Join me near Chicago this Saturday for a 4 p.m. lecture on “Creating Community” (based on Henri Nouwen) and Sunday 9:30 a.m. worship “Discerning the Body of Christ” at St. Paul’s UCC in Barrington, IL.
A few days after Christmas I picked up our morning paper and, before I put on my reading glasses, I saw on the front page a child on a sled in the snow, confirmed by the caption that began, “Heavy sledding…” I wondered where in the world the photograph was taken.
As I drew the paper closer and put on my reading glasses I was stunned by my mistake. This was no child laughing as he rode a sled through snow—no, this was a child crying out in pain, being carried on a stretcher over a caption that read not “heavy sledding” but “Heavy Shelling…” as in “Heavy Shelling Reported Near Damascus.” What I imagined was snow on the boy’s clothing must have been debris from the blast.
I felt much the same way when I read the Gospel lesson for the Sunday following Christmas. After spending Christmas Eve hearing and singing about the holy infant Jesus, so tender and mild, enjoying a silent and holy night in which all is calm, all is bright, I found Matthew’s text about the slaughter of the innocents disturbing and violent (2:13-23).
Here Jesus had just been born to Mary and Joseph, and was lying in a manger, sleeping in heavenly peace, visited in Matthew by three spiritual sages from another country who brought gold and frankincense and myrrh and, in the Christmas carol, Silent Night, visited by shepherds enjoying the “radiant beams from his holy face” that meant “the dawn of redeeming grace.” The only thing that had disturbed their silent night earlier had been angels in the heavens singing “alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born.”
Why, oh why, must this beatific image be shattered by political realities? Escaping from King Herod, who, if he can’t find this baby that threatens his political power, chooses to slaughter all the innocents—infants the age of Jesus, causing wailing and lamenting in his birthplace of Bethlehem. And why, upon their return from Egypt, must Mary, Joseph, and Jesus go into hiding once more, this time in Galilee, to escape the even more heinous son of Herod, Archelaus, who had ascended the throne upon his father’s death?
Why can’t we just have a nice little Christmas? Why can’t we all just get along? And why must politics intrude on our faith, disturb our praise and worship, interrupt our contemplative mantra of “peace on earth, goodwill to all”? Why must we read of slaughtered innocents and wailing mothers? Why must I pick up a newspaper and see such a disturbing scene as a terrified child in pain after the president of Syria has bombed his hometown?
If we learn nothing else from the subsequent life of Jesus, it is that spirituality is never an escape—it is always an engagement with reality. Jesus’ prayer “forgive us our debts” meant a lot to his poverty-impoverished fellow Israelites. “Thy kingdom come” meant the end of the Roman Empire. If a Roman soldier compels you to carry his gear one mile, carry it two miles, because “Loving your enemies” is a revolutionary act.
“Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but give to God that which is God’s.” “Don’t be like these Pharisees…,” rather, “consider the lilies of the field.” Whether waiting for the bridegroom or your master or the owner of the vineyard, be strategic in your preparations. “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” “If a town (or church) does not welcome you, shake its dust from your feet.” “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me.”
“Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” God’s “house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it a market place!” All of these quotes bring to mind real world applications of Jesus’ gospel.
And then there’s the cross: a political execution awaiting our “holy infant, so tender and mild.”
So I wrote this prayer for the children of the world:
In the name of Jesus who lifted children to his lapand said “of such is the kingdom of heaven,”we pray for the children of the world:We pray for those who live in poverty,from our own neighborhood to those in hidden corners of the world.We pray for those who live in dangerof abuse, exploitation, violence, war, and disaster.We pray for those who live in hunger and thirst,those who starve and those who are malnourished,those enduring droughts and those whose water is polluted.We pray for those who suffer illiteracy or disease, those who are refugees,those who are illegal immigrants, those with disabilities,those who are oppressed, those whose religion, culture, tribe, or nation distort their view of themselves and the world.Your child, Jesus, suffered with all the children of the world“because all our precious in his sight.”In the name of Jesus who lifted children to his lapand said “of such is the kingdom of heaven,”we pray for the children of the world. Amen.
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