Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shock and Awe

The first 20 verses of the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel are sheer poetry, and many of us don’t get into the Christmas spirit until we hear them read aloud in the King James version:

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The words make our spirits soar as much as any Christmas carol and most of us can recite them by heart.

Perhaps Luke, the dear and glorious physician who wrote these words, is using a little poetic license.

The shepherds who, with their ancestors, had been expecting God’s Messiah for generations, were probably not expecting it to happen in quite this way. They were expecting God to intervene in human history with dramatic timing, certainly with angels and trumpets, probably with earthquakes, presumably with wind and fire. And then would come the Messiah on a gargantuan fire-breathing steed, his brawny hand grasping a glistening sword, slashing heads and limbs from their Roman oppressors and hated polytheist neighbors. They were expecting something akin to the way Donald Rumsfeld predicted the opening salvos of the Iraq War: shock. And awe.

But no. Nothing like that. No earthquakes, no fire, just an ordinary night sitting downwind from the scent of the sheep. Most scholars believe it wasn’t even December, a date arbitrarily chosen by the early church because it fit in with other feast days.

And hidden from the shepherds’ gaze, in a small barn, redolent of animal droppings and compost, an ordinary woman in labor crouches over the hay. In one of the humanity’s most common functions, this woman pushes out a baby boy.

How many other babies were born that night within a 50-kilometer radius of Bethlehem? Tens? Scores? Hundreds? Whatever the volume of natal activity that night, one more birth would hardly have been noticed. The incarnation of the Creator of the Universe into human flesh took place in a manner no different, perhaps even less dramatic, than the manner in which you and I were born. Did persons outside the barn even hear the cries of a newborn struggling to fill his lungs with unfamiliar air? Did the lowing cattle quickly lose interest in the human drama and resume the bored chewing of their cuds? Was there ever a night so quiet, so devoid of drama and astounding events?

This is where the angels come in. The heavenly host awakens the shepherds in the middle of the silent night and scares them to the brink of infarction. While the shepherds are clutching their chests and catching their breath, the angels point to a malodorous hovel which the shepherds knew well. 

“Behold!” the angels say. “This is not the hut you think it is! This is delivery room of Christ the Lord.”

I can’t begin to imagine what the shepherds must have thought. No doubt they were frightened out of their wits, and no wonder. How often does one encounter even one angel, let alone the whole heavenly host. And how disorienting, how counter-intuitive it must have been for the shepherds, transfixed by heavenly fireworks in the sky, to follow the angels’ orders to avert their gaze to a crude little shed at the edge of town? Were they too frightened to say aloud what they really thought? “What? This lousy little lean-to is where you want us to seek the Messiah?”

One suspects that without the angel chorus, humanity might have entirely missed the big event. The sheer ordinariness of the occasion was one reason the early church went out of its way to exalt the importance of the Messiah’s lowly birth.

In addition to angel choruses, the church also stressed the significance of the affair by tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to some major players in Jewish history.

Matthew – famous for the “begats” which many Sunday school students were forced to memorize – begins the family tree at Abraham, moves on to King David and King Solomon, follows the royal line through Jeconiah, and ends up with Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus. Luke’s more audacious genealogy goes all the way back to Adam and includes the Prophet Nathan and also leads to Joseph.

This is the point at which some wise ass seventh grader in Sunday school raises his hand to point out that Joseph was not a blood relative of Jesus, so what difference does it make?

The point, perhaps, was to persuade us that the incarnation of the Creator in a baby boy in Bethlehem was a bigger deal than it looked on the surface. But one also has to wonder – as wise ass seventh graders often do – why the lineage would make a difference.

