Monday, December 26, 2011

Away in a Manger

      The nativity story starts out in Rome with Caesar’s decree to the entire known world.  The story continues in Nazareth where Joseph and Mary start their journey.  It follows them to Bethlehem. It moves very specifically with the couple into some sort of shelter intended for animals.  And the birth story culminates in a very precise place: a manger.  From Caesar’s palace of power to an animal trough. Luke deliberately names these shifts in settings before zeroing in on Jesus’s first bed in his first home.  Luke’s main theological aim seems to be to illustrate that God’s trajectory departs from the expected sources of power and arrives in a place of humble love. If we look more closely at the manger, it’s possible a finite box of hay that contained the infinite God holds yet more meaning for us.

         Have you ever noticed, for instance, the manger is mentioned 3 times in a scant 9 verses that are at the core of Jesus’ birth story? This detail emphasizes what Walter Brueggemann calls the Christian “scandal of the particular.”  God becoming flesh is understood in the particulars of this story.  Surely the repetition of the word manger signals its importance to the story.  In fact, the angel actually tells the shepherds in the field that the manger will be a “sign” to them.  In that way the narrator thus tells us as readers that the manger is a sign, a symbol, within the story.  For folks like us who still seek the Christ, who still believe that the Sacred can be found in the ordinary and even in the rough and rude parts of life, the manger reminds us to look for God in unexpected places.

         More specifically still, the manger partly signifies that we can experience God in places where creatures come together to be fed, literally and figuratively.

         According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was all about the food.  Luke introduces Jesus through the manger in Bethlehem, a town that means “House of Bread.”  Luke repeatedly depicts the adult Jesus eating and giving food to others throughout his ministry. Luke often reports that Jesus described God’s realm as being like a great banquet.  Luke says Jesus concluded his ministry with one last meal that marked him forever in the memory of his followers.  The baby whose cradle fed animals became the man who fed the multitudes and ate with sinners and called himself the bread of life and shared a final meal with his friends in hopes they’d continue to remember him when later they shared supper. 

         Two millennia later, we keep meeting the Christ whenever we feed the hungry in Jesus’s name, wherever we practice the ritual of sharing a simple communal meal with a spirit of compassion. We become the body of Christ and preserve not only Jesus’ story, not only his ways, but his very life—when we recognize the sacredness of daily bread and selfless sharing. The faith community that named itself Open Table knows something about the ways our world and our mindset can be transformed when we feed the hungry and when we feed our spirits. 

         And who can separate the season of Christmas from the foods of the holiday?  A few Christmases ago, my sister, mother, daughter, and I gathered in my parents’ kitchen to begin preparing yet another meal for the rest of our gathered family.  We had barely finished cleaning up after the last meal when my father entered the kitchen to scavenge for leftovers.  While the cooks were girding our aprons for the next frenzy of cooking, Daddy cleared his throat, and we anticipated hearing from him a suggestion for an item on the next meal’s menu.  You see, Daddy is always planning the next meal. And he often starts planning the next morning’s breakfast menu while polishing off a sumptuous supper.  He’s been known to drive for miles to find one elusive ingredient for a dish he suddenly craves.  Food—very specific food—is always on his mind.  So you can imagine our shock when Daddy looked sympathetically upon the Christmas cooks and suggested we shouldn’t work so hard on the next meal because, after all—and here’s where his tone sounded uncharacteristically philosophical—“it’s not about the food.”

         There was stunned silence for several beats. Then we started laughing.  “It’s NOT about the food”—from the man who had ordered the prime rib for Christmas dinner months ahead.  “It’s not about the food,” from the man who had begged my mother to make yet another batch of lemon bars and an extra carrot cake before the relatives started arriving.  And he said it so very earnestly.  I still don’t know if he meant it to be funny or not, but the cooks in the kitchen lost it.  Who was this man? Coming from anyone else, that line would not have been funny, but we laughed until we cried, and as soon the hysteria died down, one of us would say, imitating his earnest  tone, “After all, it’s not about the food”—and that would set us off again.  For the rest of that holiday, we’d find ways to insert “It’s not about the food” into almost every conversation.  It remains a running joke with us. It’s not about the food.  But we know in our family it’s ALL about the food.  And maybe, theologically speaking, the food it what it's all about.

         Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “What if the hokey pokey really IS what it’s all about?” 

         Well, what if being a follower of Jesus really IS all about . . .  the food.  Maybe Jesus, born in a feeding trough, lived and died to feed us literal and figurative food.

