Tag Archives: incarnation

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

Planting Trees as Symbol and Expression of the Restoration of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on God’s presence in creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

1 Samuel 3:1-10 {11-20}
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.” — II Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads).

With the readings for Baptism of our Lord, we saw how care for creation is implicated in both Jesus’s own baptism and the ongoing practice of Christian baptism. In truth, “For those who are in Christ, creation is new.” We discover further implications of this assertion in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B of the lectionary: Care of creation belongs to the call to discipleship and testimony to Jesus as Son of God, primary themes in these readings.

To begin with, there is the strange business of the fig tree. Why does a fig tree figure so significantly in this story? Amongst the numerous suggestions listed by Raymond Brown (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 196, p.83), interpreters may see an allusion here to Zechariah 3:10: “When the Messiah comes, ‘you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.’” As Nancy Koester suggests, “Nathaniel wonders:  Is Jesus really the one whom the Scriptures promise? Jesus points to the promise coming true in Nathaniel’s own experience: Wasn’t Nathaniel under his fig tree when Philip called him?” (Craig Koester, “Epiphany,” in New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000. p. 96). Readers also might recall that in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent in year B (Mark 13:24-37), the fig tree is included in a list of cosmic signs that will mark the arrival of the Messiah: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark13:28). With reference to this text and its associated account of Jesus’ curse of the fig tree in Mark 11, William Telford reminds us, in his Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, that “the Old Testament literature on the whole knows very little of non-symbolical trees.” After examining several texts, Telford concludes:

“The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given—the Garden of Eden, the Exodus, the Wilderness, the Promised Land, the reigns of Solomon and Simon Maccabaeus, and the coming Messianic Age . . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies . . . . “(Cited in Ched Myers,  Binding the Strong Man; A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, pp. 297-98).

In this connection, it is particularly striking that Jesus’ sights Nathaniel under the fig tree, with his approving comment: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This is followed in quick sequence by first, the account of the Wedding at Cana, also a picture of divine blessing, and then by the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, with which the fig tree is commonly associated as a sign of divine presence and blessing. The fig tree’s presence here in the Gospel of John, we want to suggest, provides a link between Jesus’ mission and concern for the well-being of creation. Care of creation is recognized here, however subtly, as a concern inherent in the call to discipleship.  Indeed, the future of that discipleship will take its course in cosmological context, with glorious traffic between heaven and earth.

The theme of divine presence relative to both the arrival of the Messiah and the Jerusalem temple, it occurs to us, is more important in these readings than is commonly recognized. In addition to the symbol of the fig tree, temple as scene and as metaphor is important as well, as the appointment of the story of Samuel’s call might alert us. Samuel’s call takes place in the temple at Shiloh, we note, at a time when the leadership of Eli as priest has been deeply compromised by the wickedness of his sons. In a development that foreshadows Jesus’ own attack on the temple state, Samuel’s call commences with the thorough rebuke of both Eli and the temple sacrifices: “The iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). While Yahweh will continue to appear at Shiloh for some time (3:21), in due course, God will act through Samuel to establish the house of David and eventually also a new temple in Jerusalem. Samuel, who knows himself in his calling to be God’s servant (3:9), becomes the agent of this relocation: The ark of the covenant will move on, such that the God whom Israel encountered in the wilderness will not be captured for one place or for one house.

So also with Jesus and his disciples: The presence of God, with its attendant blessing of land and people, is now being relocated from temple sanctuary to the person of Jesus. This is the import, we suggest, of Nathanael’s confession of Jesus as “Son of God” and Jesus’ response to him: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John l1:50-51). As Raymond Brown notes, interpreters have explained the saying with reference to a variety of texts having to do with the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:12, involving ‘the ladder, the shekinah, the merkabah, Bethel, or the rock;” it is “in the theme that they have in common” that “they are probably correct; . . . the vision means that Jesus as Son of Man has become the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth. The disciples are promised figuratively that they will come to see this; and indeed, at Cana, they do see his glory” (Brown, p. 91). Unfortunately, the sequence of the lectionary does not offer an occasion to follow up this suggestion with an examination of the story of the wedding at Cana; if the reader will refer to the comment in this series for the Second Sunday of Epiphany in Year C, however, its import for care of creation will be clear: The marriage at Cana, we argue there, is metaphorically the marriage of heaven and earth promised by the prophet Isaiah in the associated lesson for the day, Isaiah 62:1-5.

The significance of this relocation for discipleship doesn’t end there. Indeed, if “temple” designates God’s “down to earth” presence, the truly astonishing thing to be observed in these readings is that already by the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were expected to know that their bodies, both corporately and individually, were temples “of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God will indeed be an embodied God, incarnated as was Jesus in the very bodies so “intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). It belongs to the service of the servants of God to be the occasion, location, and agency of both this embodiment and its persistent renewal in the ever expanding “house” of earth and sky (See Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of Friedrich Oetinger’s thesis that “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works,” in Moltmann’s God in Creation, pp. 244-75, for an extensive development of this theme).

Correlatively, we would call attention to the presupposition of this understanding of divine presence, that God is immanent  in the lives of those called by Jesus, lives according to the Psalm that are deeply grounded in the earth. God, the psalmist asserts, is truly “inescapable”:  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:1-2). “The inescapable God” (the title given to the Psalm in the NRSV) is a God who is everywhere and in all times present, not just to the one who sings God’s praise, but throughout the creation:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (139:7-10).

Stunningly, not even cosmic transformations can separate this human from the Creator: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me becomes night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:11-12). Unfortunately, verses 7 to 12 of the psalm are not assigned for the reading, but they are properly referenced in connection with the confession, at v. 13, that the God who is this human’s creator, who not only “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was also there “when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth” (139:15).

The fig tree is a sign that binds confession of Jesus as manifestation of God to awareness of God’s presence in creation and the call of the disciple to care of creation. The story that when Martin Luther was once asked, “If you thought tomorrow might bring the Day of Judgment, what would you do?” He replied, “I’d plant a tree,” is  probably apocryphal; it is nonetheless relevant to these insights. “What is certain,” Larry Rasmussen notes, is “his use of the tree as metaphor for the Christian life in his ‘Lectures on Isaiah’ and specifically in his commentary on Isaiah 61:3C: ‘They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory’’”(Earth Community Earth Ethics, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 199).

In this age of environmental crisis, Lutherans could do much worse than to adopt the tree, fig or otherwise, as sign and inspiration of their discipleship. As we have noted, it’s an image with deep resonance in biblical tradition and Christian witness; it is also prominent, Rasmussen notes, in ancient Judaism, where the “Torah itself, the embodiment of divine instruction and the first emblem of Judaism, as a tree of life. It is even said that abiding by the words of Torah restores the tree of life lost in the primal act of disobedience in Eden.” But also now more than ever in our ecologically informed age, a living tree has become a sign of a healthy, fruitful earth, breathing in the carbon dioxide emissions that threaten to disrupt nature’s balance, breathing out the oxygen that is the essential requirement of all life on earth. As William Brown writes, reflecting on the results of over two centuries of intense study of nature,  “the tree of life remains the most suitable simile for describing the metanarrative of life on Earth” (William p. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 114). Planting trees in the face of possibly catastrophic climate change makes sense for people of Christian faith of all traditions, as sign of hope and faithfulness, yes, but also as servant of the earth, following in the steps of our Lord Jesus, servant of all creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Utphall21)

God’s Plan –  Nick Utphall reflects on the order(s) of the universe and a baby.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Christmas, Years A,  B, and C 

Jerimiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12 
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21 
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“What has come into being in him was life…but [they] did not accept him” (John 1:3-4, 11).

We’ve spent months explicitly close to and aware of the sense of not accepting what makes for life. It has been a persistent reiterated theme of the pandemic. How many times have you been told to wash your hands? Remember nine months ago when you were constantly told to sing happy birthday twice to fulfill the proper precaution? And how much has that continued to influence your practice? Or consider recommendations from Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. Coronavirus Task Force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that are repeated ad nauseum on social media about the beneficial health impacts of mask-wearing. All of that eager-emphasizing of a simple and yet possibly life-saving practice seems not to do any good in convincing those who would resist and rebel. Or, to dig a bit deeper, we recognize that the long-trending erosion in our funding of public health infrastructure leaves us closer to death. We end up not accepting life that is right in front of us, practically begging for us to understand.

