Tag Archives: Christmas

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year A

The “great gathering” of Earth community encompasses the material world of God’s good creation. – Tom Mundahl reflects on our use of the gifts of God’s creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A (2013/4, 2016/7, 2019/20, 2022/23)

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

Gathering is at the heart of our celebration of the Christmas season. Not only do we gather for worship to wonder at the incarnation, we gather often with groups of friends and family. 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 the giving and receiving of food, drink, and presents.

If I ever forgot the importance of Christmas presents to the gathering, our grandchildren have effectively reminded me. As a result, we engage in a more mundane sort of “gathering:” attempting to save wrapping paper and bows for reuse, and, finally, gathering up the new “stuff” that we mostly don’t need and have to find room for.

By now, you have guessed that these comments will focus on the “gatherings” revealed by this week’s readings. Surprisingly, we will find that this variety of ways of coming together suggest an intensification of care for God’s creation.

This theme cannot be missed in our reading from Jeremiah. In this chapter that John Bright suggests is at the core of Jeremiah’s authentic work (Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, Volume 21, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 285), the prophet delivers a message of consolation, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jeremiah 31:8) and “lead them back.” (Jeremiah 31:9)

This new Exodus-gathering takes place with what appears to be altered terms of relationship.  No longer is the focus on Davidic kingship or on the work of the temple.  Now it appears that what is primary is gathering the exiles from their diaspora and restoring them to the land. (R.E. Clements, Jeremiah, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 186)

That gathering once more in this land is at the center of this return is emphasized by the images of natural abundance we find in this passage.

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).

This celebration of gathering reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and lamb—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this creation care is none other than the Creator. As Jeremiah announces in the boldest prophetic speech:

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock” (Jeremiah 31:10).

Therefore, this new gathering will also bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the panoply of relationships its fertility implies.  As the familiar canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Today’s Psalm (147) stems from the same “life situation.” Once more, the song is occasioned by restoration from exile in Babylon. As is the case with many Christmas carols, it uses a particular act of grace—deliverance from Babylon in this case—as an occasion for an even more wide-ranging expression of God’s relationship with all creation. The one who “gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2) is involved with activities ranging from “healing the brokenhearted and binding up wounds” (v. 3) to determining the “number of the stars” (v. 4).

Because of this gracious activity, the community responds with psalms, carols, and hymns. Among the most telling evidence supporting Robert Putnam’s research with its conclusion that U.S. citizens are much less involved in community associations (cf. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) is the decline of singing, especially among younger males. While it can be almost impossible to persuade many Americans to sing, in African worship or at an Italian wedding, it is almost impossible to stop the singing.

During this season of gathering to sing familiar carols and bringing them to nursing homes and to the home-bound, we also need to hear the good news of this season in relation to 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 and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 7).

Following a conventional salutation, our reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content certainly has been transformed to contain strong trinitarian elements (v. 3, v. 5, v. 13). This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14) strongly suggests liturgical song.

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism –“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is a “gathering” that effects  “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). Baptism gives non-Jews a share of this blessing.

This ever-expanding scope of election and reconciliation is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will (v. 9) “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the work of Irenaeus and Wingren—is described by Martin.

The nature of that plan is now stated. It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ. The verb anakephalaiosthai 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 probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find . . . its principle of cohesion” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians,
Colossians, and Philemon
, Atlanta: John Knox, p. 17).

Martin continues by describing this goal as much like the movement toward an “omega point” described by de Chardin (Martin, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend “God’s plan” in a helpful way? For us, it is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated “plan” is oikonomia, a word that literally means something like “rules for the household” and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s ‘rule’ for “the earth household” is connected with gathering all together. This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond Jew and Greek, past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6: 12), to include all creatures (the whole creation) in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “like a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

As we gather to hear the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (and it should be read as a whole, not dissected!), we continue the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this prologue is likely “crafted” after a familiar hymn from the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I – XII), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 20)  Because it is a song from the community, the emphasis on response is unmistakable: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16). In fact, the very incarnation implies shared social experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us . . . .” (John 1:14a, cf. Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131).

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time the communal nature of this great mystery can be highlighted. This will free us to return to the creation theme the prologue begins with. Because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation (“All things came into being through him” v.3) in part, by forming a community of faith. And, because this community of faith is rooted in creation and a Word become flesh who draws “all to himself” (John 12:32), we can celebrate the very “fleshiness” of all that is.

Perhaps this means a festive Twelfth Night celebration by the community or with friends, where extra presents that have no room in house or apartment are collected to be shared with agencies that know who can use them. Yet, in no way should this be seen as a denial of the “material” or “fleshy” side of this season.

