Christmas Day: Women and Religion

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7, CEB)

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It has been quite the journey this particular Advent; now we come to the “payoff,” so to speak.  Christ is born—alleluia!  The Church year has restarted and soon the calendar one will as well—but what shall happen to the women when Advent ends and the Church follows the very much male Jesus through His life?

Today’s particular passage from Isaiah, besides being a pair of great pieces from the Messiah oratorio by Handel, is applicable not least because there are so many ways in which we walk in darkness.  From the context of this female-affirming Advent series, we walk in the darkness of those who continue to overlook the gifts and presence of women within and outside of the Church.  We walk in the darkness of humorous nativities that still don’t challenge the lack of women in our faith stories (you can have an iPhone but not a female angel, really?).  We walk in the darkness of those who are still arguing God intended women to be utterly submissive to men.  We walk in the darkness of clouded glass ceilings.  We walk in the darkness of having to choose and defend pronouns for God as though God actually has a gender and inclusivity of both “He” and “She” somehow challenges God’s ability to be God.  We walk in the darkness of inequity and injustice.

And oh, how good to see a great light.

In this passage Isaiah hails one who made the nation great—long before red hats ever proclaimed the campaign slogan, Cyrus of Persia sent Israelites back home to rebuild their temple after having been in exile for hundreds of years.  Christians of the early Church took the passage and remade it to recognize the risen Christ who would make all nations great in shattering the binding yokes and oppressors’ rods.  In this new place with this new ruler will be justice and righteousness flowing like the rivers Amos invoked in his prophecies.

feminism_fair_enidePart of that justice, part of that righteousness, is the Church’s commitment to honor its people through the year.  Mary and Elizabeth fade back into the Christian tapestry now that Jesus is born, but their voices are not silenced.  Mary continues to appear in Jesus’ life as an important figure, and other Marys and a Martha and many nameless women walk across that world-changing stage.  Women do not drop out of the narrative, then or now; their voices continue to be important, their gifts continue to deserve development, and their place in the work of bringing God’s reign into human life continues to matter.

So how can the Church work into this justice?  Listen to women’s stories; hear their voices without trying to correct them or reshape them.  If you are a woman and you feel comfortable doing so, tell your story; speak of what religion and faith mean to you and the places within your tradition where you find acceptance.  Actively seek to place women in leadership roles—and women, do not settle for not having them.  Learn about the damaging history the Church has with women and pay attention to the ways that those words and actions continue in the present day.  Challenge fellow Christians not to let passive sexism slide.  Challenge yourself to call out those who make crass comments or jokes to you.  Pray for guidance in relationships with those identifying as female.  Read through Scripture, paying attention to the places women are and aren’t.  Love the women around you, whether as a woman yourself or as an ally and supporter.  Recognize that Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, did not turn away from women, and neither can we.

Merry Christmas.  May the love, the joy, the hope, and the peace of the season go with you to your places of celebration.  May the coming year truly bring us closer to the increased joy of a land on which light has dawned and women and men are both understood to be gifted and called into the priesthood of all believers equipped to go and bring that light to a dark world waiting for good news.

Advent, Week Four: Love

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary.  When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”  She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.  Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.  Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.Nothing is impossible for God.”

Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.  (Luke 1:26-38, CEB)

What a loaded word “love” is for women.  “Love” often means affection, or lust, or attraction, or attachment; for “love” to mean something deep, lasting, empowering, and healthy is, unfortunately, somewhat rare in modern culture all over the world.  This last Sunday of Advent takes all of the waiting of the season, all of the stress and anxiety and wonder and weariness, and hands back love.

historyboys8_queensjoyThe language of love is part and parcel of the Christian Church—for love Christ died, for love Christ rose; Christians are commanded to love God, one another, and self.  But love—true love, and not in the Disney sense of “true” love—is hard.  It takes work.  It takes vulnerability.  It takes hope, and peace, and joy, and frustration, and communication, and dedication, and change.  Love may be something into which people fall, but it must be something in which they actively try to remain.  Christian love asks huge things, demands huge things in the name of incredibly huge love from God Herself.

What does the Church demand?  One of the many things that prompted me to do this series addressing women in the Church from the position of a woman in the Church was the shameful and horrifying things said in the last year toward women and the silent allowance of much of the Church in response.  Christianity’s track record with women is not exactly lovely, whether it be the early Church father Tertullian calling women the “gate to hell” in his treatise On the Apparel of Womenor the description of women as “defective and misbegotten” by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.  Such destruction is not limited to the long-forgotten ages:  Pat Robertson, a Southern Baptist evangelist, claimed in 1992 that the feminist agenda was not about equality but “it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”  And just this past election cycle in America, many churches and church leaders stayed silent when the man who is now the president-elect called women bimbos, accused them of being at fault for their husbands’ infidelities, rated women’s value as people on their weight and physical appearance, and actively bragged about sexual assault.  (The Telegraph has pulled together a long timeline of his misogyny and predatorial nature, in case you’re curious about how far it goes.)

There is no love whatsoever in any Church leader or layperson not standing against this systemic dehumanization of women.  There is no excuse for such language or actions to ever be condoned by those who call themselves Christians.  This Advent, the Church must be a bearer of such incredible and deep love for women simply because they are God’s creations that there should be no doubt as to women’s worth.  Many, however, refuse to take on this direct an action, insisting there are other ways the Church shows love and support.

Love must be said.  It is most often shown in works, true, but to voice love for another has a power all its own.  To make the claim of love in front of “God and everybody,” as the saying goes, is to be vulnerable—and the Church is currently not being vulnerable.  Instead, women are told to bear their own vulnerability by the elusiveness of Christians who will not stand up and declare the awareness that women are purposefully and beautifully created, meant from the beginning to be part of humanity’s story in all its twists and turns.

Today’s passage, known in liturgy as the Annunciation, is one of the more famous stories of Christianity.  Much of the focus is on the virgin birth and its impossibility made possible—yet verse 38 is perhaps the most powerful.  It was only after Mary agreed to this child that Gabriel left.  He waited for her consent.  In arguably the most pivotal moment of God’s interaction with humans, the free will of a woman was more important than God’s plans.  The faith and acceptance of Mary made Christianity as it is possible.

Was there a plan B had she said no?  Likely.  But the Church needs to take away from this story this Advent—and women, also, need to hear—that God Herself valued the voice of this woman enough to wait for her answer.  That is love, that recognition that force or absence of choice would have ruined the whole of the religion as far as hope or joy or peace or a feeling of safety or belonging for half of the human population goes.  That listening is something that we of the Church must do, now more than ever, whether it be recognizing as Alice Churnock writes that Christians are also sinners and there are stories of abuse we must be willing to hear because faith must be a place of healing; or whether it be refusing to talk over women who speak of pain within the Church as though their experience is unreal simply because not everyone shares it.

Know that you are loved, Reader.  Know that who you are, no matter your gender, is celebrated by God because you live as Her creation.  For you God made God’s self vulnerable enough to risk rejection; for love God was born; for love God lives.  Hold fast to that, in this and every season.

Advent, Week Three: Joy

 Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
    He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55, CEB)

As the Christmas advertisements become ever more frequent and the music proclaiming “Joy to the World” looped on the radio stations starts to become a little stale, let the Church be at the forefront of declaring that joy is not the same thing as happiness.  Psychologies, a British women’s magazine, describes joy as “more consistent” than happiness and “cultivated internally.  It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.”  This is not to say that joy and happiness are mutually exclusive or that either joy or happiness is somehow bad; it is to say that they draw from different sources, and as this third week of Advent calls us to joy we must be aware that that is not the same thing as telling us to be happy.

Women, in this season fraught with Sexy Santa Helpers imagery, the misuse of the Marian narrative to tell all females they are incomplete without children, and cultural stereotypes that expect a perfect Christmas dinner made by a perfect hostess for everyone who may cross the threshold, may not feel all that happy.  (The frustration around the expectations of women are somewhat painfully addressed in a Saturday Night Live skit with Emma Stone.)  They may not even feel all that joyful.  And that is a real and honest place to be in this Advent season.  Happiness is not what the Church should be asking of women; it should be enabling them, however, to experience joy.

This third Sunday is also known as Gaudete Sunday, a name taken from the beginning of the liturgy in the Latin Catholic mass; “gaudete” means “rejoice.”  Mary’s hymn (today’s Scripture reading) is known as the Magnificat (from the opening line in Latin, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” “My soul magnifies the Lord”) and the text is pervaded with a sense of joy even in the uncertainty of Mary’s pregnancy and its complications.  This Sunday reminds us that this season, women are at the forefront:  in Advent we hear of Mary, we hear of Elizabeth, we hear of women in Jesus’ family tree and say in this season, at least, women are valued by the Church.  Joy to the women! an Advent devotional proclaims, and indeed this season calls out the joy—the deep wellspring bubbling to the surface happiness—of recognizing the gifts women bring not only to culture but to the Church itself.

Yet not everyone recognizes these gifts, telling women they have no place in Church leadership despite the stories of their grace in ministry like A Day in the Life of a Female Pastor’s Husband.  At this time of the holidays, also, not everyone recognizes the need for agency in sharing those gifts and sharing of selves; pressure on both women and men to go to familial structures that may be painful and damaging in the false name of the importance of genetic connection makes many dread the season.  There is no joy in pretending happiness at the expense of your own peace and no one who loves you should ever ask you to do that which steals your joy or makes you feel unsafe.  As Mary says, “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior;” from her very spirit that animates her comes the ability to rejoice, not from someone else telling her she needs to feel joy.  She is now exalted, mindfully part of the story of Christmas, of Christianity itself, because she was given the choice to say yes, I will be part of this.

Joy, like hope and peace, takes work.  It takes trust and space and time and choice; it takes an awareness of the self that may be a difficult thing to hold.  In a world and a Church that often tells women to smile, reinforcing the idea that women are only as useful as their beauty or cheerfulness, we who claim this faith must advocate for and work toward the reality where joy is what is asked and what is cultivated, where the status of the soul is far more important than a facial expression.  This season, find the things that bring you joy, and be unapologetic about claiming them as God’s great gift from Her own wellspring.

Advent, Week Two: Peace

Comfort, comfort my people!
    says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
    that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying:
    “Call out!”
And another said,
    “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
    all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up
    and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up;
    the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.  (Isaiah 40:1-11, CEB) 

No justice, no peace!” we have heard many times this year.  “Peace” has come to mean “silence,” “acceptance,” “docility.”  “Peace” has come to mean not the absence of strife but the ignorance of it, the half-closed eyes that cannot or will not see it. The women of the Church do not want that kind of peace.

“Peace” is that which is often “passed” in church services, a synonym for greeting the others seeking peace in that hour.  Yet how often do we bring peace into a service, no matter our gender, in the heartache of a broken world?  How often do we have it to give?  If we are not at peace, if we are not still within our souls, how shall we pass anything but turmoil to our neighbors?  Shall we simply sit silent while greetings flow around us?  For women, the silence is both no option and the only option.  “Peace” is what many say as a way of saying, “stop talking.”  The chafing bonds of Paul’s injunctions spoken in a different time of specific context close women’s mouths in many denominations and they are told to be at peace, to have faith in this God-blessed structure.  “Peace” has become shorthand for a false tranquility that many women are told to feel so as not to be overly emotional, so as not to be disruptive, so as not to overturn the idea that women are somehow inherently gentler, more peaceful.

The Church must stop conflating peace with submission.  The Church, here in the expectant waiting of Advent with breaths caught in hope of all that the coming birth might do, must comfort its people, must “speak compassionately to Jerusalem” and to every city, to every nation, to every woman that “her compulsory service is ended.”  The Church must recognize that all are invited to see the glory of God, that there is neither male nor female in Christ, that the vision of the heavens is to see the valleys and the downtrodden raised up.

Peace is not silence.  Peace is not acquiescence.  Peace is not the status quo remaining unexamined or unchanged.  Peace is the active inclusion of the full body of Christ, peace is the ability to live without fear, peace is the solid truth that equity is part of God’s vision for God’s creation.  Eden was at peace when woman was included and valued; the false hierarchy of the Fall has no place in God’s heaven.  Peace comes when voices are raised to challenge the culture in which the Church exists, taking on the songs of the season like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because people of faith will not be complicit in the denigration of women’s choices.  Peace comes when male leaders, both lay and ordained, empower women within their congregations to speak God’s word as pastors, liturgists, teachers, and board members. Peace comes when we challenge the sacred texts speaking of sin and “she” in one sentence; peace comes when we teach and learn that women are not inherently more sinful than men no matter how many times female pronouns are attached to wicked cities or abstract ideas.  Peace is something that we make happen; it does not come on its own but requires our midwifery as the people of God actively birthing peace.

Peace cannot be a command from another who does not acknowledge the anger, the sorrow, the pain, the distance held within; peace must be a choice to be calm in our very souls because we actively decide to rest.  Peace comes as shalom, a wholeness of our very selves.  To the women of the Church, to the women of the world who wait in strife this second week of Advent says “peace” not as a directive but as a gift as yet undelivered.  “Peace,” it offers, knowing that peace has not come just yet, that action is still required though weary hearts are worn by the howling winds of all that is not peaceful.

May you find peace because you have chosen, in the full power of your own agency and value, to receive it as the gift of a God fully aware of all that is not at peace yet.  May peace, like hope, be your armor and strength.

Advent, Week One: Hope

Happy Advent, Reader!  This is a balm for me this year, to return to this time of waiting and being present in the hope of Christ’s birth.  It is important to me to observe it not only in my offline life but also here with you.  However, I bend to the reality of being in seminary; so, instead of my usual habit of observing Advent on this blog through the lens of various Christmas carols, I’m using this space to share a project assigned to me in my Women and Religion class—a challenge to engage the question of women’s religion and to create something that represents the fruits of that engagement.  I’ve written an Advent devotional corresponding to the four weeks and then Christmas Day (which is on a Sunday this year, which makes me terrifically happy) and I will be posting that through this season.  It is, I admit, a departure from my usual style because I am writing it for a specific course; I welcome, as ever, your commentary on it.  Please know that I mean this for both men and women, so don’t feel as though I’m leaving you out, Reader.  No matter your gender, you will encounter women and religion—and the Spirit will be with you in each encounter, delighting in the diversity of Her creation.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.  The night is far gone; the day is at hand.  So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  
(Romans 13:11-14, ESV)

It is the first week of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year and a time of waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth into the world.

Women know something about waiting.

Women through history have waited for recognition, have waited for equality, have waited for respect, have waited for a sense of safety, have waited for not only culture but the Church to see the gifts and talents they have to offer.  In this season of Advent where new political realities have already come to the United States and all over the world, many women feel their waiting for all of this has been prolonged yet again.  They feel that the slouch toward Bethlehem suddenly got longer—or was halted in the middle of the road entirely.  This first week of Advent brings the word “hope,” lighting the first candle to show us that the darkness is never complete.  But what hope does God’s Church offer to women, the often voiceless participants at the very heart of the institution?  What hope does God offer when it seems that we are waiting for liberation that will never come?

Hope comes in that single candle flame.  Hope comes in knowing that the fight is not over, that this is a new year and a new beginning, that neither we nor God are done with the vision of a world that recognizes, respects, and encourages both men and women.  Hope comes as Church leaders like Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne call for the traditional guard of evangelicalism to step aside and create space for women, for people of color, for the new generations, for all who are not currently being heard.  Their recent editorial in the New York Times, The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead, asserts that “we are not willing to let our faith be the collateral damage of evangelicalism” by excluding the voices God has called to speak.

Hope comes in devotionals like Fuck This Shit that refuse to be quiet or “lady-like” about the outrageous grace of God permeating a world that seems darker than ever before.  Hope comes in the ongoing conversation of gender and racial justice sparked by #StayWokeAdvent, a tag originally created in 2014 as a response to the outrage after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Hope comes in the call to everyday action through this season to change the world one person at a time, laid out in calendars like this:

Perhaps, for the women of the Church battered by the destructive force of a patriarchal system built into our religion and now reinforced in our representatives, hope comes from disengaging.  Hope comes from finding the people who respond to you as the purposeful creation you are.  Hope comes from privileging time with them over those who do not honor your value.  Hope comes from refusing to continue walking in the fear created by those who see only flesh and object; hope comes from waking into the fervent belief that God outlasts all governments.  In this season of Advent we wait, but it is not passive.  We wait in the active belief that God has come and the grounded hope that God will return.  Our year hinges on a spectacular birth made possible by a woman and her willingness to bear the impossible to birth the incredible.  We wait fully awakened, shaking the sleep from our eyes and the lethargy from our limbs to stand and say we have hope in the God Who made us, in the promise that righteousness will reign.

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, wrote into the tension of waiting in just such a time as this:

Friends in Christ, this is not an invitation to naiveté. People’s lives, livelihoods, security and well-being are at stake….We must stand against the meanness and hatred that is upon us. We must stand for what is best in us as People of God….We must stand against bigotry, hate and discrimination in all forms and settings. We must proclaim from our pulpits the Good News that overcomes hatred and fear. We must be quick to confess our own sin and places of complicity and vigilant against all that diminishes the worth of any individual….So, I urge all who follow the Christ to remember who we are in this time. We are the People of God called to proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who calls us out of darkness into his marvelous light. We are the People of God called to create the Beloved Community of Christ. We are People of God commanded to love as Jesus loved. We are People of God created to be the kingdom of God envisioned in the Advent prophecy and fulfilled by Jesus. This is our vision, our hope, our prayer, our opportunity, our commitment.

May our hope layer itself as the armor of the light as we step into this expectation, this waiting, this Advent.

 

Advent, Week Four/Christmas, Day One: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It’s technically Christmas even though I haven’t slept yet, and I’m super excited and running off of the energy of how awesome my church is at Christmas and incredibly much I love Christmas and yes, you can throw all of the Elf references at me you want (although my excitement skews in a much different direction).

So what better hymn to bridge Advent and Christmas?  Why, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, of course!  It has the added bonus of lyrics by Charles Wesley, one of the founding brothers of my denomination (United Methodist) and author of literally over 6,000 hymns.  Of course, he originally wanted it slow and stately, which isn’t my cup of tea for this song.  It’s a whole song of joy that Christ is finally born—get your party on, y’all.

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, Christmas is my favorite holiday.  It always has been, actually, though for different reasons throughout my life.  But nowadays, I love Christmas to pieces because it is overflowing with joy and hope and starlight.  This song has it:  these angels are singing that “God and sinners [are] reconciled.”  Reconciled!  We are no longer set apart from God!

Not super into atonement theory?  Okay; how about “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity”?  I love that one of the things people found super weird about Christianity in the early days was that a god would be stupid enough to trap himself in a human body—especially when he then got killed for it.  That’s not to say that there aren’t sacrifice narratives in other early religions (there’re a lot of them, actually), but it is to say that God became human, from the squalling infant who couldn’t even focus on images in the cradle to the bleeding Man who refused to step outside of the mortal process until He broke it in half.

Still not seeing the joy?  Then try this on:  “Light and life to all He brings / Ris’n with healing in His wings.”

Reader, you can’t possibly tell me with a straight face that you aren’t excited about the possibility of light, life, and healing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me; this isn’t my attempting to convert you to Christianity (although if you want to have that conversation, please know that I AM SO TOTALLY DOWN FOR IT and would welcome your questions and conversation most heartily).  It is, however, my attempting to show you why I danced my way across the chancel (stage) at one service tonight in front of God and everybody, and why I went to two services after having worked a full day, and why I’m still not in bed even though it’s half-past one in the morning and I have to get up in a few hours to drive to a family Christmas, and why I want you to see that joy can include happiness even if happiness is not the same as joy.

BECAUSE HOLY CROW CHRIST IS BORN.  Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!  Hail the hope of an end to strife!  Hail the One Who was born a king even though His cradle was a manger!  Hark—listen!  Hwæt!  (That one’s Old English, because I may as well get all my nerdery on.)  The angels are singing, challenging the nations to rise joyful in triumph that God broke His own differentiations to chase after Her confused and beloved children.  God tucked all of God’s Self into the form of a human baby boy; hell, God suffered puberty on our behalf.  That’s some love, right there.

God came to earth and understands fully what it is to live as we live—not to drive cars as we drive or to to fear gun violence as we fear or to eat McDonald’s as we eat McDonald’s, but to love as we love and cry as we cry and hurt as we hurt and laugh as we laugh.  He came to tell us that She was willing to do whatever it took to get our attention and return us to the relationship He had wanted from the very beginning when She breathed life into us and called us, called us good.

Hark, the herald (messenger) angels are singing!  Do not be afraid, for they bring you tidings of great, deep, and abiding joy.  Merry, merry Christmas.

 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  (Luke 2:13-14, KJV)

 

Advent, Week Three: O, Little Town of Bethlehem

Haha, it’s still technically Friday, so I’m technically not off-schedule with this.  (Mercy, Reader; we just finished finals week at the University of Pilgrim Land, and I am flat spent.)

I’ll admit, O, Little Town of Bethlehem is not one of my favorite carols of the season.  I truly can’t tell you why; I think it’s that I remember singing it as a kid (and it was, after all, written for children to sing) and associate it wholly with children’s choirs (a sound I really dislike, and you can call me heartless for it all you wish).  I think I also just don’t jive with the somewhat plodding feeling the melody can have (at least, here in America.  It’s a different tune in Britain, which is more than a little weird).  And I’m not the only one who gives it short shrift; it’s often paired with another Christmas piece rather than standing on its own.

So I took myself off to the lyrics, as is the best thing to do with carols, and it had the same effect it usually does:  namely, of quite rightly setting me back on my Grinch-y heels.  It consistently amazes me how deep a lot of the old carols go; where we of modern praise music are so concerned about telling God that we love Him and He’s great and we trust that faith will make whatever work, these carols recognize there is darkness, fear, and sin.  I don’t think this is technically an Advent hymn because Christ is born in it, but it is absolutely an Advent hymn in its sense of breathless, hushed expectation.  “How still we see thee lie,” Bethlehem, unremarkable town of ancient fame that is about to get even more connected to historical importance.  How small this town, this strange place over which silent stars wheel in their dance that recognizes nothing at all about this town but everything about this Child.

There’s a sense of wonder in this song, a marvelousness of how incredible it is that God became human.  The blogger Kate Hurley said it fantastically in a recent post:

What is even crazier is that the God who not only lives in the cosmos but CREATED them, the God that can’t be contained by eternity, that very God came down and became a tiny baby.

So we can hold him close to our heart.

Can you imagine how confined, uncomfortable, helpless, that might have felt? But he did it. He did it because he wants to be close to us.

What an amazing thing, that God should care that much.  In this God shining in the dark streets, in this God entering in to a broken world, the hopes and fears of all the years reside—the hopes and fears of everyone else in Bethlehem who didn’t make it into Luke’s narrative, the hopes and fears of the medieval mothers and fathers handing their children to a Church offering to be parent, the hopes and fears of my Advent, of Hopeful’s, of yours, of your children’s children’s children’s.  This carol has a heck of a lot of faith, actually:  no matter how screwed up the world is, if you open your soul to Christ, He will enter.  No matter how dark the night, the dawn will break.  No matter how miserable the situation, charity and faith abide, flinging wide the door to this most spectacular Christmas gift.

I don’t know about you, Reader, but I really appreciate that reminder.  My Advent has been exhausting so far—not bad, necessarily, just utterly draining on a spiritual, emotional, and mental level.  I would like to believe that angels are keeping watch in “wondering love” over we poor, misguided mortals.  I like the idea that faith “holds wide the door” wherein “glory breaks.”  I want to know that Christ’s ear hears “when misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild,” because there is much misery.  There is deceit, and treachery, and sorrow, and pain, and uncertainty, and injustice, and shame, and subjugation, and brokenness, and I want both Bethlehem and my little town and all the many, many towns in between to have this reassurance that God is making this personal.  It’s not about saying that the darkness does not exist or that Christ being born fixed everything instantaneously.  But it is about saying that even in that, glory, there is a God Who comes among us to live in those places, to begin the process of fixing things, to take the first step so that we are able to take a second.

O, little town of Bethlehem, what news!  What hope!  What promise!  “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; / Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. / We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; / O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”

 

 

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.  (Micah 5:2, KJV)