Wednesday, December 23, 2009

4th Sunday of Advent - a message of Peace

I tend to be affected by Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD). As the days get shorter my energy gets lower and my mood gets darker. It’s like I have a solar-powered personality. I suspect this might have something to do with the fact that three of my ancestral lines come out of Denmark and southern Sweden.

The lives of our ancestors in these northern climes were dominated by the cycle of the seasons. Warming weather and lengthening days of Spring marked the time for planting. With Summer’s arrival the northern sunshine pushed back the darkness and provided almost 24 hours of daylight to enliven the crops and speed the harvest. As Fall approached the sun retreated, hopefully leaving abundant harvest from the Summer’s rapid growth. The harvest was commemorated with thanksgiving and celebration as nature’s bounty was brought into the barns and store rooms - hopefully providing enough surplus to last through the remainder of the year. From the harvest equinox onward was a time of tension and fear. With each new day the sun’s retreat resulted in noticeably shorter days as cold, darkness and death reclaimed the northern lands. As winter’s solstice neared it must have seemed like the sun was abandoning the earth and leaving us in eternal night. Our northern European ancestors reacted to this celestial drama with mourning, fasting, sombre gatherings and pleadings for the sun to return to the earth. By December 25, it was noticeable that the days were no longer shrinking and the sun was returning on its annual cycle. In the midst of winter’s darkness, it was evident that light would return to the earth. This observation was received with great gladness and Yuletide festivals dominated the northern lands full of feasting, hope and optimism for the year ahead.

As people living in our modern age, we are aware that the cycles of the seasons are the result of the earth’s annual orbit around the sun combined with a 23 degree tilt on the rotational axis. Solar travels and solstice sacrifices have nothing to do with this long-standing seasonal pattern. But this is all a matter of perspective and our knowledge is only possible by looking at this divine dance from a different, more theoretical view point. From our 21st century perspective, often disconnected from our agrarian roots, it is difficult to appreciate how important this cycle of the year was to our ancient ancestors.

Conversely, the celebration of Christmas was not very important for early Christians. In the earliest of the four gospels, Mark does not even comment on the birth of Jesus. For Mark, who was Peter’s translator, it seems that everything of importance began with the baptism of Jesus. John’s gospel starts with the Word that was with God before the world was and then he goes directly to the baptism. Once again the birth narrative was completely ignored.

Christmas did not become an important Christian celebration until after Constantine, the 4th Century pagan Roman Emperor, took control of the Christian church. His goal was to use Christianity to consolidate his power throughout the known world. Progress was slowed when the Northern European tribes resisted conversion and retained their traditional ways. When Roman authorities found it too difficult to prevent the customary pagan festivals, they decided to simply change the meaning of the celebrations. This is how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th - in place of the traditional Yuletide. Somehow it is strangely appropriate - at least in the Northern hemisphere - because Jesus represents the return of the light in a dark and hopeless world. Somehow, it was more difficult to capture the Christmas spirit during the years when we lived in Australia. Christmas caroling in 40 degree heat on the longest day of the year is not the same experience. Once again, it is a problem of perspective.

Fortunately for Christmas traditions, two of the gospels record the birth of Jesus, but they are both from specific viewpoints. Matthew, a first century Jew, wrote his gospel to the Jewish people of his time and insisted on linking the events in the life of Jesus to the Old Testament messianic prophesies. He even begins his story with a genealogy of Jesus that begins with Abraham and follows through the line of David, Israel’s most famous king. You can’t get more Jewish than that. Consistent with his culture, Matthew virtually ignores Mary’s role in the messianic miracle but records Joseph deliberating about how to break his marriage contract - until an angel appears to him in a dream. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Matthew records that wise men travelled from afar bearing precious gifts for the rightful king. Meanwhile, Herod the Roman-appointed Jewish tyrant, was so concerned about protecting his illegitimate power that he ordered the death of all Bethlehem-born Jewish sons. Gentiles, outside of Jewish society, could recognize the worth of the new-born King while God’s chosen people were kept from their rightful inheritance by a power-mad, Roman-installed political leadership. Luke was the last of the synoptic gospel writers. Unlike Matthew, Luke was a gentile physician and came from outside the first century Jewish traditions. He was not a product of that class-conscious world, where a man’s place in society was governed by his degree of ritual cleanliness and where God was kept safely in the central room of the temple - only to be disturbed by the high priest on a once-a-year basis. In Luke’s version, the story of Jesus begins with the perspective of women - starting with Elizabeth and then on to Mary. His version of Jesus’s genealogy doesn’t start with the father of the Jews - Abraham, but rather with Adam - the father of all humanity. Perhaps this is why Luke records the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds. It would not have occurred to him that due to their profession, shepherds were seldom considered ritually clean.

While it might have seemed unlikely from a first century Jewish perspective, there was plenty of precedence for shepherds receiving divine visitation. David, the model of Jewish kingship, had been a shepherd. Even Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flocks when he encountered God’s presence in the burning bush. At that moment God introduced himself to Moses using the divine name I AM, or in Hebrew Eyheh something closer to “Absolute Reality” or “Ultimate Existence”. God had heard the cries of the Israelites and Moses was chosen to free God’s people from bondage in Egypt.

In this past year, a dear rabbi friend pointed out that Egypt, or Mitzra'eem in Hebrew, literally means a narrow place. This is probably because the Nile creates a fertile lifeline in the midst of a lifeless desert. So Moses was called to deliver the Israelite people from their lives of oppression and bondage in the narrow place of Egypt and deliver them to the promised land which flowed with milk and honey. This likely explains why the Hebrew word for salvation is Shaleh which means to be brought from a narrow place of danger to a wide open place of safety. It is connected to the Hebrew word for peace - Shalom - which means to be made perfect, whole or complete.

This concept of Shalom has deep connections to the divine drama of existence. God created the universe in seven creative cycles -or days- and at the end of each cycle the work was pronounced good - perfect or complete. Things were exactly as they should be. Until Adam came along. According to ancient Jewish tradition, the fall of mankind did not happen when Adam partook of the forbidden fruit. This is when Adam and Eve became self-conscious or awake to their individual being. The fall occurred when Adam (Hebrew for humankind) and Eve (living) tried to cover themselves and hide from God because of guilt, fear and shame. This caused the separation of human consciousness from God’s all encompassing consciousness and gives us the illusion of an independent existence that is tied to our mortal frame. Perhaps it signifies the birth of the ego. Now we create our individual worlds beginning with birth, ending with death and made from personal experience. Our mortality is the narrow place of danger in which our consciousness eternally resides in the shadow of physical death. Sin occurs when we mistake the personal world that we are creating for the real world that God has created. We can easily justify selfishness, greed, hatred and even murder when we believe the world - or at least our individual world - depends on it. This illusion brings us to the point where we will cut down the last tree or catch the last fish to briefly extend our jobs, or even consider destroying the planet through nuclear war to protect a political ideology. No wonder it is so difficult for people to consider changing their lifestyle even if they could reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.

From this perspective we can truly appreciate the meaning of Christmas. Starting at birth our lives pass through the cycles of the seasons. Springtime is our time of growth. Summer is our time of strength and fertility. Autumn marks our golden years but we can’t shake the realization that Winter is closer with each passing day. Eventually our light will go out, our personal world will end and the darkness will win. Jesus came to break this cycle. In Joseph’s dream the angel told him “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” In Hebrew, Joseph’s language, the words go something like this - “Shemo Yeshua kee Yeshua imo” meaning “His name is Jesus because He will save His people” or “His name is He will save because He will save His people”. Hebrew is a wonderful language. In fact, if you break it down further, shua actually comes from that word Shelah meaning he will take his people from a narrow place of danger to a wide open place of safety. While we live in one time and space along this arc of our lives, God exists in all time and all space independent of creation. Jesus comes to deliver us from the bondage of living the illusion of our individual reality and brings us into the wide open place of God’s Reality. This is how He brings us true Shalom.

To those shepherds on the Judean hillside, those outcasts of their own society, the angels brought shalom. To a young, unwed mother-to-be who lived two millennia ago in Nazereth, a backwater rebel town in the occupied Jewish state, another angel spoke shalom. In spite of military occupation, religiously sanctioned class discrimination, revolution and the impending destruction of the Jewish state, Jesus embodied God’s shalom. So at this Christmas time of year, my fondest wish is for peace. Not the false peace that comes from everyone being forced to stay quiet in the face of injustice. Not the peace that comes from ignorance. Not the peace that comes from justifying the position of the strong against the weak. My wish is for that authentic peace that comes from a willingness to put God’s perspective above our own. That brings the peace that comes complete with hope, joy and love. It is the only way creation can reach it’s wholeness and we can all experience true shalom.

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