05 January 2018

The Poetics of Christmas

When we were kids, Mom tucked us into bed and turned on the record player.

First came the faint crackle vinyl records make, then Alexander Scourby's voice reading the King James Version. His voice painted the stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Job and Job's wife across my mind.

There were two Christmas stories.


"The First Nowell," in "Christmas Carols New and Old,"
edited by Rev. H.R. Bramley and Dr. John Stainer.
Public domain, courtesy of Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Both 
Christmas stories—both St. Luke's and St. Matthew's Gospels—appeal to Hebrew authority.

Matthew begins with genealogy—with Abraham—picking up almost as if where the Chronicles of Israel's kings leave off. Matthew cites Hebrew prophecies fulfilled in events he records.

Luke starts with the temple in Jerusalem, a priest named Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were both “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” 


Zechariah's Silence

The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah as he burnt incense. “Your prayer is heard,” the angel said. The child would not drink alcohol and would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. Then, in the words of the prophet Micah, the angel says: “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Centuries earlier, an angel of the Lord also appeared to Abraham and Sarah before the birth of Isaac and to Manoah's wife and then Manoah before the birth of Samson. Both Sarah and Manoah's wife were barren too.

But Zechariah had prayed so long, perhaps, he could not believe. So Gabriel tells him he won't speak again until these tidings come true.

When Zechariah returns home to the hill country of Judah, Elizabeth conceives and hides herself five months. Why did she do that? Had she miscarried before and wanted to be sure? How much could Zechariah spell out for her? Did she see Zechariah's silence as a sign?

When John is born, the relatives converge to circumcise the child according to Abrahamic tradition. They call him Zechariah, but Elizabeth says—and Zechariah writes—“His name is John.”

“And [Zechariah's] mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, 'What manner of child shall this be!'” 

Thus, Zechariah's silence becomes a sign not just to him but to the neighbors too. He's filled with the Holy Spirit and bursts into song.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
     for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us
      in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets,
     which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies,
     and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
     and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us,
      that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
     In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
     for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
      by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God;
     whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
     to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah expresses the tension between promise and experience—“To perform the mercy promised... to remember... to them that sit in darkness....”

Something of the longing and weariness of God's people makes the promised grace of God more merciful.

His song becomes two parts: “Blessed be the Lord....” and “And thou child....” He reaches back in history, recalling David and Abraham and the Exodus. Then, he turns to his son and recalls the angel's reference to Malachi and the prophet Isaiah's words—“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

Mary's Psalm

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, an earthy way to measure time, the angel Gabriel is sent again, this time to Nazareth, where Mary lives, a descendant of King David and espoused to Joseph.

Like Zechariah, Mary is first startled by the angel's greeting. Then Gabriel tells her she has found favor with God and “...thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.” and “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The words Nathan the prophet spoke to David.

When Mary asks how this can be since she is a virgin, Gabriel uses language reminiscent of Genesis where the spirit of God moves on the waters and creates—“the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

Then Gabriel gives Mary a sign—Elizabeth—and uses the same words Sarah received when she first laughed at the thought of Isaac—“For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Mary responds, “Behold the [servant] of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Elizabeth comes out of hiding when Mary arrives. Maybe Elizabeth saw Mary as a third witness that what she was experiencing was real. She is filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary and Mary's child and concludes: “And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

Then Mary sings.

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
    And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
    for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
    from generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
    he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
    and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath holpen his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers,
    to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

Mary begins with the words Hannah sang centuries before as she dedicated her son Samuel to serve the tabernacle. Hannah in deep distress had prayed to have a son, and Samuel was the answer she received. Hannah sang of God's vindication of the feeble, the hungry, the barren, and the poor. Then she concluded,

“...the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth;
    and he shall give strength unto his king,
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

In the prophet Nathan's delivery of God's promise to King David, this idea came into fuller flower: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.”

Mary's song expresses this covenant-keeping mercy. Her response is not resignation or resolve but praise.

In Psalm 89 there is perhaps a parallel to Mary and Zechariah. That psalm begins like Mary's song.

“I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever:
    with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations....”

It celebrates who God is and God's promises to David.

“...Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound:
    they shall walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance.”

It includes God's promised love, despite his people's unfaithfulness, and the psalm concludes with this Zechariah-like plea for God to remember.

“Remember, Lord, the reproach of thy servants;
    how I do bear in my bosom the reproach of all the mighty people....
Blessed be the LORD for evermore. Amen, and Amen.”

The Angels' Gloria

In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, Herod gathers the chief priests and scribes to ask them where the King of the Jews is to be born. They reply with the words of the prophet Micah,

“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    art not the least among the princes of Judah:
    for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”

Writing, perhaps, for a Greek, or hellenistic, audience, Luke sets events in the Roman historical context—“there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

So Joseph and Mary went up to be registered in Bethlehem, the home of their ancestor, King David.

