Alleluia, o how the angels sang, alleluia how it rang!
And the sky was bright with a holy light,
It was the birthday of a king.
I first learned that song (“The Birthday of a King”) during the first lessons and carols service I was ever in, my sixth grade Christmas pageant at St. Philips and St. James Roman Catholic parochial school in Phillipsburg, NJ. If you want to know what I looked like then, you need to check out my Facebook profile picture, I’m all decked out as an angel, trimmed with gold. It was all just magic for me – singing in the school auditorium and hearing the Christmas story. Because so much was wrapped up in Christmas – Jesus’ birthday, Santa Claus – I didn’t believe in Santa anymore, but the magic was still there – and the caroling, and the present buying, and the snow – we always had snow in northwest New Jersey –the lights in town, whether for Christmas or Hannukkah , the smiles on everyone’s faces, the sound of bells and carols. Just magic.
But sometimes magic, and that sense of wonder – wonder is wonderful but because it’s magic – you don’t know what’s going to happen, so there’s a little danger and even uncertainty, and magic can be swept away by certainty. For most of the year, I had a lot of certainty! I was a member of the Roman Catholic church, and I knew I possessed the one true Faith. I knew it all. I had memorized the Baltimore catechism. At eleven years old, I could tell you the difference between sanctifying and actual grace, differentiate among the persons of the trinity, tell the whole story of salvation, and explain why Jesus had to be born. He had to be born to die. Because then, he could open up the gates of heaven, closed by Adam and Eve’s sin. Why he couldn’t have opened those gates up on the heaven side, I don’t know. But that didn’t bother me then, for I knew that was so. There were times when I thought, how do people get through the day if they’re not Catholic? My certainty made me feel safe. I was in. I was special. I worried about my Protestant friends and tried to convert them. I had the one, true faith.
God, though, was pretty magical. God was everywhere – in my house, my school, the trees outside my window. But one day in church, for some reason, when I was very young, I asked my mother, where is God? She pointed to the tabernacle, that little box on the altar where the consecrated hosts, that is the body of Christ, were kept. She meant the presence of Christ, the Son of God was there, but I didn’t understand that. I imagined God as scrunched up in that little box, and just like the gates of heaven, he couldn’t open it unless someone in the outside did. We had trapped God in the godbox we had made.
Sometimes, I know, we have to say to God, will you please hold still a moment just so I can figure out whatever is going on. But the certainty of cramming God into the box for too long, like, say, thousands of years, can take away the wonder of God, even if you feel safer that you know all about HIM. Churches are good at certainty because people like to feel safe in church. Everything gets narrowed down to what you want God to mean, and suddenly, you’re fighting over how to plan a service or dress a chalice. Really I’ve seen vicious fights just about the meaning of putting this or that cloth over a chalice. But we all put God in that box, in small ways, and in big. It feels safer to know for sure what’s in God’s mind.
It was safe, too, to have my church interpret the Bible for me. For the church, I was taught, could neither deceive nor be deceived. The church was guided by the Holy Spirit. my teachers, the sisters, were also certain in what they taught me. And so were my books.
This is my sixth grade history book. It is called Before our Nation Began. It’s actually quite a charming book, and reading it now, I was amazed at how much of it I remembered. And how much I didn’t.
The covers are interesting. The front cover shows Christian soldiers marching to war, and they pass a field – on the back cover – where a peasant is tilling his field, and his wife and daughter stand praying. And for some reason, I don’t know why, Jesus is dying on the cross, right in the field. And I don’t understand this, either, there’s a planter of yellow flowers in the base of the cross.
The book starts off in Unit One, “How People Lived Before the Birth of Our Lord.” Yes, you start off with Adam and Eve in the Garden, who, “out of pride,” disobeyed God. I read that in my book, “As a result of the first sin, Adam and Eve lost their right to inherit Heaven. God, however, took pity on them. He promised to send a Redeemer (did I mention that this was my history book?) to reopen the gates of Heaven. For thousands of years, mankind looked forward to the coming of the Redeemer. The book goes on through Adam’s descendants to Noah and the flood, and then to Noah’s descendants moving out over the world. Then something strange happens in the narrative.
