A Time for Gathering – Tom Mundahl reflects on freeing all creatures to dwell in peace and mutual respect.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for second Sunday of Christmas, Years A, B, and C (2021, 2024)
John 1:(1-9) 10-18
Gathering has always been at the heart of celebrating the Christmas season. Even in the face of COVID-19 and its deadly variants, we long to gather for worship and wonder at the mystery of the incarnation. What’s more, Christmas is a time both to give and “gather” creation’s gifts, whether the beauty of a tree, a long ski through the woods, or sharing the land’s bounty of food and drink.
If advanced “maturity” has tempted me to forget the importance of these gatherings, our grandchildren have effectively reminded me. But even with the traditional home gathering, they have listened attentively to the story and made sure that wrapping paper is re-usable and that “gift bags” are stored for next year. Surprisingly, even during this time of generosity and awe, there are ways to remember we are “earthlings” who share a planet with all beings. Despite the temptation to forget this interdependence, our readings remind us of our rich, shared membership in the creation community.
This theme cannot be missed in the First Reading from Jeremiah. As we read a chapter that John Bright suggests is at the core of the prophet’s authentic work (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible 21, Doubleday, 1965, p. 285), Jeremiah delivers a message of consolation, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those in captivity “from the farthest parts of the earth” and “lead them back” (Jeremiah 31:8-9).
In Jeremiah’s view, this new Exodus-gathering carries with it a broader view of what it means to be an elect people. No longer is the focus on Davidic kingship or Temple worship. Now the focus is on gathering exiles and restoring them to the land (R.E. Clements, Jeremiah, John Knox, 1988, p. 188). That the land is central is evident from the imagery we find. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again” (Jeremiah 31:12).
Celebrating creation’s generosity reminds us that the gifts of the land — grain, wine, oil, and lamb — depend upon one more gift: the call to earth care. When this happens, the newly-gathered can purposely exercise disciplined amendment of the soil and attentive shepherding. For Jeremiah the model for this nurture is none other than the Creator. As he announces in bold prophetic speech: “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it to the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel, will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock’” (Jeremiah 31:10). As gathered exiles rejoice in this nurture, Jeremiah envisions a renaissance of attention to the land and the panoply of relationships its fertility implies. As a familiar canticle promises, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, “Listen, You Nations” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).
Our appointed psalm (147) stems from the same “life situation.” Once again the song is occasioned by return from exile in Babylon. Here we see that the one who “gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2), who is involved with activities ranging from “healing the brokenhearted and binding up wounds” (v. 3) to determining the “number of stars”(v. 4). Just as carols break forth from the Christian community in response to the mystery we call Christmas, so the poet builds strong connection through this music — music and song that are essential in learning how to live with the other-than-human world.
Naturalist Barry Lopez, who died a year ago on Christmas Day, spent a lifetime listening to people from all over the world explain their relationship with creation. In one of his last interviews he recalled asking Inuit community members how they would characterize the lives of white Americans. Repeatedly, they answered: “lonely” (Fred Bahnson, “An Unbroken Grace,” Emergence Magazine Newsletter, online, December, 2021). Lopez attributes this loneliness to a breach with the rhythms, cycles, and the beauty of the non-human world, choosing instead “human progress” with its commitment to abstraction and growth. In moments of clarity, Lopez suggests, “It occurs to humanity that it has lost its spouse” (Bahnson). Perhaps the Christmas psalms help begin a recovery process, enabling us to affirm the divine role in continuous creation (Psalm 147) and even to hear the song of our non-human partners (Psalm 148).
Lopez knew that even though we gather at viral peril to sing the psalms and familiar carols, we still need to hear the song of the earth. As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility to a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 7).
The Pauline author of Ephesians echoes the centrality of song, this time from early community liturgy that may have originated in the berakah (song of thanks) of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed by strong trinitarian elements (Ephesians 1:3,5,13) culminating in the assembly’s “praise of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:14). A large part of the energy driving this praise is “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) by including Gentiles, who are “adopted as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5) through baptism.
This ever-expanding scope of inclusion and reconciliation is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will (Ephesians 1:9) “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to gather up all things in him…” (v. 10). As Ralph Martin suggests, “The nature of that plan is now stated. It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ. The verb avakephalaiosthai is difficult. The root meaning is “to sum up,” to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it means that in Christ the whole universe finds its principle of cohesion” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, John Knox, p. 17).
In a culture where human planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we speak about “God’s plan” in a helpful way? A first step is remembering that the Greek word NRSV translates “plan” is oikonomia, a word that literally means “pattern for the household” and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. Because in Christ all creation is gathered together, this “pattern for the earth household” breaks down divisions between Jew and Gentile, Roman and barbarian to include all creatures (ta panta) in a cosmic hymn of praise that frees us to see creation as “a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12) — even in a Minnesota winter.
As we gather to hear the prologue to John’s Gospel (and it should be read as a whole, not dissected for convenience!), we continue the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this prologue is likely crafted after hymnic elements familiar to the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John [I-XII], Doubleday, 1966, p. 20). Because the song springs from community life, the emphasis on community affirmation is not surprising: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16). In fact, the very incarnation implies shared experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us” (John 1:14a, cf, Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131).
If this text was used on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, perhaps focus on the communal nature of this great mystery can be highlighted. Now we are freed to reflect on the creation theme the prologue opens with. Now we learn that because of the incarnation, creatureliness does not stand in the way of communion with God. This is because, in the Word become flesh, “God abides deeply and desires to dwell intimately with creatures in all their struggles and joys by living in our flesh….This is why Jesus can be said to be the heart of creation” (Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life, Cambridge, 2021, pp. 169-170).
Now we can celebrate the “fleshiness” of life. We have all heard the old complaint that “materialism is killing Christmas.” That is false. It is rather the perverse, addictive behavior presenting itself in compulsive shopping that fills closets, basements, garages, and rental storage units with unneeded “stuff.” As creatures, we humans have basic needs for food, shelter, clothing and joyful community. But how much is enough? This question is at the root of the “New Materialism Manifesto,” the work of a British group promoting a stance that honors reuse, repair, repurposing, mending and, only as a last resort, recycling. This group also honors local craft and food, as well as buying only durable items, all driven by the stark realization that our economic systems have abandoned oikonomia resulting in both unmet human need and ravaging other kind and the earth.
This has led to surprising gatherings. Folks who advertise items they no longer need on “Buy Nothing” Facebook sites often develop unplanned connections. Those in large cities that go “stooping”—finding no-longer-wanted “stuff” on apartment “stoops” often learn the stories of the dressers and tables they haul away. Much the same has happened with neighborhood “repair meets” where a few repair savvy volunteers look at DVD players, smart phones, toasters and other appliances headed for landfills, which are often given new life while owners learn about life beyond “planned obsolescence.” Groups like the Repair Association (repair.org) lobby legislatures in support of “right to repair” laws requiring manufacturers to stock spare parts and allow non-brand repair shops to work on appliances without voiding warranty, something the European Union has pioneered.
Because the Word has become flesh, as we are sent from the gathered assembly to “Go in peace and serve,” these earth care “gatherings” are infused with life. They move us beyond faith community “silos” to break down dividing walls, freeing all creatures to dwell in peace and mutual respect.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2022.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN