(It is highly recommended that the reader listen to “A Festival of 9 Lessons and Carols” by the Men and Boys Choir at King’s College Cambridge” with a beer, coffee, tea, scotch, and/or spliff while reading this sermon for maximum effect.)
It’s moments like this that make a writer want to write. It’s Christmas Eve; the weather is wet and dreary; jack hammers are curiously pounding the pavement; the coffee is way too strong because I steeped it for twenty minutes; and the radio is playing a slow oboe to set the mood for a Boys Choir’s requiem. It’s moments like this that make you feel like they are meant to be. It is moments like this that sweep young writers up in a typhoon of content produced by their forebears and dictated to their subjects like a weather pattern. I am referring, of course, to the meaning of Christmas.
I have a unique view of those events because I studied biblical and theological studies in College. I have spent hundreds of hours pouring over Greek and Hebrew documents and combing through canonical and extra biblical texts to piece together the histories that send people to their knees, to their Churches, and to their shopping malls. I spent most of my time in the period of the Second Jewish Temple which took place in the few hundred years between the so-called Old and New Testaments. It was not a time of eternal fires, angelic glory, and barn burning prophets. On the contrary, if you pour over the histories of the Second Temple (ST), you will find a socio-political drama that makes the West Wing look like Sesame Street. It was a time filled with politics, mad kings, and revolution.
If you are not too particularly familiar with this time period just look at the biblical narrative up to that point. Early on in the “books of Moses” the “One God” created the Earth and the Heavens; destroyed it and most of the living things on it; made a promise of renewal; and set a plan in motion to rebuild It’s creation more in line with what It intended before Man fucked it up (again, according to the narrative). Throughout the middle portion of the book we are given an epic depiction of the socio-politico-religious rollercoaster of this one people whom the “One God” chose as the hoe for the garden of redemption. However, they were as much of a ragamuffin group as the “infidels” they intended to slay or co-opt. Therefore, in the third part we are given messengers and mouth pieces sent from this “One God” to guide Its people while they put the “rag” back in “ragamuffin” in exile. The Old Testament finishes with naught but a promise:
“I gave you a promise and you fucked it up, but I am faithful. I will send you a Prophet, a Priest, and a King to fulfill my promises.”
End of Old Testament
If you thought the first season of “Lost” was full of cliffhangers you should really read the Old Testament. It’s kind of fucked up. What kind of Deity would a) choose a clearly inept people to fulfill a Universal (for all they knew) redemption plan, b) not give them the tools necessary to complete such a task, and then c) blame them for not having their heads in the game? At any rate, without passing any judgment on the Judge, this is where the chosen people were left: broke, destitute, and conquered with nothing in their pockets but a promise.
Now, I am not making any judgments on the validity of this story. Frankly, I don’t care. I used to, but not so much anymore. However, it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what they thought and they thought that the “One God”, their god, would deliver them from their oppression by Empire after Empire (the Jews had basically been conquered by everybody in the region at this juncture) and re-establish their promised Kingdom. Enter the ST period.
As this period begins we have a diaspora of Jews scattered to the four winds. There is no central Kingdom; there is no King; there is no land. Sure, the Romans had funded and built a Temple in Jerusalem, but a self-fashioned king (Herod) building an idolatrous sanctuary a restoration does not make. Therefore, we had many different groups (very similar to the way Christian Churches have denominations these days) who practiced varying forms of the religion of the “One God.” The Pharisees were uptight religious assholes; Sadducees were elitist sellouts; the Essenes were ascetic weirdos; and the Zealots were violent revolutionaries. The first three thought that the very hand of the “One God” would swoop down and smite thine enemies; the fourth thought with a blade. At any rate, suffice it to say that you had a bunch of different religious groups all over the place who were waiting for some X event or person defined by some prophecy or another who would usher in the long awaited restoration of their Kingdom.
Now you have a proper perspective for understanding the Christmas story. 21st Century Christianity addresses personal existential questions of guilt, sorrow, and pain. -2nd Century Judaism was more concerned with King and Kingdom. The birth of Jesus was never expected to be a holy incarnation of Rah. He was supposed to be Alexander the Great with locks in his hair and a star on his Shield.
I don’t think it was such an unreasonable hope to have. As a matter of fact, I think it is the same hope that countless people (many more than 2,000 years ago) have today. You don’t need a religion of messianic hopes to want to live in a world where oppression is nothing but a chapter in a history book. The oppressed will always long for freedom. The stories we, as cultures, tell ourselves inform not only the thoughts on which we base our decisions, but also the feelings that shape our hopes and desires. First century Jews had been beaten up, abused, killed, and pillaged for millennia, according to their story. “Oh, how I long for the day that my brothers, sisters, and I are free!” is pretty much the entire book of Psalms condensed into one sentence. Sure, Great Men and Kings may have had their devices and schemes with which they intended to write their own histories, but everyday people have always been everyday people. Most everyone just wants to live in peace, practice their culture, and live and love with family and friends. That was the hope of the “Kingdom” and that is the same Hope we all long for today.
For who does not long for the end of oppression and the dawn of justice? It’s a human longing, not a religious one.
Think about our world today. Greed and Empire run rampant, trampling the poor and women and children on their bloody paths to world domination. War, poverty, and slavery are as ubiquitous as the Apple ads that are spraypainted all over the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And to celebrate the apparent advent of the end of suffering we choose to prop up the very War Machine that grinds up our communities in its golden jowls instead of resolving to challenge it. The hope of the Kingdom of the ST period is the same hope as the civil rights protester of 2014 is the same hope as the sex slave in Iraq is the same hope as the farmer in China. The vast majority of people want to live in a world of peace, equality, and diversity. It’s the loud people that are the problem because for some reason we keep letting them make decisions.
I am sure that every pastor and parishioner who puts ink to paper or type to screen around this time of year thinks that their particular circumstance is as close to the baby Jesus as a donkey to a barn in Nazareth, and I will be no exception. I think that the times, despite my best attempts to convince myself otherwise, are not a-changin’. I think the times are the same as they have always been. “There is nothing new under the sun,” the old Psalmist sung. I think the cries of the oppressed have always risen to tattered ceilings while their hearts sank under the weight of their circumstance. Yet, they always hope. They hope and pray for a new day where they aren’t gunned down in the streets, kidnapped from their homes, starving in the cold, or slaving in a bed. They pray for a kingdom of peace.
Only now I think the world has gotten smaller. I don’t think anyone expects a Savior King to be born. The connected empathetic world is tired of would-be saviors and kings and strongmen and politicians. The everyday people of the world are starting to wake up to the realization that they themselves are their own saviors… together. That’s the great irony and greatness of the story of Christmas. Great kings, like you and me, are always and will always be born in stables, not palaces. For from the same dirt and blood are we all made and will all die with the same eyes, hands, minds and hearts. The Great Message of Jesus is that the Kingdom doesn’t have a king anymore. A new day has come where we can live in peace, plenty, equality and diversity without the chains of oppression dragging down progress. Christmas should be about reminding ourselves that we can wake up tomorrow in a new world. If we can believe it will be, we can make it so.
Belief is the bedrock of action. That’s the message of Christmas--togetherness. Together we live; together we fall; and together we lift each other up and ride into that wild blue yonder. Oh come, let us adore! Hosanna! That’s Christmas; fuck the presents.