Many of us are aware of notable ancestors and we drop their names to suggest that we, too, are bigger deals than we look. My paternal grandfather, eager to prove he was more than an Oneonta bureaucrat, meticulously probed his family tree to identify impressive antecedents. His main goal was to prove he was a Mayflower descendant, which many Euro-Americans can do by tracing the elaborate web of the millions of people who were connected by endless marriages and intermarriages to the 102 souls who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. My grandfather concluded the Jenkses were descended from Mayflower pilgrim Elizabeth Tilley, who married her fellow passenger John Howland. The inscription on Auntie Elizabeth’s grave gives hope to all would-be lineage enhancers:

Here ended the Pilgrimage of
who died Dec 1687 at home of her daughter
in Swansea - ELIZABETH married
Pilgrim JOHN HOWLAND who came
with her in the Mayflower Dec 1620.
From them are descended a
numerous posterity.

I’ll take Grandpa’s word for it that the Jenkses are indeed among that numerous posterity. A less obscure ancestor (because we share his surname) was Joseph Jenks, Jr., the Royal Governor of Rhode Island Colony from 1727 to 1732, and a Baptist benefactor of Roger Williams. One would have thought that would have made me Baptist royalty when I worked for the American Baptists in Valley Forge, but that honor had by then been relegated to bureaucrats who traced their ancestry to Sweden.

Actually, Governor Jenks is my favorite ancestor because he literally stands out among his peers. He was reportedly 6 feet 7 inches tall – freakish in 1727 – and none of his American-made clothes seemed to fit. According to one legend, Grandpa Joseph sent a hand-written note to England to order a 6 feet 7 inch cloak befitting his office. Months later, a package arrived at the colonial mansion: a 6 feet 7 in clock. Clearly I was not the first in my line with illegible handwriting.

My mother, Mary Emerson, traced her line to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it would be nice to imagine that a corpuscle or two of his transcendental genius courses through our family veins. Every Thanksgiving I think of his succinct and eloquent prayer,

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

What a cool guy, that Uncle Ralph. It’s fun to think my family swims in his gene pool and, who knows, maybe yours does, too. But I can assure you, there isn’t a weaker pick-up line than, “Hey, Babe, I’m related to Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

And when you come down to it, what difference does it make? The late mystic George Carlin rightfully chastised those who are prideful of attributes they had nothing to do with, such as being Irish or having red hair or being descended from Zulu chiefs. It’s all good, but it has nothing to do with how you use your own life for better or ill. You can’t blame your larcenous tendencies on being descended from John Dillinger, or attribute your virtues to being a scion of Baptist royalty. How you live your life has nothing to do with those who came before you, and everything to do with you.

In the same manner, it didn’t matter a whit that Jesus was descended from King David, and I’m sure his royal line didn’t add a mite to his stepfather’s livelihood as a wood worker. It may have pleased some early church bureaucrats to claim Jesus was the latest in a long line of Jewish monarchs and prophets, but it doesn’t seem entirely relevant. The only familial relationship that really mattered was God, and it was God Who Jesus addressed as Abba, Father.

Into the feeble human flesh of the frail babe in the manger was poured all the power, authority, creative energy and omniscient power of the Creator of the Universe. Isn’t that shock and awe enough? The host of angels was a nice touch, and the impressive genealogy is interesting (so long as we are not required to memorize it). But the most breathtaking development here is that on one ordinary night, the Creator of the Universe was born in a barn without a perceptible whimper.

It makes you pause to catch your breath.

But it is truly something to celebrate, an event that brings all of us to our feet for a rousing chorus of “Joy to the World.”

Christmas Day has come, and soon it will be gone for another year. But let’s not allow the season to depart without reflecting on the quintessential quietness of the incarnation.

Amid all life’s challenges, stresses, sorrows and pains, we will occasionally find it tempting to call on God for dramatic intercessions, miraculous visions, stellar signs that we will be rescued from the travails that plague us. Like our ancestors who yearned for the dramatic rescue of a mighty messiah who would be attended by earthquakes, wind, and fire, we will pray for clear solutions and unambiguous remedies.

But the God in the mundane manger seems to prefer a more subtle approach. The ordinariness of God’s entry into human history is a powerful reminder that God is with us constantly, even on the most run of the mill days.

And when we need to cry for help, we know God will be there in time of trouble, too.

We may just have to listen very carefully amid the tumult to hear God’s still, small voice.

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