         You and I meet Jesus each Sunday in the sharing of bread and wine.  The Table reminds us not only of Jesus’s death but of his birth--and of his ministry to feed ALL people, body and soul. We become more Christ-like whenever we share bread and wine, when we visit the manger/table in grateful memory, when we practice the oneness of table fellowship, our centering and central rite.

         Some Christians maintain that Jesus’s purpose was to die, to shed his blood, to become a human sacrifice to appease a God who can forgive us only if someone else takes our punishment for us.  Like many other Christians, I think of Jesus’s purpose as declaring, through his unique way of revealing God clothed in flesh, that human life, in all its messiness, is good; that love triumphs over brutal domination. Richard Rohr lifts up one small line from “O Holy Night” to make that point.  Rohr notes “that when God came among us in the shape and form of Jesus, suddenly “the soul felt its worth!” . . . When God mirrored us through the entrance, invitation, and eyes of Jesus, the certainty of our redemption was once and for all given and accomplished. . . . We needed no further blood sacrifice to reveal God's intentions toward us. We were already saved by the gaze from the manger.”

         And I would add that, in gazing at the child in a MANGER, we know that we are fed, not by bread alone but with the bread of life and with living waters that satisfy our deepest hungers and thirsts.

      Because every culture offers false and fast foods that promise to satisfy but do not.  Our culture produces and markets a thousand ways to satiate us, calm us, distract us, and enslave us.  Like junk food, these are things that the more we eat them, the more we eat them.  What strange strategies we learn to calm our fears and assuage our guilt and fill our need for intimacy.  We shop though we never accumulate enough stuff.  We secure our possessions but never feel safe.  We compete for the signs of success but always feel someone else is nipping at our heels.  We watch mind-numbing television long after it stops entertaining us.  We use sex recreationally rather than relationally. We play video or computer games to escape into other worlds while our problems compound. We drug our bodies with caffeine or pharmaceuticals or alcohol or food, paying little heed to our physical needs, and we reap those consequences. We engage in frenetic busyness and are distracted—for a little while.  And in all these ways we anesthetize our pain without healing our hurt.  These are not things that make us bad people.  These are things that impede our human growth.  They feed our false images of who we are without nourishing our true selves, without showing us ourselves in the mirror of Jesus’s eyes.

         But the food at Christ’s Table helps us resist, as Daniel did under Babylonian captivity, the foods an alien culture entices us to eat.  The food of our culture hooks us, but the healthier menu Jesus feeds us can free us. 

         First, however, we have to come to the manger.  And see God in unexpected ways. This receptacle for animal fodder holds a newly birthed baby.  And birth itself, when not Hollywood-ized, makes us uncomfortable. This birth is proximate to peasants and dumb animals. This manger is too close to the messiness and pain and, frankly, the indignity, of birth.  To approach the manger, the scent of blood still in the air, is to recall that birthing often comes close to dying.  To be reborn into a new mindset is risky. To worship at the manger is to honor the risk and the sacrifice of birthing—a sacrifice that includes giving up one’s dignity in the undignified birthing process.  We usually don’t speak of this, especially in church, but the truth is . . . it is not possible to keep one’s dignity while giving birth. Nor is it possible to keep one’s dignity while being reborn into a transformed consciousness or what the Bible calls repentance when individuals turn and become a new creature or a culture becomes a new people.

         Yet in the midst of the severe birth pangs, dignity seems a small thing to sacrifice for the sake of a child on whom the whole world depends, for the sake of your life that can be new.  To give up one’s dignity is part of love’s duty.  Parents recall that with the birth of your child you walked out into the rest of your life knowing you could thereafter be wounded more deeply than you’d ever before imagined because you’d given your whole heart to that vulnerable infant lying in a hospital crib—or a manger. 

          It is a terrible and wondrous thing to be as naked as a birthing mother or newborn baby.  However, Naked Spirituality, the name of Brian McLaren’s latest book, is exactly what is called for.    

         We want to clothe Christmas Day in strings of lights and gaudy garland and layers of wrapping paper.  We cover over the messiness and risks of deep love.  Sentimentalizing Christmas Day, we settle for cheap cheeriness.  But the spirituality of the manger comes only after searing birth pangs and the deepening realization that a helpless human now depends totally on the milk your breasts produce and the warmth your arms provide and the good sense your brain usually generates.  Naked manger joy is then swaddled in rags, lying there with no pretense of dignity or power.  And Love grips us.  What we love in the crude Christmas manger may seem ridiculous to a world bent on materialism and militarism, on control and power.  What we learn at manger-side is to make ourselves vulnerable enough to trust again, to forgive others and ourselves, to face into life directly, and to laugh full-throttle. 

