THE CHRISTMAS MAP
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul Minnesota
December 9, 2012
We like our Advents cozy: trimmed with evergreens, lit by candles and twinkling lights, brightened by parties, warmed by family and friends, with a sound track of seasonal music.
For a long time, the Church insisted we not sing carols or decorate the sanctuary until right before Christmas Eve, and Christmas was celebrated in the weeks that followed it. But the commercial culture, among other things, got ahead of the church and pushed celebrations into early December and now, I don’t know about you but on New Year’s Day, I feel done.
However, after preparing this sermon, I understand more of why Advent is a separate entity from Christmas and isn’t very cozy– at least in the Biblical account.
The Bible and sources such as the Roman historian Josephus tell us what Palestine was actually like before Jesus was born 2000 years ago. It was anything but cozy. Take a look at the map in your service sheets and see why.
Going from north to south is Galilee, Samaria, and Judea (Judea being the land we now call Israel). Two of these provinces—Galilee and Judea—were inhabited by the descendents of Abraham, called Israelites or Hebrews and later (from the word Judea) Jews.
The two areas are separated by Samaria. The Samaritans despised the Jews and vice versa. Jews going from Galilee through Samaria to the temple in Jerusalem for festivals or worship were routinely attacked. The Jews responded in kind, foreshadowing today’s Middle East volleys. Some rabbis taught that to eat the bread of Samaritans was to eat pork, or to marry a Samaritan was to lie with a beast. Hence the radical nature of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan who helped a traveler who had been attacked by bandits, going through this dangerous province.
In the south, the province of Judea contained the towns of Bethlehem (the city where King David was born), and bordering it, the mighty Jerusalem with the great temple that was the center of Jewish worship.
Up north, Galilee was Podunk Central, and nowhere more than in the home town of Jesus, Nazareth, a small village of 500 people and a size of 50 or 60 acres, Even though a physically green and beautiful place, Nazareth was considered Hicksville, boondocks, trailer park territory, whose citizens were bumpkins, fodder for ethnic jokes and pronounced Hebrew so crudely they were forbidden from reading the Torah when they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem. Hence Nathaniel’s statement, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Galilee, Samaria and Judea were all under the heavy thumb of the mighty Roman Empire whose domain stretched from Britain and through Europe throughout the Middle East and farther, and endured for over 400 years. While they are the bad guys of the Christian Scriptures, the Romans (and earlier the Greeks) were also the architects of Western civilization, as we now know it, giving us our alphabet and our legal system.
The Jews were a thorn in the side of the ruling Romans, a royal pain in the neck. Romans leaders begged not to be sent to govern Galilee or Judea. The Jews refused to go along with the simplest of Roman demands. Worst of all they would not acknowledge the emperor as king and god.
In Judea, of course, there were Jewish groups that collaborated with the Romans, like the Sadducees who were richly rewarded, and had a great deal to lose should any Messiah show up. The middle-class Pharisees were often on the fence, yet had their share of persecution, like the time the Roman governor had just had it with their antics and had 800 Pharisees crucified on a single day.
Things could not have been more politically tense than when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His family wouldn’t go back home, north, to Nazareth for two years – time spent mainly on the run, east to Egypt — but Nazareth was where Jesus would grow up and spend most of his life.
So the big aha for me when I looked more closely at this map was there seems to be a gap in the Biblical account. The Christmas story tells us that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of their ancestor David. But how did they get there?
Doubtlessly, it would have been too dangerous to travel alone, so they probably traveled in a caravan, and they may have gone farther east to avoid Samaria altogether, entering through Jericho, although this route was longer and more mountainous—not that Samaria was flat either. In either case, this was not a gentle Christmas card journey with pregnant Mary posed gracefully on the donkey. It was a tedious, dangerous journey on foot of 80 miles – like walking from here to Mankato – but through Libya.
All we know is that they made it. This certainly gives new drama to the first words of the Christmas story.
