Thursday, December 25, 2014

Three Christmas Poems


Birth moans
in strawed stable.
The King has come,
his lusty wailing
rends dark night.

Birth bloody
as his death,
the King has come.
His reality
mouth and mother's breast.

Birth starlit in musked air,
The King has come,
God swaddled in human need.
Jesus Son of God Most High.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!


Lady laud your son.
Cast down your golden crown and worship him,
born a babe in stable laid,
who walked the hills of Galilee
with fisher folk and tax collectors
made of them a warrior band,
shocked the scribe and Pharisee
not less than priest and Sadducee.
No simple man, nor plain was he.
He has the power to call forth you and me.

Lady laud your son
whose death pierced your own soul
with grief too sharp to bear
fulfilling prophet's words in temple court
so long ago.  Proud mother of a little babe
with head bowed down,
you contemplate the way
he cast down the mighty from their thrones.

Lady laud your son.
You have given once again
as you have given many times before.
Resurrection joy, ascension parting mingled in your breast.
The old ways of holding him can never be again.
Lady laud your son.
Cast down your golden crown and worship him
in the circle of the saints, his sisters, brothers,
all your children now, all crowned like you
God-bearer, now for ever blessed
held in warm embrace by glad hearts everywhere.
Lady laud your son.

The Winding Centuries Have Come and Gone

The winding centuries have come and gone
Still the Christmas song goes on and on.
Some have loved the Babe, some still hate him;
Christmas joy is for hearts that welcome him.
Peace on earth, the thronging angels sing,
Throughout the heavens hear the merry chorus ring.
Simple shepherds on the hill rejoice to hear
The news that Almighty God has drawn near.
But Herod on his throne feels a deadly chill;
Any who threaten his power he will kill,
Wife, or son, or even little baby child.
There is no safety for child or mother mild.
Now Herod is dead; the years have come and gone;
Only Christ will come with the breaking of the dawn.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Virginal Conception, Virgin Birth

Lo! newborn Jesus

Lo! newborn Jesus
Soft and weak and small,
Wrapped in baby's bands
By His Mother's hands,
Lord God of all.

Lord God of Mary,
Whom His Lips caress
While He rocks to rest
On her milky breast
In helplessness.

Lord God of shepherds
Flocking through the cold,
Flocking through the dark
To the only Ark,
The only Fold.

Lord God of all things
Be they near or far,
Be they high or low;
Lord of storm and snow,
Angel and star.

Lord God of all men, –
My Lord and my God!
Thou who lovest me,
Keep me close to Thee
By staff and rod.

Lo! newborn Jesus
Loving great and small,
Love's free Sacrifice,
Opening Arms and Eyes
To one and all.
[Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems, (London: Penguin, 20012), p. 83, 84]

How can a man comment on the Virgin Birth of Jesus? It takes a woman’s touch. Joseph, and all men by necessity stand on the outside nervously looking in on the birth event. Joseph’s world and ours is upended by the trusting surrender of Mary to our God. We are bystanders, but the sword that pierced the heart of Mary will pierce our own hearts also. “The busy world is hushed, the dear Christ enters in.” The surrender of Mary calls for our own surrender, not just once, but many times over the days and years of our lives.

It is the high and solemn responsibility of Joseph to model and teach the Christ Child what it means to be a man in this wicked world. Mary cannot do that; it is neither her calling nor her gift. Joseph, what has Mary done? Her action will define the very calling of your life and ours. None of us are left outside the stable. We stand shoulder to shoulder with you beside the manger looking in and watching, caring, loving, and strangely proud. The living God has become a living man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Notes on The Annunciation to Mary

In Elizabeth’s sixth month the angel Gabriel is sent from God to Nazareth in Galilee, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  Both Mary and Joseph are of the house of David.  Mary is betrothed, or formally pledged, to Joseph, but they have not yet come together and Mary is still living in the home of her parents.  Tradition and the common practice of those times tell us that Mary would have been around fourteen years old. 

Here we come to the heart of a Christian doctrine that many find challenging, but the issue is not that of a Virgin Birth, but rather of a Virginal Conception.  Any virgin nine months pregnant is going to give birth, that is not the miracle; the conception is.  The actual miracle is microscopic; the size of one sperm, the divine seed that forever unites God with human flesh. This event is the hinge of history, even though secularists today flee away from BC and AD.

