What if Joseph and Mary Were Separated at the Border and Jesus Died as an Infant?

 

Matthew 2:13-15

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

What if, as recorded in Matthew 2, when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus arrived in Egypt as refugees, they were separated by the Egyptian Border Patrol? Then because he was young and prone to the illnesses of infants, exhausted from his journey, dehydrated, and denied medical care by the Border Patrol; Jesus died. What if Jesus died? Where would we be today?

The decorations must come down. The purple and blues of Advent are no more. The bright greens and reds of our poinsettias and trees must be dispersed to the four winds. White is our color now. This is the color of grief, mourning, and death; for we are about to bury a child. An innocent child has died. Where the manger stood days before; the wood is being repurposed to build a tiny coffin.

The mother and father can only watch from a distance. They can offer nothing but their overwhelming sadness and grief. Their child is dead. Jesus, the name chosen and the word given, is no more.

Those who witnessed the miracle of birth are gone. In fear of their lives and unable to make the border crossing, the shepherds returned to their villages in the hills.

In the frenzy of the dark, among the whispered threats from death squads and gangs, the beauty ended, and the killing began. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled through the wilderness to a place of safety. Egypt was guarded, grand, and beyond the reach of those who killed children. This they believed.

They traveled at night. Darkness was the desert’s only blanket. Wrapped in the safety of its blank anonymity, they moved toward Egypt with other migrants. The rhythm of sleeping and moving was a delicate dance to preserve their limited supplies of food and water. On occasion, they met others eating east or south. Out of charity, they would offer them water and fruit. These days were rare.  However, every day was frightening. Only when they reached Egypt would they know they were safe. The Egyptians, Joseph thought, would treat them fairly and honestly. He knew he was wrong.

Safety is such a meaningless word. Joseph is locked in a cage with other men. His wife is sitting in chains. This is for their safety. The Border Patrol cares about their safety yet they didn’t care about the safety of their son Jesus, who they watched die.

Jesus, the refugee child, died in their care. Christmas is over. It ended before it ever really began. Christmas funerals are hard. This one may be the toughest yet.

Richard Lowell Bryant

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/7-year-old-migrant-girl-taken-into-border-patrol-custody-dies-of-dehydration-exhaustion/2018/12/13/8909e356-ff03-11e8-862a-b6a6f3ce8199_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.bac4832f2511

Advertisements

Waiting in the Dark

We wait for Christmas to come;
singing in the dark of night.
As expected as Christmas is, we never see it coming.
We are taken by surprise.
What is the light? Where is it from?
Christmas is a single light, recognizable from everything around it.
The light of Christmas is unmistakable. It can be nothing else.
This is Christmas.
The unopened day on the Advent Calendar is here and still beyond our reach.
Christmas, growing brighter and warmer as it draws closer.
The light is for all who see it, a gift to be shared.
No one owns the light.
The light simply is.
Christmas is the light which cannot be wiped away.
The darkness is overcome.

–Richard Bryant

What Does Christmas Look Like?

What does Christmas look like? That’s a simple question. It looks like the manger scenes on my desk, on my nightstand, in the living room, in the church narthex, and eventually the pageant on Christmas Eve in the sanctuary. If you were to ask most people at church, they’d say, “Christmas looks like the events of Luke chapter 2”. Some manger scenes are more elaborate than others. Whether the camels are cardboard or real, they all share certain commonalities. Baby Jesus is in the center. In the pageants, sometimes, Jesus isn’t real. Personally, I prefer a living baby to portray Jesus. Nine times out of ten Jesus will be a baby doll. This year, on Christmas Eve, our baby Jesus will be played by young Grady. Go, Grady! It’s a big year for Grady – being born and playing Jesus.

Grady won’t be in a manger. Like most babies (Jesus included) he’ll probably want to be held. The holding responsibilities fall to the next central character, Mary. Mary and Jesus are in the center of the frame. Surrounding Mary and Grady (I mean, Jesus) is a painted a backdrop giving the appearance of being in a barn. At the very top of the display is a plastic star. The three wise men will arrive well in advance of the Epiphany (in about 3-4 minutes) after following our heavenly star. Did I mention Joseph? Joseph doesn’t say much. Joseph has only been to a few rehearsals and isn’t entirely comfortable with his part; as Joseph should be.

The shepherds are an unruly lot. The average age of the shepherd is around four. They are keenly aware of their need for granola bars, orange juice, and when the angel should arrive. Like the original shepherds, their hands are always messy. They roam the fringes of the sanctuary in search of someone called “Noel.” Is this not how Christmas looks? Yes. Christmas also appears more significant than we allow ourselves to imagine. Even though we are playing our small part in retelling this age-old drama, it seems vitally important to the larger Christmas story as a whole. If we don’t do our bit, how will the entire grand event continue?

The events in Luke 2, which we call Christmas, also points to the Christmas beyond Christmas. Christmas doesn’t end at the manger and Advent doesn’t stop when the shepherds arrive. Christmas keeps moving toward something more substantial and expansive. The manger, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, point us toward God’s more massive Christmas. What is God’s larger Christmas?