Fast forward thirty or so years later into this hotbed of Roman dominance and Jewish resistance in Judea comes the cousin of Jesus, John – known as the Baptist because of his penchant to baptize people as a sign of their repentance. A Jew, of course, John hangs out in the desert, near the Jordan River (in Judea) where people come out to hear his firebrand rhetoric. Today he would be the unkempt street corner preacher holding a sign that says “Repent! The world is coming to an end!”
Yet John was clear that he was a only messenger, clearing the way for the Messiah to come. He challenged his listeners to get out from under the oppression of the Romans by looking at their own actions, being accountable to God, and being willing to change. In fact, when Jesus uses the word “repent,” it always means to change.
So what do you need to get out from under this Advent season? What is oppressing you? What is your Samaria – that rugged terrain that you must pass through—on your way to Christmas Eve?
We may be oppressed by an overload of responsibilities and must-do’s or it may be that we don’t have enough to do. It may be that we are stuck, comparing our lives with those of others, or this Christmas with those of the past and the people who were with us then. It may be a pervasive, unexplained sadness, or a vague loneliness, more acute when everything around screams gaiety.
Riding home last night from the Christmas party, I admired the outdoor Christmas decorations on so many houses—from enchanting to hideous — yet such waves of nostalgia always sweep over me it’s almost painful.
Green garlands on a little Victorian with a porch reminded me of my Grandma’s on Manomin Street, my grandma who loved me. Inside a brick house with a wreath on the door, the sight of a large Christmas tree lit with the old-fashioned multi-colored large bulbs reminded me of lying beneath the tree as a child looking up into the braches, safe, warm, my heart brimming with anticipation and boy, I miss my mom.
When I came home, I reread one of my favorite sections of The Great Gatsby where through one of his characters, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald remembers coming home to St. Paul for Christmas from his eastern prep school by train, pulling into the Union Station, seeing all his friends there from near and far at the station, and then heading up Summit Avenue home.
“We pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow … That’s my Middle West — not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.”
There is a thin line between the imagination and romance of nostalgia and the weight of nostalgia.
But the Roman Empire of oppressors is fear, fear of the future, fear about our world, fear about money, fear of failing health, and all of us, as novelist John Updike tell us, being marked by “the vulnerability to which love dooms us all.”
Last fall the BBC produced another one of its television masterpieces, “Call the Midwife,” a series about a group of young midwives in 1950’s London who are based in a hospital run by a group of nuns. These midwives would go out on bicycles to tend homebirths in some of the poorest areas of London’s east end, usually not knowing what they would confront when they arrived in their blue and white nurse’s uniforms with their newborn kit containing sheets, baby items, supplies needed to tend the laboring mother, and large amounts of patience and compassion.
When the midwives set out on a call, the supervising nun always said the same thing as they get on their bicycles: “Go on now, and let’s see what love can do.”
Advent certainly can be as festive and cozy as we want to make it; the joy in our hearts welcomed and celebrated, but for most of us, the journey is arduous and the oppression we feel is real. We may need help to get untangled – and offer our help to untangle things for others. To manage our fear, we need to see what love can do. That is how we are pro-active against fear. We go and see what love can do – love given, love received.
Now my favorite story; I’ve used it before; it bears repeating:
Some years ago, near the Golden Gate Bridge, a female humpback whale became entangled in a spider web of hundreds of pounds of crab traps and lines and was struggling to stay afloat. The line rope was wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, with a line tugging in her mouth, the lines so tight that they were cutting into the flesh. A fisherman saw her and radioed an environmental group for help and within a few hours, the rescue team arrived.
They determined that the whale was so bad off that the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. It was a dangerous mission because one slap of the whale’s tale could kill a person. The team worked for over an hour, carefully slashing through the labyrinth of lines with curved knives. Eventually, they freed her.
The divers say that once the female humpback was free to move, she swam in joyous circles and then came back to each diver, one at a time and gave each a nudge, pushing her rescuers gently around as if he was thanking them, The diver who cut the rope out of the whale’s mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.”
It’s Advent – cozy and arduous.
So go and see what love can do.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Phillip Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew
San Francisco Chronicle