While the angel who appears to Joseph remains unidentified, the angel who appears to Zechariah (Lk. 1:11-12) is same Gabriel who appeared to Daniel (Daniel 8:16; 9: 21), and the same one who appears to Mary.   This appearance to Zechariah was actually the first of the angelic appearances that ended the long drought of the famine of the hearing of the words of the Lord prophecied by Amos. (Amos 8:11-12).  

Gabriel’s first word to Mary is often translated, “Greetings,” or “Hail” but it also means “Rejoice.”  “Rejoice, Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”  The phrase “O favored one” is translated by the Latin Vulgate as “gratia plena” or “full of grace.”  The unmerited favor, the grace of the Holy Spirit rests on her in unusual measure.

We are told that Mary is troubled, or agitated by the greeting.  She tries to puzzle out what the greeting means.  Being genuinely “gratia plena,” full of grace she was probably quite unaware that she was at all unusual.  Self-awareness often spoils potential saintliness.  The angel says, “Do not be afraid” you have found grace (charis) with God.  She need not fear the grace she has received, it is an unmerited gift from God, it is divine favor, the steadfast covenant love of God that rests upon her.

The angel Gabriel is clear and direct in his declaration, “Behold, look, you shall conceive in the womb, and bear, give birth, to a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, Yeshua, God Saves.”  Mary understands this to mean now, not at some distant time.  Today you have to go to your obstetrician in order to determine the gender of a child, but not Mary and not in this situation.  The child is to be the prophesied Messiah, and as response to ancient prophesy is to be a male child, a son.  Further the child is to be named Jesus, Yeshua; a short form of Yehoshua, meaning Yahweh is Salvation. 

The implications of the Name are not made clear at this point and we await the strong hint of pain that comes in the prophecy of Simeon “a sword shall pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).  But now only the troubling statement of Gabriel is on Mary’s mind.  Mary is without doubt well aware of her lineage, and the lineage of Joseph.  They are of the house of Judah, descendants of David.  But they are poor relatives, not wealthy prominent heirs.  To the least of David’s line the promise is given. 

The angel’s message in some sense seems unlikely, or at the very least, a bit of a stretch.  “He shall be called the Son of the Most High” (v. 32).  The expression “the Most High” is drawn from an Old Testament Name for God, “El Elyon” which means “God Most High” (Genesis 14:18; Psalm 57:2 and other places).  To this Jesus, son of God Most High, the Lord God (Yahweh Elohim in Genesis 2:4) will give the throne of his father David.  At Gabriel’s declaration of the coming Incarnation, the highest Names of God are evoked, and that for a reason.  We are to understand that it is no less than YHWH [Yahweh] who is initiating this act of divine humility. 

There is in verse 33 an interesting twist, this child to be born will rule over the house of Jacob forever.  Often the phrase “house of Jacob” refers not only to Israel in general, but to the Northern Kingdom.  Both the house of David, the tribe of Judah, and the displaced house of Jacob that once held sway from Samaria will be ruled by him.  Of his kingdom there will be no end, even though earthly kingdoms come and go.

Mary asks a simple question, not as a matter of doubt; and she may well have known the Messianic prophecy, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14).  The question is rather an enquiry into how this is going to take place.  She also makes it clear that she herself is a virgin.  Certainly the angel treats the question in this light.  He says “The Holy Spirit, the Ruach Ha Kodesh: will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.”  The phraseology harkens back to the anointing of David by the Holy Spirit, “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers And the Spirit of YHWH (LORD) rushed, came mightily upon him from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). 

Mary is to experience a distinct and powerful anointing, a veritable baptism of the Holy Spirit who will overshadow her like the Shekinah Kabod, the Cloud of Glory that both accompanies and cloaks the manifestation of the Living God.  Because of that anointing, the child “will be called holy—the Son of God (v.35).  The angel Gabriel further encourages Mary with the news that her previously barren cousin Elizabeth is in her sixth month, because “No rhema (not ‘nothing’ but no personal word from God, will be impossible with God.”  As God has spoken his word to Zechariah, and to Mary, He will fulfill it, for no prophetic word is impossible with Him. Mary’s answer is one of humble submission and acceptance, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your rhema, according to your prophetic word” (v. 38).