Mystic Christmas
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mystical (adj. \ mys·ti·cal  \ ˈmis-ti-kəl) – the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.[1]

Luke 2:1-7; Philippians 2:6-11

A Life Lesson in Humility

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to read a wide variety of literature and found that despite certain preferences, I liked a lot of it. The secret lies in telling a solid story, regardless of genre and there have been and continue to be certain storytellers whose works I am willing to read on nothing more than name recognition. One of the many I encountered in college was the Nobel Prize-winning German author, Herman Hesse.

The story that introduced me to Hesse’s writing was Siddhartha, a sweeping tale of a life where a man “achieved what was searched for.” The story of Siddhartha is one of a young man who from simple beginnings, seeks to find enlightenment as one of the Shramanas, or wandering beggars of the Buddhist faith. Siddhartha follows this path, eventually even meeting with the Buddha himself. However, his searching begins to lead him away from the Shramanas and ultimately, he rejects the teachings of the Buddha in favor of a more personal experience of meaning that cannot be found by sitting under the influence of a teacher.

Siddhartha eventually finds his way across a river where a ferryman tells him that since Siddhartha cannot pay the toll he will eventually return to the river to make compensation for the crossing. Beyond the river, Siddhartha meets Kamala, a courtesan, for whom he must become a wealthy man to win her affections. He learns business from a man named Kamaswami and eventually becomes wealthy enough to win Kamala, although the accumulation of wealth was never a goal for Siddhartha. In time, he tires of the excesses of wealth and returns to the river to contemplate a better existence.

Here at the river, Siddhartha reunites with the ferryman Vasuveda and in time becomes the ferryman at Vasuveda’s death. Siddhartha learns and embraces a life of humility and simplicity along the banks of the river. Though challenges arise (the return of Kamala traveling to seek out the Buddha and the arrival of their son that Siddhartha never knew), Siddhartha lives out his existence in humility and peace, offering the wisdom the river has taught him to any who are willing to listen. The story points to the idea that humility is at the core of an enlightened state of being, stressing the importance of the concept for daily life. This humility came from a life devoted to seeking the divine from the Buddhist perspective.

The story of Siddhartha was written as a story about finding enlightenment by the sum total of life experience. It is the idea that to be enlightened one must completely experience all things, good and bad, as part of a greater process toward wholeness.

When we look at the Christmas story one of the things that jumps out, I believe, is the idea of humility, a word that literally means “ground, earth, soil.”[3] This word is similar to the word adam in Hebrew, the word used to describe the first man, one who was created from the soil of the earth. There are several ideas that I think give meaning to the use of these words and that is what I would like to explore as we continue our sermon series, A Mystical Christmas with Why a Manger?

What is a manger?

I think an effective way to understand this is with a bit of parallel imagery. Imagine the first scene, if you will, having a couple show up at your house. Their transportation has failed them, and they are stranded. The woman is pregnant and obviously about to go into labor. You live a considerable distance from town, say between Four Corners and Sundance.[4] The closest hospital is – not to be found. Did I mention that their transportation is a horse that died down the trail? Did I mention that you were supposed to imagine that this is the year 1894? Did I also mention that the man and woman are obviously foreign, certainly not from around here? There is no room in your simple one-room cabin for a woman giving birth so naturally, you send the couple to the little barn out back. You muck it out (of course, because we are not barbaric animals after all) but it is still a barn and she is still about to give birth.

Sound far-fetched?

The second scene is a familiar one, sanitized according to our pseudo-Victorian values, traditions, and sensibilities. Our version has been seen in plays and pageants from what seems like time immemorial. The children parade in wearing the costumes of various characters and animals, saying all the crucial lines, and allowing us to dote on their performance like good parents and grandparents. The scene seems so familiar that we never question it; it simply is what it is, and nothing can or should change that. I hope, however, to offer a bit of illumination to the oft-told tale by defining a few things and asking a few questions.

The truth is closer to the first scene than the second. To begin with, a few definitions and remarks about the translations of things. First, the inn is not an inn. In this case, it is probably a guestroom, set aside for traveling family, friends, or visitors and is being contrasted with a place where the animals are kept.[5] A manger, practically speaking, is little more than a feeding trough, a place to throw hay for cattle or sheep to eat. The manger was kept in a stable, perhaps under the house itself or maybe in a cave close to the home. It would have been out of the way, private, but nonetheless far from a sterile environment.[6] One commentator wrote, “A feeding trough served as a crib. How simple and bare it all seems.”[7]