Those might seem like an echo of the line from the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

As we’re considering that, I suggest we don’t fall into a ditch on either side. There are plenty of examples and instances portraying faith and science antagonistically, as opposed to each other, with a big VS between in the fight. But on the other side, there is also the risk of making faith and science synonymous, equating them with each other. Following Jesus is not identical to following health guidance, nor is the coming of life the same as the arrival of a vaccine. The Gospel of John will go on to convey that life is not just a biological characteristic, not just having a pulse, not a prescription for an exercise regimen, not a doctor’s visit for a clean bill of health. Death is not the end or absence of life, not a failure. Even through death, still there is something of life.

That means that some of the knee-jerk reactions in the face of this pandemic need to be held faithfully and not simplistically or secularly. Faith is neither so separate from health guidance that we ignore it because life and safety are assured by Christianity, nor is faith so combined with science that obeying protocols to keep the coronavirus at bay mean we’re living faithfully.

To glimpse this through another lens, this is the first Sunday of a new year. It’s a new year for which people have been especially yearning and wishing. But, of course, there is nothing that magically changes with turning to a calendar page that restarts simply because it now is labeled “2021.” There is no finish line or lap marker in earth’s orbit around the sun. It is arbitrary. On the other hand, this isn’t the start of a new year for church. This finds us in the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. And in some way while much of the world has moved on, we are still celebrating the 10th day of this short season, marking not a default reset attitude of January but what a certain birth long ago means, what that change and reset meant for our world to have God born among us, as the Word became flesh.

The reading from Ephesians marks this epochal distinction as “the fullness of time” (1:10). That phrase is paired with one of the passages that point us to a notion of the “cosmic Christ,” that God’s plan is to “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). If all things are gathered in Christ, that includes calendars and masks and anti-maskers and COVID-19 deaths and disturbed Christmas traditions…as well as, of course, the orbit of planets and expansion of the universe and light and dark and sheep and storms and irrigated gardens and wilderness areas.

The impact of Jesus includes but far exceeds wellness tips for living. It includes but is not limited by scientific understanding. It ranges far beyond what we know of life.

There’s an old book by J.B. Phillips called “Your God is Too Small.” I’ve not read it and cannot comment on the approach or contents, but the title alone is applicable with today’s readings. God is not restricted to our pet projects, neither about morality or physical fitness. God isn’t out to save a few individual souls who have conformed to a religious framework. God isn’t conveying blessings that are about us having an easier day, feeling more satisfied and happier, making a profit.

The immensely unbelievable import of our faith is that God has been working for you to be brought up into all of God’s pleasure and love and goodness since “the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), “in the beginning” (John 1:1), since creation began, since the Big Bang or whatever came before that. How can we imagine or begin to conceive of that? How can we get on board with implications of this vision of life that out-stretch all spacetime?

Some of that is the sense of the organizing principle for all creation – the Logos, the Sophia, the Wisdom of God that is mentioned in these readings. That’s especially the theme of the alternate first reading from Sirach, of Wisdom herself (also as a spoken word/Word in 24:3) that preexists and is beyond all the created order.

That logic of God’s Wisdom in the alternate psalmody from Wisdom sees a goal of exodus and freeing God’s people from slavery and oppression. There is a guiding plan that the weak and injured and disabled are not lacking life or left to die, but rather are especially singled out to be brought along, and that includes helpless infants and their vulnerable and anguishing mothers (Wisdom 10:21 and Jeremiah 31:8).

With a nod to the awareness that the Logos underlies all our studies and –ologies, there’s been a sense for a couple hundred years of the so-called Enlightenment defining our perceptions of zoology and biology (“life” studies) and even cosmology. We subscribe to a saying that nature is “red in tooth and claw” (in words from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson), with survival of the fittest. Now, first of all, if we’re looking at evidence around us and thinking that is the order of things, the planned logic of creation, then either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who came as a frail baby, who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”

So how do we compare our scientific and natural understandings of competitive and violent predator/prey perspectives with what our Bible readings today tell us is God’s order and plan and Wisdom, which binds up the broken and cares for tiny children and seeks not to leave any behind?

Maybe we at least need to be willing to incorporate the sort of understanding and wisdom that comes from Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which identify how species cooperate and thrive by symbiosis (living together) and practice mutual sustenance, and how even trees may share with the weaker and needier.

Or maybe such conflicting accounts merely confuse us on God’s intended order of things, obscuring rather than elucidating our studies and logic. Are volcanoes and forest fires creative or destructive? Is a lightning storm a sign of God’s violent power or life-giving potential in fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere? If God intends to give snow and cold (Psalm 147:16-17), is winter a time of stark, severe lifelessness or a moment of preparation and continuance of life? Or should we not try to categorize in binaries of good/bad, either/or?

If that can indicate the challenge of trying to discern God’s Wisdom and not being stuck with a God who is too small, then the next part of the paradoxical challenge is that we also strive to make our God too big, where the Prologue of John very specifically wants us to zero in on a small God, a God who is maybe about eight pounds when his diapers aren’t wet, a God who is not far beyond our finite comprehensions but is very locally contained to a crib in Nazareth.

Ignoring the scandal of particularity, we constantly go searching off to discover and peel back divine masks, making our own efforts at apocalypse (revealing, unveiling) of the mystery of God (Ephesians 1:9), conjuring our self-made spiritual fantasies, all the while creating God in our image. But much more mysterious is that this proclaims it is only Jesus, God the Son, who makes God known to us; the rest we simply cannot see (John 1:18). Are we willing to accept that the truth of God’s mystery and its impact on our existence has been or is being made known to us in Jesus, as a baby and on through his life and death?

For me, as much as I love studying and learning science and noticing these connections, at the heart I need to cherish that this is not about my understanding or acceptance, but is that we’ve been chosen (Ephesians 1:3), given the Holy Spirit (1:13), a pledge to be brought along in redemption with God’s people (1:14) and all those things in heaven and on earth. Toward the end, I trust that the one who is close to God’s bosom (John 1:18 in the closer and more maternal translation) also brings us into that proximity, that intimacy of love and life.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2021. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl15)

Coming Home Tom Mundahl reflects on a return from exile.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

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

“Coming home” is at the heart of the Christmas season. To gather with family, friends, and congregation members, to celebrate the wonder of the incarnation, to share good food with its many traditions around a common table, and to tell stories sustains us and forges our identities.

This is true even when coming home is not possible. A recent PBS documentary, “American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” made this clear. When, to the surprise of the producers of the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn,” the song “White Christmas” became a “hit record,” Crosby was initially reluctant to sing it as part of his many appearances for military personnel serving overseas during WW II. He thought the song’s inherent nostalgia would be too much for those with no hope of celebrating Christmas at home any time soon. What he found was just the opposite: that the longing for home was so central to human being that these “exiles” in this horrible war had  special need for just such a song.

The power of home and homecoming is certainly a unifying theme in this week’s readings. It is especially so in the “song” we call Psalm 147, one of the doxological psalms (Psalms 146-150) that close the Psalter. The psalmist shows us a God whose creative power is so comprehensive that not only are the heavens covered with clouds and the hills covered with grass, but this Holy One also “builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2, 8).

This week’s reading from Jeremiah echoes that homecoming. In this section from the Book of Consolation (30:1-31: 37), the prophet delivers a message of comfort, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from all the farthest parts of the earth” and “lead them back” (Jeremiah 31:8-9).

This new exodus and homecoming takes place in the context of altered terms of relationship. No longer is the focus on lost Davidic kingship or on the destruction of the temple. Now it appears that what is primary is bringing the exiles home and restoring them to the land (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 186). Land now becomes a covenant partner producing amazing abundance in response to the human return. “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)

That this homecoming should suggest the land as a covenant partner is no novelty. Even the compilers of Leviticus made this clear: “I shall remember my covenant with Jacob, and yes, my covenant with Isaac, and yes, my covenant with Abraham I shall remember—and the land I shall remember” (Leviticus 26:42). Since the ancestry is stated in reverse order, it stands to reason that the land is the first ancestor! (Ellen Davis, public lecture, Prairie Festival, the Land Institute, Salina, KS, September 27, 2014)

But this celebration of homecoming also reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and meat—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this servanthood 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 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)

It is precisely homecoming that will bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the breadth of relationships its fertility implies. As the 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).

Following a conventional salutation, this week’s reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong Trinitarian elements (vv. 3, 5, 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 creating a “new family” through “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) between Jew and Gentile. This architectural image involves building a new home for a newly-extended family of faith.

The expanding scope of this home-building (traditionally described with terms such as “election” and “reconciliation”) is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will “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 centuries-spanning work of Irenaeus and Gustav Wingren—builds a new foundation.

“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, Louisville: John Knox, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase, “God’s plan,” in a helpful way? It is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οικονομια, a word that implies a form or law for the household and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for the “earth household” is a harmonious gathering so that all creation can be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12, to include all creatures in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “as a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

On this final Sunday of Christmas homecoming, we hear once more the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (it should be read whole, not dissected!), a poem that continues the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this is 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 this is a hymn from the community, the emphasis on response is necessary and 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; 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 its communal nature can be highlighted. Certainly, the sense of the Incarnate Word “dwelling” with us has deep implications for being “at home” in God’s creation.  As Norman Wirzba suggests:

“In the Christian traditions the presence of God in creation is made even more striking in the teaching of the incarnation. 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” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford, 2003, p. 16).

Because of the incarnation, the promise of the end of our exile, the community responds with psalms, carols and hymns—even, and especially, on the last Sunday of Christmas. One of the most alarming indicators of social isolation in American culture is the decline in community singing. We need to learn once more the joy of singing together—and there is no time like the season of Christmas.

No matter whether we are “at home” or not, singing what is familiar, or even what newly tells the familiar story, gives us a sense of rootedness. As we sing, we also learn to hear the good news of the season in relation to the song of the earth—”let heaven and nature sing!” 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, 2013, p. 7.).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C (Utphall20)

Displaced and Found by God –  Nick Utphall reflects on the place of baby Jesus in a pandemic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord), Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

At worship planning in early November, some members of my congregation raised the idea of renting a barn for our Christmas Eve worship services. Here in Wisconsin, some location that could offer a little shelter from the cold of the night probably seemed like a good idea. And maybe the ambience was intended as much as the practicality.

In this year of the pandemic, we prepare to celebrate Christmas with physical distancing at the very least and perhaps many other alterations to Christmas traditions. I’ve also been hearing about drive-thru living nativities and candle delivery routes. My uncle’s congregation got a grant so that their barn worship could also have heaters and porta-potties. Not quite the cozy feel of a congregation in their usual church building, dressed up around Christmas trees with an organ softly playing Silent Night!

While many are lamenting that Christmas this year will not be what it should be, I can’t help but reflect that maybe it’s more meaningful this year and grounding for us. More meaningful not in a we-really-cherish-it-extra kind of way for finding more appreciation in the loss. More meaningful because somehow it seems closer to its origins, to a night in the little town of Bethlehem when a baby was born, and in that we came to understand God with us.

Those ideas of worshipping in a barn aren’t just because it can be outdoors and we might be able to gather more safely with our aerosols and droplets dispersed. A barn was the natal place (or, more accurately, probably one of the limestone caves around Bethlehem, where shepherds could corral their sheep). Even a porta-potty is fancier than those origins of human life mixing with animal waste. Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem: Biography of a Town reminds us that the village was barely a rural outpost, a crossroads for livestock more than offering human population or resources or culture. The location was less about what it WAS than about what it WASN’T. And it is there, to just such a place, that our attentions are turned when we observe Christmas.

In the central point of the festival of the Incarnation, our God comes to be with us. It is worth celebrating with all the cheer and gladness we can muster. Certainly that can be reveled with fancy clothes and joyous gatherings and offering cheery gifts. But it is far from dependent on that. Just the opposite.

Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of life-as-it-should-not-be, times of loss and death. That is precisely when we need a counselor and bringer of peace (Isaiah 9:7). Miracles aside, even a birth, a child born for us can be a sign of new beginnings, of God’s continuous work on behalf of life, a marker that it is not the end, no matter how bad things are.

