Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Stable Lamp is Lighted

Readings: The Nativity of our Lord, Proper 1, Year B, Christmas Eve
Hymn: "A Stable Lamp is Lighted"

Perhaps you can't hear the words of our Old Testament reading without Handel's Messiah running through your head. Surely, lofty music of some kind should accompany the mighty words of Isaiah, which promise the people Israel the end to their wars, and a son from among their own, given by God Himself to lead them in righteousness - in Peace, among themselves and with their neighbors.

Fast forward 800 years. Israel has been conquered by Babylon, the Lord's Temple destroyed, and the people deported. Then Babylon was conquered by Persia and the people are allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. But Israel was not long to remain even semi-independent. Now it lies under the domination of the Roman Empire, with the destruction of the Second Temple just 70 years or so in its future. And what do we have to say about it?

There, in that cow's feed-trough. The words of Isaiah's prophecy are fulfilled in - just this baby.

Anybody from Isaiah's time, or even the baby's own time, would say, "Yeah, right."

"O sing to the Lord a new song," goes our Psalm. How about, The diapers they need a-changin'?

All this fuss over a newborn is just plain nutty. Sure, there are infancy stories of demi-gods, heroes, and incarnations of gods in other religions. But we Christians are the only people on earth who actually revere a mother and her baby. And we tell ourselves that this baby is Eloheinu Melech ha-Olam, the Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe!

"Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength," continues the Psalm. Babies are many things, but they are not strong. And we must add that this kid will never travel, write, or lead nations. Instead he will be executed as a common criminal for stirring up trouble against the Romans, and for impugning the right of Caesar to crown kings by claiming some sort of kingship for himself.

And yet, some shepherds (another classy occupation) who were stuck out in their fields watching their sheep get this spectacular and frightening vision. They were surrounded, enveloped by bright light. Then an angel says, "Don't be afraid, I'm here to make you this special offer. Go down to the town and find this baby lying in a cow's feed-trough. That's God come down to save you all." A few more fireworks, thousands of angels singing to them, and off they go.

They find the kid, all right. And they tell his mother what they have seen and heard. Not even she is sure she believes it.

And yet...

Here we are, back to the theme of God turning the usual cultural values on their heads. The low is high, the high are to be brought low. The first shall be last and the last first. And God is still God, but God has indeed come down among us as just this baby. "A barn shall harbor Heaven, a stall become a shrine!"

The newborn Jesus and the shepherds looking at him heard no songs of derision that night. They heard songs of the original love from which we learn our capacity to love. Lullabies. Mary sang him lullabies.

For God so loved the world that He endured the terror and shame of becoming limited and helpless for our sake, just to be with us as one of us. To be just this baby. So that he could grow up to do the Gospel, not just to proclaim it. To walk the walk, not just talk the talk. To put his hide on the line for us.

So now Peace be with you. There is war and conflict all around the world, there is a deepening financial crisis threatening to eat up your wealth, and you have other troubles. And yet Peace be with you. A deep peace filling your entire being for this one night. This Silent Night, this Holy Night.

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