is only the most recent in a long series of too many Christmases when the penultimate carol is, again, the sound of Rachel weeping for her lost children.
We don’t get a lot of help with the patchwork Christmas story from the gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, he says – which is beautiful, but more nourishing of cosmology than of any linear narrative sense of what may have actually come to pass. But it turns out that, deep inside the poetry, John doeshave this interest in power in common with Matthew and Luke. You may have noticed these lines in the First Lesson –
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God.
Even John seems to agree that the coming of Jesus took place against a hostile background. But John locates the power, not in the palaces, but in the paradox: this outlandish juxtaposition of the rejection of the powerful and the embrace of the vulnerable. Power to become … children.
Children – really?? What power do children have? And what is the nature of power to become? How can whatever power there might be in this patchwork story measure up alongside the already-full-blown tirades of the tyrants, the racists and bigots, the weapons which slaughter the innocents to this day for the sake of hungers that distort the soul and see the lives of every innocent only as pawns in their games of power?
This December finds us standing among Jewish and Muslim and Christian innocents, all seeking in some way no greater power – and no lesser power either – than the power to become children of God, and to recognize in one another that family resemblance. We may not agree with one another about what happens in the narrative sequence of things, or even what it all means. But we all stand in and for no lesser power, really, than just the power to become: like the power that a seed has, to contain and to promise the whole blueprint of life in all its majesty and mystery and integrity.
So we make our way out into the maelstrom of forces wielding, of all things, our child- hood – because that is the nature of the power he gave us, against the backdrop of the taxing powers and violent principalities of this world. Isaiah predicted it – “a little child shall lead them” – but who knew that the Child we follow would be come offering us power to become children ourselves? So we risk the streets, we make our way to the daily destinations of our lives
– the cafes, the schools, the office parties – armed against the powers of this world with nothing less than the power to become children of God. And we take the quieter but still volatile risks that are particular to the disciplines of learning in this place: we risk the upending of our inherited worldviews and the explosion of our assumptions because we are convinced, as a matter of deepest principle, that vulnerability is stronger than tyranny. We gird ourselves and one another with faithfulness to a vision of the world in which we will not hurt or destroy on all of God’s holy mountain, this earth. We risk hoping, because hope is just a better way to live in the process of becoming.
In fact, the only way to live, in a world full of powers that annihilate, is armed with the power to become. Hope is a pilgrimage – and we become pilgrims, like shepherds and magi before us, by going, by seeing, by listening, by holding fast to what is good. And as we make our way through the currents that swirl around us, we hold our candles against the shadows of powers that would distort, maim and control – a pilgrimage on which we pray, as the Choir will pray shortly, “Even with darkness sealing us in, we breathe Your name.” And in that breathing is life. And in that life, glory be, is the light of all people.
And that light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.