There’s just something about a good beginning…
If we are honest, any good preacher or speaker will tell you that with a good beginning (and a strong ending) you can get away with some not-so-impressive stuff in the middle. Not that one should make a habit of getting by with great intros and crummy content, but there’s some grace to be found in a punchy beginning, and some weeks, that’s a comfort.
This is where Luke takes centerstage in the pageantry and high drama that we bring into late advent. The first chapters, in fact, come as such a spectacle, that many scholars think 1:5-2:52 were a later add-on. Think of it as a prequel that some well-meaning editor whipped up in response to the best-selling frenzy that was Jesus. I mean, if you’ve got a hit on your hands, you’re going to capitalize! What if JK Rowling had started with, say, The Prisoner of Azkaban? I think it doesn’t really get good until the 3rd book. But had she started there, the frenzied masses would have eventually have cried for more. Not just more in the “what comes next?” realm, but more in the “why is Harry who he is?” department. The people want to know—why does Harry hate going home to Privet Drive? How did he get that distinctive scar? Why does everyone think he is the savior?
In this scenario, JK would be wise to go back and write books 1 and 2, right? Not just for the capital gains, but to better give shape to the epic figure of Harry. Knowing where somebody comes from, what people and experiences shaped their development, where they traveled and what they saw…all that adds up to an identifiable character. A hero with whom we can connect and relate. And really, the better the later and developed narrative, the more we want to know about the back story. Give us more Harry!
So, let’s assume that the author of Luke heard the cries of “Give us more Jesus!” and went about crafting the opening narrative. He (yes, probably he) might have pieced together some oral history, some urban legend, some inspiration from earlier gospels and some stuff from the Q source. And what we wind up with is a family of origin for Jesus, leading up to the iconic stable moment.
Here enters John the Baptist—who we explored in Mark last week—in his own family of origin, connecting him to Jesus not by blood, but also by narrative. Like Jesus, John was divinely conceived. SOMEhow or another, because his mom was old as *%&$, y’all. Like Jesus, John’s impending birth was announced by a heavenly being. In both narratives, the waiting parents are disbelieving, yet willing recipients of the new life to come.
So, a good beginning serves to set Jesus up with a network of people; a purpose; and a place, which, if you know Wendell Berry, is an important thing to have. But, why this particular beginning? When we could easily skip straight to the baptism and beginning of the adult ministry like Mark and John?
In Luke’s case, the beginning trains your vision for the rest of the story. The appearance of an angel to a young girl of humble origin; the journey of poor shepherds to the birth; the delivery amongst livestock—and at tax time, no less—it all adds up to the simple yet critical truth that Jesus was born among the poor and the vulnerable. And there, by choice, he stayed.
Luke’s is the gospel of women, of the poor, of the outcast and the underdog. Could you learn that by starting in book 3? Sure. But would you really get it without the greeting-card shaped prologue? Probably not. There’s something about the beginning that makes the rest of it stick.
For all that Luke’s gospel speaks to the poor in body and spirit, it also embodies a great joy that should fuel every ounce of our holiday energy expenditures. And the other kind of expenditures, for that matter. Because really, if we can catch hold of that kind of joy—the joy of a young mother, the joy of an angel choir, the joy of the poor being lifted out of dreary hopelessness-then there’s not much waiting under the tree that will hold a candle to it.
Think of Ralphie…Ralphie of Red Rider BB Gun fame. Damn, I love that kid! Thanks to the 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story” that runs on Christmas Eve, I can spend that most holy day with equal parts baby Jesus and Scut Farcus (he had yellow eyes! So help me God, yellow eyes!!). Ah…Ralphie.
Let me interject here that I am fundamentally opposed to guns of any kind—real or toy. But he is just so darned loveable, and the whole story just glows with Christmassy-good cheer and nostalgic humor.