The writers tried to reconcile the stories of Genesis where people lived in cities and could write and build towers and work metal with what was known of stone age people. The writers couldn’t leave out the stone age. And they couldn’t say that the people of the stone age preceded Adam and Eve and Noah, because that isn’t “biblical,” so they said that the people forgot how to do all those civilized things because they had turned away from God. They had to relearn all that. It’s right on page 18.
On to Unit Two. “How Christianity Changed the World” and Chapter 5. “Our Lord Founds His Church.” I read, “While on earth, Our Lord established His Church, the Roman Catholic Church.” (Have you come across that passage in the Bible reading group yet?) Anyway, turn the page and you find that the Hebrews, God’s chosen people, were not happy under Roman rule. “The Hebrews knew that God had promised them a redeemer. The Hebrews, however, failed to understand the prophecies about the Redeemer. They thought that He would save them from Roman rule. They” did not understand that the Redeemer was to be the King of Heaven and not an earthly king.”
Imagine that – brushing off hundreds and hundreds of years of hope and faith and prophecies. Because we say so – rather, we say the Holy Spirit says so. Almost immediately after the time of Christ, his story was reinterpreted and so was the Old Testament reinterpreted – by Paul for one – who did not know him, and by the gospel writers (who wrote decades after Paul who wrote decades after Jesus). We all come up here and say Jesus said so and so and we go on from there, but it’s really that the gospel writer said that Jesus said so and so.
But why not be say that king meant king? If we’re going to be literal about the Bible, after all, a King in the Davidic sense. That may be why he thrilled and scared people. Something happened. The gospels are interpretations of that something. Some scholars have decoded some of the gospel stories; for instance, that the transfiguration was a coronation ceremony. Or the frequent references to Christ in Christian tradition as a Bridegroom – that’s been interpreted by the Catholic Church, too, you know, Jesus marries the church, so he’s the Bridegroom and the church is the Bride, and that’s one reason priests can’t be women, honest. But what it meant in ancient times – and you can see this in the psalms and Isaiah – is that the Bridegroom becomes King by marrying the queen. This is a very old idea, still present in fairy tales and chess. But if you say that Jesus was a real king or that he married, it’s somehow shocking and not biblical. Not much of church creeds or catechisms is biblical. Most of the Bible isn’t “biblical.” We’ve built a lot of godboxes. They make us feel secure, certain, safe.
I don’t mean to just criticize the Roman Catholic Church here. All of Christianity stumbles over the idea of Jesus as the Bridegroom and so much else. But Christianity had a great insight: we are not alone. God is with us. In a very specific way. He became one of us.
Now what does the birthday of a king Jesus mean? Jesus never said he was born in Bethlehem, he talked about Nazareth. If he was born as the snow was falling, as we sang last Sunday in that beautiful song at the end of the service, why were the shepherds minding their flocks in the fields?
There is no record in Rome’s well documented history of Caesar Augustus decreeing that all the world should be enrolled. Roman taxes were collected and censuses were taken on site, so you could count those cows and goats and people. Why would the Romans have ordered a dislocation of the whole then known world and without anyone recording it? The only mention of such a census is in the gospel, which is not exactly the Associated Press. The gospels are documents of faith written at a specific time for a specific audience that isn’t us.
Why are we calling Jesus’ birth the birth of the prince of peace? Jesus according to Matthew 10:34:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The prince of peace comes from Isaiah 9:6, and Isaiah meant the Messiah but he wasn’t meaning the I have to die to save you Jesus the gospel writers tell us about. He meant – a king. A king like David.
No one in the New Testament celebrates Christmas. The Old Testament prophets ranted against pagan rites. Pagan rites would include decorating trees (Jeremiah in 10:3-4: “For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan; people deck it with silver and gold.”) Pagan rites for the prophets include any kind of tree worship because that’s goddess stuff, they were against fire worship, any kind of sun worship – and Christmas Day as many of you may know, is not really when Jesus was born – no one knows when that is – the date of Christmas has to do with the winter solstice – a sun worshiping feast. Well, too much of doing this can put us in a box, too.
But let me ask you, Chelsea Community Church, what exactly are we doing every year when we gear up the choir rehearsals and figure out who’s bringing the eggnog and who’s reading the poem and who’s decorating the church with pine and candles and reading the gospel of Luke and all that about the birth of Jesus and the shepherds and the wise men and taking up collections and tearing our hair out and getting our picture in the New York Times and just about breaking even every year? What are we doing?
Well, I’ll tell you, but you can’t let it out of this building. We are spreading uncertainty. What I mean by that is, we are spreading WONDER. All the stuff going on at this time of year is just plain WONDERFUL. We unlock the box and let God soar through the stars and our hearts. Did the story Luke tell about the birth of Jesus actually happen? I don’t know. But it does happen. Every time it is told.
Our stories for this time of year reflect the poetic way of looking at the sky and the cosmos and telling stories, the way they used to tell stories of star movements and of mythological figures. The cosmos – who made that? – was everyone’s tv back then, and everyone watched that channel and told stories, call it fan fiction. The big show was around this time of year – the great struggle between the light and the darkness. Can you imagine the feelings of the people for the first time, seeing the darkness grow longer, taking over the sun, about to cover everyone in darkness, people walking in darkness and suddenly then, wait, all is not lost, the light cannot be overpowered. It’s coming back! Who tells us that but God? Who tells us that but God? That light It grows in strength and power, until the days grow longer and warmer and we can start planting food again. Thank God. No wonder almost every culture without electricity in the northern hemisphere went nuts. This is the time when the light comes into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it. We say that twice – well, Malcolm Ritter says it twice, when he reads from John’s Gospel at every Candlelight Service. Gloria in excelsis dei.
This is the time of Yule, of Saturnalia, of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah – it’s also the time of Going Forth of Wadjet, when ancient Egyptians celebrated the Lady of Flame, the Cobra goddess, an image of the sun, and the fertility of the Nile. Not far from Bethlehem as the Holy Spirit flies. The birth of the new year is the profound understanding that death is certain but so is new life and that the light cannot be overcome by the darkness. Ever. It struggles to come back, and it always wins. Always.
Yes, Christmas is filled with magic – it’s Santa Claus and manger scenes and Christmas trees and feasts and helping the poor and sending cards to prisoners and visiting the sick and, and caroling and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and the night before Christmas, it’s all these things and more – keep piling them up – it’s not biblical? So what? If it’s about joy and smiling at your neighbor, what else matters? This is a special magic time of all faiths and uncertain faiths Peace and good will come with the light. The prince of peace comes with that light, and he is king. Why not? This is how people before us saw hope. Born in the light of a star, greeted by angels bursting with song. Bringing us hope. Why not? It’s true.
T\his time of year has started many stories and traditions, some which we know from our parents and their parents and their parents – from whatever faith or tradition they come. Our poetry is true in a way that surpasses literal truth. We open the godbox, shed our certainty, and let it spin us into wonder. We can’t stop telling stories about God, that’s who we are, but God – she is more than we can imagine, and perhaps that in the end can make us feel both wonderful and safe – the wonder and magic I found in that first of (so many!) lessons and carol services of my life back in the sixth grade when I could let go of my certainty with such joy.
In our stories and poetry, in our imagination, we can share in the life of a God we cannot yet understand, and be in her poetic image. Imagination is how we search for God; it is God’s gift of wonder. We can see in the world around us, God, Christ, the Spirit, from the cosmos to the life in each of us. In the darkness, the light will not die. No matter how dark it gets. That is God’s certain word to us, and we tell that story in our way. That is magic. And I hope that this magic, and this light, cannot be overcome in your hearts and lives. Merry Christmas.
Mary Sheeran (Episcopal), an associate member of Chelsea Community Church, earned an M. Div. degree at New York Theological Seminary. A writer/editor in the medical/pharmaceutical field, she also writes on theological topics. A classically trained soprano, she has created and performed cabaret acts in recent years, and she is the author of two novels, Who Have the Power:A Legend of the West (2006) and Quest of the Sleeping Princess (2010). She is currently working on a drama, The Gospel of Martha, with music by Robert Perretti. “The Birthday of a King” is a sermon she prepared and delivered at CCC on December 22, 2013.