Thursday, December 27, 2012

And After Christmas, What?

Everyone who met Jesus was changed by the encounter. From the beginning of his life to his death on the cross he was a presence that could not be ignored. Always there was the freedom to reject him; to deny his claim upon one’s life. But there was also a revelation of God. Those with eyes to see were transformed by what they saw.

The Gospel writers were spare in the details they gave us concerning Jesus’ birth and early life. Only Luke tells us of the angel’s visit to the shepherds, the temple encounters with ancient Simeon, and Anna the prophetess, the astonishment of the doctors of the Law at the precocious child, Jesus, when he visited the temple at age twelve. And only Matthew tells us of the magi’s visit. But from these few accounts, sparsely populated with details, we can weave a thin tapestry depicting the first advent of Christ. Thousands of such attempts have been made to do so, some more successful (more true to the intent of the Gospel writers) than others.

T.S. Elliot in his poem, The Journey of the Magi, imagines the arduous journey of the magi, the inhospitable world through which they traveled to arrive at the manger, the wonder of the magi as they looked upon what was at once a birth and a death – the birth of hope and the death, through death, of death itself – and their return to a world they no longer desired to be a part of. They had, as Matthew’s Gospel tells us, been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to journey home by “another route.” And once returned they began to long for that death that would remove them from the alien cities they once called home.

At the other end of Jesus’ earthly journey the final blow is dealt to death by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And there, at that brutal scene of human suffering, we find another wise man; a young man, we presume, being crucified next to Jesus. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that the two “rebels” who were crucified with Jesus heaped their scorn on him along with the soldiers, the priests, and others around the cross. But sometime during that long and pain-filled afternoon one of the rebels began to see what others could not. By the grace of God he was given faith to see in the bloodied man who hung beside him, not death, but life itself; not the failure of a rebellion but the inception of a kingdom. He rebuked his fellow rebel reminding him that they were dying for their own sins but Jesus was dying innocent of any crime worthy of the death he was suffering. Then he turned and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Often, when Jesus met unusual faith he acknowledged it with words like, “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel.” But this time, perhaps because of the extreme effort it took to speak at all, he merely said, “I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.” And another “wise man” returned to his intended home by “another route”.

The Christian religion is marked by its two great holidays, Christmas and Easter. Both are paradoxes.

Christmas seems to be the celebration of a birth but its deeper meaning – the meaning that the magi knew, in T.S. Elliot’s view – was about death. Only those who came to the manger willing to surrender their life to a dying Savior really understood the meaning of his birth.

Easter, overshadowed by the events of Good Friday, seems to be about death, but even before the glory of the resurrection one wise man saw that all of it – Good Friday through Easter Sunday morning – was about life.

Millions of “Christians” are spending these days, immediately after Christmas attempting to go back to their routine lives by the same route they took to get to the manger. They are returning gifts not wanted, returning to jobs no more exciting than they were before, returning to ways of dealing with life that never fully satisfied, not knowing that the birth of the Child marked the death of the old ways and opened “another route” by which they can journey home. They fail to connect Christmas with Easter; to see that death – the death of self-seeking self-confidence – is the “other route” to life as it is meant to be lived.

If you feel that the world is more alien in this week after Christmas it may just be a sign that you have glimpsed the true meaning of the event. Nothing is the same now. Those who truly know the meaning of Christ’s birth refuse to go back through toxic Jerusalem; refuse to collaborate with the Christ-killing Herod. They will find their way into Christ’s kingdom by “another route”; through a death that leads to life.

To all who say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” he will reply, “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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