Not that Kind of Baptist

in Advent

Border Security

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 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  Luke 2:1–7

We've heard alot lately about something called "border security."  The word security is a stand-in for a number of anxieties, and should not be confused with peace.  At least, not the peace that the angels announce in Luke at the birth of Jesus.  As we approach the manger this Christmas, the Gospel invites us to reflect on what true peace is, which should not be confused with the idolatry of security.  

Luke's Christmas story opens with a concrete historical claim, that Joseph and Mary left their primary residence of Nazareth to go to Bethlehem in compliance with a decree (in Greek: dogma) issued by Caesar.  If you're interested in chasing that rabbit, see the postscript below.  The census served several functions: it gave the Roman Empire an accurate accounting of military aged males who could serve and it provided accurate records for various forms of taxation.  Those tax dollars, as taxes do now, flowed back into various coffers both federal and provincial, but they also served to maintain border security.  

Border security was an expensive preoccupation of both the Roman and American Empires.  As the Roman colonial project expanded, the need to create a buffer zone between Rome and greater Italy increased dramatically.  Fortifications, walls, and large amounts of troops were stationed at the borders of the Roman frontier.  In fact, Caesar deliberately stationed the troops at the border so as to avoid the appearance of a military despotic regime.   

Caesar Augustus supposedly ushered in a forty year period of peace known as the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace").  But the period of Pax Romana  was not peaceful by any stretch of the imagination.  Roman soldiers were entangled in near-constant battles with various tribal incursions on the frontier, something akin to the "War on Terror" being waged interminably today.  The "barbarians" were always at the gate until they truly were at the gate and Rome collapsed.  

Enter the Holy Family.  Joseph, who until chapter 2 has had scant reference, takes his pregnant fiancée Mary on a 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  They go there to register for Caesar's census.  

John the Baptist gets a rather long and elaborate birth narrative, and even his daddy experiences a miracle of being able to speak again.  But the birth of Jesus is rendered in sparse and economical language.  

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  

Many a sermon has been preached about the inhospitable innkeeper who kicked the family out into the cold.  More likely in the original Greek kataluma means something like "guest room" not a Motel 6.  And it is likely that Mary and Joseph sought different accommodations because the space afforded them was not suitable for giving birth.  Imagine a crowded family in a typical Bethlehem home, and the kind of privacy needed for the delivery of a child. 

The fact that Jesus was laid in a manger--literally a food trough for animals--is an indication that the place of birth was moved to the dwelling for animals.  Rather than an external stable or barn, this was typically attached to the family home.  Alternatively, as was tradition from the 2nd century onward, it was thought that Jesus was born in a cave.  Origen of Alexandria advances that theory in his dialogue with the pagan Celsus in the Contra Celsum.  

However it actually transpired, it wasn't a secure birth in the sense we'd think of neonatal care.  There were no Ob-Gyn doctors for a consult, no doulas, no epidurals...and the baby Jesus was laid in a rough-hewn wooden feed trough where animals took their feed.  If it was security that God wanted, Mary would never have experienced her pregnancy during the forbidden betrothal period (her pregnancy was grounds for dissolution of the marriage contract and worse according to the law). 

If it was security that God wanted, the couple would never have made the 90 mile journey from residence to ancestral homeland during Mary's third trimester.   

If it was security that God wanted, there would have been twelve legions of Roman soldiers guarding the birthplace from marauders.  

If it was security that God wanted, Jesus on the Cross would  have called upon God to "at once send me more than twelve legions of angels" instead of declining the invitation to violence. (Matthew 26:53).  

Caesar promises security which always comes with violence.  God promises peace.  

A peace proclamation was given by the angels to the shepherds in the field: 

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors

True peace, peace that transcends our anxiety with border security and terrorism, can only come from God.  God gave it 2000 years ago in a humble manger.  And God gives it again today, if we are willing to receive it.  

 Postscript on the census:  One of the perplexing elements of the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke is the concrete historical reference to a census undertaken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  Historians have objected on several grounds: Quirinius didn't govern Syria until after Herod had died, Augustus would never have issued a general census, and the requirement to return to one's ancestral homeland was not a Roman practice.  So, those following the historical critical method have generally said that either Luke was confused, wrong, or engaged in pious theological bending of the historical record in order to get the Holy Family to King David's city of Bethlehem.  

So much ink has been spilled on this because there are at least historical documents, concrete persons in the record, and a baseline of facts from which to speculate.

There are some creative solutions to the "problem" created by the historical records.  Joseph may have owned real property in Bethlehem, and as it was considered a "suburb" of Jerusalem which was a Roman metropolis, he stood to realize up to a 50% tax break.  I call this the "Estate Planning Theory."  Nobody else does.  Alternatively, since most of our information comes from Josephus, it could be that Josephus was mistaken or incomplete in his accounts.   Whatever theory you choose, the importance of resolving the census issue pales in comparison to the underlying claim of the New Testament as exegeted by the Christian tradition: that in Jesus God became Incarnate.  The presence of God Incarnate in the manger should shake us to our foundations.  Christmas is a far more radical tale than the commercialized version we too often practice imagines.  

in Advent

Mary's Song

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Image: This is a photograph of a wooden icon hanging in my office, painted by iconographer Kelly Latimore called Refugees: La Sagrada Familia.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:53

            At this time of the year, Mary's song is always close to our lips.  The Magnificat, from the Latin for "to magnify" is the canticle sung by Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.  It is one of the most subversive pieces of poetic theology ever sung.  