When you think about it, not much happens in that movie. With the exceptions of the triple dog dare incident and the MAJOR AWARD, there’s little sub-plot. No car chases, no bad language (except that implied by “Oh FuUUUUUdge….”) no heady romance, no element of intrigue or the super natural. It is this one kid’s hopeful waiting and joyful expectation that propels the whole movie. It doesn’t matter how many nay-sayers taunt, “you’ll shoot your eye out.” He BELIEVES, and in his choosing belief and joy, we have a story, folks.
Something about that kind of joy tends to evade us as adults. After all, we are past wanting a BB gun. If we want actual stuff, we usually but if for ourselves. Or deem it frivolous and unnecessary. Though Lord knows, any merchant in the free world will tell you that they have this year’s IT-thing, the must-have gadget or gismo. (or these days, the must have APP for last year’s must have gismo). Victoria’s Secret does an annual fantasy bra to the tune of $2-$5 million dollars. It is encrusted with actual diamonds and other jewels–for the woman whose breasts are just too spectacular for a cotton-poly blend.
Don’t know about you, but I don’t find much joy attached to either of those items. I mean, a million-dollar bra had better work some literal dang miracles on my boobs, is all I’m saying. And a several-million dollar car is just begging to be wrecked or stolen. Not to mention that neither of these things has a snow-ball’s chance in Arizona of actually showing up under my tree. I mean, the whole point of joyful anticipation is, it’s got to be something that could actually HAPPEN. And I’d say there’s more chance of an angel showing up at my breakfast table than somebody buying me a gajillion dollar car.
And not to mention…well, yes, I’ll mention—it is gross consumption. And by gross, I mean grotesque. The joy we are invited to this season is the joy of the poor being lifted up; the joy of finding that God will use the meek and humble among us for spectacular purpose; the joy of believing that something will happen in the world that is far bigger than one’s little self, BUT, that by the grace of God, one’s little self might be a blessed part of it.
Can a kid learn all that in giddy anticipation of the possibility of a BB gun? Absolutely! Is a grown-up going to get all that from coveting a mega-million dollar undergarment? [insert rhetorical silent crickets here] It’s nothing new to say that the real meaning of Christmas is not wrapped up in material gift-giving. However, i think that too often leaves us thinking that Christmas joy has got to be symbolic, and that we are not to hope for anything too big, too real, or too tangible.
Garrison Keillor forgive this poor, wayward English major who does dearly love a metaphor–even in scripture–but for Christmas to come, something pretty doggone literal has got to happen in our midst, or it really is just a Hallmark commercial, and lots of us are out of a job. Luke says the transformation Jesus brings is REAL. It will be power-shifting and order-breaking. And it will start with somebody small. So yeah, we might know that nothing under the tree come Christmas morning will bring us real joy. But, do we still dare to hope that joy is coming for us? Or that we, our very selves, might give shape to that joy in the world?
For all the miraculous underwire—I mean undertone—ringing through Luke’s prologue, perhaps the most joyful noise of the whole episode is not in the angel’s song, but in Mary’s humble response—“Here am I, a servant of the Lord.” As one preacher put it, “her yes has transfigured the story, for now it hinges on her word, her participation and presence in the drama.” Presence. Participation. The power of our simple YES to carry us into the divine drama, and take part in all the joy of knowing that this new life is coming for US. Even us.
And yes, maybe we learned that kind of joy, flipping through a toy cataloug by the glow of the Christmas tree. Maybe that is the beginning of joy. But, it is not joy’s end. Even if we’ve long given up on ‘getting’ anything as epic as a A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time. But that doesn’t mean we give up on the joyful wonder of it all. This unfolding drama can still enamor and transform us all. Go back to the beginning and hear it again. It is your beginning too, and it’s your turn to say yes to your place in all this drama.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
-Read Mary’s magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). What does her song tell us about the God she knows? What does it tell us about Mary’s own beginning?
-What’s your favorite Christmas movie? How does it embody the joy of Luke’s good news?
-How might we read the gospel differently had Jesus been born to a royal family? Or if Mary had been an unwilling participant in the divine advent?
-The angel tells Mary that she will be “overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.” How cool is that?! What does that mean to the story? Can Mary be “overshadowed” and still be an empowered character in this drama?