Monday, December 10, 2012

Participating in the Incarnation

Scripture for the Second Sunday in Advent includes Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

If we’re going to find the potential of revelation in a birth in a barnyard, we need Advent to be a training season, not a shopping season. A training season for perceiving what lies beneath the surface and beyond the obvious; because the stunning beauty of Christmas, the lasting blessing of the holy nativity, lies in the puzzling truth that things are often not what they seem. Insight, foresight, and hindsight are needed to shape our welcome of the Christ who is born in such unpromising surroundings as a feeding trough in a barn behind an inn with no vacancies. Cloaked in humility and paradox is the gift of the Christ child.

“’What fresh hell is this?’… Or something very much like that was Joseph’s response to the decree mandating a trip to Bethlehem in the final days of Mary’s pregnancy. Burden heaped upon burden. In years to come songs would sweeten that trek to the little town of Bethlehem, but just then Joseph could barely manage the weight of Caesar’s decree and his wife’s condition. From where he stood, Joseph’s predicament was a study in hopelessness.”

That’s how Sam Portaro opens his Advent meditation in the most recent issue of “Vestry Papers.” Part of getting the hang of the good news of God in Jesus Christ is realizing that despite all the glam and glitter of our cultural Christmas, the bona fide story underwriting the nativity is about some really hard waiting required of Mary and Joseph—putting up with government tax reform, coping with the indignities of overland travel, not to mention surviving nine months of Jesus robing himself in human flesh, some of this time for Mary jostling bareback on a donkey. The holy family is uprooted. This required trip to Bethlehem isn’t a sweet return to the hometown for the holidays. Nor will Joseph and Mary return to wherever they were living: they will be homeless, and when they leave Bethlehem it will be as refugees escaping a maniac king intent on eliminating them.

Merry Christmas.

Here’s Sam Portaro again: “Advent’s characteristic waiting is not the anticipatory expectation of envisioned gift—like the child’s wishful waiting for Santa, or even the pregnant mother’s and expectant father’s apprehensions of birth—but a more difficult waiting, a waiting with no tangible outcome accessible to us, exactly the kind of waiting demanded of us just now: waiting for that which we cannot yet see. Or even imagine.

“We’ve no idea what the future holds for us... We forget (to our peril) that neither Mary nor Joseph could’ve anticipated the fullness of their child’s life, much less its enduring power in our own lives. Any and all suggestions to the contrary have been read backward into the story, many centuries after those at the heart of the story had lived and died. None of the apostles could ever have imagined the church as we experience it; none lived to see even an approximation of it. The human aspirations and apprehensions met in Bethlehem’s manger were overlooked by all those present and many who followed for centuries after, for their hopes and fears were founded upon models of messiah and kingship Jesus steadfastly refused. None could’ve imagined what God was accomplishing—would accomplish— much less how and in whom.

“This isn’t to say that we’re to despair, but rather that true leadership… is unafraid of truth and steadfast in trust. When we let go our own fantasies of a… future conforming to our own desires and designs, we open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the life promised us. We’ve no idea what awaits us but in the darkness of that scary not knowing, the light of Advent shines. We take our places with Joseph and Mary at the center of that fresh hell—that wearying trip, compounded by advanced pregnancy, to comply with an onerous imperial order of census and taxation, to a city lacking adequate provision for them—to find ourselves at a stable, staring into the face of a baby whose future is as tenuous and as unknown as every child’s.

“That’s what we’re called to, what we come to in this and every Advent. A new life is being born and though we’ll not live to see it fully grown, we hold fast to the assurance of that “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) And we rejoice to be here.”

Even if here and now is a balancing act between counting our blessings and lamenting our losses.

Even if here is a place where young people die out of sequence with their elders, leaving their children and their parents in grief.

Even though here is just a few days away from tumbling over the fiscal cliff.

Even though here is a warming planet with rising oceans.

Even though here is a globe of fractured relationships between neighbors, a Holy Land riven by unholy bitterness, a world that still has too many maniac kings and too many disputed borders.

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction… and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting….” So sings Baruch, scribe to the prophet Jeremiah and author of an apocryphal book that we get to hear, thanks to our new lectionary.

Righteousness is his theme, as it is in all these readings today. Not self-righteousness that believes God loves only those who live on my side of the border, my side of the aisle in congress, my religion, my kind of people. Righteousness is right and healthy relationship centered in love for God and love for neighbor as for self. Righteousness is depending not so much on our own ability to make things right, but on God being at work in our world to make it right (as Paul puts it to the Philippians, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion…”). God needs us to help that completion happen, but as servants and not masters, servants trusted to determine what is best (says Paul) by spiritual powers of love and insight.

A harvest of righteousness, that’s the point of it all, says St. Paul. And we can take that to mean that our Advent training sharpens our focus on piling presents under other people’s trees, like those 23 children we’re providing for through the Giving Tree. There’s a harvest of right priorities.

Another will be our Christmas offering to support three forms of outreach that mirror the story of the first Christmas. Remembering that the holy family were refugees, we will support emergency relief for Syrian refugees. Remembering how shelter, food, and post-natal care are needs we see at Bethlehem, we will care for struggling families here in North Berkshire. And remembering how livestock are front and center in the Christmas story, we will send funds to Heifer Project International.

And yes, you and I will find many quiet private ways to help make rough places smooth and crooked places straight, not just now in December, but often, knowing that the Word will be made flesh over and again as we help God produce a harvest of right relationship, healthy relationship, right priorities that come through Jesus Christ.

Advent training isn’t big on wish lists for Santa, or shopping lists for Santa’s helpers. But goals are in order, goals for a righteous harvest. How about intelligent, fair, honest cooperation across the aisle in Congress? Insistence that our federal budget not be balanced at the expense of the poor? How about courage in the White House and State Department to get Israel and the State of Palestine to sit down for serious negotiations while there is still time? And gun control—remember gun control? What a yet longer list you and I can name, goals for a harvest of righteousness, all worthy of a new year of healthy activism.

Advent training teaches us creative, assertive, active waiting. Unlike our cultural Christmas, we are not counting down to a moment of gratification. We are in Christ building up a capacity to perceive what lies beneath the surface and beyond the obvious, to recognize the promised presence and power and purpose of God in unpromising surroundings. And to participate with God in the Incarnation.