Jesus was born in a time of oppressive forces, forcing behaviors and practices that wouldn’t have otherwise been chosen. This year, we may feel confined at home, restricted in what we can do. Joseph and Mary, similarly, were restricted, but in their case it meant they couldn’t stay home and had to travel. Oppressive reality may be an empire or it may be a contagion; either way still impacts our ordinary lives.

And when the baby Jesus arrived, it’s good to remember it wasn’t in a cozy birth suite. In these days when we hear much about medical systems at a breaking point and elective procedures postponed and not enough doctors and nurses to staff the hospitals, we also know that Mary’s delivery didn’t come with assurances of insurance and ready amenities to care and assist. Maybe we understand something more of her reality.

For our limited gatherings in days where we may not even gather with family and are told not to have guests into our homes to minimize the spread of the virus, we may better recognize circumstances of the ancient lonely birth when the family was not welcomed into anybody’s home but had to make due on their own. Clearly, it was a less than ideal environment.

In this year when all of our standard accretions are swept away, maybe it can offer the opportunity to focus on what is left, then and now.

There isn’t a guest list. There isn’t apparent assistance and aid. There isn’t freedom and ease for what we wish life to be. There aren’t the eventual festivals and crowds and bright lights.

There are sheep. There are stars. There is hardship. There is a child given to us.

God comes to be in our real reality. Not our wishlist reality, our ideal. Not just where everything can feel right and is briefly decorated and dressed up.

Of course, that’s the case in our other real Christmases, too. When baking is a frustration of imperfection and burned edges. When family squabbles and sometimes cries. When arguments don’t just get in the way but define. When songs are off-key. When lights burn out. When somebody is missing. When it doesn’t feel alright. Christmas is never about the ideal, but about the real. Because our God comes for our real lives.

Maybe this year we notice more our need, our longing, our lack.

This is an odd commentary, because it is about the intersection of ancient details with everyday details for life now. I can, then, only comment generally. You’ll observe for yourself and your congregation. But whatever you faithfully and compassionately observe, remember that the need and the lack is not a separation or diversion from what is supposed to be; it is at the very heart of Christmas and why God intends this.

I also hope there is a silver lining, one of those rare pandemic benefits, that as other things are swept away or are not possible, maybe we also notice what remains. There are sheep. There are stars. There is a child given to us. There are parents. There is hay. There are the realities of governments and roads and human life (and maybe essential workers, in those shepherds and the reporters who come to them).

In an example of rare incidents of noticing what remains, I almost never give attention to the psalmody assigned for Christmas. But maybe this is its time. This year, state parks and outdoor activities and enjoyment of nature have found a new and cherished place in our lives. So, again, as other things are cleared away, we might particularly notice in the psalmody a location away from our familiar sanctuaries and cozy living rooms. Here it is broadly proclaimed that all the earth is a special location as God comes to be with us and with all creation. This can be an occasion for us to attend to verses of the Psalm where it is not about our decorations or festivities, but is that all creation has decked itself and leads the hymn of praise.

The lectionary proceeds sequentially through three Psalms for Christmas (the only time it is set up that way).

First, from Psalm 96:

Sing to the LORD a new song;
   sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Let the heavens, and let the earth be glad rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    at your coming, O LORD
    for you come to judge the earth (Psalm 96:1, 11-13)

Second, from Psalm 97:

The Lord reigns!
Let the earth rejoice;
    let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness surround the LORD;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
Fire goes before the LORD,
    burning up enemies on every side.
Lightnings light up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of all the earth.
Light dawns for the righteous,
    and joy for the upright in heart (Psalm 97:1-5, 11).

Finally, from Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord,
    who comes to judge the earth (Psalm 98:4, 7-9a).

Or maybe you are ready for Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive its king;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing…
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

In a year when we can’t do much of that to which we’re accustomed and with those with whom we’re familiar, maybe we find especially the opportunity to tune our songs and our attention to the joy of the world, joining with fields, rocks, seas, clouds, dawn, sheep, and all of the realities. It is here that God comes to be.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/