The Wild Child of Bethlehem

A Christmas sonnet

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During my 30s and early 40s, I went through a period of spiritual struggle and exile. This poem was written at that time. It looks at Christmas through the lens of Good Friday and my own conflicts.

Though angels carol in his birth, this child

Bestows no peace within My Lady’s heart,

For from his mouth a sword shall dart

To rent her settled order. He is wild,

This child, and will not rest content, beguiled

By rules and law. His way is one apart:

His own self’s way. No charm or mother’s art

Can keep him to the home call reconciled.

 

This child is every child that would be free.

For this Orestes braved the furies’ sting

And tore asunder the maternal tie.

That’s why, before such horror cowering,

The nation’s elders, priests, and throne agree

The newborn child must bend, be tamed, or die.

 

© Gordon Lindsey, 1984

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God’s Christmas Gift: Courage

Pay attention to the first words the Christmas angels speak.

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The archangel Gabriel, by Gerard David, 1506. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, angels play a prominent role in all the stages of the unfolding Christmas story

In Luke an angel announces to the priest Zechariah that his aged wife Elizabeth will become pregnant and bear a son. The child will grow up to be the prophet we call John the Baptist. Again an angel, named Gabriel, announces to Mary that she will also become pregnant and bear a son. He is the Christ child of Bethlehem.

In Matthew an angel visits Joseph in a dream and removes his doubts about marrying the pregnant Mary. The angel assures him that Mary’s pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit. And Matthew says that this child, to be named Jesus, is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Emmanuel, God with Us.

An angel announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds outside Bethlehem on Christmas eve. He tells them that the newborn child is the savior of the world.

And then if we return to Matthew and proceed to the end of his story, we find an angel again meets the women who visit Jesus’ tomb. He announces to them that they will not find Jesus there, for he has arisen.

One thing unites all these stories of angelic appearances. That is the opening words the angels always speak. They are variously translated “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid.”

I find this striking, and I ask why. One possible answer is that a direct encounter with a real live angel can be very upsetting. Here is a manifestation of the numinous, a figure out of the world of the holy. And as the German scholar Rudolph Otto reminds us, the holy both fascinates us and terrifies us. When we humans are in the realm of the holy, we are outside our natural element.

This suggests that we should not understand the angels in these scriptural stories as cuddly cupids or as fashion plates in diaphanous gowns. These angels must have been powerful energy forces, otherworldly in a kind of disorienting way.

If this is true, then the human beings encountering these numinous figures have reason for being scared. All the reason in the world, therefore, that the angels must put the humans at ease before they can deliver their messages.

The Deeper Resonance of the Angelic Words

But I like to think there is a deeper reason for their re-assurance. Their “do not be afraid” become the opening words of the gospel. The actions of God can be frightening to our limited perceptions. But those actions are motivated by divine good will, by God’s loving purposes.

Those actions can make us very anxious, but the angels re-assure us to not be alarmed. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his loving purposes not only for ourselves, but for the whole cosmos.

This does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. We may suffer deeply in our lives, through disappointments, losses, frustrations, tragedies, and malicious violence. The angelic messages promise no rose garden of a life.

But their messages do assure us that whatever we experience in life, we can be confident we do not experience it alone. God will be the enveloping presence in which we live and move and have our being. God will walk with us through fire and raging water as well as through green pastures.

That confidence can then nurture courage. We can be courageous in the face of all that life slings at us. And so courage becomes one of the great gifts of Christmas. It is a gift we all need in these anxious times.

What does that look like in lived life? For me Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives a great example. When the moment for Bonhoeffer’s execution came, the concentration camp doctor witnessed him kneeling in prayer before he was led to the gallows. He then described Bonhoeffer’s death as that of man “devout … brave and composed … I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

How could Bonhoeffer face his death with such courage? I wonder if it was not because he had spent a lifetime letting the message of the Christmas angels sink deep into his soul.

 

Dazzled by Salvation’s Splendor

Let us be careful how we use a weighty word in the Christian vocabulary.

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-Catacomb - Version 2

I don’t like to bash Evangelical Protestants. They are my family heritage. But there’s one way Evangelicals talk that bugs me a lot.

It is their habit of talking about salvation. When they ask, Are you saved?, they generally mean, Are you going to heaven when you die? For many of them, salvation is chiefly a form of eternal fire insurance.

