Advent 4
December 18, 2016

Music from the Southminstrels and Matthew Thompson-Aue

winged women was saying
“full of grace” and like.
was light beyond sun and words
of a name and a blessing.
winged women to only i.
i joined them, whispering
yes.

–lucille clifton

Matthew 1:18-25
(18) This is how Jesus, God’s Chosen, was born. His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph. She was pregnant before they were married. This was the work of God’s Spirit. (19) Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man. He did not want to expose Mary to a public scandal, so he thought to break off the engagement without making any fuss. (20) When he had almost made up his mind to do this, he had a message from God in a dream.

“Joseph, remember you’re a descendant of David. There’s no need to have any worries about marrying Mary. This baby has been planned by God’s Spirit. (21) It’s going to be a boy and you must call him Jesus. He will be a healer and cure people of their wrongdoing.”

(22) The birth of Jesus reminds us of words spoken by one of God’s speakers in times past:

(23) “A young woman will become pregnant and give birth to a son. He will be the sign that God is with us.”

(24) When Joseph woke up, he took God’s advice and got married to Mary that very day. (25) They didn’t have sex until the baby boy was born. Joseph called him Jesus.

Mary Philip Appleman
Years later, it was, after everything
got hazy in my head – those buzzing flies,
the gossips, graybeards, hustling evangelists –
they wanted facts, they said,
but what they were really after,
was miracles.
Miracles, imagine! I was only a girl
when it happened, Joseph
acting edgy and claiming
it wasn’t his baby – – –

Anyway, years later
they wanted miracles, like the big-time cults
up in Rome and Athens, God
come down in a shower of coins,
a sexy swan, something like that.
But no, there was only
one wild-eyed man at our kitchen window
telling me I’m lucky.
And pregnant.
I said, “Talk sense mister, it’s got to be
the one thing or the other.”
No big swans, no golden coins
in that grubby mule-and-donkey village. Still,
they wanted miracles,
and what could I tell them? He
was my baby, after all, I washed
his little bum, was I
supposed to think I was wiping
God Almighty?
But they wanted miracles, kept after me
to come up with one: “This fellow at the window,
did he by any chance have wings?”
Wings! Do frogs have wings?
Do camels fly?
They thought it over. “Cherubim”, they said,
“may walk the earth like men
and work their wonders.”
I laughed in their hairy faces. No
cherub, that guy! But
they wouldn’t quit – fanatics, like
the gang he fell in with years ago’
all goading him till he began to believe
in quick cures and faith healing,
just like the cranks in Jerusalem, every
phony in town speaking in tongues
and handling snakes. Not exactly
what you’d want for your son, is it?
I tried to warn him, but he just says,
“I must be about my father’s business.”
“Fine,” I say, “I’ll buy you a new
hammer.” But nothing could stop him, already
hooked on the crowds, the hosannas,
the thrill of needling the bureaucrats.
Holier than thou, he got, roughing up
the rabbis even. Every night
I cried myself to sleep – my son,
my baby boy – – –

You know how it all turned out, the crunch
of those awful spikes,
the spear in his side, the whole town watching,
home-town folks come down from Nazareth
with a strange gleam in their eyes. Then later on
the grave robbers, the hucksters, the imposters all
claiming to be him. I was sick
for a year, his bloody image
blurring the sunlight.

And now they want miracles, God
at my maidenhead, sex without sin.
“Go home,” I tell them, “back to your libraries,
read about your fancy Greeks,
and come up with something amazing, if you must.”

Me, I’m just a small-town woman,
a carpenter’s wife, Jewish mother, nothing
special. But listen,
whenever I told my baby a fairy tale,
I let him know it was a fairy tale.
Go, all of you, and do likewise.

****************

Last week I mentioned briefly the difference between day language and night language. I want to talk a bit more about that. I learned those terms from a United Church of Christ minister, Michael Dowd. About a dozen years ago, he wrote a book called Thank God for Evolution. In it he explained the difference between day language and night language.