In fact, we may learn from a British group promoting what they call a “new materialism.” Noticing that religious “put downs” of materialism are not helpful for all of us who live in a “material world,” they have developed a “New Materialist Manifesto” that suggests: liking ”stuff “is a healthy way of enjoying the material world, but it requires lasting relationships with material objects that should be fewer and better—designed to last no less than 10 years. Appreciation of “material” is enhanced when things acquired are purchased with knowledge—who makes them, where they are made, and under what conditions (Factory conditions in Bangladesh?). These material “goods” need to be “loved” –maintained, repaired, or mended, and then repurposed. Finally, this may move us to “reskilling,” where we learn to make, repair, or repurpose “stuff.” And, as we find we need less, we may become freer to share (Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, The New Materialism, available through: www.breadprintandroses.orgwww.therealpress.co.uk; or www.schumachercollege.org).

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                     tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

We need greater courage and imagination in standing up against those who would destroy Earth.  – Tom Mundahl reflects on Matthew 2:13-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2013)

 Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

My late father-in-law kept mules and an impressive Belgian mare named Dolly at his home in central Iowa. The few times that I spent Christmas there before pastoral duties occupied my Christmas celebrations, I noticed that on Christmas Eve he would spend more time than usual  in the barn with these powerful animals. It took me years to gather the courage to ask him, somewhat playfully, if it was true that on Christmas Eve even the animals give voice to Christmas joy. He merely smiled in a most mysterious way. As the traditional Matins service for Christmas Day suggests, it is a great mystery: O Magnum Mysterium.

We have just celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we continue the Season of Christmas, we have almost been convinced that “heaven and nature sing,” that “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds” (Psalm 148:9-10) join to celebrate the incarnation.  Then we are confronted with Herod’s slaughter of the “holy innocents.” Although we may be tempted to conclude that this is little more than an aberration on the way to the greater light of Epiphany, a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke disabuse us of our naivete.

Did not the Christmas Eve reading from Luke 2 graphically subvert the pretention to divine power of Caesar Augustus in favor of “the Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord?” (Luke 2:11). In the face of the overwhelming military presence of Rome, this one was able to call upon “an army of angels” (Luke 2:13).  And these warrior-messengers proclaimed the good news in words stolen from Caesar, who had inscribed them on tablets throughout the Empire. The “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and “the peace to God’s people” (Luke 2:14) use Caesar’s language to point to a new source of sovereignty, who as the genuine Savior and Lord brings “peace” to the earth (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, pp. 107-108). How could this not have occasioned a violent response?

Much the same is true with Matthew’s infancy narratives. Like Luke, Matthew gives us a historically tenuous, but theologically rich prologue to his Gospel. Here, the Emperor is replaced by Herod the Great, a loyal vassal, who is now seen as an analogue to the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative. In fact, it could be argued that Matthew gives us the history of Israel compressed. This evangelist begins the story of Jesus with quotations from Genesis (1:1), Exodus (2:15), and Deuteronomy (507) (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 402). Clearly, it is the Genesis and the Exodus quotations that interest us most as we enter Matthew’s worldview.

Our Gospel text continues Joseph’s role in Matthew’s prologue, now orchestrated in three “movements” each with a formula quotation to root it squarely in the continuing story of God’s people. Once again, Joseph’s sleep is interrupted by a divine messenger who makes it clear that he is to take the family to Egypt with great haste for Herod seeks to destroy this ‘new king’ (Matthew 2:13). Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph continues to model obedience and follows the angel’s instructions exactly. They remain there until Herod’s death.

It is just this displacement that invites Matthew to recall the line from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” If this prologue is unhistorical, the use of such formula quotations as these give greater theological significance to these events. The quotation from Hosea is there to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is involved with a New Exodus, an Exodus that will result in a new community. Whether it is Pharaoh or Herod, God will provide not only a new Moses, but one who is greater than Moses.

This parallel is made even clearer in the ‘second movement’ of our pericope, where Herod follows Pharaoh in the killing of infants in the region of Bethlehem (Exodus 1: 22). Here, the formula quotation is from Jeremiah (31:15). Not only does Matthew reference Pharaoh’s infanticide here, he asks readers to recall the near destruction of God’s people (symbolized by “Mother Rachel,” who is reputed to have been buried near Bethlehem) as they gathered at Ramah, the staging area for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Matthew clearly associates the killing of children with the near death of religious identity during this chapter in the history of God’s people.

Not only is Herod the Great associated with Pharaoh, his actions clearly put into question any possible claim to legitimacy. How can any ruler kill the “next generation” of his people and make any claim to kingship? Herod’s obsession with total control here seems to spill over into shocking violence! This certainly is a question that we hear today in regard to Syria and the Central African Republic. Perhaps we need also to question more deeply the plight of children in richer countries who suffer shocking increases in asthma, attention deficit disorder, hunger, and a basic lack of loving attention from family structures. Is this not little more than a more ‘palatable’ form of infanticide?

But even obsessed rulers die. Once more, Joseph’s sleep is troubled.  This time the message is welcome: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20, see also Exodus 4:19). But all is not rosy. Because Archelaus, the cruelest of the tetrarchs, rules their former home area, they must locate farther north, in the Galilean micro-village of Nazareth. Here Matthew stretches things a bit by inventing his own formula quotation: “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:23).

