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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Advent IV: It's Absurd!

The Visitation and the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-44, 46-55)
Advent IV – December 24, 2006
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

One of the real miracles of Christmas is happening even as I speak.

Sometime, somewhere, right after this 10 AM service and before 5 PM this very afternoon, in the midst of this afternoon’s last minute flurry of activity, we will look up and it will no longer be the Fourth Sunday in Advent and – schazam! – it will be Christmas Eve!

Don’t ask me how that is done. It’s a deep mystery to me. The closest I can come to it is remembering the days of Diocesan Conventions over which Bishop Jack Spong would preside. The official Order of Business for Convention would declare that, at 3 PM, we would hear from the Commission on Ministry and at 4 PM we would approve the diocesan budget for the next year. Bishop Spong would note, with just a whisper of mischief in his voice, that since the Commission on Ministry was not yet ready and the diocesan budget was ready, in fact, had been ready for some time, that he, therefore, officially declared it to be 4 PM.

And, indeed, it was.

So, with all of the power invested in my by absolutely no one at all, I declare it now to be Advent IV and will, at 5 PM, declare it to be Christmas Eve. And, indeed, so it will be.

This is, of course, in keeping with the absurdity of the Nativity Story, anyway. I mean, this morning, we hear of the Visitation of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, wherein Mary tells Elizabeth of her pregnancy and sings the glory of God in the Magnificat. And then, this afternoon at 5 PM, 9 months will have simply whizzed by and she will be giving birth.

I’ll admit: it’s probably easier for us to believe in the story of Santa Claus than the story of the Nativity of our Lord. Only two of the evangelists report on it at all.

Oh, you didn’t know that? ( I admit that I do take delight when folks are surprised by that.)

The story of the Nativity only appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. John’s gospel tells the story in lyrical poetic form: “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1). But, there are no details of the birth of Jesus. There’s no mention of the Nativity at all in Mark’s gospel. He starts out with Isaiah’s prophecy of John and then jumps right into the baptism of Jesus by John.

Never mind that neither Luke nor Matthew tell a credible story. I mean, what with Virgin Births and Wise Men who come from afar to bring presents to the infant. Add to that the way Western European Christians have completely westernized the story: In the bleak midwinter, indeed! The snow may be on the ground in London or Berlin or Vienna, but it rarely snows in Bethlehem, which is to the SOUTH of even Jerusalem.

Some of the best biblical scholars agree that Jesus was probably born in late spring, not “the bleak” midwinter, but the early Church took over the pagan celebration of The Solstice, which had been taken over by Chanukah. For the early Christians, many of whom had been Jew or pagan, Jesus became the light in the midst of the longest day. Jesus became the miraculous light that never goes out. And, indeed, for Christians, he is the light of the world.

Does that mean that none of the story is true? What are we, as intelligent, post modern but none the less faithful Christians living in the third millennium after the birth of Christ, really supposed to believe about the Nativity of our Lord?

I mean, the gospel stories – especially those of the Nativity – are absurd, aren’t they? And, that’s precisely the point, I think.

The Absurd.

There is, in fact, an entire philosophical thought called ‘Absurdism’ Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail because no such meaning exists – at least in relation to humanity. Some famous Absurists are Danish philosopher Soren Kierkigaard and French philosopher Albert Camus who wrote the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’, which you probably read in Sr. High School.

Absurdism is related to existentialist philosophy, a philosophical movement that rejects the belief that life has an inherent meaning, but instead requires each individual to posit his or her own subjective values. Famous existentialists include people whose works you have probably read – people like Dostoevsky, Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Here’s my point: if you are feeling lost in the logic of the story of the Nativity, you are not alone. Indeed, you are in quite good company – faithful, intelligent company.

The story of the Nativity is absurd, isn’t it?

Then again, how is it possible for the human mind to take in the miracle of the birth of God in the person of Jesus? How is it possible to consider that God chose to take on our human, mortal flesh and live among us, to suffer like us and know our human foibles and frailties? And, if God would, in fact, do that, God would do so without benefit of any “Escape Plan” – other than the horrendous suffering of the crucifixion?

It doesn’t make any sense, does it? Not any sense at all.

Which is precisely the point.

It is why, I suspect, Mary went running, just as fast as she could, to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea, to tell her the news. This is why the Visitation – despite the particulars (or lack thereof) of the narrative – makes perfect sense.

This is also precisely why the Magnificat makes perfect sense. When faced with the unlikely and illogical reality that one has become a ‘theotokos’ – a ‘God-bearer’ – what other reasonable response is there except to sing?

And, what else might one sing, in the midst of the Great Abusurdity of bearing the Holy Child of God, except these words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.”

Asking people to believe in things like the Immaculate Conception and the Visitation, the Magnificat and the Incarnation of God is all the evidence you really need that the closer you move to God, the nearer you get to the heart of The Absurd.As you consider The Absurd, reflect for a moment on this quote from Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, MIXED BLESSINGS:

"Mary was smart enough or naive enough to believe what was said to her in what seemed like a dream and believed in her Holy Child even before he was more than a dollop of cells in her womb. Which only goes to show that once you let God in - there's no telling, no telling at all - what will come out. Amen.

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