A Christmas Story: “Leftover Pieces” Merry Christmas, Dear Readers

Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  –Luke 2:19

o-INVISIBLE-CASUALTIES-facebookThe Reverend Dr. Luke Harris and his wife Sarah knew what the two men who came to their door would tell them that Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve of 1967.

 Sarah had seen them first.

“Here they come.”  Her voice, calm and even, surprised her.

Luke opened his mouth to reply, but his chin shook, so he clamped it shut.

Sarah had sat in silence in the living room all afternoon with a book in her lap, but she had lost her place hours before.  The room had darkened as evening fell, but neither she nor her husband had turned on a light.

Sarah was not sure how long she had been staring out the window when the men arrived.  Walking in step between the snow banks on each side of the walkway, wearing dark uniforms with medals on their chests, they marched up the steps onto the porch.  They halted at the door.  They could not see her in the darkened room, but she saw them standing at the door in the glow of the porch light.  One of the men, a corporal, probably not yet twenty, looked as if he had never yet needed to shave.  He looked at the other one, the chaplain, and Sarah wondered, when she saw the way he looked to the chaplain for guidance, if maybe this was his first time.  When the chaplain nodded, the boy raised his white-gloved fist to knock, then held it in position for a second.  So quickly one might have missed it, the boy crossed himself; not a full forehead to umbilicus, shoulder to shoulder; just two fingers, up and down, side to side, like a prayer mouthed but unspoken, not even whispered.

Sarah, as Protestant as any, nevertheless joined him in silent prayer, her eyes wet, but open.

The boy knocked.  Neither Luke nor Sarah moved.

Until I hear them say the words, David still lives, Sarah told herself.  She and Luke sat in the darkness and kept their son, their only son, alive for just a moment longer until the corporal knocked again.  Luke answered the door and their lives changed forever.

“Regret to inform you, . . . killed in action, . . . . sorrow for your loss . . . grateful nation,” the memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After they left, Luke exhaled.  “Well,” he said, “That is that.”  He donned his overcoat and gloves.  He looked at his wife who had not moved from her chair. “Will you worship tonight?” he asked.

Sarah wiped her tears and looked up at him. “Yes, of course,” she said.

Luke preached the Christmas Eve sermon he had prepared in the days before the visit of the two men.  The words he had written did not sound familiar, even as he spoke them.  He knew then that his life would be divided in two:  life before David’s death, and life ever after.

At the communion table, he broke the bread, poured the wine, and inhaled deeply the aroma of the elements before he spoke the liturgy.  “broken . . . take, eat . . .poured out . . . drink ye all….”  The memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After he had spoken the benediction and extinguished all the candles, he did not wait at the door to exchange Christmas greetings with his congregation.  He did not want to put them in that position of saying two such incongruous things:  “Merry Christmas, sorry for your loss.”  He did not think he could bear it.

He hung his robe in the closet of the church study, closed the closet door, turned and looked around at the spacious room; the shelves of books, the oak desk and chair, and a cushioned chair where parishioners in need of comfort had, for a dozen years, found refuge in his counsel.  He sat in the parishioners’ chair and could not remember if he had ever sat in it before.  It was lumpy, not at all as comfortable as he had expected.

People would refer in the future to this moment as “his decision.”  It was not a decision.  It was a revelation. It was as if an angel appeared before him, but stood in silence, as if it had forgotten its opening line, “Fear not.”

Luke was sore afraid in the darkness of this revelation. When the curtain pulled back, he saw the place where his faith had lived, and it was cavernous and dark and hollow, like a sanctuary after a wedding, emptied of life after everyone has left for the reception.

It took him all of Christmas Day to pack his books.

He loaded the black Underwood typewriter into the car with the boxes of books.  He returned to the study one last time and sifted through the drawers of the oak desk for anything that might be important.  He found a plastic bag with some small black screws left over from the last time he had cleaned the typewriter, but he threw them away.  He always seemed to have pieces left over.

arlington-at-christmas

By the end of January, he found a job teaching undergraduate Hebrew and Greek in a liberal arts college far from their upstate New York roots.  Luke and Sarah settled in to a small town in the Texas Hill Country, not far from San Antonio.  They began a new life together, the life Luke called, though only to Sarah, “the life after death.”