Matthew solves one important problem here: He relocates the Holy Family from the Davidic town of Bethlehem to Nazareth. But he also creates much thornier problems of understanding! Since these formula quotations have provided rich theological ore, what can we learn? Is this a word play where we are to understand that Jesus is neser, the branch from the “stump of Jesse?” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  In addition, might this also refer to this child who is Emmanuel being nazir, a “nazirite,” one consecrated to the LORD? (Numbers 6:2). Yes, the church has affirmed Jesus as “the branch from the stump of Jesse,” and Jesus is certainly consecrated at baptism, although the ascetic John the Baptist fits the “nazirite” model more closely.

Or, is there an additional meaning, as suggested by Luz? “The geographical statements of 2:19-23 anticipate the way of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles. This thesis is supported from another side: exactly in the Syrian area in which the Matthean community is living, “Nazorean” is the designation for a “Christian. Thus, an ecclesiological note is sounded: because Jesus comes to Nazareth in the Galilee of the Gentiles, he becomes a “Christian,” the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 150).

If we follow this lead, we will see that even in the Matthean prologue, the call to “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) given by the one who is Emmanuel (“with you until the fulfillment of all things”) is powerfully present. This is why “heaven and nature sing!” And it is why parochial rulers, like Herod, obsessed with maintaining and expanding power, cannot tolerate this new birth of interconnected life. Their power depends on fragmentation, “divide and rule.”

Whether we argue that breaking down barriers that exclude non-Jews implies including all creatures in this new “genesis” or that the new community’s claim that this birth of the Holy One as part of creation engenders songs of praise from sun, moon, stars, wild animals, all cattle, creeping things, and flying birds and even kings of the earth (Psalm 148:3,10,11), the results certainly have one thing in common. This divine intrusion has the capacity to provoke those in power to maintain that domination with such tenacity that the results become increasingly destructive.

The motive is the same, whether it is a Holocaust of millions of Jews, the near elimination of Native Americans, or the use of military-based munitions to blow off mountaintops in Kentucky to mine the coal that continues not only to be a primary source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, but also poisons the water near coal mining centers and kills miners with an alarming upsurge of black lung. Because they are born out of anxiety, power and control brook no opposition.

Because the one Matthew calls Emmanuel is “the teacher and Lord of the community which calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Luz, op. cit.), this community is called not only to join in praise with all creation, but also to be involved in making sure that all creatures—including people—are free to engage in such praise. This is why 77-year-old Wendell Berry joined with Kentucky neighbors in 2011 to protest the destructive effects of mining companies by “sitting in” one weekend in offices of the Governor of Kentucky. They had concluded that the only way to force even a limited conversation with a government that does the bidding of large corporations was to go beyond normal, blocked forums of decision-making and participate in civil disobedience (conversation with Bill Moyers, available on BillMoyers.com).

To prevent the “slaughter of the innocents,” whether children in Newtown, Connecticut, polar bears in the Arctic, or the carbon pollution of a healthy atmosphere, the community gathered in the name of the one called Emmanuel needs greater courage and imagination. Perhaps we have to emulate Berry’s “mad farmer,” who says, “If it be my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it” (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” (Farming: A Handbook, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, p. 44).

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                         tmundahl@gmail.com

Christmas (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C

All of Earth Rejoices at the Birth of Jesus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reasons for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. Her Magnificat celebrates the expectation of the “radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

In our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we noted how destructive this “peace” was for the Palestinian countryside; whole hillsides were stripped of forests to produce lumber for Roman constructions. The treacherous character of this imperial peace is further suggested by how the Roman legions enforced “peace” in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:  either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel. As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees, safe from imperial destruction, do make for a grand chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection.) There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

So as we anticipated  in singing Mary’s Magnificat, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see our comment on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). With her, we are through her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of bearing infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online). So, yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human.  In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year A

The Psalms of Christmas: Let All Creation Praise

By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

Nativity of our Lord

1. Introduction

2. Christmas Eve

3. Christmas Day

1. Introduction. The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share that “all the earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Creatures’ praise: they reflect in their existence the being that is God.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Nature’s praise is a symphony orchestra.

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially. As we shall see, first the good news for earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat,is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

2. Christmas Eve
Psalm 96

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“O sing to the lord a new song;

sing to the lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

All Earth makes magnificent music

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming. We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why praise? There is an expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.’

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Third Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reason for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. The Magnificat, we suggested, is “good news for the earth,” in that “she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

 

 

Roman peace is destruction and devastation.

The treacherous character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that peace in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:

either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Creation awaits true peace, the Prince of Peace.

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel.

As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees do make for a grand chorus!


3. Christmas Day
Psalm 97 or 98

Isaiah 62:6-12 or Isaiah 52:7-10

Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)

Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: what exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

The earth is expecting peace with righteousness.

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection. There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-90). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196). Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

Earth rejoices because God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably.

So as we anticipated from Mary’s response to the Annunciation, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1: 14). With her we are in her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online.) So yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human. In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.