            I have to confess that these prophetic words from the Magnificat hit a little too close to home.  I have never experienced hunger in the sense that Mary must have meant it.  The kind of gnawing, psychologically tortuous, and constant hunger that those who have inadequate supplies of food or have faced famine know all too well.  No, I have always been well fed.  Overfed actually. And especially around the Christmas season, this has been true. 

         Soon it will be Christmas, which has long enchanted me.  It was a time of great familial closeness in my childhood.  We would have a meal with the extended family.  There would usually be a gift exchange and the children would have some kind of skit or musical number for the adults.  I was the “baby” of the family so I was usually given the smallest role.  I think there was always a bit of cringing when the show started because you never know what a child might say.

            And of course there was food, more food than should have been served.  Christmas ham and a million side dishes.  Each family had their canonical side dishes and desserts.  You had to be seen eating a bit of everything for the common good.  “Son, go back in there and eat some more,” my MaMa would say.  She would not rest until we had all eaten four times the recommended daily caloric intake. 

            What a contrast my gorging on pumpkin rolls and Christmas ham is with the poetic imagery of Mary’s song.   Mary sings of the present social order being turned upside down.  The hungry are filled with “good things” and “sent the rich away empty.”  Think about that for a moment.  Imagine what the world would be like if that began to be experienced. 

          More likely than not the mother of Jesus was dirt poor and a teenager.  Perhaps as young as 13 or 14.  Mary.  Hers was a teenage pregnancy out of wedlock.  Her pregnancy began during the betrothal period with Joseph.  Her groom to be could have divorced her under Jewish law. 

         There is nothing in the Gospel accounts to indicate that Jesus’ parents were people of means.  No doubt they struggled with hunger, with making ends meet.  So Mary knew a thing or two about the desire to fill the hungry with “good things.”

          Worldwide there are still famines and here, in the richest country in the world, 1 in 6 children go hungry each night.  Perhaps you saw the shocking photograph of the starving child Amal Hussain, whose emaciated body appeared in the New York Times recently.  Little Amal is one of 1.8 million children starving because of the brutal civil war in Yemen.    

        For Amal, and for the 1.8 million innocent children of Yemen, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.  May we do the little we can in our own community to fight for food justice.  May we do all we can in our world to end war. 

       The power of the icon shown above is that the image incarnates the story of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus within  the marginalized and oppressed peoples of the world.  Daily we see images of people desperate to find refuge from terror and violence.  But in this country, many would like to construct a giant wall to keep people out.  If we cannot see the image of God in those who are seeking refuge, we might just re-read Mary's song in Luke 1:46-56.  Who are we in this song?

        Mary’s song becomes more and more prophetic and relevant every year.  Christmas is almost here.  Let’s live out Mary’s song this year. 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: advent
in Advent

Mourning in Advent

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As I meet more and more people in life, and have my own life experiences, I'm conscious that the holiday season may bring its own season of grief for those who mourn. There are some dear ones who used to gather around the table who will gather no more. So, our joy may sometimes seem overshadowed by pain.

In many Christian churches, the names of those who have died in the preceding year, along with those on our heart, are said aloud on All Saint’s Day.  We should be conscious that one day, even a few seconds within that day, is inadequate to the process of grief and healing.  Grief is like a journey, and we wonder when it will end. 

My Jewish friends tell me of the Mourner’s Kaddish and the traditions accompanying the yahrzeit (or death anniversary).  We have much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters .  For many Christians, the rituals accompanying mourning have become more isolated, less communal, and well…lonely.  

While the rest of the world seemingly moves on, some might be caught up anew in fresh grief in this season of family togetherness and faith traditions.  Will anyone remember the profound loss we’ve experienced?  Does anyone care?  Is there something wrong with me for holding onto this pain which I play over and over again in my mind like a tape?  If you have asked something like this before, then you know the raw edge of grief.  The years might dull it slightly, but it can come back sharp as a knife at a moment’s notice. 

Advent is about a lot of things, but one thing it’s about is waiting.  Waiting for God to show up.  We are told to wait in this Advent wait for something that has already occurred: the birth of Jesus. We are told to wait in this wait for something which has not occurred yet: the coming again of God. Waiting is hard. We need some good news to help us with all this waiting.

The good news is that the wait is over for the coming of God into this present moment. God is already here. God has always been here. God will always be here. We need only pause today, take a deep breath, and welcome God's presence. Do that now.

Comforted by God's presence, filled with the Holy Spirit, may God encircle you with love and comfort and peace, wiping away every tear. And may this be a prayer to those who need it. 

Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of Matthew, after commissioning his disciples to teach and baptize, were these: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Let that be our benediction.  Amen.

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