Cruciform Christmas

Two of our team did a neat skit last Sunday, playing the Bible readers for Christmas Day. The idea was that they were two parishioners tasked with doing the readings from Isaiah that look ahead to Jesus. They meet for a practice and a conversation follows. Liz read from Isaiah 9 - "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light..." and Sam follows with Isaiah 53 - "He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn't say a word...." Hang on, says Liz, where is the baby, the stable, the manger, the sweet story that everyone knows is what Christmas is really about? Follows a debate about the place of Easter imagery in the Christmas story - the shadow of the cross over the Bethlehem stable. In her persona as the parishioner who wants only the safe Jesus - the baby in the manger - Liz reminded us that we all, at time, want to keep faith contained and manageable. Sam, on the other hand, stood for the reality that if it weren't for the such more disturbing events of the first Easter, we wouldn't be celebrating Jesus' birth at all; he would have faded into obscurity.

Some years ago, the leaders of a youth group over which I had some oversight asked if the church could put a float in the Howick Christmas parade. They told me it would be edgy, and focus on Easter rather than Christmas, but I was okay with that. Theologically it was unassailable. But pastorally none of us had thought through what it would mean for hundreds of preschoolers to see a man apparently hanging from a cross in the midst of all the Santas, reindeer, elves, fairies, and a manger or two. It was a misjudgement and I accept that now. But what I don't accept was the attitude of half-dozen or so complainants who rang the church and berated me, not about a lack of attention to the sensitivities of children, but about Easter not being anything to do with Christmas! They got a sharp response from me to that.

When Mary pondered in her heart the things that happened in Bethlehem (see Luke 2:19) she would have been thinking of the words of the angel Gabriel, that the child she delivered would be called the Son of the Most High, that is, God. Although in Hebrew thought the phrase "son of" did not have quite the same meaning as it does with Christians today, it did mean "one who perfectly reflects the nature of", and that would have been an extraordinary notion to a Jewish teenager. Remember, if we give any credence to the family traditions included in the Protevangelion, (see last week's post) Mary was trained in Torah at the Jerusalem temple, and was as aware as anyone else of that era about the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah. When she heard the predictions of Simeon and Anna over her baby, that reverent expectation would have been tainted with dread. As Mary watched Jesus grow, and learn, and later take up his Kingdom ministry, she very likely had an unfolding awareness of his calling.

Some years ago I journalled about this:
A Sword-Pierced Soul

Grief cuts deep

A sword piercing the soul

Sharp edged
Flame hot
Searing mind and spirit

Dividing reality
Piercing the soul

The old man saw it coming thirty years ago

When we brought our little one to the temple

His rheumy old eyes sparked with recognition
As he saw in the Spirit what God had in mind
Now I can die in peace

For I have seen the salvation of the Lord

Yeshua was only a few weeks old
Skin still warm from the womb

Eyes still learning to focus
Hands still clutching my robe

Mouth still pursed for mother's milk

Joseph and I marvelled at the possibilities
Spoken of so surely by the ancient seer
The baby seemed so helpless - could he bring so much hope?
Yet we knew - he had come to us in no ordinary way

My body had swelled to announce his coming before I knew any man
Joseph had his doubts - but with God's help he trusted
The angels had prophesied greatness
and told the shepherds of his princely purpose
Now in the temple the old widow gave thanks to God
and Simeon too foretold astonishing eventualities

A light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of your people Israel

But then his countenance dimmed
And a sword will pierce your own soul, he predicted
The image shafted through my breast

A sword in my soul ?
I never forgot his warning

as we watched our son grow
first to cheeky childhood
through haughty adolescence
and on
to a place beside his father in the carpenter's shop.
He was such a willing workman,
even more so when Joseph left us so suddenly

He stayed on until the family were all grown

and the others could serve at the saw bench

When he started travelling
I followed as far as I could
Not just the journeys but in the movements of his mind
but I didn’t always catch his meaning
His brothers too longed to understand

But his message was a mystery
The Saviour who must serve - and suffer

The shadow of the sword hung over him

I didn't want him to go to the city

Somehow I knew that was where it would end
But he was determined

It was his destiny
And so he pursued his purpose with relentless intensity

John took me to Golgotha

After the soldiers had done their worst
He hung so limp - and yet still found the words for me
Mother this is your son, he whispered

John to be my old-age caregiver,
Me to have his friend for my comfort

Then I saw it - the soldier's spear

Raised high and levelled at his hanging carcass

Then thrust into his bedraggled side

A sword shall pierce your soul - the words returned

and grief seared through a mother's heart

its only hope in God.