First Sunday of Christmas in Year C (Mundahl21)

Holding All Things Together – Tom Mundahl reflects on being a new wearer of clothes.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for First Sunday of Christmas, Year C (2021, 2024)
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Many of us received new clothes as Christmas gifts.  Some years ago, I had a relative who could be counted on to present me with a new necktie.  Despite her generosity, many of them would have looked better had they come with ready-made “soup stains.” Which reminds me of Thoreau’s aphorism “beware of enterprises that require new clothes” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Everyman’s Library, 1992, p. 21). When I used this in wedding homilies, not only did I get raised eyebrows, but also the opportunity to finish the thought: “I say, beware of enterprises that require new clothes and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”

The Pauline author of Colossians has that and so much more in mind when we read “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). But that is not all. The author intensifies this by adding, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). This imagery builds on the foundation of baptism where the newly-baptized were helped out of the waters and wrapped in a white linen robe, welcomed into new life, creating in Thoreau’s words “a new wearer of clothes.”

The all-encompassing power of this life, so clearly voiced in Colossians, begins with a hymn celebrating the incarnation of “earth’s child.” “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth, were created….He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).  Yet, it seems as if we are living in a time when things are falling apart.  Just this week we have begun to find out more about the Omicron variant of Covid-19, sending new shockwaves through economies and over-burdened health care systems. Farmers in British Columbia, who have experienced another 500-year rainstorm after only two weeks, cannot help but wonder about their futures.  If these are not enough, this past weekend residents of the Mississippi Valley were hit by tornados of unprecedented duration which, according to Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann, were unmistakably enhanced by climate change (interview Democracy Now, December 13, 2021).

This Christ hymn is all the more crucial as the faith community reflects on “threats, exploitation, and destruction of creation by humans who seem to recognize no power superior to themselves” (Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul, Baylor, 2009, p. 92). Perhaps this is why the author of Colossians follows this “hymn-confession of faith” with a full-voiced exhortation not to buy into destructive modes of thought which turn out to be “empty deceit” (Colossians 2:8) —whether confidence in astrology in Colossae or our addiction to endless growth.  As usual, this letter (these circulating letters were read aloud in worship) reminds the community to be who you are, “earth’s servants.”

Our text continues by describing what it means to live out the newness of incarnation. This includes the baptismal practice of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and, most importantly, the practice of forgiveness. While these seem to be “virtues” most appropriate for families, congregations, and small communities, they are also powerful sources driving change. “Peace has been made in the narrative, but not Pax Augusta. The peace made by Christ is very different from the peacemaking of the Empire; it is effected not through using crucifixion as a weapon of oppression, but through suffering as a means of creating change” (Southgate, p. 114). This suffering has been a constant in the struggle to live in harmony with creation.

We saw this put into action as M.L. King, Jr. embraced non-violence in his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and early 60’s. It is no surprise, then, that in his recent book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, Bill McKibben contends that the two most important strategies for bringing healing peace to God’s creation are solar power and nonviolence (Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Henry Holt and Co., 2019, pp. 217-226).

It is just this nonviolent action, the willingness to accept suffering to catalyze change, that the authors of Greening Paul call “ethical kenosis” (p.198). This term not only leads community members to support each other in adopting creative simplicity, but impels those who are called “to empty themselves” (Philippians 2:5-11) by participating in actions such as: collaborating at Standing Rock in attempts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, participating in protests with or Extinction Rebellion aimed at reducing carbon pollution, or campaigning to eliminate bee-killing neonicotinoids as herbicides.

This cannot help but remind the faith community of the baptismal calling to teach and learn, to be a community of ethical deliberation, especially in a time of seemingly intractable political conflict. What is true for the whole community is certainly even more important for the local congregation.  No wonder the Pauline author writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 3:16). One might translate this more simply: “in your congregation worship and teach so that the new baptismal life we receive results in incarnational care for the earth and all its members.”

Teaching what it means to live out vocation is central here.  Now we see why Samuel’s mother, Hannah, sewed a new linen ephod for the growing boy. Yes, children grow; but more important is nurturing a sense of calling, a calling Samuel eventually carried out by selecting a young shepherd boy as king. Just as Samuel’s faith formation must have been significantly enhanced by his apprenticeship to Eli in the temple at Shiloh, so Luke details the development of Jesus in the Jerusalem temple during Passover.