Sarah found a church, but Luke rarely attended.  He spent his Sundays gardening when the weather allowed, and reading when it did not.  The wheel barrow he bought at the hardware store shortly after they arrived in Texas came in a box.  After assembling it, he wheeled it around to the back porch where Sarah was reading in the sun.  “Only two pieces left over,” he said, unable to hide the pride in his voice.

The wheel wobbled, but Luke did not mind.  “That’ll have to do,” he said, and for eight years it did.

It came to pass that on Christmas Eve of 1975, Luke had two things he was required to assemble:

One of them was a sermon, and the other was a bicycle.

Why he had agreed to preach on Christmas Eve, he could not fathom; but, he had begun to suspect that it was a conspiracy between his wife and his friend.  His friend Ian, who taught biblical studies, had set him up.

“Immanuel is a small congregation between pastors,” Ian had said.  “I would preach there myself if I hadn’t already committed to Kerrville.”

“I don’t preach anymore,” Luke said.  “I don’t even know what I believe anymore.”

“For God’s sake, Luke,” Ian said.  “You know you don’t preach your own faith.  You preach Christ’s faith.  Just read the story. Tell them what it says.  Throw in a Greek word here and there, it will impress them.”

“I just don’t think . . .” he objected, “that I would be up to it.  Especially on that night.”

Ian interrupted him, “Pull out an old sermon.  Touch it up, if you want.  This congregation is a handful of saints so solid in their faith you can’t do them any harm.  Just tell them the Christmas story, light the candles, celebrate Communion, and sing Silent Night.  They have it all memorized by now, they just want to hear it again.”

Luke opened his mouth to object again, but Ian stopped him.  “I would be eternally grateful,” Ian said.

Whatever Luke did or did not believe by then, he did believe in doing things for a friend, especially a friend who had done so much for him; who had warmly welcomed Sarah and him, even with their Yankee accents and Northern reserve.

He had only one more objection.  “I don’t have a robe anymore,” he said. Luke had left his black Geneva gown in the church closet back in New York.

Ian waved his hand as if brushing away a bit of dust.  “I have one you can borrow.”

And so, Luke sat in his home study at his old Underwood typewriter on Christmas Eve morning and stared at a blank sheet of paper.  By the time Sarah brought him lunch, the paper had begun to stare back at him, blankly.

At two in the afternoon, he opened his Bible to the Gospel According to Luke and began to type.  “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . .” He hit the return handle on the typewriter and the carriage flew off of the typewriter across the room and landed on the floor.

He stared at the carriage lying in the corner, then looked back at the remains of the typewriter in front of him, and the black inky ribbon that floated to the carpet between one and the other.  Had it been red or green, he thought, it would have been festive.

A memory emerged, like a dream that returns in the middle of the day:  a little plastic bag with two small black screws.  The leftover pieces had caught up with him, even as he knew they would.

Luke opened his file cabinet and found an old Christmas Eve sermon manuscript.  He folded it up and stuck it between the pages of his black leather Bible.

“It’ll have to do,” he said, because he still had to go back to his office and pick up the robe Ian had left for him.

And, since it was Christmas Eve, he had to go downtown and buy a Christmas present for Sarah.  It was not that he had procrastinated; no, it was part of his plan.  She wanted a bicycle, she had pointed to a bicycle in the window of Treadwell’s hardware shop, and that is exactly what he planned to buy for her–not a boxed up bicycle from the back that he would have to assemble, but the very bicycle in the window.

When he arrived at Treadwell’s it was nearly four o’clock on Christmas Eve, so he delivered the pitch he had prepared:  “I’ll give you $20 extra for the bicycle in the window already put together.”  The young sales clerk, a girl named Maria who lived down the street from Luke and Sarah, said, “I don’t really have the authority to do that.”

She called Mr. Treadwell at home.  He stood firm.  “That’s a man’s bike in the display.  Luke needs a woman’s model for Sarah.”

So, instead of a bicycle, Luke bought a big box full of bicycle parts.

“Don’t worry,” Maria said.  “I put together the bicycle in the window.  It only takes a couple of hours.”

Luke sighed with a prayer too deep for words as he loaded the box into the trunk of the Monte Carlo and headed for his office.  He found there the robe Ian had left for him; Ian’s extra robe; his white robe.  And, Luke had not thought about the fact that Ian was over six feet tall and Luke was not.  Their students exaggerated, but only a bit, when they called Ian and Luke “Goliath and Zacchaeus” whenever they walked across the campus together.  The robe would swallow him, but when he tried it on and looked in the mirror, he sighed, “It’ll have to do.”

Luke arrived home just in time to change clothes so Sarah could drive them across town at six o’clock for the seven o’clock service.  Luke went through his mental list:  Bible, old sermon manuscript, church address, robe. He plowed through that nagging feeling that he had forgotten something, and got in the car.

Sarah drove as night fell and a light fog settled over everything.  On their way, he remembered.  “I was supposed to bring communion bread,” he said.  “That’s what I forgot.”

Sarah sighed.  “I’ll go get some bread.  You go sit down in the church and get focused.  Go pray until the service starts.  I’ll be back soon. Something is bound to be open.”

Luke stepped out of the car at the corner and watched the taillights of the Monte Carlo fade into the foggy night.  He did not wait until he was sitting in the church to begin praying because when he looked up, he saw the choir already gathered outside the front door.  He heard organ music.  He prayed, “God help me, I thought it started at seven!” and ran across the church yard, pulling on his long white robe at the same time.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, as he pushed through the choir and took his place at the front of the procession.  The choir broke into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the procession moved into the church and the man next to Luke, eyes wide, asked, “Who are you?”

Luke began to introduce himself, to say, “I’m the preacher tonight,” but when he looked at the man next to him at the front of the procession and saw that he wore a robe and an intricately embroidered stole, his words caught in his throat.  He looked up at the front of the church and saw a statue of the virgin Mary.

This, he realized, is not a Presbyterian Church.

The question still hung in the air, “Who are you?”

That was when the first miracle of the night arrived.  His sense of humor, long buried in a fog of grief, returned.

“I am an angel of the Lord,” he told the astonished priest, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  By this time, they had reached the chancel and Luke spotted the side exit.  As he glided toward it, hoisting his flowing white robe to keep from tripping over it, he turned and called to the priest, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.”  With that, he dashed out into the night. He crossed the street where the plain white prairie gothic church stood waiting. The sign in front announced candlelight and communion at 7:00 pm.

Stepping inside, he caught his breath and greeted the puzzled man who handed him a worship bulletin and a candle.  The man stared at him from windblown hair to white robe that dragged on the floor, and back up to the sleeves that covered his hands.

“Merry Christmas,” they said to one another in unison.

When the service began, Sarah had not yet returned.  Luke preached with an eye on the communion table which had a chalice and pitcher, but no bread, and an eye on the door at the back, where, any minute, he knew, he hoped, he prayed, Sarah would walk through with the communion bread.

He spoke slowly and drew out each dramatic pause to give her more time.

When he reached the end of the sermon, the congregation sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  As the last chorus began, Sarah stepped in, carrying a basket of bread, and came, faithfully, down the aisle and up to the communion table where Luke took from her the basket with bread wrapped in a white napkin.

As the congregation sang, “O come, let us adore him,” and Luke placed the bread on the table, Sarah mouthed something to Luke.  What was she saying?  “Took the bus?”  He wondered if the Monte Carlo had broken down and she had to take a bus and that was why she had taken so long.

When he lifted the cloth from the bread, it came to him.  She had not said “took the bus.”  There were no busses running on Christmas Eve.  There were, in their little town, no grocery stores open after 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve.  She had gone all the way back to their house and found the only bread they had, far back in the freezer, left over from summer.  She had said, “hot dog buns.”

Though she had cut them into neat little cubes, she left one of them sitting on the top, unbroken.  The second miracle of the night arrived when he looked out over the congregation and recited the invitation to the table, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” Something fell into place; something fell back into place that had been missing since the two men had visited that Christmas Eve eight years before.  It began with an overwhelming sense of gratitude when he looked at Sarah with her mischievous smile; it grew into his own barely stifled laughter when he looked at the neatly cubed hot dog buns on the communion table and thought about the befuddled priest across the street.

All the absurd pieces of his life, and his son’s death, came together for just a moment when he broke the bread and poured the wine and he knew, deep in his bones, that this story was for him.  God had become flesh and blood.  And though Luke had long ago memorized the liturgy of the table, it did not feel rote.  The words did not run together, but instead they soared around the sanctuary and landed somewhere deep within him.

For a moment, the space thinned between heaven and earth.  That vast emptiness between this broken war-torn world where death reigns and God’s new creation where love conquers all, filled with hope, and peace and joy.

Zion12-24

That night, after Sarah fell asleep, Luke rose quietly from bed, padded out to the garage, pulled the box of bicycle parts from the trunk of the car and went to work assembling Sarah’s present by the light of the Christmas tree.

Maria of the hardware store had not been far off.  After four hours, Luke had assembled a bicycle.

With only two parts left over.

One of the parts looked like a heavy-duty bobby pin and the other resembled a thick paper clip. Luke considered his old mantra, “That’ll have to do,” but the vision of his typewriter in pieces haunted him.

It was two o’clock Christmas morning when the third miracle of the night arrived: Luke read the directions, all forty-two steps.

He found that he had put everything together just as the directions described.  At the very end, after step forty-two, Luke read, “When the bicycle is fully assembled, you will have the two parts pictured, a cotter key and a chain clip, in duplicate.  Place them in a safe place where you can find them when the original pieces wear out.”

Luke sat by the Christmas tree with the leftover pieces in his hand, and remembered the story he had repeated that night in church.  He remembered how the words of the shepherds amazed all those who had gathered around the newborn baby Jesus.  Nobody, including Mary, knew quite what to make of the words of angels and shepherds that night in Bethlehem.

But Mary kept all these things, these absurdities, these puzzles, these leftover pieces, and treasured them, pondered them in her heart.

julianaonbike

The Gospel According to Banksy

He does have a way of provoking conversation, doesn’t he?

beth06-front

Attributed to Banksy in 2005, the original painting belongs to British rock musician Robbie Williams.

Let me say this first:  I am in favor of the existence of a safe and secure State of Israel.  That said, I have a lot of appreciation for Banksy’s Christmas card, even if I don’t agree with every agenda item of If Americans Knew, the organization that is selling the cards this year with this image. 

Plenty of comments on blogs that display a reproduction of this picture point out that since Mary and Joseph were Jewish, they would have been free to travel through the checkpoint at the wall.  I can understand the resentment of those who object to the artist appropriating the role of Christians’ favorite Jewish family to illustrate the plight of contemporary Palestinians.

I invite you to think of this painting from another slant.

It reminds us that the story Luke and Matthew tell of Jesus’ birth is not some sentimental fairy tale separated from our world.  Jesus was born into a dark and messed up world.  He was born as a member of a community divided and oppressed because of race and religion.  Bethlehem was not some idyllic utopia of deep and dreamless sleep where all the shepherds were virgins and all the sheep were above average.  It was a place under occupation; a place where military power had been used to confiscate the land of people who had owned it for generations.

Luke’s account of the Bethlehem birth tells us of an emperor who requires people to travel in order to count them so they can be more efficiently taxed.  The taxes will pay for the soldiers who, by the time Luke wrote, had burned the temple to the ground.

The Prince of Peace grew up to oppose this occupation through non-violent confrontation, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, walking out of court naked (Matthew 5:39-41) Disciples came to recognize the cross as an expression of God’s way of reconciling the world; not through destruction, as in the story of Noah, or through confusion and division, as in the story of the tower of Babel, but through an act of submission.  Strength through weakness does not come naturally to human beings.  Taking on human flesh in the form of a baby, then refusing to resist the violence of crucifixion–it did not appear to be a winning strategy.  Jerusalem fell.

The reign of God among us preached by Jesus, where peace and justice reign, seems to have taken a hit.  Nations still rage.  Violence, terrorism, and brute force remain the weapons of choice by oppressors and liberators alike.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. stand as notable exceptions in the 20th century.  Mandela achieved liberation for his people by declining to renounce violence until the government that imprisoned him also renounced violence.  Malcolm X famously advocated liberation using Sartre’s phrase, “by any means necessary.”

It is so easy for me to advocate non-violence.  I live in relative safety and security.  Would I practice the non-violence of Jesus if somebody threatened my family, my children, my grandchildren? I have to admit to some cognitive dissonance.

The question:  do you think that non-violent confrontation in the style of Jesus’ sermon on the mount or MLK Jr.’s civil rights campaign, could change things in the Israel/Palestine conflict?  Who should adopt it first?  Does it matter?

Roadrunner Cartoons, Sisyphus, and the Virgin Birth

One Christmas years ago, when our middle children were 3 and 4 years old, my family and I visited my parents for a few days.  I slept late on Saturday morning (I was on vacation) and awoke to the sound of the television, my daughters’ giggles, and my father’s very loud guffaws.

I went downstairs to find my children snuggled up with their Grandpa watching a Roadrunner cartoon.  I sat down.  Wile E. Coyote set a trap using Acme products.

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Roadrunner didn’t fall for it.  Wile E. Coyote checked on the trap to see what was wrong with itcoyote fail

and it blew him up.explosion

All four of us laughed.

“It’s the myth of Sisyphus, don’t you think?” Dad said.  “But lots funnier.”

“I was thinking it’s a commentary on our dependence on technology,” I said.  “He’s a coyote.  Why can’t he just pounce on that sucker and eat it instead of using all the Rube Goldberg Acme products?”

“Shhhh,” said the children.  They loved the colors, the action, the explosions.  They couldn’t read the signs Roadrunner held up, but they still laughed.  Not just because we did, but because it looked funny.  Philosopher, naturalist, and young children, Roadrunner spoke to all of us.

So.  What does this have to do with the virgin birth narrative?  Here goes:  The Gospel writers Luke and Matthew both wrote to diverse audiences.  Their original hearers (the Gospels would have been read aloud to groups in a culture where books were so expensive to produce) were diverse in age, but also in their backgrounds.

  1. Some of the Jews would have known the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) in Hebrew.
  2. Others (a. Jews who had been raised in a Greek-speaking culture and  b. Gentiles who had attended synagogue) would have known the same Scriptures from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
  3. Finally, there were Gentiles who had come into the Christian community without any background in Judaism and little or no knowledge of the Scriptures in either language.

In the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew cites, and Luke alludes to, the prophet Isaiah who told a nation under siege that the forces of evil would not win:  “Look, the young woman (Hebrew almah) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us.)”  The Greek translation of this passage reads, “Look, the virgin (parthenos) is with child . . .”

Either way, Isaiah’s point, in 701 B.C., was that God had not abandoned Israel.  The king to whom Isaiah spoke, Ahaz, was a royal screw-up.  The people had every reason to believe that the siege of Assyria and Ephraim, teamed up together, would succeed.  Isaiah’s declaration gave hope beyond the immediate failure; that the child about to be born and called Immanuel, “God With Us,” would show the nation that God had not abandoned them.

So, what does this mean for Matthew and Luke?  And what does it mean for us?

Matthew, in his inimitable heavy-handed way, says, “Look!  We’re going through the same thing with this damned Roman occupation that God’s people went through with the Assyrian occupation in the time of Isaiah [700 years before.]  God was in charge then, provided a child, Immanuel, God with us (Good King Hezekiah) who saved God’s people.  God is still in charge, despite the brutal occupation of Rome, and is saving us through a child, Immanuel (God with us) named Jesus (God saves).”

Luke employs more subtlety, but he tells the story in a way that will call his original audience to remember God’s faithfulness and recognize it in the birth of Jesus.

And that is Luke and Matthew’s point:  God is faithful still.  Whenever you oppose tyranny and oppression, even when it feels like you are losing, you are not alone. You are doing the Lord’s work.  Whether you read Hebrew (almah, “young woman”) or Greek, (parthenos, “virgin”) does not matter to Luke and Matthew; they want Jew and Greek both to understand this.  What matters is that you know you are not alone when you suffer under Roman occupation, or apartheid, or tribal warfare, or addiction, or whatever evil haunts your life.  God has entered the world in Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.  We are not alone.

So, here’s the question:  When you have witnessed or experienced extreme injustice in the world, have you sensed God’s presence, or God’s absence?  Do you have a specific story you can share with us?

Megyn Kelly wins the &%#@ Idiot Award

One of these days, I’m going to start another blog and call it The &%#@ Idiot Award.  Every day, I will accept nominations, let my readers vote, and at the end of the week hand out the prizes.  This week, however, there is simply no competition.  Congratulations, Megyn Kelly.

Just to set the record straight:  The myth of Santa Claus has its origins with Saint Nicholas, who was Turkish.  Jesus of Nazareth was from, well, Nazareth.  If you want to know what color Jesus and Saint Nicholas were, get out of the studio and go make friends with some people from Nazareth and Turkey.

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He just doesn’t look that white to me.

And now, I will do my best to put my evil snarky twin back behind the filter and return to my usual pastoral self.

Reza Aslan, author of Zealot, makes a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of contemporary Christian movements.  He points out (with a smile) that the Jesus of history, being Galilean, would have looked like a Galilean; that is, the same hair, eye, and skin color as Reza Aslan.  The Christ of Christian movements, however, looks like whatever a particular Christian culture projects upon him.  In China, Jesus looks Chinese.  To Guatemalans, Jesus is a migrant worker, and to many white American suburbanites, the Christ of the prosperity Gospel is an affluent white man.

And, Aslan says, that’s O.K.

I have to disagree.  There is a third way.  Whereas the search for the historical Jesus has focused on the man from Nazareth who stands behind the scriptures, and the malleable Christ of culture takes the shape of wishful thinking of Christians, the Christian scriptures describe Jesus as the Jewish Messiah (Christ) with specific and uncompromising theological claims.  Whether those claims are believable or not, they are not malleable.  My agenda here at The Bible Is My Crazy Uncle is not to talk anybody into agreeing with any of these theological claims; rather, my agenda is to discern what those claims are and state them clearly.

My boredom with the quest for the historical Jesus, from the Jesus Seminar to Reza Aslan, grows out of its speculative conclusions.  While it would be fascinating to travel back in time to the first century, shoot a lot of video, audio, and photos, maybe take a selfie with Jesus and a few of the disciples, that’s science fiction.

Once we move upstream from the collection of manuscripts we have inherited, we have to make a huge leap to get back to the historical Jesus.  Though there may be only 30 years between the earliest Christian texts (1 Thessalonians, for example) and the death of Jesus, those 30 years incubated a radical transformation.  A small community of Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah transformed into a multicultural community of Jews and Greeks and North Africans spread out over a huge geographic area.

The New Testament authors wrote to particular communities of Christians with particular concerns about how to live and die as disciples of Jesus.  None of the New Testament authors wrote with the agenda of describing what Jesus looked like, or describing accurately or exactly by contemporary standards what Jesus did, or even exactly what he said.

Here’s the question of the day:  Do the words of the historical Jesus, to the extent we can discern them, hold more importance for you than the words of New Testament writers?

The Crazy Uncle Examines Mary’s Virginity

Thanks to those who commented on this post from my Facebook page; I’m still figuring out how to make the comments from FB available to all readers of the WordPress blog.  If there’s a way to make them migrate, maybe somebody will take pity on this tech-challenged crazy uncle and let me know.  For those of you who don’t know me on Facebook, I’ll figure out today or this weekend how to make these blog posts and their comments public on my FB page.  Or, just friend me.  Neill Morgan is my real name.

Roman soldier

Here is an authentic photo from the first century of a Roman soldier.  Great resolution for the time, don’t you think?

Roy put forth the hypothesis that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of a rape by a Roman soldier.  To fill out this hypothesis a bit, a New Testament scholar would point to the Roman occupation.  Rape by soldiers was common and unpunished; that is, the soldier was not officially punished for his crime.  The girl or woman who was known to have been raped, especially if she became pregnant, would have received dishonor, insult upon injury from at least some of her community.  So would her family.

If it is the case that a rape haunts the historical backdrop of Mary’s pregnancy, we would have to assume that Luke expected his first readers to understand his subtext.  The theological claim in this context is consistent with Luke’s explicit agenda:  that God takes the power of evil and oppression (especially the power of the Roman government) and turns it against evil.  The crucifixion leads to resurrection, the destruction of the temple leads to the spiritual temple of Jesus’ resurrected body and the spread of the good news to every corner of the world.  A rape by a Roman soldier leading to the conception of God in human flesh fits in nicely with Luke’s theology of the cross, of God taking injustice and, in a kind of spiritual jujitsu, turning it into a powerful good:  “We are getting what we deserve,” says the criminal crucified next to Jesus, “but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Ultimately, however, I am skeptical.

I’m partly skeptical because I don’t want to do unto others what I would not want done unto me.  I don’t buy it when someone else begins with his or her own theology and works backward into the text.  If I do that to someone else, someone who does not share my theology, it will feel forced, like retrofitting:  “If God didn’t mean for us to have iPhones, God wouldn’t have given us thumbs!”

I’m also skeptical because I can’t find any textual evidence that Luke intended in this story to address the issue of the rape of Jewish girls and women by soldiers.  Luke explicitly places his story in the context of the Roman occupation, when Herod was the puppet king, Augustus was Emperor, and Quirinius was governor of Syria.  He often addresses the issue of the confiscation of property and injustice perpetrated by Herod’s puppet regime.  But, he never addresses the rape issue.  Luke can be subtle, but he’s never opaque.   

Primarily, I’m skeptical because I don’t see any evidence that plausibility was a priority for Luke.  The historical explanation of rape by a Roman soldier, or a scientist’s explanation of natural parthenogenesis, reach for plausibility.

 Luke’s agenda was not plausibility, but meaning through mystery.  

Christine’s comment, “Why does everything have to be about science?” gets to this issue.  I love science.  Science helps me make sense of this world.  Evolutionary Science has helped me eat healthier and find an exercise program that works for me.  Medical science saved my life at least once.

But, I don’t think Luke, even though he was a physician according to legend, had a scientific world view.  He lived in a pre-scientific age.

The crazy uncle approach to scripture attempts to understand the biblical writer’s agenda by entering into his or her context to the extent that we can.  That’s where I’m going in my next post, taking a look at Luke’s historical, cultural, and literary context.  From there, we will have a clearer view of the meaning of Luke’s theological claim in this story of Jesus’ conception and birth.

Here’s my question for you:  To what extent does it matter to you whether Luke intended to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as an accurate historical account, or intended to tell this story as it was shaped by his experience of faith and his desire to share that faith with his readers?

Should Mary Hang On To Her Virginity?

Virgin Mary

One of my seminary classmates ran into a problem in the process of getting ordained to the ministry.  His scholarly approach to the Bible did not sit well with the more conservative members of his ordination committee.  One of our professors agreed to coach him on answering their questions with integrity and truth, but in a way that might satisfy those who took a more literalist view of the Bible.

He made it through the committee with a tie vote; therefore, the larger governing body, a meeting of about 400 people, would have to examine him and decide whether or not to ordain him.

His examination began well.  With poise and confidence, he articulated his answers in such a way that respected the authority of Scripture while embracing the tools of academic biblical criticism.  Then, it happened.  An elderly man came to the microphone and asked, “Young man, do you believe in the virgin birth?”

In the brief pause between the asking of the question and the breath he took to answer, perhaps two seconds, I could see in his frozen expression all the phrases, all the complex theological doctrine pass before his eyes:  historicity versus narrative theological witness; the line between faith and superstition; modern magical thinking versus ancient theological witness.  He turned slightly and made eye contact with his professor-coach who sat on the front pew.  

She was frantically nodding her head and mouthing the words, “YES! YES! JUST SAY YES!”

In my posts this week, I will do my best to tread through the minefield between the academic and the pastoral approach to the story of the virgin birth of Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke.

Before I don my steel-plated boots, I’ll stop here and turn it over to you, dear readers.      How important to you is the doctrine of the virgin birth? Why does it matter, or why not?

The Crazy Uncle Declares War on Christmas Pageants

I had this dream in which a grumpy prophet crashed our Christmas pageant rehearsal, raving like a lunatic.  “I’m the ghost of Advent past!” he screamed.  Dressed in camel’s hair, leather belt, and munching on locusts dipped in honey, he gave off the smell of John the Baptist, but his beard had more of a Carl Jung metrosexual trim to it.

002-john-baptist He stormed into the sanctuary, scaring all the shepherd children in their bathrobes and fake beards.  Toddlers in their sheep costumes bleated and ran to their parents.  An athletic girl from the church rugby team, (our church has a rugby team?  Where in my subconscious did that come from?) recruited for the part of the innkeeper, stood in the lunatic’s path and recited her line:  “There’s no room for your kind here, Mister.”

“Then who will set you straight?” he boomed.  “I’ve seen enough of these Christmas pageant travesties! It’s time to set the record straight.”

We three adults who thought we were in charge just looked at each other and shrugged, as if to say, “Record?  What record?”

The shape-shifting prophet peeled off his beard, revealing the face of Antonin Scalia.  He grabbed a Bible from a pew rack, whacked it with his fist and yelled, “STICK TO THE *#@%ING SCRIPT!”

Our Director of Christian Education, with director’s clipboard in hand, wouldn’t take any guff from anyone, not even a Supreme Court justice.  “A strict constructionist, are you?” she spat out the words as an epithet, eyes narrowed.

“What other kind is there?” he said, taking the form of Woody Allen.  “Places, everybody,” he said.  “You, children, yes you.  Take off those beards.  Shepherding was a child’s job, not an old man’s.  Remember King David before that business with Goliath?  He was a child, he was a shepherd.  It’s what children did.  Be yourself, be children.”

He turned to the beautiful rugby captain, looked her up and down and said, “I have bad news and good news.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“The bad news is you don’t have a part in this pageant.  There is no innkeeper.  There is no inn.”

She stood taller, towering over Woody.  She jabbed at the text in his hand, “It says right there in Luke 2:7, Mary ‘laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’”

“Yes, well, that’s an unfortunate translation influenced more by the English culture of King James in 1608 than the actual Greek word.  Look at it.”  He pulled from his pocket a little blue New Testament in Greek.  “Kataloumai, it says,” and he slammed the book shut as if to say, “That settles it.”

He looked around at the quizzical expressions on each face and looked up to the rafters and whined, “God!  Doesn’t anybody know Greek anymore?  What happened to teaching classics in school?”  The prophet shape-shifted again; no longer Woody Allen, but my grandmother, who just happened to have been a high school classics teacher, back when there were lots of them in Texas.

Kataloumai,” she explained, now with the patience of my classics-teaching librarian grandmother, “means literally ‘upper room.’  In chapter 22 of Luke, your English translation renders the same word ‘guest room,’ to describe the large room upstairs where Jesus and his disciples ate the last supper.

“So who sent them to the stable since there wasn’t a place for them in the guest room?”

“It was Joseph’s family.  Think about it.  Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to pay the tax because it was Joseph’s home town.  They wouldn’t have stayed in somebody’s Bed and Breakfast.  They would have stayed with family.  But, here’s Luke’s point in telling the story this way:  Joseph’s family took him in, prematurely pregnant wife and all, but told them, ‘There’s no place for you in the room reserved for honored guests.’  He started out life disrespected by his own family.  It will take another twenty chapters before he makes it to the upper room, and it will be his very last meal before the Roman government puts him to death; the same government that made Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for the census.”

“So, what’s the good news?” Ms. Rugby captain asked, “You said there was good news.”

Morphing back into the raving prophet, our visitor said, “You only need one stage set! There was no stable either!”  He shook the posts that held up the cardboard rafters.  “That’s a medieval convention imposed on the story long after Luke wrote it.  Animals were kept in the house on the ground floor.  There would have been a raised platform made of stone where Joseph and Mary slept, and an indentation near the edge where the animals could get hay was the only manger.  That wooden contraption–no need for it.  Cut it to pieces and throw it in the fire!”

With a sweep of his arm, he burned down the set.  Everything vanished except the people.  “This is all you need,” she said, again taking the form of my grandmother.

“Tell a story,” she said.  “Tell a story of a newlywed couple who come home to the groom’s family to celebrate a glorious event, the birth of their first child.  Tell a story of their struggle to stay connected to parents, aunts, and uncles and cousins and friends who do not understand them; who reject them for stepping outside the laws and conventions of sexual behavior.  After all, do you think anybody believed Mary’s claim of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit?  Of course they didn’t.  They whispered among themselves, ‘Back in my day, we stoned adulterers to death.  Hmmf.’  Tell us the story of God’s love for them, God’s plan for them, when their own people refused them the guest room even when it was time for her to give birth.”  The teacher gazed out over the empty pews, soon to be filled with pilgrims who want to hear the story, though they have heard it many times before.  “You don’t need to tell them what it means,” she said.  “Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, those who have ever felt rejected or discounted, will find themselves in this story.  And they will hear what they need to hear, in the words of the angels, good news, great joy for all the people.  All.