God’s more massive Christmas is in Isaiah 12:1-6. This is as much Christmas as any manger, star, or wise man. This is what we’re supposed to see and how we’re supposed to live beyond the stable. Remember, Christmas isn’t solely for the observing.  We are not passive bystanders watching someone else’s story.  Ultimately, we need to do something with  Christmas. Live this joy, good news, and song in such a way that our lives become different.  Isaiah gives us a clue on what and how to live Christmas.

You will say on that day:
I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the LORD GOD * is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the LORD,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known* in all the earth.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal* Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

That is what Christmas looks like. “I will trust and not be afraid”. We see it embodied in the actions of the Holy Family. Christmas is comfort where anger once rightly dwelled. Christmas is the incarnation of love through song, “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously, let this be known in all the earth.” God’s love becomes tangible through the purest form of human expression. With joy, we come to our salvation. This is Christmas. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? No, I don’t think you do. It’s not the nativity scene. The manger points us here, to Isaiah.

Christmas doesn’t look like Bethlehem. Christmas is a life imbued with joy, gratitude, love for others, and a love for God. Yes, I see glimpses of the Christmas vision in the manger scene and pageant. I also see Christmas beyond the barn, in Isaiah’s world, among the community I call home.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Is Church the Best Place to Celebrate Christmas?

 

Where is the best place to celebrate Christmas? Is it at home with family and friends? Perhaps it is around a Christmas tree singing carols? Even with all the ongoing events and holiday distractions, many think one of the best places to observe Christmas is in church.

For centuries, churches had the monopoly on Christmas. Christmas and the church were synonymous. If the church wasn’t involved, Christmas didn’t happen. The events of Christmas gave birth to Christ which subsequently led to the formation of the church. What better place to celebrate the birth of savior with a staged reproduction of the events surrounding his conception and birth? There’s nothing like a mid-20th-century church decorated to look like our preconceived notions of a 1st-century Palestinian village. Perhaps there’s a different way.

I was wondering if the church is the best place to celebrate or remember the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. We take one of the most sacred events in human history and turn it into a syrupy mish-mash of historical fact, myth, American traditions, and Hallmark cards. In the end, what ends up being told, bears little or no resemblance to the story of Jesus’ birth. We tell a Christmas story where Jesus is simply one character among many. This tale makes us feel good about ourselves and our way of life. The gospel narrative of Jesus’ birth is unsettling to the core. It should move us in ways that challenge our notions of justice, fairness, right, and wrong. Christmas services; the way we do them in most churches today is not about challenge. They are about comfort. In this, we (the church and pastors who lead them) are wrong.

There is little comfort or safety in the story of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was born on the streets. His story should be told beyond the comfortable walls of Advent sermons, choral presentations, and candlelit Christmas Eve services. His story is too important to relegate to a once a year extravaganza of color and light. Given the state of the world, our Jesus at Christmas storytelling game is weak.  Children and adults in bathrobes aren’t bringing the world peace we’ve hoped for.

The joy of the angels, the joy we sing to the world on Christmas is a subversive message. It is not a joy which proclaims, “We were right, and they were wrong.” It is a joy that justice has come for those who have been locked away in the prisons, starving from hunger, tortured for no reason, and left to die will now know freedom and healing.

This is no self-serving joy. What we tell from the mountains on Christmas Day will get us arrested on Maundy Thursday. The message is the same. Jesus is Lord. The incarnation is a reality. Say that enough, someone will notice. Live that way, the world will become uncomfortable. You might be arrested, marginalized, and attacked.  You and Jesus will find each other.   I can promise you, wherever you are, it probably won’t be at church.  Why?  Most of the people I know wouldn’t be seen anywhere near the places Baby Jesus and his Mother will have to go to stay alive.  Right after he’s born, he becomes a refugee and has to flee the country.  Some good, God-fearing people have real hangups when it comes to looking after refugees.

My prayer for the remainder of Advent: take Christmas to the streets. Release your monopoly on Jesus. Find Christ in the place where he was born.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Note About Advent Music

It’s a challenge to sing Advent. Our hymnal is replete with “the” Christmas carols that have defined Christianity for two thousand years. When it comes to Advent, we’re a little shy of familiar songs to fill up the four weeks until Christmas. That is unless you blur the liturgical lines and start singing the Christmas carols as soon as the tree’s out and the first Advent candle’s lit. More of us do it than we care to admit though deep down in our hearts, no one likes to sing Joy to the World until Christmas day. What’s a pastor to do?

1. Sing a different one of the first four verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” during the four weeks of Advent.

2. Sing whatever you want and what makes your congregation happy. I’m sure Jesus has bigger fish to fry than worry about what we’re singing.  Do not deny people Christmas joy  because of your liturgical hangups.  Let God’s people sing.

3. Try to avoid “Joy to the World” until Christmas Eve. It’s just awkward to sing it any earlier.   Your congregation will get the contradiction.  They’d rather wait until Christmas and belt that sucker out.

4.  I live on the Atlantic Ocean.  Even here, on the ocean, no one gets “I Saw Three Ships”.  Stay away from “I Saw Three Ships”.