I want to share a few paragraphs of an interview with Michael Dowd. I think what he says here is a helpful introduction to Christmas. He was asked, “How do you define day and night language?’ This is his response:

I use the phrases day and night language as a reflection of our day and night experience. Humans dream, and in our dreams we have night experiences different from our day experiences. We fly, turn into other creatures, walk through walls. We do all kinds of bizarre things. In fact, if we could do during the day what we do most nights in our dreams, we would be having “supernatural” or “miraculous” experiences every day. But we don’t call them supernatural or miraculous, because (if we are sane) we easily distinguish our day and night experiences. Day language and night language reflect this. Day language is the language that describes what is measurably so, what is physically, consensually true. But we also add night language components, that is, interpretive components, because facts in and of themselves are not particularly evocative. They don’t inspire. They need to be interpreted to be inspiring, and there’s never only one right way to interpret any set of facts.

Night language is the realm of poetry, myth, symbol, metaphor and traditional religious language. It’s the language that inspires; it touches the heart, moves the soul, brings us to tears and calls us to awe. I don’t know of a single example of a people’s creation story— explaining where we came from, why we’re here, where everything is going and why we’re special as a people—that doesn’t have a blend of day and night elements.

For example, when you have gods and goddesses, angels and demons, talking animals and so forth, you’re in the realm of night language. Snakes and animals can talk to us at night. But we don’t experience that during the day. So having some sense of day and night language means that the only time we would call our dreams bizarre is when we judge them by day standards. For people to reject traditional religious language and stories—say the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden with the talking snake— there are some who just reject that story outright and say it’s completely fiction, it’s just ridiculous. And then there are those who interpret it as total day language reality—“No, it’s scientifically true. That snake really did talk.” Both are missing the point.

Virtually all scriptural and sacred stories worldwide use a blend of day and night elements. They’re saying something true, yes; they’re saying something often profoundly relevant for how we are to live our lives and thrive and survive and be functioning members of society. But to interpret them literally as day language is to trivialize them. This distinction is important because only when we distinguish day and night language will we see the promises of religion fulfilled. All religions make promises, but they make them in night language ways. So people who expect the “the Second Coming of Christ” to show up as a 6-foot, 180-pound man coming down magically on the clouds, are expecting the promise that was made in night language to show up in a daytime way. It will never happen. Such a religious vision may be speaking deep and profound truth, but if you’re expecting it to actualize, you and your descendants will wait forever. And that’s one of the reasons why religion has become trivialized. We’re not going to recognize how these promises are appearing in the real world if we’re expecting them to show up in that kind of unnatural, otherworldly fashion.

That is Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution, discussing the difference between what he calls day language and night language.

This brings us to Christmas. What can we say about the birth of Jesus in terms of day language? We can say that he was born. We don’t have his birth certificate or any public record of him. But if he existed, he was born. Perhaps we can say his mother was named Mary. His father was named Joseph. He was Jewish. He was born in Palestine under the period of Herod the Great at the beginning of what we now call the Common Era. He had some brothers and sisters.

That is about it. It is not something out of which to create a Christmas pageant. If we ended with the bare facts about the birth of Jesus, we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas at all. The stories of the birth of Jesus that we find in Matthew and Luke, were created 80 years or more after he was born. The gospels of Mark and John say nothing about his birth. Paul says nothing about his birth.

So how did we get to Jesus being born of a virgin? How did we get to angels speaking to Mary in Luke and to Joseph in Matthew? How did we get to a sky full of angels singing to the shepherds? How did we get to the manger and the animals and a census by Caesar and Mary riding a donkey? How did we get to the Magi from the east following a star? How did we get to his birthday right around Winter Solstice? How did we get to Mary’s parents and her miraculous birth? How did we get to the Qur’an telling us the beautiful story of Mary being nourished miraculously by a palm tree? How did we get to “Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee?“ Mary, Mother of God?

Then Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe, Silent Night, candy canes and St. Nick, and on and on and on? Christmas is night language gone wild. We can go back and trace these traditions back and find some texts with these stories and piece together how these elements were created. And that is a fun thing to do if you are into that.

I remember an obsession almost within the church I grew up in about the need to get Christmas factual. The real story, the real truth of Christmas. Being protestants of a fundamentalist variety our rule was that anything in the Bible was true and factual and anything outside of it was suspect.

That approach regarded the night language within the gospels of Matthew and Luke as day language, something one needed to believe. You needed to believe the virgin birth was as real as day. In fact, in Jim Petersen’s era, who started as a minister here in the 60s, newly minted ministers were asked about the Virgin Birth in their examinations. They had to find a way to dance around that one. “Was Jesus born of a virgin?” That question was asked in the same way one might ask “Is Bismarck the capital of North Dakota?”