         Friends, one thing I love about our faith community is our willingness to share our deepest selves and be “real” with one another.  What I loved about last Sunday’s Lesson and Carols service was seeing Susan and Marquale and Charles and Peter do the musical equivalent of walking a tightrope across this sanctuary. They risked their personal comfort to sing and play with transparent grace.  We forget what courage that takes to be so exposed.  And today—Karen carried us to God’s mystery with movements emanating from her soul. And Patrick stood before you in faith that his notes would reach the ears of strangers who would hear his heart as well.  And their dignity has, in faith, been gambled for the sake of something more satisfying that comfortable security.

         Others will offer you products that will purportedly heal your spirit and save a hurting world.  Others hold out commodities to buy and experiences to purchase.  But Christmas in a manger is not what Madison Avenue wants to sell. 

         After all, who can “buy” the idea that a donkey’s dinner dish became God’s home on earth and the portal from the infinite to the finite and back again? Absurdity!  Foolishness! Or as Paul would explain to the church at Corinth: “The message [about Jesus’s way] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being rescued, it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18)!

         Away in a manger . . . God rescues us by feeding us and freeing us.  We kneel at a manger and see the bread of life and the vulnerable face of God, and so we face our deepest needs.  We kneel because if we try to protect our false dignity, our hearts will not break and that vulnerable baby cannot save us.  We kneel to the absurdity of Jesus’s upside down kingdom.  We kneel to concede our lack of control and to trust not in the love of power but in the power of love.   We kneel.  A baby cries.  A mother ponders.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lesson from "The Heliand"

Open Table’s Lessons and Carols service today was our own version of the traditional service that alternates scriptures and carols.  We modified the usual readings to include poets like Wendell Berry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and John O’Donohue and thus put contemporary writers in conversation with the songs and sages of old.  After all, God is still speaking!


For two of the lessons, we heard excerpts from The Heliand in lieu of scriptures from Luke.  My introduction to these readings is based on G. Ronald Murphy’s Forward to his translation of The Heliand.[i]:

For 2000 years, the story of Jesus’s birth has been retold for many different cultures.  One version is found in The Heliand, also known as the Saxon Gospel, written in the early 9th C.  An anonymous religious poet rewrote and reimagined the events of the gospel as if they had taken place and been spoken in the author’s own country and time, which was the chieftain society of a defeated people, forcibly Christianized by Charlemagne:  the Saxons.  The Heliand integrates Northern European magic, fate, and warrior virtues of the Dark Ages with the Christian gospel story.   This is not a translation but a reimagination of the Gospel that suggests how a German warrior society adapted the Christian story for their culture.  This oddly charming, sometimes jarring excerpt can remind us of the cultural filters that color the way we understand the Jesus Story in our own times.

Passages from The Heliand used in our Lessons and Carols service included the following, based on Luke’s nativity story.

               “Then there came a decree from Ft. Rome, from the great Octavian who had power over the whole world, an order from Caesar to his wide realm sent to every king enthroned in his homeland and to all Caesar’s army commanders governing the people of any territory.… It stated that all warrior heroes were to return to their assembly place, each one was to go back to the clan of which he was a family member by birth in a hill-fort….The good Joseph went also with his household, just as God, ruling mightily, willed it. He made his way to his shining home, the hill-fort at Bethlehem.  This was the assembly place for both of them, for Joseph the hero and for Mary the good, the holy girl.  This was the place where in olden days the throne of the great and noble good King David stood for as long as he reigned, enthroned on high, an earl of the Hebrews. 

               “I have heard it told that the shining workings of fate and the power of God told Mary that on this journey a son would be granted her, born in Bethlehem, the strongest child, the most powerful of all kings, the Great One come powerfully to the light of mankind—just as foretold by many visions and signs. . . And it came to pass just as wise men had said long ago: that the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by his own power to visit this kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took Him, wrapped Him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid Him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though He had the power of God, and was the Chieftain of mankind.  There the mother sat in front of him and remained awake, watching over the holy Child and holding it.”
               “What happened became known to the horse-servants.  They were outside;  they were men on sentry duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field: they saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards in the fields.  Those men began to feel fear in their hearts. They saw the mighty angel of God coming toward them.  He spoke to the guards face to face and told them not to fear any harm from the light.  “I am going to tell you,” he said, “something very wonderful, something very deeply desired. I want to let you know something very powerful: Christ is now born, on this very night, God’s holy child, the good Chieftain, at David’s hill-fort.  What happiness for the human race, a boon for all men! You can find Him, the most powerful child, at Fort Bethlehem.  He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder crib—even though he is king over all the earth and the Ruler of the world.”  Just as he said that word, an enormous number of the holy army, the shining people of God, came down to the one angel from the meadows of heaven, saying many words of praise for the Lord of Peoples.  They then began to sing a holy song as they wended their way through the clouds toward the meadows of heaven. 