5.  Teach people a Spanish or foreign language hymn before you use it in worship.  That’s not cool to foist something on people sight unseen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Luke 2 for Dummies

Governments have always been as they are today, in need of money to finance wars and roads. To collect money from those whom they govern, governments levy taxes. In ancient times, so we’re told, these taxes were based on censuses. If all the people were counted, then the government would know how many households to tax.
For the sake of argument, let’s say a tax census occurred somewhere in the area of the world we call “the Middle East.” Ordered by an Italian absentee landlord who needed more troops to fight a war in England, this landlord (we’ll call him Caesar) says, “I’ll count and tax people on the other side of the world to pay for my war in northern Europe.”

Two people who lived in the “Middle East” got the message that people counting was required. One of these two was a young, pregnant, woman. She was engaged to the other person. Officially, he was the one going to be counted. They weren’t married, but since they were about to be married and she was about to have a baby, she was coming along for the ride.

Under the Italian’s rules, to be counted, you had to go to your hometown (they lived in a place called “somewhere”) and register with the census office in that city. So the couple headed to the man’s hometown. They had to travel from where they were lived to a different location. His hometown had a different name. It was south of over there but between verses four and five. It was called “the place.”

When they arrived at “the place” the girl was ready to give birth to her baby. The man had trouble finding lodgings for him and his fiancé. His relatives were unable to host them. The few “haberdasheries” in “the place” were full. In time, she gave birth in a “thing” because there was no room for them at any of the “haberdasheries.” The girl wrapped the baby in a bunch of “stuff” and laid him in a “thing.”   Despite the inadequacies of the “stuff” and the unsanitary nature of the “thing”; all seemed right with the world.

A cow appeared. At first, the man thought the cow was lost. Why would a random cow appear in a “thing” just as his child was born?   Shoo cow, shoo.  When he eventually realized the cow bore a child carrying an 18th-century snare drum, he understood this to be a sign from God. Only God would give an infant such a noisy, useless gift. The cow was soon followed by donkeys, goats, and shepherds.

In a bar on the edge of town, the sheep people encountered a group of folk singing extraterrestrials. Despite their reluctance to sing “Go Tell it On the Mountain” in A minor, the shepherds understood their instructions from the angel band to go into “the place” and look for a baby wrapped in “stuff” and lying in a “thing.”  Never ones to reject a challenge, especially on a Saturday night, they went:  grown men to wake a newborn baby and his exhausted mother.  No way this could end poorly.

There he was, just as they were promised, a baby from “somewhere,” now in a “place,” wrapped in “stuff,” lying in a “thing.” They couldn’t wait to tell the world what they’d seen.

What were they going to tell?

Yeah, that thing about the baby in the place.  It makes perfect sense to me.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Who Is Real? Santa Claus or John the Baptizer

John the Baptist or Santa Claus?

Here’s a problem: we are conditioned to stop believing in Santa Claus by a certain age. No matter what kind of answer you give today, most of us have come to a symbolic understanding of Santa. We grew up. Life, for one reason or another, took the real idea of Santa Claus from our lives years ago. So we feast on the symbolic and encourage the lie of the literal in the lives of children; until they too will discover what we know: everyone is deceiving each other for the purposes of goodwill and holiday cheer. Despite our unbelief in a jolly man in a red suit, we keep the fiction alive. It is a secret, a covenant held by those who’ve stopped believing and now embrace the deception. Yes, millions of adults lie to children about a mythical character who resides in an area of the world most at risk from climate change.   That’s got to be healthy, right?

This is what we (as a culture and society) do to keep the idea of Santa Claus alive and well. Santa is the forerunner, messenger, and bringer of Christmas presents. As countless Christmas movies and books remind us, without Santa, there would be no Christmas. What if the church placed this same level of importance on John the Baptizer? Isn’t John the Baptizer the Santa Claus of the Jesus story? If Jesus was the original Christmas present, then John was the forerunner who announced and presented the gift to the world? We, in our infinite Christological wisdom, have focused on birth narratives and John’s presence at the Epiphany so that we’ve trained ourselves to stop believing in John’s importance to the Advent story. We ignore John. He’s the homeless man in the desert. John makes us uncomfortable. Our notions of propriety and order are challenged by John’s preaching. John makes a much better metaphor than he does a flesh and bones character who we must take seriously. Perhaps he’s suitable for decoration in the background, but that’s about it. That’s how it usually goes.

Without eight tiny reindeer and Santa, there is no Christmas. Without John, the river Jordan, and a message of preparation, there is no Good News. Santa needs a sled. The Lord requires a path prepared, a way made straight. Valleys should be filled, and mountains leveled. Curves ought to be made straight and the rough parts smoothed out. John’s calling attention to the need to prepare the path. He’s asking for help, a UMVIM team of prophetic path pavers. We become the means of getting the Good News from points A to B.

The best part about John’s message is there is no deception. All humanity becomes a witness to God’s Good News. No one is living a lie to maintain a lie. If the Good News is done right, everyone is on a level field and has access to God. The Good News calls us to be who we are, where we are. In the wilderness God is preparing: all are welcome and no one is illegal.

Merry Christmas John the Baptizer, I Believe In You.

Richard Lowell Bryant