While the Shiloh Temple was built as a sanctuary containing the Ark of the Covenant, the Jerusalem temple not only continued to be the nexus between heaven and earth, the cosmic umbilicus, but also celebrated creation through architectural ornamentation. By their very presence in the Temple precincts, the faithful learned respect for Creator and creation.

For example, the Temple entrance was surrounded by stone water containers estimated to hold 40,000 liters, a sure reminder of both creation and the Exodus passage through the sea. Essentially, the Temple was an ecological map of the cosmos (Michael Trainor, About Earth’s Child, Sheffield, 2013, p. 69).

The narrative is simple.  As was their custom, Jesus’ parents joined the annual pilgrim group going to Jerusalem to observe Passover. When the festival was ended, the parents began their homeward journey, assuming that their twelve-year-old was in the crowd returning north to Galilee. When they could not find him, they anxiously returned to Jerusalem. After a frantic three days, they found him in the Temple conversing with scholars who were astounded by what they heard.

Although the parents may have shared that astonishment, scholars make it clear that, in fact, they were very angry (Frederick Danker, Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, Fortress, 1988, p. 76). Clearly, this boy is far from the smiling, curly-headed lad Pre-raphaelite painter, Holman Hunt depicts in Joseph’s carpentry shop. Jesus’ response is far from apologetic: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Not only is it significant that Jesus is found after three days, but even more important is the word “must” (dei), the unavoidable reminder that he is the one to renew all things (Luke 1:31-32). This is his vocation, and with Luke it begins in the Temple.

Just as “earth’s child,” the “one in whom all things hold together,” grows in understanding of his unique calling, so we must ask: how can our temple-communities become places where we explore our vocations, especially in understanding our role in God’s creation?  What is necessary (dei) for us in this time and place? And surely we must know by now we always begin this process by getting to know our own place—neighbors, human and more than human; watersheds and waste systems;  local food sources and soils; transportation systems and energy—so we can learn to love our terroir and become “earth’s people” (see Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the new Climatic Regime, Polity, 2018, pp. 93-95).

That is, we can only learn from, practice sensitive care for, and celebrate creation from “the bottom up.”  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his essay “After Ten Years,” “we have finally learned to see and act from below (Letters and Papers from Prison, Touchstone, 1997, p. 17).  That is, opposing Hitler could only be done by “hands-on” opposition: radio broadcasts, by heading an underground seminary, and, finally, by participation in an assassination plot.  Dostoevsky emphasizes the cost of this practical realism in The Brothers Karamazov, describing Madam Hohlakova, who loves everyone in the abstract but cannot tolerate smelly beggars. The revered Elder Zosima responds simply: “Love in action is harsh and dreadful compared to love in dreams” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, North Point, 1990, p.57).  Nothing could be less abstract than the birth of “earth’s child” who holds all things together and calls us to take part in the risky adventure of faith active in suffering love.

One approach to learning to know and love our terroir concretely is suggested by Psalm 148, called by Walter Brueggemann “an inventory of God’s creation” (Walter Bureggemann, Message of the Psalms, Augsburg, 1985, p. 165). This song of praise is at the center of the group of psalms completing the Psalter. While some of my fellow Minnesotans may find the elevation of “hail, snow and frost” (vs. 8 ) a bit excessive, especially after two days of snow and yesterday’s -15 F. wind chill, these all contribute to the variety and richness of creation.  Perhaps a study group could select verses naming these “members of the divine choir” and speak for them—voicing their character and needs. A project like this would help the community deepen its sense of place.

This kind of focus is driven by our praise for the beauty of creation.  As Norman Wirzba suggests, “If praise is the most fundamental form of responding to a good and beautiful world, we should not be surprised to see that creatures of all kinds—in the varying modes of their liveliness and fecundity—participate in this activity….” (Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life, Cambridge, 2021, pp. 91-92). Even the “friendly beasts” find a place as we mark the incarnation of “earth’s child” in whom all things hold together and who clothes us with new purpose.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2021.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN