The Underside Of Christmas

The Underside Of Christmas December 20, 2018

tonight I’m thinking about a Christmas story,
maybe a story not frequently told this way,
so here it is.

There were glory days in Israel. Around the time of David,
him having consolidated the kingdom
and then passed power to his son, Solomon,
who with clean hands (no wars to fight, his dad did that)
built the temple and the wealth of the nation.

These were glorious days. Then it all fell apart.
Civil war, the weakening of the state.
Neighboring nations like Babylon and Assyria,
observing the vulnerability, took their chance
and conquered first one half, then the other half
of Israel, placing the entire nation under subjugation.

Lots of Israelites were hauled off into foreign lands.
Foreign nationals were brought in to populate and rule.
So the Israelites had to learn how to do faith
without a land, without a temple.

This was the origin of how we do church today.
Minyans, ten men gathered in synagogue around
sacred texts, keeping faith in exile.

It was during this time of civil war, this time of exile,
that the prophets wrote. Isaiah, the prophets
expressed first the warning, then the experience of exile.
The grief, the loss, the displacement.

Also, some hope. There will be one who will restore things,
make them new. He’s coming. He’s on the way.

Then the Israelites got their wish. Cyrus did for them
what they had heard, he restored them to Israel.
New temple, new walls of the city.

Except it wasn’t like it had been. They had their land
and temple but all under foreign rule, a sort of puppet state.

And the oppression of this period is exemplified no more
clearly than the moment when Jesus is born, and the ruler,
threatened by his birth, executes all the holy innocents,
all the children around the age of Jesus.

It was into this context Jesus was born. Rebuilt
but not fully restored glory days. The grief and fakeness
of fake empire, no empire at all but life under occupation.

Thing is, people carried this grief, this lament, this pain
with them when they came to hear Jesus. He spoke to them
and all this history when he said things like:

Don’t be afraid.
My burden is light.
I will give you rest.

It keeps going like this. I have a friend, Mitri, a pastor
in Palestine, who sends out Christmas greetings
each year from Bethlehem. He reminds us that the continuing and regular practice in the area of Palestine
has been for empire after empire to tread upon
the people of the land there.

They are a people perpetually tread upon. And yet come
Christmas a little letter emerges from that holy city,
a reminder that a man was born there, Jésus.
Hope in the midst of oppression,
promise in the face of lament,
rest and freedom from many yokes.

So the birth of Jesus is not for or unto or really among
the comfortable or the Romans or the empire or
anywhere like that, but for those Palestinians,

the ones for whom the worst the prophets spoke of
was living reality, and yet they could say:

Every valley shall be exalted. Every plain lifted up.
And all people shall see it together.
For unto us is given…

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