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.  

Advent Benediction

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The Advent Lectionary texts might strike you as a bit odd, at first glance. The first Sunday of Advent's Gospel reading from Mark, the so-called Little Apocalypse, speaks of the sun being "darkened, and the moon" failing to give its light. Stars will fall, and then the Son of Man will come in the clouds. This is a far cry from the little Playmobil nativity scene our kids had for a few years.

For a long time--too long--I thought Advent was just about Christmas and the coming of the Christ child. The texts and the theological focus of the four Sundays preceding Christmas actually focus on the coming of Christ in various ways. Philip H. Pfatteicher writes in Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year that "Since at least the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153),Christians have spoken of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time." This expansive view of Christ's coming explains the seemingly strange focus on John the Baptist during Advent II and III. We must expand our vision from the babe in swaddling clothes to the wild eyed John who was "clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and [who] ate locusts and wild honey." (Mark 1:6) Both images foretell a divine coming in different ways; both require our response.

Advent is a clarion call to God's people to rise from their slumber. "Beware, keep alert" Mark tells us at the end of the Little Apocalypse. Our culture and our technology have a way of lulling us into spiritual sleep. We lose the sharp edge of daily reflection, prayer, and contemplation. We lose the passion and desire for social justice. We retreat into cynicism.

The Christ child was born some 2,000 years ago, which we liturgically re-enact every year during Advent in various ways: Christmas kids' pageants, Christmas carols, readings from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The dramatic renewal of salvation memory lifts our spirits every year. But we should not lose the triple focus of Advent which Bernard of Clairvaux helps us see. Christ the infant has already come, and Christ will come again in glory. But Bernard's vision of Christ's coming which happens in the present is one to which our lethargy encourages us to ignore. That present tense arrival is named by Christ's arrival "in our hearts daily." In a sermon from the 11th century, Bernard writes of this poetic "second coming" in this way:

Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength. (Click here for the source)

Let that be our Advent benediction.