Even today most of the questions surrounding belief are the forcing of night language into a day language world. Questions about God, resurrection, virgin birth, heaven and all the rest are asked as if they are about factual events and daytime realities. I would agree with Michael Dowd, that these stories are from the realm of dreams. They are the poetry of our imaginations.

So here is a question.

Let’s say you accept that. The stories of Christmas are night language and we know it. We are suddenly freed from having to believe any of it. We no longer must regard going to church as squeezing night language into our day language world. We no longer have to leave our brains at the door and pretend to believe stuff that we know isn’t true. Once freed can we still enjoy it? Can we get something out of Mary the Mother of God, knowing that is a metaphor? Can we follow the advice of Mary in the poem by Philip Appleman:

Me, I’m just a small-town woman,
a carpenter’s wife, Jewish mother, nothing
special. But listen,
whenever I told my baby a fairy tale,
I let him know it was a fairy tale.
Go, all of you, and do likewise.

If we do follow that advice, can we still enjoy the fairy tale?

Well, you still go to the theater, don’t you?
You still read novels (I hope).
You watch movies.
You listen to poetry.
You sing songs of derring-do.

I argue that it is even better. Once we let go of the need to make poetry prose, fantasy fact, legend literalism, and belief a burden, then we appreciate the power of imagination and the beauty of artistry to become transformative in our lives.

Let’s consider Mary. Close your eyes. Take a breath. Concentrate on the breath. Take another breath. Watch your breath come in through your nose into your lungs. Watch it in your mind’s eye as you exhale. Take one more mindful breath for good measure.

Now in your mind’s eye visualize Mary and her Baby Jesus, Mother and Child. Madonna and Child. You might have several that flood you at once. What comes to mind may not even be Mary and Jesus but a Mother and her Child. Choose an image in your mind’s eye and settle on one. Breathe through that image. Keep that image focused in your mind and breathe.

Give thanks to the Mother. Give thanks to the Child. Let them go.

Contemplation of Mother and Child, what you have just done, is probably the oldest form of what we might call religion. Birth and giving life is the most sacred experience. That and death. Birth and Death. Christmas and Easter in Christian night language.

The Woman of Willendorf is the oldest human carving we have. It was found in 1908 in Austria. It was carved during the Paleolithic Period, the Old Stone Age. It dates between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE. That is between 25,000 and 28,000 years before Mary and Jesus. The figurine is a woman with the features associated with fertility and childbearing emphasized. Researchers think she was used as a fertility goddess.

When we sing carols such as Silent Night around midnight on Christmas Eve with just the light of candles…

Round yon virgin
Mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild

We are touching and being touched by one of the oldest expressions of reverence in human experience. Of course we feel it. We are feeling the awe and amazement of birth.

Two experiences I remember vividly. Holding my daughter for the first time 32 years ago, and just a couple of months ago, holding my granddaughter for the first time. Spiritual experiences. The touch of miracle.

In Christian night language, all the stories of Mary nudge our imaginations toward life and birth, creation and possibility.

The angel speaks to Mary, “You will conceive and give birth…”

Mary says, “Yes.”

It is the Yes of life. It is the Yes to life.

In the midst of death and darkness, in the time of Herods and Caesars, and their modern day greedy and destructive counterparts, Mary is our heroine because she says Yes to life.

 

She resounds the Yes that has been said as far back as memory and beyond. That may be why both Matthew and Luke contain genealogy stories of the ancestors of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are in a long line of those who affirm life and their part in it amidst all the fear and uncertainty that saying yes will bring.

In Christian night language, Mary is also Mother of God, Mother of the Second Person of the Trinity, Bearer of the Light of the World. Mary’s Yes, is also an invitation to us to say Yes as well.

Whatever it is we might imagine God to be, Life, Light, Wisdom, whatever that is for us, Christmas, when we swim in night language, is the invitation to say Yes to God being born within us.

13th century mystic and poet, Meister Eckhart, wrote:

What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.

In times when divisions are sharp and the future uncertain, when the darkest elements rise, Christmas comes. God waits to be born among us, as a people, as individuals. Christmas invites us to remember that the Gift of Life is much greater than our own perception.

We have within us what ever it is we will need.

As Jesus was born to Mary at the right time, so we too will give birth to the child of God in our lives and in our time. It is the most ancient promise of human imagination.

Life is good.
Say Yes to Life.
Give birth to Life.

Amen.