Earth’s Child – Tom Mundahl reflects on the arrival of the Prince of Peace.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, Years A, B, & C
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Christmas Eve worship offers nothing less than powerful simplicity. Whether it is the early “family service” featuring excited child actors struggling to remember their lines, or the late evening worship, the faith community revels in deep mystery. No hymn text conveys this as well as the ancient words of O Magnum Mysterium:
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see
the newborn Lord, lying in a manger. Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.
Even though we may have condensed this to “Away in a Manger,” the depth remains and is only intensified by candlelit singing of “Silent Night.”
But there is a danger here. As we savor these familiar hymns carrying on rich tradition, have we rendered the power of the story of the incarnation harmless? Some years ago while leading a six-week adult class on “Biblical Storytelling,” the time came for participants to choose a story to tell. Eleven of the fourteen chose Luke’s birth narrative! This meant a closer look at these seemingly safe verses. We discovered they packed the punch necessary to confront even the power of the Roman Empire.
The weight of this brute power is demonstrated by Caesar Augustus’ decree ordering a census of his 70-100 million subjects. To clarify the narrative, Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that “all the world“ (Luke 2:1) should be translated “empire” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 49). This change helps us to discern a contrast between Caesar and the “Holy One,” a contrast Augustus would never admit. For top imperial officials had acclaimed him divine.
An important inscription stone found near Ephesus in modern Western Turkey, the Priene Calendar Inscription, celebrates the Emperor’s birthday in what could only be called pseudo-theological language. The author of this 9 BCE tablet, the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azaniyus, celebrates the god Caesar Augustus as the one given by Providence to be the peace-giving savior of humankind whose birth offers good tidings (gospel) to all (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p.18). What a contrast with the “army of messengers” the shepherds experience (a more literal translation of “heavenly host, Luke 2:14), a force no Roman military phalanx could match. What’s more, this birth brings peace to the whole earth, not merely the Roman Empire. This newborn lying in a feed trough in the damp animal cave is “Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
From this perspective we are freed to see the incarnation as touching and affirming the whole creation’s richness. Not only do we see Caesar’s unintended unmasking of himself by ordering the very census that provides the newborn with a Davidic pedigree in fulfillment of prophecy, but we see the indispensability of those who live close to the earth. While today, according to Google’s magisterial authority, one can drive the ninety miles south from Nazareth to Bethlehem in two and one-half hours, it was a different proposition for Mary and Joseph. Although popular imagination pictures Mary riding on a donkey, the likelihood is that they walked all the way.
And when they arrived, there was “no room in the inn” (Luke 2:7), the kataluma, the traveler’s guest house. Instead, because their status disqualified them from even a comfortable place for a birth, tradition has it they were forced to lodge in a cave, a common shelter for animals (Belden Lane, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul, Oxford, 2019,, p. 225).
While it might be pure comfort for shepherds, no member of the Roman elite would welcome this space as a birthing suite. What a contrast with Jesus’ teachings about the need “to offer gracious and generous hospitality to all, irrespective of social standing” (Michael Trainor, About Earth’s Child: An Ecological Listening to Luke’s Gospel, Sheffield, 2017, p. 79).
When the child was born, Mary wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid the newborn in an animal feed trough, a manger. As the Biblical Storytelling Class had discovered, important story themes are highlighted by repeated “verbal threads.” The most important of these in Luke’s narrative is the triple repetition of “manger.” Clearly, the manger motif suggests nourishment, reminding us of Jesus’ public ministry where table hospitality (commensality) and banquet-centered parables are central.
Not only does the manger suggest open welcome, it expands that welcome to “the other” and “otherkind,” the more than human. If Mary and Joseph found no place in the inn, shepherds would not even be allowed near the “front desk.” And the presence of livestock in such a place is not open to question; they provided the need for a manger in the first place. No wonder some our best-beloved carols and folk hymns feature “the friendly beasts.”
As Anne Elvey suggests, the manger acts as an analog to Mary’s womb. It is a place of receptivity for the body of the child, from which growth, strength, and nurture occur and a foreshadowing of future care for community and creation are nurtured (Anne Elvey, An Ecological Feminist Reading of the Gospel of Luke: A Gestational Paradigm, Edwin Mellen, 2005, p. 125). This child emerges from the animal cave, the birth canal of Mother Mary, and the nourishing manger. “Luke’s association of Jesus with the manger attests to his future maternal ministry of nurture and inclusivity that embraces all creation and earth’s household” (Trainor, p. 81).
The remaining “verbal thread” used twice by the narrator is “wrapped in bands of cloth,” a common swaddling practice of the time and culture (see Ezekiel 16:4). As “earth’s child,” he is treated no differently than any other new member of the human household (Elvey, p. 124).
Quite likely the cloth was linen, more easily attainable than the more expensive wool. Just as the stone manger protects the infant, so now he is wrapped by earth in natural linen. It is with a similar linen wrapping that Jesus is laid in the tomb (Luke 24).
Not only are these “verbal threads” vital for telling, reading, and listening, they are signs of recognition for the shepherds. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). Beyond the shock of angelic epiphany, it is crystal clear that the shepherds are watchful and alert (not drunk as in some medieval dramas) and seemingly expecting divine action. Perhaps because shepherds, living close to nature, are central to the faith story, they are more acutely aware than their urban counterparts. They know that God’s faithfulness, hesed, flows steadily. “All creatures exist solely by virtue of that flow, and the psalms suggest that nonhuman creatures respond with spontaneous praise….” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 164). No wonder the appointed psalm urges, “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice…”(Psalm 96: 11a).
