The question arises in some form or another almost every time I teach a course on the Bible: If God knew what a mess humanity would make of God’s creation, why did God create the world as we know it? The question has force for us, as it projects our own experience onto the cosmic screen.
There is a veritable feast of recommended books and DVDs in this issue, and I have already circled and clipped several and left them lying in conspicuous places just in case anyone is wondering what to give me for Christmas.
The greatest Christmas carol in history was not written by Irving Berlin or Nat King Cole. The greatest carol is not “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “White Christmas” or even “Silent Night.” The greatest carol was composed 2,000 years ago by a pregnant teenage girl who was visiting her cousin Elizabeth.
Whether we choose to believe it or not, we human beings are embodied creatures. There have been many times throughout the history of philosophy and religion when great thinkers have tried to minimize or deny the physicality of human existence. Simple phrases such as “mind over matter” and biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 9:27, “but I punish my body and enslave it,” have contributed to the misleading belief that we are at our best as human beings when some spiritual core that is separate from our physical nature governs our lives.
I read somewhere that in a survey to identify what people thought was the most obnoxious holiday or Christmas music, “The Little Drummer Boy” narrowly won out over “Silver Bells” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” That kind of music is omnipresent in the stores and on the street corners near where I live.
Luke 1 and 2 are often described as “the Lukan infancy and childhood narratives”—the stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood. That description is fine, but as Eugene Peterson has suggested, there is another way of framing the opening of Luke: these two chapters are a primer in prayer. Prayers saturate the first two chapters of Luke.
What an anomaly: while many Americans were gearing up for Christmas and singing the angels’ song of peace on earth, good will to all, the nation was considering the government practice of torture—or more precisely, how and why videotapes of the government’s harsh interrogation practices had been destroyed.
Though the liturgical calendar reminds us that it is Christmastide, a lovely 12-day season extending to Epiphany in January, you cannot live in this culture without experiencing how the air is let out of the holiday balloon on December 26. The Magi may not arrive in Bethlehem until January 6, but the culture abruptly drops the whole matter practically before Christmas Day is over.
All of the Spirit’s labor—the pruning of our imagination, the background work on our expectations—comes to fruition on Christmas Day, when we are brought into the Presence. The virgin who for nine months has been weaving the veil of the temple out of the material of her own body sits in stupefied and exhausted silence.