December 26, 2010
Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23
For the past four weeks of Advent, we headed towards Bethlehem. Our path pointed towards the manager and the coming of the Christ child. And then finally, it was time. Christmas Eve. Under this roof, with family and friends, song and candle, bells and “Joy to the World,” we gathered around the manger as the wondrous gift was given.
So now what do we do? Where do we go from here? The shepherds have returned to their fields. We hear in scripture today that, that the wise ones are well on the road. Is it all over? Should we too head home; take down the Christmas tree and pack away the decorations, returning the house to how it was, returning ourselves to what was?
Maybe, but it seems far more likely that if we are to take our cue from anyone in the Christmas story it ought to be from Jesus. And the text this morning from the Gospel of Matthew tells us that for Jesus, and Mary and Joseph, there is no return to life as usual. Christmas launched them into something new. There was certainly birth that night. Jesus came into the world, but there was also something birthed in us that Christmas night, something birthed into the world.
In Christmas, you see God give us the ultimate gift but in that gift, God also makes a claim on us. I believe that God asks that we leave that manger as people willing to be changed; people open to be made anew from who we were when we walked in.
For you see, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the nativity is not an encapsulated moment that is to be appreciated and then tucked way. Instead the nativity is seen as a kind of a water shed event in the great sweep of the biblical story of salvation. Mary and Joseph with Jesus in their arms are swept up into something much larger than themselves on that Christmas Eve. And so are we. We are swept up into a God who has come so that human kind may be delivered, delivered from all that holds us captive. from the bondage of sin. You see through Jesus, we too are to be born anew, to be delivered into newness of life.
But let us not for a moment romanticize that this birth God seeks for us, being delivered anew by the hands of God, is not easy. It is hard. Really hard. There can be a profound sense of loss. The apostle Paul speaks of the death one undergoes before rebirth can fully transpire. This is poignantly spoken of in T.S. Eliot’s poem the magi where the wise ones speak of the challenges of traveling to Jesus and how once they encountered him, nothing was the same again. Hear it now:
Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
It certainly was not easy for Mary and Joseph. Before Mary and Joseph have even caught their breath from the birth, before Jesus has had his first few good night’s sleep in this world, an angel delivers a message to Joseph in a dream. Joseph must go. It is not safe. He is to take the mother and child and escape to Egypt for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Right beyond the manger lays the presence of all that is still not right in the world. The birth of Jesus did not change that, not yet at least. The Gospel of Matthew makes it quite clear that God comes into the world in the person of Jesus not because everything is already as it should be. No, in fact it is just the opposite. God comes into the world in the person of Jesus because everything is so far from what it ought to be. There is still much darkness. God came to us, precisely because of the likes of Herod, precisely because God’s people needed and continue to need to be delivered from the tyranny of violence, of sin, of all that keeps us from right relationships with each other and with God.
So, let us be clear that this Christmas walk will more likely than not, ask that we face the troubling realities still present within our self and within our world. We are not to stay behind longing for the glow of the manger once again, but we are to walk out into our lives recognizing that there is much that must still be delivered. It is not easy this changed life.
Dean Brackly, is a Jesuit priest living San Salvador and teaching at the University of Central America. He came to the university, years ago to full a vacancies left when his colleagues, the Jesuits living and working at the university were brutally killed by government sponsored death squad troops. Dean would often meet with delegations of foreigners that came to El Salvador on mission trips to learn about the country and to do some service work. One of the things he would say to those with whom he met, “your time here will ruin you for life.” And what he meant by that was that once you fully see the reality of suffering, and want and violence of all that is still not yet right in the world you can never again close your eyes to it. There will be shift deep in your soul. But this shift, this loss of naiveté of innocence is in essence a re-birth. Ruined in order to really live, live truly and honestly and boldly – ruined for the construction of new life built of truth, and love and peace. And that I think is what happened to Mary and Joseph. They were ruined for life. They could no longer go back, but they also did not want to. Simple as they were they walked forward in truth and power, into the deepest darkness but with the strength of knowing that they carried Jesus in their arms, they carried the light and by carrying that light into the deep darkness the darkness was transformed.
Dean let those from far way to see the sadness and pain of the wound in El Salvador, so that in sharing that wound it could be transformed from the inside out. Not covering up what that brutal war had done, but healing those wounds from the inside out. Transforming fear into relationships of love and caring. This is what our post Christmas walk is all about. It is about delivering. Sometimes we will be the ones that will be whispered to by angels, called upon to deliver those who are in harm’s way and sometimes it will be us who by God’s grace will be delivered.
But the amazing thing about this post Christmas walk is that we do not go it alone. Even though it is hard, transforming places of darkness means taking the light of Christ into those places so that they may be recreated through the light and love of God. Even though this is not easy, we do not need to fear for God is with us. And that is our manger gift.
Now one final thought, I believe the text today shows us something very interesting and important about this presence of God with us. God is moving in this story in subtle, behind the scenes kind of ways. Covert, unfolding in unlikely ways, in unlikely places, under the radar, in the shadows. Jesus, Joseph and Mary slip through Herod grasp in the deep of night. Life saving messages comes in dreams. And when the angel whispers to Joseph that it is time to return from Egypt, he warned in a dream to head north into the obscurity of Galilee. It is there in the obscurity of that back water kind of place that Jesus our Savior will grow.
A friend of me said once that the spirit is very slippery, if you try to grab hold of it, it is gone. It is something that can be seen most clearly only in your peripheral vision. Turn your full gaze on it and it is gone. What this may means for us is that it is highly likely that acts of delivering and being delivered that await us on this post Christmas path will require a heightened level openness and receptiveness on our part. We certainly ought to pay attention to that which is clearly before us but not at the expense of developing a sharpness of attention and keeping a sense of curiosity about that which may be moving on the edges, the periphery of as well. Could God be up to some reordering, moving things around a bit, opening some door, closing others on the edges of our lives?
So where are we to do now? Forward, forward bearing the light that has been given us, trusting that this light will transform places of darkness into new life. Trusting that though the path will be challenging, as long as we keep walking, keep loving, keep caring and sharing, keep watching for and participating in the movement of the spirit in our lives — God will lead us. God will deliver us. Amen