Holy Nativity

The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


Torn Heavens and Shattered Earth: Advent Vexation

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O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)

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This is a longing for God to act as God acted in the Israelite exodus from Egypt. “God why don’t you come down and kick some ass as you did with Pharaoh?” Isaiah asks in lament and frustration. This is an Advent frustration and longing. Desperate that the reign of God would manifest and the nations, the powers, that oppress would be brought to their knees, ending oppression. So that injustice would end and justice would flourish.

Isaiah cries out in anger and exasperation, God, come down, tear the skies, act against oppressors; like you did with pharaoh in Egypt, make yourself known like you did at Mount Sinai. God make those things that seem immovable and unshakable tremble and crumble, come like fire that sets dry brush wood aflame, be like fire to a pot of water causing it to boil over. Like brushwood catching fire from a spark to start of a conf20161219_220829lagration. Isaiah wants God to bring it all down.

If we slow down and let Isaiah’s simile take hold for a moment we find in the middle of the grand gesture there’s something small and imperceptible. Brushwood is also used for kindling to start a fire in a hearth that will then boil the pot of water put over the fire in the hearth. The image is domestic – boiling water and the fire in the hearth.
20161219_221041A rolling boil is certainly violent and the flames of a fire will rapidly lick up dry kindling, but it is all contained, and part of our everyday life, easily overlooked.

Isaiah moves form macro, “tear open the heavens” to micro, a boiling pot on a stove. A pot being brought to boil is such a small and everyday thing. Isaiah sees God’s advent in this way as both upending and earth shattering, like brush wood readily catching flame starting a conflagration, and like a pot of water in a hearth about to boil.

In this season of the Holy Nativity we are remembering and celebrating that God did tear the heavens and come down. 20161219_221038God rending the heavens took place in the womb of Mary, and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. God comes vulnerable like the beginning flame, just after the first strike of the match to kindling. God tears open the heavens and comes down and it was nearly imperceptible like a pot of water about to boil.

The nations, the powers (Rome), did eventually sit up and take notice, though in the long run not always for the good.  Followers of Christ instead of spreading the fire and letting things shake and boil have shored up the structures of the powers and doused the flames leaving many vulnerable and becoming agents of death and oppression.

After all this, what a20161219_220947re we to say? Did God fail? Was God wrong to abandon the shock and awe of the Exodus and Mount Sinai? Was God wrong to abandon the direct confrontation with the powers as God did with Pharaoh? Was the incarnation, the crucifixion all a mistake? Have we lost God in God rending the heavens and coming down and joining with us? Or have we yet to see the fire spread? Have we yet to see the pot boil? Or is the transformation, the liberation we seek and the shaking of the powers we long for accomplished not through the language and practice of the nations and empire and grasping for power and violence, but some other means?. Does God rend the heavens and come down and show another way, one we have betrayed?

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Love as insight : The Epiphany

Yesterday was the Epiphany. In the western liturgical calendar we focus on the adoration of the magi. Historically though, two other Gospel events are also celebrated, the Baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan by John the Forerunner and the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.  Among the Eastern Orthodox the feast is more commonly known as the Theophany and the focus is on the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. All three events are about enlightenment and God manifesting in human flesh.

Attend to the icons of these events.

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These events and icons deepen our understanding of the birth of Christ, the Holy Nativity.  Each is a showing forth of God in our midst, and offers enlightenment as we contemplate them.

A hymn for the feast of the Epiphany, “Hastis Herodes impie”, in the Benedictine daily breviary, sets these three events together:

O cruel Herod, why the fear
That Christ has come to take your place;
His Kingdom  is not here below,
Who promises Heaven’s reward.

The Magi saw the star above
They followed it upon the way;
They found the true Light by its light,
And with gifts confessed him as God.

When the Heavenly Lamb descended
Into the rivers crystal waves,
He cleansed in us the dross of sins
Which he himself had never done.