               “They soon found him, the Chieftain of Clans.  They praised God the Ruler with their words.  The lady, the holy girl, his mother, kept in her mind and in her heart whatever she heard the men saying.

               “Many heroes, the earls, very intelligent men, spoke on the eighth day with God’s girl, saying that the Child should have the name “healer” just as the angel of God, Gabriel, said in truthful words when he, as God’s messenger, gave this command to the woman.  The mother, the loveliest of ladies, then fittingly brought up the Chieftain of many men, the holy heavenly Child, on love.”

For those interested in learning more about The Heliand, I provide more background and some thoughts about the benefit of reading the Bible through another culture’s lens.

Who Were the Saxons?
            If you are a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or can recall reading in high school or college the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, you will be comfortable entering the world of The Heliand with its Germanic warrior culture, magic powers, secret runes, and feudal allegiances.  The Heliand, which means, “the Savior,” is a 9th century rendition of the Gospels for an audience closely related in time and heritage to the audience of Beowulf.  The hearers (I don’t use the term “readers” since this was likely a poetic song collection performed in mead-halls and monasteries) were recent converts to Christianity as a result of Charlemagne’s conquest of the Saxons. 
            In the 8th century, the Saxons, who lived in what is now Northern Germany but some of whom had migrated to what is now England four centuries before, were forced to convert to Christianity over a thirty-three year period of brutal military campaigns led by the Frankish emperor Charlemagne.  On one day alone in 782, over 4,500 Saxon captive men were beheaded for refusing to accept Christianity as a tree sacred to the Saxons was desecrated and destroyed.  Clearly, the Saxons were not a people who would easily leave behind their Saxon gods and religious practices.  It is hard to imagine an audience that would be more resistant to hearing the “Good News”—and yet this was the challenge the author of The Heliand faced.

Who Was the Original Writer and What Was The Writer’s Purpose?

            Little is known about the anonymous author of this work.  Some scholars, like translator Father G. Roland Murphy, speculate the writer was a Saxon monk (partly because of influences of commentaries by Venerable Bede and Rabanus Maurus) who lived in the monastery at Fulda, founded in 744.  Others suggest he was a layman and a scop (bard) because of some theological errors and because of his extraordinary skill with Germanic poetic devices like alliteration, kennings, litotes, caesuras, and powerful imagery.  Certainly he was familiar with Saxon culture and perhaps had been a warrior.  Probably the composer drew from Tatian’s Gospel Harmony or a similar work rather than directly from the four Gospels themselves.  Probably the poem was composed around 830 C.E. under the reign of Charlemagne’s son.  This epic poem was most certainly written to be sung or chanted to the accompaniment of an instrument, as musical notations are discernible in extant manuscripts.
The author’s purpose was to render palatable to a conquered people the religion of their conquerors.  Whereas Charlemagne had believed in conversion by conquest, the poet of The Heliand believed in accommodation and contextualization of the Christian message and indeed sympathized with this brave but defeated folk.  Thus, the author “imagines how Jesus would have acted, and what he would have said if he had been born in Saxony instead of in Judea, and in the process he manages to repeatedly affirm the validity of Saxon culture” (Hayward p.o. 3).  Great sensitivity, tolerance, imagination, and skill were required for this cross-cultural transmission.  The author of this conflated, cross-cultural re-imagination of the Gospels had two primary challenges: 1) present the story of Jesus in understandable terms, consonant with their culture and 2) present the God of the conquerors in sympathetic terms, as if he had been a Saxon chieftain.  Although the author unfailingly sympathizes with the Saxons, he also finds ways to encourage them not to vacillate in their new allegiance to Christ—and perhaps to the Frankish king.

