by Ken Sehested
It was an unusual Christmas, to be sure. Our friends in Atlanta got their first snowy Christmas Day since the late 19th century. It’s been more than 40 years since we had a white Christmas here in Asheville. But then, I got notes from friends in Australia and South Africa who mentioned their beach barbecues on Christmas day. In the southern hemisphere this is summer, and none of our cultural hymns about “dreaming of a white Christmas,” or “dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh,” or even one of my favorite Advent hymns, “In the Bleak Midwinter”—none of these work for more than half the world’s landmass.
We had a wonderful Christmas at our house. All our kinfolk managed to safely dodge the worst of the weather. With 10 people in the house, two of them juiced-up preschoolers, shoveling snow and splitting firewood offered a welcome break from the clamor. Of course, it’s always a special treat to watch youngsters rip open Christmas gifts. And when we finished, our living room floor looked like a bomb had gone off in a Christmas wrapping paper factory.
As you would expect, Jordan and Sydney got there share of toys, games, clothes and books. But you know what occupied them all evening? (And I mean the entire evening?) A large aluminum roasting pan filled with dry lentils, split peas and small white navy beans, along with a wide assortment of measuring cups and scoops. Kind of like an indoor sand box. It’s something Nancy invented a couple years ago, which we keep handy for the grandkids. Just goes to show that battery-operated gadgets and shiny plastic things provide very limited engagement with imagination. And not just for the kids.
Needless to say, the 10 folk from our Circle who spent Christmas in Cuba didn’t join in Spanish renditions of carols “dreaming of a white Christmas.” (I hope you’ve had a chance to look through some of Chris Bell’s photos from their Cuban visit—Beth sent out a selection to our listserve yesterday.) Last night, when I was finishing up the bulletin, I couldn’t help myself—I decided to print one of those photos as a bulletin insert. I also sent this photo to a number of our Cuban friends with a thank-you note. Here’s what it said:
"I've attached a photo taken by one of our members from their recent visit. This one is a “keeper" (as we say in colloquial English). Thanks for your care for their safety and comfort while they were there.
"We share with you the conviction that God is most often encountered in the crossing of boundaries and borders of all kinds, whether far away or close at hand. And you played a role in interpreting the Spirit's presence for our members as they crossed the wall between our two countries and cultures.
"I cannot stop thinking about how these young ones will repeat their stories of spending Christmas in Cuba for many decades to come. You have unleashed more than you realize!"
If I had to summarize, in one brief sentence, what the author of John’s Gospel was saying in the first chapter, it would be this: That writer was saying that in Jesus, God is unleashing more than any of us realize. Those sentences which Mary Anne just read have been described by literary scholars as among the most elegant in all of literature for all the ages. And in comparison to the other three Gospels in the Newer Testament, John’s is uniformly judged to be the most mystical.
Yet, to our ears, there is an awkward elusiveness to these words. When you hear “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” your first reaction is probably something like, “Say what? What you talkin’ ‘bout?”
On Friday a number of us accepted St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church’s invitation to join with them for their Christmas Eve service. We had some great music and liturgy. At one point, though, when we read in unison the Nicene Creed, I remembered my complaint about many of the faith statements of the ancient Church. Here’s a summary of the heart of that confessional statement, written in the 4th century:
"Through him [referring to Jesus] were all things were made. For us and for our salvation he (1) came down from heaven . . . (2) was born of the Virgin Mary . . . (3) was crucified under Pontius Pilate . . . (4) suffered, died, and was buried . . . (5) And on the third day he rose again."
Do you get a sense of what that progression of ideas leaves out? The entire narrative of Jesus’ life is skipped over with a simple comma.
Born. Died. Resurrected.
It jumps from the cradle to the cross in a breathless act of metaphysic logic. It references the incarnation—“God made flesh among us”—without much flesh! The God-with-us Emmanuel’s actual life is but a pause in an academic syllogism, piling up one premise on another leading to a cosmic conclusion.
It neither breathes nor bleeds. No bread, no wine, no multitudes to feed. There are no confrontations with imperial agents, no stories of good Samaritans. Zacchaeus does not come down from his tree to return four-fold to all he has cheated. No hemorrhaging women are restored to community, no barren women provided a legacy. There are no blind beggars with restored limbs and sight, nor good news announced to the poor, release to captives, no blessings delivered to the merciful, to the mournful, to the peacemakers; no enemies needing to be loved.
There is, in short, very little “flesh dwelling among us” in that earliest of Christian creedal statements. There is no instruction on when and how and under what circumstances do we take troubled young people into our homes. No remembrance on the meaning for our continuing struggle of people like Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. Not to mention people like Bob Smith and Robbie Williams and Monroe Gilmore right here in our own city.
I dare say the God we know in the Abba of Jesus is uninterested in vague generalities and theoretical confessions of faith. Jesus declares to us in no uncertain terms that reconciliation with our neighbors, with the earth itself, is a profoundly fleshy affair. It is because of our “flesh-dwelling-among-us” faith that we spend so much time and money getting to know sisters and brothers in Cuba. It’s why we sponsor food drives for MANNA and risk arrest opposing mountain-top coal mining and the training for terrorism in our military schools and the torture of prisoners.
The fact that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were for a time refugees helps remind us to advocate for refugees in our midst. It is why we spend so much time each and every week naming those we know and love—or those we have merely heard about with empathy—who suffer, whose health is failing, whose lives draw near to death. Because we believe that God fervently and passionately loves bodies is why we write letters of pastoral encouragement to women’s soccer coaches in distant cities fired from their work because of there sexual orientation, or neighbors in our own area harassed and threatened by bigots.
It’s these and a gazillion other things, most of them modest, small, sometimes anonymous efforts, are central to the life and mission of this congregation. Flesh is not just special to us. It is the place and context where we meet God. Soil is not simply to be conserved. For we ourselves are the children of dust, and to dust we shall return. In doing so we return again to our Creator, to our Redeemer, and to the Sustainer of all life, despite all manner of suffering and death, for the Promise which grips our hearts, minds and souls is the assurance that one blessed day all tears will be dried and death shall be no more.
Such is the promise of the One made flesh among us. When we are true to our calling, this is what gets unleashed on the world.
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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org