While they are there, Mary gives birth.

An angel appears to shepherds in the fields and says, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord....”

Centuries earlier, at the death of Joshua, successor to Moses, the angel of the Lord rebuked the people of Israel for their failure to possess the promised land and their idolatry. Now at the birth of Jesus, an angel of the Lord announces to the shepherds—and all people—a savior, Christ, the Lord.

When Luke turns to genealogy, he will trace Jesus' lineage back through Adam. And Luke's sequel to this account, The Acts of the Apostles, will include the unconfusion of languages at Pentecost so that all people—Jews, proselytes, and gentiles—could hear.

Speaking on that occasion, Peter explains to his hearers what is happening in the words of the prophet Joel because Mosaic law measured a prophey's credibility by the truthfulness of its predictions and its consistency with what God had already said.

He recalls the signs and wonders Jesus performed because signs and wonders were signs of prophetic credibility. And Peter sees the resurrection of Jesus—of which he offers himself and his companions as eyewitnesses—as fulfillment of King David's longing expressed in Psalm 16.

“I have set the LORD always before me:
    because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth:
    my flesh also shall rest in hope.
For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell;
    neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
Thou wilt show me the path of life:
    in thy presence is fulness of joy;
    at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”

Peter further sees the work of the Holy Spirit that day—promised by Jesus before his ascension, and obvious to his audience—as further confirmation of Jesus' presence at the right hand of God as in Psalm 110.

“The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand,
    until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

Peter concludes with the same announcement the angel made to the shepherds, “...Jesus...both Lord and Christ.”

The angel also gives the shepherds a sign—“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

The angel is joined by a heavenly host, saying,

Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Here “good tidings of great joy” explode in the mind and heart. Glory to God and good will toward men.

The intuition of Psalm 85 is coming true:

“...Wilt thou not revive us again:
    that thy people may rejoice in thee?
Show us thy mercy, O LORD,
    and grant us thy salvation....
Mercy and truth are met together;
    righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth;
    and righteousness shall look down from heaven....”

The shepherds went and saw and spread the news. They were eyewitnesses. In Mosaic law, events are only established by two or three witnesses. And as a historian, Luke writes so that his reader, Theophilus, might “know the certainty of those things, wherein [he had] been instructed.” 

The shepherds hearers marveled as perhaps those same Judaeans marveled months before when they heard of John the Baptist's birth.

And just as the angel's proclamation is followed immediately by the praises of the heavenly host, the shepherds return glorifying and praising God.

Simeon's Prophecy

Luke records Jesus was circumcised the eighth day according to Mosaic law, and when the days for Mary's purification after childbirth had passed, according to the law, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to offer sacrifices, according to the law, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

That was the sacrifice prescribed for those with lesser means.

A man named Simeon lived in Jerusalem, “...just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ....”

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, Simeon was there, “Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God....”

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
    according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
    Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; 
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
    and the glory of thy people Israel.

We see Simeon here in “the company of prophets” known to Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha and upon whom the Holy Spirit came. His song echoes the language of light and glory used by Isaiah, and it recalls how the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel spoke not only to Israel but also to the surrounding peoples.

In the book of Acts, Luke will also record the Judaean prophet Agabus predicting Paul's imprisonment at Jerusalem.

Simeon, like the shepherds, is an eyewitness, as is Anna, the prophetess, who “served God with fastings and prayers night and day” in the temple. She “coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”

Mary and Joseph marvel.

Then Simeon says to Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Simeon echoes language Isaiah used of God: “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel....”

Many, perhaps, immediately think of the pain Mary must have experienced at the crucifixion, though Luke doesn't record Mary's presence at the crucifixion. 

The context also suggests the rending of her community.

Mary went to the passover every year. She believed the promises recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Seeing herself in the Hebrew biblical tradition as she seems to have done, and living when Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism grew out of that tradition, whole portions of her community might have seemed to become strange, perhaps people she knew and respected.

We know from Paul's epistles Luke worked with Paul, the apostle to the gentiles. Scholars point out Luke quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. And Luke records Paul interpreting two pagan poets when addressing the Areopagus in Athens.

But Paul clung to the Hebrew scriptures, as he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians—“...how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen....”

Luke records the risen Jesus walking with two disciples to Emmaus and “...beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Then later Jesus appears to a larger group of disciples and says, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.”

There is something persuasive...in Luke's Hebrew poetics. 

By poetics, I mean not merely rhyme, rhythm, and sentiment but a re-enchantment of language and the world—the kind of re-enchantment that recovers the psalmists' and prophets' intuitions and continues them in ways attested by eyewitnesses.

In this joy and sorrow, we find continuity with ancient Hebrew longing, and we find comfort in the knowledge we are not alone when we too feel our communities torn by truths we don't yet understand.

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