What Did the Audience Value and Believe?
To appreciate the scop's challenge to transform forced converts into real converts, we must consider the differences between the Christian culture and the Saxon culture.  You may remember from your study of Beowulf the Germanic warrior codes of loyalty and courage, the retributive practice of wergild (blood money), the ritualized art of boasting, and the concept that Wyrd (Fate) controls all life.  Immediately we see that these values conflict with Christian concepts of cultivating peace and humility, “turning the other cheek,” and doing the will of God.  In addition, hierarchical Saxon nobles, who were the primary audience for The Heliand, may not have appreciated Jesus’s reversal themes that blessed the poor and pronounced “woe” to the rich and mighty.  In addition, the North Sea tribes worshiped multiple nature gods like Woden and Thor, who differed greatly from the monotheistic Christian god.  Saxon gods, though powerful, were not immortal, and they were themselves controlled by Fate and Time.  Also in conflict with Christian teachings was the Saxon practice of human sacrifice to appease the gods, and Christian missionaries reported horror at seeing bodies of both humans and animals hanging in sacred groves until they decomposed.  The Saxons would have to overcome many cultural hurdles to accept the Christian God with sincere commitment.
Synopsis of the Opening “Songs” of the Text
The text is already familiar to us, of course.  And yet it is also a new story.  The Heliand places Jesus into the Saxon culture of the Dark Ages, but it comes to us as a translation of a translation of a translation.  We have, after all, received this translation through several mediations:  From the oral culture of 1st century Palestine where the story originated, to the Gospel writers of late 1st - 2nd century Mediterranean culture, to the Roman Church culture that produced The Gospel Harmony and other sources for The Heliand, to the 9th century Saxon culture—the Jesus story comes now to our 21st century American culture, which already knows a different version of the story via a different route.  Thus, when we read this text, we are not only reading a story about Jesus’s life, but we see refracted in that story the lives of the audience for whom The Heliand was written, and we see our own culture stand out in greater relief.  Perhaps in looking at the Gospel through another culture’s eyes, we see more clearly what is essential about the Gospel message.  We might even question what parts of our understanding of the Gospel have been created by our own culture. My summary of the text will focus mainly on cultural variations on the Gospel story.
            The first song of The Saxon Gospel provides a novel introduction to the Jesus story.  First we meet the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who have been taught “God’s Spell” and which they must now compose and sing.  They are presented as heroes and bards. Next we learn that God authorized Roman imperialism (a way of reminding the conquered Saxons to remain loyal subjects of the Franks?).  And then the eventual warrior companion of the King of Heaven, John the Baptist, is introduced with his own nativity story. 
The next few songs about John’s impending birth and the parallel story about Mary’s pregnancy establish early on that the Christian god, unlike Saxon nature gods, is not controlled by but rather is in control of Time and Fate.  Thus, the Christian god is superior.  Today's readers will note that not only Mary but all good women in The Heliand are beautiful, and not only Joseph but all good men are brave and wise.  The unorthodox (Docetist) treatment of the incarnation (13).  Finally, the writer casts Mary and Joseph of “good family lineage, of David’s own clan” because both Charlemagne’s successor and the Saxons believed in a strict social hierarchy.
            The Saxon Nativity omits the shepherds, probably because they were too lowly to be associated with the birth of the Chieftain.  Since it was unfathomable for Saxons to deny a clansman lodging, the author does not even mention (presumably because he cannot explain it) that Mary and Joseph were denied room in the inn. 
            The Heliand converts the Wise Men to the Three Thanes from the East who are soothsayers and who seem to validate Saxon culture by implying God spoke to and used other pre-Christian people.  However, the author subtly inserts an admonition that the Saxons, like the Wise Men, should not revert to old beliefs (26, footnote 44).  Throughout the story, people who are “clear minded” are praised in such a way that affirms the importance of remaining true to Christianity and not falling back into paganism. 

Questions for Reflection on the Nativity Story via The Heliand
What do we learn about the Saxon culture by reading the Gospel on their terms?  What are their values and which values seem to accommodate Jesus’s story easily and which values seem to make acceptance of Jesus and his message difficult?  Where are Saxon and Christian values at odds?  What do we learn about the Gospel by reading it this way?  There have been many attempts over the years to take the Gospel story into new cultures, not simply to translate the words of the text into a new language but to transfer the story imaginatively into a very different culture that may have different underpinning values and assumptions.  What are the benefits and problems with these kinds of cultural accommodations in Gospel paraphrases? What historical or current examples can you cite that show Christians have ridden roughshod over other cultures?  Conversely, can you think of examples where Christianity has so accommodated a culture that Jesus' way has all but disappeared into a cultural soup?

[i] Murphy, G. Ronald, translator.  The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel.  Oxford: Oxford UP,
1992.  (Thanks to Dr. Diane Lobody for introducing me to this fascinating transliteration of the    Gospels!)