The First Sunday of Christmas in Year B

Join the hymn of all creation—and minister to creation as priests of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2014-2015

By Tom Mundahl

 

The First Sunday of Christmas in Year B

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Psalm 148

Galatians 4: 4-7

Luke 2: 22-40

 

The Coming of God in Christ at Christmas changes everything.  It should be no surprise, then, that the psalmody for Christmas Eve echoes the joy of all creation:

 

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and everything that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord....  (Psalm 96: 11-13)

 

In a greeting to the 20th International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality focusing on ecology, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote, “If humanity is in God’s image, and if that image is fully realized in the coming of the Word in the flesh, humanity’s calling is to love and nourish the true meaning and form of every aspect of the creation, not to try and subordinate it to some passing version of what seems to be the interest of humanity in isolation.” (Monasterio di Bose Blog, September, 2012)

 

That is, far from being a “free pass” to dominate non-human creation, to live out the “image of God” must mean to begin a long listening session. Perhaps “imaging God” is an apprenticeship for learning servanthood to the rest of creation, a lifetime of being opened up “to multiple avenues of reciprocal interaction between human beings and other species” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 267). We may even come to understand that, during this season of Christmas, it is we humans who are the latecomers in joining  nature’s chorus.

 

We certainly hear “heaven and nature sing” in Psalm 148. As the centerpiece of the final five “Hallelujah psalms” (Psalm 146-150), it divides the chorus of praise into “the heavens” (vv. 1-6) and “the earth” (vv. 7-14). Given this division, the psalmist seems intent on providing the greatest variety of voices from each sphere. Angels, sun and moon, and even the waters above the firmament, comprise the heavenly choir. In the earthly chorus, sea monsters from the deep lead the voices of “mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!” (Psalm 148: 8-10). To these are added, finally, the human voices ranging from royalty to men and women, young and old.

 

Why? As appropriate as this psalm is for the Christmas Season, it certainly predates its celebration and points to a continuing melody.  Elizabeth Johnson suggests a simple answer to this question: “Because God commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148: 5). All exist as the fruit of the powerful good will of the Giver whose name is exalted beyond heaven and earth” (Johnson, p. 276).

 

This “choir festival” is echoed in today’s First Lesson from Isaiah. The prophet, drawing on the earlier Isaiah, revisits the marriage imagery from Isaiah 52: 1-2. When creation is spiced with this celebration, “righteousness and praise spring up before all nations” as naturally as the seeds in a garden sprout (Isaiah 61: 11).

 

Yet, as Paul D. Hanson suggests, “The optimism conveyed in the reaffirmation of Second Isaiah’s vision of restoration in chapters 60 and 61 is tempered in chapter 62 by another motif. Somber intimations of impending crises begin to lead the prophet to a different posture, a more aggressive stance vis-a-vis those perceived as doubting God’s purposes” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 228). The prophet vows not to “shut up” until “vindication” and “salvation” are completely expressed by the giving of a “new name” (Isaiah 62: 1-2). To fully appreciate this change of mood and prophetic response, it is necessary to consider Isaiah 62: 4-5.

 

“Third Isaiah follows Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in utilizing the marriage metaphor to express the new name, that is, the new status of the people in relation to God” (Hanson, p. 229).

 

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married (Isaiah 62:4).

 

Even though they have completed the return from Babylon, the people have a long way to go. This new journey finds its climax as the people appropriate their new name, a name that pronounces renewed blessing on both people and land. With the new name, not only is the past forgotten, but the bloom of life spreads before them. Despite past exile and an uncertain present, the future is as hopeful as that of a newly married couple, or of a new CSA gardener planting her first crop of kale.

 

Like the Isaiah prophet, Paul also writes to a community that needs the terms of its  freedom and hope reinforced. Not only does this week’s Galatians text provide one of the earliest textual references to the nativity, it continues Paul’s argument for unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. It is preceded by his reminder that before faith came (“when we were minors,” all were “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Galatians 4: 3). These “elemental spirits” are no shaggy Druidic forces to seek woodland harmony with. Instead, they were widely thought to be “demonic entities of cosmic proportions and astral powers which were hostile towards man” (Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia Series, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 205)

 

But because in the fullness of time, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4: 4-5), the situation has changed. The first purpose clause (“in order to redeem those who were under the law”) clearly refers to Jewish members of the community. Since Paul commonly uses the formula “Jew first and then Greek,” it is likely that the second purpose clause (“so that we might receive adoption as children”) encompasses all in the early Galatian community (Betz, p. 208). Not only does this incarnation provide unity for the group through the Spirit, but it affirms that slavery for a Christian of Jewish or Gentile origin is over.

 

Surely this liberation must include freedom from being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” Instead of desperately trying to alter the course of “fate” through a laundry list of sacrifices, astrology, and magic—all part of the old and widely syncretistic worldview—now it is possible to live in freedom. Once more, humankind is freed to deal with the whole creation with the respect and service that is fitting.

 

Just as our readings from Isaiah and Galatians demonstrate the wholeness God intends for creation, so the new freedom brought by the incarnation is demonstrated dramatically in the life and lyric of Simeon. That Simeon’s entry onstage is vital is signaled by the opening words “And behold” (και ιδου). While there is no evidence that Simeon was an older man, he is described as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2: 25b). This “consolation” (παρακλησις) is related both to the “comfort” of Isaiah 40: 1-2 and to the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 9:31), which we learn “rested on him” (Luke 2: 25b). The Spirit had assured Simeon that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2: 26)

 

That Simeon is painted in the prophetic tradition inspired by the Spirit is clear. Now, in the tradition of Jeremiah’s “symbolic actions,” he takes the child into his arms and praises God in the final “song” of Luke’s birth and infancy narrative, “the Nunc Dimittis” (from the Latin translation of the first words, “Now dismiss....”). In fact, Simeon is celebrating his “manumission,” being released from his patient service as a “slave” (δουλος) by the divine “master” (δεσποτης) after a long wait. As prophesied by Isaiah, this celebration takes place “in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:31, Isaiah 40:5). Just as Paul wrote to bring unity to Jew and Gentile, so Luke ensures full inclusion: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

 

If God is fully present in the child in the lap of Mary, this One is also present in the arms of Simeon. Similarly, “this child is also fully present in the waters of Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and so known by the faithful, whenever these sacraments are shared according to the cosmic Word” (Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn: the Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000, p. 84). Certainly it is just that “cosmic Word” that faithful Anna shares with the faithful people coming to the temple.

 

But there is more to Luke’s narrative. Following the blessing, the prophet Simeon shares a hard truth with Mary.

 

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will run through your life also)so that the calculations of many hearts may be exposed (Luke 2: 34-35, author’s translation).

 

At first, this warning seems to echo Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, which describes a reversal that includes the fall of the powerful and the lifting up of the lowly (Luke 1: 52-53). But it moves beyond this sense of reversal by identifying “this child,” in the words of Isaiah 8: 14-15, as a “stone of stumbling” which breaks to pieces everyone who falls on it. What’s more, this one is also “The stone that the builders rejected (who) has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118: 22). Both senses of meaning are used to interpret Luke’s crucial parable of the landlord and the tenants (Luke 20: 17-18). When Jesus’ opponents hear the parable and its interpretation, immediately they seek” to lay hands on him . . . .” (Luke 20:19). Simeon’s warning, then, exposes the “calculations” of the “scribes and chief priests” and prepares us for Jesus’ passion. No wonder Luke comments parenthetically to Mary, “and a sword will run through your life also.”

 

Have we lost the celebratory tone of Psalm 148 and our Christmas carols entirely? Of course not, but neither are we so naive as to claim that the age of wonders and fulfillment has completely arrived. In fact, we know that the incarnation of the Servant of Creation still exposes “the calculations of many hearts.”

 

A recent e-mail from the people who put together the fine short film about consumption, “The Story of Stuff “ reminded me of this. The message referred to the so-called Pacific Garbage Patch created by the interaction of the North Pacific Gyre currents and gross human plastic dumping. The size of this “patch” outstrips the very word used to describe it: estimated to be anywhere from the size of the state of Texas, on the small side, to the size of the continent of Africa (cf. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, New York: St. Martin’s, 2007, pp. 121-128).

 

While the vast majority of this atrocious mess comes from marine vessels, the problem of disposing of plastics is global, but most intense in so-called developed countries. However, since plastic containers have a long life and can be reused many times, there is an opportunity simply to return empty shampoo bottles or olive oil containers to co-ops to be refilled. Unfortunately, refilling options are not always available and, “to expose the calculations of many hearts,” this often requires personal effort. But to move this ‘cardiac exposure’ to the public level, are there not public policies that would both educate and regulate to confront this problem? But what is the level of political contributions of plastic manufacturers in the U.S., so intimately connected with the petroleum industry?

 

We continue to sing Psalm 148. All creation sings the song of God’s praise together. But we also are called to remember our priestly role in mediating the vision of the intention of God’s creation, priests who both imagine and serve (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 135). But, in a way, that continues our listening to God and the whole creation.

 

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN                                                          tmundahl@gmail.com

 

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

 

Comments