A new revealing of his power:
the water reddened into wine;
Its nature changing in response,
When at his word it was dispensed.

Jesus, all glory be to you
Who has appeared to us this day;
To Father and to Paraclete
Likewise be praise forevermore. Amen

The coming of the magi does show that Jesus wasn’t to replace Herod.  Jesus’ threat to Herod wasn’t that of a rival claimant to being king of this client kingdom of Rome.  The magi aren’t Jewish, yet they come and adore the toddler Jesus as their king, bringing valuable and symbolic gifts.

Epiphany in the western tradition is the day God in human flesh is manifest to the gentiles through the the magi as representatives.  These magi are sometimes called kings because they come to represent the nations of the earth, the rulers of the nation’s paying homage to the one they are created to serve.

The baptism of Christ is also a manifestation. The magi come and recognize in the toddler Jesus an authority and honor and power, in the baptism of Christ we have manifestation of God in Human flesh and God as Trinity, the Father’s voice, the presence of the Spirit and the son as the bodily human person Jesus.

The Wedding at Cana is more obscure, the manifestation in its immediacy is hidden, the light shines forth from this event only in retelling and meditation.  But it is the first sign that Jesus Christ performed according the Gospel of John.  Such an ordinary and small thing to provide wine at a celebration of the wedding of someone who is unknown to us.  Just an ordinary inconsequential human being like all of us. And yet that is where by the urging of Mary, Jesus’ mother, we find a beginning of our enlightenment.

All these events are enlightenment, manifestation.  They are the meeting of heaven and earth.  These all are physical, political, fleshly enlightenment.

They can also easily be misunderstood.

All this is rooted in that God the Son (Word and Wisdom) became flesh and set up tent in our midst.  God in the incarnation has made home in matter  and in our flesh.  Our enlightenment begins in seeing God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew.  We can easily miss that this insight comes from attending to the powerless, the inconsequential and the obscure, and not the powerful and prominent.

God in human flesh reorients our loyalties and priorities.  It always already challenges every political order as partial, relative, and incomplete. It reveals that all powers are to serve Christ but also shows that they always end up serving their own ends, their own attempts at survival and perpetuation.

The transformation, the justice and righteousness, we seek can’t be found in the powers and governments. Rather these powers and governments are in these  manifestations shown to merely be unwilling and often unwitting servants of God. They are in need of continual unsettling and continual call to move towards what they aren’t and can only be as limited historical entities.

God comes as a human being not as a representative of a state, or power, or government.  The path of justice isn’t found in the ordering of power, but in the solidarity of a humanity and physicality joined to God through the person and flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  Justice is found and shone forth in God’s love for what is deemed by the powerful as lowly, inconsequential, and weak. Justice is found in those that the powerful believe need their help, patronage, and leadership.  It is in this one despised, like the masses of humanity throughout history, that God transforms the world and brings justice; through an announcement and act of love.

Jesus of Nazareth the Beloved is of no consequence or significance. Until the voice from heaven speaks, no one gives any attention to this man from Nazareth and even after that some question what significance this person Jesus can really have.  God doesn’t bring about transformation through the halls of power but through an unknown oppressed human being, whose life goes unregarded by the powerful and educated of his day. This is enlightenment and justice, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, the Beloved, in whom we, all of humanity and all the cosmos, are one with God.

The Discomforting Joy of the Holy Nativity

Back in December as the refugee Crisis in the Middle East and Europe was in our  flight1                                  news cycles a meme went around that had a few iterations and said something like “if only there was a seasonal story about refugees” and one of the images used was images of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.

