This year, my reading of the familiar—oh so familiar—scriptures inspired me to imagine a few moments in the lives of Advent’s “usual suspects.” As always, I didn’t know exactly what I’d write until each essay was finished. But I was confident Isaiah would make an appearance, initially assumed Mary or Joseph (or both) would be ignored, and had no idea a Pharisee would encounter John the Baptizer. Ah well . . . humans plan, the Holy chuckles.
As the digital dust began to settle, these questions nudged me . . .
- What caused Isaiah to claim the imagery of turning swords into plowshares?
- What made John the Baptist’s message compelling, but inadequate, especially in the eyes of a “religious authority?”
- Wouldn’t self-doubt and confidence accompany Mary’s anticipation of birth? And . . . could Mary have heard Hannah’s song/prayer for inspiration?
- Why did Joseph, key to the nativity stories, vanish from the verses that followed?
Behind all the questions is a core belief: Christmas is a myth. The facts about Jesus’ birth are sparse and pedestrian. He was born. He had parents and siblings. And from birth to death, Jesus lived under Rome’s brutal, corrupt government.
I don’t think the Jewish prophets, including Isaiah, predicted, or were concerned about, Jesus’ future birth. I believe Isaiah’s exclusive concern was the world he lived in.
And what of John the Baptist? To this day—over three decades since the first time I professionally led a congregation through Advent as an ordained pastor—I still think it’s odd the adult John, Jesus’ locust-eating country cousin, is headlined in the weeks before Bethlehem’s “surprise.” Why do the lectionary creators put John on such a pedestal? For whatever it’s worth, I suspect the modern designers of the lectionary and the ancient Gospel scribblers “used” the Baptist as a reminder of the radical, unsettling nature of Jesus’ ministry. In other words, the religious insiders (the Pharisees), the government controlling all religion (the Roman Empire) and even the religious outsider (John) were equally flummoxed by Jesus’ transcendent message of humility, forgiveness and service.
I’m 99.99% convinced Mary never spoke the stunning passage of Luke 1:47-55 (the sublime magnificat). On the proverbial other hand, I am 100% convinced Jesus’ mother unabashedly loved him, worried about him and struggled with how to raise him . . . and then struggled with how to let him go. I’m also convinced Joseph was central to Jesus’ upbringing, but was downplayed to enhance the mythology of the birth. Nonetheless—especially because my parents have now died (Dad in 2012, Mom in 2013)—I am intrigued and even troubled by Joseph’s “disappearance.” What happened to him? It’s no surprise (to me) that I conjured Joseph dying, a father able to recall the long ago, but too ill to be aware of the here-and-now.
But that’s our job as the believers and wonderers and followers of Jesus today: how do we help others (and ourselves) experience the here-and-now of God’s Realm? How I wish I could make Christmas’ consumerism vanish like Joseph vanished from the Gospels . . . but I can’t. In spite of the Santa-izing and buy-buy-buying that have corrupted Jesus’ enigmatic beginnings, I still love the simple, but never simplistic, myth. A babe challenges the empire. Dreams guide decisions. God is revealed in the first or twenty-first century through the least and the lost, and by the usual and sometimes very unusual suspects.
Hope you’ve enjoyed my 2013 Advent musings.