Meaning in manger

So, what we have here is far from the Ritz-Carleton or the Four Seasons. It is a simple, dirt floor, animal sanctuary, a haven for the humble creatures that serve as sources for food and clothing. Yet, this is where the story of redemption begins, where the first steps are taken toward a life and death that will change the course of human history. When we look at the manger, we are looking at the place where history stopped and started again, where time itself was recalibrated into the time before the manger and the time after. And it isn’t just the fact that Jesus was born but how he was born, into what circumstances that birth would bring about for his childhood and adulthood before his ministry. Jesus comes into the world in humility, grows up a humble tekton (carpenter, stone mason, craftsman; literally, ‘a maker of stuff’[8]), and lives in humility and poverty as an itinerant preacher. Fred Craddock writes,

“Luke has kept the story clean of any decoration that would remove it from the lowly, the poor, and the marginal of the earth. In the history of the church there have been many so poor and abandoned as to be able to identify with this scene.”[9]

As I said, this attitude is a lifelong expression of the example that Jesus set in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. It is reminiscent of the hymn that is included in Philippians chapter two,

“Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.  But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[10]

For many people this is a text that points to the divinity of Jesus, that Jesus was God in the flesh. You can read it that way if you choose, but I think there is a bigger point to be made here, especially with regard to the idea of humility. The point being that,

“Jesus took on the position of a slave, inconsequential and disposable by the world’s criteria. In the role of “slave,” Jesus was obedient to the point of death on a cross, the nadir of rejection, shame, and humiliation. This is hardly the behavior the Philippians recognized in other “lords,” such as Claudius or Nero, who used their status to grab for more. In contrast, Jesus “emptied himself,” not of divine attributes but of status; he “made himself of no reputation””[11]

In other words, Jesus’s birth, like his life, was a symbolic expression of humility before God and man. It was an example, as Paul calls it, for how we can empty ourselves of “actions that are produced by selfish motives including sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that”[12] so that in following after the Way of Jesus, we might embrace “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”[13]

Humility as Lifestyle

As we consider the manger, there are a few things I hope you remember. First, that throughout the course of his life Jesus displayed a humility that we ourselves can live into by following the Way of Jesus. Second, that throughout the course of his life Jesus displayed a humility that we ourselves can live into by following the Way of Jesus. And finally, you guessed it, that throughout the course of his life Jesus displayed a humility that we ourselves can live into by following the Way of Jesus. I think the day and age we live in makes this idea of humility such a demanding thing to swallow. Brian Peterson writes,

“The world in which we live is no more welcoming of this story, no more open to this “mind,” than was Roman Philippi. We are inundated with narratives that promise life found in superior force, in acquiring the best looks, the best bank accounts, the best weapons, the best “stuff.” We are told that life is secured by our winning—socially, economically, politically, religiously—and everyone else losing. There is little room for the claim that the obedient death and resurrection of Jesus is the story of God’s ultimate loving victory, the defining reality for all the world.” [14]

And yet, I am encouraged to see so many more people, younger people especially, trying to find meaning in the idea of kenosis, emptying oneself, as Jesus did according to the Philippian hymn. It is my hope that we who follow Jesus, will truly follow Jesus, being manger babies, who grow into tektoi, those who shape and create the world around them, by living into being humble followers of the One who taught us how to humbly follow after God. This is where the mystical aspects of the manger come into play, that place where we find union and communion with God. In humility before God and neighbor, we are able to find communion with God and unity as followers of the Way. In our emptiness, we are filled.


References

Borg, Marcus, and John Dominic Crossan. The First Christmas. New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2007.

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishing, 2001.

Laymon, Charles M., ed. The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville/New York: Abingdon Press, 1971.

O’Loughlin, Thomas. “Losing Mystery in History: The Challenge of Recalling the Nativity.” In New Perspectives on the nativity, edited by Jeremy Corley, 180-199. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.

Peterson, Brian K. “Philippians 2:5-11.” Interpretation 58, no. 2 (April 2004): 178-180.

Roberts, Kyle. A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why it Matters. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Schelkle, Karl Hermann. Theology of the New Testament: Salvation History-Revelation. Translated by William A. Jurgens. Vol. 2. 4 vols. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Chicago, Il: University of Chicage Press, 1964.


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mystical; also https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mystic

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siddhartha_(novel)The word Siddhartha is made up of two words in Sanskrit language, siddha (achieved) + artha (what was searched for), which together means “he who has found meaning (of existence)” or “he who has attained his goals.”

[3] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=humus&la=la#Perseus:text:1999.04.0059:entry=humus-contents

[4] For those who do not live in Wyoming, that would place you in an open prairie area about fifty miles from the nearest reasonably sized town.

[5] (Laymon 1971, p. 676)

[6] (Craddock 1990, p. 35)

[7] ibid

[8] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=tekton&la=greek#lexicon

[9] (Craddock 1990, p. 35)

[10] Philippians 2:5-11

[11] (Peterson 2004, p. 179)

[12] Galatians 5:19-21

[13] Galatians 5:22-23

[14] (Peterson 2004, p. 180)

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