Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

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Epiphany Thoughts

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I had high expectations when I entered seminary in Boston. I anticipated a place of great wisdom, soberness of discussion, and genuine Christian community. It didn’t take long to find out that seminary could just as easily be spelled, “cemetery.” If you didn’t have faith and knowledge of Christ before you got there it quickly dissipated. Theology and Biblical language study can be quite unexhilarating at best. Some of the upper level students were apt to try to lighten the search for wisdom, knowing that true wisdom isn’t found in books, it’s found in everyday life.

There were pranksters everywhere. For instance, on the first day of class someone switched the signs on the library’s basement restroom doors. They slid the plastic signs for the men’s and women’s restrooms and swapped them. That was sneaky and yet taught great wisdom. Another place for a search for wisdom lay in the classroom. I remember one class where we discussed endlessly what doctrinal camps we supported: Arminianism, Calvinism, pre-trib, post-trib, Pre-millenialism, Post-mil, and Amillenianism. I’m an A-mil, by the way. During one heated debate, one guy made the unwise assertion that he was no camp follower. He said that he was a Biblicist. His point was, in effect, “All the Bible scholars of the last two millennia are irrelevant. I understand God’s word without their help.” Sure, right, huh, huh.

Wisdom is built upon past traditions and present experience. The Wise Men, the Magi, were famous examples of this. They gathered information from past and present sources and acted accordingly. Too often what made seminary into “cemetery” was the disconnect between information and transformation. I remember being tripped up by this disconnect when a student of another denomination asserted to my pleasure that United Methodists would be the first to enter heaven when Jesus comes back. As I was smiling, wondering where this comment might be leading, he then added, “It’s in the Bible, you know.” I said that I didn’t so he then told me, “Yes, the Bible says clearly, ‘The dead in Christ shall rise first!’” He added, “I don’t know anyone as dead as you Methodists.” There’s a difference between a Wise Man and a wise guy!

The difference can be overcome by connecting our faith to our actions and words. “Seek wisdom,” Scripture does say but that wisdom includes sanctified “street smarts,” like surviving pranksters. True wisdom starts in heaven, like the star the Wise Men followed, but works at street level, too, where we bump shoulders with others. It isn’t satisfied with information retrieval. You can’t access wisdom by the megabyte. Wisdom is concerned with how we relate to people, to the world and to God. Wisdom is found in life decisions, not in computer chips, lexicons, or the number of textbooks read.

One day one of Mahatma Gandhi’s disillusioned followers came up to him and said, “You have no integrity. Last week I heard you say one thing, and today you are saying something different. How do you justify such vacillation?” Gandhi quietly replied, “It is simple, really, my son. I have learned something since last week.” When Gandhi learned new information, he sometimes changed his mind and altered his position. One of my resolutions for the 2010 is to be open to change!