Worldliness and wistfulness on the way to Bethlehem 2021

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This Advent season, I determined to follow the lead of the BVM, the Blessed Virgin Mary, in “pondering” the Bethlehem story in my heart. So I went back to Luke’s Gospel in the King James Version where I first heard and learned it. For the life of me, I can’t recall how it is that I can still say the Luke 2 “Christmas story” from memory.

That ancient saga haunts me still, a classic Christian drama full of worldliness and wistfulness.

Worldliness was there from the start. The very grace of God “becomes flesh” not in some idyllic Eden but in the harsh realities of a world at once far away and very near to our own. Yet it is so filled with wistfulness — that “wishful, melancholy yearning” — even Jesus’ mother can’t take in, not all at once. “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Ponder this

Perhaps we should ponder the gospel worldliness around us still, with all the wistfulness we can muster.

Ponder this: Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of taxes; “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed,” meaning counted for tax purposes. The events of that journey to Bethlehem began in a world dominated by occupying armies, corrupt autocrats, unjust government policy, and economics, economics, economics.

Has nothing changed? As the New Testament tells it, God shows up in the flesh in an out-of-town-family that is looking for the Bethlehem census bureau. Can the story get more “worldly” than that?

Actually, it can. Joseph is accompanied by “his espoused wife, great with child.” The text says straight out that by first century standards the woman called “blessed” was a not-yet-married-very-pregnant-transient giving birth to the “Logos made flesh” in a first century equivalent of the parking lot at the Bethlehem Motel VI. That story isn’t just worldly, it’s downright earthy.

The world as it was and still is

She was one tough woman, Mary of Nazareth, singing radical, politically incorrect songs with the first pangs of morning sickness. In Luke chapter one when she learns what lies ahead, Mary chants the Magnificat, a hymn of worldliness and wistfulness, half praise-chorus, half socio-economic manifesto. The New English Bible sings it thus:

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord; rejoice, rejoice my spirit in God my Savior. For God has regarded the low estate of God’s own hand maiden, lowly as she is. From henceforth all generations will call me blessed, so great is God’s mercy, the Lord the holy one. 

Verse one seems spiritual, wistful even, but verse two turns worldly on her times and ours:

The arrogant of heart and mind God has scattered. God has torn imperial powers from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted up. God has filled the hungry with good things; the rich sent away empty.  

As Jesus’ mama tells it, his birth has implications for those who have nothing, and those who have everything. It’s about the world as it was and still is. This “worldly” Christmas requires us to confront our own arrogance, explore humility, and do all we can to fill the hungry with good things, like those who’ve rushed to Mayfield, Ky., and other states to aid communities and lives decimated by recent tornadoes.

Was Mary right after all? “God has torn imperial powers from their thrones but the humble have been lifted up.” God’s grace is not an entitlement, but an unanticipated gift, revealed for the overlooked people who occupy the same country as the rest of us.

By the way, the shepherds were sore afraid, yet the Bethlehem story hardly scares us at all. We’ve tamed it considerably with two millennia of telling. We’ve piped angel-songs into the mall, sometimes fretting when bone-tired clerks failed to say “Merry Christmas” after taking our American Express cards at the temple of Mammon. But the radical word to the humble and the hungry brought by the Bethlehem baby hardly startles us at all.

An impossible agenda

He grew up, you know, Jesus of Nazareth, and his talk about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving your enemies and your neighbor as yourself ought to scare us toward transformation in a world where people still treat each other ruthlessly, often in the name of somebody’s god. The crooked places still aren’t straight, the rough places get rougher, and we are no better at preparing “the way of the Lord” than were our desert forebears.

The Christ-child enters the world with an impossible agenda: “On earth peace.” That’s where worldliness and wistfulness collide. Two thousand years later there’s still no peace in the “regions around the Jordan,” let alone the entire earth. West Bank military checkpoints remain; only the soldiers and weapons have changed.

That’s the wistfulness of it. We yearn for peace because we’ve got no choice, in a world filled with weapons even the ruthless Roman legions never imagined. So we cling to the words of the grown-up Jesus: “How blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Peacemakers? Sure, but on innumerable fronts. Peace with COVID? Not yet, as we war over variants and vaccinations. Others speak of a pending “cold civil war,” anticipating bloodshed, armed citizen militias, violent white supremacists and Christian nationalists on every hand. Racial peace? Political peace? Familial peace? Peace with nature or is that too late?

Unimagined possibilities

Yet sometimes we stumble into unimagined possibilities, a tiny taste of peace. I’ve thought of that often since the death of my dear friend, Samuel T. Gladding, longtime professor of counseling at Wake Forest University. Sam was an internationally recognized scholar, writer and practitioner of the fine art of counseling, invited to New York City to counsel those who lost loved ones on 9/11, and to Virginia Tech University in 2007 after mass shootings on that campus.

I once asked Sam what it meant for him to offer help after those nationally watched moments of death and destruction. He said something like this: “You can’t ‘cure’ people after that kind of trauma, and there may always be a brokenness inside them from such tragedy. So you have to try to help them pick up the pieces of their lives through confronting memory and reality.” In Becoming a Counselor: The Light, the Bright, and the Serious, written in 2002, Gladding wrote that “from struggle and pain, inner resources can come into play and outer resources can be tapped so that in the midst of angst, anxiety or despondency, we can become different in a better — not bitter — way.” Sam Gladding was a peacemaker!

Christ’s gospel calls and strengthens us to pick up the pieces of brokenness in ourselves and those around us. Doing that, we cling to wistfulness — that mixture of sadness and expectation, the world as it is, and as it might be. And sometimes, if only for a moment, such wistfulness explodes into actual joy. It is the joy Mary surely experienced when her water broke a long way from home; the joy of shepherds who came “with haste” to discover “this thing that the Lord has made known unto us”; the “melancholy yearning” for a time when 9-millimeter pistols are beaten into plowshares and AK47s into pruning hooks.

It is that yearning insistence that by gospel diligence and unexpected grace, women and men of goodwill really can decide to be voices in the wilderness and “to study war no more” on the battlefield or in the voting booth. For if the wistful worldliness of that ancient anthem, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace” continues to elude us, then we’d all best be sore afraid. Let’s ponder that this year on our way to the West Bank — Bethlehem, you know.

Texto en Español

This text was originally published in Baptist News Global. Reproduced with the express permission of the author.

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