Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Christmas Gospel

I was watching one of those holiday movies that depict the events around the birth of Christ. There have been lots of cheesy ones but this one was pretty good. It seemed to be based on some solid study of the Bible and sound historical research. Herod was portrayed as the villain which he was. He didn't think twice about killing members of his family who he deemed threats to his throne. In the opening scenes Herod threatens another one of his sons if he does not put down a rival to his throne. In particular, he is concerned about rumors he has heard about a prophecy telling of a Jewish Messiah. The film begins with the Herod ordered massacre of children under the age of two in Bethlehem - just to make sure there were no young Messiahs. Herod always had in the back of his mind that Somewhere, Someone was out to take his throne from him.

After the opening scene of the chilling Bethlehem massacre, the action shifts to Nazareth where Joseph and Mary lived. They are very young. Mary is sowing seed in a field with some other girls and boys. They take off on a run throwing seed at each other. Mary's mother yells at her to keep her mind focused on her work. Her family can ill afford such play when times are so hard. Joseph is seen doing some very rough carpentry without a shop or proper tools. These are poor, simple folk. Then some Roman soldiers come riding into the village interrupting the daily chores. Some one shouts: they have come to collect taxes. The Romans are big, well armored, with swords and spears. They talk loudly and most of the people scurry out of the way, obviously frightened by this display of power. It's clear the villagers have seen this before and know what is coming next. The men line up to pay their taxes; the women shield their daughters from the soldiers leering eyes. A few of the men pay their taxes; some cannot. One man begs a soldier for more time. He laughs and takes control of another third of his land for Herod in lieu of tax payment. Another man who cannot pay all his tax has his donkey confiscated by the soldiers. And a third man watches as his daughter is snatched out of his wife's arms to work on one of Herod's building projects that demands a large slave labor force.

The scene abruptly shifts to a massive building project at Masada in the south of Palestine. Here Herod's winter palace is under construction. Israeli slaves are hauling huge blocks of stone up the steep slopes to the mountain top where the palace - fortress will be.

So, Messiah was much on people's minds and hearts. When Messiah comes, he will deliver us. When Messiah comes, we will have our revenge on these hated oppressors. When Messiah comes there will be justice and prosperity again.

Passionate times. Feelings ran hot; anger, sorrow, anxiety and fear were daily companions of these believing Jews. We often miss those feelings at our church Christmas celebrations. We are thinking more of the wonder surrounding the birth of Christ and in our warm, well lit, beautifully decorated sanctuaries we are literally and figuratively far removed from the daily grind of most people at the time Jesus was born. Sometimes, our thoughts are overwhelmed by the commercialization of the season so uppermost on our minds is the gift giving and partying that mark the holidays.

Dorothee Soelle had a hard time with Christmas. She was familiar with the poor and oppressed of the world because of her work as an advocate for homeless people and others living on the edges of society. She said the birth story of Jesus in the Bible seemed like a museum piece to her. She could not see what it had to say to people today, especially those who lived marginal existences. Christmas seemed to be for the well off who could afford to give gifts and go to parties. Then, she had a breakthrough; she began to read the Christmas story in its historical and political context. She began to wonder about the conditions in which the people of Galilee lived; and she wondered why she had never realized before how many sick people appear in the gospels. And she wondered what made them sick and why they could not be treated. She began to understand the political oppression, economic plunder and legal degradation - she said - that was implicit in the gospel stories. Luke tells us "everyone had to go .. to be registered", so he is telling us about the coercive measures of the Romans. These Jewish peasants had no choice but to go to be counted. She understood that the "peace on earth" the angels heralded and Jesus ushered in was in direct opposition to the Pax Romana - the so-called peace of Rome - which was no peace at all for most non- Romans. I understood for the first time the propaganda terms of pax (peace) and jus ( justice) that the Roman writers used were a cover for the manipulation of grain prices and militarization of the earth - she wrote. When she saw the boot of the empire crushing everything in its path from Bethlehem to Golgotha - she could understand how the words of the gospel spoke to the poor and oppressed she worked with today. " In Paul, these causes of misery are called the reign of sin... " "Into this darkness, the light of Christmas shines... " "The frightened shepherds become God's messengers. They organize, make haste, find others, and speak with them. Do we not all want to become shepherds and catch sight of the angel? I think so. Without the perspective of the poor, we see nothing, not even an angel. When we approach the poor, our values and goals change. The child appears in many other children. Mary also seeks sanctuary among us. Because the angels sing, the shepherds rise, leave their fears behind, and set out for Bethlehem, wherever it is situated these days." (from an entry by Dorothee Soelle in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)

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