Christmas Eve 2020 Carols, Candlelight, Communion
©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones
In their book “the First Christmas”
two New Testament scholars,
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan,
imagine a pageant based on Luke’s telling of Christ’s nativity.
It’s not hard to imagine, really is it?,
We’ve all done it, been part of them.
Kids in bathrobes, babies in sheep costumes,
grown ups in donkey’s ears…
But they take this a scholarly step further
and make this bold claim about Luke’s
Pageant-like story of the birth of Jesus.
They suggest it is a parable.
They have this disarmingly simple sentence
to show their logic:
“Jesus told parables about God and the advent of God,
the coming of God’s kingdom[here on earth].
His followers told parables about Jesus,
and his advent,
the coming of the bearer of God’s kingdom.”
At first that seems to be a disturbing claim!
Does it suggest that these so familiar “events”
– the annunciation the travel to Bethlehem, the inn,
the stable, the shepherds and angels,
may not be verifiable fact?
That it might even be ‘fake news’ or a hoax or something?
Hold on, and listen to these people tell you what they’ve discovered about parables.
Parables are a form of speech, just as poetry is a form of speech. Parables are short stories. They are narratives. The master of Parables was Jesus, his most distinctive form of teaching.
In all the parables that Jesus told, something happens; a woman searches high and low for a coin;
An outsider, a foreigner, is the one who truly embodies what it means to be a neighbour when he helps the person attacked on a journey.
A farmer scatters seed, some is eaten by birds, some falls on rocky ground, some withers, and some grows to bear fruit.
Parables take ordinary events that could happen any time to anybody, and with a narrative arc, they make meaning with them. The truth of a parable doesn’t depend upon the verifiability of its events or facts, but rather in its capacity to hold meaning.
or multiple meanings!
We’ve learned, by this ancient midrashic practice of “turning a text,”
that the parables Jesus told are in fact full of many possible meanings,
all of which help us to imagine more fully what it means to live the Dream of God.
So when we read Luke’s pageant of the birth of Jesus as a parable –
a narrative re-telling designed to say way more than just a chronicle of facts, we discover it is chock-full of parabolic meaning, and every word counts.
It matters to Luke that Jesus was born in the context of an Empire where everyone is counted for tax purposes, but are otherwise so easily displaced from livelihood and security. It’s a story that resonates with anyone in every generation and every corner of the world who feels like a pawn in a dominating system.
And what I noticed is the almost pantomime-like paradox of an “ARMY” of Heavenly Angels, first terrifying shepherds with their horrific splendour, then singing hymns of praise! Instead of trying to take it seriously, if it’s a parable- filled with meaning, then it gives us permission to see the funny side. And we know well that humour is often a doorway to deeper truths; it also can provoke in us memories of when terror and relief have lived so closely side by side in our own experience.
And.. when we hear those angels sing of God’s Good News to “all whom God favours” – first we worry, as perhaps the shepherds did,
that we and they are not included among those whom God favours.
Until the shepherds, and in turn, we,
realize God has sent an entire army of messengers to convince them and us
that we do indeed matter to God!
Indeed! Luke’s parabolic pageant
is a preface to his full Gospel
of the Advent of God into the world of humanity
in the life of Jesus, son of Mary,
born, displaced on the margins,
whose first worshippers were shepherds and sheep,
whose entire life was laser-focussed
on bringing Good News, healing wholeness,
to the ordinary, the least, the last, the prodigals, the lost, the sick, the grieving.
For 2000 years we have gathered in our churches,
in our homes, around our Christmas trees,
in the bus shelters,
the homeless shelters,
in prisons and mansions,
in war and peace, in times of plague,
pestilence, pandemic, or health,
in times of grief or child-like joy,
and this parabolic pageant of Luke
has with its surplus of meaning,
lifted itself off the page and into the
lived experience of human life in every generation,
speaking the deepest of truth
to the circumstances of our lives:
To you, this day, is born that which saves us.
The life of God is born in the life of a human,
so that in every human, God’s life can,
as the carollers and the angels sing,
“be born in us today.”
Is it any wonder that Mary “pondered these events in the memory of her heart, often, her whole life long?” What did Mary know? I wonder, did the meaning of her son’s birth change for her as the years passed?
I think Luke ends his Nativity Parabolic Pageant with her pensive silhouette, inviting us to ponder these things in the memory of our hearts.