Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Unexpected Guests at the Manger

Scripture for the First Sunday after Christmas Day includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Four calling-birds, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree. On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Five gold rings… four calling-birds, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Happy fourth day of Christmas! To borrow the image of the fifth day, it’s a golden day today in the Neely and Montemayor families, as four-month-old Lena Luisa is baptized.

Powerful language lifts from our readings today in commentary on what holy baptism means. To paraphrase St. Paul writing to the Galatians, God is about to send into Lena’s heart the Spirit of his Son, teaching her how to approach God: “Abba! Father!” The commentators tell us that the Aramaic “Abba” is the intimate “Dad… Daddy”, and we trust that Lena will learn to address God through language of feminine endearment, too. As Paul makes clear, this is not the approach of a slave to a master, nor of a servant to an overseer, but of a child to a parent, a child who is also to inherit what the parent gives.

Our patron St. John the Evangelist proclaims the same in the famous Prologue to his Gospel: To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God, born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And from God Lena receives grace upon grace.

Which reminds us that our primary task as her parents, grandparents, godparents, and sisters and brothers in the household of faith, is to cultivate, shape, encourage, liberate, enlighten her ability to receive all the gifting God has for her, to perceive God in that giving, and to conceive how to share that giftedness for the good of the world so loved by God.

Now, I could end this sermon right there. But with time still running on the meter, I have to wonder with you about something.

There’s something going on at our altar crèche. You’ve seen already the progress of the three wise ones and their wise camel, who appears to be making the three dignitaries walk. We trust that by next Sunday they’ll take their places there in the barnyard at Bethlehem.

But what I’m asking you to notice is what’s already there. The non-human figures at the crèche include what we expect: a cow, a donkey, sheep (lots of sheep). And there are two additional species represented there.

One is a zebra. The other, a rat.

I am not making that up. This isn’t the first Christmas they’ve come, but when I saw them fresh this year, I did a double-take. How did they get there? I wondered.

The rat, we know, goes wherever human beings go. The rat lives along the margins of human settlement, in the dumpsters, along the loading docks; following, finding, food. The rat has become a global denizen because man has paved the way for the rodent, then littered the way with all a rat needs.

We have not called an exterminator. Even though this particular specimen is nearly twice the size of the Christ child, there appears to be no need to intervene. The crèche commands a reverence for life, at least a general amnesty for twelve days. Enough time to join Mary in taking into our hearts the whole puzzle of the Incarnation, pondering the full wonder of the nativity of Jesus Christ.

And if Z is for zebra, Z must also be for zany. If protective coloration is one way that evolution progresses, whatever is going on with the zebra? If the rat is surreptitious, the zebra is out there, one horn short of a unicorn, an extraverted yan to the secretive yin of the rat.

In one of his poems, Shel Silverstein tells us what the zebra asks about us.

I asked the Zebra,
are you black with white stripes?
Or white with black stripes?
And the zebra asked me,
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or are you quiet with noisy times?
Are you happy with some sad days?
Or are you sad with some happy days?
Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?
And on and on and on and on and on and on he went.
I’ll never ask a zebra about stripes...again.”

We keep our rat and our zebra in our crèche to remind us that there is a place for each which no other can fill, room for all which can be denied by none. They remind us what a mess we make of this world when we judge unworthy and reject any from the created order. And they remind us how short-sighted we are when we see the lovingkindness of God extended only to us, to our kind, our culture, our species.

Unexpected guests in the adoration of God in Jesus Christ help us do justice to the full wonder of the Incarnation.

Shel Silverstein’s poem appeared in his collection “A Light in the Attic”, 1985.