This year, my reading of the familiarâ€”oh so familiarâ€”scriptures inspired me to imagine a few moments in the lives of Adventâ€™s â€œusual suspects.â€ As always, I didnâ€™t know exactly what Iâ€™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 Baptistâ€™s message compelling, but inadequate, especially in the eyes of a â€œreligious authority?â€
- Wouldnâ€™t self-doubt and confidence accompany Maryâ€™s anticipation of birth? And . . . could Mary have heard Hannahâ€™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 Jesusâ€™ birth are sparse and pedestrian. He was born. He had parents and siblings. And from birth to death, Jesus lived under Romeâ€™s brutal, corrupt government.
I donâ€™t think the Jewish prophets, including Isaiah, predicted, or were concerned about, Jesusâ€™ future birth. I believe Isaiahâ€™s exclusive concern was the world he lived in.
And what of John the Baptist? To this dayâ€”over three decades since the first time I professionally led a congregation through Advent as an ordained pastorâ€”I still think itâ€™s odd the adult John, Jesusâ€™ locust-eating country cousin, is headlined in the weeks before Bethlehemâ€™s â€œsurprise.â€ Why do the lectionary creators put John on such a pedestal? For whatever itâ€™s worth, I suspect the modern designers of the lectionary and the ancient Gospel scribblers â€œusedâ€ the Baptist as a reminder of the radical, unsettling nature of Jesusâ€™ 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 Jesusâ€™ transcendent message of humility, forgiveness and service.
Iâ€™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 Jesusâ€™ mother unabashedly loved him, worried about him and struggled with how to raise him . . . and then struggled with how to let him go. Iâ€™m also convinced Joseph was central to Jesusâ€™ upbringing, but was downplayed to enhance the mythology of the birth. Nonethelessâ€”especially because my parents have now died (Dad in 2012, Mom in 2013)â€”I am intrigued and even troubled by Josephâ€™s â€œdisappearance.â€ What happened to him? Itâ€™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 thatâ€™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 Godâ€™s Realm? How I wish I could make Christmasâ€™ consumerism vanish like Joseph vanished from the Gospels . . . but I canâ€™t. In spite of the Santa-izing and buy-buy-buying that have corrupted Jesusâ€™ 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 youâ€™ve enjoyed my 2013 Advent musings.