Friday, December 28, 2018

On the Fourth Day of Christmas: Life isn't fair--the Holy Innocents

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
Matthew 2;16-18 (NRSV)

The selection of December 28 as the Day of the Holy Innocents seems out of place--the story takes place after the Epiphany, which we celebrate on January 6. A quick Google search found a concise answer to the question by Michelle Arnold, "staff apologist" for the Catholic Answers Forum:

The arrangement of the Church’s liturgical calendar is not always intended to be in chronological order. Sometimes feast days are arranged by theological significance.

In this case, there are a slew of feast days right after Christmas that emphasize the fact that the events surrounding Christmas were an anticipation of Christ’s eventual passion, death, and resurrection. On December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen Protomartyr the first Christian martyr after the establishment of the Church. December 27 is the feast of Sr. John the Evangelist the Beloved Disciple who stood at the foot of the Cross and received the Blessed Mother from Christ to be his own Mother. December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr. In the midst of this is December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs after the birth of Christ.

In short, the Church’s placement of a slew of martyrs’ feast days right after Christmas is intended to remind Catholics that Christ was, as Bishop Fulton Sheen once pointed out, the only man born to die. Christmas is important because it made possible Easter.

While Matthew's gospel is the only source for the Massacre of the Innocents, historian Thomas Madden points out that such a slaughter would have been consistent with what we know about Herod the Great, the king of Judea. Even though Herod was "king of the Jews," though under Roman oversight, many did not consider him Jewish, because his mother, Cypros, was the daughter of an Arab sheik, and thus a Gentile. Jewishness, then as now, was matrilineal. His father was an Idumean--someone who was considered racially impure by many Jews.

Herod, perhaps because of his questionable parentage, went out of his way to direct Roman wealth to his domain, engaging in numerous building projects, including the rebuilding of the Temple, new walls around the city of Jerusalem, the port city of Caesarea. But these projects cost money, and his high taxation made him hugely unpopular--he hired mercenaries and maintained what amounted to a secret police to prevent rebellion. And he placed a golden statue of an eagle--a symbol of Rome and a violation of the Commandment against graven images--atop the gate of the new Temple. When two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias, persuaded their pupils to take down the eagle, Herod had teachers and students burned alive.

The story of the Holy Innocents may not be literally true, but it's certainly in keeping with Herod. Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience, has the Holy Family flee to Egypt, in a reversal of Moses' flight from Egypt. After Herod's death, the family returns not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth.

But surely Matthew is also reminding us that life isn't fair--that in the human realm, those in power will commit enormities to maintain their power. One can hardly look at the last hundred years to find countless examples of the massacre of innocents in the name of power, prejudice, and fear.

As Michelle Arnold explains, the Day of the Holy Innocents is one of "a slew of martyr's feasts right after Christmas" to remind us that Christmas leads inevitably to Golgotha and to Easter.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Third Day of Christmas: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

"Nathaniel said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'"
-John, 1:46 (NRSV)

In the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, the Gospel reading for Christmas morning is John 1-14. For me, who had a secular upbringing, the reading initially seemed out of place. Why do we read the Prologue to John's Gospel on Christmas? There was no mention of Bethlehem, or Jesus' earthly birth. And later in the same chapter, we have Nathaniel make the quip about Nazareth, a remote town in Galilee. Philip doesn't say, "The man was born in Bethlehem--he's a proper Messiah," but "Come and see."

We celebrate the author of the Gospel According to John on December 27, the Third Day of Christmas. Like the other three canonical gospels, the earliest manuscripts of John are anonymous. Ancient tradition has attributed it to John, one of the Twelve Disciples, identified with the anonymous "disciple whom Jesus loved" in the gospel. Artists usually portray him as a beardless young man. In "The Da Vinci Code," by Dan Brown the author argues that the beardless figure on Leonardo's "The Last Supper" is actually a woman, whom the book identifies as Mary Magdalene. But it's clearly the figure of John, as any historian of Renaissance art can explain.

But back to my initial question: Why do we read the Prologue to John on Christmas. It's a reminder that Christ was, as we say in the Nicene Creed, "eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God." If Matthew and Luke write of Jesus' birth on earth, John tells us the eternal Christmas story:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being  in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptist]. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1-14 (NRSV)
The late theologian Marcus Borg made a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The three synoptic Gospels--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--focus on the pre-Easter Jesus--his earthly life, mission, death, and the reports of his resurrection. And while John gives us stories from Jesus' earthly life, they don't follow the pattern of the first three.  Without the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who expands his ministry to Gentiles. With John, Jesus is "the way, the truth , and the life"(John 14:6).

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Second Day of Christmas: a blunt reminder

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends,[b] select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task,  while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
-The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6:1-6 (NRSV)

On the day after Christmas Day, the Church throws us a curveball. From the magical story of the Lord coming to earth in the form of a sweet baby, we celebrate the church's first martyr--a man who, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, speaks out against the powerful--and is killed as a result.

I recently heard that a poll of historians named Alexander the Great to be the most significant figure in Western history. Jesus and Paul were tied for fifth. The reason: Alexander imposed Greek culture and language all over the eastern Mediterranean. Christianity could not have spread so rapidly without the first "lingua franca." By the third century B.C. Jewish scholars in Egypt began translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek; by Jesus' time, the resulting book, the Septuagint (seventy), so named because 72 men were supposed to have translated it, had supplanted the Hebrew text in some communities. The book was written, appropriately enough, in Koine, the dialect of Alexandria, Egypt, which had become the language of commerce throughout the Near East.

Thus there were Jews in Palestine whose sole language was Koine Greek, and it appears that many of them became followers of Jesus. And one of the first rifts in the church was over language--the Greek speakers felt the Hebrew (Aramaic) speakers were neglecting their widows. The matter was handled quickly enough by the twelve disciples, though with a certain arrogance: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables," which doesn't seem in keeping with Matthew 20:28: "Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve..." The seven men included one Stephen, who turned out to be an effective preacher as well as a servant.

Stephen's preaching led to accusations of blasphemy, and as a result, he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders. His speech to them may not have been politic, but he was literally speaking truth to power. After giving a synopsis of Jewish history from Abraham through Solomon, and pointing out the Chosen People's, stubbornness, he aims his rhetoric at his audience: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Stephen is immediately condemned to death by stoning for blasphemy. Like Jesus, he asks forgiveness for his killers. And the author of Acts mentions that a man named Saul is among Stephen's persecutors.

After the joyous celebration of Christmas, the Church gives us a blunt reminder that proclaiming the Gospel can have deadly results. But the story of Stephen's martyrdom also gives us a reminder that the most adamant foes of Christ can become his allies. Saul the persecutor, or course, becomes St. Paul the Apostle.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

On the First Day of Christmas: An audacious proposition

“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take the literally.”

~John Dominic Crossan
In what we now call the first century, there was a small sect of Jews and "God-fearers"--people who attended the synagogues, but weren't willing to submit to circumcision, Jewish dietary laws, and other rules of that faith--who accepted an audacious proposition: that God himself had come down to earth to live among us in the form of an itinerant rabbi named Joshua, or Jesus, from the backwater town of Nazareth.
And what was worse, this man had accumulated a ragtag army of followers, including fishermen, a tax collector, and an anonymous woman of ill repute. He singled out the poor, the mournful, and the hated as blessed, while condemning the rich and favored. He showed up in Jerusalem just before the celebration of Passover, and went on to outrage both the Jewish and Roman authorities by attacking the money-changers at the Temple--an action which led to his execution for sedition against the empire.
His death by crucifixion should have been the end of his movement, but his followers claimed he had come back from the dead. And somehow, more and more people--especially the God-fearers--joined the movement, or the Way, as he called it. As the Way's adherents increased, and their leader had not yet made a promised second return, there was a need to write the story down.

The first narrative was the Gospel According to Mark--attributed to a friend of Simon bar Jonah, whom Jesus called Peter, "The Rock." It begins not with Jesus' birth, but with his baptism in the River Jordan. Mark was probably writing to Jesus' followers in Rome.

The next two Gospels, those attributed to Matthew, a Jew who was also a despised tax collector; and Luke, a Greek-speaking companion of Paul, a persecutor of the Way before his conversion, give us two conflicting birth narratives. Both place Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, and the place where the Davidic Messiah (Anointed of God) was to be born. And both proclaim a miraculous virgin birth. John's Gospel, like Mark's has no birth narrative, but we read the prologue to his gospel on Christmas morning, for it places Christ as, as we say  in the Nicene Creed, "begotten, not made, of one being with the Father." but let us consider the narratives of Matthew and Luke:

In Matthew's account, Mary and Joseph are betrothed (but considered married) and living in Bethlehem. When Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he initially plans to "divorce her quietly" rather than shame her and perhaps subject her to death by stoning, but an angel comes to him in a dream, saying that Mary will bear a son conceived of the Holy Spirit, who will save the people from their sins. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, cites the prophets, and then references the story of the Exodus, though with a twist. The baby Jesus, after being proclaimed a great king by wise men from the East, survives a plague of the firstborn, though brought about by the false king Herod, by the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. When the family returns, it is to Nazareth.

Luke is writing more to the Gentile God-fearers, who are less familiar with Jewish narratives. He places the birth in Bethlehem with the device of a census, in which each head of household must travel to the city of his tribe. The census is for the purpose of Roman taxation. Luke, in fact, goes out of his way put the onus on the Romans--it takes place during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Joseph and Mary can't even find a decent place to stay, so Jesus is born in a stable. Instead of Matthew's wise men, Luke brings lowly shepherds, summoned by angels, to see the infant king. And the angels proclaim Jesus to be a Savior--the same word used to describe the emperor. If Matthew's Jesus is greater than Moses, then Luke's is greater than Augustus.

The two birth narratives, if taken literally, not only contradict each other, but are at odds with the facts as we know them--the Census of Quirinius took place in 6 A.D.--about ten years after Herod's death. And the Romans never required people to travel to their tribal hometowns. Matthew and Luke weren't historians. They were writing to put the birth of Christ into perspective to their respective audiences. And their narratives must have connected. Nearly two thousand years after they wrote their narratives, we're still repeating them.