While the contrast between countryside and human settlement is not apparent in NRSV, Luke makes it very clear. Both Nazareth and Bethlehem are designated polis, cities. So when the enlivened shepherds hurry to Bethlehem they are crossing a major cultural boundary—just what this new birth is designed to do. This was especially significant at a time when Roman imperial administrators were intent on extracting resources from the countryside in the form of grains, oils, and wool. This disturbed and impoverished farm and grazing country, making the angel’s song even more welcome.
Worshippers continue to echo the music that transformed the shepherds as we sing the Gloria in Excelsis during the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. Schematizing this song is not difficult:
to God in the highest heaven
and on EARTH, peace
among those God
favors (same Greek root as “glory”)
As can be seen, the center of the angels’ song is peace for the whole of creation, the EARTH.
As Trainor suggests, the gift of peace comes through the earth and is manifested most clearly in the birth of “earth’s child” (Trainor, 88-89). This new melody echoes our First Reading, Isaiah’s song celebrating a “Prince of Peace” who will bring “justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 9:6-7). But now it moves beyond Israel and the Empire to encompass all.
Our Second Lesson helps to fuel this movement. As Paul advises co-worker Titus on strengthening the faith community in Crete, he reminds them why they are called to this shared faith at all, a distillation of the power of the incarnation. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation (healing reconciliation) to all…(Titus 2:11). This gift includes learning “self-control,” the virtue of sophrosune, just the recipe for American culture. We need the same renewal which moved the watchful, attentive shepherds to “make haste” to Bethlehem to see this longed-for marvel which would change everything (Luke 2:16). Paul underlines this by concluding that this new community has been formed precisely by that energy which brings a sense of the vocation and purpose that can be put to work in building justice for the whole creation (Titus 2:14).
What a challenge in a culture addicted to “making haste” to big box stores on Black Friday to celebrate the joys of shopping while adding to household clutter and landfill stuffing, ignoring real needs, especially of the poor. This is especially troubling in a culture “distinguished’ by faith in endless economic growth fed by marketing and advertising industries that cater to pleonexia, greed (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, University of Regina Press, 2018, p. 55). No wonder critics Max Weber, Walter Benjamin, and Paul Tillich have had the courage to name capitalism as our real religion. In fact, historian Eugene McCarraher has entitled a recent book, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Real Religion of Modernity (Harvard, 2019).
That lack of self-control has had disastrous effects is no surprise. In maintaining their massive Empire, Roman leaders assumed godlike authority in their extractive enterprises like mining and logging. Wadi Faynan in modern-day Jordan is the site of a Roman copper mine. Apparently, two thousand years has not been long enough for the land to heal. “To this day, the growth of plants is stunted and their reproductive systems severely damaged. The sheep there still have disturbing concentrations of copper in their feces, urine, and milk” (Derrick Jensen, “Bright Green Lies,” in Dark Mountain, Issue 20, 2021, p.57). No wonder a Roman penal sentence to the mines was considered certain death. One can only reflect with apprehension on today’s mad rush to mine more copper, lithium, silicone, and rare earth minerals to provide resources for what we call a ‘green economy.”
This is especially concerning in at a time when 190 countries have just concluded COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. While we need to support any multi-lateral consultations on caring for our earth home, and need to avoid making “perfection the enemy of the good,” this meeting has proved to be a disappointment. Pressured by over 500 lobbyists from fossil fuel industries, statements on regulating carbon, especially coal are tepid at best. Lack of strong commitments to help less developed nations with ‘loss and damage” as they suffer the consequences of rich nation carbon burning are shamefully inadequate. Whether from denial, political timidity, or sheer greed, the “haves” continue to embrace what looks all too much like the status quo.
Much the same can be said of the United States. The recent bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will provide funds for replacing lead pipes in antiquated water systems, charging stations for electric cars and plenty of money for our overbuilt road system. But, as usual, very little support is offered for long-term maintenance, leaving states, counties, and cities with costs they will not be able to afford. he pared down “Build Back Better” proposal, which takes aim at climate mitigation, seems to be joining the stuffed shelves of good ideas a dysfunctional Congress cannot realize. Ironically, during the week following COP26, the federal government conducted the largest auction of Gulf of Mexico oil drilling leases in US history. No wonder Benjamin Barber has suggested we view cities, towns, and counties as the real centers of climate action (Benjamin Barber, Cool Cities, Yale, 2017). Nationally, greed and denial seem to win the day.
But the faith community claims one thing is undeniable. The “earth’s child,” the one who nourishes the whole of creation from the manger, is the one who brings the gift of shalom to the green planet we share. Yes, like the Roman Empire’s legions, there are still powerful forces protecting carbon extraction and “business as usual” which continue to threaten all of life. In fact, just last week the Costs of War Project at Brown University reported that between 2001 and 2017, the US military emitted more than 1.2 billion tons of carbon, greater than 140 countries. They concluded that, totaling all pollution sources, this military is the largest non-nation state offender on the plane. Can we still trust that the power of “the heavenly host’s song is still greater?
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2021.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN