THE OLDER CHRISTMAS STORY
Homily given by Terry Fitzpatrick on the first Sunday of Advent
at St Marys In Exile South Brisbane 02.12.18
Today I would like to examine the theological origins at the heart of our Christmas celebrations. And I wonder if it is time to be telling the older Christmas Story. Starting at the beginning I reflect on our Gospel today from the opening lines of John’s Gospel.
“In the beginning was wisdom…”
I deliberately used the feminine noun wisdom (Sophia) instead of masculine noun, word (Logos) in an attempt to return to the original text from which the writer of John’s gospel borrowed. It is widely understood by many biblical scholars that author of John’s gospel borrowed heavily from the wisdom literature to write the gospel. According to biblical scholar James Rendel Harris, “The origins of the prologue to John’s Gospel was probably a re-casting of a hymn in honour of Sophia, divine wisdom, echoed in the eighth chapter of Proverbs and the seventh chapter of Wisdom of Solomon.”
In understanding the older Christmas story we must get beyond even our Judaeo-Christian roots to a much bigger story.
Speaking of things in the beginning allow me to share a little story about a Steel company looking for a new beginning and a bit of a shakeup hired a new CEO. The first thing the new boss was determined to do, was to get rid of all the company slackers. On a tour of the facilities, the CEO noticed a guy leaning against a wall. The room was full of workers and he wanted to let them know that he meant business. He asked the guy, “How much money do you make a week?” A little surprised, the young man looked at him and said, “I make $400 a week. Why?”
The CEO said, Wait right here.” He walked back to his office, came back in two minutes, and handed the guy $1,600 in cash and said, “Here’s four weeks ‘pay. Now GET OUT and don’t come back.”
Feeling pretty good about himself the CEO looked around the room and asked, “Does anyone want to tell me what that goof-ball did here?” From across the room a voice said- he’s the Pizza delivery guy from Domino’s. Probably not the fresh beginning the new CEO was looking for.
Origins of Christmas.
Before I introduce you to the older story of Christmas allow me to examine our present origins of Christmas. As we approach Christmas I wonder increasingly how to make sense of it. I think I have found a way which I will share with you. I would like to acknowledge the work of Michael Morwood, theologian and educationalist, who has assisted me in my reflections. Some of you may be wondering what I am speaking about. Give me a moment to explain myself.
Christmas has come to mean the celebrations of the birth of Jesus, the incarnate one, the one from heaven, the God who becomes flesh, who comes to rescue us from our sins and for those who believe, provide a doorway/gateway back to God and for those who don’t find the doorway, an eternal life awaits in a not very pleasant place called hell.
Wow! What sort of God is that?
Do we really want to still promote that God in any shape or form? Where and when did this understanding of God arrive, and who or what does it serve?
From my wide reading I have come to see that it was a gradual emerging phenomena that came with the move from hunter-gatherer life-styles with deep connections to creation, to the rhythm and cycles of life and where the sacred resided. In order to survive and for heathy connection and understanding and preservation of the environment meant better chances of survival.
The move to agrarian, settler lifestyles, to the bigger gatherings of small villages to towns and cities meant the need for proper crowd control and the promotion of moral codes and standards for living together in close proximity. Here we witness the rise of the priestly class, middle management, between God and humankind. The sacred and divine which was once found in nature, in the rocks, rivers, and the movement of the tides and breezes, now resides in another place beyond this world which became known in the Judaeo- Christian tradition as ‘Heaven’. Over time we were told by the priests that it becomes increasingly difficult to get to this place unless certain beliefs and actions were performed and lo and behold for those who did not fulfil the prescribed requirements an eternal life of punishment and hell.
The priests developed elaborate rituals and actions which could placate this increasingly ANGRY GOD. We were informed that we were fortunate to have these go-betweens who knew how to please God and how to get people into heaven and how to avoid hell. How to bless things to make them holy and sacred. Life of this earth was only a trial to get to the ultimate prize of heaven. For in the famous Hail Queen of heaven prayer which many Catholics would have said reciting the rosary about life on this earth. We were, “poor banished children of Eve mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Life on earth was an exile and a trial and was not sacred in any shape or form, unless a priest made it so.
In the famous carol, ‘O Holy Night’ we hear in the opening lines, “long lay the world in sin and error pinning, till he appeared and the spirit felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices…”
Jesus breaks open the doors of heaven by dying on the cross for our sins. It is only now thru this action we can gain access to the sacred, and the priest accesses Jesus and pleads with him now because Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father and has special access. When the priest prays all his prayers it is, “through Christ our Lord. Amen.” And only through Christ because we are still not worthy.
Let’s examine some of the words in our popular carols if you have any doubt that this is at the theological core of our Christmas celebration.
FIRST NOEL In the last stanza of this carol
“Then let us all with one accord,
sing praises to our Heavenly Lord
that hath made heaven and Earth of nought
with his blood mankind has brought
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel”
HARK THE HERALD ANGLES
“Hark the herald angles sing
Glory to the newborn King
God and sinners reconciled…”
“Born to raise the sons of earth
(not the daughters)
Born to give them second birth
Hark the herald angles sing
Glory to the new born king”
AWAY IN A MANGER
Last stanza “Bless all the dear children In thy tender care
And take us to heaven (that is where we encounter the divine not in this valley of tears, this place of exile) To live with thee there.
WE THREE KINGS (second last stanza)
“Glorious now behold him arise
King and God and Sacrifice (Jesus will pay the price, make the sacrifice so we can get into heaven) Alleluia, Alleluia Earth to heav’n replies”
THE OLDER CHRISTMAS STORY
All through our carols these small minded sentiments about the divine are central. But these narrow minded sentiments were not always central in Christianity. Throughout the ages the mystics, poets and deep thinkers have seen through this pantomime. Meister Eckhart writing in the 12th century,
” we find God in everything alike, and find God always alike in everything.”
Gregory of Nyssa writing in the 4th Century,
“When one considers the universe, can anyone be so simple- minded as not to believe that the divine is present in everything, pervading, embracing and penetrating it”
This thinking expressed by Gregory of Nyssa was more prevalent in pre-Constantinian times, but with the rise of the Constantinian church with its symbiotic relationship with State power, and becoming the moral guardian and sustainer of law and order in the empire through its reward and punishment theology, crowd control was assured.
It was not only Christianity who used this method of control through its religious class, it is found in other empires such as the rise of the Muslim empires for example the Ottoman Empire. But the mystics always broke through, we are most familiar with Rumi and Hafiz ,
“Stop acting so small, you are the universe in ecstatic motion” Rumi
We hear from Abdallah ibn Tumart writing in the 12th Century,
“Time does not enfold God
Space cannot hold God
Intelligence cannot conceive God
Imagination cannot conceive God
Absolutely nothing is like God”
These embracers of the silent world could intuit and know something beyond the world of the mind, the small critical judging mind, obsessed with whose in, whose out etc. I have spoken of in the past, where Jesus invites us beyond. To repent, to metanoia, to meta from the greek, to move above. The noia, the mind, the small judging critical mind to the bigger mind, the mind which can be truly present, Aware and Awake to this world, this amazing earth on which we live and move, this amazing body which we inhabit.
A body made up of 60 trillion cells with each cell made up of one thousand million, million, million, million atoms. Every night we replace 10 trillion cells no wonder we wake up tired in the morning. This body we inherit from a story which goes back to the beginning of the universe 13.8 billion years ago, and in particular our earth and solar system 4.5 Billion years ago when the great Super Nova imploded on itself generating the right amount of heat to create the elements we needed to produce an earth, Carbon, magnesium, potassium, Zinc, Sodium, iron…etc…
In this, Consciousness came into form, God, the word, wisdom, became flesh,,,as we heard in John’s Gospel. But much than flesh, not limited to the human, but all of life infused with the divine. Every common bush as we find in the words of Elizabeth Barret Browning,
“Earth is crammed with heaven (the sacred)
And every common bush afire with God (Consciousness)
But only they who see take off their shoes”
Or in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins
“The universe is charged with the grandeur of God”
This is the incarnation story that the mystics, the poets and deep thinkers could see.
This is the older Christmas story we must celebrate. For Christmas is about celebrating the divine in our midst. A presence which has never left us.
A world infused with the presence of God, consciousness, the sacred, the divine. Not trapped in some heaven, where we may or may not encounter after death. Who is controlled by middle men who say what is holy and what is profane.
The universe story is our Common Story it belongs to everyone, not one culture or religion possesses it, its story we are learning about day by day, it’s unfolding, it invites wonder and awe.
In the words of the famous eco-theologian Thomas Berry” it’s the first time in human history that we have a common story”
And what a story this is. An older Christmas story which belongs to everybody.
Far more wonderful than we could ever have imagined.
I believe the mystics saw this, Jesus saw this, and hopefully many more. It’s a story that can unite us, it invites us to care for this earth which is infused with the divine.
This is EMMANUEL!
The beloved is truly with us and has never left us.