Peter Wehner  in his December 25th New Your times editorial speaks of the revolutionary aspects of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, or more to the point of the belief that Jesus as the messiah was the incarnation of God. Wehner wishes to remind us that the Holy Nativity , god come to us in a human infant, transformed our understanding of humanity.  The belief in the incarnation gives value to the physical world and more importantly our humanity, that it didn’t have before that.  Wehner wants to remind us of this radical and revolutionary story, that we often domesticate and make innocuous and thus meaningless. miniature holy nativity

We seek the meaning of this season (though we tend not to think that this season extends from Advent to the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the temple).  It is a well worn claim (and fuels some of the “war on Christmas” meme, that gets trotted out by certain media outlets) that much of our celebration of Christmas has little to do with the meaning of the Holy Nativity.  Here we might bemoan the consumerism of the season (especially leading up to Christmas day) or the ways in which the story is reduced to Kitsch, and there are innumerable innocuous and kitschy nativity sets around to back up this complaint. It’s interesting we seem to both be aware that what Christmas is for us culturally somehow misses he mark of its meaning even for Christians for whom it should make a profound difference in their views and actions in the world and oblivious that this is the case and carry on with those same celebrations.

I write this on the fifth day of Christmas of which there are twelve.  Even Christians who are aware of the twelve day season don’t pay attention to it much (as it gets lost in New Years celebrations) and then Epiphany/Baptism of Christ and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple are hardly kept in mind in our understanding of this season of the Nativity.

It’s hard to keep this all together. Also, if one looks too closely at  the Season of Christmas, the first 4 days are a buzz kill on our celebration.  First there’s the feast of Saint Stephen, and the story of his martyrdom as the first martyr (protomartyr).  We get a little break from all this with the Feast of St John the Evangelist, but with him we get his great mystical theology, and then the feast of Holy Innocents, infants and toddlers massacred by King Herod the Great for fear of the threat the Messiah born in Bethlehem would produce revolt and his overthrow .  With the feast of the Holy Innocents we are where we began this post and the flight into Egypt. For it was this threat from Herod that led the Holy family to flee.

The coming of God as a babe in the manger doesn’t only show us the value of our humanity it also in the midst of joy and celebration plunges us into the depth of human evil and suffering.  So, we are right to be reminded of the radical nature of this story, and how it challenges the comfortable and powerful.

Yet, perhaps we end up on the surface of this season, because we rush to its meaning and relevance.

The season of the Nativity and the Incarnation is long from the end of November to the 2nd of February the liturgical calendar invites us to contemplate God come to us as a human being, born of Mary.

The icon of the Nativity

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the  Holy Innocents/flight to Egypt

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, Baptism of Christ

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and Presentation of Christ in the temple,

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All bear deep and continual  mediation and reflection.

Take the time this season to meditate upon these stories of God who tabernacle, set up tent, with us ,like God did with the Israelite’s as God brought them out of Egypt and slavery.  Allow yourself to be transformed by this contemplation.

The meme and Peter Wehner’s editorial point out that this story should make a difference.  It does, though a the moment we are seeing that like the infant Jesus most can miss that anything has changed at all, and so we continue even after millennia of celebrating Christ’s birth we still have yet to be changed by this new reality and we use it not to contemplate its great mystery but to hide from ourselves and the mixture that is our humanity.

Let the joy of this season transform you, let it be true joy. A joy that rejoices in an amazing revelation of God and our humanity that won’t allow us to lightly pass over the great evil that lurks in human being.

And indeed we may never finish fully exploring nor ever plumb the depths of this mystery of God become human and human being taken up into God. May we be transformed as we encounter and are moved to action by this mystery.

Celebrating the Holy Nativity, #StayWoke

A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story.  I think there are several layers to this characterization.  One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie  safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family.  Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales).  Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.

Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke.  But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)?  The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?

I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.

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Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger.  If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb.  Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth.  In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus.  These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation.  And Jesus is not only  a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people.  In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out.  This is a great deal to take in.  Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means.  How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons.  Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens.  These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham.  One may look at this icon and simply see confusion.  The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense.  How is this a holy image.  How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.

Can it truly be that this even changes everything.  That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth.  Is this how liberation comes?  Does this shock and disturb?  Perhaps it should.  In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.

But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents.  If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale.  This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer.  It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.