Such an understanding of salvation is not necessarily false. It’s just that, from my study of the New Testament, I find this way of characterizing salvation constrained and spiritually anemic.

First of all, it is highly egocentric. The focus is on my own personal fate in the hereafter. Certainly the gospel offers a promise to each of us as individuals, but my fate is not the central concern of God’s saving action. God’s salvation is concerned with the completion of God’s creative work, a work that embraces the whole cosmos.

The completion of that work is the uniting of the whole cosmos in Christ. Here I give central importance to what the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:9-10:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Each one of us has our unique place and significance in God’s plan. We are not, however, the center of that plan.

Message in a Healing Miracle

Second, that Evangelical way of talking strikes me as constrained, because it grounds its evangelism in fear, a fear of what will happen to us when we die. In this respect it drains its evangelism of the rich and broad ways the New Testament talks about salvation.

As a case in point, let me call attention to the story found in Mark 5:24-34. This story tells of a woman who has suffered from a blood hemorrhage for 12 years. No doctor has been able to cure her.

When Jesus visits her town, she creeps up behind him and touches the hem of his garment. She is instantly healed. Jesus senses power has gone out of him. He stops abruptly and asks, Who touched my garments? The terrified woman confesses that she has done so.

Jesus does not rebuke her. Instead he responds, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. [Revised Standard Version]

The Greek verb that the RSV translates as made well is the word sozo. Sozo can certainly mean to make well, but it can also be translated to save. The sentence can be rightly rendered your faith has saved you.

In this story, salvation is understood as healing, as being made whole physically. But we must always recognize that the gospel writers often use words with more than one reference. In the context of the whole New Testament, the sentence points to an extended meaning of salvation, which is the experience of being healed or made whole spiritually.

Salvation as Wholeness

This leads me to ponder the meaning of salvation as wholeness. As I do, I remind myself that being made whole has many dimensions:

  • Physical wholeness: Our bodies function healthily. Everything works as it is intended to do. We suffer no disorder from disease or injury. Physical healing is one dimension of salvation.
  • Psychological wholeness: Our disordered and fragmented emotional lives are brought into harmony and integration. We do not suppress our desires, but we know how to govern them.
  • Social wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationships with other people are brought into harmony and integration, both in our personal relationships and in the wider spheres of the economy, politics, culture, and international relations. Races, classes, and ethnic groups respect each other and live without violence towards each other.
  • Ecological wholeness: We live in a harmonious relationship with other creatures in the world and with its natural processes. We forego exploitation of the earth in ways that destroy it as a home not only for human beings, but also for all living creatures.
  • Spiritual wholeness: Our broken and troubled relationship with God is healed through a process of forgiveness, reconciliation, and transforming union. The battle between flesh and spirit comes to an end.
  • Cosmic wholeness: The great hope of the Christian gospel is our looking ahead to a time when the fullness of God’s purpose is realized in that cosmic transformation alluded to in Ephesians 1:8-10. In that day, the whole cosmos will realize its divine destiny. Death is banished forever.

The Book of Revelation sees that day as a time when the promise of God’s incarnation in Jesus becomes a reality for the whole cosmos (see Revelation 21-22). God will dwell with us. Heaven and earth will be united. The ancient church fathers summarized this state of salvation in the statement: God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.

A Multi-Colored Coat

Each of these dimensions of wholeness form a part of the total package that is the New Testament understanding of salvation. This is the glorious cake the Christian gospel offers. The belief in a life after death is only the icing.

This vision of salvation excites and inspires me. It makes me want to sign on with the work force in the world who seek to work with God in realizing God’s vision. It also evokes a sense of awe. I want to join my voice with those of the heavenly choirs who laud and praise this God of grace and expansive love.

Wholeness is not the whole understanding of salvation that the New Testament offers. We also find in its pages an understanding of salvation as liberation, as transformation, and as the gift of shalom (Hebrew for peace). We need to be aware that in the Christian vocabulary the word salvation is a very weighty word. Like the multi-colored coat Jacob gives his beloved son Joseph, the concept has many dimensions. And those dimensions allure us not by activating our fears, but by dazzling us with their splendor.

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The image of Jesus healing the woman with a hemorrhage comes from an early Christian catacomb in Rome.