Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent Two: Outsiders In

Eugene Higgins, There Was No Room
at the Inn, monotype, c. 1940, NY
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God--for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.--Father Oscar Romero, 1978 Christmas Eve homily
I grew up as far from Bethlehem as one can imagine, in a gracious, well-groomed suburb of New York City, in a community of spacious, lovely homes, a world of quiet, green backyards, live-in help, excellent schools.

I lived with my grandparents, in the only non-two-parent household I knew. My grandfather, a first generation Italian-American, had built the house and others in the neighborhood. He kept some of his contractor supplies in a locked shed in the back yard, kept tools in the locked garage, kept his basement workshop locked, his office off the driveway locked, kept a large TV turned loud in the master bedroom, also locked. He traveled through the house with the jangling of keys, and, depending on the level of inebriation, with loud, sometimes obscene proclamations about whatever caught his eye or sparked his simmering anger.

My birthday was two weeks before Christmas, but I never had a party, mostly for fear my grandfather would ruin it. In some strange, childhood way, I considered our school Christmas parties my own; my name, after all, is Carol. I imagined every Christmas carol we sang was a birthday present for me. Strange idea, I suppose, but in some ways I was a strange kid, always watching from the edge of things.

Christmas, for me, wasn’t so much about decorations. Most years we had a tree, but some years not. If our grandfather decided on outdoor decorations, we’d all be drawn into hours of unhappy compliance with his whims.

It also wasn’t much about presents. Most years there’d be just one gift, usually something practical: a winter coat. A pair of boots. Occasionally a good surprise would surface, but usually not. No reason to lie awake at night, wondering and hoping.

Christmas cookies? We had some, but my grandmother was a good cook, and she baked year round: bread, pies, cookies.

For me, Christmas was more about the carols: songs of mystery and longing, of promise fulfilled, of exuberant celebration.

In third grade, I earned a small Sunday School Bible of my own by memorizing the books of the Bible, and I started setting the Christmas story beside the already memorized carols. I was struck by the bit about Herod and the babies, and the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous wrath. I felt a kinship with Jesus, living in the shadow of a malevolent, unpredictable power.

I also felt a kinship with the shepherds, partly because I would have loved to have a lamb or two of my own, but more because they lived outside, as I would have been happy to do. As I grew older, I realized they were outsiders like me, not quite part of the community around them, marginal younger children, tolerated but not quite welcome.

Arthur Allen Lewis, Shepherd, 1927, NY
The more I lingered in the stories of Christ’s birth, the more I saw a growing cast of outsiders: Mary, am unmarried teen, suspiciously pregnant. Ragtag shepherds, running through the dark to share a ridiculous story of angel choirs and strange pronouncements. Old, extraneous Simeon, not quite ready to die. Strange old prophetess Anna, offering words quickly forgotten.

Even the wise men, the mysterious Magi: weren’t they outsiders too? Neither Jews nor Romans, travelers from some unknown land, carrying inappropriate gifts, setting off that chain reaction of jealousy, suspicion, and slaughter.

I saw in those stories hope for an outsider. Did God choose outsiders deliberately? Or were they the ones who were watching, and waiting, ready to hear something new?

When I got around to tackling the genealogy in Matthew 1, I found more outsiders. In the middle of endless names of men, there were just a few women: Tamar, a Canaanite, whose two evil husbands died, whose children, Perez and Zerah, were the product of pretended prostitution. Then Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute rescued from Jericho. Ruth, a Moabite, great grand-mother of King David. Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, recorded as the wife of Uriah the Hittite, although Solomon’s father is listed as David. That one short sentence carries a reminder that Bathsheba was unfaithful to her husband, and David arranged for Uriah’s death to hide the resultant pregnancy.

All four women were outsiders, alien in some way, with the hint of scandal attached to their names. If Matthew’s goal was to convince readers that Jesus was the ideal choice as Messiah, those weren’t the names to use. But if the goal was to say “God uses outsiders, and redeems broken families,” those names are deeply comforting.

Comforting as well was Mary’s song, the first Christmas carol:
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
I still go back, sometimes, to the question that troubled me as a skinny kid, in my baggy hand-me-down sweaters and itchy, too-long wool skirts: Was it that God chose the outsiders? Or were they the only ones ready to listen?

As my life becomes more comfortable, as I find myself surrounded by a warm, loving family, by caring friends, as I find my cupboards and closets full, I wonder: in my riches, am I less able to hear? Do I miss the good news, the voices God sends that aren't part of my comfortable circle?

Do I shelter myself from outsiders, like the shepherds? Would I welcome strange prophets, or weary travelers, carrying unexpected treasures?

In this season of lights, and food, and gifts, what can I be doing to keep my heart open to the humble, the hungry?

What a grief it would be, to find my stomach full, and my own heart empty.

To be an insider in things that don’t matter, and an outsider in the family of God.
O Rex Gentium
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

                  Malcolm Guite, 2011 

Jourmey of the Magi, James Jaques Tissant, 1894, France
This post is part of the December synchroblog: Tell Me a Story

Jeremy Myers, Santa Clausette
Liz Dyer,  Dreams Do Come True
Leah Sophia, Planting Hope
Glen Hager, Christmas Surgery   
Wendy McCaig, Once Upon A Time  

It's also the second in a four-week Advent series. Other Advent posts:

The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011

Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 
Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010